Bible Study on Paul's Letter to the Romans 1:16-31

Paul’s Letter to the Romans

cobbled together from a number of different sources

In Romans 1:16-17, Paul sets out the key theme of his entire letter:

Romans 1:16-17 (New International Version)

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Keywords to consider:

Faith, Justice/Righteousness

Faith, according to St. Paul, is composed of several elements; it is the submission of the intellect to the word of God, the trusting abandonment of the believer to the Saviour Who promises him assistance; it is also an act of obedience by which man accepts the Divine will. Such an act has a moral value, for it “gives glory to God” (Romans 4:20) in the measure in which it recognizes its own helplessness. That is why “Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice” (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). The spiritual children of Abraham are likewise “justified by faith, without the works of the law” (Romans 3:28; cf. Galatians 2:16). Hence it follows:

  • That justice is granted by God in consideration of faith.
  • That, nevertheless, faith is not equivalent to justice, since man is justified “by grace” (Romans 4:6).
  • That the justice freely granted to man becomes his property and is inherent in him.

Protestants formerly asserted that the justice of Christ is imputed to us, but now they are generally agreed that this argument is unscriptural and lacks the guaranty of Paul; but some, loth to base justification on a good work (ergon), deny a moral value to faith and claim that justification is but a forensic judgment of God which alters absolutely nothing in the justified sinner. But this theory is untenable, for:

  • even admitting that “to justify” signifies “to pronounce just”, it is absurd to suppose that God really pronounces just anyone who is not already so or who is not rendered so by the declaration itself.
  • Justification is inseparable from sanctification, for the latter is “a justification of life” (Romans 5:18) and every “just man liveth by faith” (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11).
  • By faith and baptism we die to the “old man”, our former selves; now this is impossible without beginning to live as the new man, who “according to God, is created in justice and holiness” (Romans 6:3-5; Ephesians 4:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:11). We may, therefore, establish a distinction in definition and concept between justification and sanctification, but we can neither separate them nor regard them as separate.

The text exhibits a certain degree of tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians, which given the context of the letter (55-56 AD) and the arguments between Jewish and Gentile converts, this section of the text has elements of this argument within it.

Paul’s Argument: Why we need Jesus

Sin is a reality which affects the whole world, both Jew and Gentile alike, we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and it plays out in these ways. Paul then gives a boilerplate list of sins.

Scholars have argued whether Paul is using rhetorical devices (such as an interloceur to rehearse his arguments), or whether he is directly addressing a questioner(s)and the original letter is missing. This is in a style which might be technically referred to as diatribe (which has a different technical meaning to the rant which it often means in modern English), where he covers all his arguments.


  • Romans 2:17 “Some you call yourselves Jews” (who are the you?)
  • Romans 3:8 “Some people even claim that we are saying this” (Some People – how we’d love to know who these people are!)

Maybe we have to read Romans imagining a critical voice answering it: a Gentile Philosopher

The Real Sin

Despite what many conservative churches might hold to be fundamental, what really exercises S. Paul was the sin of Idolatory

All of the other sins listed (in a somewhat rote or even ‘boilerplate’ fashion) are an outpouring of the fundamental turning away from God and the worshipping of idols. This is especially true of the apostate (those who turn against their faith, perhaps returning to Paganism) as seen in Romans 1:31

It is typical that these people are singled out for special criticism.

Changing Attitude Scotland

We have a high view of the bible – the Word of God nourishes all we think and do. Bible reading and study is one of the things that all Christians are called by God to take seriously.

We do not accept that biblical references to homosexual behaviour in scripture can be fairly applied to the kind of faithful, lifelong relationships we wish to defend. The Sodom story in Genesis concerns gang rape, not a loving, permanent partnership, and its primitive morality (for example, when Lot offers his daughters to be raped instead of the men) means we can hardly take the text as an ethical guide. Similarly, while Leviticus includes homosexuality in its list of ‘abominations’ we must also note that it condemns a number of activities (lending money for interest; shaving the beard; weaving two kinds of cloth together) which scarcely worry us today.

When Paul mentions homosexual behaviour in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1, it is highly unlikely that he had in mind the concept of an equal same-sex partnership, but rather homosexual prostitution and pederasty, which were the most visible kind of homosexual practice in his own society. Also, it is clear from Romans 1.26 and 27 which mention men and women ‘exchanging’ homosexual sex, that Paul, like other Jewish and early Christian writers, believed homosexuality was a free and perverse choice, whereas we now understand that for most gay people there is no choice in the matter at all.

We find it ironic that most of our detractors quote these few, highly ambiguous passages at us, while finding reasons to ignore other much clearer and more numerous scriptural texts – against divorce and remarriage, for example, or against women holding positions of authority. Their highly selective brand of literalism shows clearly that their position is based on prejudice, not on any genuine concern for biblical authority.

Homophobic Christians

From Is it just me or is everything shit? By Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur

Casting around for the one true path in life, Christians often ask” themselves: ‘WWJD?’ – ‘What would Jesus do?’ Apparently, he wouldn’t ‘make some stuff out of wood’ or ‘cure the sick’, but would he walk up and down the high street with a big placard reading ‘GOD HATES FAGS’.

The ‘Jesus as uptight, bigoted sociopath’ reading of the Bible is proving incredibly popular with the world’s rising band of evangelicals. Even the born-again movement’s pre-eminent marketing arm The Alpha Course (which has seen over 1.5 mil lion Brits pass through its doors) has raised heckles after Blairish founder Nicky Gumbel claimed the Bible ‘makes it clear’ that gays and lesbians need to be ‘healed’. ‘Although I strongly advise you not to say the word “healed” to them,’ he once warned. ‘They hate that word!’ Sound advice.

Normal people flicking through The Good Book will find anti-gay sentiments quite tricky to unearth. The New Testament’s supposed ‘No To Homos’ message basically boils down to Paul the Apostle’s comments in Romans 1: 26-27 on the sins of the Gentiles – ‘God gave them up unto shameful affections‘ – and depends on the translation of the mysterious Ancient Greek word ‘arsenokoites‘ (and I promise that’s actu ally true) which might mean ‘special gay friend’ or possibly ‘male temple prostitute’ or even ‘gigolo for rich women’. Now there’s a solid bedrock for bigotry if ever we saw one.

For others, though, the Bible is just one big old book about hating queers; they’re constantly finding startling new chap ters like when Jesus, after healing the sick and helping the poor, draws together his disciples and tells them how God’s vision embraces everyone – prostitutes, paupers, lepers, even tree-climbing tax inspectors … ‘.

On hearing this, his disciples pauseth for a moment and said unto him, What about the gays, Lord? Jesus flincheth and spat, Oh no, not the gays. I don’t like them, he ranteth. I don’t like their white vests or their love of gaudy music. And I have it on the highest author ity of a man down the tavern that there’s a gay mafia running the Roman Empire. A man with another man? No way! Anyway, the lepers …’

In fact, the Big Bad Son Of God never mentions bum sex or any other gay-related issue even once, not even mutual masturbation. It’s possible he planned on making his Big Speech Against The Gays right after Easter. We’ll never know.

Paul and Sexuality: Romans 1:26-27 – A potentially sticky area

The key passage from this section of Paul’s writing reads (in the King James Version):

Romans 1:26-27: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”

As stated in 2 Peter 3:15-17, we have to be very careful when interpreting the writings of Paul. “As also in all his [Paul’s epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (KJV)

As stated by Dr. R.S. Truluck,

Paul’s writings have been taken out of context and twisted to punish and oppress every identifiable minority in the world: Jews, children, women, blacks, slaves, politicians, divorced people, convicts, pro choice people, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, religious reformers, the mentally ill, and the list could go on and on.  Paul is often difficult and confusing to understand.  A lot of Paul’s writing is very difficult to translate.  Since most of his letters were written in response to news from other people, reading Paul can be like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.  We know, or think we know, what Paul is saying, but we have to guess what the other side has said.” 2

Some important words in Romans 1:26-27:

It is important to understand the precise meaning of certain key words in Verses 26 & 27, as expressed in the original Greek:

About the words “vile affections:” The Greek phrase translated as “vile affections” in the King James Version of the Bible is also translated as:

“vile affections and degrading passions” (Amplified Bible)
“dishonorable passions” (English Standard Version)
“degrading passions” (New American Bible, New American Standard Bible, & New Revised Standard Version)
“shameful lusts” (New International Version)
“shameful desires” (New Living Translation)
“evil things” (Living Bible)
“shameful affections” (Rheims New Testament)
“immoral, unnatural drives” (The Great Book: The New Testament in Plain English)

In the original Greek, the phrase probably does not mean “passions” or “lust” as people experienced in normal, day-to-day living — the type of emotion that one encounters in a marriage or sexually active relationship. It seems to refer to the “frenzied state of mind that many ancient mystery cults induced in worshipers by means of wine, drugs and music.” 2 It seems to describe the results of ritual sexual orgies as performed in many Pagan settings at the time. Paul seems to be referring here to Pagan “fertility cult worship prevalent in Rome” at the time. 4 Vestiges of this type of sex magic are still seen today in some Neopagan religious traditions. The Wiccan “Great Rite” is one example. However, in modern times, such rituals are restricted to committed couples in private.

About the words “exchanged,” “leaving,” “change,” and “abandoned:” These words are important, because they precisely describe the people about whom Paul is talking. From the text, he is obviously writing about women with a heterosexual orientation, who had previously engaged in only heterosexual sex, who had “exchanged” 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, he is describing individuals with a heterosexual orientation, who were engaging in same-sex behaviour — in violation of their natural desires. In normal life, these are very unusual activities, because heterosexuals typically have a strong aversion to engaging in same-sex behaviour. However, with the peer pressure, expectations, drugs, alcohol and other stimulants present in Pagan sex rituals at the time, they appear to have abandoned their normal feelings of abhorrence and tried same-sex behaviour.
About the word “natural:” The operative term in Paul’s original Greek is “phooskos”, meaning “inborn”, “produced by nature” , “agreeable to nature“. 1 This term, and the corresponding phrase “para physin” described below, are open to interpretation:

To many religious liberals, gays, lesbians, mental health therapists, and human sexuality researchers,  homosexual and bisexual orientations are normal, natural, and inborn for a small percentage of human adults. For gays, lesbians and bisexuals with these orientations, opposite-sex behaviour would be abnormal and unnatural.
To most religious conservatives, and perhaps to Paul himself, all same-sex behaviour is abnormal and unnatural, no matter by whom it is done and irregardless of the nature of their relationship.
About the word “against nature,” “unnatural,” etc: The Greek phrase “para physin” is commonly translated into the English as:

unnatural and abnormal” (Amplified Bible)
contrary to nature” (English Standard Version)
against nature” (King James Version, Rheims New Testament)
sin with each other” (Living Bible)
unnatural” (New American Bible, New American Standard Bible, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version)
immoral, unnatural drives” (The Great Book: The New Testament in Plain English)

This does not seem to be an accurate translation. It may demonstrate prejudice on the part of the translators. “Unnatural” implies that the act is something that is to be morally condemned.

M. 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.” 3 The word “unconventional” would have been a more precise word for translators to use. The phrase “Para physin” appears elsewhere in the Bible:

In 1 Corinthians 11:14, Paul uses the phrase to refer to long hair on men as unusual and not ordinary.
In Romans 11:24, Paul used it to describe God’s positive actions to bring Jews and Gentiles together.
About the phrase “just reward:” Romans 1:27 refers to the idolaters receiving a recompense or penalty for “their error which was due.” (NKJ, ASV, etc). This appears to be a reference to the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) which was epidemic among such Pagan fertility cults at the time.

The context in which Verses 26 & 27 appear:

It is important to analyze the preamble to the verses quoted above:

Romans 1:7 says that Paul is writing his epistle “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints...”: That is, his letter is written to all of the Christians in Rome. His recipients would be submerged in the Roman culture, where homosexual behaviour was both widespread and acceptable by society.
Romans 1 is concerned with “Paul’s vigorous denunciation of idolatrous religious worship and rituals.” 2 This is not often mentioned today. Rather, verses 26 and 27 are broken out of the longer passage and cited by themselves to condemn same-sex behaviour.

Verses 21 to 28 include the following topics:

Verses 21-23: The people had once been Christians. But they 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. The latter were probably held in Pagan temples.
Verse 24: Next, they engaged in heterosexual orgies with each other as part of these pagan fertility rituals.
Verse 25: Next, they worshipped the images that they had made, instead of God, the creator. Paul is specifically condemning idol worship here.
Verse 26: Because of these forbidden practices, God intervened in these fertility sex-rituals and changed the people’s behaviour so that women started to engage in sexual activities with other women.
Verse 27: describes how God had the men also engage in same-sex ritual activities. They (presumably both the men and women) were then punished in some way for their error.
Verse 28: Again, because they did not acknowledge God, then He “gave them up” to many different unethical activities and attitudes: evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, etc.


As in virtually all other “hot” religious topics, religious conservatives and liberals take opposite views on this and the other “clobber” passages (1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10) in the Bible that are often regarded as referring to homosexuality:

Conservative view: The assertion of Bennett Sims, the former Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, is a good example of a viewpoint that is held by many conservative Christians. He believes that these verses have done more to form Christians’ negative opinion of homosexuality than any other single passage in the Bible. He writes: “For most of us who seriously honor Scripture these verses still stand as the capital New Testament text that unequivocally prohibits homosexual behaviour. More prohibitively, this text has been taken to mean that even a same-sex inclination is reprehensible, so that a type of humanity known as ‘homosexual’ has steadily become the object of contempt and discrimination.” 1
Views by others: Many religious liberals, secularists, homosexuals, and others view this passage as an attack on heterosexual persons who were formerly Christians, who reverted to Paganism, and who engaged in ritual sexual behaviour as a part of their newly adopted Pagan services. During these rituals, the Pagans were whipped into such a state of sexual frenzy that they went against their heterosexual nature and started engaging in sexual behaviour with members of the same sex. Paul condemns such behaviour. He concludes that Pagan worship will inevitably leads to other negative behaviour: “…unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, [and unmerciful.

The beliefs that persons of other religions are all morally corrupt and that followers of one’s own religion behave on a much higher moral plane was common in Paul’s time. The same assertions have been made throughout history. Yet, modern-day studies indicate that followers of no one religion have a monopoly on good behaviour. No group of religions exhibits consistently immoral behaviour among their followers.

The passage deals with immoral behaviour among heterosexuals who have converted from Christianity to Paganism and engaged in behaviour which is against their nature. There is no real connection between:

Former Christians in the first century CE who have returned to Paganism and engaged in sexual orgies, and
Persons with a homosexual orientation who have entered into a loving, committed relationship or same-sex marriage.

Having lived in a pre-scientific era, Paul would not have had access to the research in human sexuality which started in the late 19th century and which only became widespread in the latter half of the 20th century. He would have been unaware of the concept of sexual orientation.

Professor Attridge of Yale University said “asking what Paul thought about sexuality is like asking what he thought of evolution – it just wasn;t on his agenda”

J. Nelson: “Paul didn’t write it as a condemnation of homosexuality, but as a criticism of Greek behaviour in temple worship. Greeks often incorporated sexual behaviour in temple worship.” 1
D. Bartlett: “This is the tough one. I think one doesn’t get around this. It’s the only place in the New Testament where there’s any extensive discussion of homosexual relations. In Romans, there’s no question that Paul thinks certain kinds of homosexual behaviour are a result of the idolatry of the pagan world.” 1

A human sexuality and progressive Christian viewpoint:

Human sexuality researchers and others who have studied the nature of sexual orientation might reject Paul’s belief that homosexuality is beyond the normal. Many religious liberals reject Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behaviour, particularly when Paul’s support for the oppression of women, and his acceptance of slavery as a normal social practice in (Philemon 1:15 to 16) are considered. They might feel that this passage in 1 Romans should be rejected as immoral and outside the will of God, much as other biblical passages are immoral by today’s ethical standards and should be ignored — including those passages that regulated human slavery, required some hookers to be burned alive, advocated genocide, required victims of rape to marry their rapist, recognized the torture of prisoners, and required the execution of non-virgin brides

Interpretation by the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion talked to theology students at the University of Toronto in Canada in April 2007. He discussed the use that conservative Christians have made of biblical passages to condemn homosexuality. He concentrated on Romans 1. He said that this passage was intended to warn Christians to not be self-righteous when they see others fall into sin. He said:

“Many current ways of reading miss the actual direction of the passage. Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding. [These lines are for the majority of modern readers the most important single text in Scripture on the subject of homosexuality.”

However, right after that passage, Paul warns readers not to condemn others:

Romans 2:1: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” (King James Version)

Or as Williams rendered the passage:

“At whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself.”

Williams said that Romans 1 favours neither side in the debate over equal treatment of gays and lesbians in the Anglican Communion:

It would not help liberals because it states that homosexual behaviour was “as obviously immoral as idol worship or disobedience to parents.
It would not help conservatives, who have been “up to this point happily identifying with Paul’s castigation of someone else,” and challenge them to ask whether they were right to judge others.

He concluded: “This does nothing to settle the exegetical questions fiercely debated at the moment”in the Anglican Communion. 9

An interpretation: the passage is unrelated to homosexuality:

The complete passage describes how a group of Christians left the church, converted to Paganism, and engaged in orgiastic, presumably heterosexual sexual activities. This type of behaviour was common among Pagan fertility religions in Rome during Paul’s time. Paul writes that, later, God “gave them over” to something new: homosexual behaviour. This implies that they had a heterosexual orientation and had engaged only in heterosexual sex throughout their lifetime. God influenced them in some way to engage in homosexual orgies. This was, for them, an unnatural, and thus sinful, activity.

Paul  criticized them because they were engaged in sexual activity which was unnatural for them. For a person with a heterosexual orientation, homosexual behaviour is “shameful,” “unnatural,” “indecent,” and a “perversion.” The passage in Romans is not a condemnation of homosexual behaviour. Rather, it disapproves of sexual behaviour that is against a person’s basic nature (i.e. homosexual behaviours by people whose orientation is heterosexual). 2

For the vast majority of adults, those who are heterosexual, it is indecent for them to engage in homosexual activities. One can interpret Paul’s writing as stating that, for the small minority of humans who are homosexual, it would be indecent for them to engage in heterosexual activities.

As C. Ann Shepherd writes: “When the scripture is understood correctly, it seems to imply that it would be unnatural for heterosexuals to live as homosexuals, and for homosexuals to live as heterosexuals.” 3

Bruce Hahne writes, in point form:

“Verses 26-27 exploit Jewish cultural prejudices.
Good rhetorical strategy: begin with assumptions of audience, build on them to make your point.
So Romans 1:26-27 speaks only of heterosexual people who act ‘contrary to their nature.’
The text provides neither ethical nor behavioural guidance to lesbian, bay or bisexual people.” 4

An interpretation:  The passage is not related to committed same-sex relationships:

Some question whether the word “perversion” in Verse 27, and “such things” in Verse 30 are related to only certain types of gay and lesbian behaviour. e.g.:

Homosexual orgies, or
Group same-gender sexual practices in a religious setting. This was a common practice among Pagans at the time; e.g. in the temples dedicated to the Goddess Aphrodite.
Casual homosexual activities outside of a committed, monogamous two person relationship, or
Homosexual molestation between a man and a child. In Paul’s day, the child victim was often a slave.

These probably were the only forms of same-sex activity that Paul was familiar with. Paul may well have not been thinking of gays and lesbians in committed relationships when he wrote this passage. He never referred to such couples in his writings, and probably never encountered any during his lifetime. He might simply have been condemning homosexual orgies and other sexual activities outside of a monogamous same-sex relationship.

Some Reflections on our own sin (no conferring, I AM watching…)

What is your reaction to sin?

Do you think of yourself as inherently good

Or inherently sinful

Indeed, does an awareness of sin have any impact on your life or your faith?

Has society lost sight of sin?

How might this position be changed and/or challenged?

Is sin personal or collective?

What do you think about Reconciliation? (as an act or as a Sacrament)

Is there hope?