What Is Natural and Unnatural Sex in Romans 1:24-27?

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 17

by Reta Halteman Finger

Young Orator Statue
A Roman statue, traditionally known as “Young Orator.”
It could represent an anonymous ephebos, or, more
probably, Hermes. Copy after a Greek original from
around 100 BC. Spanish Royal Collection.
Photo by Luis García. From Wikimedia Commons.

With the Greco-Roman background from Lesson 16 in mind, we can now turn to David Fredrickson’s essay, “Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27: Paul and the Philosophic Critique of Eros,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the ‘Plain Sense’ of Scripture” (edited by David L. Balch, Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 197-222).

A cross-cultural translation problem

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul speaks of both women and men giving up natural “intercourse” (NRSV), or natural “relations” (NIV), for that which is “against nature.” “Intercourse” and “relations” imply some kind of mutuality. However, the original Greek word is chrēsis, which any standard Greek-English lexicon defines as “use” or “usage.” According to Paul, women and men are giving up the natural “use” of sex for something “unnatural.” In this Greco-Roman culture, the natural use of sex, says Fredrickson, refers to a sexual act by “a desiring subject, usually male, performed on the desired object, female or male” (Fredrickson, p. 199). In other words, it is natural for the socially superior man to “use” a socially inferior person of either gender in order to satisfy his sexual urges.

This natural use of sex could be compared to the natural use of  food to satisfy  hunger, according to writings of some of the Greco-Roman philosophers.  Plutarch, for example, refers to Aristippus, a man who had sex with a woman who did not love him. But this did not concern Aristippus because the wine and fish he ate did not love him either, “yet he used both with pleasure” (Plutarch, Amatorius 750D-E in Fredrickson, p.200). This analogy with food can help us understand the difference between what was considered natural or unnatural when it comes to sex. The natural pleasure of sex should be limited, said the philosophers, just as a full stomach should limit the pleasure of eating. Otherwise it would be “against nature.”

What about women?

What does Paul mean when he says “their women exchanged natural use for unnatural”? (Rom 1:26). Fredrickson was unable to find “any examples of ‘use’ in descriptions of female sexual activity with females” in the ancient literature, suggesting that this verse is not referring to lesbians. Instead, the “unnatural” aspect may be the wife’s “use” of the husband—“inordinate desire within marriage” (p. 201, n. 15). But evidence is scarce. Most Roman literature was written by men, and they may have known or cared little about women’s sexuality or have been reluctant to admit women were “users.” Using others for sex was the male’s prerogative. Only that was “natural”—so long as it was not in excess.

Paul and the philosophers

Besides the analogy of food to explain using persons of either gender as sexual objects, Greco-Romans also compared sexual use to household management. Wives were part of the property of a man’s household, as were his slaves, and he could “use” them as he wished. But philosophers like Plato and Aristotle were concerned with the correct use of property, which requires the control of passion. Avoid luxury and only use objects necessary for life, they said. This also applies to sex (Fredrickson, pp. 202-203).

The “correct” use of sex, food, and household possessions, said the philosophers, was also “natural use,” which is the very phrase Paul uses in Romans 1:26-27. There were three “natural uses” of sex, they said:

•  sex for procreation (male-female),
•  sex which preserves male social superiority over the female, and
•  males having sex with either gender so long as passion is held to a minimum.

Fredrickson concludes that what Paul means by “against nature” in verse 26 is not related to gender, but to out-of-control desire (pp. 204-207)—the same way, I would add, that pornography works “against nature” in our culture today (see Lesson 15).

Yes, but…

We might ask, however, why Paul emphasizes oversexed Roman men seeking other men rather than women (1:27). As a law-observant Jew, Paul would have understood that any sex outside of marriage was adultery. Same-sex marriage did not exist at that time, since the purpose of marriage was procreation and household organization. Additionally, Paul would have perceived male-on-male sex not only as adultery, but as part of that out-of-control lust for new highs—just as contemporary porn addicts need increasingly more exotic stimulation. This was Gentile idolatry, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator (1:25) and leading to futile thinking and senseless, darkened minds (1:21).

This will be underscored in the next lesson, when we will examine five terms that Paul uses in Romans 1 for “unnatural use”: desire (1:24); passion (1:26); inflame (1:27); appetite (1:27); and error (1:27).

Questions for discussion or reflection

1.  Does translating chrēsis as “use” make a difference in how we interpret Romans 1:24-27?

2.  Explain how Fredrickson’s description of extra-marital sex in the Roman Empire makes sense in the context of Paul’s argument about Gentile idolatry in Romans 1:18-32. (See Lesson 14).

3.  If you are a woman reading this, how do you react to the Greco-Roman philosophers’ theory of the three “natural uses” of sex? Which ones would Paul have agreed with?

4.  Some years ago, it came to light that a leader in my denomination (MCUSA) was engaging in phone sex with local teenage girls in his community. He did repent, admitted to an addiction, and sought help. During this process, another male friend in the church said to him, “Well, at least you didn’t get involved with boys!” Evaluate that comment in light of Greco-Roman standards of natural and unnatural sex.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.