Few passages in Romans have gotten more press in recent years than 1:18-32. ‘Hate-mongering’ fundamentalists use it to prove God’s hatred of all varieties of sinners, especially homosexuals. Those of more ‘enlightened’ persuasions use it to illustrate just how out of touch Paul, the Bible, Christianity is with today’s world – with the goal of either illustrating why we need to ‘re-imagine’ the passage or simply throw it (the passage or Bible) out entirely. Most ‘polite’ Christians probably simply wish the passage wasn’t there. But, for better or for worse, it is. And, while the outside world is free to do whatever it wants with it, anyone professing to be a somewhat devout Christian has to find a way to deal with it. And so, here we are…
In tackling this passage, and the content contained therein, I want to do a few things. First, I want to consider the passage within the context of the larger argument of which it is part so that we can determine what is actually being said within the context of Romans. As I do this, I want to take a little time to consider the cultural/theological backdrop assumed in the passage. Then, I’ll attempt to consider the implications for our situation in the here and now. Let me state up front, this will not be a comprehensive look at the topic. Let me also state that over the years I have had regular interaction with a good number of self-identified homosexuals. My contact with the individuals in mind has been very positive. We’ve partaken in very lively and respectful conversations on a myriad of topics. And in terms of personal character, life ambitions, productivity, and personal piety these particular homosexual individuals are just like anyone else I’ve known – no better, no worse. Let me also state, this is a serious matter that cannot be addressed in a brief statement. It deserves careful and serious thought. So, be warned, this is a very long article and will need to be read carefully and fully to pull the pieces together in a meaningful way.
In previous posts I’ve taken time to state what seems to be the driving issue(s) of the book. Contrary to our good friend Martin Luther and a good many subsequent evangelical theologians, the book has little to do with how you or I, individually, come to God. Nor, as perhaps my preferred Reformation era theologian, John Calvin, contends does it deal with individual election or lack thereof (more on this hornet’s nest in later posts). Paul is hoping to gain the support of this relatively strong (and strategically located) church as he prepares to continue his mission to the western reaches of the empire. To do so, Paul must defend his insistence on the church being a single body of God’s people – Jew and Gentile together. This is no small task in light of the aftermath of Paul’s ‘Jew + Gentile churches’ in the east and the recent history of the church in Rome which has had to deal with disruptive Jewish concerns that led to restrictive decrees on the part of the previous emperor. Paul deals extensively with the practical ramifications of ‘Jew + Gentile as one church’ in chapters 12-15 (with, of course, implications for us individually by extension). Prior to that, in chapters 9-11, Paul finishes the argument he touches on in chapters 1-4: in light of the fact that so many Jews are rejecting this Gospel, how is it that God is in fact being faithful to His covenant promises to the Jews? Answer: the story of the covenants of old had always been a matter of God’s grace – which we see exemplified in Messiah, Jesus. Prior to this, roughly chapters 5-8, Paul re-frames the benefits and limits of the markers of the Mosaic covenant (in light of the conclusion he draws from his opening argument) and concludes that the whole purpose of the Torah was not itself, but rather to point us to the Spirit – the realization of God’s Spirit in His people. The book begins (roughly chapters 1-4, early 5) with Paul demonstrating God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises by considering that which gives a people favorable standing before God. Paul’s answer, as we’ve seen, is that neither law nor circumcision nor birth in themselves count for anything. Rather, God’s righteousness is upheld by his faithfulness toward those who have trusted in him (faith). Once you’ve considered what Paul is saying to the parties/groups in view, a reasonable summation of the personal implications of the letter might be something like: we stand with assurance before God by faith (trust) in Christ worked out in love toward one another through the power of the Holy Spirit now within us.
So, as we consider our present concern in 1:18-32 we have to first come to grips with where it fits in what/how Paul is writing. To begin with, in order for Paul to reach the conclusion he does for the single argument he’s making in chapters 1-4, he must establish that Jews have no preferential position before God on the basis of law, circumcision, birth or anything else. In fact, 1:18-32 only exists to set his Jewish believers in the audience up for the punchline (in chapter 2) that they (and he) are in the same boat as all the Gentiles – not privileged by birth, law, or circumcision. Paul argues this both negatively (Jew and Gentile have each sinned and are therefore in breach of God’s covenant and equally subject to judgment) and positively (when either Jew or Gentile have honored the goal of law/circumcision by responding in faith they stand equally vindicated before God). Paul goes on to show that this is in keeping with how God acted in the beginning with Abraham (chapter 4 – the covenant that then leads to the later covenant of Moses – the latter a means by which to fulfill the preceding). Paul is not stating a final conclusion about anything in 1:18-32, instead this is the first step to proving his larger point and should be viewed in that light. Many inferences may be drawn from this argumentative introduction (from which other points may be drawn with careful consideration of other Scripture) but we should take care not to make the ‘building block’ of an argument the ‘primary edifice’ of the argument.
So, in light of Paul’s argument, what is he saying about Gentiles? He is simply stating what every Jew in the room (as well as God-fearing Gentile) would have wholeheartedly attested to – Gentiles have dishonored God and brought judgment upon themselves through perversion of worship – idolatry. Paul implies what every good Jew knows, a people becomes like that which they worship. When Gentiles ignore the abundant evidence of the one creator God, and begin to worship instead that which is created (one should hear overtones of the Genesis Garden narrative in Paul’s argument here) significant problems emerge. A people consumed by idolatry no longer resembles the characteristics of the one creator God – including, most fundamentally, their natural capacity for procreation (the means by which they reflect God’s capacity to give life). Homosexuality is then merely symptomatic of a culture consumed by idolatry – a culture that has elevated itself (or some other aspect of the created order, but ultimately itself) to the place of God. This symptom (homosexuality) would have been recognized by all as an exclusively Gentile phenomena – largely unheard of in Jewish circles. As such, its inclusion in Paul’s argument would have ‘sealed the deal’ with his Jewish audience that indeed the Gentiles are doomed ‘in their natural state.’ The catch, however, begins to arise in 1:28-32. In describing what the Gentiles are ‘given over to’ as a result of their failure to ‘acknowledge God,’ Paul lists, in addition to homosexuality (ESV): all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless – a list that is far from the exclusive domain of Gentile peoples. In other words, as Paul goes on to demonstrate in chapter 2, the Jews also exhibit the symptoms of misdirected worship (even though idolatry in the most obvious sense had been essentially eliminated from the Jewish people since the exile). So, far from being simply the plight of Gentiles, Jews too are doomed as evidenced by the resulting cultural fall out from of their own erroneous worship. The point of Romans 1:18-32, then, is not to single out a particular sin (homosexuality) above others. Rather, it simply serves as the first leg of an argument that demonstrates that the Jews being addressed have no inherent advantage (or disadvantage) before God when compared with their Gentile counterparts.
So, where does this bring us? Well, Paul does indeed affirm what his Jewish (and Christian) scriptures teach – that homosexual acts are a departure from God’s design for human beings. It is sin. However, while Paul builds on the fact that it is a distinctively Gentile sin (in his day), he does not hold it out as a special class of sin. In fact, it (along with a host of other sins) is presented as symptomatic of a higher disorder – misdirected worship (idolatry). I believe Paul would state emphatically (consistent with his argumentation), that to attempt to ‘solve’ the problem of homosexual activity apart from the centrality of worshipping Jesus as the world’s (and one’s own) one true Lord AND the transforming power and presence of the Holy Spirit filling one’s life is both utterly futile and decidedly nonChristian. At the risk of oversimplifying things, you can not cure bronchitis simply by masking the cough with some good cough syrup.
I would deduce from Paul’s argument (though I would not be so bold as to attribute this conclusion to him) that to those beset by this sin, homosexuality would feel both entirely natural and an integral part of who they are as a person – meaning, on the whole, they did not choose this (please don’t stop reading). Paul’s letter is not written with particular individuals in mind with all their existential concerns. It (and the Bible as a whole) is largely written with particular communities in view which then has implications for the individual (the individual is present, but not primary). The fact that we in the west largely read Scripture in reverse order is a result of the aftermath of the Reformation and corresponding European Enlightenment and their (often very good) concerns. It (primacy of the individual) is our default view of the world, it was never the default view of anyone at any point in Biblical history. So when Paul speaks of Gentiles suffering from the fall out of a culture overtaken by idolatry (misdirected worship), he has a people, a community in mind (he knows well that their are many God-fearing Gentile individuals who have properly focused their worship on the world’s creator and one true Lord). Paul also declares that individuals are a temple of the Holy Spirit (written earlier in 1 Cor 6:19), he comes to that point after establishing that the church (the community of God’s people) is God’s temple and that the Spirit of God dwells among them (1 Cor 3:16). A similar dynamic is in play with respect to the effects of idolatry and God’s intent with human creation. In creation, God forms mankind (and by extension, individuals) in such a way as to look like their maker – the one we are meant to worship. In the fall, that which mankind esteems most highly (worships) is not their Creator (God), but rather the creature (the serpent, but ultimately themselves). As a result of this change in the focus of mankind’s worship, society no longer properly images their true creator, but instead begins to bear the image of something else – themselves. Since the source of the image is no longer true, the image bearers fail to exhibit the intended characteristics. Instead, mankind begins to very naturally take on characteristics it was never meant to hold. The result is that individuals which comprise this fallen community realize the implications in a variety of ways. Mankind together images the characteristics of God (Gen 1, 2; John 17, etc) in a way no individual can (though each one bears aspects of God’s likeness – each individual does so in ways that aren’t entirely identical to others). All this is very natural and part of God’s making. Likewise, when the image that we together form originates from a counterfeit source, the comprising parts display – very naturally – varying characteristics of that source, the kinds of things Paul mentions in Romans 1:18-32. The result for us is that as our culture, marked by misplaced worship, bears the image of a counterfeit lord in place of the world’s one true Lord. As a result the constituent parts, in different ways, naturally take on the kinds of characteristics mentioned in this part of Paul’s letter. In a very real sense, a self identified homosexual truly does feel that s/he has always been this way (was made this way) – and for all practical purposes, they’re right. Where many often err is the source to which they attribute this making. While God created mankind, it is our self-absorbed culture that forms this characteristic (among many others). Please note, my intent here is not to support or critique the concepts of Original Sin or its universality, but only to indicate that the fallenness of our culture is evidenced very deeply and intricately in its constituents in a variety of ways from a very early age – likely before anyone has given significant thought to the matters involved.
So, what of the church as the people of God in the world? The things I’m about to say will be uncomfortable for many, but its the only way to I know to honor the picture Paul, and the rest of Scripture gives us of the Church and how we engage our world, including those entrenched in homosexuality. First, homosexuals (and others struggling with loosely related concerns) belong in church – our churches (unless we’re prepared to bar all those bearing ANY of the kinds of characteristics Paul mentions in Romans 1 – most of us won’t go there). We welcome all people, not just as special projects to be worked on, but as unique men and women meant to project the likeness of God and afforded all the dignity and respect that an intended image bearer is due. We help people to see who God really is, and what He is really like so that He might become the proper center of our worship. Remember, the issue is idolatry, not homosexuality or covetousness or gossip or deceit, or any other symptomatic condition. Paul is adamant that the Holy Spirit is up to the task of destroying the works of the flesh – without the help of any additional law. The question is, do we in the church believe that the Holy Spirit is truly up to the task? What is required of us, then, is patience and trust as the Holy Spirit works out the residue of our fallenness (sometimes a quick process, sometimes very lengthy). This means, in all likelihood, there will be individuals coming to faith in Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit who will still struggle with the remnants of the former images that once shaped their lives (be it deceit, gossip, or homosexuality).
Although there is far more that ought to be said (that’s what comments are for), let me close with a few pastoral thoughts on the matter. Even though Paul (and I) might welcome all comers to the church, leadership in the church has its own clear Biblical standards which would preclude those still dealing with a whole host of issues from serving – this includes homosexuality. In terms of pulpit ministry, most pastors are aware that any number of people are struggling with any number of issues at any particular moment. That knowledge does not usually compel us to constantly speak on the matter – we’re charged to teach the whole council of God’s word, not just the parts we know will ‘get’ someone. Likewise, if we’re doing our job well before God, we don’t avoid topics just because they might stir up trouble – we simply address them with greater care and more earnest prayer. As for ‘slippery slope’ concerns – I have no patience for them, they aren’t relevant and they betray a fundamental mistrust of the Spirit’s competence and a general preference for rules. Nevertheless, acceptance of genuine seekers marred by the collateral damage of a fallen culture DOES NOT mean that we are compelled to give sanctuary to those who seek only to prey on our people – pedophilia, for example, is a crime (no matter what the legal system may say down the road). A reasonable person ought to be able to discern the difference. A pastor who cannot ought to consider whether he/she ought to be serving in that capacity. However, let me also say, a person once filled with the Spirit of God cannot be permitted to remain long in the sin/lifestyle where s/he began. The fact is, those in Christ become a new creation, old things DO pass away – though some things take time. There is no hard and fast rule on these things – the Spirit is a patient craftsman who works at varied speeds on varied things. This reality requires, then, that those struggling with remnants of the old nature obtain support from and share accountability with mature believers who are sensitive to (and restrained by) the leading of the Holy Spirit. The focus, though, needs to be on homosexual acts and not feelings of attraction (which are wildly fickle) or stereotypical matters of taste. I know that this is all uncomfortably gray for many, but such is all ministry – all people are messy.
Finally, what about the whole Corinthians thing? Without going into any detail (time/space) I’ll attempt to touch on the kinds of concerns brought up in these letters. I’m sure I’ll miss something, but again – use the comments. Its very clear that we are to engage with ANYONE who is outside the church community – no matter what the sin. The issues really concern those within the church. In general, if a person is humble and making a good faith effort in the Lord to progress we work with them, even if they stumble – love covers a multitude of sins. However, if one (some) in the church are brazenly ignoring the ‘law of the Spirit’ (that requires us to treat others well, with respect, and to consider their sensibilities, too) and are brashly engaging in activity that Scripture labels as ‘sexually immoral’ (a host of things, to include homosexuality), they are to be confronted (lovingly and firmly) according to the Biblical pattern. If all else fails after repeated attempts, the individual(s) are to be removed from the church – with the hope that they will later repent and be restored. The focus needs to be on the heart/attitude of the individual(s) in question – their humility, their willingness to repent, their desire to change, and the effort they’re making – not the gender of the partner as we would hopefully engage in the same process for those involved with marital infidelity. This is a gross oversimplification of the Corinthian subject matter, but I hope sufficient to get you started.
Pastor Jim Kushner