A Note of Caution on the Use of Romans 1

It is dangerously easy for the effect toward which orthodox or traditionalists use this passage to be the opposite of what God intends.

When we read Romans, we hear it in solidarity with the original audience. It is a letter to Christians about the gospel.  After his greetings and other introductory matters, the Apostle Paul sets the trajectory and agenda for the remainder of the letter in verses 16 and 17—the apparently foolish gospel which is the power of God to salvation, salvation offered to both the Jews and the Greeks the same way: by faith. This is ultimately what he is arguing in the whole letter. It forms the broadest context.

 

There probably isn’t a more controversial passage in the New Testament than Romans 1. Pro-gay advocates refer to this passage, and five other passages in the Bible, as “Clobber Passages.” Those who advocate for gay marriage in the Church explain away Paul’s argument condemning homosexual behavior, while traditionalists lean in on it with a glaring spotlight.

But I would argue that both sides are not seeing clearly here.

I want to sound a note of caution about how we use Romans 1.  Romans 1, particularly verses 26 and 27, is rightly recognized as an important text in the church’s discussion of homosexuality. So what’s the problem?

It’s this: it is dangerously easy for the effect toward which orthodox or traditionalists use this passage to be the opposite of what God intends. Even we can use the passage wrongly.

When we read Romans, we hear it in solidarity with the original audience. It is a letter to Christians about the gospel.  After his greetings and other introductory matters, the Apostle Paul sets the trajectory and agenda for the remainder of the letter in verses 16 and 17—the apparently foolish gospel which is the power of God to salvation, salvation offered to both the Jews and the Greeks the same way: by faith. This is ultimately what he is arguing in the whole letter. It forms the broadest context.

To begin his argument, Paul broadens his view. He starts in verse 18 by talking about “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He’s talking about the world here. Paul’s scope here is much wider than the church—wide enough to include Fox News, CNN, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, China, the E.U., North Korea, New York, Venezuela, Planet Fitness, Lady Gaga, Snapchat, Walmart, and on and on. This is our culture, the world’s culture, the diverse mass of humanity descended from Adam.

What does Paul have to say about this broadest category of people and culture? He says that the judgment of God upon them is visible; he uses the word “revealed” (1:18).  In other words, it’s on display. How so? In three ways.

First, God’s existence and humanity’s accountability to him is obvious to everyone who can perceive anything (1:19-20).  Second, everyone—the great mass of humanity and culture—has decided to deny God’s existence and make created things ultimate (1:21-23). Third, God lets fallen humanity develop and live out the worldview that flows logically and inevitably from that fundamentally flawed starting point—(1:24ff).

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