Romans 1 and Human Sexuality, Pt 2

In this series, I am reflecting on the manner in which the overall thrust of Romans might transform the way Christians discuss issues of human sexuality. More specifically, I am asking how Christians ought to consider Romans 1:26-27 within the rhetorically stylized argument of the entire letter.

It is important to remember that Romans is neither Paul’s “systematic theology,” nor is it an outline of his gospel. Therefore, 1:18-32 is not a general description of human sinfulness, nor is it the necessary first step in a gospel presentation (i.e., “how a person gets saved”). That is, he is not letting everyone know “the bad news” before he gets to “the good news.”

I do realize that these are common approaches, and that Romans 1:18-32 is often regarded as a straightforward and generalized account of the descent of all humanity into sin and degradation.

But this way of reading Romans is not attentive to Paul’s rhetorical strategy. Romans 1:18-32 is in the form of a typical Jewish screed against gentile sinfulness, and Paul shapes his rhetoric in accordance with his aims to transform the fracturing situation among the Roman Christians.

One group in Rome imagines that the way to inhabit faithfulness to the God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ is through conversion to Judaism—being circumcised and adopting Jewish practices. The other group consists of gentiles who are not so convinced and are resisting the call to convert (i.e., to come “under the Law”).

The first group is supporting its claim by asserting that the others are “ungodly,” that they are stuck in gentile sinfulness since they share in the gentile world’s idolatry. This is what Paul addresses in this letter: the problem of community fracture and the presumption of one group that they can pass judgment on the “ungodliness” of the other.

And he begins by baiting the judging group into having an inflated sense of outrage at the sinfulness of the gentile world—a world they have supposedly escaped through conversion to Judaism, and a world of condemnation to which they assume the other group of Roman Christians still belongs. He does this in 1:18-32 with a highly stylized jeremiad against the idolatry and degradation of the gentile world.

Wisdom of Solomon is an example of a Jewish text that critiques the sinfulness and idolatry of the gentile world. Composed sometime around Paul’s lifetime, it contains strikingly similar rhetoric to Paul’s in Romans 1:18-32. In chapters 13-15, Wisdom indicates that humanity is culpable for not moving from a perception of the creation to worship of the Creator. Instead, they have descended into idolatry and all the attendant corrupted behaviors—approving of sin, corruption, deceit and sexual perversion.

Israel, however, is exempt from the judgment facing the rest of humanity. Wisdom 15:1-6 turns to consider how Israel does not sin as the gentile world does. And even if they do sin, they will avoid God’s judgment because they are not idolaters like the gentiles. They are God’s special possession and they know God. They are, therefore, “righteous.”

Reading Romans 1:18-32 alongside Wisdom reveals the presumption that Paul is going after in his letter. One group of gentiles assumes that because they have adopted Jewish identity and practices they have escaped gentile sinfulness and any connection to idolatry. It makes them “righteous,” whereas the other group remains mired in “ungodliness.”

In Romans 1:18-32, therefore, Paul is laying a trap. He’s elaborating at length the awfulness of gentile idolatry, ungodliness and perversion with a strategic aim. He does this in order to goad the judging group into a self-satisfied sense of moral outrage against the group among the Roman Christians that will not convert to Judaism.

Next, we will see how Paul springs this trap beginning in Romans 2:1.

** Read Wisdom 13-15 here at Biblegateway. Setting this text alongside Romans 1:18-32 illumines Paul’s strategy.


18 thoughts on “Romans 1 and Human Sexuality, Pt 2

  1. sarhodes

    Hi Dr. Gombis, I find this very interesting. It will change the way I teach/preach this passage. However, does this change the way we view these sins? I am guessing that you are not writing this in order to make a case that any of these sins are not really wrong, correct? Thanks so much for your insight. Blessings, Steve Rhodes

    1. timgombis

      Hey Steve! Paul’s target is the community breakdown in the form of one group judging the other and I’m trying to capture that. I’m thinking that the letter’s target is also the world of assumptions and values that wants a clear list of sins.

  2. Paul

    Jonathan Linebaugh’s God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Brill, 2013) is probably the most comprehensive comparative study of the two texts now available. I’m very sympathetic to your reading. But for those of us who are Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran and Anglican, where Wis of Sol is read and heard within the liturgy as Scripture, this interpretive strategy raises some theological problems. I would encourage Protestant readers to read Wis of Sol as part of the canon, and not see Paul as just doing a hatchet job on Wis of Sol because the views expressed in Rom 1 and Wis of Sol are quite different. Traditional Protestant Romans commentaries used to say that Wis of Sol was just too concessive to idolatry compared to the rigorous Paul.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks, Paul. I very much enjoyed Linebaugh’s volume and learned much from it. I mean no denigration of Wisdom, though I do see Paul moving in a different direction ultimately.

  3. mrjamesenglish

    Thanks for your excellent reminder against using Rom. 1:18-32 as a proof text (and battering ram) while ignoring its wider context.

    Just wondering if you’ll expand on your understanding of the audience of the letter. I’ve been taught that whlist it is a tough question (certain passages appear to make more sense if directed at Torah adherent Jews [or proselytes] and others if directed at Gentiles who would rather the church be as distinct from Judaism as possible), passages like 14:1-12 suggest that the (or ‘a’?) dominant group aren’t those would enforce Torah and use it to judge others but rather those who are happy to move beyond it. This would perhaps explain Paul’s concern to re-iterate that Torah is – a qualified sense – good.

    It’s a concern I had with (my limited engagement with) Cambell’s work. We often note that the reformation incorrectly made the atongists of Romans, Roman Catholics; Cambell appears to turn them into conservative evangelicals; the southern accent he uses when reading ch 1-4 as diatribe gives it away 😉
    Now it might just be the case that conservative evangelicals believe something close to what Paul is seeking to correct in Romans – I wouldn’t mind that – but it is suspicious. Might a the good desire to correct theology that needs to be corrected once again be leading to anachronistic reading of Romans?

    1. timgombis

      Indeed, there’s no way to know for sure about the audience, though we can draw some conclusions about the inscribed audience from the letter itself. That is, the audience the letter assumes. And it seems that it consists of gentiles entirely, one group of which is convinced that it must be circumcised and take on Torah practices and the other which is not convinced. This makes sense of a number of details: that Paul cites only himself as an instance of God’s preserving a remnant (11:2), rather than a Jewish group in Rome; every time he addresses the audience, they are gentiles, except when he refers to a hypothetical dialogue partner who calls himself a Jew (2:17).

      You’re right that theology cannot drive interpretation, lest we end up with simply another interpretation that stands in need of correction. We must follow the text at point after point after point.

  4. Donald Johnson

    For the record, it would be great for me if you would compare and contrast your understanding with Doug Campbell’s, as in where you both agree and where you differ.

    FWIIW, I see the audience of Paul’s letter to include believing Jews, believing converts, and believing God fearing gentiles. My understanding of the Roman congregation is it started with some Jews and possibly converts returning from early Acts, then God fearing gentiles were added over time; then the Jews got kicked out of Rome by the emperor, so by default, the gentiles took over the leadership, then some time later the emperor’s edict was rescinded and the Jews returned. So it is in this likely context of contested leadership and factions among the Roman congregation that Paul writes his letter. He wants support for his further missionary journey, but wants such support to be from a united congregation, not just a faction.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, that’s more or less a traditional understanding of the situation. I previously held it until I read more recent challenges (Das, Rodriguez, etc.). It’s based on little or no evidence and it’s a far stronger case that the encoded audience is gentile.

      1. Donald Johnson

        Act_18:2  And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them,

        Rom 16:3  Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Messiah Yeshua, 
        Rom 16:4  who risked their own necks for my life. Not only I give them thanks, but also all of Messiah’s communities among the Gentiles. 

        Rom 16:7  Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 

        Rom 16:11  Greet Herodion, my kinsman.

        That seems to be at least 5 Jews in Rome by my count, and these are among the ones that Paul names. What am I missing?

      2. timgombis

        When he directly addresses the audience to whom he is writing, he identifies them as gentiles (1:13; 11:13-32). Throughout chapters 9-11, he speaks of Israel in the third person, while he directly addresses his gentile audience. So, it may be that there are Jewish Christians in Rome, but just what their relation is to Paul’s intended audience is unclear. He is addressing gentiles and not necessarily a mixed race congregation or congregations. He does not use the term ekklesia. Also, the greetings are second person imperatives, exhorting the intended audience to greet people who may not be part of that audience.

      3. Donald Johnson

        Thanks for this info.

        FWIIW, I see the following as identifying the audience: Rom 1:7  To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

        I see Rom 1:13 as saying Paul is addressing believers among the nations, that is, outside the land of Israel (in the 1st century, Judea and Galilee). I understand the letters to be 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Roman to be written in that order and close in time, so Paul is travelling around gentile areas looking for aid to continue doing so. I see Rom 9-11 as explaining why many Jews reject the Jewish Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, while gentiles accept him as such, as this is somewhat counterintuitive.

        In any case, I am looking forward to your continuing explanations. Thanks.

  5. Repentee

    I guess a good question to ask you Dr. Gombis is this, did Paul actually mean to communicate truth in Romans 1:18-32?

    Another related question perhaps this will elucidate my meaning in the first, let’s for sake of argument remove v.26-27, do you agree with the propositions stated in 18-24 and then in 28-32?

    1. timgombis

      I’m not sure how your question is a good one. Genre and rhetorical shaping affect meaning, so I’m trying to understand what he’s communicating, not whether or not it is truth.

      1. Repentee

        Thank you Dr. Gombis for your reply, appreciate it. I do disagree of course, I think it is a good question. The answer would affect how one reads your responses and not only that, but it might help in in understanding the letter. Underlying the concepts of ‘rhetorical shaping’ (seems awkward, but you are the doctor 🙂 ) and genre is whether or not said writings are meant to communicate true things. If Paul does mean to communicate truth then of course we must take heed, if not then so what. Yes truth is a foundation for genre and rhetoric the concepts mean nothing without it. Even here we should be concerned about the very question when considering your responses, do you mean to communicate truth, or should we quibble over your rhetorical shaping and genre?

        Grace and Peace.

      2. timgombis

        Thanks for this. I’m a confessing Christian, so I regard Romans as Scripture. The question for me is not whether or not Paul communicates truth, but just what it is that Paul is communicating.

      3. Repentee

        Appreciate that Dr. Gombis. It would seem we aren’t going to be able to move forward in this conversation. Appreciate your time and respect. Blessings to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s