Posted by: mikebackup | April 4, 2011

A critical exploration of what Paul means by ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in Romans 1.26

You may also be interested in the resources we’ve created to help Christian communities reflect on homosexuality –


I begin this critique in the context of Romans 1.26-7.

            26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

We all know the church is very divided on homosexuality. These verses are used by many Christians to justify their belief that sexually active homosexuals are committing a grave sin before God. This discussion does not have the time to go into the whole debate so it is going to focus on verse 26, the one line in the whole Bible that many scholars believe directly condemns lesbianism. What this discussion aims to do is to show how this apparently closed scholarly discussion has been opening up. From that point we will be able to make observations on the homosexual debate that we can use as a point for further reflection.

Let us now look at a number of scholarly statements on verse 26 that support the common view on lesbianism. Jewitt says:

            “There is a strikingly egalitarian note in Paul’s treating same-sex intercourse among females as an issue in its own right and holding women to the same level of accountability as men”[1].

Jewitt backs this up with a detailed critique which we will discuss shortly. The discussion document from the House of Bishops’ group on Issues in Human Sexuality, titled ‘Some issues in human sexuality’ says:

             “…it is now generally agreed that the parallelism between the unnatural behaviour of both sexes in these verses taken together with the undoubted reference to male homosexual behaviour means that what St Paul is referring to is in fact lesbianism”[2].

Dunn states in his commentary on Romans:

             “Female homosexual practice is mentioned before the male, possibly because the more aggressive character of male sexuality, as indicated in v27, makes for a better crescendo”[3].

For Dunn, Paul’s intent is without question and does not offer an alternative view or feel it necessary to back his own position up. This remains in his critique of the theology of Paul:

            “He regards homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” (Rom. 1.26), as itself the consequence of a life which has wandered away from God (1.27). This is the “wrath of God”: to grant humans their desires when their desires are lusts, to grant women and men their self indulgent choices – and the consequences of these choices”[4].

Here Dunn does expand on this point in his footnotes by saying Paul uses a typically Stoic concept and uses the phrase para physin which is also found in Plato’s ‘Republic’. In the NRSV, para physin are the words translated as ‘unnatural’. Here we must begin our detailed critique. To translate para physin as ‘unnatural’ is to translate it in a fashion that reads negatively. Para physin has been used by scholars to say v26 is about condemning lesbianism as it links directly with the explicit negative language on male homosexuality found in v27. Verse 27 begins with ‘in the same way’ in the NRSV and so that is where the parallelism is made. However there are other ways of translating para physin.

Nissinen defines para physin as “Deviating from the ordinary order either in a good or a bad sense, as something that goes beyond the ordinary realm of experience.”[5]So it potentially has a more neutral meaning, like the word ‘unconventional’. In Romans 11.24 Paul uses it to describe the way God’s positive actions have brought Jews and Gentiles together[6].

 “For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree”.

In that example it is far closer to meaning ‘unconventional’. Para physin is not negative in itself in 1 Corinthians 11.14 where he refers to long hair on men, but Paul goes on to make the sentence a negative one,.

“Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him,”

The critical response to this in relation to Romans 1.26-27 has been to appeal to secular philosophy and sources found at the time and their understanding and use of para physin in relation to sexuality. The Stoics had a philosophy that saw all things as having a proper nature; this was known as kata physin. To go against that nature was seen as failing one’s inner law and was described as para physin[7]. So the first century historian Diodorus Siculus stated that heterosexual intercourse was according to nature, kata physin, while homosexual intercourse was para physin gamos, a marriage against nature. Plato used the same argument when discussing heterosexual intercourse. He believed that separating the pleasurable element of sex from the procreational, was para physin, against nature[8].

“it is necessary to understand that the pleasure concerning these things according to nature (kata physin) is considered to be defined by the female nature and the nature of males that long for the partnership of procreation but (the pleasure concerning these things) contrary to nature (para physin).”[9]

At this point it is fairly reasonable to conclude that Paul’s use of para physin in Romans 1.26 was in keeping with the typically Stoic understanding for something that was against nature. 1 Corinthians 11.14 can also be seen as a typically Stoic statement.  However as the commonly cited Plato example shows, which was about correct heterosexual nature, to say para physin is about lesbianism in Romans 1.26 is where many theologians have put two and two together and made five.

We need to move away from exegesis and translation and into sociological considerations. Lesbianism was just not seen in the public realm at the time Paul was writing and and according to Scroggs was never thought about seriously either[10]. This is not to say it was not there as will be discussed shortly. Lesbianism is not found in the major literary works of the time. Jewitt tries to counter this by citing the influential Greek philosopher and author Plutarch as condemning female homosexual eroticism, but there is a hermeneutic leap in that thinking. Plutarch wrote “Love induces (them) to dare (to do) something beyond nature”[11]. There is nothing explicit about a female homosexual act. More importantly the highly patriarchal society at the time did not view homosexuality between the sexes equally. For men it was quite acceptable, but in the places it has been written about, for women it was despised and seen as the worst sort of depravity. There were known to be rare attacks on women accused of homosexual behaviour[12]. A women’s role was to be subordinate to a man and bear children. To go against that completely challenged patriarchy itself and was the worst action any women could take[13]. If you were a lesbian in the time Paul was writing it was something you kept very secret. This may explain why it is not mentioned in the best known works of the time, most people would have just not have come across it. The place it is mentioned is in very particular texts like medical notes and guidebooks on erotic dreams[14]. A contemporary equivalent is transsexualism. Chances are you have never had a serious conversation about it and you have never known a transsexual. If someone very against it said to you that some men and women are being contrary to nature by reversing their God given nature, you would not by default understand that as being a comment against transsexuals.

So even if Paul did mean lesbianism, his readers would most likely have not interpreted it that way, even taking into account the parallelism that many cite between verse 26 and 27[15]. The readers of Romans would not have made that interpretation as female homosexuality was not viewed the same as male homosexuality and more than likely they would never have come across nor discussed it. They would have seen unnatural behaviour by a woman as not acting like a woman should in intercourse, i.e in the missionary position trying to procreate or by not being faithful to her husband by committing adultery.

Widening the issues out again does this argument change or challenge the current debate on homosexuality? Not really is the answer. We know Paul had a strong Jewish upbringing and was fully aware of the Leviticus laws, where male homosexuality was given the death sentence. Even if he didn’t mean lesbianism in verse 26, or lesbianism had never crossed his or his readers’ minds, if it had been suggested then we can say with a fair degree of certainty that he would have viewed it in the same way as male homosexuality. It is also fair to say that with his upbringing and by what he says at start of Romans, where he at the very least cites male homosexuality as the clearest indicator of God’s wrath, that Paul is against any form of homosexual behaviour. Romans 1.v26-27 brings together Old and New Testament thinking on the matter.

It is with that commonly held observation, that the best and perhaps most underused argument for a re-evaluation of the Christian understanding of homosexuality has an opportunity. This begins with the homosexual Christian. All the exegetical and hermeneutic evidence points to Paul seeing the homosexual Christian as an abhorrent oxymoron, it is just not be possible. Homosexuality was clear evidence that God was not at work in someone’s life. On that particular point Paul was wrong. There have been and are many great homosexual Christians. Therefore in the contemporary debate on Christian homosexuality it is not about what Paul does or does not say, his views do not answer where we find ourselves today.

The answer many have agreed to is to take the stance that Paul does not address orientation but sexual practice so sexual abstinence for homosexuals is acceptable. This widely accepted view has one enormous criticism, orientation and sexuality is not something that can be separated. To do so is an example of typical western dualism and with a large degree of irony, para physin, contrary to nature. Sexual orientation is about the people you find sexually attractive, that is, the desire to be intimate with someone. This then asks the question what is intimacy and what constitutes sex? It certainly does not begin or end with the direct use of the genitals, which is a typically male obsession.  Also Paul does not separate them otherwise he would have taught the resistance of homosexual practise. For Paul, the desire is God given, so meaning they will fall into their degrading passions for one another. If they could be separated, idolatrous Gentiles that resisted homosexual practice would actually prevent God’s wrath upon them.

Diarmaid MacCulloch in his recent BBC series on The History of Christianity questioned Rev Nicholas Holtman from the significant central London Anglican church of St Martin-in-the-fields. His observed this on what the Bible says on homosexuality:

“The scriptures don’t say anything about faithful same sex relationships. And therefore what’s condemned in scripture isn’t what we’re dealing with now.”[16]

“The Bible’s answer is that what matters between human beings is loving, faithful, honest relationships”.

            He went onto say that Christianity needs “The courage to break new ground, and what mistakes we make are made in the right direction”.

So for the homosexual Christian and faithful same sex relationships the church needs to tread new ground as it can be argued the Bible has no explicit guidance. What it does have is the message that Jesus brings, that of love and justice for all. It is not too far of a leap as many have said to say sexual justice for all[17].

[1] Robert Jewitt, Romans, 176.

[2] House of Bishops’ Group, Some issues in human sexuality, 133.

[3] James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Romans 1-8, 64.

[4] James G. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 122-3.

[7] Robert Jewitt, Romans, 174.

[8] Robert Jewitt, Romans, 175.

[9] Robert Jewitt, Romans, 175.

[10] Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth, 97.

[11] Robert Jewitt, Romans, 176.

[12] Follow the footnotes in Robert Jewitt, Romans, 174-5 which lists many works.

[13] Adrian Thatcher, Liberating Sex, 20.

[14] Robert Jewitt, Romans, 174-5.

[15] For example: House of Bishops’ Group, Some issues in human sexuality, 133 and Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth, 96.

[16]Transcribed from on 22/2/10, God in the Dock from A History of Christianity, BBC Television, 2010.

[17]Marvin M. Ellison, Sexuality and the Sacred, 236-241.


BBC Television. God in the Dock” from A History of Christianity. (2010).

Dunn, James D. G. Word Biblical Commentary, Romans 1-8 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers: 1988).

Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle (London: T&T Clark Ltd, 1998).

Ellison, Marvin M. “Common Decency: A New Christian Sexual Ethics” in Sexuality and the Sacred. Edited by Nelson, James B and Longfellow, Sandra P(London: Mowbray, 1994).

Holy Bible New Revised Standard Version Anglicised Edition (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1995). on 18/2/10.

Jewitt,Robert. Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

Moore, Gareth. A Question of Truth (London: Continuum, 2003).

Thatcher, Adrian. Liberating Sex A Christian Sexual Theology (London: SCPK, 1993).

The House of Bishops’ Group, Some issues in human sexuality (London: Church House Publishing, 2003).


  1. oh my, mike, what big words you this the basis of a sermon or are passing on your theological training?God was speaking , with one exception to male israelites and maybe female perversion had not developed as far as lesbianism at this time. however leviticus leaves us in no doubt about Gods attitude to all sexual perversion.

    • Thanks Bert. This is my critical exploration on a divisive issue. It received a first class ‘A’ grade, and was marked by a significant Pauline scholar so is worthy of being seen by others. The Leviticus verses, particularly 20.13 means that you agree the death penalty is needed for every instance of homosexual behaviour? Following that Leviticus code further means that you must not wear garments made from wool and linen, and eating foods combining milk and meat. You will also view women who are menstruating and people with a disability as being unclean. Are you being consistent with that? If not, then cherry picking verses to promote your own view is an all too common mistake. Bottom line we all have to decide what is enduring moral law and what is culturally specific ‘cultic’ law that is now ignored.

      • leviticus is Gods word not mine,whether you reject Gods word is a personal choice and not something to teach others, do you not agree ?

      • What is God’s word? For Baptists it’s not the literal words written, but the way God speaks to us when we reflect on them. That’s why in the Baptist declaration of principle each church ‘has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws’. Note the important word ‘interpret’.

  2. i did not understand that this was a bible college exercise . i apologise for critisising it.

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