Sunday, August 24, 2014

They gave up natural relations

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27 ESV)

Friday night, I woke up (I'm a chronic insomniac), started, and finished, Sam Allberry's book "Is God Anti-Gay", and then went back to sleep. It's definitely the best treatment on the topic of homosexuality I've ever read and I know I'm not going to do as well a job at treating it at 4:14PM on a Sunday night after being wiped out by going to church. So if you have it, read it.

So since we're going through Romans 1, I thought it would be appropriate to hone in on this paragraph (1:26-27) to see what Paul says about homosexuality. Not only is it a crucial hinge in Paul's argument, it's also a misunderstood issue today.

Teaching us about nature

People often take the space given to homosexuality in Romans 1 to mean that homosexuality is the chief of sins. I've heard it said that once a culture accepts homosexuality, it's all downhill from there. That's a complete misreading of this passage. Homosexuality isn't mentioned here because it is of superior guilt, but because it is of superior pedagogical value. Homosexuality tells us something about the sin in all of us.

See, what Paul accuses the homosexual of, (namely, exchanging natural relations for those that are contrary to nature), is actually not something that only those who practice homosexuality do. "Nature", here, represents the ideal that God intended for this earth. In verse 25, people turned their backs on the "Creator". In verse 26 and 27, they live that out by using His creatures the way they want instead of how He (as the Creator) wants and intends. That's what "contrary to nature" means.

What is "contrary to nature"?

The argument that some people make is that if we can just prove that some people are born with a homosexual orientation, we can disprove Paul's assertion that homosexuality is "contrary to nature". ("After all", they say, "if homosexuality is contrary to nature, then how can someone be born that way?") But that's a misreading of Paul. Paul's argument wouldn't at all be undone by the existence of a "gay gene" because the "gay gene" itself is contrary to nature. For instance, if a baby was born with only two months to live (e.g. missing key organs, etc.) we might say that such births are "contrary to nature" because they are not the design God had for the birth process when He created it. In the same way, we say that homosexuality is contrary to nature because it is not how God had designed intercourse when He created it. Things that are "contrary to nature" happen in nature all the time.

It's not just homosexuality that is contrary to nature. Actually, any deviation from the purity God demands is "contrary to nature". 1 Corinthians 6:13b says "the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body." So any sexual immorality is contrary to nature. Only pure sexuality, as God designed, is according to nature. Man and wife, unashamed, as God mentions in Genesis. But nothing else. The problem is that we're all sexually deviant. None of us measure up. All of us, in one degree or another, have turned to something other than what God designed. Don't you see? We all have gone after unnatural relations when the Divine natural relation was offered all along.

I am trying to show that verse 25 (we have turned our backs on the Creator) and verse 26 (we therefore turned our backs on the created order) are very critically related. Verse 25 says that we worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. Verse 26 and 27 vividly portray an example of how this happens. And rather than distance ourselves from these verses as something only "those kinds of people do", I think Paul means for us to stand in horror at our own hearts.

Wrath as sin

But now, "horror at our own hearts" isn't the only thing that is going on here, is it? Of course, it is one of the things going on. Paul mentions that our hearts are "foolish" and "darkened" (v. 21) and that our minds are "depraved". But we are also to see homosexuality as a punishment on the human race. That is the argument of Romans 1. The argument starts out stating the "inaugurated eschatology" of God's wrath. And we're supposed to see homosexuality as a sort of "already-not-yet" of hell.

In other words, we are not supposed to be afraid for America because they're legalizing gay marriage. As in, "Oh no! Now God might judge us! Maybe this is what ISIS is about!" But, biblically, not counting the final judgment, our sins in this life are God's temporary judgment on us, not the precursor for it. God's wrath is most harshly manifested in this life when He gives us what we want.

This is so radically different than (a) most religions, and (b) what most people think Christianity says. I remember discussing with a non-Christian recently on this very point. He was trying to find some common ground with me on how to think about morality. He is an atheist and so, of course, has a very difficult time finding a basis for morals. But he was saying to me, "Well, Ryan, don't you generally want for America to be a society of people acting morally? Because otherwise, God may judge you, right?" And so I explained that in the Christian religion, we don't really expect to get full judgment for our sins in this life. And that actually, the way the Bible talks, the sins themselves, in this life, are the judgment. That definitely was new to him. But it's exactly what the Bible says.

I remember Matt Chandler's application on this point was that when you get busted for your sin, that is God's grace to you. God's wrath would be most manifest if He let you get away with it.

Society or the individual?

But who does this sin-retribution cycle describe? Are these sin-retribution cycles in Romans 1 a description of what happens to society as a whole, or is it a description of what happens in each of our lives individually?

We can easily see that the pattern in Romans 1 is that sin produces more sin which in turn produces more judgment in the form of more sin, and so on. Everyone agrees on the fact that there is a reiterating sin-retribution cycle described in the text. But the question is: Who is it that is caught up in this cycle? Is it the individual or the society?

The individual?

The most natural reading of the text is that this cycle is happening in the lives of pagan individuals, described as a corporate whole. In other words, this view would say that the people committing idolatry in verse 23 are the same as those committing acts of homosexuality in verses 26 and 27. The homosexuality, in this view, is the consequence of their idolatry.

The society?

But many have pointed out that this is another place where Paul's argument could be weakened by the findings of science. If the sin-retribution cycle is happening to the individual, then it would seem that the idolatry is the cause of their homosexuality, not genetics or whatever else. So there are some interpreters (Sam Allberry and John Piper included) who interpret this passage to say that actually homosexuality is a judgment on the human race, not the individual per se. They say that the sin-retribution cycle is actually talking about humanity in general. "Humanity in general committed idolatry. So God handed humanity in general over to all kinds of sins, including homosexuality." This is an attractive position. Because it seems that a person was given their genetic dispositions before they even had a chance to commit idolatry.

The individual's Act (not the temptation)

But I don't think this is necessary interpretation on the part of Allberry or Piper. In my view (and Tom Schriener's if I understand him correctly), Paul is giving an example of how this sin-retribution sequence works itself out in the lives of some individuals. Those individuals were the same ones who committed the sins of verses 21-25 (i.e. dishonored him, exchanged the glory of God for images, etc.). And for these particular people in Paul's example (which are supposed to be a paradigm for all of us), their initial sin of dishonoring God led them into the practice of homosexuality.

But that is the key word. The "practice" of homosexuality. Notice that I didn't say that it led them into the temptation of homosexuality. Of course, the temptation for homosexuality may just as well be result of the fall. But the sin itself - the "practice", - not the temptation (i.e. same-sex attraction), is what is in spelled out in verses 26-27. So there doesn't seem to be (to me at least) any contradiction between this passage and the current or potential findings of science about where homosexual desires come from.

Long story short, the same-sex attraction isn't the sin - the "inflamed with passion for one another" is. The temptation isn't the sin until it becomes the burning with desire and exchanging the natural use of their bodies for what is contrary to nature. And that (the sin) is what God gave them up to in response to their idolatry.

Another Great Exchange

The "great exchange" in this passage is the exchange of natural relations for unnatural relations. Zooming out a little, this is supposed to show us the wrath that God is revealing against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men (Rom 1:18) and looking ahead, we are to see that God's wrath is also, even more greatly, demonstrated in another "great exchange" in which we get God's righteousness and Jesus becomes sin for us. God "laid on Him the iniquity of us all." I think this passage lends extra weight to that Isaianic phrase.

So I don't know if you've thought about this, but since homosexual acts are actually seen as the judgment for sin (1:27b), this is one of the most vivid, real-life portrayals of God's wrath that we see (in Romans at least). And if Jesus is dying for us with God laying on Him the iniquity of us all, then that means that in some ways, Jesus understands the horror of being bound to a homosexual lifestyle. Not that He ever has been or ever will be. But the suffering associated with the sexual deviant, according to this passage, is under the category of "the wrath of God", and therefore is something underwent for us at the cross.

Jesus took on him homosexuality. He became sin. But He also rose again. And if we unite ourselves to Him in His death, then we will reign with Him in life.

One of the things I loved about Sam Allberry's book is that he really seemed to "get it". He understood the demands of the Christian gospel. He was willing to say that the only alternative to marriage is celibacy and that is the route he took with his own life. The Christian gospel invitation is not an invitation to "your best life now" (the way the world thinks of it). It's a call to the army, to radical suffering, to alienation, suffering, and oftentimes humiliation. But it is precisely in that suffering that we are most ably able to place our faith and trust in Christ and so be united to Jesus in His cross. And the scriptural promise is that if we are united with Him in His death, we will be united with Him in His resurrection.

Amen, come Lord Jesus. Come.


  1. "God's wrath is most harshly manifested in this life when He gives us what we want." That is a really good point. Most of what our flesh wants is not actually good for us, or the desire is out of proportion (like gluttony... food is good for us, but we often want too much of it). It also reminds me of something in "The Magician's Nephew," when Aslan, Digory, and Polly are discussing the consequences of Jadis eating the forbidden fruit. Aslan says, "All get what they want. They do not always like it."
    Also, on the flip side of what you've been saying in this post, I've seen that the desire for God and for the things of God is a proof of salvation, or at least of God drawing me to salvation, because apart from His Spirit, I would never have any desire for Him or His ways. Because I want to know Him and want to serve Him, I know that His Spirit is at work in my life.

  2. Natalie - again, thank you so much for the comment feedback. I really like having interaction about these things and it is so good to talk about and form new categories of thought while doing so.

    I love "The Magician's Nephew" but it's actually been over 10 years since I've read it. I don't remember that part, which, to me, is actually a very good thing. It means I can read it again like it being new! Those are bar-none my favorite fiction books in the world. But anyways, that's kind of besides the point isn't it? :)

    Yeah - I completely 100% (and very passionately!) agree with your observation that by the Spirit, we have new desires. And actually, to be technical, when I said God gives "us" what "we" want, I was actually talking about "humanity-in-general", and even more particularly non-Christian humanity. It is my belief that Christians, though experiencing the discipline of God as our Father, no longer are under the wrath of God. What we experience in this life is in the form of discipline to conform us to the image of Christ, not as wrath from God's judgment seat since all of that has been poured out on Christ instead.

    So, I really am just talking about non-Christians in their desire for sin. I guess I could have added more clarifying statements around that.

    It's hard to know how to balance that. Sometimes I feel like I add too many clarifying statements, to the point that I haven't even really made my point. I've just confused people haha. "God, please grant me the ability to speak clearly and pointedly" is probably a good prayer for writers to pray :)

    - R

  3. I understood that you were talking about humanity in general and not Christians. =) I just wanted to apply the discussion to the desires of believers. And your footnotes are a really good way to clarify things without putting too much in the main post.

    As far as Magician's Nephew goes, I remember that line largely because Dad quotes it a lot. =) There are a couple others that he quotes often, too. One is when Digory and Polly realize that Aslan didn't provide anything for their meals, and Fledge says, essentially, "I have a sort of idea that He likes to be asked." =) -Natalie