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.