Coital vs. Non-Coital Sex: Rom.1:26-27 in Context
Firstly, ‘natural relations’ is a modern, dynamic translation, and its technical meaning in theological circles may mislead. So let’s start with the usual literal translation of φυσικὴν χρῆσιν, or “natural use” (e.g. KJV, Young, Darby, Webster) in v.26b:
“Females exchanged the natural use into that which is against nature
In Paul’s usage, φυσικὴν (physikos, ‘natural’) was not a moral or legal category but described something that was culturally typical, conventional, or biological, like short hair on men (1Cor.11:14), being uncircumcised (Rom.2:27), or being born a Jew (Gal.2:15). Even God worked ‘against nature’, according to Paul, in grafting Gentiles into the Jewish branch of salvation (Rom.11:21-24), so ‘unnatural’ was not automatically negative. And χρῆσιν (chrēsis, ‘use’), though appearing only in these two verses in the NT, is well attested as meaning ‘employment, use (made of a thing)’. It does not mean ‘relations’. ‘Natural use’ is a correct, literal translation.
Unfortunately for contemporary readers, the literal translation is ambiguous because Paul did not indicate here the thing being used. The females exchanged the natural use of something for the unnatural, but it’s unclear what.
Widening the view, in Romans 1 Paul would describe why God’s wrath against Gentile wickedness was just, and in chapter 2 he would turn the tables on Jewish readers and remind them that they had done the same wicked things. “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile,” he would conclude, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God ...” and can therefore also be justified by God’s grace (3:22-24).
Paul’s first task in this evangelistic effort, then, was to draw Jewish readers in with a clear and sure indictment of Gentile wickedness. In a tightly ordered paragraph (Rom.1:18-32) he recounted the familiar story of a people who knew the truth about God by observation of creation but turned away: “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (v.21). He illustrated this pagan rejection with three carefully crafted examples; in outline:
- They exchanged the glory of God for idols modeled after earthly creatures, so God gave them up to their corrupted hearts and degraded bodies (vv.22-24).
- They exchanged the truth of God for a lie by worshiping their idols rather than the eternal God, so God gave them up to their degraded desire (vv.25-26a).
- Females exchanged the ‘natural use for the unnatural’ – and males did the same – they did not think fit to keep the knowledge of God, so God gave them up to an unfit mind, to do what ought not to be done (vv.26b-28).
There followed a long list of destructive behaviors, further evidence of pagan rebellion (vv.29-32).
So within Paul’s argument, the gender-related, unnatural exchanges of vv.26b-28 are the third and final ‘wave’ of cause and effect – to borrow Brendan Byrne’s helpful visual [n.1] – describing pagan idolatry. This careful construction is often lost on contemporary readers, the repetition and parallelism obscured by verse notations, paragraph formatting, and the unfamiliar association of the gender exchanges to idol-making and idol-worship.
Paul’s original readers faced no such difficulty. The theme and vocabulary were familiar – e.g. Ps.106:19-23, Ps.81:11-12, and 2Kgs.17:16-18 – and the paragraph itself closely resembled Wisdom of Solomon 13-14. Paul’s tsunami conclusion mimics Wisdom 14:22-27 (RSV):
Afterward it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of
God, but they live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call
such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their
initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels
with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their
marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or
grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and
murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury,
confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, pollution of
souls, sex perversion, disorder in marriage, adultery, and debauchery.
For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause
and end of every evil.
Paul likely borrowed from the popular tradition to draw Jewish readers in.[n.2] And in his more formal structure, Wisdom’s sprawling descriptions of idolatry were distilled into three succinct exchanges: idol-making, idol-worship, and the ‘unnatural use’.
Gender-Related Exchanges of ‘Natural Use’
So the female exchange of ‘natural use’ in v.26b, though somewhat unclear on its own, was related by Paul’s strong rhetorical structure to idolatry. It was also connected, ‘likewise’, to a male exchange in v.27:
“… and in the same way also the males, having abandoned the natural
use of the female, burned in their desire toward each other, males
working shamefully with males and receiving in return the payment
befitting their error …”
Together the female and male exchanges of the third wave are then summarized: “they did not think fit to keep the knowledge of God ...” And the wave then crests into its effects: “... so God gave them up to an unfit mind, to do what ought not to be done” (v.28).
So the males of v.27 exchanged ‘natural use’ in “the same way” (ὁμοίως) as the females of v.26b. Here, helpfully, Paul specified that the males abandoned the ‘natural use of the female’. And he continued: the males lusted instead after other males, earning (κατεργαζόμενοι) both the disgrace (ἀσχημοσύνην) and wages (ἀντιμισθίαν)[n.3] due them. The language of sexual lust, exchange, and transaction is reinforced, strongly suggesting prostitution.
The early church fathers Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Augustine all understood the unnatural act as being non-coital intercourse, that is, oral or anal sex.[n.4] They understood ‘natural use of the female’ in v.27 as referring to penile/vaginal intercourse, and they read that back, ‘likewise’, into v.26b: the females exchanged natural, coital intercourse (with men) for unnatural, non-coital intercourse (with men); and the males, in the same way, exchanged natural, coital intercourse with women for non-coital intercourse with other men.
By this reading only the male exchange was homosexual – the church fathers did not read ‘homosexual’ back into the previous verse but ‘non-coital intercourse’. James Olthuis notes, “Paul does not say ‘women with women’ (as he says ‘men with men’)” in the next verse.[n.5] This is critical because without a specific indication that the females exchanged male for female sex partners, Paul’s original audience would not have understood this thin phrase as referring to lesbianism. There is no example in antiquity in which female homosexuality is described as counterpart to male homosexuality (as some suggest here). Lesbianism was seldom mentioned in ancient literature, and it wasn’t even prohibited in the Hebrew Bible or rabbinic tradition. Introducing a new idea here, contrary to cultural expectation, would not have served Paul’s rhetorical purpose. James Miller concludes, “a homosexual reading of verse 26 is in no way warranted. The obvious partner for the woman in verse 26 is male and the relationship is heterosexual.”
The early church fathers’ reading is further validated by the suggestion of prostitution in which non-coital intercourse was a contraceptive method. As Miller explains,
In contrast to female homosexuality, “unnatural” heterosexual
intercourse is widely discussed in Classical literature, often as a
form of contraception. …. Among unnatural (non-coital) forms of
heterosexual intercourse, oral and anal intercourse seem to dominate
the literature and art. ... Though men enjoyed and encouraged
alternative heterosexual activity with women, it should be noted that
at least some women, most notably hetaerae and adulteresses, actively
encouraged these practices.
For readers of Paul’s time, the third wave of sexual exchanges, including prostitution, described idolatry as directly and non-metaphorically as idol-making and idol-worship. As suggested in the passage from Wisdom above, many cults of the ancient Mediterranean incorporated sexuality, Strabo boasting that the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth once had over 1,000 courtesans. Some of the Greco-Roman mystery religions popular among women and some men celebrated an ecstatic, drunken frenzy acted-out in orgies, sexual hostility, rape, cross-dressing, gender role-reversal, head-shaving, and voluntary castration – all in the name of their deity.[n.6] The writer of Wisdom summarized: “The idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication (πορνεία, porneia), and the invention of them was the corruption of life” (Ws.14:12)
To be sure, ancient fertility cults employed male as well as female prostitutes.[n.7] OT writers called them qadeshim and qadeshoth (‘holy men’ and ‘holy women’) [n.8], and their service was specifically prohibited:
No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute. You must
not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute
into the house of the LORD your God to pay any vow, because the LORD
your God detests them both” (Deut.23:17-18, NIV).
Despite these prohibitions, many Hebrew people adopted the pagan practices (Ps.106:34-39), including shrine or cult prostitution (e.g. 1Kgs.14:22-24, 15:11-14, 22:41-46; 2Kgs.23:4-25). James DeYoung concludes his study of the male qadeshim saying the biblical texts, in both Hebrew and Greek, described cult prostitution and homosexual practice.[n.9] Conservative scholar Robert Gagnon states that male cult prostitution was the most acceptable context for homosexual acts in the ancient Near East,[n.10] and he more pointedly admits, “Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in [ancient] Israel.”[n.11] In fact, I contend homosexual acts were not mentioned in the Bible in any other context.
While distasteful, this cultural background informs a proper understanding of Romans 1:26-28 in its fuller textual and historical context. I believe we can confidently agree with the early church fathers: ‘natural relations’ refers here to coital (penile/vaginal) intercourse. The ‘unnatural’ or non-coital sexual relations of these verses very likely refer to female heterosexual and male homosexual cultic prostitution which serves, in Paul’s rhetoric, as an obvious and superlative third example of the pagan idolatry of which Gentiles and Jews were both guilty. Paul’s judgement on this score is supported by Israelite history and echoes Jewish tradition, particularly the Book of Wisdom.
Reading ‘unnatural relations’ as homosexuality generally does not meet these standards. It strips the reference of its context of idolatry and prostitution – even its purpose in Paul’s larger argument as an obvious example of the same – and it runs against the known mainstream of literary and cultural expectation. It also fails to account for Paul’s rebuke to his Jewish readers that they are no better than the pagans because Jews had done the very same things (Rom.2:1) – the charge of lesbianism is not supported by Jewish scripture or history.
- Brendan Byrnes, SJ, Romans, Daniel J. Harrington, ed.; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996; p.64.
- Byrnes, p.65.
- Interestingly, the NIV translates the only other biblical occurrence of antimisthia as ‘fair exchange’ (2Cor.6:13). The root-word μισθὸν means ‘pay, wages or reward’. According to Brown, the anti- prefix may heighten the sense of transaction (Colin Brown, “Lytron”, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervon, 1986; p.197).
- James E. Miller, “The Practices of Romans 1:26: Homosexual or Heterosexual?,” Novum Testamentum XXXVII, January 1995; p.8.
- James Olthuis, “When is Sex Against Nature?”, An Ethos of Compassion and the Integrity of Creation, eds. Brian J. Walsh, Hendrik Hart, and Robert E. VanderVennen; Lanham: University Press of America, 1995; pp.188-205.
- Kroeger, Catherine. “The Apostle Paul and the Greco-Roman Cults of Women.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 30, no.1 (March 1987); pp.25-38.
- Yamauchi, Edwin M. “Cultic Prostitution: a Case Study in Cultural Diffusion,” Orient and Occident. Neukirchen-Vlnyn and Kevelaer: Butzon and Bercker. 1973; pp. 213-222.
- Steven Barabas, “Baal,” The New International Dictionary of the Bible, eds. J.D. Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney; Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1987; p.113. See Genesis 38:21 for the first biblical reference to the qadesh.
- James B. DeYoung, “The Contributions of the Septuagint to Biblical Sanctions Against Homosexuality”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 34/2 (June 1991) pp.157-177.
- Robert Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues;” Leadership U, www.leaderu.com; retrieved June 6, 2007.
- Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics; Nashville: Abingdon, 2001; p.130.