Romans Bible Guide – Day Four
February 18, 2016
Previously, in Romans: Paul has begun a sustained argument that all people – regardless of culture or religion, supposedly foolish or wise – have backed away from an honest connection with a living God and that the results have not been pretty.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Points of Interest:
- ‘For this reason…’ – LGBT people – both churchgoing and not – have experienced an immense amount of rejection from Christians. Behind this rejection have been interpretations of a handful of Bible verses that people have thought associated same-sex sexuality with God’s anger or rejection. Sometimes these Bible passages have been called “clobber passages” because of the way people have been clobbered by them. Here’s one of them. Let’s take a careful look at some options for understanding it. No matter how you understand this passage, though – and we’ll explore several options – it will be clear in the context of Romans that stigmatizing or excluding LGBT people should never be the resulting action.
- First, some assumptions of mine, shared by many scholars. 1) Whatever Paul’s words might mean for us, they should have at least made sense to his original Roman audience. 2) Paul is talking about what’s wrong with the world, trying to demonstrate that all people together need “the gospel of God” he began with, while also provoking the cultural religious judgmentalism he’s about to critique. 3) Stigmatizing a particular group of people as especially bad sinners would run counter to one of the major themes of Romans – that we’re all in this together. 4) This is a case study of humanity gone bad after God lets them have their own way; it is not a statement of what makes God angry or careful development of ethical principles.
- ‘degrading passions’ – What are these degrading passions that reduce the humanity of the participants? Bible teacher James Brownson (Bible, Gender, Sexuality. ) wrote a pretty great book exploring this and related issues. He highlights four pairings Paul is working with that have pretty specific cultural implications – lust vs. desire (1:24), purity vs. impurity (1:24), honor and shame (1:27), and natural and unnatural (1:28). Paul isn’t trying to persuade his readers here, but evoke a judgment they already have. Whatever it’s a judgment against, Paul’s calling it a lustful excess of desire, impure, shameful, and unnatural. This is curious, given Paul generally pushes against these categories of impurity and shame, both in Romans and elsewhere.
- ‘exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural’ – This line is probably the best evidence that Paul could be critiquing same-sex sexual activity both for his Roman audience and all people. The logic is that Paul is making an allusion to the Bible’s origin story, in which God makes a man and a woman who are invited to partner together in filling the world with people and good work, and who become one flesh together, thus establishing the basis for marriage, co-working, kinship, and a happy sex life all at once. By this logic, men and women can stray from God and stray from the sex they were meant to have, and same-sex coupling is one example of this.
- ‘women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural’ – So this line could refer to lesbian relationships, but it certainly doesn’t need to, and the earliest church authorities didn’t think it did. They assumed Paul was referring to women engaged in non-coital heterosexual intercourse. I’m trying not to be graphic here, but this would be sex between a woman and a man that could never result in children.
- ‘Men committed shameless acts with men…’ – Again, Paul assumes that his Roman audience of Jewish and Gentile Christians will find his case study on human brokenness compelling. Yet while male same-sex sexual relationships were rejected by Jewish culture, they were fairly widely accepted in Greco-Roman culture. But a significant amount of this sex was forced sex between free men and slaves and pederasty – man on teen and pre-teen boy sex as part of a mentoring relationship. Slaves, and lower-status Romans, would have been a significant portion of the early faith communities Paul wrote to. So for Paul to view sex with this kind of power imbalance and even violence in it as an example of human relations gone bad, his audience (and I imagine all of us) would vigorously agree.
- ‘received in their own persons the due penalty for their error’ – Paul says it will be obvious that the perverse sexuality he refers to will go badly. He also, we saw yesterday, associates it with idolatry. And we’ve seen all along that Paul is not so subtly critiquing the Roman imperial cult, arguing that Jesus, and not the emperor, is the source of good news for all humankind. The theory that best makes sense of all this evidence is that Paul has the widely rumored sexual practices of the Roman elite in mind as he writes. Rumors of the current emperor Nero’s prolific sex life, including sex with slaves and family members, may have already been circulating. And a previous emperor, Gaius Caligula (emperor from 37-41), was also widely rumored to have had sex with slaves and even his sisters. Caligula also expanded the idolatrous worship of the emperor, and so for Paul to call to mind the unnatural sex by both women and men at Caligula’s orgies, to associate it with idolatry, and to hold this up as an example of life at its worst without worshipping a living God – well, this would seem entirely natural to his audience of relatively new Jesus-followers in Rome.Moving on from our examination of sexual perversion in ancient Rome, I hope this has given you some new ways of understanding this case study. Whatever Paul would think of loving, faithful same-sex partnerships and marriages that occur in our times, it is unlikely he had these relationships in mind when he argued that human sexuality at its most unnatural, shameful, lustful and impure condition is a tragic picture of life gone toxic without God at its center.
- ‘They were filled with every kind of wickedness…’ – Paul wraps up this chapter with one of the longest, most comprehensive vice lists in antiquity. He’s not saying that all people are like all of these things all of the time, but that the Roman rulers and by extension all of us, have become these kind of people together. These things smell like death to us when we’re honest, and yet somehow we continue to be these kinds of people and to celebrate and worship and elect people like this as well.
Taking It Home:
For you – Paul’s list of folly and vice at the end here can be a little overwhelming. Scan the list in vs. 29-31 one more time, though, asking if you’re stuck in the “death” of any of these things. If so, confess that to God, and let God know you’d like help in finding another way to live. Know that God loves these moments of truth telling and is glad to forgive and empower change for you.
For our city and church – Please take a minute to pray for the blessing and welfare of anyone in our city who has been stigmatized and shamed by churches, including LGBT people. Pray that our church would be an inclusive and welcoming community for all people, and a church in which all of us find God’s health and wholeness for all areas of life, including our sexuality.