Thomas Stegman, S.J.: Reading Saint Paul on homosexuality, using the two “hands” of exegesis

Views Thomas D. Stegman, S.J. / October 16, 2022 Print this:
A mid-19th century depiction of Saint Paul by the French painter Pierre André Victor Félix Cassel (fl. 1801-1848). The painting is part of a tableaux housed in St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, a former abbatiale, in Wissembourg, France. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the males, giving up natural intercourse with females, were consumed with their passionate desires for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to an unfit mind and to do things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of injustice, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die, yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (Rom 1:24-32).

Romans 1:26-27 is frequently cited as Paul’s blanket condemnation of homosexuality. Careful exegesis calls into question this unnuanced view. I point this out in my commentary in The Paulist Biblical Commentary, which I share here.

In response to the Gentiles’ choice to worship creatures instead of the Creator, Paul declares three times that “God gave them up”—to unruly desires in their hearts (v. 24), to dishonorable passions (v. 26) and to a base mind (v. 28). Abandonment of God results in the entire person being adversely affected. There is a progression from disordered passions to calculated insolence that rips apart the fabric of human community. 

First, Paul states that God gave Gentiles over to “desires” (my translation). While sexual lusts are primarily intended, epithymia has a broader reference. The rejection of God as the source of life meant that people sought after “life” in futile ways, following their sordid inclinations. In doing so, they distorted and damaged the image of God they were created to embody. Rather than grow in the ways of holiness, they fell into “impurity.” 

Second, Paul turns to homosexual relations as an example of the type of behavior to which God handed over people. Those who exchanged worship of the living God for idols then exchanged “natural intercourse for unnatural.” 

Paul comes from a religious tradition that forbids same-sex relations (cf. Lev 18:22; 20:13). Like many Jews of his day, he regarded such relations as a quintessential vice among Gentiles. This example, in his view, illustrates another instance of the distortion of God’s image (cf. “male and female” in Gen 1:27). 

“In the present passage, same-sex relations are not the main issue—failure to recognize and honor God is.”

Paul’s negative example of same-sex relations is an oft-cited text, one that calls for careful interpretation. On the one hand, there is little doubt that he viewed homosexual relations as “unnatural” and contrary to God’s law. 

On the other hand, it is worth noting how infrequently Paul raises the topic (1 Cor 6:9–10; cf. 1 Tim 1:9–10). In the present passage, same-sex relations are not the main issue—failure to recognize and honor God is. Paul’s letters, moreover, reveal that he is much more concerned with the behaviors listed in verses 29–31. 

Theological and pastoral reflection should recognize both “hands” of exegesis, while bringing other important data to bear on the issue.

Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.

Father Stegman is a New Testament scholar and former dean of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Emory University in Atlanta and is the author of several books, including "Written for Our Instruction: Theological and Spiritual Riches in Romans."

All articles by Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.

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1 Comment
  1. Tom was my Dean! He has a big brain, and even bigger heart. Thank you for your more nuanced approach to this text. You honor God with your life, scholarship, and ministry.