Dhia touto paredhoken aftous o Theos eis pathi atimias ai te gar thiliai afton metillaxan tin fisikin chrisin is tin para fisin, omios te kai i arsenes afentes tin fisikin chrisin tis thilias exekavthisan en ti orexi afton is allilus arsenes en arsesin, tin aschimosinin katergazomeni kai tin antimisthian in edhi tis planis afton en aftis apolamvanontes.
(Modern Greek transliteration)
“Through this, God gave them over to passions of dishonor: their women exchanged the natural use into one against nature. Likewise, also the males left the natural use of the female, burned in their lust for each other, males in males, committing an unseemliness, receiving in themselves the appropriate reward for their mistake.”
One of the biggest mistakes Christians make with Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome is their failure to comprehend Romans 1:7… Paul’s epistle was addressed to a specific group of people in the first century, not to everyone in the twenty-first century. Are we saying that the epistle doesn’t apply to us at all? Of course not: it certainly applies to every age and nation. But what verse 7 reminds us is that when we read the epistle, we need to keep in mind that it was written to first century Rome, and applies first and foremost to the situations that were extant then.
So what was going on in Rome? The ancient Greek and Roman concept of what was normal and moral was quite different from ours. Although such concepts as sexual orientation had not been studied or named, in behavior, both the Greek and Roman cultures expected everyone to be bisexual. There were very specific rules regarding how this worked: A woman, for example, was expected to have one husband and was not permitted sexual contact with any other man. But sexual contact with other women was permitted and even expected. For a man, the rules permitted him wives, and perhaps even concubines, depending on his wealth. But an adult man would also be “attached” to an adolescent male (generally after the adolescent had reached adult height), to whom he would be teacher, mentor, and lover.
An example of this type of relationship can be seen in Matthew chapter 8. The King James Version incorrectly has the centurion referring to his “servant,” but he never called him his servant. (The person in question was a servant, or perhaps a slave, but that information is from a third person reference to him, not what the centurion said about him.) The centurion called him “my boy.” This would not have been his son because a man wouldn’t refer to his son with the word παις (pronounced a bit like the English word pace), even though that was the usual word for a boy. To refer to one’s own son that way would have been seen as disrespectful. Rather, παις was the common word used by a Greek or Roman to refer to his adolescent partner. Jesus, having grown up under Roman occupation, would have understood the nature of this relationship. He said not a word about it, but admired the centurion’s faith and healed the boy.
Any man or women in Roman society who had relations with only one gender would have been thought odd or even abnormal. The origin of this phenomenon was actually the creation myth shared by the Greeks and Romans. This taught that there was originally only one human, who was not male or female as we understand the terms. This human was split into two by divine intervention. One of the two was now male, the other female. (This really isn’t too different from the account found in the Hebrew text of Genesis.) But to their mind, this meant that each individual was now inherently “incomplete.” The male lacked his female half, the female lacked her male half. They sought a means to restore wholeness.1 Although on the surface it would seem that they would conclude that being united sexually with someone of the opposite sex would accomplish that, in actual practice, they determined that the best way to do it was for each person to be intimate with both sexes. This began, centuries earlier, as a religious obligation, and had grown into a custom/expectation. But under the Romans, it had evidently evolved into a convenient outlet for unbridled lust. Whereas in earlier times, those participating in the custom would have undoubtedly felt uncomfortable engaging in sexual relations with someone to whom they had no natural attraction, under the Romans, sexual orientation became irrelevant, and they just lusted indiscriminately. Paul basically said that God had just given them over to it, enabling them to completely disregard their natural attractions.
The biggest difficulty with such a societal expectation, of course, is that, by nature, most people are not bisexual. This means that almost everyone had to violate their own sexual orientation in order to fit in. In the above verses, we can see that Paul spoke of the Roman women “exchanging” the natural use for one that was “παρα φυσιν” against nature. Now please understand what Paul meant by nature: He was not speaking of nature as the creation. (Indeed, homosexuality, as well as bisexuality, exists throughout nature, in many hundreds of animal species.)2 Rather, the Greek noun φυσις refers to a person’s (or thing’s) own nature or natural disposition. What Paul was addressing was the Romans’ own nature in regard to sexual behavior, what we today would call their sexual orientation. Their society was expecting everyone to trade (“exchange”) their own orientation, whatever it might have been, for a bisexual orientation. And what they were doing was dishonorable and unseemly (out of character), and a mistake, not because of the concept of homosexuality, but because they were violating the way they were created.
Romans chapter one, as a whole, deals with pagan Rome’s attempts to turn the creation into a god, worshiping the things created rather than the One who created them. They were attempting to remake that creation in their own design by ignoring the inborn sexual orientation of the people and expecting them to live bisexually. This chapter is not about homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, but rather about the error of trying to change the way we were created. God has given each of us a sexual orientation, and for us to attempt to change it into another one is, in effect, telling God that He created us wrong. But if it was wrong for heterosexuals and homosexuals in the first century to try to be bisexuals, then it is equally wrong, and for the same reasons, for homosexuals in the twenty-first century to try to be heterosexuals, or vice-versa.
There may be some who would doubt that heterosexuals in the first century would live a bisexual lifestyle simply to satisfy the misguided expectations of society. To such people we say this: Look around you… all over the world, there are homosexual people trying to live a heterosexual lifestyle for exactly the same reason. And the societies and the religions trying to force them to do so are just as misguided. The same God who created homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality throughout the animal kingdom, did the same thing with us.
1 Aristophanes’s Speech from Plato’s Symposium
2 Bagemihl, Ph.D., Bruce. “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.” New York. St. Martin’s Press. 2000.