Well, I think Scoots gave a good answer to our first question: How do Paul's comments about homosexuality fit into his argument in Romans? I'll reproduce his answer here:
As I understand Romans, Paul uses 1:18 thru 3:20 to establish that all of humanity – both Jew and Gentile – stands sinful and helpless before God. The idea is that humans are simply unable to be righteous on their own, which sets up Paul's proclamation of justification of both Jew and Gentile through faith (3:30).
Roughly speaking, the section consists of three moves.
The first move (which Matt has quoted) describes the thorough sinfulness of Gentiles. The idea is probably to catch the Jews in the audience thinking, "Yeah, those Gentiles really are awful."
But Paul goes on, in his second move (2:1ff), to say that those standing in judgment (perhaps Jews) are sinful as well. Finally, in a third move, (3:9ff) Paul throws out a litany of verses claiming that all of humanity is helplessly sinful.
Scoots' summary, up to this point, jives with every commentary I've ever read.
Consequently, one reaction to the passage in question could be to dismiss it out of hand, as something particularly Pauline, or at least Jewish, perhaps purely rhetorical, and in any case, incidental to Paul's real point: Jew and Gentile are both justified through faith.
However, this passage is a bit different than the vice lists we looked at earlier, because in Romans, Paul is doing some heavy-duty theological work. Rather than simply giving a list of do's and don'ts to particular congregations in Asia Minor, Paul claims to actually be telling us something about God. And this, of course, is the question that most of us care about – we may not trust Paul's patriarchal proclamations about sex and gender, but it sure would be nice to know what God thinks about the whole business.
Now it may be that we can still short-circuit this whole discussion, and I'll provide a couple of ways that we might do so.
First, it may be that Paul's statements about homosexuality here are universally applicable and universally understandable. Regardless of our worldview, the translation that we're reading, the connotation we might apply to different words, and the ineffable nature of God, it may be that these few verses represent a capsule of real live Truth, and that once we read them, we immediately have the option of receiving God's clear truth, or rejecting it.
The nice thing about this answer is that it's simple: Paul means I understand him to say and says what I understand him to mean. The nature of God is inherently simple, there are no mysteries, there are simply the things we ought to do, and the things we ought to avoid. The bad thing about this answer is that it's ... well ... too simple. It makes no allowance for the complexities of God, much less the complexities of human existence.
Second, it may be that Paul's statements about homosexuality conflict with our experience of the world, and must simply be judged inaccurate. This is a good approach for those who don't accept scripture as normative, or who mistrust Paul in particular, or who can't accept traditional interpretations of these parts of Romans.
The benefit of this approach is that we can be honest about our experience of the world without abandoning our faith in God. Problematic scriptures can be discarded, and edifying scriptures can be accepted on the basis of their self-evident truthfulness. But the problems with this second approach mirror the problems of the first. It becomes more difficult to allow scripture to convict us and teach us new ways to behave, plus it becomes very hard to explain how Paul's other theological statements – and likewise, any biblical statements about the nature and preferences of God – can be understood to be true.
But if we expect that Paul's statements about God are true in some general sense, we should probably spend a bit of time trying to figure out the sense in which his statements are true. Here are some possibilities.
- The gentile culture worshiped other gods, so God allowed the introduction of homoeroticism.
In general, when cultures worship other gods, God allows the introduction of homoeroticism.
In general, when individuals worship other gods, God allows them to become homosexual.
In general, when individuals are rebellious, God allows them to corrupt their own bodies.
In general, rebellion against God tends to lead to the corruption of one's own body.
God disapproves of homoerotic behavior.
God disapproves of homoerotic lust.
God views heterosexuality as "natural", and homosexuality as "unnatural".
God approves of anything "natural", and disapproves of anything "unnatural".
Feel free to mix and match, or add your own.