26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.You should read it first in the entire context of Romans 1. O.K. There it is. I can't blame it on "liberal Paul" or "conservative/reactionary" Paul. It is the historical Paul, as far as I know. So, what do we make of it?
I wish this passage was not in the Bible. I wish Paul had not used this example to make his larger point in Romans 1 that we have all fallen short of God's will. But, nevertheless, it is there.
Paul makes the claim that both women and men gave up what was "natural" for what was "unnatural." What is natural and what is unnatural and how is that determined?
I do not think these verses are the "Word of God" especially as they have been used ruthlessly against lesbian and gay people. I think that these two verses provide an illustration by Paul of his larger point. Paul's illustration is in error. He thinks that homosexuality is unnatural, when we know that it is natural.
This isn't the first time a writer whose work made it into the canon of scripture is in error. The Bible is filled with errors. This particular error has been a damaging one. But let's see what John Dominic Crossan has to say in his book, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. Remember, Paul's judgement is that this behavior is "unnatural."
That judgment is echoed, by the way, in all other Jewish writers who mentioned that same subject in Paul's time. Indeed, along with idolatry, it was a standard Jewish accusation against paganism.Paul, like all preachers, uses illustrations. This particular one, in which he stated that same-sex intercourse is unnatural, comes from his own prejudice and misunderstanding. There is no reason to belittle, to blame, or to condemn Paul for what that little sermon illustration has done to gay and lesbian people. But we must not regard it as a word from God and continue the harm and false witness against gay and lesbian people. Paul got it wrong. Let's get it right and move ahead.
The problem, however, is that the natural and the unnatural are open to social and cultural interpretation, so that what once was accepted as natural can later be judged as unnatural and vice versa. For example, Aristotle judged slavery to be natural, but Philo, as we saw in chapter 1, judged it unnatural. So also here, but in reverse. First-century Jewish writers considered homosexuality unnatural because they judged from organs and biology. Many of us today consider it natural because we judge from hormones and chemistry. Similarly, of course, we think war is natural, but if our species has a future, later generations will deem it unnatural. We can all agree not to do what is unnatural, but we still have to negotiate what is or is not unnatural. Is capital punishment, for example, natural or unnatural retribution?
Furthermore, in a section from I Corinthians to which I return in much greater detail later, Paul makes another judgment about what is natural and unnatural. "Does not nature itself teach you," he asks, "that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering" (11:14-15). We would surely judge today that short male hair and long female hair are simply time-relative customs or place-relative habits at best, not irrevocable decrees of human nature. This is not to deny the existence of natural human rights or our ability to recognize and even legislate them, but nature neither commands hairstyle nor forbids homosexuality. (p. 144-5)