“Through this, God gave them over to passions of dishonor; their women exchanged the natural use into one against nature, likewise also the males left the natural use of the female, burned in their lust for each other, males in males, committing an unseemliness, receiving in themselves the appropriate reward for their error.”
(Translated from the Greek. Most English Bibles do a fairly good job of translating this verse properly.)
The biggest mistake Christians make with Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome is in their failure to comprehend Romans 1:7... Paul’s epistle was addressed to first century Rome, not twenty-first century Europe or North America, etc.. Are we saying that the epistle doesn’t apply to us? Of course not: it certainly applies to every age and nation. But what verse 7 reminds us is that when we read the epistle, we need to keep in mind that it was written to first century Rome, and applies first and foremost to the situations that were extant then.
So what was going on in Rome? The ancient Greek and Roman concept of what was “normal” and what was moral was quite different from ours. Although such concepts as sexual orientation had not been studied or named, in behavior, both the Greek and Roman empires expected everyone to be bisexual. There were very specific cultural rules regarding how this worked. A woman, for example, had one husband, and was not permitted sexual contact with any other male. But sexual contact with other women was permitted and even expected. For men, the rules permitted him wives, and perhaps concubines, depending on his wealth. But an adult man would also be “attached” to an adolescent male, to whom he would be teacher, mentor and lover. An example of this type of relationship can be seen in Matthew chapter 8. The King James Version incorrectly has the centurion referring to his "servant." But he did not say servant. He said "my boy." Not his son, because a man wouldn't refer to his son with the word παις. Rather, this was the common word used by a Greek or Roman to refer to his adolescent partner. Jesus grew up under Roman occupation.There is no way He wouldn't have known the nature of this relationship. He said not a word about it, but admired the centurion's faith and healed the boy.
Any man or women who had relations with only one gender in Roman society would have been thought odd or even abnormal.
The biggest difficulty with such societal expectations is that, by nature, most people are not bisexual. This means that most of the people had to violate their own sexual orientation in order to fit in. In the above verses, we can see that Paul spoke of the Roman women “exchanging” the natural use for one that was "παρα φυσιν" against nature. Now please understand what Paul meant by nature: He was not speaking of nature as creation. (Indeed, homosexuality, as well as bisexuality, exists throughout nature, in virtually every species of animal.[i]) Rather, the Greek word φυσις refers to a person's natural disposition. What Paul was addressing was the Roman’s own nature, what we today would call their sexual orientation. Their society was expecting them to trade their own orientation, whatever it might have been, for a bisexual orientation. The men were doing the same thing. And what they were doing was indecent and an error, not because of the concept of homosexuality, but because they were violating the way they were created.
Romans chapter one, as a whole, deals with pagan Rome’s attempts to turn the creation into a god, worshiping the things created rather than the One who created them. They were attempting to remake that creation in their own design, by ignoring the inborn sexual orientation of the people, and expecting them to live bisexually. This chapter is not about homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, but rather about the error of trying to change the way we were created. God has created each of us with a sexual orientation, and for us to attempt to change it into another orientation is, in effect, telling God that He created us wrong. But if it was wrong for heterosexuals and homosexuals in the first century to try to be bisexuals, then it is equally wrong, and for the same reasons, for homosexuals in the twenty-first century to try to be heterosexuals, or vice-versa.
There are some who would doubt that heterosexuals in the first century would live a bisexual lifestyle simply to satisfy the misguided expectations of society. To those people we say this: Look around you... all over the world there are homosexual people trying to live a heterosexual lifestyle for exactly the same reason. And the societies and the religions trying to force them to do so are just as misguided. The same God who created homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality through- out the entire animal kingdom, did the same thing in us.
[i] :"Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity" by Bruce Bagemihl, Ph.D.