Responding to David Instone-Brewer’s claims that God only condemned certain types of homosexual relationships, Ian Paul argues that there is no such basis in scripture


David Instone-Brewer argues that Paul does not clearly condemn all forms of same-sex sexual activity. Having known and appreciated David and his work over many years, I was surprised by the inaccuracies and false steps that he takes along the way. 

Did Paul condemn all homosexuality? This cannot be a question we can ask about scripture, since the notion of ‘homosexuality’ as an identity is a modern invention, dependent on an individualised, psychological understanding of sexual orientation that would have been alien to the ancient world. There was a recognition that some people had a settled attraction to people of the same sex, but this was not considered to be an orientation or identity as we think of it today. 

Referring to people as heterosexual or homosexual makes no sense in relationship to Romans 1, as these categories would not have been understood by either Paul or his readers. Greeks and Romans had markedly different attitudes to sex from us – and from each other. For Greeks, anal sex between an older man and a young boy was considered both a natural part of the boy’s development and an appreciation by the man of the ideal of youth and beauty. 

Romans mostly thought this idea disgusting; their two main categories of thought were the primacy of the male and the importance of hierarchical social status. Men were the default form of humanity; weak women were a defective form; and sexual penetration was the ultimate expression of male power and masculinity. High status men would therefore be expected to express their masculinity by penetrating slaves of either gender, low status men and women. The notion of ‘orientation’ or identity had no bearing at all. 

By imposing modern categories on Romans 1, we can misunderstand what Paul means by “exchanged” and “natural” and misread his whole argument. 

Natural order

When Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, the “all” refers to both Jew and Gentile. In Romans 1:18-28, he argues that God has revealed himself in creation, but humanity has rejected this revelation and turned to false gods.

Paul characterises this as a series of ‘exchanges’: wisdom for foolishness, the glory of God for images, truth for a lie, the worship of God for worship of creatures and natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. Paul characterises God’s wrath and judgement here not as something future, but as something that works itself out in the present; God “gave them up” (ESV) to their choices. 

Both in the shape of his argument and its detail, Paul makes it clear what he means by “natural”. God has created the world in a way that reflects his intention, but humanity has rejected that. In this context, it is clear that by “natural” Paul does not mean ‘how the world is’; still less ‘the desires I find within myself’ but ‘how God created the world to be, before human sin’. 

Greeks and Romans had markedly different attitudes to sex from us

This is made explicit when he comments that men “gave up natural relations with women” (v27, ESV). This is not a comment on orientation but on the fact that in the Genesis creation accounts God created humanity in his image, male and female, and that this gender binary was to be the basis of sexual activity, marriage and fruitful procreation. 

As William Loader comments in The New Testament on Sexuality (Eerdmans): “‘Natural’ must mean in this context sex with the opposite sex. It cannot be limited to only the act as unnatural…his concerns are not about custom and fashion, but what he sees as divine ordering…Paul believes that the creation story implies that only sexual relations between male and female (and then only in marriage) are acceptable before God.” 

Paul is offering a critique of both Greek and Roman attitudes to sex and sexuality and, in doing so, parallels other Jewish critiques of pagan culture, including Philo, who uses ‘natural’ in exactly the same way. The gender binary of male and female, as a central part of God’s creation of humanity, must determine our sexual ethic – and this includes a rejection of all same-sex sexual activity, regardless of its context. 

Some gay commentators have argued that they do not recognise themselves in Romans 1. But in doing so, they are treating the text as though Paul is writing biography rather than theology. “Although they knew God” (v21) describes humanity in creation, not at a particular point in time. The list of vices contained in Romans 1:29-31 describes all of us, not just gay people. When we turn from God, everything goes wrong – and one of the most obvious signs of this is that our thinking and sexual practices go awry. 

Paul’s proof text?

Instone-Brewer claims that: “Everything hinges on a strange word Paul uses for homosexuality arseno-koites.” I would contend that Paul’s argument is quite clear from Romans 1 alone, but Paul’s use of this term in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:9 confirms his argument from another angle. 

This word was indeed coined by Paul and based on a Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 (literally “If a man beds with a male the bed of a woman”). But again, David’s argument imposes an alien, modern view upon the distinction between the two terms used for the men involved. 

His claim is that the two Hebrew terms – ish meaning ‘man’ and zakar meaning ‘male’ – have different implications. The first refers simply to gender identity and the second suggests a ‘real-male’ or ‘masculine man’; this implies that the second is what we would call heterosexual, while the sexuality of the first is unspecified. But this argument fails to take account of the real significance of these terms, and flies in the face of all interpretations of this text in Judaism. 

The claim that zakar has this ‘masculine’ sense in Akkadian literature fails to notice that this only occurs in texts where it is contrasted with words for effeminacy or gender-ambiguous people.

In the Hebrew Old Testament it is never used in this way, and there is no sense of this difference between the uses of ish and zakar. The fact that both the ish and the zakar are equally guilty of committing an offence (in contrast to Akkadian legislation) confirms this. As Richard Davidson says in Flame of Yahweh (Baker Academic), the imposition of the death penalty “clearly indicates consensual male-male intercourse”.

But the use of zakar does have significance. In the creation story, although Adam and Eve are described as “man” and “woman” (ish and ishsha) in Genesis 2:23, they are described as “male and female” (zakar ve-nekevah) in the first creation account in Genesis 1:27. It is to this language that Leviticus 20:13 is alluding: the problem with same-sex sex is that it defies God’s creation of humanity as male and female. Men are not to have sex with other males as they do with women, because that is not what God made them for.


This text, when read correctly, lines up perfectly with Paul’s argument in Romans 1. And the history of its reception in Jewish thought confirms this; for Jewish rabbis, the Hebrew phrase from this verse, mishkav zakar, became a catch-all term for same-sex activity between both men and women. This corresponds to Paul’s reference in Romans 1 to both men and women giving up their “natural” patterns of relationship. 

David’s overall argument here is entirely speculative, without any actual evidence to support it, and ignoring the evidence that contradicts it. (For a more detailed examination see: ‘Are there two types of men in Leviticus 20:13?’,

Why is this all so complicated?

Given the complexity of the technical questions raised, the ordinary reader of scripture might start to wonder: Why is this all so complicated? Surely the Bible should be clear on this if we are to follow it?

I am firmly of the view that the texts are, indeed, clear in what they say – and I am not alone. The vast majority of mainstream, liberal, biblical scholars, most of whom think that Church teaching on marriage between one man and one woman is wrong, are nevertheless absolutely confident that the Bible really does forbid all forms of same-sex relations. 

For example, in an article for the LGBT Catholic website, Walter Brueggemann writes: “Paul’s intention here is not fully clear, but he wants to name the most extreme affront of the Gentiles before the creator God, and Paul takes disordered sexual relations as the ultimate affront. This indictment is not as clear as those in the tradition of Leviticus, but it does serve as an echo of those texts. It is impossible to explain away these texts.”

In Paul: The apostle’s life, letters and thought (SCM Press), EP Sanders writes: “Paul’s vice lists are generally ignored in church polity and administration. Christian churches contain people who drink too much, who are greedy, who are deceitful, who quarrel, who gossip, who boast, who once rebelled against their parents, and who are foolish. Yet Paul’s vice lists condemn them all, just as much as they condemn people who engage in homosexual acts.”

If these liberal scholars can be so confident in what scripture says, so can we. 

Click here to read David Instone-Brewer’s article on 'Did Paul condemn all homosexuality?'