Thank you for this question. It lets me know that you want to engage on this topic in deeper, academic levels and I welcome that!
One of the best summary for this response can be found on pages 244 through 247 of Bible, Gender, Sexuality by Dr. James Brownson. I suggest reading Brownson’s entire book. When I speak, I recommend people read books in this order: Justin Lee’s Torn, my book, Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, then Brownson. The flow offers a progression of deeper levels of understanding.
In lieu of you reading Brownson’s academic work, I’ll give a summary here with other input, and my own handy way of trying to recall the various points of Stoicism and the usage of “natural” in Romans 1.
We know from the study of ancient cultures that Stoicism was the predominant philosophical thought system operating in ancient Rome. It dominated the thinking from about mid-3rd century BC to mid-2nd century AD. We also know from Paul’s account in Acts 17: 16-18 that he spent time engaging the Stoics in arguments while in Athens. He was familiar enough with their belief systems to debate them.
Stoic beliefs held that there needed to be a harmony between individual nature, the community and the biological world. All three were interwoven and inseparable. To be “natural” meant all three were operating together for the good. We need to go deeper into the meaning in context and can’t look back with modern sensibilities and impose our meanings on what that word or those systems mean (good biblical principles of exegesis — context — need to be applied. Who is the author, audience, meaning of words at the time?)
In the video, I use an easy way to remember what “nature” or “natural” means. Recall, I stated that it meant:
- sex toward procreation
- social and sexual male dominance
- self-control, not lustful or excessive
Let’s go over each one of these categories.
There is a strong link between sex and procreation in the ancient world. Philo, Josephus and other ancient writers tell us that sex between males is unnatural because it does not result in procreation. We know that during the first 3 centuries of Christian teaching that the text in Romans 1:26 about woman engaging in unnatural sex was understood as woman who engaged in non-procreative sex, not lesbianism. The early church writers focused on non-procreation in these passage; eroticism was not the focus of Romans 1:26.
Non-procreation was not the only issue addressed in Romans 1:26 – 32. The entire structure of ancient cultures is build on sustaining both patriarchy and gender hierarchy. The participants in the Romans scene are doing something “degrading” and inherently shameful.
Under patriarchy and gender hierarchy, for a man to be reduced to the status of a woman socially and certainly sexually was, in the words of Brownson, “shocking and dangerous.” A male penetrated by a male not only placed one of the males in the sexual role of the penetrated, submissive woman, but it also implicated the male doing the penetrating. For both men/males, there would be “due penalty” socially for participating in such demeaning behavior (within hierarchical cultures).
Paul’s audience understood this concept.
We also read the words “lust” and “desire” in many Bible versions. The same-sex behavior in this passage is driven by insatiable sexual desires and eroticism, certainly not love and commitment, whether it be between the same sex or opposite sexes.
For a Stoic to be in alignment with nature required that they honor their personal nature (self-control), the gender roles of men and women, and sex toward procreation. ALL of this is out of order in Romans 1:26 -32. The eventual intention of the book of Romans is to tell all people, whether they are gentile of Jew, that they need a Savior to get right with God. A person’s best behavior will never cut it.
This concept of “nature” does not directly translate to our modern world.
Procreation is no longer the sole intention of male and female coupling. I often say that sex is like “marriage glue” keeping a couple solely to one another in a unique intimate way. With the advent of birth control in the mid-1950s, we no longer closely link sex and procreation as we once did.
Likewise, gender roles and hierarchy no longer are understood the way were understood in the ancient world. Today, being a woman is not degrading. Women are not passive, subservient and inferior in intellect or self control. Further, we (as agreed by all medical and mental health care professional organizations) now understand that there is a natural spectrum of human sexuality from homosexual to heterosexual.
The Stoic meaning of “natural” and the way they interlinked personal nature, community and biology don’t translate to a modern world.
What can we then learn from this passage that does translate? There is need for a Savior for all people. None of us, no matter our belief system or “goodness” will be righteous enough in ourselves to be acceptable to God without standing in Christ.
Incidentally, the main opponent of these views of what “nature” and “natural” mean in context is Dr. Robert Gagnon who presents them in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice (2002). Brownson released his book in January 2013. When he did, Gagnon repeated how “wrong” Brownson is in his many view which are in direct opposition to Brownson’s. YET, Gagnon has not published an academic paper with his objections, an act he has been talking about for almost a full four years now. Gagnon is well know for his lengthy responses to those who oppose him. That seems to strongly indicates Gagnon’s ability to engage Brownson’s points directly on these Scriptures.
I have spoken to Brownson directly about this. I wondered why not “just debate” Gagnon. Jim told me this is not the way academics operate. They first write opposing views, then debate.
Dr. James Brownson is an academic scholar who has taught NT theology for over three decades at Western Theological Seminary ( Reformed Church in America). Brownson was motivated to revisit his own understanding of texts when his son came out as gay.