Gays in the Church Part 5: Paul’s Understanding of “Nature”

Romans 1:21-32 (NIV)

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. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They 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, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.


It’s essential to ask what the reason is for Paul’s condemnation of this clearly homosexual behavior. The reference is an analogy to the way in which Romans, having had the opportunity to follow the one true God, persist in polytheism. Paul uses the example of heterosexuals, who have the capacity to be engaged in authentic heterosexual conduct, who yet decide to spurt the “natural use” of their bodies in order to “burn in their lust” for members of the same gender. This is the end of the reference; once the analogy has been drawn, the main point can be engaged. But it’s still clear that Paul regards the perversion of heterosexuality to be a crime against the nature of the people involved.

But we should note that this is not a crime against “nature” as such; it’s a crime against the nature of individual heterosexuals. What Paul is describing here is heterosexuals engaging, against their own nature, in homosexual behavior. Just as the Romans after the revelation of Christ, these people can clearly do otherwise; they are resisting their own destiny.

Could this condemnation apply to people who are by their own nature homosexual? Unfortunately, Paul never explicitly addresses this point, since he seems to assume that every individual’s nature is heterosexual. But if we accept that some people are involuntarily homosexual, then the entire point become much more complicated. Indeed, to follow the logic completely, it is reversed. For by Paul’s argument, the key issue is that individuals act according to their own nature as it is revealed to them (as Christ was revealed to the Romans). By this logic, the person who is by his own nature homosexual would be acting against his nature by engaging in heterosexual acts. His destiny is homosexuality, just as the destiny of the Romans after Christ was monotheism.

Those who invoke Paul, then, have to make a further point to add to his. They have to assert that all people are by their own nature drawn to people of the opposite sex, and make a conscious and willful choice to rebel against it. Without invoking a general natural law, which was unknown to Paul, they have to say that each of us has his own heterosexual calling, and that our abandonment of it is deliberate and perverse.

This, of course, is the crux of the debate for prohibitionists have with others. They are confronted with a mass of data suggesting that the vast majority of people engaging in homosexual acts regard these acts as an extension of their deepest emotional and sexual desires, desires which they do not believe they have chosen and which they cannot believe are always and everywhere wrong. The psychiatric profession has concurred in this analysis. Historians record that in virtually all societies, there are records not only of homosexual acts but of distinct homosexual identities and communities and subcultures. Even the prohibitionists themselves have found it impossible to avoid the term “homosexual,” conceding by their very language that some people, by their own nature, appear predominantly or exclusively attracted to members of their own sex. If this is true, then Paul’s broad argument that people should not subvert their own nature actually becomes an argument against the prohibitionists and not in favor of them.

— Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal

18 thoughts on “Gays in the Church Part 5: Paul’s Understanding of “Nature”

  1. I wish every church in the Church would sit down and discuss this article, with patience, open-mindedness, and a good few Biblical scholars around to offer guidance, as well as gay believers (or non-believers), and folks who are on all sides of the debates. Even if they walk away debunking it, it would be a healthy step.

  2. “But we should note that this is not a crime against “nature” as such; it’s a crime against the nature of individual heterosexuals. What Paul is describing here is heterosexuals engaging, against their own nature, in homosexual behavior.”

    So if it’s in the nature of a person who is homosexual, the behavior is not sinful? Can’t then the same argument be made for murderers? If it’s in the nature of a person to commit murder, it it then not a sin?

  3. Tim, this may not come as a shock to you but I don’t think you’ll elicit much energy from me for a reply with your moral equivalence of murder and homosexual activity. Come to think of it, it doesn’t even deserve the time I’ve just spent typing this response.

  4. “But we should note that this is not a crime against “nature” as such; it’s a crime against the nature of individual heterosexuals. What Paul is describing here is heterosexuals engaging, against their own nature, in homosexual behavior.”

    So if it’s in the nature of a person who is homosexual, the behavior is not sinful? Can’t then the same argument be made for gluttons? If it’s in the nature of a person to eat too much, it it then not a sin?

  5. Zach,

    What is the greek word behind the word “relations”? It’s “kreesis”. Those who consider themselves homosexual do not abandon natural desires they abandon natural “kreesis” (“use, relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse.”).

    Before you respond check out this article:

    Also, Piper (your favorite) responds to Sullivan’s argument. (Before you scoff at a Piper reference, take our friend Rob Bell’s advice from Velvet Elvis, Footnote 24):


  6. Peter,

    For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right and that homosexual activity is interchangeable with gluttony as being sinful behavior. The problem is we don’t seem to have a problem with gluttons being apart of church communities in any way shape or form. So if you’re going to protest someone like Gene Robinson because he’s gay, I guess, based on your logic, you must protest any church leader you consider to be a glutton, or a liar, or prideful, etc…..

  7. doesn’t “kreesis” in mean “crisis” or something like that? either way, this is getting way too nerdy for me. btw, i talked with rob about this very issue last week but I’ll check the footnote just to humor you I suppose.

  8. All I am trying to show you is that Andrew Sullivans argument is wrong. I tried to show it was wrong by following the argument to it’s logical conclusion (that any sin is ok if it’s part of your nature) and I presented exegetical (nerdy) arguments. (and I got a snarky with the rob bell footnote)

    In return, you brought up a valid issue about treating each sin fairly in the church. But Zach that is a separate issue to this blog post. I would comment on that issue if this post was about that. For now it is clear that Sullivan is wrong with this argument about Romans 1.

  9. I don’t believe it’s clear, no. If I did, I wouldn’t have posted the excerpt by Sullivan. I suppose you think it’s clear due to the assumptions you bring the text. I don’t share those assumptions so I guess that’s where we sit.

    But in the end, supposing you’re assumptions about Paul are correct, I don’t need Paul’s approval to estimate that monogamous, same-sex relationships (ideally within marriage where it is allowed) are not inherently disordered, deviant or sinful. It is through my experience, through prayer, through listening to others that I come to this view. The reason I posted this excerpt from Sullivan is that I agree with it. Does that make it “clear” for me? No, but it resonates with my own experience and I think he’s on to something. Who knows what Paul ultimately meant. It’s not clear. We come to our conclusions on faith, not fact.

  10. I already have wrestled with it and if I were convinced then I wouldn’t have posted Sullivan’s excerpt. Like I said, your view makes assumptions about what Paul meant. You don’t have access to the factual information you somehow claim to have. But if it makes you feel better, then yes, your view of this issue is right and mine is wrong. But I don’t believe I’m being close minded. After all, I’m not the one claiming certainty and clarity on the matter.

  11. Ok good, I am glad to hear you wrestled with it. I am wrestling with it now, which is what brought me to your blog. It appears to me that when I read Sullivan’s argument and I read Piper’s argument or the argument on “Stand to Reason” Sullivan’s argument falls flat and is severely lacking. I want to understand why you see the opposite when it comes to Romans 1:21-32.

    You make a general argument that it’s because of my assumptions. Please help me understand what assumptions I am bringing to the text that you don’t. You mention that you don’t need Paul’s approval, is that it? Or that your experience, prayers or “listening to others” trumps Paul’s letters? Or that your assumption is there is no way to know what a writer really meant?

    I know I am coming off like an angry fundamentalist. You probably assume I don’t have any friends who are gay – which is usually true for people coming from the angry, fundy camp I am but it’s untrue for me. I have friends and family who are gay that I interact with regularly. I also have friends who were in homosexual relationships for years that have left those relationships and married the opposite sex.

    So this is not just a theological issue for me, it is very, very personal. I have no tolerance for Christians who simply close their mind to the debate, fear and hate interactions with the gay community and just throw rocks.

    But there IS a compelling debate and I am making intentional efforts to see the other side. But every time I raise objections with people who are sympathetic to arguments like Sullivans I get a similar response to yours – bringing up side-issues, making general comments about my assumptions… basically an unwillingness to actually engage in the passage at hand.

    What DOES Paul mean about “nature”? What DOES he mean when he talks about “kreesis”? Show me how the arguments in the links I sent are wrong or have false assumptions behind them. Show me how Sullivan’s assumptions make way more sense than Piper’s assumptions when approaching Romans 1.

    I am wide open to hearing a defense of Sullivan’s perspective! I am open to consider why Piper’s arguments (and the like) are wrong… but nobody is willing to show me. Or maybe nobody is able to really defend Sullivan’s position.

  12. One assumption you’re making is that Paul is condemning all homosexual activity. He doesn’t address monogamous, committed, same-sex relationships. You’re also assuming that what Paul had to say to the Romans is a kind of timeless teaching that can be applied to any context. The fact is is that no one can really know with certainty Paul’s full thoughts on the matter or how Paul would instruct folks today in our time and place. We base our view on the assumptions we all bring to the text. You have your assumptions, I have mine. It’s not that assumptions are good or bad, but we can only have a debate when we are both honest about the fact that we bring them to the text and they shape our understanding.

    You believe we are debating the text but what we are debating are the assumptions we bring to the text. You don’t have a 100% air-tight grasp of the the truth of the text. Neither do I. Let’s come clean on that fact and then we can have a worthwhile debate.

  13. Also, I don’t think the distinction between natural “desire” and natural “function” is relevant at all. It assumes that sex or any kind of intimacy between human being is a strictly functional activity. Maybe Paul thought of it that way, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had due to the fact that he claimed to be sexually inactive. It’s much easier to view sex as a function and not a pleasure if you’re not having any!

    If you believe that sex can and should be enjoyed apart from it’s function, then this argument is rendered meaningless. If you want to have it that way, there are plenty of heterosexual sex acts that fall into the same category. Oral sex, manual stimulation would all need to be categorized as unnatural due to the fact that they don’t entail a functionality. They fulfill a desire but not a function.

  14. Zach,

    First of all I agree that “we base our view on the assumptions we all bring to the text”. And I agree that neither of us can know Paul’s thoughts with 100% certainty. I am more than happy to “come clean” with that fact. You think Sullivan is right and I think he is wrong and we both approach the text with different lenses influenced by numerous factors. But, I am not satisfied with leaving it there and I am hopeful that two adults can defend their positions and seek the position that makes the most sense.

    Now, in regards to Romans 1:21-32 I don’t see how the assumptions you listed would hinder our discussion on what Paul is really saying. They are broader statements beyond this text.

    Does Paul condemn all homosexual activity or committed SS relationships in Romans 1:21-32? No, he is only condemning the sexual acts between people of the same gender.

    Is what Paul is saying to the Romans 1:21-32 a timeless truth that can be applied to any context? In Romans 1 Paul is talking about what God is mad about, the unrighteousness and ungodliness of men. This is something that is not unique to the Romans as the bible brings this up again and again regarding many other cultures. And as Sullivan points out, there is evidence that homosexuality is prevalent throughout history. Therefore what Paul is saying is not simply for the particular audience he is writing to.

    So, again, I don’t think the assumptions you brought up will hinder us from having a debate on this passage.

    The issue at hand is Sullivan’s argument that Paul was not addressing homosexuals in Romans 1:23-32 since homosexuals by their nature desire the same sex. I submit that Paul is not concerned here with nature or desire but with natural function.

    Here are some arguments to defend my view:

    1. At it’s root, Sullivan’s argument falls on it’s face when he allows a persons predispositions determine what is right or wrong in God’s eyes. In Sullivan’s world one could never say that a desire is wrong. Check out this NT Wright video on this question:

    2. If Paul was addressing people living against their nature (heterosexuals acting like homosexuals) then why doesn’t he say, “…men committed indecent acts with women and women with men”? Why does he exclusively focus on men with men and women with women? The reason is that Paul is focused on sexual acts outside of natural function – which leads me to my next argument

    3. “Paul was not unclear about what he meant by “natural.” Homosexuals do not abandon natural desires; they abandon natural functions: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another…” (1:26-27)

    The Greek word kreesis, translated “function” in this text, is used only these two times in the New Testament, but is found frequently in other literature of the time. According to the standard Greek language reference A Greek/English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, the word means “use, relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse.”

    Paul is not talking about natural desires here, but natural functions. He is not talking about what one wants sexually, but how one is built to operate sexually. The body is built to function in a specific way. Men were not built to function sexually with men, but with women.

    This conclusion becomes unmistakable when one notes what men abandon in verse 27, according to Paul. The modern argument depends on the text teaching that men abandoned their own natural desire for woman and burned toward one another. Men whose natural desire was for other men would then be exempted from Paul’s condemnation. Paul says nothing of the kind, though.” -

    4. “Paul says, “The men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another.” Now if these were men who were by nature heterosexual, and who were going against their natural desires, what is the meaning of “they burned in their desire toward one another”? It is a very strong term. Does a natural heterosexual burn with lust for another man? If not, it is very unlikely that what Paul is dealing with here is the subject of heterosexuals engaging in homosexuality.” -

    5. “When Paul says in verse 27b, “Their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,” the Greek phrase for “that which is unnatural” (ten para phusin) is a stock phrase in Greek ethical literature of the time for homosexual behavior per se, not for homosexual behavior among heterosexuals – as though that’s what made it unnatural. So it is very unlikely that Paul is arguing that what’s wrong and unnatural about these folks is that they are heterosexuals by nature and acting contrary to nature by doing homosexual acts. “Contrary to nature” in this text, as it most Hellenistic literature of the time, meant homosexual behavior per se. That’s what Paul regards as unnatural.” -

    6. You argue that I am assuming sex is strictly a functional activity. Certainly there is much more to sex than mere function but that does not mean function is irrelevant or inconsequential. God designed the sexual function between a man and woman as a powerful picture of our relationship to God. God and humans in covenant worship are represented by male and female in covenant sexual union. Therefore, when people turns from God to images of themselves, God hands us over to what we have chosen and dramatizes it by male and female turning to images of themselves for sexual union, namely their own sex.

    7. When NT Wright speaks, I listen… “…it is clear that he regards homosexual practice as a dangerous distortion of God’s intention. It is quite logical to say that we disagree with Paul or that in the light of our greater knowledge of human psychology we need to reassess the matter. That can be argued either way. What we cannot do is to sideline this passage as irrelevant to Christian ethical discourse, or for that matter to the argument of Romans, or to pretend that it means something other than what it says.”

    Bottomline, I don’t believe I am going to persuade you to change your mind but maybe some of your readers will think twice before they subscribe to Sullivan’s view. Thoughts?


  15. Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts, Peter (even though there seems to be some entire sections that are a “copy and paste” job that you don’t bother to give credit to). I’ve actually wrestled with this material and understand the arguments you (or the websites you’re referencing) make. They just doesn’t sway me.

    First, you should read Sullivan’s book before you assume to understand his view. If you have read it, then I believe you may have misread it. He does not say that any desire is morally defensible. That’s not what he say at all. He addresses this in the book.

    I’ve pretty much said all I can say but I would like to point something out in regard to Wright’s quote. We sideline all kinds of passages as irrelevant to today’s Christian ethical discourse. Why is Romans 1 or any of the other prohibitive verses any different? I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from Wright, McKnight, Webb, etc…….

  16. Zach,

    Alright, if you do not want to defend Sullivan that’s fine- disappointing but fine. I understand that it’s tough to defend his argument.

    In response to your accusation, I am not sure why you said I am not giving credit. I believe it’s clear from my last post and previous post the source of my arguments that I copied and pasted as I have put quotes around them and links below them. In case people miss the links the source of some arguments are John Piper and Greg Koukl. Please look for the links above to go directly to the articles. If I missed something please let me know and I’ll correct it in a subsequent post. I do not mean to plagiarize and I am unashamed to say my arguments are from other thinkers and theologians.

    In regards to Wright, I guess I’ll throw it back to you, how do YOU determine which verses are relevant for today’s Christian ethical discourse? How do you determine if Romans 1 or any other prohibitive verses are irrelevant?


  17. “how do YOU determine which verses are relevant for today’s Christian ethical discourse? How do you determine if Romans 1 or any other prohibitive verses are irrelevant?”

    I’ve already answered that in a previous comment, “It is through my experience, through prayer, through listening to others that I come to this view.”

    I do not worship Paul. I worship God, who created me and who created my gay brothers and sisters. I personally believe that if Paul meant to say that all homosexual activity is deviant and sinful then he was wrong. Just like I think he was wrong when it comes to women standing in the Church. I pick and choose. Sue me.

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