Paul, Homosexuality, and “Nature”

By Michael Bird

I’m contributing to a forthcoming book on Scripture and Homosexuality (a response to this one). There is a whole host of complex biblical, theological, and pastoral issues here for consideration.

Specifically, I’m wrestling with Paul’s argument in Rom 1:26-27, a key text, and thinking especially about Paul and “nature.”

Central to Paul’s critique of female and male homosexuality is its unnaturalness as indicated by his use of the word phusikos for “nature/natural.” Paul’s phrase para physin is best translated as “contrary to nature” since the natural use of sex organs is exchanged for something else. He says that women exchanged “the natural use [of men] for what is contrary to nature [i.e. lesbianism]” and that men left the “natural use of women [i.e. in the sexual act]” and instead become inflamed with lust for one another. As Robert Gagnon points out, Paul, minimally, is referring to the anatomical and procreative complementarity of men and women as their sexual organs are designed for each other, something not true of gay sex.[1]

Paul was not alone in this judgment of the unnaturalness of homosexuality as such views were widespread in Greek, Roman, and Jewish literature. Plato spoke of sexual relations between men and between women as “contrary to nature.”[2] Diodorus Siculus called homoerotic relationships “a marriage against nature”.[3] Ovid had a girl involved in a same sex relationship say “nature does not will it.”[4] Pseudo–Lucian wrote about “a sacred law of necessity that each should retain its own nature and that neither should the female grow unnaturally masculine nor the male be unbecomingly soft.”[5] Josephus rhetorically asked, “Why do not the Eleans and Thebans unleash that unnatural desire, which makes men engage in sexual intercourse?” and he argues that the sexual habits of Greek gods was simply a mythic story used to justify “unnatural pleasures.”[6] In the ethically rigorous 2 Enoch we read: “This place [i.e. hell], O Enoch, is prepared for those who dishonour God, who on earth practice sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the sodomitic fashion.”[7] Philo says of the men of Sodom that not only did they engage in adultery, but “men mounted men, suffering defilement, and not respecting nature.” As a result God, in his mercy, increased “the natural desire of men and women for a union together, for the sake of producing children, and detesting the unnatural and unlawful deeds of the people of Sodom.”[8] In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the audience is exhorted not to be like the people of Sodom who, when it came to sex, “exchanged the order of its nature.”[9] Finally, in Pseudo-Phocylides, roughly contemporary with Paul, one reads the injunction: “Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse of male with male. And let women not imitate the sexual role of men.”[10] The same perspective continued into the early church.[11] John Chrysostom, commenting on Rom 1:26-27, says that perpetrators of homosexual acts “dishonored that which was natural, they ran after that which was contrary to nature,” and he does not mince his words when he avers the reason why, “their doctrine [was] Satanical, and their life too was diabolical.”[12]

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