Romans 1 Part 4: The conclusion. Its about universal idolatry, not homosexuality.
A post by Neil Hart on homosexuality, LGBT, lesbian and gay stuff and the Lutheran Church of Australia.
This post should be read in conjunction with
1. “Little pig. Little pig. Let me in. Let me in!” said the wolf.
“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin”. Said the first little pig.
“Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and ill blowwwww your house in”.
So he huffed and he puffed and he blew down the house of straw.
2. “Little pig. Little pig. Let me in. Let me in!” said the wolf.
“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin”. Said the second little pig.
“Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and ill blowwwww your house in”.
So he huffed and he puffed and he blew down the house of sticks.
3. “Little pig. Little pig. Let me in. Let me in!” said the wolf.
“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin”. Said the third little pig.
“Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and ill blowwwww your house in”.
So he huffed and he puffed but he couldnt blow down the house of bricks.
Children’s stories are sometimes useful to show us things that we might take for granted, important things that might easily be overlooked. This story illustrates one of the most basic literary devices that ties a story together. It is the repetition of key words.
The repetition is not accidental. It shows the way the story is meant to be read. It is a story in 3 parts. The parts are tied together. The same thing happens in all three parts…although, in this case, there is a twist at the end of the tale. The same literary device is used commonly in poetry, and song.
Three fold repetitions were a common literary device in Hebrew literature just as they are in many languages, ancient and modern. The clear use of the repetition of words is never accidental. When it occurs, it means something. The reader is drawn into a comparison of or a linking together of the parts. And this is what happens in Romans 1: 23-28.
The 3 fold repetition is based around the words changed (for the Greek scholars…ἤλλαξαν/μετήλλαξαν) and God did give them up (παρέδωκεν).
(Repetition 1) 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of fowls, and of quadrupeds, and of reptiles. 24 Wherefore also God did give them up, in the desires of their hearts, to uncleanness, to dishonour their bodies among themselves;
(Repetition 2) 25who did change the truth of God into a falsehood, and did honour and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed to the ages. Amen. 26 Because of this did God give them up to dishonourable affections
(Repetition 3) for even their females did change the natural use into that against nature 27 and in like manner also the males having left the natural use of the female, did burn in their longing toward one another and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was fitting. 28 And, according as they did not approve of having God in knowledge, God gave them up to a disapproved mind, to do the things not seemly.
Its just too straight forward and obvious to be ignored. The 3 parts belong together. They are a repetition of the same basic thought and, as Paul’s whole argument from chapter 1:18 to chapter 2:1ff makes clear, it is all about universal idolatry.
Paul’s letter was addressed to first century Jews and Gentiles. In the first 2 chapters in particular he cleverly shows how both groups are complicit and culpable in the practice and consequences of idolatry. This is a thought that some of his Hebrew readers might have struggled with (see the red bits).
Lets summarise the whole argument.
Vs 18. God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness.
Imagine if you will, dear reader, the sudden appearance of a chorus of faithful 1st century Hebrews listening to Pauls words and voicing their support. “Yeh Paul!. “You tell those ungodly Gentiles!”
Vs19-20: Gods nature is plain and clear in the works of creation so… no excuse.
“Yeh! Hear that?” say our Hebrew chorus, warming to their task. “That means YOU, you gentiles. You say, ‘We didnt know any better coz we didnt have God’s law.’ Well, no excuse! You tell em Paul!”
vs21-22: Instead of praising God, their thoughts became empty. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (“Empty” and “Fool” are Hebrew code for Idolatry. See “empty/ vanity” in the OT Prophets and “fool” in Proverbs and Wisdom Liturature)
“Yeh!” yell the Hebrew chorus line now fully engaged. “Go! Paul! Go! Paul!”
Then there is the 3 fold repetition of idolatry.
They changed the incorruptible glory of God for the likeness of corruptible things. Therefore God gives them up to unclean hearts and dishonoured bodies.
They change truth into falsehood and honour creature rather than creator. Therefore God gives them up to dishonourable affections/ shameful lusts (NIV)
They change natural relations for that which is unatural. In their cultic and shameful worship of their idols the women are used unaturally and men are inflamed with ecstatic passion having unatural sex with each other even to the extent that the idolatrous priests are castrated and therefore receive in themselves that which is fitting. Therefore God gave them up to a disapproved/ depraved mind.
At this point the chorus line are shouting in their jubilant support. “Finally…someone to speak out against those scandalous, terrible, idolatrous practices Yeh!, You tell em Paul!”
Then Paul gives the list of what this all means. (vs 29-32).
They are wicked, evil, greedy, depraved, envious, murderous, deceitful, malicious, gossipers, slanderers.
At this point…the Hebrew chorus of cheers has quietened down somewhat. (O-Oh…envy, slander, gossip…he isnt talking about ME, is he?)
Paul continues…They are insolent, arrogant and boastful. They invent evil. They disobey their parents. They do not have those essential things that lie closest to the heart of God namely faith, love and mercy.
The chorus is now a mumbled whisper “ummmm…love?….mercy?”
They know that these evil practices are deserving of death but, not only do they do them, they approve of others who do them.
The Hebrew chorus has been completely silenced. “Crap! He IS talking about me!”
And then…in chapter 2 Paul brings it all home.
2:1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
Paul’s concern is 2 fold.
1.He is at pains to show that it is really all about idolatry…exchanging the truth of God for a lie.
2. He shows that both the Jew and the Gentile are guilty of this idolatry. All stand before God without excuse. This argument continues through the rest of Chapter 2 and into chapter 3 until there is the great culminating statement.
3:23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
In the opinion of this exegete, the meaning of verses 26 -27 within the body of Paul’s whole argument couldnt be clearer. It is about idolatry, not the love that is shared by a homosexual couple. But, for the sake of the argument, lets pretend that Paul IS condemning loving and committed homosexual relationships in vs 26-27. Lets imagine the scene.
Paul is in the crowd in the city of Corinth. He is thinking hard about the letter he is about to write to the Romans. He wants to make a strong statement about the universal evil of idolatry and how everyone falls under its influence so that he can point to the universal nature of the salvation won by Christ on the cross.
It is three days before the Hebrew passover, a deeply significant time for Paul and the Christian community. He is watching the temple-preist-initiates gyrate and dance naked in a drug induced frenzy. He watches a Cybelian priest-in-the-making take the castration tongs and clamp it around his penis and testicles, grab a knife and cut them off. Blood flows as the screaming man runs down the street, severed flesh in hand and so joins the ranks of the gender neutral temple prostitutes for the remainder of his life.
This is not the first time Paul has observed this ritual or been confronted by the these practices. In fact, the effects of the goddess cult were unavoidable. He remembers Ephesus and the goddess temple, one of the 7 wonders of the world. Paul’s message about Jesus stirred up the local silver smiths whose entire trade relied on the goddess worship.Such was the impact and threat of Paul’s message to the temple cult that the entire city came to a standstill in protest. (Acts 19)
Paul thinks of the other disturbing part of the late March, annual, week long, Cybelian celebrations. They included the re-enactment of the ressurection of Attis, Cybele’s mythical consort. Legend tells of Attis’ death after he castrates himself. This act was motivated by his greif at Cybele’s unfaithfulness and forms the backdrop to the ritual castration of the Cybelian priests. Cybele enlists the help of the gods so that Attis is resurrected.
In the cutlic celebrations an effigy of Attis is tied to a Pine tree and is paraded through the streets before being placed in a tomb to await the celebration of his resurrection some days later. The connection between this idolatrous practise and the Christian memory of Jesus, the cross, the tomb and the resurrection just couldnt be ignored. This all weighs heavily on Paul’s mind as he starts to plan his message to the Church in Rome.
BUT THEN! Paul sees two men in the crowd and they are holding hands! They are obviously close. Rumour has it that they live together. Horror and outrage drag him from his observations of the Cybelian rituals. His musings over idolatry now gone from his mind, he races home to put pen to page. He must warn the Romans and the all the world of the evil he has observed in these two men who love each other and probably bring each other to orgasm in the privacy of their own homes. He is going to have trouble putting it into words however because this particular “evil”, this expression of love will only find definiton and a name “homosexuality” some 1750 years later…
OK…I’m stretching the imagination thing a little, but only a little. As we read scripture we DO imagine things. We do imagine what was in the mind of the writer. We do imagine a context into which the letter is written and that context shapes the meaning we receive.
So, was Paul thinking about Idolatry, castration rituals and temple sex? Or was Paul thinking of loving and committed relationships between 2 people of the same sex. Which best fits the historical and cultural context? Which best fits the literary context? Which makes the most sense in the context of Pauls argument in the first 3 chapters of his letter.
In my opinion the idea that Paul takes an excursus, a momentary sideways step away from his idolatry argument just so he can mention his particular dislike of the type of love that is shared by 2 people of the same sex makes little sense. It sits awkwardly in the flow of his anti-idolatry argument. More than that, it serves to confuse his entire argument.
The culmination of this part of Paul’s argument is at chapter 2:1 where he declares that everyone is the same…all are without excuse and one person should not judge another when all are equally guilty. It would seem incredibly strange if, right smack bang in the middle of this whole thought process Paul decides to single out one group of people for particular criticism… judge them… and so undo his whole argument.
Personally, THAT is the biggest reason i have for understanding an idolatry rather than a homosexuality reading of chapter1: 26-27. The idolatry understanding passes the “what does this mean for me” test. The homosexuality understanding most certainly does not. Let me explain.
Whenever I think I have understood a passage of scripture but find that I am left pointing fingers at someone else rather than myself as a result of my reading, I know that I have missed the point of the passage. If we leave chapter 1:26-27 in its most obvious context of idolatry, with no reference to loving and committed homosexual relationships, I know that every part of the argument refers to me. I can follow Paul’s argument all the way through and tick every box saying.,,,
“Yup! If i am honest with myself… I am all of those things. I dont bow down to a particular image of a person or animal and I haven’t ritually castrated myself but my life IS full of idolatry. I constantly trust in things other than God and I carry the consequences of that idolatry into all areas of my life. Yes Paul. I am without excuse”.
Not so with the alternative reading. If Paul’s argument in vs 26-27 were really against loving and committed homosexual relationships, I would tick some of the boxes, know that Paul was kinda talking about me but, in the end, still think that he really had it in for those “homos”. That kind of finger pointing, holier than thou reading of scripture never sits well with me.
Then of course, there is that nagging little section in verse 27 “…and they receive in their members the due penalty for their error.” If the text isnt speaking of idolatry, temple prostitution and castration rituals …then, what is this “due penalty”? Is it Venerial disease? Is it AIDS: God’s punishment for the gays? These ridiculous and horrible claims have been made in the past but only by the lunatic fringe of Christianity. No reasonable Christian person would make such a claim. But,,,if not that…then what?
There is, of course, no problem of logic, no clash of context and no unanswed and awkward questions if we put our prejudices aside and just take the obvious flow of Paul’s argument. The text has nothing to say about loving and committed homosexual relationships (That shouldn’t surprise us since there wasnt even a Greek or Hebrew word to describe such a thing) The text has everything to say about the universal problem of idolatry. The text speaks directly to gay and straight people alike and especially to me. We all tick all the boxes.
All of us fall under the sin of idolatry.
All of us carry the consequences of that sin into every aspect of our lives,
All of us are without excuse and
All of us are justified freely by the grace of God in Christ.
And..as Martin Luther would say: “This is most certainly true”
Or…as Forest, Forest Gump would say: “That’s all I have to say about that!”
Or…as I would say: “Stick THAT in your castration clamp and slice it!