by ProfDave, ©2021
(Apr. 13, 2021) — Last Sunday the Bible class was studying Romans 1: the chapter some want to censor. There is some concern since same-sex marriage is legal (for a decade now), that preachers may be prosecuted for “hate speech” related to this passage – or even for reading it. There have been cases in Sweden and Canada. Someone sued (unsuccessfully) the publisher of the New International Version of the Bible – or is that an urban legend? Moreover, the “wrath of God” is mentioned: not at all a popular notion these days. But what does it really say? Read the book! Carefully! It is even worse than you imagined, but not for what you think. And just perhaps, it contains something too important to leave out of Christianity.
Up front: the point of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church is not sexual orientation but the more fundamental God-orientation. Get that right and everything else will sort itself out. Homosexuality is not the cause or special target of God’s wrath. On the contrary, the prevalence of homosexuality in Rome, Corinth or Philadelphia is an indirect result of God’s wrath. Heads up: the wrath of God is meant to bring us to repentance. If we were hopeless, he wouldn’t bother – just pull the plug.
In this letter, Paul is introducing himself and his message to the church in Rome. It is arguably the most complete representation of early Christian doctrine. He begins with a brief description of his gospel: it isn’t about our righteousness at all, but the righteousness we are given in relationship with God. It is good news: by God’s grace righteousness and salvation is available to Jew and Gentile alike by faith in Jesus the Messiah – both son of David and Son of God, as attested by his resurrection. We are given the opportunity to accept grace (the unearned benevolence of God). Rejecting it has consequences, but even in the consequences, it is the purpose of God to turn us around before we destroy ourselves. Reality discipline. Tough love.
The author’s (Paul’s) argument is that the being and nature of God is so obvious that we cannot NOT know it. Because God (and whatever other spiritual entities there may be) is not directly visible in the dimensions we can observe, it is possible for a thinking person to disbelieve his existence. It takes considerable mental gymnastics and leaves us without a coherent “theory of all things.” Theism is the default metaphysics of the human mind. Most of the world’s indigenous worldviews, even if animist or polytheist, have a Creator behind and beyond the mythical gods and forces of nature. Less faith is required to believe than not to believe. We are without excuse.
In the first century Paul knew a lot less science than we do today. He didn’t have the electron microscope or the Hubble telescope. But are we any closer today to finding another explanation (than he had) for the existence of anything (vs nothing) or the beauty and complexity of the cosmos? On the contrary, we now know it to be many orders of magnitude greater, more precise, and more designed than Paul could have imagined. Our ignorance is getting greater, not less. No excuse. Yet we are allowed to choose not to know – and there are consequences.
Quite frankly, by choosing not to know we give up truth for baloney – non-truth, lies. We exchange the image of God in ourselves for our fictitious human (animal?) self-image, our glory for a fraud or a beast. God’s wrath is directed against those who, in rebellion against his grace and goodness, repress the obvious.
Romans 1 is about God-orientation, not sex-orientation. The wrath of God is expressed in three stages of giving us up. First, when we choose not to know God, he gives us up – turns us loose from our place in the grand design. If we don’t want to recognize the obvious reality of God, there are a lot of other things we aren’t allowed to know. Knowledge becomes a problem. We have to guess what life is all about – and we aren’t allowed to guess right.
Since we don’t want a real God, we make up our own – myths and demagogues and celebrities (Moloch, Hitler, Lady Gaga). Religion becomes a problem. We have to guess what is right and wrong, balancing our desires and our wisdom (or fear of getting caught) – not allowed to refer to any transcendent truth.
Ethics becomes a problem. Our own selves become our focus. “Lust” is the word Paul uses. It isn’t limited to sex (Freud hadn’t been repressed yet), but sex is a good example of an urge that clamors to direct our lives.
Self-control becomes a problem. The consequences (the wrath of God) of rejecting the higher Truth are relativism and uncertainty. Each of us determines his or her reality on the basis of our inner urges and “what the market will bear.”
Second stage of wrath is that we turn our backs on the inherent design (order and purpose) not only of the cosmos but of society. Without a higher purpose we live for self-gratification. For example, what was meant for union of the genders and the engendering of future generations is turned to exploitation of each other and the alienation of our (accidental) offspring.
If self-fulfillment becomes our highest good, then God gives us up – turns us loose from the design of a healthy society. The design of sexuality is just about the most obvious aspect of human reality. Reality is so oppressive. So Lesbianism is as good an example as any, but there are others. Might makes right, for example. People become means to an end. Success (or thrills) justifies everything. Restraints are made to be circumvented, and we cannot make enough laws or hire enough police or build enough prisons. As fewer and fewer of us are willing to sacrifice our gratification for the common good, everything begins to break down.
As we choose to organize society around our own gratification, the third and final stage sets in where body chemistry rules. God gives us up – turns us loose from all moral sensitivity. Good becomes evil and evil becomes good. We laugh at restraint, self-discipline, and honesty. We forbid the teaching of truth and the naming of sin. Our heroes have become men and women of violence, deception, and seduction. “They have been filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil, they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Romans 1:29-31. They know better but celebrate those character traits. Hmmh. So where are we in this progression?
In the next chapter, Paul shows that the religious elites are no better, but that isn’t controversial. Should we delete Romans 1: 18-32? Shall we take the reality out of Christianity because it offends us? The trouble is, reality bites. Defying gravity doesn’t turn it off. You don’t just curse the falling. You try to catch them. God is not elected. He is not optional. He is not lever 4D on the religion vending machine.
Rejecting the knowledge of God leads to rejecting the design of God leads to rejecting the difference between right and wrong. Don’t go there, Paul says, it makes no sense. Those who go over Niagara can expect to be smashed on the rocks below, so don’t go there. And don’t take down the warning signs. Just perhaps the truth will set someone free.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.