Idol Worship and Rejection of God. (Romans 1:21-28)

In these verses, Paul condemns idol worshippers and God haters. According to Paul, these “God haters” experiment with gay sex only as a way of seeking new thrills or in cultic worship. Clearly, he is not speaking about modern, innately gay and lesbian people, who love God and want to honor God while living with integrity as who they are.

How Language Is Interpreted

Before delving into the Romans passage, it will be helpful to pause briefly to remind ourselves of some basic, common- sense rules for understanding and interpreting human language. Perhaps it will help to draw an analogy from Jeff’s thirteen years of experience as a lawyer. (Don’t worry, this won’t be too dry.)

When the Supreme Court (or any other court) issues a written decision, the first question any good lawyer asks is: “What is the holding of the case?” The term “holding” refers to the rule established by the court’s decision. Once this question is answered, we know what the case means, right?

Wrong! Every good lawyer knows that to stop the analysis after figuring out what rule the court established would constitute gross malpractice. There is a vital follow-up question that must be asked: “What were the facts of the case?”

This second question is essential because judges and lawyers have learned through experience that you cannot truly understand a rule unless you also understand the context in which the rule was issued. Because of this, one of the first principles drilled into the head of every law student is that judicial holdings are limited to the facts of the case. In other words, you cannot take a rule that a judge issued in one context and automatically apply it to a different set of facts. Before this can be done, the facts of both cases must be carefully examined to determine whether they are similar enough for the rule to apply to both cases.

This methodology is not unique to lawyers. It is based on common sense and the way we use language in the ordinary ebb and flow of life. For example, suppose a married couple is talking and the wife says to her husband: “Don’t touch me.” She has announced a “rule.” Now, suppose someone copies down this statement and hands it to us, saying, “These were her exact words.” We now have the wife’s words in front of us in black and white, and that is all we need to interpret the meaning of her statement accurately, right?

Wrong! Until we know the context in which her statement was made, there is every possibility we will completely misunderstand and misapply what she said. For example, if the woman made this statement in the context of an angry encounter with her husband during a bitter divorce, then her statement can fairly be interpreted as an absolute command that her husband should never again touch her under any circumstances. On the other hand, if she made this statement when she was happily married, but lying in bed sick with a fever and her skin was prickly, her statement has a radically different meaning.

This simple example reminds us of a very important principle: If we want to interpret spoken or written statements accurately, we must carefully study the context in which the statements were made. Otherwise we can completely misunderstand what was intended.

Theologians of all stripes (including the most fundamentalist) have long followed this rule when interpreting statements found in the Bible. As Jeff’s fundamentalist Baptist preachers and professors used to say over and over again, “A text taken out of context is pretext.”

We are used to applying this principle in many biblical settings. For example, in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, the Apostle Paul says women should wear a veil when praying. He also says they should have long hair. Here are two rather simple, straightforward rules announced in the New Testament. How should we interpret them?

Some Christians have tried to interpret them without any reference to the cultural context in which the Apostle Paul spoke. So they require their women to wear hats in church (a modern type of veil) and require them to maintain hair that is shoulder length or longer.

But others who have studied the cultural context of this passage tell us that in Paul’s time only prostitutes wore short hair and appeared in public unveiled. (See note 1.) If this is true, then the likely meaning of Paul’s ruling changes radically from an absolute command to one that was meant to address a problem unique to the culture of the time -- women who wore short hair or appeared unveiled in public could easily be mistaken for prostitutes. Today, even most conservative Christians do not require their women to wear head coverings or to keep their hair long. They take this position even though the words of the Bible specifically say women should do so. They refrain from imposing these requirements because they understand that the meaning of words is determined largely by the context in which they are spoken.

As we now turn to Romans, we simply ask you to apply this same time-honored, common-sense approach.


Romans 1 may seem daunting when first approached because it is written in a rhetorical style most modern readers are not used to. Paul, the writer of Romans, was trained as a scholar of Greek classics and Hebrew literature, and his style may seem obscure to those of us (like Tyler) who enjoy reading Dear Abby and USA Today. The pertinent passage reads as follows in the King James Version:

“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful.” (Romans 1:21-28)

Though it may come as a surprise, we consider this to be the easiest of the clobber passages to interpret. This is because Paul, in his classically trained style, thoroughly explains the factual assumptions and rationale behind his condemnation of the behavior described here. This makes it easy for us to answer our question: Does this passage apply to inherently same-gender-attracted people who are living in loving, committed relationships?

If we follow the passage, step-by-step, we find Paul is moving through a logical progression. He is talking about people who:

  1. Refused to acknowledge and glorify God. (v. 21)
  2. Began worshipping idols (images of created things, rather than the Creator). (v. 23)
  3. Were more interested in earthly pursuits than spiritual pursuits. (v. 25)
  4. Gave up their natural, i.e., innate, passion for the opposite sex in an unbounded search for pleasure. (v. 26-27)
  5. Lived lives full of covetousness, malice, envy, strife, slander, disrespect for parents, pride, and hatred of God. (v. 29-31)

The model of homosexual behavior Paul was addressing here is explicitly associated with idol worship (probably temple prostitution (See note 2.)), and with people who, in an unbridled search for pleasure (or because of religious rituals associated with their idolatry), broke away from their natural sexual orientation, participating in promiscuous sex with anyone available.

There are, no doubt, modern people who engage in homosexual sex for reasons similar to those identified in Romans 1. If someone began with a clear heterosexual orientation, but rejected God and began experimenting with gay sex simply as a way of experiencing a new set of pleasures, then this passage may apply to that person. But this is not the experience of the vast majority of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Consider Tyler’s story:

From the time Tyler was a very young man his main desire was to do God’s will. He was raised by missionary parents, and at the age of five he acknowledged his need for God and prayed for Jesus to come into his heart. He didn’t understand exactly what that meant, but he always tried to live a life that glorified God. In high school, his friends thought of him as different because his faith in God and in the teachings of his church did not allow him to drink and dance. When a girl asked him to the prom, he went, but he made sure they started the date by praying together. Unlike the people condemned in Romans 1, Tyler acknowledged, glorified, and worshipped God. For him, spiritual pursuits were much more important than earthly pleasures.

However, by the time Tyler decided to go to a Christian college, he was already having feelings of attraction toward men and knew he was not attracted to women. He believed these feelings were wrong, so he suppressed his natural attractions and told himself he must be asexual. And, when he finally acknowledged his attraction to men during his fourth year of college, it was not during a search for unbounded sexual pleasure or in the context of pagan worship rituals. It was during a night of intense prayer when he was questioning whether he should try to pursue a relationship with a female friend. During that time of prayer, Tyler was strongly impressed that he needed, instead, to deal with his innate attraction to men.

For Tyler, a Christian child of missionaries, his first reaction was to seek spiritual advice. He immediately went to a trusted professor and soon began therapy with one of the counselors at his Christian school. For the next several years, he continued to remain celibate as he wrestled with Scripture and with his church’s teachings, trying to find out how he should live as a gay man. He tried always to live a life free of covetousness, malice, envy, strife, and pride. And, even when Tyler came to the conclusion that Scripture affirmed him as an innately gay individual, his respect for the teaching of his parents and his love of God convinced him to remain a virgin until meeting his spouse, Rob.

Jeff’s story is similar. And we know of hundreds of other gay people who could tell stories of struggling with their same-sex attractions while diligently serving God. These are not idolaters, people who hated God and pursued their own desire for new and greater sexual thrills. These are lovers of God who, nevertheless, have been attracted to people of the same sex from early in life. They are innate (i.e., natural) homosexuals.

Paul simply does not address our model of stable, loving homosexual relationships among people of faith. It might be fair to ask, “If Paul had known some people are innately homosexual and if he had been aware of stable, loving gay relationships among devout people of faith, would he still have disapproved?” However, any answer we came up with would be fanciful speculation, because the fact is Paul did not address this issue in his letter to the Romans. He was addressing a different set of facts and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, issued a ruling applicable to those facts. We must look elsewhere in Scripture for guidance on our question.

Note 1. For example, see The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. X (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1987), pages 124-129.

Note 2. Greenberg, David F., The Construction of Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1988), and Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1998). Nissinen documents how Paul, like other Jewish scholars of his day, would have associated homosexual practices with temple prostitution (pages 42 and 106). Nissinen also discusses the sex practices of the people in Corinth (where Paul is supposed to have written Romans) on pages 110 and 113. On pages 95-106 of his book, Greenberg presents a thorough discussion of the known examples of male cult prostitution in the ancient near east. Pages 158-160 also discuss the unbridled promiscuity of first-century Roman culture.

This text is an excerpt from The Children are Free: Reexamining Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships and reproduced on this website with the permission of the author.

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Good Hope MCC is an inclusive Christian Community in Cape Town, South Africa. Whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender:
You are made in God's image and are welcome at our Church!