Sunday, November 12, 2006

Fresh insights on Romans 1

Here are some terrific insights on Romans 1 sent to me by an ordained Reformed minister, my good friend Bill Baldwin:

I've been thinking a bit about Paul's point in Romans 1 where he singles out the "degrading passion" of homosexuality as an example of ungodliness and wickedness. Why this particular passion among so many others that degrade? Many Reformed and evangelical Christians assume the answer is obvious. Paul chooses homosexuality because the particular sins resulting from that passion are of the most depraved sort. It doesn't get any lower than that.

But of course a thoughtful reader of Scripture has two immediate problems with that idea. 1) It does get lower than that. Most of us would rather have a homosexual than an axe murderer for a neighbor. 2) Paul never again spotlights homosexuality as the worst of perversions. Nor does any other New Testament writer. In fact, whether you consult Paul or Jesus, you'll get the same answer when asked what the worst of sins is: Pharisaism. Jesus and Paul really just held legalists in utter contempt. They couldn't stop talking about how bad such people are.

So why in Romans 1 does Paul go after the homosexuals? What's so special about homosexuality? Well, it's a Greek sin, isn't it? He's writing to his audience of converted Jews and he's setting them up. I imagine those Jews as being something like the conservative Christians today. Family-oriented. Squeaky clean on the outside. Primly disapproving of the excesses indulged in by the surrounding culture. The way to "witness" to your homosexual neighbor is by making sure he's aware how shocked you are by his behavior.

So Paul starts by talking about how God has given some people up to homosexuality and how they've followed that perversion by rejecting God and embracing behavior contrary to his image. And the converted Jews all say, yeah brother Paul! Preach it! Tell them how dirty they are.

That's when the gotcha comes.

He suddenly turns on his audience. He doesn't say, "Therefore they have no excuse." That's a sentiment his Jewish hearers could get behind. He says, "Therefore YOU have no excuse, WHOEVER YOU ARE, when you judge others." And he goes on to tell those Jews they're just as bad, just as sinful, as ... the homo Greeks! They never saw it coming.

In short, Paul chose homosexuality because it was the worst of sins in the eyes of his audience, not in God's. That way, when he tells them they're just as bad, they sit up and take notice. It's the same rhetorical ploy Jesus uses when he tells the Pharisees that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of them.

The real perversion enters in when modern evangelicals read Romans 1 and stop there. "Look!" they say. "The Bible says right here that homosexuality is the most degrading of passions, the most sinful of sins." They imitate the self-righteousness of the original audience and fail to notice how Paul implicates them as well.

So what's worse than a homosexual? A "Christian" who looks down on homosexuals and says they are the worst sorts of sinners. And what's the easiest way to drive that "Christian" into a rage? Tell him the homosexuals will enter the kingdom ahead of him.