Monday, September 14, 2015

The Hardest Part: Understanding Romans 1

Hang in There!

First, thank you all for hanging in there with me through this project. I am approaching it with prayer and seeking to speak from peace and hope rather than fear and disillusionment: that takes time for me. My experience says that any connection to a conversation like this one puts me in danger of losing a lot: the respect and approval of people that I respect, the peaceful interactions I have with friends and family, any potential jobs as a minister or teacher in a Christian setting, and my home in my local congregation; some people even receive death threats over such things. Furthermore, I hate to be wrong publicly (or at all, for that matter), so I try to check and double check to make sure I am not missing some obvious flaw in my research or reasoning. Finally, I have a natural desire to agree with others and I am not naturally suited to making waves, a tendency which I have to fight every step of the way to act with integrity on this.

The Hardest Passage

When it comes to the issue of homosexuality in the Bible, I have struggled for many years with Romans 1.* I felt it was my greatest support for denying a place in the church to married gay couples, but I had a sneaking suspicion that something was amiss, and for a long time I couldn't put my finger on what it was. I was left in the awkward position of having to ask myself, "in a situation where we have been wrong so many times about interpretations, does it make logical sense for me to base exclusion of an entire group based on only one clear passage (where I am getting the feeling that I missed something) among many passages where the meanings, upon serious investigation, cannot hold a lot of weight?" While I plan to talk about why these other passages fail to convince later, I think it best to deal with the best arguments first, so, Romans it is.

Something Sounds Different

Just recently, prompted by various discussions, I spent a great deal of time mulling over the passage, reading it again and again in Greek and occasionally in English versions, I realized what it is that bothers me about this section of Romans 1: it does not sound like the following section, or even like the rest of Romans. The easiest element of this strangeness to quantify is the difference in vocabulary; words used only here in the book of Romans are far more dense than in other parts of Romans (excluding OT quotations), to the point that if I found any other passage of comparable size so dense with "unfamiliar" words, I would expect it to be a quotation. But it isn't only that, there are things I cannot easily measure, like the way it sounds in comparison with the surrounding sections, if you read it aloud, even in English, you will find that this difference is so great that it even shows through in most translations.

Paul then spends the next section of Romans (after a brief connecting section) balancing out this section featuring Gentiles by presenting a section about Jews and culminating in the 3:10-18, where "None is righteous." Why might Paul use a quotation that condemns Gentiles and then create his own section on Jewish failure?

A Message to Paul

Let me tell you what I think is happening: Paul is writing to the Roman church because he has gotten word that Jews and Gentiles are not getting along in the Roman church. I think he received a messenger who told him about the situation and brought a letter about the situation. I think that it went something like this (I am not going to go to any concerted effort to avoid anachronism at this point in the hope that more familiar language will make the idea the central focus rather than the flaws in my reconstruction):

Grace to you, Paul... We have heard of your work among the Gentiles and we hope that you will clarify some things that are troubling us. When we began to believe in Christ, we heard the Good News through Gentile Christians and we knew only Gentile Christians, as the Jews had been expelled from Rome for a time.
We believed that those of us who had been Godfearers had actually been granted full membership in Christ. When the Jewish believers returned to Rome, we found ourselves pushed to the margins, put back into the same place we used to be before we heard of Christ. When we protested the situation, we were told that Christ was given first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.
At first, we resisted this idea and asserted our equality in Christ, but the opposition made a devastating argument that, because the wrath of God is standing in opposition to Gentiles due to the idolatry in our heritage, Gentiles can never have the same relationship to God as those to whom were entrusted the 'very oracles of God.'
Not long ago, a piece of the argument appeared anonymously and has proven so convincing that we have not been able to effectively argue against it:
'God chose long ago to reveal Himself to His Children, the Jews, choosing them above idolatrous men in the surrounding world, and giving them the primary position and relegating the idolatrous men to an eternally inferior place.... For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth...' [Romans 1:18-32]."
I would like to dismiss this as a nasty piece of invective, but it makes a good point about idolatry in our age, more than that, it speaks to the deep-seated feelings of our Jewish brothers and sisters, who feel great pride in being "Children of God," as well as to the shame Gentiles feel concerning the idolatry in our past. Can you clarify things for us?...

A Collective Rather than an Individualistic Reading

If that is the case, then the audience to whom Paul writes would already understand this section as anti-gentile polemic rather than an attack on individuals. This would make sense of the  section on judging in chapter 2, where the Apostle seems to say that anyone who judges is condemned by his or her own failures to do right, yet it then goes on to speak of individuals (signaled by "each one") who do not suffer from these failures. What does this mean? Are there individuals condemning individuals, but those individuals who condemn are only wrong because they happen to be guilty, unlike the individuals in 2:7? Would those individuals in 2:7 be allowed to judge others? I think context makes sense of this jumble, specifically, the first section (Romans 1:18-32) is the "judgement" about which he is speaking here. That means that the word translated "another" would take a slightly different translation (See Liddell's ἕτερον, headings II & III), perhaps "a person who is different from you," "another type of person" or "another group" (i.e. Gentiles). This would then become a condemnation of prejudice against a group rather than a system for determining when it is appropriate for one person to judge another. This interpretation fits perfectly with the following section where there are two groups without a reason to judge: Law-Following Jews and the Law-Less Gentiles.

Conclusion: The Boundaries of Christian Ethics

If I am correct about the purpose of Romans 1, Paul's use of the quote does not indicate agreement with the content (or disagreement with the content) but it is intended to illustrate a form of reasoning taking place in the Roman church community that Paul believes is outside the boundaries of Christian ethics: group discrimination. Paul opposes the individual model to this passage and then he shows how Jewish exclusion of Gentiles based on their idolatrous heritage clearly falls into this category due to the Jewish failure to perfectly follow the Law.

*There is a great deal that others have already written about the focus of this section of Romans 1 on idolatry and its punishment as the cause of shame through the violation of the social norms rather than the focus being on the particular violations. Some have also explored the difficulties for understanding the situation caused by the negative evaluation of women in general and the way that perceptions of homosexual intercourse at the time were linked to this perceptual framework. Anyone who wants to take this subject seriously should track down and evaluate these arguments as well, but due to the usual attention span of those reading blogs, I think it best to limit this entry to my own insights.

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