May 29, 2020

How did Paul respond to homosexuality in his culture?

Paul faced homosexuality in his culture.

What did he do?

There was homosexuality in the ancient world. There was homosexuality in the Greek and Roman world where the Gospel took root. It was an accepted part of the culture. It was practiced by the intellectuals and the cultural leaders. Paganism provided a worldview where homosexuality was justified as morally acceptable, even desirable.

Paul was certainly aware of this. As a Jew, he would have been outraged by this distortion of God’s created order and perfect will. He understood the spiritual center of human sexuality, and how the holiness of God was on display in our created sexuality. He understood the teaching of the scriptures and knew that the law of God was unambiguous about this kind of sexual practice.

When Paul was in the city of Athens, he saw the heart of this culture that approved of homosexuality. Acts 17:16 16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. What “provoked” Paul would have included sexual immorality.

Paul’s deep disapproval of this pagan view of homosexuality is evident in his choice of homosexuality as the primary example of the fall and it’s effects in Romans 1:

Romans 1:18-28 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

To this point, I am sure that I am in agreement with the vast majority of conservative Christians. Where I am in disagreement, is in answering the question, “What did Paul do in response to the sexual immorality of his culture?”

The answer to this question seems clear to me: Paul proclaimed and communicated the Gospel, and built the church as an alternative community where God’s holiness in sexual matters was practiced and proclaimed. This was Paul’s entire agenda for confronting homosexuality in his culture.

This seems plain from Paul’s response to the Corinthians in the sexual scandal discussed in chapter 5 and beyond.

1 Corinthians 5:1-13 ESV 1 Corinthians 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler- not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

1 Corinthians 6:9-20 9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”- and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Paul dealt with this in Titus as well, in the context of evangelism, discipleship and church building.

Titus 2:11 – 3:8 1 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. 15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. ESV Titus 3:1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.

I could take any number of Gospel texts and demonstrate that the early church was applying the example and ethic of Jesus to the problem of living in a pagan society. I will pass on that task for the time being, and suggest some conclusions.

I would be generous in my affirmation that Christians in a democratic society have the opportunity, and even responsibility, to participate in the political process. I believe that it would be ridiculous to say that the values of Christian people aren’t going to be part- a prominent part- of that participation. Whether the issue is slavery or abortion or gay marriage, Christian should exercise their political and social responsibilities in a way that shows God is central and most valuable in all things.

This does not mean, however, that all Christians will have identical political beliefs. It is simply not true that scripture leads us all to be Republicans, Democrats or libertarians. Even on issues as monumental as slavery, there are different ways of reading what scripture says about responding to slavery in society. Even abortion can divide Christians along the lines of where Christians put the emphasis as they live in a pagan society. However we live in a pagan society, and the unity we have won’t be political. The unity and influence will come elsewhere.

Paul sees that. He does not have a plan for cultural transformation.

-He has a commission to make disciples.
-He has a commission to cross cultures and build the church.
-He has a commission to make the church an alternative commuity centered on Christ and the Gospel. A Kingdom outpost now.

Paul’s response to the homosexuality of his culture IS the church. Not something the church does, but the creation and life of the church is the response.


  1. Kathy Stamos says

    Good article. But what do we do now that the push is on to accept homosexual behavior IN the Church. I keep running into (practicing) homosexuals who say they are Christians, and are trusing Jesus Christ for their salvation.

  2. And that is a great question, which makes any Protestant wish- for one moment- to be a Roman Catholic, so that every person and their Bible aren’t their own version of Christianity.

    Protestantism leaves us with this dilemma. There is no way around it. The exegetical battles have been raging for 10 years plus, and neither side triumphs. All I can say is this:

    Gay Christians must do one of two things:

    a. Show that the texts don’t mean what they say, but have an entirely different meaning that blesses homosexual sex as holy.


    b. They must construct a cultural critique that makes the view that homosexuality is sin parallel to the view that slavery is acceptable.

    Either one is an impossible road, in my opinion, and can only be done with irreparable damage to the Biblical approach and theology that is needed to sustain the faith.

    One note: Hebrews 13:4 makes it clear that there are two options in sex: Marriage or celibacy. I do not agree that one must announce reorientation to heterosexual desire to be a Christian. One is simply a new creation in Christ.

  3. Kathy Stamos says

    You said…’And that is a great question, which makes any Protestant wish- for one moment- to be a Roman Catholic, so that every person and their Bible aren’t their own version of Christianity.”

    Some also claim to be Roman Catholics…what is the difference whether you are a Protestant who is twisting or devaluing scripture or a Roman Catholic who is ignoring tradition?

    You said….”Gay Christians must do one of two things:

    a. Show that the texts don’t mean what they say, but have an entirely different meaning that blesses homosexual sex as holy.”

    They are attempting to do this with “pro-gay theology”, and sadly, many churches are buying into it.

  4. Mike,

    I’ve really enjoyed this impromptu series you’ve got going here. Did you read Mark Roberts’ series on Christian tolerance and homosexuality? It’s on his website. Great stuff. Keep up the good work.

    Matt Crash!