In his wonderful series on homosexuality in the Bible, Father Doug Chaplin reaches the critical reference to Romans 1:18-32. I really urge you to read the whole post--it has many themes that are well worth thinking about. But here are some highlights to whet your appetite:
I think Romans is written to a very specific situation in Rome, where there are significant divisions between Jew and Gentile Christians. I think Paul both wants to secure a welcome for himself as a character some saw as divisive, and to encourage them to mend the breach. In the opening chapters he is keen to get both sides to agree that in fact all, Gentile and Jew alike, have sinned. He first expounds a common view of Gentile sinfulness from a Jewish perspective, then a typical Gentile criticism of Jewish hypocrisy. Both of these are examples of a rhetorical device – speech-in-character (prosopopeia). They serve to get heads nodding in agreement first on one side, then on the other, until both have been led together to the conclusion that “there is no-one righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10). From this point Paul is able to introduce Jesus as the pattern of faithfulness to death which both reverses this sinful pattern and provides the means of atonement for it. (Rom 3:25)
On this analysis, Paul’s words on homosexuality are part of what is presented as a typical Jewish attack on Gentile morality.
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This is certainly painted on a larger canvas than previous denunciations we’ve looked at, yet its nature as speech-in-character, and its place in the argument of the letter means that it must be recognisable as commonplace, not as startlingly original Pauline theology. There is, however, nothing to show that Paul wouldn’t share this prosopopeic critique; indeed, there is good reason to suppose that he would hold pretty much the same view as his rhetorical Jewish character.
The passage (and this is one good reason for assuming Paul chose his speech-in-character carefully and to mesh with his broader theological picture) locates itself in a narrative of creation and rebellion, at the heart of which lies idolatry. There are many recognisable parallels between what Paul writes here and Wisdom 13-14 and this is the core of the shared analysis: idolatry, which leads to degrading, unnatural and wicked behaviour. One possibility is that Paul may be alluding to two stories in his treatment of what is unnatural (Rom 1:26 “against nature” = τὴν παρὰ φύσιν). I suspect that behind the accusation against the women is the story of the Nephilim in Genesis 6 where there is a mingling of angels and women. Likewise, I wonder whether the story of Sodom is behind what Paul says about men: otherwise it is a little hard to see what he means in context by “the due penalty for their error”. This would, unlike OT interpretations of the Sodom story, align Paul with Jude 6-7, which also seems to combine the two stories in close proximity. Paul is more explicit than Jude in linking this behaviour to a disordering of God’s creation, presumably a part of what he later refers to as its having been made subject to futility (Rom 8:20). The sexual disordering, however, is a consequence of the primary disordering, which is worshipping the created (idols) instead of the Creator (God). It is as much as anything a sign of human estrangement from God.
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Perhaps one of the oddest things about the passage (and another reason for thinking Paul has these “past events” in mind is that the sexually unnatural behaviour, symptomatic of the disordering of creation, seems to fall between the primal sin of idolatry, and the everyday sins of humanity, where Paul’s list, oddly, includes no sexual sins. “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” If you haven’t ever committed even one of those sins, please leave your name in the comments.
Where then does this leave us?
- Paul’s treatment of same-sex activity doesn’t belong in any straightforward way to his list of sins, It belongs primarily to his narrative of how creation became disordered.
- Paul’s whole argument in the first half of Romans, into which this speech-in-character fits well, is that the whole of creation is disordered, and is being re-ordered in and through Christ.
- Exploring that context of order and disorder, creation and recreation in Christ, offers perhaps the most fruitful way forward, and picks up on a concern I’ve noted in looking at some of the other texts.
- Whatever else Paul is saying, he has influenced the whole Christian tradition in ways which are generally supported by our perceptions of life. The way the world is is not the way it is meant to be. It is deeply problematic simply to read off from where we are or what we are, and say “this is how God made me”.
- Given that Paul sees same-sex behaviour as a consequence of idolatry, it is hard to imagine how he might respond to the idea of same-sex activity between those who on every other index except this one appear to be faithful Christians.
- Despite the fact that there is more theological context here, it is not a context dealing with same-sex behaviour, which is part of the argument, not the point of the argument. Thus this is not Paul’s creative and considered pastoral theology. It is, if you like, part of his theological hinterland, which as his missionary and pastoral context calls for, he can either draw upon, and drastically reshape around the Christocentric core of his gospel. It is, I suggest, more a case of “Paul thinks” than “Paul teaches”.
- Paul’s oft quoted words in the context of this discussion “those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them”are in fact applicable only by implication to the sexual behaviours he references, and directly to a wide range of sins including being gossips, slanderers, haughty, boastful, heartless, ruthless and many more. See why I told you to be nice in the comments!
I will attempt in a subsequent post to pull some threads together and see where we go next, but in my view this text does offer a more significant contribution towards exploring what it means to be caught up in a disordered creation which God is drawing into a new Christ-ordered one. Nonetheless, I find it poses more questions than answers, and we need to consider further some of the biblical, theological and pastoral themes that might help us explore those questions.
Read it all here.