In Romans 1:18-32, Paul paints a dark picture of gentile sinfulness to provoke a reaction of condemnation on the part of a group among the Roman Christians that sees itself as morally superior to the other Christians in Rome. This group of gentiles maintains that faithfulness to God in Christ is embodied by adopting Jewish identity and practices. They presume that because they have done this, they have escaped the long history of gentile sinfulness that continues to shape the identity of their fellow Roman Christians.
Paul has laid a rhetorical trap for the group that perceives itself as living in greater faithfulness to Scripture, having lives shaped by the Mosaic Law. He has “othered,” in the parlance of our times, the Christians who remain in a gentile situation.
In Romans 2:1, Paul springs the trap, rounding on this judging group and accusing them of condemning themselves when they pass judgment. If they accuse the “gentiles” of idolatry and immorality because of their connection to gentile sinfulness, they condemn themselves because they, too, are gentiles who have done the same things and share in the history of idolatry and descent into immorality.
Insofar, then, as God will judge gentile sinfulness, they will likewise participate in that judgment.
And their assumption of Jewish identity will do them no good at the day of judgment, since God is impartial and will judge without any reference to ethnic identity. God will judge the Roman Christians as to whether they have done good and have sought to participate in community life in ways that foster flourishing. To such people, God will grant eternal life. Alternatively, those among the Roman Christians who are behaving in ways that are destructive of community life, only God’s wrath awaits.
Paul subversively employs what might have been a slogan among the Roman Christians (“to the Jew first, and then to the Greek”) to further undercut the confidence of the judging group and warn them that their adoption of a Jewish way of life only puts them first in line for God’s judgment.
In 2:17ff., Paul argues that the supposed conversion to Judaism of the group calling themselves Jews has not improved their position. They have become hearers of the Law rather than doers and will face judgment for being transgressors. In addition, they become subject to the verdict of Scripture on unfaithful Israel that they are equally in bondage to Sin along with the gentile world.
Paul’s strategy in Romans 2-3 is to establish that there is only one group of Roman Christians. They are all united in bondage under Sin for they have all sinned. And they are all united in justification because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
Neither group has an advantage when it comes to measuring who is a worse sinner (3:9). And neither group has an inside track when it comes to justification (3:21-24), since God justifies without reference to ethnic identity. The only thing that matters is identity shaped by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
Paul employs that strategy to accomplish his goal in Romans 2-3, which is to eliminate the boasting of one group against the other (3:27). If there is only one group among the Roman Christians (the totally sinful and completely justified by God group), then there is no basis for touting claims to moral superiority on the part of any group over any other.
In Romans 1:18-3:32, Paul takes aim at the division that is crippling the Roman Christians. He baits and then confronts one group for passing judgment on other Christians out of a self-perception of moral superiority, driven by their understanding of Scripture.
There is obviously much more to be said about Paul’s argument(s) in Romans 2-3, but I have painted in broad strokes in order to inform my abiding question, especially with reference to citations of Romans 1:26-27: How might attending to the broader context of Paul’s argument in Romans shape the manner in which Christians discuss issues related to human sexuality?
*Next: Paul identifies God in Romans as behaving in a way that scandalizes Christians who think they are more committed to Scripture than are others, and are therefore worthy of judging other Christians.