A big question that arises about Romans 1 and texts like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is: Does Paul know anything about homosexual orientation as we understand it today? Does he speak to that issue in any meaningful way? In his condemnations of homosexuality is he including orientation in his description of sinfulness or just homosexual activity? There are two main answers to this question among Bible-believing Seventh-day Adventists. First would be the position stated by Richard Hays, Methodist theologian, and followed by Adventist theologians Ivan Blazen and Richard Rice. They argue, in the technical sense, that Paul has nothing to say about homosexual orientation, that his comments refer to homosexual activity. In that case, the Bible has nothing to say about orientation and people should be accepted in the church on the basis of their beliefs and behavior rather than on their orientation. This view would make room for LGBT people in the church, judging their fitness for membership on the same basis as any other member. In this view, one’s orientation has little or nothing to do with one’s salvation or one’s membership in the church, it is a reality that lies outside of direct revelation. The Bible would, in this case, have a lot to say about one’s beliefs and behavior, but not about orientation. This viewpoint assumes, of course, that homosexual orientation is, in most cases, not a choice, it is a consequence of genetic and environmental characteristics that set one’s orientation firmly well before the age of reason.
A second view of Paul is held by Andrews Seminary theologian Richard Choi. He argues that Paul has a lot to say about orientation. We all have an orientation to sin. That orientation may manifest itself in heterosexual tendencies to sin just as much as in homosexual tendencies to sin. We are all (except perhaps Christ) born with “desires” that move us to sin. These desires cannot be fully eradicated in this life, but need to be controlled by those who accept and follow Jesus Christ. In this view Paul does address the issue of orientation, but not with the scientific preciseness we might today. He notes that we all have an “orientation” that leads us to do things we would not want to do if we were in our right minds. I will spend a little more time on this view because it is less well known than the previous among Adventists.
Choi points to texts like Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Greek: epithumias).” When we put on Christ, these “desires” (as Paul calls them) continue to afflict us, but we are not to “make provision” (Greek: pronoian) for them, we are not to exercise care and foresight in satisfying these desires. In the words of the NIV: “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Another text Choi points to is Galatians 5:24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (epithumiais).” This “orientation” to sin is something we have to do battle with every day. One further relevant text is Ephesians 2:1-3: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires (epithumiais) of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul does not speak here about eradicating the desires of the body and mind. What characterizes the pre-Christian person is that they eagerly carry out the desires of the flesh, for them this is the natural way of life. We “did what we were told” by our orientation to sin. But when God made us alive in Christ by the power of His resurrection (Eph 2:5-6), we become his working project (Eph 2:10—Greek: poiêma) and this causes us to refrain more and more from carrying out our “desires.” These desires are not eradicated, they will be there until the second coming of Christ (Rom 8:22-23), but they are increasingly under control of the one who follows Jesus. They no longer control our behaviors the way that they did before. As any heterosexual Christian can attest, controlling the desires is a lifelong “battle and a march.”
I believe both views of Paul and orientation are correct in relation to their definitions of the term orientation. In the technical, modern-day sense, Paul does not address the issue of sexual orientation. But in the larger sense, he does address it. In our sexuality we all have an orientation to sin. And if we indulge that orientation, we will become more and more at home with that which is unnatural. We all need to do battle with the desires of the flesh (more than 90% of the Bible’s sexual warnings are directed toward heterosexuals). And whatever Christians or Adventists may say about LGBT issues, we need to say from a position of common brokenness. In our sexuality, we were all born “contrary to nature” (Rom 1:25), we all desire that which is not for our own good. And we all desire to “judge” others (Rom 2:1-3) so that we might not feel so bad about our own failings. To truly follow Jesus requires everything we have and there are no shortcuts. In addressing LGBTIQ we can all learn something valuable about our walk with Christ.