Romans 1 isn't "about" homosexuality

Christian brothers and sisters often read Scripture in very different ways. I suspect it goes back to two things; (1) what theologians call “prolegomena”—how we “do” theology, and (2) what Scripture is—its nature. The latter will often inform the former.

Is Scripture a yet-to-be systematized “code book of theological ordinances?”1 A “store-house of facts”2 or a “transcript from God”3 waiting to be classified by inductive reasoning?  Christian Smith calls this the “handbook model” of interpretation,4 where the Scriptures are a compendium of teachings on an endless array of subjects—romance, politics, the 2nd Amendment, economics, and even dieting.

Did God give us the Bible so we could distill from it advice for dieting? Alternative medicine? Cooking? Gardening with biblical plants? Politics? I hope we can agree not. Still, some interpreters insist we can cull disparate facts from our store-house of Scripture and discern God’s thoughts on various topics.

This is an unwise approach. At best, it makes God “say” things out of context. At worst, it makes God “say” things He actually never said—like tips on “biblical strategies” for financial freedom.

This article will provide one example—is Romans 1 “about” homosexuality? To be sure, it discusses and condemns sexual deviancy, but is that what it’s “about”? Surely not. Yet, many Christians disagree because they have an implicit “handbook” or “store-house” view of Scripture. So, Romans 1 is “about” homosexuality, and 1 John 2:2 is “about” the atonement! 

What Romans 1 is really about

Take a stroll through Romans 1-3 with me, and I’ll show you what I mean. I’ll begin at Romans 1:18 …

God is upset at everyone who rejects Him, no matter who they are—we all “silence the truth with injustice” (Rom 1:18). Why the anger? Because we ought to know God is there, that He exists, and that must mean He holds us responsible for ignoring the markers in nature that point us to Him. Who made this? Who sustains it? How did this all get here? God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and Godhead—“have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made,” (Rom 1:20). We can catch glimmers of God from creation. So, we’re all without excuse.

The problem is that we don’t care, and so our “foolish hearts were darkened,” (Rom 1:21). Just like Fleetwood Mac, we go our own way. A spiritual incompetence and degeneracy sets in, growing ever worse with the passage of time. We worship other things—absurd things (Rom 1:23). “So, God abandoned them to their heart’s desires,” which results in a further spiral down the moral abyss (Rom 1:24).

God made us to be a certain way—to find purpose and solace in (1) our vertical relationship with Him and then, as the fruit of this communion, (2) in proper relationship with one another. The problem is that, when our vertical relationship with God is twisted (the most basic foundation for reality), then our most precious horizontal relationships with one another will be twisted, too (Rom 1:24).  

This is why God abandons us to our “degrading lust” (Rom 1:26, restating v. 24)—because we chose to worship things of this world rather than God (Rom 1:25). What happens is that we twist even our closest, most precious relationships—love and sexual union—out of all bounds (Rom 1:26b-27). Just as we didn’t acknowledge God, so God chooses in some circumstances to not acknowledge us (Rom 1:28)—to stop restraining our evil impulses, to walk away and leave us to destroy ourselves, as it were.

What results is akin to abandoning a garden for two seasons—a real mess (Rom 1:29-31). In all this, Paul has been describing the same consequence (not a compounding one)—we ignore God, so He lets us go our own way. Sexual deviancy is the penultimate fruit of that sad equation. There are others—all of which damage or destroy our relationships with one another. This is a knowing and willful insurgency, at least on some level (Rom 1:32; cf. Psalm 2:1-3).

So much for the “outsiders,” those who weren’t entrusted with God’s revelation. Surely “insiders” are in a much better state?

This is where Paul launches a broadside against proud externalism—against the same kind of glib smugness that Jesus criticized so powerfully (Lk 18:9-14). Gentiles are so awful, so degenerate, so messy in their sin—who can stand it? Some might be tempted to say (in their hearts, even if not aloud), “Thank God we Christians aren’t like those LGBTQ kooks!”

Well, Paul says, we so-called “insiders” aren’t necessarily better off at all. Don’t judge others when you commit some of the same crimes (Rom 2:1). See, for example, Ted Haggard. God’s love is meant to lead to repentance—to a real change in heart and life (Rom 2:4). After all, God will repay everyone according to their works (Rom 2:6; cf. Ps 62:12). This is the same warning John the Baptist gave (Lk 3:1-14). God can make even stones into children of Abraham—He wants loving obedience, not dead externalism.

Being an insider, being an Israelite, is meaningless in and of itself (Rom 2:7-10). “God does not have favorites,” (Rom 2:11). It’s the ones who actually do the law who are counted as righteous (Rom 2:13), and that means merely being “an insider” gets you no points. In fact, Paul suggests “insiders” will be judged more severely in the end because they had more information (Rom 2:12).

So, he declares, if you’re an “insider” who is an awful hypocrite and an embarrassment to God, you actually have nothing (Rom 2:17-23). “As it is written, ‘The name of God is discredited by the Gentiles because of you,’” (Rom 2:24; cf. Isa 52:5 LXX). The external marks of “membership” in God’s family are pointless in and of themselves—“circumcision is an advantage if you do what the law says,” (Rom 2:25; emphasis mine). In fact, if an ethnic “outsider” loves God by doing what He says, he is a truer believer than a fake “insider” (Rom 2:26).   

Paul says being “in the family” has nothing at all to do with being an Israelite. An “outward circumcision” that doesn’t touch the heart, the spirit, the affections, is nothing (Rom 2:28). “Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally” (Rom 2:29) who is a true “Jew,” that is, a true member of God’s family, a true child of Abraham (Gal 3:26-29). 

“So, what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Or what’s the benefit of circumcision?” (Rom 3:1). Paul knows Israelites will be tempted to scoff and demand answers. What’s the advantage, then? Well, plenty! Jews were trusted to be custodians of God’s truth (Rom 3:2). But, God’s faithfulness doesn’t evaporate because of an insider’s unfaithfulness (Rom 3:3-4). This doesn’t mean our faithfulness doesn’t matter, of course (Rom 3:5-9).

“So, what are we saying?” Paul asks (Rom 3:9). This is the heart of his message—the destination he’s been working towards since the first chapter of the letter—“both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin,” (Rom 3:9). Romans 1 isn’t “about” sexual deviancy. Romans 2 isn’t “about” pride and externalism. The letter condemns both in the strongest terms. But, Romans 1-3 is about something much simpler—no matter who you are (a homosexual, a trans individual, a proud Baptist, or an adulterous hypocrite), you’re a slave to sin right now unless you trust in Jesus. There is no “inside track” to salvation. No such thing as a “beyond the pale” outsider. We’re all born as outsiders (homosexuals, trans people, proud Methodists, and angry drunks alike), and we each need Jesus to rescue us from our own private hells.  

Paul then produces a catena of quotations from Psalm 14 and 53 to show this to us—“there is no righteous person, not even one,” (Rom 3:10). The law shows this to us, it unveils who we really are, it breaks us and makes us admit to ourselves (if nobody else) that we cannot be good enough (Rom 3:19-20).

So, we’re left with a problem—how shall this breach between us and God be reconciled? As the Dread Pirate Roberts once remarked, “if there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse …” But, God has made an arrangement. Righteousness doesn’t come from the law at all. It comes “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in Him. There’s no distinction,” (Rom 3:22).

This is the context for those famous words so many believers memorize: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus,” (Rom 3:23-24). Most English translations have “redemption” for the CEB’s “ransom,” but that’s a word choice that’s lost its power and become “churchy” and safe. The word means liberation from slavery, from a kidnapper, after a price has been paid. In this way, through the liberation Jesus effects, God both demonstrates He didn’t “forgive and forget” about all the sins we committed in times past (cf. Heb 9:15), or the one’s we commit now. Thus “he treats the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous,” (Rom 3:25-26).

Bragging has no place among God’s children, because our righteousness is predicated on faith in Jesus, not on “keeping” the law (Rom 3:27-28). Adoption into God’s family isn’t a Jewish thing—it’s for any and everyone. “Yes, God is also the God of the Gentiles,” (Rom 3:29). Whether you’re an “insider” or an “outsider,” God can make you righteous if you have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:30). Whoever you are, your only hope is to trust in Jesus. Not in your ancestry. Not in your head knowledge of the Scriptures. But, in Jesus.

This is what Romans 1:18-3:30 is “about.” Not sexual deviancy. It contains a discussion on sexual deviancy, but only in service of a more basic point—we’ve all (every one of us—“insider” or “outsider”) sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and only Jesus can make us righteous. Ironically, when Christians cry “Romans 1” in frustration and disgust, and shake their heads sadly at “what’s happening to our country,” they may well run afoul of Paul’s warnings from Romans 2—our own sins of hypocrisy or priggish self-righteousness may render us just as guilty

Can we do better than this?

This article is not a veiled proclamation of my own “deconstruction.” It’s an example of what I believe is a better way to read Scripture. It considers the text in its context, not as a repository of data to be molded according to taste into an a la carte buffet of categories. There are other examples:

  • 1 Corinthians 7 isn’t “about” how wives must give their husbands sex.
  • John 5:26 isn’t “about” eternal generation.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 isn’t “about” the rapture.
  • Genesis 10 isn’t “about” how mankind “failed” a “test,” making it necessary for God to initiate a new “dispensation” with Abraham.

You may sincerely believe the texts contain these things, but in no conceivable world are they “about” those subjects. And, if that’s true, then should we wrench these passages out of Hodge’s “store-house” to add them to a systematic casserole we’re cooking up to answer a question the writer wasn’t addressing, in that context?

No, we should not.   

Space is fleeting, so I’ll toss out some grenades for thought and retire into the night.

  1. It seems to me that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a more fruitful approach to doing theology. It guards against the frigid scholasticism Horace Bushnell warned about so passionately in his 1848 address “Dogma and Spirit.”5 The Quadrilateral tempers a frigid rationalism and dogmatism with spiritual experience, reason, and historical theology. It promotes an evangelical catholicity, which I well know is not always reckoned as a virtue.
  2. Donald Bloesch is representative of a method which sees revelation as “truth + event.” We cognitively receive truth from Scripture, then God communicates and confronts us by the Spirit. “Revelation happened in a final and definitive form in the apostolic encounter with Jesus Christ. But revelation [in the sense of truth + Spirit-directed encounter-event] happens again and again in the experience of the Spirit in Christ.”6 There is a conjunction between (1) the Word of God, and (2) sacred Scripture, (3) by the action of the Spirit.7
  3. In contrast, Hodge declares the Spirit has no true revelatory role; He only illuminates the bible.8 Revelation is only static—an objective truth that is “there” on the page. There is no dynamic interplay of “truth + event,” where Scripture is the channel for God to speak.
  4. Many evangelical systematics follow Hodge’s “store-house” approach (e.g. Millard Erickson).9 For example, Carl F.H. Henry declares that revelation is the (sole?) source for all truth, that we can only recognize that truth by exercising reason, that “logical consistency” and “coherence” (which I take together to basically mean “credible systemization”) are our truth tests, and that “[t]he task of Christian theology is to exhibit the content of biblical revelation as an orderly whole.”10

The “store-house” view of Scripture will produce a “Romans 1 is about homosexuality!” result. As you ponder that, remember this—Acts 15 is “about” Baptist polity, too!


1 Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), p. 170. Quoted in Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), p. 632. McGrath was criticizing Carl F.H. Henry.

2 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:10. 

3 Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 65.

4 Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), p. 5. 

5 See the anthology titled Horace Bushnell, ed. H. Shelton Smith (New York: Oxford, 1965), pp. 43-68.  

6 Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 50.  

7 Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 58.  

8 “Although the inward teaching of the Spirit, or religious experience, is no substitute for an external revelation, and is no part of the rule of faith, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable guide in determining what the rule of faith teaches,” (Hodge, Systematic, 1:16).

9 Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 53-65.

10 Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 215.

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There are 44 Comments

Larry's picture

Moderator

I know view number 1 is the commonly accepted one, but my personal belief is that either view 2 or 3 is actually what is happening in this passage

Why do you have to pick? 1 is the commonly accepted one for what seems like obvious reasons--it is what the text says. He certainly goes on to talk about how all are in sin, but that doesn't preclude 1:18-32 from being about the recipients of God's wrath. He just includes more in it than some might have expected.

and I would look elsewhere for Scriptures teaching on homosexuality.

Why? Is there something unclear? Even if the passage is "about" something else, God, through Paul, seems to homosexuality as a clear point of God's condemnation of wickedness. So why would you hesitate to say what God says about it? How would you preach Romans 1 while not preaching on homosexuality?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I haven't conducted a poll, but I suspect I use Scripture differently than most pastors. I would not preach 30+ sermons from Romans 1--I believe you said you had! I preach in large chunks:

  • I'm three messages into Romans, and am beginning ch. 3 on Sunday.
  • I'm also at Acts 20 on Sunday, and am at message #28.
  • I did Deuteronomy in 26 lessons
  • I did Zechariah in 15 sermons
  • I'm three lessons into Isaiah, and we finished Isaiah 6 this past Sunday

This comports with my comments here about viewing Scripture as part of a broader story, not a compendium of facts--it's one of the practical outworkings of what I said in the article. Is this preaching speed unusual?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Dan Miller's picture

Tyler wrote:
If we forget the larger point and simply say "Romans 1 is about homosexuality," then we're missing Paul's point.

1. Given the above, could we [over]distill your opening paper to: "Don't miss the forest for the trees"?

-----

2. True -or- False: Paul, Romans 1 demonstrates that Paul views homosexuality as depravity.

TylerR's picture

Editor
  1. This is merely the practical outworking of my main concern. I explained my main concern at the beginning of the paper, and throughout these comments. If you have a "store-house of facts" view of Scripture, it will produce a highly systematicized theological method that may distort what God actually says and focus on things He does not want us to address.
  2. Yes. This doesn't mean it's why he wrote Romans 1. Just as Moses didn't write Genesis so Ussher could count dates and so Ken Ham could build amusement parks.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Don Johnson's picture

TylerR wrote:

 

This comports with my comments here about viewing Scripture as part of a broader story, not a compendium of facts--it's one of the practical outworkings of what I said in the article. Is this preaching speed unusual?

 

it's not the only way, is all. I preached through the whole Bible in 17 months in 2005-2006. Then I was preaching the big picture and much larger texts. 
 

I'm objecting to your seeming  insistence that big picture is the only way 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

G. N. Barkman's picture

There are many legitimate ways to preach Scripture.  As long as one is accurately explaining the chosen text, it is a legitimate and helpful sermon.  The size of the chosen text may vary for a number of reasons.  The bigger the chosen text, the fewer the number of details possible.  At times, one may move slowly through a book, lingering over many details.  At other times, more quickly in a more summary fashion.  Is one approach legitimate and the other not?  That's what I understand Tyler to be saying.  I hope I have misunderstood him, because if that's what he's saying, I believe my friend is wrong. 

G. N. Barkman

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Don Johnson wrote:

I'm objecting to your seeming  insistence that big picture is the only way 

Although I haven't read much from the Puritans, I have heard that at least one of them in his writings referred to "spade work" vs. "trowel work," with both being necessary when studying and understanding the scriptures.

I don't see this as much different from us having daily Bible reading that finishes the Bible in one year, but then also taking it slower and in more depth as part of studying the Bible.  I appreciate hearing messages that "give the big picture" as well as those that dig into a few verses for the truths that are there.  I can't see that one of those *replaces* the other.

Dave Barnhart

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:
2. Yes. This doesn't mean it's why he wrote Romans 1. Just as Moses didn't write Genesis so Ussher could count dates and so Ken Ham could build amusement parks.

You're much more on the same page as all your present detractors than I previously thought.

TylerR wrote:
1. This is merely the practical outworking of my main concern. I explained my main concern at the beginning of the paper, and throughout these comments. If you have a "store-house of facts" view of Scripture, it will produce a highly systematicized theological method that may distort what God actually says and focus on things He does not want us to address.

You're saying that good preaching explains the overall point of the passage - the forest. And I agree - I have taken your side of this discussion with a former pastor who was very verse-by-verse expository. I said that the overall passage theme was being lost because of the focus was so heavily placed on each idea that came along.

However, when Paul wanted to build a theme of the depravity of all (no "inside track to salvation"), he did so with a set of truths. He used trees to build his forest. 

And now it seems like you are saying, "No trees! only forests." But Paul gave us both the forest AND the trees.

In other words, Paul did theology NOT like you are advocating. Paul had a "storehouse" of truths. And when he wrote, he drew on that storehouse to build and communicate theology. He did not communicate only the final and overarching point, but also how he logically got there and why it's true. In doing so, Paul seems to have been doing exactly what you object to. 

Don Johnson's picture

I am sensitive to the forest and trees analogy. I do tend to get lost in the trees. I love the details. But there is an overall message that may get obscured by making that the only approach. 
 

one way to overcome that is to preach a summary message that takes the trees as building blocks and "builds" the forest. Or you can start with the forest, then pause and dive in on some of the details. 
 

to me this isn't a "one way only" approach. Since I tend towards too much detail, I have to pull myself up and give a bigger picture from time to time 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

TylerR's picture

Editor

Let me ask a few questions that I hope won't horrify systematic theology professors too much. Some of this may be familiar to people who have followed recent theological disputes:

  1. Did God give us the Bible so we could condemn one another over whether eternal generation is "in" the Bible?
  2. Did God give us the Bible so we could write books and slander people who have different opinions about the immanent Trinity? Even Carl Henry admits Scripture doesn't give us a dogmatic metaphysic for the Trinity!
  3. Did God give us the Bible so we could suggest people who don't agree with Ussher might not be Christians? One of my sons just read a chapter in book where an AiG rep reluctantly conceded that, yes, it's possible people who believe in evolution can be Christians.
  4. Did God give us the Bible so we could make systems more important than the biblical message? We see this all the time, from Dwight Pentecost's dispensationalized parable book, to current Reformed scholastic disputes about the precise metaphysical implications of homoousia from the Nicene Creed (and whether the Nicene context of homoousia really implies all that some parties want it to--see J.N.D. Kelly).
  5. Did God give us the Bible so we could be more precise and dogmatic about a particular view of eschatology than about the doctrine of the Trinity?

I am not against systematization. I am against over-systematization, beyond what the Scripture suggests we focus on (Deut 29:29). I suggest right-wing evangelicals systematize too much, and some of us and our institutions are functionally just as defensive about our interpretive traditions as the Roman Catholic Church. Here is a good excerpt from a book by Roger Olson that captures some of what I'm saying. Horace Bushnell's address "Dogma and Spirit" also captures my concerns.

Again, (1) your view of the nature of Scripture, will (2) influence how you do theology. The fruit will work itself out in the way you teach, preach, and systematize.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

AndyE's picture

Of course not. But we are to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  That growth should include a better understanding of the Trinity and the nature of Christ.

I just saw this posted on Facebook:

Quote:
The MYSTERY actually is that CHRIST is a composite constituent of the FATHER. That is to say, whilst he is THE SON, He is also THE FATHER. He is made of the Father and the Father is made of Him.
  

I make it a general rule not to debate theology on Facebook, but would it be wrong to correct this brother over this remark, or did God not give us the Bible for that?

Dan Miller's picture

Tyler, you are asking about doctrine and disagreement. And you're framing it in terms of condemnation and slander.

And I'm wondering why is Tyler doing that? On your 1-4, we might differ:

  1. over doctrine
  2. over what is the right way to handle various differences
  3. over whether we should even have doctrines in the first place.

I'm ok with differing over doctrines.

I'm ok with not condemning. I do not like AIG. To me, the universe is either VERY old or it was deliberately and carefully created to appear VERY old (latter is my view). Either way, looking for proof of young earth is a fool's errand. But I don't condemn those who disagree. 

I think #3 is where you're headed. You seem to be saying that since (in your view) people disagree badly, then even holding doctrines is the problem. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Tyler's questions #1-5 seemed cherry picked to lead to a particular conclusion. We could pick another set of questions that would lead to a different conclusion.

But that seems to distract from the overall issue. It is impossible to read without systematizing, much less preach. To attempt it is what my seminary professor called "brush pile theology," a bunch of piles laying around with no discernible relation. If God has a single truth, then it all fits together. To refuse to try to put it together seems to dishonor that truth. No one thinks (well, almost no one) we should oversystematize. But one man's over-systematization is another man's brushpile. 

If the idea is that we should keep the overall point in mind while preaching a section of a book, that hardly needs debating. If we are preaching John, we would do well to frequently remind people that these are signs to bring belief. But we need not skip the signs themselves. If we are preaching Hebrews, we would do well to constantly remind people that Christ is better. But we need not skip the way in which the angels, great men, the Law and the sacrifices serve that message. No does preaching on people of great faith as models of what it means to believe detract from Christ being better. It just seems that this approach cuts down expository preaching to expository summations of greater themes and might ignore the argument and support that the text itself uses.

Or to cut to the chase, if you preach Romans 1 without preaching about homosexuality, you have not preached the text. 

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