Are Sins “Contrary to Nature” the Worst Sins?
Perhaps you have heard it said, or felt it clearly implied, that homosexuality is the worst possible sin. Perhaps your testimony includes some kind of personal experience of homosexuality or same-sex attraction, and you have felt—whether they meant to communicate this or not—that others considered you the worst kind of sinner. When this opinion is openly expressed, it is not uncommon to hear Romans 1 referenced, especially the point about homosexuality being contrary to nature.
Is this correct? Does Romans teach that homosexuality, being contrary to nature, is therefore the worst sin?
To begin, let’s admit that not conforming to nature does have a bearing on sin. In Romans 1, this concept is connected to rejection of the Creator. Those who exchange the truth of God (that he made everything and rules over its design) for a lie (that we are autonomous beings who may choose to live how we wish) worship and serve the created—for which the Greek word is ktisei—over and against the Creator—para ton ktisanta (1:25). That is, we might say, to make up a word from the Greek, they make themselves “para-creational.” These creation-worshippers, then, are the very ones who, for that same reason, also exchange the natural—physiken—use of the body for the unnatural use—para physin—or “para-natural” (1:26). Paul is arguing that the willingness to ignore the normativity of created design and intent for the body is a manifestation of the willful rejection of the Creator.
So, in discussions of whether homosexuality is sin, the issue of created design is plainly relevant. You can also see why the Westminster Larger Catechism would list “against the light of nature” (Q151.3) as one of the many contextual considerations that aggravate the seriousness of any particular sin. All sin, of course, is a manifestation of our rejection of the Creator and logically flows from that rebellion. All sin is, in this sense, against the Creator’s design. But in Romans 1, Paul rhetorically seizes on the obviousness to his readers of this particular rejection of natural design. This obvious contradiction of natural design makes especially clear the connection that all sin has to rejecting the Creator of nature.
Nevertheless, the language of Romans 1 does not mean that any sin that is “contrary to nature” is for that reason the most heinous sin, or even that it is automatically worse than any other sin. As I explained in a previous post, “Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?,” determining the relative heinousness of any sin act is complicated and context-specific. The catechism, for example, lists many factors to consider, of which being “against the light of nature” is only one. The effect of this list is not to automatically put any one whole class of sins in a worse category than other classes of sins, but to urge church leadership to wisely shepherd individual cases before them according to the unique situational context. But even in the text of Romans, it is clear that Paul did not intend to single out sins contrary to nature as the pinnacle of wickedness.
First, in the immediate context, one of Paul’s main concerns is to encourage unity in the gospel, especially between the main demographic division of Jew and Gentile. His concern is that each individual in the church, whether they be Jew or Gentile, would have no basis on which to look down upon or judge the other. In the flow of Romans 1 and 2, he does this by progressing from the “unnatural” sins of the Gentiles that would seem so obvious to his Jewish-background readers to the more common and less obviously unnatural but equally debased (1:28) sins like covetousness, strife, deceit, haughtiness, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, and the like (1:29,30). The mere inclusion of some of these sins in this list should be enough to curb the temptation to feel morally superior (see my post on Romans 1). But, significantly, Paul ends this list by adding, “Though they know God’s righteous decree” about such things, they do them anyway (1:32)—a point that the Larger Catechism would describe as another factor increasing the heinousness of a sin that it is committed by a person “of greater experience or grace” (Q151.1). The rhetorical effect is clearly to humble the readers who, because of their greater biblical training and theological heritage, would be tempted to judge their Gentile brothers and sisters (even though his original audience, of course, would not have had the catechism’s language!). Thus, he culminates this section with the rebuke, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges” (2:1).
But, some may ask, doesn’t the very idea of “contrary to nature” carry a certain pejorative power, conveying an emotional intuition against what clearly ought not be? That is to say, doesn’t it capture what some have described as the “yuck” factor? Well, the point that I have been trying to show is that that kind of understanding is not consistent with Paul’s concern in Romans 1–2 for humility and unity in the gospel. I would also suggest that his other use of this phrase supports this point. The Greek phrase translated “contrary to nature” (para physin) shows up twice in the book of Romans: First, here in chapters 1 and 2, at the beginning of Paul’s argument, where he is mainly urging Jewish Christians to a humble gospel disposition toward the Gentiles. The other time this phrase shows up is in chapter 11, at the end of Paul’s argument, when he flips the coin to make a similar plea to the Gentile Christians: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles… For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:13, 24, emphasis added). Ironically, Paul’s first use of the phrase is as a description of the sin that comes from rejection of God, but his second use of the phrase is to illustrate the unexpected grace of the gospel! Both times, the phrase occurs in the context of encouraging Christians to a humble, gospel-based love for those who are otherwise very different from themselves.
What can we conclude from this? If we listen carefully to the apostle Paul, we will never use the category of “contrary to nature” to favorably compare ourselves to any other sinner or class of sinners. Rather, we will in humility seek out, and point others to, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” acknowledging that there is really “no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (3:22–23).