- Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?
- Was Sodom the First All-Gay City?
- Sex at Sodom: Was it “Homosexual”?
- Does Leviticus Actually Condemn Same-Sex Intercourse?
- Leviticus 18: A Text Dripping with Blood
- Leviticus 18 & 20 Revisited…for Real
- Are Leviticus 18 & 20 Still Relevant for Christians?
- Homosexuality in Ancient Rome & Why It Matters
- Was “Homosexuality” Unknown to Paul?
- Biological Influences on Same Sex Attraction According to Rome
- Jesus & Homosexuality
- Jesus, Sexuality, & Same-Sex Love
- Jesus, Unconditional Love, & LGBT
- Celibate Gay Christians
- Homosexuality & Romans 1
- Does Romans 1 Only Prohibit Illicit Same Sex Activity?
- Maybe Romans 1:24-27 Is About Purity But Not Sin?
- Is Romans 1 About Straight People Having Gay Sex?
- Does Romans 1 Address Specific Idolatrous Forms of Homosexuality?
- Paul Prohibits Homosexual Sex–But Why?
The second argument against a traditional view of Romans 1 states that the same sex activity in 1:25-27 violates Jewish purity laws but isn’t inherently sinful. According to Paul’s Jewish
upbringing, same-sex activity was a taboo, a violation of ritual purity (e.g. Lev 18:22). And Paul cites his own tradition in a rhetorical sting operation in order to get his Jewish readers on his side. Then, in Romans 2:1 Paul whirls around and kicks his judgmental opponent in the teeth: You have no excuse, you judgmental moralist!
Several influential scholars have promoted this argument, including William Countryman and more recently Daniel Helminiak, who wrote a very popular and accessible book on homosexuality (What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality). Helminiak and Countryman say that Paul talks about sin in 1:18-23, and then about purity in 1:24-27, and then again about sin in 1:28-32. If this argument smells fishy, that’s because it’s filled with red herrings. Douglas Campbell goes so far to say that Paul speaks in the voice of a Jew in Romans 1:18-32 but ends up disagreeing with this entire section later. For Campbell, all of 1:18-32 is a rhetorical trap, not an exposition of what Paul actually believes.
This view finds its most immediate proof in Paul’s use of the word “impurity” (Greek: akatharsian) in 1:24. Paul therefore believes that same sex relations violate Jewish purity codes—they are akatharsian—but they don’t constitute sin. And since Paul elsewhere believes that Jewish purity codes are no longer relevant for the New Covenant believer, his prohibition of same sex intercourse here is purely rhetorical.
This argument has a lot going for it and nearly swayed me except for one missing piece: evidence. The word akatharsian does mean “impurity” but Paul often uses this word synonymously with sin (see e.g. Rom 6:19; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; 1 Thess 2:3; 4:7). In Romans 6:19, for instance, Paul writes: “just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity (akatharsia) and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” Impurity and lawlessness are equated. The “works of the flesh,” Paul writes, include “sexual immorality, impurity (akatharsia), sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,” among other sins (Gal 5:19-20). Paul’s use of akatharsian in Rom 1:24 does not mean that he’s not talking about sin. In fact, Paul sums up his entire discussion in Rom 3:9 (and v. 23) by saying that everyone—Jew and Gentile—is “under sin.”
So what about the whole rhetorical trap in Romans 2:1? Isn’t this Paul’s real mission, to capture his moralist opponent who agrees with the stuff he says in 1:18-32? Yes and no. There’s certainly some truth to this argument. Romans 1:18-32 sets up 2:1-29. And yes, Paul is hoping that his Jewish opponent will be nodding his head when reading 1:18-32. But it’s a false dichotomy to say that since Paul traps the moralist in 2:1, therefore Paul isn’t really concerned with the sins in 1:18-32. Paul also condemns idolatry, covetousness, envy, murder, strife, gossip, and slander in 1:18-32. Are all of these vices irrelevant to Paul’s actual ethical beliefs? Yes, Paul uses various sins in 1:18-32 to trap the moralist in 2:1, but this doesn’t mean he is any less concerned with those sins. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.
But this is why some scholars chop up Paul’s argument and divide it in terms of sin (1:18-23), purity (1:24-27), and sin (1:18-32). They
need to do this to allow Paul to agree with his own words in 1:18-23 and 28-32 but not with his words in 1:24-27. My initial counterargument is: really? Look, I’m eager to admit when an argument is good , even if it challenges my beliefs. In fact, the last two counterarguments to the traditional view are actually very strong (especially the 5th one, as we’ll see). But the only real textual evidence for chopping up 1:18-32 in terms of sin/purity/sin is in the word akatharsian (1:24), which we’ve already shown to be a bad argument. Plus, the three-fold “God gave them over” in 1:24, 26, and 28 threads the whole passage together, as does the three-fold use of “exchange” in 1:23, 25, 26. Paul presents a web of sin in Romans 1:18-32 that wasn’t meant to be untangled.
So I don’t find this “purity argument” to be very convincing. And it’s not just because I want to defend a traditional view at all costs. Even non-conservative scholars, such as Bernadette Brooten, aren’t convinced by this argument against the traditional view of Romans 1. Brooten agrees that Paul prohibits same sex relations in Romans 1. She simply hopes “that churches today…will no longer teach Rom 1:26f as authoritative” (Brooten, Love Between Women, 302).
I admire Brooten’s honesty and am impressed with her robust exegesis of Romans 1. I only disagree that Christians can pick and choose which verses are authoritative.