RELATIONSHIPS, SEXUALITY and CULTURE
An Exegetical Framework for Romans 1:18-32 The Decomposition of Human Persons, Relationships, Sexuality, and Culture by Bishop David W. Kendall
Romans 1:18-32 is one of the key texts that clearly teaches that same sex relationships are contrary to God’s plan for human life, a sign of the disorder in the human person, and of the disintegration and decomposition of the creation.
It is important to understand this text for several reasons. First, there are few and perhaps no texts in either testament that speak as directly and clearly about sexual relations between members of the same sex. Second, this text is often cited either to corroborate or to correct a view of sexuality that the text does not, in fact, reflect or teach. Third, to understand clearly what Paul is asserting here can help us respond to same sex identity, orientation and relationships in ways that are more truthful and gracious than is most common, and in ways that allow the gospel to be good news indeed.
Broad Contextual Considerations
In the immediate foreground of the passage are these famous and powerful declarations:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (all from NRS)
Mention of “gospel” takes us to the opening lines of the letter and carries us forward, to note several features of this “gospel.” This gospel is “of God,” for which Paul has been set apart as apostle (1:1). The gospel is of the Triune God: God, Jesus and the Spirit are specifically named. The gospel concerns what has happened in Jesus—whose life and accomplishments were foretold by prophets (1:2), as descendant of David, as the One demonstrated Son of God with power through resurrection from the dead by the Spirit of Holiness—Jesus the Messiah our Lord (1:3-4). Paul’s commission as Apostle serves this good news particularly on behalf of gentiles.
Later (5:12ff) we learn that the good news of Jesus responds to the history of the world from Adam onward, and fulfills the mission of Israel to the fallen world and the human race. All this to note that the gospel concerns how Jesus’s accomplishments as Son of David, Son of God, crucified and risen Messiah of God renews and restores world history, and all peoples, and how as Israel’s and the world’s Messiah and King he keeps the original covenant promises to Abraham and he fulfills the original vocation of Israel.
Indeed, Jesus’ accomplishments—gospel—expressing or “revealing” “the righteousness of God” is the active power of God for saving all (first the Jew and then all others) who believe and for redeeming the world corrupted and fallen as a result of human godlessness and wickedness. Because of the power of this good news Paul is not disappointed, let down, or ashamed (1:16- 17).
This brings us to 1:18-32. We must note how Paul describes the condition of the world in general in vv. 18-23, particularly what Paul cites as the root sin, leading successively to the unfolding de-composition of creation and humanity in vv. 24-32.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;
21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.
22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools;
23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Paul describes the condition of creation and humanity in these terms: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” This is the exact counterpart to “The Righteousness of God” which the gospel reveals in v. 17. The gospel “reveals” the righteousness of God in response to the wrath of God which is “revealed” from heaven.
What follows in these verses must be understood in that light, as descriptive of what has happened because the wrath of God is being revealed. In response to the wrath of God has now come the righteousness of God. That is the good news and how the power of God provides remedy to a world subject to “wrath.”
The “Wrath of God,” revealed from heaven, that is from God, being poured out in human history, comes against all ungodliness and wickedness … . This is the language of worship. Ungodliness is refusal to reverence God as God and reverencing what is not God as God. Wickedness is the life that results. The wrath of God results.
This sequence—ungodliness-wrath—traces to a suppression of the truth that led and leads to not honoring (the word is glorifying or giving glory) to God and not giving thanks to God. The root problem and sin is idolatry that is without excuse and ruinous (vv. 18b-21a). Paul traces the path of ruin.
The humans became futile, empty in thinking and their hearts became dull and dark (v. 22). They claimed to be wise; that is, wiser than God. They knew God and imagined they knew more than God, better than God. Thus, they exchanged the glory of incorruptible God for the likeness of the image of corruptible humans, birds, animals who walk on all fours, and reptiles (v.23). This language is highly freighted with meaning. It recalls the idolatry of the children of Israel echoing the very language the Psalmist uses in Ps. 106:19-20. They refused to give glory to God and, supposing themselves wiser, gave glory to creatures—from humans to snakes.
The root sin is idolatry—impiety, ungodliness, wickedness (a twisting away) that leads to other sins.
Therefore, Paul says in v. 24, v. 26, and v. 28 God delivered them up or gave them over. This term is the common term for the handing down of tradition. “Tradition” denotes what has been handed over or delivered from generation to generation that has come to describe, proscribe and shape the identity of a people. Here God handed them over to what humanity has chosen and to what follows their persistent choice. The choice is not to glorify or honor God as God and rather to glorify and honor what is not God. The choice is idolatry over the true worship of God. In 3:23 this is summed up: for all have sinned and fallen short of “the glory of God.”
Thus, again, the delivering over is God’s response to this human choice, and it is itself the unfolding “wrath of God,” the revealing of which prompts the revealing of God’s righteousness in the gospel (v. 17). “Wrath” is God’s confirmation of the human refusal to “worship” God but to worship created things instead. More specifically, God’s handing over comes in three escalating expressions. First,
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,
25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
God gave them over, confirming the basic idolatry that threatens creation and humans as the crown of God’s creation. Their hearts desire impurity and uncleanness and this in turn leads to degrading bodily expressions or relations. The corruption of hearts leads to the dishonoring and degrading (or downgrading) of bodies in relation to others. And, again, v. 25, it stems from basic and blatant idolatry. Then,
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,
27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Again, God gave them over, Paul continues, to dishonorable and degrading passions. The degrading of their bodies (v. 24) seems in turn to generate passions that further degrade and dishonor the bodies of others. Here is the overt naming of disordered human relations—women exchange intercourse with men for that with women, and men forsaking (literally, leaving) natural intercourse with women to be consumed with passion for one another. The consequence of this, Paul says, is some form of “penalty” received in their own persons, as NRS has it. Literally it is penalty among themselves as a result of their error. The error is basic idolatry which leads to this penalty which may be personal or social, as the final “handing over” will describe in horrible detail. Or it is both personal and social. Finally, Paul concludes:
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.
29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,
30 slanderers, God-haters,1 insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,
31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die — yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Because they refused to live by the truth revealed by God (idolatry again) one final time, God gave them over to an unreliable mind that generates an array of things that just should not be, that violate all sense of convention and appropriateness. Then, there follows a long list of abstract realities, such as “evil” and “wickedness,” attitudes of heart and mind, such as “malice, envy, deceit,” dispositions that inevitably act out, such as strife, craftiness, haughtiness, to words that degrade and destroy, to behavior and patterns of behavior that make human relationships impossible whether in the home, in the marketplace, in public forum, or any of the other arena where people live. Paul concludes, they know God’s decree that these ways of being and acting lead to death—they know and they patently experience the dying—and yet they continue on undeterred and cheer on others who do as they do.
God’s handing over, confirming the basic human choice for idolatry, brings the undoing of all relational and social conditions necessary for life. This is the total deconstruction, degradation, devolution, and decomposition of created order—of cosmos—leading to death.
Key Findings for our Understanding and Missional Responses
- The basic and blatant sin is idolatry. This recurs again and again, but is often unmentioned in the treatment of this text, especially its use to teach on issues of sexuality. This is a serious oversight or failure in understanding and application of what Paul asserts here.
- The inevitable consequence of the basic sin of idolatry is for God to do in relation to humans what humans refuse to do in relation to God. Namely, God honors the nature of human persons as created, to confirm their refusal to respond appropriately to God and to bear the consequences. Those consequences in this text are “the wrath of God” being revealed to horrifying ends.
- Commonly, the texts describing same sex relations are cited to say that such sexuality is a sinful perversion, indeed of the worst sort. And that certain judgment will rest upon those who engage in such conduct. But at best these are partial truths which in their present form lead to misuse of the text, unhelpful applications, and outright distortions. While this text makes clear that same sex relations cannot be viewed as a legitimate alternative to the creation design for human sexuality, still this text should not be used simply to bash same sex relations.
- The fact that a society or culture embraces same sex attraction, identity, relations, and now marriage is not so much the sin that God will punish. It is rather the punishment God is meting out for the basic sin of idolatry. These texts do not say that same sex relations represent the worst sins or the vilest wickedness, for at least two reasons clear in this passage. First, Paul cites no less than 30 different sins as expressions of the “wrath of God.” There is no obvious or clear way to conclude that the sexual sins in the passage are the worst. If anything the sin that is most basic and that becomes the seedbed for all the others, idolatry, would seem to be the most heinous form of human sin. Indeed, the dishonoring of God and lack of thankfulness to God, the suppression of the truth about God, are repeatedly cited. Second, there does seem to be an escalation or progression in the deepening wrath of God, in the form of confirming human choice not to glorify and worship God as God, that eventually leads humanity to implode. There is a three-fold “handing over” of God. The climax, though, is not confused and shameful sexual relations. In fact, that is early in the devolution. Rather the climax seems to be an array of personal, social, relational dynamics that make human-being simply impossible—I mean, what happens when every thought, disposition, word, decision, act and reaction, feeling and sentiment is simply evil and wicked? How can humanity survive, much less thrive, when such prevails?
- Here is what we can say with confidence: same sex attraction, relations, et al are symptomatic of a threatened creation and humanity. The prevalence of such, and certainly the advocacy of such, signals what Paul calls the wrath of God revealed in terms of God confirming the basic and deep seated sin of humanity, which is idolatry, with sure and ruinous consequences certain to follow. BUT, the same can be said for the other descriptions of disorder in the text, especially the disarray outlined in vv. 28-32. When these all are present the world faces a crisis of epic and apocalyptic proportions.
- Recognizing and responding to the root sin is the missional key to redemptive response. The gospel of God, the accomplishments of Jesus in their full range and depth, is God’s targeted response to the ongoing revelation of wrath that threatens all persons and the whole of creation.
- How specifically does this understanding of the text prompt a fully redemptive response to the varied disorders denoted by the “wrath of God?”We must respond with awareness of the root sin which, if not addressed, will fall short of fully redemptive responses. The wrath of God is already at work in human history. Most in Paul’s century would not have perceived this and most in ours will not perceive this, not least because the “wrath of God” is being revealed. Our approach cannot simply point out the dangers of coming judgment when “wrath” already wreaks havoc and many are unaware. Indeed, you cannot counter dark and dull minds with threats even if based on logic.Rather, you can bear witness and share confidently the good news in and through which the power of God works savingly, countering the wrath of God with the righteousness of God. You can follow Jesus, enter fully into his way, embrace fully the new covenant, exodus, creation and kingdom he offers and invite other to do the same, as you become Romans 5—8 people and together form Romans 12-15 communities.
It is notable, though seldom observed, that once Paul cites the basic sin of humanity that threatens the whole world with the unfolding “wrath of God,” with all its down and dirty consequences, he turns attention to the “righteousness of God” revealed in the gospel, elaborates and commends what Jesus has done and will do, in light of human history and in Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s role in that world, and then calls his readers to stand in the grace to which they have access, to embody the victory of dying and rising with Jesus, to claim the forgiveness and cleansing Jesus’ provides to be free from slavish dependence upon law, and from continuing bondage to self-oriented flesh, and to live, walk and be led by the Spirit, to love and to pray and to groan and to act in anticipation of coming glory with confidence in the unconquerable love of God.
Paul proclaims and commends the gospel without shame, with utter confidence that in Jesus Messiah wherever sin does its worst grace more than abounds. What he proclaimed and commended guided his own mission—a mission of impact and power in a world that seemed to be disintegrating and decomposing, coming apart at the seams. Within just such a world the gospel worked powerfully so that of places like Thessalonica he could write:
For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. (1 Thess. 1:9-10 NRS, emphasis mine)
We would be wise to follow Paul’s example, focus on the root and most basic sin of idolatry, call our generation to the knowledge and love of the one true God, and confidently expect that many will be rescued from a “wrath” that already threatens.