This post continues the discussion (from Monday’s post) of verses 24-32 of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The Structure of the Passage
The next major proposition that Helminiak advances is that the passage in question sorts out and separates the impurity or social disapproval of homogenital acts, on the one hand, from real wrong or sin, on the other. “Homogenital sex,” writes Helminiak, “was an everyday part of the [Roman] world. They thought it perfectly natural for me to be attracted to other men … the Greeks and Romans saw nothing improper about sex between two men. Why does Paul bring it up at all?”
Well, Helminiak argues that Paul was, in effect, making a statement about “purity” in the same sense that Jews thought of this term. Though his argument is a bit too technical and intricate to be described here, Helminiak posits that verses 24-32 of Romans 1 can essentially be divided into two groups, the first four dealing with societal improprieties and the second half addressing real sins. The reason: Paul wants to teach an important Christian lesson on morality; he wants to emphasize the difference between ritual impurity and real wrong.
The Overall Plan of the Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Helminiak’s last argument requires, even more than the previous one, that one lift one’s head out of the few passages in the first chapter of Romans and view them in the context of Paul’s entire epistle to the Christians in Rome. The overall purpose of this epistle, Helminiak argues, was to try to appeal to and unite both segments of the church in Rome, i.e., the Jewish converts and the gentile converts: “Paul structures his Letter to the Romans so that he can win the favor of both the Jewish and the Gentile Christians.”
In trying to reach the Jewish converts, Paul discusses various “impurities” among the Romans, including homogenitality. “Seen in the context of the whole Letter to the Romans,” writes Helminiak, “that reference serves a rhetorical function. It is part of Paul’s plan to win the good will of his Jewish Christian readers. Then he uses the same issue to make his point: the ritual requirements of the Jewish Law are irrelevant in Christ.”
“[But] why did he choose homogenitality and not some other purity issue,” continues Helminiak. “Why not talk about unclean foods or about circumcision? Well, from the current century’s point of view, the answer may sound crazy. But from a first-century point of view, it makes perfect sense: in those days, homogenitality was a safe topic. Paul could not open his letter with talk about clean and unclean foods. Debate over foods was still splitting the Christian communities. Likewise, circumcision was too sensitive an issue. But evidently homogenitality was not ... The whole Gentile world was well aware of the Jews’ peculiar attitude toward homogenital acts. The Gentiles just chuckled and shrugged the whole thing off. They would not be offended if Paul raised that issue …”
The bottom line of Helminiak’s discussion of Romans 1 could perhaps be summarized by quoting the Apostle Paul:
“I know and am persuaded that in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.”
~ Romans 14:14
Paul was trying to unite the Gentile and Jewish “factions” that made up the Christian community in Rome. He used the references to homogenitality in the context of a larger argument that such acts, though considered “unclean” to the Jewish Christians, were in fact morally neutral, albeit not the societal norm.
As was the case with the sin of Sodom, the true message of Paul’s letter to the Romans has been obscured and distorted by a naïve, polemical and bigoted reading of the scripture, bolstered by societal prejudice and zealous self-righteousness on the part of some Christians, who apparently believe they need to make up for Jesus’ omission of dealing with the subject of homosexuality.
As Helminiak points out, “Paul insisted on faith and love as the things that really matter in Christ. But by misunderstanding Paul’s argument, people unwittingly rely on tastes and customs instead of the word of God. They argue about what’s dirty or clean, dispute who’s pure and impure” – precisely the sorts of things that Paul decried.
In previous posts, I have also referred to a book by Rev. Jack Rogers, Professor of Theology Emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary and former Moderator (President) of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I plan to write at a later date about his book, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), as well as about Dr. Rogers’ journey into and through the world of Biblical scholarship and gay affirmation in Christian communities of faith.
Rogers writes the following about Romans 1:
“Paul’s thesis statement for his letter to the Romans comes in Romans 1:16: ‘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.’ The very next sentence states that thesis in another way: ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’ (Rom. 1:17). No one is excluded from the possibility of receiving God’s salvation. The gospel that Paul is proclaiming in Romans does not center on the issue of sexuality. It focuses on the universality of sin and the free grace of salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the essence of the Christian message.
“In Romans 1:18-32, Paul is writing about idolatry, that is, worshiping, giving our ultimate allegiance to anything in the creation instead of God, the Creator … It seems as though Paul is setting up his Jewish readers. It is easy at this point in the text for them, and for us, to feel self-righteous. Jews didn’t worship images of birds or animals or reptiles. Those were typical Gentile sins. But then Paul lowers the boom on his readers by listing other sins that proceed from idolatry – covetousness, malice, envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander. Idolaters could become haughty, boastful, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Now Paul is talking to all of us …”
“Paul’s understanding of the naturalness of men’s and women’s gender roles is not a matter of genital formation and their functional purpose, which today is considered by many the main criterion for the natural and unnatural. Rather, in the culture Paul is addressing, a man and a woman each had a designated place and role in society, which could not be exchanged … For Paul, transgressions of gender role boundaries cause ‘impurity,’ a violation of the Jewish purity code …”
Rogers sums up his points as follows:
“Those who are opposed to equal rights for Christian gay and lesbian people make several serious errors in interpreting Romans 1: (1) they lose sight of the fact that this passage is primarily about idolatry; (2) they overlook Paul’s point that we are all sinners, (3) they miss the cultural subtext, and (4) they apply Paul’s condemnation of immoral sexual activity to faithful gay and lesbian Christians who are not idolaters, who love God and who seek to live in thankful obedience to God.”