The Bible tells us in Romans 1 that homosexual sin is “against nature” — but the way “nature” is used in modern language causes some confusion, among both Christians and unbelievers (including those who commit homosexual sins). The result is that these verses in Romans 1 are sometimes misunderstood.
Homosexuality and the Purposes of Marital Intimacy (with related links)
Homosexuality — What the Bible Clearly Says
Romans 1 and Christian Errors on Homosexuality (part one)
Romans 1 and Christian Errors on Homosexuality (part two)
This series of posts was triggered by the recent Kirk decision to permit the ordination of those actively practicing homosexual behaviour. We’ve been looking at this in our Bible Study, with these posts roughly based on that study. In this post, we’ll look at just two verses from Romans 1.
26 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:
27 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.
In modern English, “nature” often has the following meaning (from Cambridge Dictionary Online):
all the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth. (emphasis added)
That is what many people think when they see “against nature” in Romans 1. Some try to excuse homosexual sin by saying that “nature” is animals and some animals do things which look like homosexual behaviour, so it is not “against nature” at all. Thus, they argue that the Bible is simply wrong when it says “against nature.” Sometimes, Christians get embroiled in an unprofitable debate about animal behaviour.
“Nature” is a Mess
By this common definition of nature (things existing “independently of people”), “nature” is rather tragic. Alfred Lord Tennyson said all of nature is “red in tooth and claw.” We await the promise of Isaiah 11:
6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
Until then, “nature” functions in very sad ways, with violence, death, and terror. “Survival of the fittest” is the rule. If “nature” defines “good” we have a mess. Paul, in the very same letter to the Romans, tells us that all creation is troubled:
For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
When “nature” has the common modern sense (defined above), “against nature” is no condemnation at all, because nature is a mess. Yet, Paul clearly used “against nature” in a negative sense, obviously using a different definition of “nature” than the common modern definition.
“Nature” as Used in Romans 1
There are actually multiple definitions of the word “nature” — and some are much more fitting to Paul’s use in Romans 1. Again, from Cambridge Dictionary, “to be in the nature of things” is “to be usual and expected.” When we talk about “human nature,” we are not talking about the world existing “independently of people,” we are talking about what people are like.
The Greek word translated “nature” in Romans 1:26 is phusis and the word translated “natural” is phusikos (from which derives our English word “physical”). It is translated “kind” in James 3:7 (“every kind of beasts, and of birds…”). In Galatians 2:5, it refers to “Jews by nature.” It refers to the nature or attributes of a thing.
When inspired Scripture says homosexual sins are “against nature,” it is not talking about the animal world at all. These sins are contrary to the nature God has given those who commit them — their nature. He planned marital intimacy, and its pleasures, for specific purposes, and designed us physically, mentally, and emotionally to fit those purposes. For various reasons (physical problems, lack of a spouse, etc), not everyone is able to partake in marital intimacy, but that does not change God’s design and purposes for intimacy. Homosexual sins violate those purposes — they are “against nature.”
These sinful actions are against nature, not in that they do not appear outside of humanity, but in that they are contrary to our nature, to the way God designed us.
Keeping “Nature” in Focus
Creation has been messed up ever since sin came into the world. Plants and animals die from disease. Animals that were intended to be in subjection to man attack and kill people. There is no reason for Christians to debate whether or not animals engage in homosexual behaviour. If it happens, it is simply another evidence of a sin-damaged world. It has nothing to do with Romans 1, which speaks of the nature of men and women as God designed them.
Sometimes Christians get caught up with unbelievers in debates about “against nature” in which we accept the wrong definition of “nature.” This potentially has at least three unfortunate consequences:
- We miss a wonderful opportunity to talk about God’s great purposes for intimacy.
- We may undermine Scripture’s authority by trying to prove something it doesn’t really say.
- We can end up arguing a side point with no real bearing on the life-changing Gospel we should be proclaiming.