Romans-What does “natural” mean?

Romans – What does “natural” mean?

The book of Romans is the book where Paul provides us with a theological masterpiece on the grace of God. Interestingly however, Paul begins the book by describing those who have rejected God’s goodness in order to follow after a lie. This lie is the worshipping of something other than God, which is idolatry. Many had turned away from a loving and relational God to worship false gods and idols.

Key Words and phrases Key Scriptures
  Romans 1:26-27
Natural Lust
Shameful

allasso

paradidomi

Metallaso

Within themselves

they exchanged

God gave them over

sebazomai

   

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 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. “28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Romans 1:18-31 [NIV]

===========================================================================

18 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. 19 They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. 20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. 21Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. 23 And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” 28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behaviour, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy.”  Romans 1:18-31 [NLT]

Traditional interpretation

Question:  What have you heard or been told that this passage means?

Question: Why do you feel that this passage speaks about homosexuality?

The traditional interpretation is that because Paul mentions woman having sex with woman and men having sex with men that this somehow refers specifically to same-sex attracted people and goes against nature. These phases about lust and shameful behaviours have been somehow attached to same-sex attracted people in loving relationships. One can assume however that this kind of thinking would apply to those who have never encountered a loving Christian same-sex couple or those who have not actually studied these passages but rather taken a literal approach to their understanding.

Historical background

Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome is believed to have been written from Corinth between 54-59 AD. Paul had heard of the church there in Rome but had not yet visited.

During the time of Paul’s missionary journeys from 47-57, the fertility cult religions would have been in full bloom throughout the Gentile cities where he travelled. Rome was already known to for their religions that were centred on the gods and in fact the Romans actually had a set of public gods- Jupiter & Mars. 

During the 1st century Rome officially adopted the first of the eastern religions, the cult of Cybele. This Syrian goddess, Cybele, was known as Aphrodite in much of the Greco-Roman world. These gods were associated with idolatry, sexual rituals, fertility rites and temple prostitution.

During this same time period the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians experienced tensions with regard to the observance of Jewish laws. The Jewish Christians thought they were superior because they continued to cling to the law yet the Gentiles felt no obligation to do so. Many Christians had fallen away from the faith and returned to paganism. They made images of pagan gods in the form of men, birds, animals and reptiles for their religious rituals.

Paul’s polemic against idolatry

When we look at the verses that precede the key verses (26 and 27) we see very clearly what Paul is addressing and quite forcefully. Paul is addressing idolatry.

In verse 22 Paul speaks specifically about idols when he mentions how people have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”

Then in verse 25 Paul states “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”

This is a reference to what the prophet Jeremiah was warning against in Jeremiah 2:11

11 Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols.”

In verse 25 Paul uses the phrase “worshiped and served created things” which is the only time this Greek word for worship [Strong’s G4573 sebazomai σεβάζομαι] is used in the New Testament. This phrase in Greek usage is a reference to cultic worship or to worship in a pagan cult and specifically in Rome.

So there is a whole lot of idolatry going on in Rome and sexual activity associated with the gods of this culture. There are men having sex with men and woman having sex with woman but is God really referring to loving homosexual relationships? The text clearly answers this question.

Examining the text

The beginning of verse 24 starts with “therefore” and verse 26 starts with “Because of this” which means that Paul is summing up his previous argument regarding the topic of idolatry.

The key verses then go on to say that

“women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.”       

These words are important, because they tell us to whom Paul is referring. From the text, he is obviously writing about women with a heterosexual orientation, who had previously engaged in only heterosexual sex, who had “exchanged” or “turned against” their normal/inborn behaviours for same-sex activities. That is, they deviated from their heterosexual orientation and engaged in sexual behaviour with other women. Similarly, he describes men with a heterosexual orientation who had “abandoned” their normal/inborn behaviours and engaged in same-sex activities. In both cases, Paul is describing individuals with a heterosexual orientation, who were engaging in same-sex behaviour.  In normal life, these are very unusual activities, because heterosexuals typically have a strong aversion to engaging in same-sex behaviour. However, with regard to these pagan sex rituals at the time, they appear to have abandoned their normal feelings of abhorrence and tried same-sex behaviour.

It appears that they had exchanged what was “natural” for them to undertake what was not natural. This was done as worship to pagan gods.

In addition in verse 27 Paul writes that men involved in idolatry “suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.”

The only factor that differentiated the male and female worshipers in these cults was that of emasculation or castration. The myth of Attis, the lover of Cybele attests to this. Every March on the Day of Blood young men would re-enact Attis mutilating himself. Even a priest of Cybele would be stabbed to death as part of the re-enactment.

These passages alone should be sufficient to support the case for idolatry where these same sex sexual encounters were involved but just so we are certain let’s examine the definition of some key words.

Lust  G819

ἀτιμία atimia dishonour, disrespect, common use  

 

Shameful G3806

πάθος pathos passion; lustful passion or desire, sexual passion

 

 

 

Natural G5446

 φυσικός phusikos foo-see-kos’- according to nature, governed by mere natural instincts.

 

The word “nature” refers to the character of the person or group of persons or what is common. It does not mean what we understand to be a universal law or truth. In other words homosexual orientation is natural in those who have a genetic disposition to it.

So if we were to re-read these verses with interpretation we would say something like.

 

Women turned against their natural (instincts) and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust (dishonour, disrespect) for each other. Men did shameful (lustful) things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves (castration or emasculation) the penalty they deserved.

 

Paul uses this very phrase in Romans 11 of going “against nature” in reference to God’s role in grafting Gentile Christian believers as wild olive shoots into the Jews who are the olive tree. So, this helps us to understand that going “against nature” is not something morally evil but rather something unusual or uncommon.  It would be unusual for heterosexual men and woman to engage in homosexuality and vice-verse for same sex attracted people to engage in sexual behaviour with someone of the opposite sex.

 

Additionally Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 11:14 that “nature teaches us that long hair dishonours a man”. Compare that with Samson’s statement in Judges 16:17, “A razor has never come on my head, for I have been a Nazarite to God from my mother’s womb.” Was it unnatural for Samson to have long hair? Wouldn’t it seem that nature shows us that hair grows long? Paul, however, tells us that according to nature, or the “norm” having long hair dishonours a man.

It would also seem that nature would show us that circumcision is unnatural. The writings of Paul, however indicate to us that it is “natural” for Jews and “unnatural” for Gentiles to be circumcised. Could this be because it simply ran contrary to the Gentile’s nature? When Paul uses the term natural, is it possible that he is referring to accepted social practices of the time rather than the divine scheme of things?

The text, in context, shows us that Paul is addressing  the exchanging of a relationship with God for idolatry. The problem with much of the general Christian community is that homophobia prevents people from seeing the difference between what Paul is describing here and committed monogamous loving relationships between two life partners of the same sex.

Question: What is your natural disposition?

Question: What is homosexuality to you?

Question: What does it mean to go against nature?

Question: Are we talking about nature in terms of our innate inclinations or are in terms of the female and male anatomy?

 

Understanding the passage structure

Another way to understand what Paul is trying to convey is to look at the passage structures. Here we’ll examine the parallelism and grammar being used.

Parallelism

Extremely common in Hebraic and Greek literature, parallelism involves repeating a thought a different way for emphasis. It is possible that Paul who is not a stranger to public speaking, and a very learned man would have been familiar with this common device of emphasis and through the structure of this passage, Paul appears to be using this technique to emphasize God’s wrath against the sin of idolatry.

Looking at Romans 23-28:

The primary pattern we see is the usage of phrases “they exchanged” (v23 G236 allasso, v 25,26 G3337 metallasso, metallasso comes from the root allasso) and “God gave them over” (v24,26,28 G3860 paradidomi) which encloses three parallel thoughts between versus 23-28. To make it clearer, look at the table below:

Romans 1:23:31
Outline They exchanged (metallasso) This led to Which led God to give them over to (paradidomi)
vs. 23a-24 God’s glory (23a) Make images of animals and men to worship (23b) Sinful desires/sexual impurity/degrading their bodies (24)
vs. 25-26a God’s truth for a lie (25a) Worship created things (25b) Shameful lusts (26a)
vs. 26b-31 Natural relations for unnatural (26b) Stop believing in God (28a) a depraved mind, to do evil things (28b-31)

 

Looking at the first two parallel passages (v 23-24 and 25-26a), we see  the repeated phrases “they exchanged” and “God gave them over” very graphically describing idol worship as it would have been found in Greek and Roman cultic rituals of the time of Paul’s writing.

The third parallel part is similar with the Greek words metallasso and paradidomi, but doesn’t quite follow the pattern of the first two parts. In the first two parts, we see that God has given them over to wicked behaviour (v28). However, in both of the first two parts we see that what they exchanged for God were clearly idolatrous behaviours, while in the third part, we see only sexual behaviours.

Following parallelism, and in order to preserve the symmetry of the parallel verses it is safe to conclude that the third parallel similarly refers to cultic idolatry.  Interpreting the passage in this manner preserves the symmetry inherent within the text.

Another example of parallelism: emphasis on “all are the same”

Chapter one: He pointed out all the sins the Gentiles did

Chapter two: He started to point out all the sins of the Jews and saying that they are not better.

Chapter three: (point of reference), verse 22 he points out that “ we are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we ALL can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done”.

The primary focus of this chapter is on Gentiles who stop worshipping God and who “exchange/substitute” the worship of idols with the worship of God. We can easily assume then that the substitution here could be extended metaphorically to anything that takes our focus off of God (eg, busyness, human philosophies etc). That said, Paul’s language here seems to be specifically addressing idol worship.

Grammar

Romans 1:23:31
Outline They exchanged (metallasso) This led to Which led God to give them over to (paradidomi)
  Forgone Action Consequence
vs. 23a-24 God’s glory (23a) Make images of animals and men to worship (23b) Sinful desires/sexual impurity/degrading their bodies (24)
vs. 25-26a God’s truth for a lie (25a) Worship created things (25b) Shameful lusts (26a)
vs. 26b-31 Natural relations for unnatural (26b) Stop believing in God (28a) a depraved mind, to do evil things (28b-31)

 

Within the first two parallels, we see that the consequence came about because of the action. God gave them over to evil behaviours because of certain actions they did. God does not necessarily give them over because of the exchange itself (which is what was forgone), but because of actions taken as a result of the exchange (in the second parallel, they have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, but the resulting action is that they worshipped and served created things”). In the third parallel, they exchange natural relations for those that are against nature but it was not those exchanges that caused God to give them over. Those exchanges resulted in the action of verse 28, “they did not think it worthwhile to retain a knowledge of God” which is what caused God to give them over. The cultic sexual behaviour was a key part of the process of them rejecting belief in God, just as making idols and worshipping idols was a key part of the process in v23-26a.

Conclusion

We must exercise proper hermeneutics in determining if these passages condemn loving same sex relationships.
This means that if we apply these passages to our world today we must ask: Is there any reasonable similarity between the contexts of then and now. If we do this correctly, we conclude that no, the answer is that we cannot take this text as an overall condemnation of homosexual orientation.

We must conclude then, that Paul was describing in the best understanding he knew of his worldview at the time, pagan worship which went against the knowledge of an all loving and relational God.

Question: How does your sexuality affect your relationship with God?

Question: Does your sexuality bring you closer to God or does it make you stop believing in God?