This article is adapted from a talk given at The New Marriage Era Conference on 28 August 2019. The Conference was a collaboration of EFAC Australia, St Hilary’s Anglican Church, and the Peter Corney Training Centre.

Natalie Rosner is an Associate Minister at St Hilary’s, Kew and the Director of the Peter Corney Training Centre.

I want to begin by indicating that the scope of this article is around who marriage is for, how sexual relationships are viewed in the New Testament and how therefore we should think as Christians about marriage and sex in our current cultural context. That context is one where the attitudes of Australians to marriage have been shifting significantly for some time. To take one small example. Prior to 1999, more weddings were conducted in churches than by civil celebrants. But since 1999, the majority of weddings have been conducted by celebrants rather than by churches. And in 2015, 75% of marriages were conducted by civil celebrants. Australians are increasingly rejecting the church’s involvement in their marriages. The change in the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage also reflects a gradual change in attitudes to marriage that’s taken place over some time, but obviously only had a legal impact after the postal survey in 2017. Certainly that legal change in the definition of marriage has precipitated much conversation among Christians about how we should now think about marriage. Clearly the traditional Christian view that marriage is between a man and a woman is no longer shared by a majority of Australians. So does this change in popular attitudes and in the legal definition of marriage mean that our Christian view of marriage must change too?


So first, let’s take a closer look at what we learn about marriage in the New Testament. We’re going to look at a number of key texts to help us here: one key text on marriage and then two others dealing with same-sex sexual activity. First, on marriage. Matthew 19, reading from verse 3.

“Some Pharisees came to him [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Here we see that Jesus goes back to Genesis 1 and 2, to the original nature and purpose of marriage in order to deal with the Pharisees’ question about divorce. Verse 8 makes it clear that divorce is a concession that came after sin entered the world in Genesis 3. Divorce was not part of God’s original design for marriage.

Rather, we see that God’s original design for marriage involved male and female in a monogamous, one flesh, life-long relationship.

Interestingly, Jesus quotes first from Genesis 1:27 to remind his listeners that God made humanity ‘male and female’. He then quotes from Genesis 2 and creates a logical consequence – God made humanity male and female and ‘for this reason’ a man and a woman are joined in marriage. The way Jesus puts these quotes from Genesis 1 and 2 together seems to indicate that the nature of marriage has a creational logic to it. The marriage relationship flows out of the nature of humanity as male and female. Because Jesus uses these creation texts from Genesis 1 and 2, it seems that they give a normative picture of what marriage is intended by God to be, rather than a descriptive picture that might then be open to variation. That is, one male and one female is an essential ingredient for a marriage. It’s helpful to notice that the ‘one flesh’ nature of marriage provides the only context for God-ordained sexual relationships in the Bible. The only positive context in the Bible for sexual relationships is within a male-female marriage relationship.

To test this statement, we’ll now look at the key texts in the New Testament that refer to same sex-sexual activity. First, Romans 1 and in particular verses 24-27. As well as looking at these verses in detail, I’ll also paint the flow of the passage from Romans 1:18 to 2:1. It’s an incredibly weighty passage. It begins with the assessment that all people have failed to give God the glory and thanks due to him as their creator. All have become fools and have worshipped idols rather than the immortal God. So God’s wrath is being made known to all people. The important point here is that everyone is in the same boat.

“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”

Because all of us have failed to honour God appropriately, God lets us suffer the consequences of our choice. We serve created things rather than God – our lives are driven by love for money, power, ambition, and sex, among other things. Sexual impurity is part of our world because we have individually and collectively dishonoured God.

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

So we see that a particular example of the sexual impurity that is part of our world as a result of humanity dishonouring God is that both women and men have exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. This description certainly refers to some kind of same-sex sexual activity and we’ll come back to this more fully in a moment.

But note that whatever the same-sex sins are understood to be here, Romans 1 gives no basis for singling these out as a special category of sin. Verses 28-32 go on to describe a wide range of sinful behaviour. This includes disobedience to parents, greed, envy and gossip as examples of humanity’s wickedness. When my husband Brian lived in Aberdeen for a number of years, he had a Christian friend who piloted helicopters for the North Sea oil rigs. This friend told Brian that if he had a co-pilot who was gay he would refuse to fly with him. This kind of homophobic attitude is completely ruled out by Romans 1 and 2. Romans 2:1 in particular makes it clear that there is no one among us who is in a position to judge others.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

It’s important to be very clear that no matter who we are, we’re all in the very same boat in terms of our situation before God without Christ. We are all sinners who deserve God’s judgment.

This may seem like a long introduction. But the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 and into Romans 2 is a helpful starting point as we think about marriage and sexual relationships. With this flow of thought in mind, let’s go back now to verses 26 and 27 of Romans 1. The key question is: what does the text mean when it talks about exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones in both verses 26 and 27? Furthermore, what does verse 27 mean when it talks about men committing shameful acts with other men? Some argue that unnatural sexual relations are those that have no potential for procreation. Some argue that these verses are about heterosexuals who act against their own natural sexual orientation by engaging in homosexual acts. Some say the problem here is just excessive passion. But through this passage in Romans 1, there are clear thematic echoes of Genesis 1 (See Claire Smith in Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia, Essays from the Doctrine Commission, 145-146). Because of the links in Romans 1 to the creation account in Genesis 1, it seems most likely that when Paul writes about nature here, what he has in mind is the natural created order – the way God designed his world to work. Claire Smith’s conclusion here is a good summary:

‘Accordingly, the sexual relations that are ‘contrary to nature’ are those that are contrary to the created order and God’s purposes for it as revealed in Scripture. It is men and women doing with their own sex what God intended only to be done with the opposite sex and that within marriage, as the rest of Scripture makes clear.’ (Essays from the Doctrine Commission, 145-6)

With this initial conclusion in mind, let’s look next at 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This is one of the passages to which Israel Folau alluded in his infamous Instagram post.

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

There are two words that Paul uses here that refer to same-sex sexual activity. Both of these words translate the phrase ‘men who have sex with men’ in the NIV translation. The first is the Greek word ‘malakoi’ which referred to a ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate person’. Used in this way it referred to the passive male partner in a same-sex sexual act. The second word Paul uses is one that he coined – it had never been used before. It’s made up of two words used in the Greek Old Testament in Leviticus 20:13, where God prohibits same-sex sexual activity. Paul puts these two words together in 1 Corithians 6:9 in a term that refers

to the active partner in male same-sex consensual acts. This includes consensual acts between adults and can’t be limited to cultic settings or pederasty. A number of translations translate these two words that Paul uses separately while others are like the NIV and put them together into one phrase. Paul uses this new term again in 1 Timothy 1:10, where it is translated (in the NIV) as ‘those practicing homosexuality’. Both 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 therefore include consensual same-sex sexual activity as being one of a number of different behaviours that are wrong according to God.

We’ve seen so far that Matthew 19 gives us a normative picture of marriage as a relationship between one male and one female. This relationship is the only positive context in which the Bible refers to sexual activity. When it comes to same-sex sexual activity, there is no positive affirmation of such activity in the Bible or in the New Testament and this section has covered the main verses that touch on this theme.


Now that we’ve had an initial look at what the New Testament says about marriage, let’s Mind the Gap. I want to think for a short time about similarities and differences between the cultural context of the first century and our own world, with the implications those might have for our Christian understanding of marriage now.

Some argue that first century culture didn’t have the same experience that our culture now has of long term, consensual, loving and committed same-sex relationships. Hence Paul could not have been referring to such people in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. This reasoning then proposes that Paul was writing about same-sex sexual activity that was either pederast, or otherwise non-consensual as with a master and a slave, or else referred to uncontrolled promiscuity and licentiousness or to same-sex prostitution. However the historical evidence doesn’t seem to support these assertions. NT Wright refers in a podcast to the poet Juvenal and to Plato’s Symposium which is a discussion of love. Juvenal was a poet in the late first and early second centuries and he describes the gay scene in Rome. There was certainly evidence of powerful men exploiting boy slaves and other non-consensual same-sex sexual activity. But Juvenal’s descriptions are also very much a matter of some long term same-sex partnerships and also a description of men who take the female role in homosexual behaviour. Wright’s summary is that ‘there’s nothing that we know about actual behaviour that they didn’t know’. Plato’s Symposium was written a few hundred years before Paul and it also encompasses a range of same-sex relationships including long-term stable faithful partnerships. So the suggestion that same-sex sexual relationships in the first century were all exploitative and that now we have something different simply doesn’t work historically.

There are other writers who agree with NT Wright on the historical evidence that the ancient world was well aware of long term and faithful same-sex relationships, notions of same-sex marriage and same-sex sexual orientation. Both Claire Smith and Michael Stead refer to some of these writers in their chapters in the Essays from the Doctrine Commission. In this case, the cultural gap between the first century and ours seems to be less than we might first imagine. Paul was writing in a very similar context to our own when it comes to same-sex relationships. So it cannot then be argued that Paul wasn’t referring to long term stable same-sex relationships because first century culture was unaware of them.

Others argue that the Christian church has shifted since the first century on a number of other moral issues, and that we should follow suit on same-sex relationships and marriage. Classic examples of this argument are around slavery and roles of women in both marriage and ministry. Interestingly though, it’s not just cultural change between the first century and now that has provided the context for change in the church’s position on these two issues, but rather exegetical factors.

Slavery is never advocated in the New Testament, but rather described as an existing social institution in which both Christian slaves and masters are urged to behave in a godly manner so as to bring glory to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, slaves are urged: ‘Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.’ So in the case of slavery, there is justification in the New Testament to support slaves becoming free. As many of us know, it was William Wilberforce and other Christians who drove this cultural change, rather than the church responding to surrounding cultural change.

In the case of women, cultural change certainly seems to have been a catalyst for Christians to re-think their understanding of the Bible’s view of women’s roles in both marriage and ministry. Of course, there is no Christian consensus on these issues today however there is arguably biblical support for some shift from first century cultural attitudes when it comes to women. Let me give a quick example. In the first century, women were married at a very young age while they were virgins – in their early teens, and mostly married to much older and more experienced (including sexually experienced) men. In this context, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4

“But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

This is clearly an equal view of sexual relations between a wife and her husband that was completely at odds with the patriarchal culture of the first century. This is then a good exegetical reason for a shift in how the church views the marriage relationship between men and women. And this is just one example among other exegetical issues that have led to conversations among Christians about women’s roles in marriage and ministry and some changes from first century norms. This is in contrast to same sex-sexual relations, where there is no Biblical warrant or any indication of support for same-sex sexual relations or same-sex marriage.

Michael Stead in his concluding essay in the Essays from the Doctrine Commission refers to Professor William Loader, who is a world-recognised expert on homosexuality in the New Testament and ancient world.

“Loader is convinced that Paul condemns homosexual practice, but notwithstanding this, he believes that the modern church should now embrace homosexual practice, because Paul simply got it wrong at this point. His understanding of scriptural authority allows him to do this...” (Essays, 320-303).

Referring to those who support same-sex marriage but hold to a high view of Scriptural authority, Loader says this: ‘we can only stand and wonder at the extraordinary manoeuvres which have been undertaken to re-read Paul as not condemning homosexual relations at all.’ (Essays, 303). If we accept Loader’s comment, that puts any shift the Anglican Church might make on same-sex marriage in a completely different category to shifts that have happened on slavery and women’s roles in marriage and ministry. A change on same-sex marriage would be a shift driven by a different view of biblical authority and hermeneutics rather than by biblical exegesis. While I don’t agree with all his conclusions, William Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis is a helpful resource in this respect on these three issues.


Now I’d like to briefly join the dots, thinking about a few related themes in the New Testament that have some bearing on how we think about marriage. Each of these themes indicates that our secular culture, as well as our Christian culture put too much emphasis on marriage relationships. That is because, in the case of Christians, we neglect other important biblical themes.

The first is the New Testament’s affirmation of celibate singleness. Marriage is not the only life choice available to us. Clearly Jesus was single and Paul was too. This should be ample validation and confirmation of the single Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul also reflects on singleness in a number of ways. In verses 8 and 9, Paul says to the unmarried and widows:

‘It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.’

Paul clearly recommends celibate singleness here, with the concession that if a person isn’t able to remain celibate, then they should marry. Later in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul recommends that those who are single should stay single ‘because the time is short’ (v29) and because ‘this world in its present form is passing away’ (v31). Paul urges an eternal perspective when we think about singleness and marriage, rather than a temporal one. Finally in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes it clear that those who are single have a greater opportunity to live ‘in undivided devotion to the Lord’ (v35) than do those who are married.

So the New Testament offers a high view of the single life and I want to encourage us to have this same view. I also want to recognise very clearly that there are some real challenges that face those who are single. Many single people would say that they haven’t chosen singleness deliberately but would rather be married. For same-sex attracted believers who have chosen to remain single out of obedience to Christ, there can be a sense of rejection by other Christians. There can be challenges around loneliness for single people. There can also be practical challenges such as finances, aging, holidays and more. Given the Bible’s high view of singleness, and simply out of brotherly and sisterly love, our churches should be working to better support single people.

Secondly, the New Testament is clear that marriage does not last into the new creation (Mark 12). Marriage is a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the church, so it becomes redundant once Christ and the church are fully united after Jesus’ return. Our greatest human allegiance is to Christ himself. And unlike marriage roles, other relationships between believers do last into the new creation. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the church is that we put too much pressure and emphasis on marriage because we minimise our brotherly and sisterly bonds.

Thirdly, we live in an age of sexual saturation. NT Wright describes it this way: ‘Our culture is absolutely soaked to the bone in Aphrodite worship.’ Aphrodite was the Ancient Greek goddess of erotic love. Wright continues: ‘The idea that life without regular active sexual relationships is not worth living, that’s a modern lie.’ 

The New Testament has an incredibly counter cultural attitude towards desire. Not just sexual desire, but other desires as well. The desires for money (greed) and honour (pride) spring to mind. Against our post-modern framework that urges the necessary satisfaction of desire, the New Testament doesn’t just say no to these desires but calls us to satisfy our desires by redirecting them towards God and his Kingdom.

So as we’ve joined the dots, I urge us to conduct our conversations about same-sex marriage with the knowledge that God offers us more resources to think about marriage, and to manage singleness and desire than we are currently making the most of.

Let me conclude by acknowledging that there is real heartache and difficulty for many, many people around this issue of same-sex marriage.

This isn’t a theoretical conversation but a conversation that impacts our own lives or the lives of people that many of us know and love. As we continue to have this conversation, my prayer is that, in the words of Ephesians 4:15, ‘speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.