The Ultimate Irony of Romans 1


The Romans Clobber Passage

If you grew up in a non-affirming church as I did, you were probably told that you can either affirm homosexuality or uphold Paul’s authority as a biblical writer - you cannot do both. For many non-affirming Christians, Paul’s words in Romans 1 are the end of the debate.

There’s no question that Romans 1 is the most significant biblical passage in this debate. It is the longest reference to same-sex behaviour in the bible and it appears in the New Testament.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome has been used to label countless LGBTQ+ people as unnatural, shameful and immoral.

This is also the only passage in scripture that seemingly refers to same-sex relations between women as well as men.

But as we dig into this text, we may be surprised by what we find as we try to determine whether it is fair and a faithful application of the text to use it to reject all same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ people today?

Paul’s discourse that is often quoted in this debate is found in Romans 1:18-32, but is succinctly summarised in verses 26-27:

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26–27)”

Let us start by looking at some of the negative words that Paul uses in this passage.

Three Negative Words

There are three words with negative connotations in this passage. Let us determine their use in Paul’s context and how they may assist us in interpreting this passage today.


The first word with a negative connotation in this passage is the word shameful. The Greek word atimia has been translated as “shameful” or “dishonourable” in Romans 1. Contrary to popular belief, atimia does not necessarily refer to something morally reprehensible but to something that was culturally shameful. Actions that were atimia had no societal value and would bring shame and dishonour upon you; they were not inherently wrong or sinful.

One reason we know this is because atimia is the same word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15 when instructing women to pray with their heads covered and to describe men with long hair. It is interesting that most modern Christians do not oppose women praying without head coverings or men with long hair as vehemently as they do same-sex acts. In this Corinthians passage, we generally interpret Paul as referring to the customary practices of his day and the societal shame caused by deviating away from them.

The societies of Paul’s day were “honour-shame” cultures. Honour and shame functioned as social currency. But what was regarded as honourable or shameful in one culture could vary in another. For example, long hair was often honourable for men in Old Testament times, but norms had changed by the time of the New Testament. A focus on honour and shame can help us confirm the reasons for Paul’s negative statements about same-sex behaviour.

Twice in this passage Paul says that dishonourable sex was a result of idol worship. During Paul’s day, as in the time of Leviticus, some idol-worshiping cults included sex as part of their worship rituals, sometimes in bizarre ways. Cult temple prostitution, castration, and same-sex sex rites in honour of popular goddesses were all well-known sex practices of the time. These shameful acts were certainly outside the bounds of good and honourable expressions of sexual activity.


Another word with a negative connotation in this passage is the word unnatural.

The Greek phrase for unnatural here is para phusis, meaning “against nature.” The way that this phrase has been used to condemn LGBTQ+ people is to say that God designed men and women to complement each other (emotionally and sexually) and anything contrary to God’s original design is “unnatural.” But this is not what Paul was referring to by using this word.

Interestingly, when God grafted the Gentiles to the Jews as a branch to an olive tree (Romans 11), he grafted them in para phusis. For God to include the Gentiles into the family of God was a move against nature, but not immoral or sinful. To use this word to define a sinful action is simply wrong.

The easiest way to understand para phusis, with regards to sexual relations, was whether the sexual activity in question adhered to traditional gender roles and whether there was an intention to procreate. A male/female sex act was natural because it had the potential for procreation, rendering all other sexual expressions as “unnatural” or “against nature.” This also meant that any sex that was not for procreational reasons or defied traditional gender roles was seen as “unnatural,” even sex between opposite genders. This included: women initiating sexual intercourse, women taking a dominant role in sexual intercourse, oral and anal sex between a man and woman, and even sexual relations with a women who was unable to have children for whatever reason. This is likely what Paul meant about women changing natural sexual relations for those that are contrary to nature in verse 26. Rather than a reference to lesbianism, this was likely a condemnation of women committing “unnatural” sex with men.

Paul did not coin the terms “natural” and “unnatural” as labels for sexual behaviour. In the ancient world, if a man took the active role in sex, his behaviour was generally deemed to be “natural.” But if he took the passive role, he was derided for engaging in “unnatural” sex. The opposite was true for women: sexual passivity was termed “natural,” while sexual dominance was “unnatural.” Same-sex relations challenged those beliefs about nature and sex by putting a male in the passive role or a female in the active role. This distortion of gender roles, combined with the non-procreative character of same-sex unions, is why ancient writers called same-sex behaviour “unnatural.”

While men having sex with men would have been seen as contrary to nature in Ancient times, so would men and women engaging in any sexual acts that were non-procreative. In societies that viewed women as inferior, sexual relationships between equal-status partners could not be accepted. Same-sex unions in particular disrupted a social order that required a strict hierarchy between the sexes.


The third and final word with a negative connotation in this passage is lust. The Greek word for lust is epithumia. When used in a negative context, such as this passage, it refers to an excess of a desire.

It is not desire itself that Paul opposes, but excessive desire, which directs itself toward what is not rightly ours, overcoming self-control and obedience to God. Our desires - particularly our sexual desires - can lead us astray, but such desires are not inherently evil. In fact, they can draw us into healthy marital relationships that, according to Ephesians 5, reflect and point to the deeper love between Christ and the church.

The most common forms of same-sex behaviour in the Greco-Roman world were pederasty, prostitution, and sex between masters and their slaves. The majority of men who indulged in those practices also engaged in heterosexual behaviour, often during the same times in their lives.

Some scholars have therefore argued that Paul only condemned same-sex behaviour that was practiced by heterosexual people. Paul therefore denounced same-sex behaviour because it was unnatural to those individuals engaging in it - that is to say, it went against their natural heterosexual desires. In Romans 1, Paul described people who “exchange” or “abandon” opposite-sex for same-sex relations. So perhaps it is reasonable to think that Paul was condemning homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons because of excessive lust.

In a society that prized moderation as a virtue, the excessive nature of same-sex behaviour as it was widely practiced revealed a lack of self-control. Same-sex relations were not objectionable because the partners shared the same anatomy, but because they stemmed from indulgence and excess. It was believed that some people were so insatiable that ordinary pleasures no longer satisfied them. They then tried to intensify their desires through new, exotic modes of gratification. In sex, it meant abandoning the “easy conquest” of women for rarer, more challenging sex with males.

Given the cultural status of same-sex behaviour in the ancient world, it’s not surprising that Paul condemned it. He opposed all forms of lust - sexual desire indulged to the excessive height of same-sex behaviour would have been no exception.

This is the cultural context that Paul’s original audience would have read Romans 1:26-27. Paul wasn’t condemning the expression of homosexuality as opposed to heterosexuality. He was condemning excess as opposed to moderation.

Whether Paul understood that people could be naturally attracted to the same-sex or not, his words indicate that he believed that people who were engaging in same-sex activity were at least capable of heterosexual attraction.

With each vice that Paul listed in Romans 1:18-32, humans are capable of making the opposite, virtuous choice. Instead of worshipping idols, we can choose to worship God. Rather than succumbing to greed, we can choose to give generously. Instead of hating, we can choose to love. For Paul, same-sex relations fall into that same pattern. Rather than following same-sex attractions, we can follow opposite-sex attractions.

As the failure of the modern “ex-gay” movement has shown, however, this isn’t the case for gay people. Gay people cannot choose to follow opposite-sex attractions, because they have no opposite-sex attractions to follow - nor can they manufacture them.

Where does this leave gay Christians today who seek committed relationships? They don’t pursue same-sex relationships because they’ve grown tired of heterosexuality and are seeking a new outlet for their insatiable lusts. They pursue same-sex unions for the same reasons straight Christians pursue opposite-sex unions. They desire intimacy, companionship, and long-term commitment.

While these three words have been used out of context to condemn LGBTQ+ people and relationships today, what was shameful and unnatural about the sexual behaviour described in Romans 1:24-27 is the presence of excess lust, self-centredness, abuse, and the violation of gender roles that were widely accepted and enforced in the ancient world.

The Main Point - Paul’s Rhetoric in Romans

While our study on the three Greek words that Paul used in this passage is helpful in understanding how same-sex acts were seen during Paul’s time, they do not get to the core of the issue in Paul’s letter to the Romans. What was Paul trying to do by writing these words that have been used to condemn LGBTQ+ folk throughout the course of Christian history? And what can we learn from this about the way we treat LGBTQ+ folk today?

The church in Rome was a deeply divided community along ethnic lines when Paul wrote this letter to them. The church had welcomed Gentiles into their church community, but they were struggling to find ways to live together. This community of believers still had an us vs them mindset between the Jews and the Gentiles. One of Paul’s primary goals was to offer a theological exposition of the gospel that reminded the church in Rome to see one another as equals at God’s table. In his letter, Paul was urging this fractured community to live together in harmony.

In order for Paul to unite the Jews and Gentiles in this community, he needs to level the playing field. He must establish neither group as superior to the other. He must unearth long-held prejudices, expose them, and bring everyone to mindfulness of their sameness. To do this, he sets a trap for the Jewish Christians. He launches into a discourse that taps into their prejudices for their Gentile neighbours, stringing them along as though he sympathises with their posture.

To achieve this, Paul employs a writing rhetoric called an “epideictic discourse.” The purpose of this rhetoric is to heap blame on a common enemy before providing a more hopeful rallying point. In other words, Romans 1:18-32 was composed to persuade the readers to heap blame on the wicked and ungodly people (in this case, the Gentiles) that this passage was describing. It was composed with the goal of whipping up an emotional response in the original hearers.

You can imagine the passion building in the room as the Jewish Christians hear the story of the wicked people (Gentiles) who turn from God, move toward idolatry, engage in shameful acts, and reap God’s judgment. They start to turn to each other, congratulating themselves that Paul is on their side. You can feel the Gentile Christians panic, wondering if Paul and Jesus were not as gracious as they first seemed.

But then Paul triggers the trap and reveals his purpose. After fifteen verses aimed at idolatrous pagans, loaded with multiple uses of the evocative third person “they,” Paul now flips the script and goes second person: “therefore you have no excuse; everyone of you who judged; you condemn yourself; you, the judge, practices the same things.” (Rom 2:1). In Romans 2, Paul immediately pivots to just as strongly condemn the hypocritical self-righteousness of those who pass judgment on those degenerate gentiles. In passing judgment on the Gentiles in their community, they have revealed that they are in the same boat. If the Gentiles suppressed the truth of God by their unrighteousness, then the Jews must acknowledge that they suppress the truth of God by judging the Gentiles. The playing field has been levelled.

In some ways, it was like the strategy the prophet Nathan employed with King David in 2 Samuel 12. David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed so that he could have Bathsheba. Rather than directly confronting David about his sin, Nathan told him a story about a rich man who stole from a poor man. After David became angry at the man in the story, Nathan revealed that the man in the story was actually a representation of David. Similarly, Paul began talking about wicked people who had turned from God, then discussed how they began to worship false idols, leading God to give them over to dishonourable sex rites that accompanied such worship - rites that involved same-sex acts practiced by otherwise heterosexual people, something Paul knew his audience would find deeply objectionable.

This is the core of Paul’s theme throughout Romans. Romans 1:18-32 illustrates Paul’s larger point in the first few sections of Romans: No-one is righteous and we are all in need of God’s salvation. As Paul claims in Romans 3:23 - “All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It is only through the redemption offered by Jesus Christ that anyone can be made righteous before God. The idolaters who engaged in shameful and unnatural sex rites were a perfect illustration for the seriousness of turning away from God, a way to get his audience to agree with him before he unexpectedly turned the tables on them.

Paul is saying that if you agreed in any way with the Jewish prejudices and erroneous beliefs about the sins of the Gentiles, then you are a source of the problem. It’s as though Paul says, “there is no excusing you when you throw around judgments like that discourse I just recited, because when you judge the Gentiles, you are condemning yourself! Throughout the rest of the Romans letter, Paul encourages the fractured communities to stop judging one another because judgment is God’s and God’s alone.

The overall goal of Paul’s opening section of his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:18-3:20) was to demonstrate the universal need of humanity for the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ. Through this clever rhetoric, Paul exposes the more subtle but no less deadly sins of judgmentalism and selfish ambition in Romans 2.

The Ultimate Irony

The real irony of all this is that this passage that has so often been used to condemn homosexuality and LGBTQ+ people was originally intended to be a warning to those who were judging and excluding others because the other people’s “sin” was deemed to be worse than their own. Does this sound familiar at all? If we had to bring Paul’s message into our context today, I wonder who his words would criticise most today - those LGBTQ+ Christians who are trying to faithfully follow Christ or those so-called Christians who are loudly judging them and condemning them to an eternal hell?


Paul wrote a letter to a church in Rome almost two thousand years ago. This church was struggling because Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians couldn’t find harmony. They were constantly bickering and judging one another. Paul used his rhetorical skill to expose the prejudices of the Jewish Christians and create a level playing field.

While Paul’s words towards same-sex acts in Romans are certainly negative, they appear in a context that differs greatly from the debate taking place within the church today. For Paul, same-sex desire represented an innate potential for excess within all of fallen humanity. When that potential was acted on, it became “shameful” and “unnatural” in the sense that it subverted conventional, patriarchal gender norms.

The moral problem of Romans 1:18-32 was “unbridled passions,” not the expression of same-sex orientation. If we are truly faithful to the meaning of Scripture, we must rethink how we are interpreting and applying this passage today.

Confusion has since come because some Christians have interpreted a few verses of this letter as meaning Paul condemned any and all same-sex sex acts, instead of seeing them as part of a larger discourse typical of how Jews saw their Gentile neighbours. And in a tragic twist, these same verses have been used to judge and condemn our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. How much more beautiful would it be if Paul’s words were used to unite the Church (as originally intended) and to reconcile the Church with the LGBTQ+ community?

As Colby Martin says in his book, unClobber, “May we one day be able to reimagine Paul’s opening words in Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . . to the straight, the gay, the lesbian, the bisexual, transgender, and queer.”

Sources and further reading

Boswell, John - Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Brownson, James - Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Dio Chrysostom - The Seventh of Euboean Discourse

Hays, Richard - The Moral Vision of the New Testament

Hubbard, Thomas K - Homosexuality in Greece and Rome.

Julian of Eclanum/Augustine - On Marriage and Concupiscence

Martin, Colby - Unclobber

Miller, James - The Practices of Romans 1:26

Porter, Calvin - Romans 1:18-32: Its role in the Developing Argument

Vines, Matthew - God and the Gay Christian


  1. My question is targeted at the statement "he believed that people who were engaging in same-sex activity were at least capable of heterosexual attraction." Where does this leave bisexual people who could potentially "choose" to pursue a heterosexual relationship. Are you saying they should only be in heterosexual relationships because they can be attracted to the opposite sex?

    1. Rev Joe Taylor22 June 2024 at 20:46

      Hi Jessie. Thank you for your question.

      My simple answer is no. My point in the post was that Paul and his contemporaries were not aware of any other sexual orientation than heterosexual. He would have therefore had no concept of a bisexual person as we have today.

      My point is that we cannot use Paul's words to condemn non-heterosexual relationships today.

      My personal opinion is that bisexual people can be in heterosexual or homosexual relationships because our understanding of sexuality is more developed than Paul's was.

    2. Thanks for clarifying!

  2. I think any reading of Paul must be done in light of his acknowledgement in 1 Cor. 13:12 that he now (at the time of writing) saw through the glass dimly and knew only in part. As you have said, Paul likely knew only of pederasty, temple prostitution and abusive homosexuality relations. He likely had no knowledge of loving monogamous same sex relationships. He certainly had no knowledge that the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association would recognize sexual orientation is innate and efforts to change are only harmful. His failure to understand what is natural for our LGBTQ friends is akin to that ancient culture's ignorance of the role of germs in causing disease. In light of modern science's recognition of what is natural for our LGBTQ friends, Romans 1 can be read a saying a shameful thing would be for our LGBTQ friends to act contrary to their nature.


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