Unnatural Acts

Question
In Romans 1:26-27, men and women are said to "exchange the natural function for that which is unnatural." My assumption is that this refers to sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, and anything else falling outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage relationship. But can these two verses also be applied to "unnatural" acts of sex within a biblical relationship? Is sexual behavior outside of normal sexual intercourse (e.g. oral sex) condemned by these verses even within a marriage?
Answer
In the context of Romans 1, these verses seem to refer only to homosexuality. Although bestiality and other sexual sins are condemned in other portions of Scripture, they are not the topic of discussion in Romans 1:26-27.

While Romans 1:26 is somewhat vague, Romans 1:27 is much more specific. In that verse, Paul identifies homosexual acts as the specific sin to which he refers. In verse 27, the phrase "men with men committing indecent acts" clarifies the meaning of the preceding phrase "men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another." That is, the verse seems to teach that abandoning the natural function of women means to stop having sexual relations with women. Because verse 27 begins with the idea that the men's sin corresponds to the women's sin ("in the same way"), we can infer what it means for women to exchange the natural function for that which is unnatural: they abandon heterosexual acts in favor of homosexual acts.

The Bible never addresses the issue of proper and improper sexual behavior within marriage, at least not as far as specific sexual acts are concerned (it does, of course, condemn things such as adultery). Some theologians have drawn the conclusion from certain passages such as Genesis 38:8-10 (the Onan incident) that any sexual act not designed to result in pregnancy is immoral (including heterosexual intercourse with contraception). However, in my opinion this does violence to the original meaning of the text.

Since the Bible does not speak to the issue directly, we are left to infer conclusions based on the assumptions of the biblical authors and their audiences. In short, the Bible either assumes a worldview in which these other sexual acts are despised, or it assumes a worldview in which these acts are accepted. In my judgment, the fact that the Bible has to go so far as to condemn bestiality and especially repugnant forms of incest (e.g. between father and daughter, or son and mother) suggests that the original audience was open to just about any sexual act. Thus, I tend to think that the original audience would not have assumed that something like oral sex was inappropriate. Moreover, we have some relatively explicit evidence from the Roman Empire that indicates sexual acts other than heterosexual intercourse were popular in the New Testament's day. Because I tend to think that they would not naturally have had an aversion to these acts, and because the Bible does not explicitly condemn them even though the acts were almost certainly known, I suggest that they are not sinful when they occur in the context of marriage.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.