Abandoning God’s Way for Human Relationships – Romans 1:26-27
By: Alistair Brown
At this early point in his letter to the Romans, Paul is giving examples of what happens when people abandon God’s ways. Three times in chapter one he uses the strong phrase, “God gave them over…” – God removing restraint and allowing people to do what they please. They would have their freedom, but it would prove a dangerous freedom.
He has spoken about idol worship, and shortly he will list a wide miscellany of sinful attitudes and actions. In verses 26 and 27 Paul speaks about homosexuality.
These verses are deeply contentious for some. There are people who respect the Bible and sincerely seek the truth who hold opposing views about homosexuality, including the meaning of these verses. Can people disagree but still love each other? Too often, there have been few signs of love when disagreeing on this subject.
A Bible study like this is not a thesis on homosexuality nor was Paul writing a thesis either. He was writing a letter to teach Christians about many things, and it was not his agenda to explore all angles of this difficult subject. He wrote these two verses – and there are only two verses – on same gender sexual activity to describe another evidence that people were departing from God’s ways. He is saying that, and we should not try to read more or less into his words.
Romans 1: 26-27
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.
Paul’s key point here is that homosexuality is a departure from God’s intended order for human sexual relations.
The background to his thinking is right at the beginning of the Bible in the opening chapters of Genesis.
“God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman,” for she was taken out of man.’
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
That’s a lengthy extract from the first two chapters of the Bible, but it’s in the background of Paul’s thinking when he writes about men and women in Romans 1.
Part of the Genesis passage was also quoted by Jesus. Here are his words to questioning Pharisees: “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate’” (Matt. 19:4-6).
The Genesis pattern was foundational for both Paul and Jesus. So here, in Romans 1, Paul’s words are straight down the line: God’s intended order is for male and female sexual relationships, united in a one flesh relationship in marriage. That is what he saw as natural, and therefore same sex relationships were unnatural.
Paul, then, uses words like “natural” or “unnatural,” meaning whether the behavior is or is not in line with God’s intention. He’s not passing comment on anyone’s DNA or whether someone feels their homosexual behavior is normal. Issues like those were not in his mind. ‘This is not how God intended sexual relations to be,’ is his point.
The sin, therefore, is rejecting God’s way, God’s order. He speaks about people following shameful lusts. The word “lusts” carries a meaning of overwhelming desire. Those desires could be right or wrong. For Paul, pursuing any lust that took someone away from God’s planned will for humankind was “shameful.” It could never be right. And especially never right when it came to the deepest of human relationships.
Paul teaches in a similar vein when he writes to the Corinthians. In chapter six of 1 Corinthians he lists the behavior of the Corinthians before they were Christians. If you feel like comparing your church members with the church members at Corinth, here is their background: “sexually immoral,” “idolaters,” “adulterers,” “men who have sex with men,” “thieves,” “greedy,” “drunkards,” “slanderers,” “swindlers” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). That is quite a list. It is how they were, not how they are for, Paul says, they have been cleansed from their sin by Jesus.
But Paul imagines they could have argued they never needed Christ. Their personal freedom would have allowed them to behave any way they pleased. Here is Paul’s response to that argument:
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12). Paul’s point is that the way they used to live was not good for them. Nor, he continues, was it acceptable to God. “The body… is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13).
So, Paul recognizes people can live differently. They can make that choice. But the availability of an alternative choice does not, of itself, make that choice good. Nor, he argues, does it make that choice right.
That teaching from his letter to the Corinthians is in line with what Paul teaches in Romans.
He was very aware that nations and cultures all around the Mediterranean tolerated and approved very liberal sexual behavior. Barclay writes that fourteen out of the first fifteen Roman Emperors were homosexual. He also refers to the late first and early second century Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote that the sexual lust of Agrippina, the Roman empress, wife of Claudius, was so insatiable she would leave the royal palace at night to serve in a brothel. Prostitution was a common part of temple worship. One of the major income streams for slave owners was to send their slaves out on the streets or to brothels as prostitutes.
The sexual behavior Paul writes about in Romans and Corinthians was not hidden and not unusual. But, his point is, it’s not right. It’s not how God intended sexual relations to be.
That is Paul’s main argument in Romans 1:26-27. From the beginning, God laid down a pattern of natural sexual relations, that men and women would be united in marriage. That pattern, and only that pattern for sexual relations, is God’s norm.
Along with that foundational teaching he stresses two things.
1) He describes homosexual behavior as an ‘exchange’ or ‘abandonment.’
Since God laid down a pattern of a committed relationship between a man and a woman as the context for sexual relations, anything else is an exchange or abandonment of that.
He used similar logic earlier when he talked of people giving up the truth about God in exchange for the worship of idols. He will say much the same in the next verses about abandoning the knowledge of God for a whole range of other attitudes and patterns of thought. Isaiah described the day when Israel would follow the Lord more carefully. He said: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
Paul’s logic is similar: there is a way that is right, so walk in it. Anything else is abandonment of God’s intended way. He sees only misery or disaster for those who stray from that path.
2) Stepping off God’s path is a dangerous prerogative God allows to men and women.
A ‘prerogative’ is a right or a privilege. God gave Adam and Eve the right to choose between eating or not eating the fruit of one tree in the Garden of Eden. He was very clear about his will, and very clear about the consequences of rejecting it. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:16-17). That is straightforward.
But what God did not do was make it impossible for them to make the wrong choice:
He didn’t build a wall around the tree.
He didn’t put the fruit out of their reach.
He didn’t even make the fruit undesirable.
Adam and Eve had the right to choose. They chose badly, and lost their purity, their intimacy with God, and their place in God’s garden (Gen. 3).
Paul never questions whether people can go their own way. He doesn’t question whether they can find at least short-term pleasure by doing that. But he does warn that there are consequences from exercising the prerogative to exchange God’s way for your own way. They “received in themselves the due penalty for their error,” he writes here (Rom 1:27).
Paul is not explicit about that penalty, but his words point to people experiencing the negative consequences of their self-oriented actions. Those who abandon God’s order are free to do that, but they can’t do that and retain God’s blessing or approval. They have stepped away from God – as they are allowed to do – and God has given them over to a life away from him.
Every parent could tell stories of how their children, when they were young, tested out where the limits were. Good parents use wise discipline to keep their little children within reasonable limits so they don’t come to serious harm. But there comes a day when those children are not little. They’re adults and they have a right to make their own choices. Parents try to counsel, perhaps plead or warn, but ultimately they must let them go. And later they may weep over the hardships they see in the lives of those grown up children because of their bad choices.
God weeps too. These verses on sexual behavior are in the context of God giving people over to their own choices, their own lusts and desires. Because God loves he will not imprison, but the right to go your own way can lead to dreadful penalties and hardships. C.S. Lewis, speaking about the ultimate loss experienced by people in hell, writes: “They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.” Such a dreadful prospect may begin even in this life.
Paul knew the Christians in Rome saw immorality all around them. It was public and legitimized. Most citizens of Rome would have called it normal. But, he tells them, it’s not God’s normal. If these fledgling Christians were to stay on God’s path, it would mean counter culture living. Not easy. Not without its temptations. Not without times of failure.
Two thousand years later, the call to counter culture living is again real and needed.
 I use the word ‘homosexuality’ to refer to same sex relationships, whether between men or between women.
 William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1972) 25.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London and Glasgow: Collins Fontana Books, 1972) 115-6.