The opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is, sadly, perhaps best known today for being one of the battleground texts in the debate on human sexuality raging in many quarters of the western Christian church. And when the minutiae of the text become the subject of debate, the larger thrust sometimes disappears from view. So also, often but not always, here.
A recent(ish) Patheos blog by Morgan Guyton declared Romans 1:18–32 “one of the most important passages in scripture, because it describes the nature of sin… one of the most prominent biblical proof-texts against homosexuality, but the mention of same-sex practices is incidental to Paul’s larger points in the passage.” He then analyses the text as referring to social corruption, not biological noncomformity, and argues for the full acceptance of sexually active LGBT folk — a line of thought followed also by Matthew Vines1Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian (2014), p99ff among many others.
For those who would defend the church’s historical stance on sexuality the text is equally central, though of course the argument would then be that it legitimately applies to what we would today call homosexual orientation2See e.g. R. Albert Mohler Jr., God and the Gay Christian? A response to Matthew Vines (2014, Kindle edition), location 79ff. I am not writing here to argue for any specific agenda. I am simply trying to understand the text as well as I can because it is God’s inspired word to us3In the interest of transparency, my bias is that of someone who would love to be convinced by Vines et al, but isn’t — and if … Continue reading.
Conflict in Rome
Emperor Claudius, fed up with unrest (“at the instigation of Chrestus” according to Suetonius4Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars (tr. Catharine Edwards, 2001), p184), expelled the Jewish population from Rome around 49AD. Among the exiles were Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2). For the early church there in Rome, it meant that most or indeed all of its leaders were forced into exile. The vacuum was doubtlessly filled by Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) leaders.
Eventually the Jewish population was allowed to return. By the time Paul writes his letter in 57AD, Priscilla and Aquila are clearly back in Rome (Romans 16:3) as were no doubt many of their fellow exiles.
This unfortunately provided fertile soil for conflict to arise within the Roman church community. It stands to reason that the church had been changed by years of Gentile leadership following the expulsion. These new leaders may not have been keen to step aside for the returnees to pick up their old positions. Tensions in theology between the two groups were heightened as well. Reports of such tensions must have reached the ears of Paul, and the theme of Jews and Gentiles relating in the light of the gospel dominates his letter5See e.g. Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the book of Romans (2002), p27; John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans (1994), p34.
In his letter, the apostle addresses both the Jewish and the Gentile Christians. But he does not necessarily focuses equally on both at the same time. Only by paying careful attention to the way he sets up his argument in the first few chapters can we fully grasp how the text is meant to work.
- 1:1–15 opening formulas and introduction;
- 1:16–17 programmatic statement of the letter’s subject matter;
- 1:18–3:20 debunking misplaced Jewish confidence;
- 1:18–32 the Gentile condition before God intended to draw his Jewish Christian hearers in;
- 2:1–16 the Jewish condition before God in order to convict these hearers;
- 2:17–3:8 the powerlessness of the law of Moses to refute their objections;
- 3:9–3:20 equivalence of Jews and Gentiles before God so as to gather them with their Gentile fellow hearers;
- 3:21–8:39 God’s solution to our shared predicament in Jesus.
The breathtaking verses in Romans 3:21 onwards, outlining the way Jesus has become our righteousness, are of course the start of a massive rhetorical arch culminating in the glories of chapter 8. This in turn builds on a prior arch that spans the whole of 1:18–3:20, an arch which I would argue was written with Jewish Christians in view as their primary audience. Its purpose is to land the message that 3:21–8:39 applies to them as well as to the Gentiles.
The judgement on the Gentiles in the uncompromising verses of 1:18-32 is an open invitation for any faithful Israelite to concur. It is meant to provoke vigorous assent. And only once he has his people where he needs them — passing judgement on the Gentiles — Paul turns the tables and goes for the jugular in Romans 2:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself 6Διὸ ἀναπολόγητος εἶ ὦ ἄνθρωπε πᾶς ὁ κρίνων ἐν ᾧ γὰρ κρίνεις τὸν ἕτερον … Continue reading
This forceful rhetorical flourish is designed precisely for those who have just nodded happily along with the preceding verses. God’s wrath has truly been revealed against all (Romans 1:18). Hays calls this Paul’s “homiletical sting operation”7Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1995), p389.
We have to conclude, then, that the function of 1:18–32 is primarily to draw in the Jewish Christian audience and prepare them for the reversal of chapter 2. Linebaugh concludes as much8Wisdom of Solomon and Romans 1:18–2:5: God’s Wrath against All, in Blackwell et al, Reading Romans in Context (2015), p38ff. from the striking parallels with Wisdom of Solomon 13:1–14:31:
These connections ensure that Jewish readers of Romans — that is, readers in the tradition of Wisdom of Solomon — would find themselves sympathetic to Paul’s announcement that those who “served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:24) and were therefore given over to immorality (1:24, 26–31) “deserve death” (1:32). Romans 2:1–5 seems to suppose and exploit this sympathy.
These verses were never intended to present a sober, neutral theological assessment of the Gentile condition before God, and we must not read them as such. They aim to appeal forcefully to Jewish convictions and prejudices, which included a universal rejection of the many forms of same-sex activity found in the pagan world9See Preston Sprinkle’s perceptive Patheos blog post Jesus Was a Jew: Understanding Jesus and Same-Sex Marriages in His 1st Century Jewish (Not … Continue reading.
So what does all of this imply? The first point to note is that we should not put any more weight on Romans 1 than it was intended to bear. If these verses function as suggested above, they are driven by human preoccupations, not divine priorities10Nor, I would suggest, necessarily Paul’s preoccupations.. I am not here denying that sexuality is one of the most important areas in which God may abandon people to idolatry and sin, but simply noting that we cannot argue this on the basis of Romans 1:18–32 once we take its rhetorical aim into account.
Secondly, this does nevertheless not undermine the fundamental truthfulness of what is being stated. To say that Paul did merely quote a Wisdom of Solomon rant without subscribing to its contents, as Jeremy Smith does in his blog, is unconvincing. With a keen eye on his hearers Paul purposefully riffs on Wisdom here11This Wisdom riffing may well account for some Pauline hapax legomena, as Smith points out, but to insist on quotemarks surely pushes the evidence; … Continue reading, but there is no shred of evidence either in Romans or elsewhere in the Pauline corpus that he means to question the truth of what is being asserted here. In fact, I would argue that any untruth at this point would undermine the apostle’s rhetorical sting in chapter 2.
These are mainstream first century Jewish sexual ethics. Paul never argues against them; nor does Jesus for that matter12Preston Sprinkle, op. cit.. An argument from silence is a dangerous thing, but surely Jesus’ quiet is significant. What we have in Romans is fine-tuned to play into human responses, but it is still God’s truth in Paul’s (and Jesus’) eyes — and therefore, for those of us holding to a high view of scripture, God’s truth in ours as well13There is a separate discussion to be had whether this text can be taken as a rule on Christians; see e.g. Hays, op. cit., p394. It seems to me that … Continue reading.
Thirdly, I would suggest that this does undermine homosexuality’s status near the pinnacle of the ‘hierarchy of sin’ which we tend to implicitly operate, often precisely on the basis of Romans 1 as a key text. It is for many of us more acceptable to fraudulently inflate an insurance claim than to kiss someone of the same gender on the lips. Such hierarchies are driven more by human culture than by scriptural priorities. See also Randy Alcorn’s post on this.
We would do well to recognise Paul’s rhetorical moves in Romans for what they are, and welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters as sinners much like the rest of us, recipients both of the Lord’s grace and forgiveness, and of his injunction to go, and from now on sin no more (John 8:11).