Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality What Romans Refers to as “Unnatural”
In my mind, Leviticus—and any hard and fast rules laid out in the Old Testament—can be written off, and not just because of its age: In the Gospels, when confronted with the supposed sin of working on the Sabbath, Jesus said that we have outlived those outdated rules. Among these rules is the famous anti-gay one: man shall not lie with another man as he would a woman. However, the anti-gay content is not just relegated to the Old Testament. In fact, Romans contains the most detailed handling of anti-gay content, and Helminiak, in What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, tackles this important book of the Bible.
As the author points out, 1:26 is the only section of Romans to state ideas about homosexuality explicitly—though you could argue that 1:27 comes close. However, in his chapter on Romans, Helminiak looks at this verse in the context of the longer section in which it appears (1:18-32). Drawing on the research of both John Boswell and L. William Countryman, Helminiak asserts that Romans, rather than condemning homosexuality actually renders it neutral: it’s neither good nor bad simply because it is homogenital (77).
The support for this argument relies on three major points: Paul’s word choice, Paul’s structure of the passage, and his intent or plan for the letter. Furthermore, Paul wanted to bring the two sides of his Roman audience—those already converted and those who might be swayed—together, not create a further rift by attacking their sex lives. Through his careful word choice and structure, Paul acknowledged the common practice of homosexual sex among that population and simply offered one particular context in which it should be discouraged; he was not concerned with forbidding it all together. Over all, his message was one of inclusion, not exclusion.
Paul’s word choice
Paul uses three words to refer to homosexual acts: unnatural, degrading, and shameless.
First, Paul says men “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” Here, Helminiak states that Paul is using “natural” to refer to what is “characteristic or peculiar in this or that situation” (78). Citing several examples of what he means, Helminiak argues that for Paul, “something is natural when it responds according to its kind,” (79), i.e. a Jew follows the laws of being a Jew while Gentiles follow different laws unique to them. Some, however, disagree, and to their contrary point of view, Helminiak notes that since sex is naturally used for procreation, ALL sex—gay or straight—that happens outside of the deliberate attempt to procreate would be “unnatural” (83).
He examines the use of this word in depth, so if you’re interested, I suggest you seek out this book.
Next, Helminiak looks at the idea of homosexual acts being “degrading” (1:27). He suggests that Paul uses this term without intending any negative connotation, just that the action is “not held in honor” (90). Paul even uses the term to refer to men who wear long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14) and even to himself when discussing his attitudes about his commitment to Christ (2 Corinthians 6:8 and 11:22; Helminiak 90). So clearly there’s a context issue that modern readers inject that the author did not intend.
As far as homosexual acts being “shameless, Helminiak examines the original Greek work that is translated as shameless. However, the word actually means “not according to form” (91), which sounds a lot different that something derogatory as shame.
Helminiak sees two main sections to this famous passage in Paul’s letter, and the two should be understood as fulfilling two different purposes. The first deals with sexual impurities, and by referring to homosexual acts as impure, he’s making a distinction between what was a common practice in the Roman world—gay sex was common, basically—and Jewish tradition. The second part (verses 28-32) focuses on the real wrong, evil and sin (97).
Paul opens his letter with this chapter because he is making a point about the impurity that results from false idolatry, and it is his concern throughout (99). To read this passage otherwise is to imbue it with 21st century prejudices. He wanted to appeal to both sides of the Roman community which he was hoping to visit soon, and he did not want to offend either side.
To read it any other way speaks against Paul’s intent, and allows for people to inject meaning that is not present. For example, verse 27 talks about the punishment for committing these sins. Often, this is read to suggest that God is punishing people who sin sexually with STDs. But more straight people get STDs than gays (simply because there are more of them), and from heterosexual sex. Furthermore, lesbians are the lowest risk group for AIDS. So is God protecting them?
As Helminiak successfully argues, Paul’s intention was to bring two sides together: the faithful and those who might be converted. Again, he was trying to bring together, not separate; to do this, part of his approach had to account for and respect those who openly engaged in homosexual sex. Therefore, as Helminiak asserts, Christians who use Romans to separate within the Christian community are ignoring Paul’s true purpose. Doing so unfairly attacks the gay community, many of whom live their lives in ways Paul would have respected, in the process.