From time to time, I see conservative Christians argue that homosexual acts are significantly worse than other forms of sexual sin—like fornication or adultery—because at least those other sins are “natural.” Often the same argument is applied even at the level of temptation: temptation toward homosexual sin is worse than temptation toward heterosexual sin. (For example, Matt Moore recently made such an argument, despite arguing that it not sinful simply to experience temptation.) This argument seems to be based on an exaggerated conclusion from Paul’s use of the phrase “contrary to nature” in Romans 1:26-27.
In order to evaluate this argument, it’s important to understand what makes something “natural” and what makes it “contrary to nature.” From a Christian perspective, this must come down to God’s intent when He created the world. Something is “natural” if it is in line with God’s created order, and “contrary to nature” if it rejects some part of that order.
Some people’s contention seems to be that the description of homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” is intended to set homosexual practice apart from other sins. However, I don’t think that Paul would describe as “natural” the more general “lust” and “impurity” in Romans 1:24, the idolatry in Romans 1:25, the various vices in Romans 1:29-30, or the judgment discussed at the start of Romans 2. And in the other passages where Paul addresses homosexuality, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, he includes it on a list with several other sins, including generic “sexual immorality.” Romans 1 is the only case where Paul singles out homosexuality as “contrary to nature,” but he does not say that it is unique in that category even there.
To understand what “contrary to nature” would have meant to a first-century Christian, and what is against the order God created, we must go to the same source Paul would have used for understanding God’s created order: the Genesis creation accounts. This also makes sense in light of Paul’s focus on God as Creator in Romans 1.
The first place that the sexes are mentioned is in Genesis 1:27-28, in which God references that male and female are created in His image, and gives the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” The discussion of the sexes continues in significantly more detail in chapter 2. God references Adam’s need for a “helper” (Genesis 2:18), and points out that none of the animals can serve such a role (Genesis 2:19-20). Then God creates Eve out of Adam’s side, and she can serve as his helper (Genesis 2:21-23).
From this passage, we see that females can play the role of “helper” to males. And based on the description in Genesis 1, procreation is a significant part of this role. So although there’s more work that needs to be done to argue that other kinds of sexual relationships are outside of God’s created intent, there’s a good start here. This is likely a large part of what Paul was referencing in Romans 1.
There is one large problem for people who want to single out homosexuality as uniquely contrary to this order. In order to argue that marriage is not similarly fundamental to God’s created order, you have no choice but to stop reading there. Here’s what the next two verses actually say (Genesis 2:24-25, ESV):
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Here we have the most direct reference to sexual activity in the Genesis account, with the discussion of “becoming one flesh.” And we see that God’s institution for sexuality indeed involves a man and a woman. But it’s not just an arbitrary man and a woman—it’s a man and his wife. In other words, marriage is a fundamental part of the created order. The desire for adultery is therefore not “natural” at all.
This passage offers insight into what Paul described as “natural relations” in Romans 1:26-27. “Natural relations” must describe sex within the context of marriage. Sex that is fundamentally outside that context, including adultery, is similarly contrary to “natural relations.”
This is further confirmed by the way that Jesus uses the Genesis account in the New Testament. In Matthew 19, Jesus uses the creation account to argue that it is wrong for a man to be remarried after a divorce in most circumstances. In other words, Jesus teaches that the desire to marry someone other than the original spouse violates the creation order. This is a clear example that a desire can be heterosexual and yet violate God’s creative intent.
It’s worth noting that there is a difference in how remarriage is handled in Scripture and how homosexual practice is handled in Scripture. The Law of Moses explicitly accommodated divorce and remarriage, while homosexual practice has consistently been unlawful. A similar observation can be made about polygamy, although its accommodation is less explicit in the Old Testament. However, we ought to be careful not to take this distinction too far by denying what Jesus taught in the New Testament. Furthermore, this observation cannot be used to argue that adultery is less serious than homosexual practice, as adultery is condemned just as consistently and is in fact condemned much more frequently.
People often still try to argue that heterosexual desire is inherently natural even in cases where its fulfillment would be adultery. The basic argument is that if it’s someone of the wrong sex, it’s fundamentally wrong and could not be otherwise, whereas if it’s someone married to someone else, that’s just a result of circumstance. In other circumstances, desiring the same person could be good. But it’s hard to see how this distinction could really come from Scripture. It also seems like a rather problematic way to argue. For example, if we are not pacifists, we believe that there are circumstances when it’s appropriate to kill a person who is a danger to others. However, we wouldn’t say that the desire to kill your noisy neighbor is “natural” simply because you could kill him or her if he or she tried to kill your family.
Some state a similar argument this way: it’s always wrong for a man to have sex with a man, but not for a man to have sex with a woman. But this is just looking at the wrong level of detail. It’s also always wrong for a man to have sex with a married woman, other than his own wife. If you think the fact that it’s a man and a woman makes the desire natural, consider another approach. Is it always wrong for a person to have sex with another person? No, obviously not. Therefore as long as the desire involves a person and a person it’s natural, right? This argument makes the same error. Many of the arguments used to justify the desire for adultery as “natural” are too powerful; they can also be used to argue that nearly any sexual desire is “natural.” So we must reject these arguments.
Let’s put this in terms of an experience I sometimes have, but with fake names. I am friends with both Bob and his wife Alice. Both of them very attractive. If I’m honest with myself, I’m attracted to each in a way that includes a desire to have sex, if I let my mind go there.
According to the typical view of the “homosexuality is uniquely unnatural” crowd, my feelings for Alice are “natural,” even though acting on them sexually would be sin. However, my feelings for Bob are fundamentally unnatural. These feelings in particular must be fought or “mortified” in a way that my feelings for Alice don’t need to be.
Let’s contrast this with how I process the situation in practice. I often experience both attractions as largely the same phenomenon. Rather than having “heterosexual attraction” and “homosexual attraction” as different things, I just have “attraction” that is sometimes towards another male and sometimes towards a female. I don’t have some magic ability to control whom I experience it towards.
I don’t identify all aspects of what I feel towards either Alice or Bob as sexual desire. So I don’t believe I need to mortify everything about that attraction. And some of what gets into the category of sexual desire I see as just how my biology is acting in a fallen world, not really “sinful” in and of itself. However, I must mortify my inclination to take either attraction towards lust or sex. Bob is off-limits to me sexually both because he’s a man and because he’s married. However, Alice is no less off-limits to me sexually, because she’s also married. So both desires must be mortified, insofar as they are driving me towards lust or sex. And from what I understand, my feelings towards each of them become problematic at the same point.
There is no way of reading Romans 1-3 and thinking that homosexual sin is uniquely contrary to God’s plan. The point of Paul’s argument is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The proper way to understand Romans 1, along with the rest of Scripture, is to see the seriousness of all sin. It is a good warning about the way that many of my different feelings could lead me away from what is natural and from righteousness. It is not a way to argue that my desires for homosexual sin are worse than my desires for heterosexual sin, or that I don’t really need to worry about my desires for heterosexual sin.