Murderers. Backbiters and haters of God. Full of envy and deceit. Without natural affection. Inventors of evil things. Filled with all unrighteousness and fornication. Disobedient to their parents!
Who is Paul talking about here?
What is Paul trying to accomplish?
Why is Paul talking about this at the beginning of Romans?
What is a clobber passage?
Let’s back up a moment. In my previous essay on Paul’s letter to the Romans, I alluded to the fact that Romans was written for a particular audience in a particular context for a particular purpose. I dove into some of the historical backstory to paint a picture of what was happening in the church of Rome at the time the letter was in circulation. Now, let’s examine what Paul says himself about the purpose of writing Romans.
The key text to note first is Romans 1:14-17:
For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world, to the educated and uneducated alike. So I am eager to come to you in Rome, too, to preach the Good News. For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”
Paul is very eager to preach the Gospel to the Romans, and he has a certain angle which he plans to expound upon quite extensively in his letter. The tell for how to interpret these initial sections of Romans lies with the phrase “the Jew first and also the Gentile.”
Indeed, the first several chapters of Romans are directed principally to the Jewish Christians in Rome. Gradually Paul will shift to making more general points that are relevant to both Jews and Gentiles, and in some cases later on he addresses Gentiles specifically. But here at the beginning of Romans, Paul’s target audience are the Jews who have come to faith in Christ.
So what is it Paul wishes to say to the Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome? In a nutshell:
Just because you’re Jewish doesn’t mean you have a special status in God’s eyes. Anything terrible you see the Gentiles up to in pagan society, you’re in fact no better. Both of you are equally in need of God’s mercy.
It’s not the most pleasant of messages, but Paul feels it’s necessary because his ultimate goal is to bring the Jews and the Gentiles together under a single banner: the banner of God’s universal and unconditional love and grace. The Jews and the Gentiles have come to faith in Jesus from very different worlds, but Paul’s declaration is that they’ve both ended up in the same place with the same standing in God’s eyes.
Two thousand years later, this message may seem quaint or anachronistic to us today. Except perhaps when talking about Middle Eastern foreign policy, the theological and cultural divide between Jews and Gentiles is of little concern to most of us. But Paul isn’t writing a letter to us. He’s writing to the Christians in Rome in A.D. 58.
This is a radical message Paul is preaching! Jews and Romans living together in unity, harmony, and mutual respect? Oppressor and oppressed coming together in the spirit of peace and love? The evil empire and the rebel alliance laying down arms and embracing each other? Crazy talk.
And yet that’s exactly what Paul is up to: he’s explaining how Christ is the catalyst for this brave new world of love and respect for one another—regardless of ethnicity, culture, or creed. (Now one could debate the historical effectiveness of his message…unfortunately 2,000 years later, Christians of various stripes are still at odds in many places around the world. But that’s another discussion for another time.)
To drive home this point of unity in Christ, Paul begins his Good News with a harsh polemic, starting at verse 18 of Romans 1. But as we shall soon see, his rhetoric was not without historical and cultural precedent…
The Wisdom of Solomon
Written not by King Solomon but as an ode to his wise counsel, the apocryphal text known as “The Wisdom of Solomon” is believed to have been written by a Greek-speaking Jew in Alexandria in the mid-1st century B.C. Many Protestants are unfamiliar with Wisdom because it isn’t considered canonical (though it is by the Catholic and Orthodox traditions).
Of interest to us are chapters 13 and 14 (and 15 to a certain extent). The general themes of these chapters convey a certain progression of ideas:
- God’s nature, beauty, and power are plainly evident in the created order.
- But people began to worship the things God made, rather than God himself. Because they should have understood the natural evidence of God, they are without excuse.
- They foolishly fashioned idols, which are worthless and don’t do anything of themselves.
- Those who worship idols engage in all kind of immoral acts and sexual deviance: murder, corruption, adultery, ritual child sacrifice, orgies…you get the picture.
- God’s judgement is on these people for such wickedness!
Wait a minute…why does this narrative sound so familiar?
For comparison, let’s examine the ideas we find Romans 1:18-32:
- God’s nature, beauty, and power are plainly evident in the created order.
- But people began to worship the things God made, rather than God himself…
OK, we might as well just stop right there because it’s essentially the same rhetoric as in The Wisdom of Solomon. Which brings us to a startling conclusion:
Either Paul was familiar with The Wisdom of Solomon and was basically paraphrasing chapters 13 & 14 in Romans 1:18-32, or else he was familiar with contemporary Jewish preachers who were espousing similar precepts.
What does this mean for us? It means that the so-called “clobber passage” of Romans…this collection of verses that get strip-mined by religious types for use in all kinds of hate speech towards those unfortunates they don’t like—the gays, the atheists, the “New Agers,” the socialists, the fill-in-the-blank-bad-guys—well, it would seem the reason these verses are here in Romans serve a very different purpose. Paul has a trick up his sleeve.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man!
The trick comes in the very first verse of Romans 2. It really is unfortunate that the way we process Biblical texts is sometimes tainted by the way the text is broken up into chapters and verses (something that transpired centuries after the manuscripts were actually written). Romans 2 is inextricably linked to Romans 1—indeed, I would argue Romans 1 doesn’t make proper sense without Romans 2 to clarify matters.
Let’s examine the first passage here, Romans 2:1-4:
You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?
Whoa! Paul’s rhetorical slight of hand here is astounding.
I’d like to quote once again from Catholic theologian James Alison, as his analysis on the turn of phrase starting off Romans 2 is quite illuminating:
Now you can see what the effect of this phrase is on the preceding argument. The effect is rather similar to what would have happened if Paul had said “We all know that the gentiles do idiotic things, get involved in bizarre rites and frenzies, and guess what terrible consequences this leads to: they become gossips, disobedient to their parents! Behave foolishly! How unlike anyone we know!” and then paused for the first giggles of self-recognition to break out.
Now of course this rhetorical device of building up his listeners for a fall, and then puncturing their balloon, wouldn’t work at all if Paul were claiming that his listeners had been doing the same things as the pagans – that is the bizarre cults and frenzied sexualised rites leading to castration. His point is not that his listeners have been doing these things, but that even though they haven’t, and wouldn’t dream of doing them, they share in exactly the same pattern of desire, and the ordinary banal wickedness which flows from that pattern, the really serious stuff, which they have in common with the pagans who do indeed do those silly things.
So the point of Paul’s inflammatory rhetoric towards pagans in Romans 1:18-32 is to get his Jewish audience all fired up…only to turn everything around in Romans 2 and point the finger at them! Paul’s not doing this out of anger of course, but out of love. He’s trying to drive home the concept that Jews as well as Gentiles are in serious need of spiritual transformation. You’ll see additional statements exactly along these lines throughout Romans chapter 2, for example:
There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
There’s that phrase again! “The Jew first and also the Gentile.”
For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.
A change of heart. True spiritual transformation and renewal. Letting God’s spirit work within you. Following in the footsteps of Jesus. This is what Paul is getting at. And he’s starting out by helping the Jewish Christians in Rome understand these concepts and the importance of holding loosely the Law (Torah) that they once had regarded so highly. The Law certainly had its usefulness, yes, but its day in the sun was at an end.
Thus, Paul never meant Romans 1 to be used by Christians to point an accusatory finger at non-Christians to convince them they need a savior.
Paul was writing to Jews about familiar Jewish religious concepts and the question of if their Jewishness alone could earn God’s favor.
It’s a fascinating theological topic worthy of further consideration—but for now, my main point is simply that Christian preachers who use Romans 1 to bash people they don’t like are not only misusing the text considerably, they are also ignoring the entire point of Romans 2!
If I may take a page out of Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 2 and update it ever so slightly:
You who call yourselves Christians are relying on the Bible, and you boast about your special relationship with God. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught the Bible.
You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that the Bible gives you complete knowledge and truth.
Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn secular humanism, but do you use ideas stolen from secular culture? You are so proud of knowing the Bible, but you dishonor God by breaking it.
No wonder the Scriptures say, “The atheists blaspheme the name of God because of you.”
Nothing Can Separate Us from God’s Love
While I firmly believe Paul’s primary rationale for rehashing Jewish polemics against paganism in Romans 1 was to turn the rhetorical tables in Romans 2 as outlined above, it’s nevertheless possible that Paul was intending to reiterate a condemnation of pagan practices as a warning to Christians.
Even if that was Paul’s intent, we still need to interpret Romans 1 in light of the rest of the letter! And one of the central themes we see throughout Romans isn’t the extent of God’s wrath towards unbelievers, but the extent of God’s love towards unbelievers!
One of the towering narrative climaxes in Romans, and perhaps in any of Paul’s letters, is this powerful passage in Romans 8:
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?
No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. (emphasis mine)
Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
–Romans 8:35, 37-39
Now lest someone claim Paul’s only talking about God’s love towards believers, let us not forget all the preceeding verses where Paul describes to us God’s love for us before we ever believed in Jesus!
God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.
For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins.
So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.
Keep this in mind when you read anything in the early passages of Romans that seems overly harsh. Listen to what Paul is trying to tell us!
- You may have worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles…yet nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.
- Your life might have been full of all kinds of nasty: greed, hate, envy, quarreling, malicious behavior, gossip…yet nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.
- Perhaps you did ugly and degrading things to your body…yet nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.
So if even death, demons, and any other crap that hell can muster up to throw at you isn’t powerful enough to separate you from the love of God—what makes you think your biggest mistakes are?
What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?
But, but…what about those LGBTQ+ people?
Let’s not beat around the bush. Romans 1:21-27 is one of the most oft-quoted passages in the New Testament, if not the entire Bible, which gets used to defend persecution of gays, lesbians, and others not in the cisgender heteronormative camp.
Not only is homosexuality apparently condemned, but because of the positioning of the apparent condemnation within the larger narrative, “teh gays” get lumped in with greedy decceptive murderers who hate God.
The obvious problem with this sort of translation is that we don’t actually see this narrative play out in real life.
Some gays go to church on Sunday.
Some lesbians feed the poor and help in their local communities.
Some transgender people travel oversees to help refugees find shelter and aid in foreign lands.
Some queer people create beautiful art which moves audiences to tears.
I must say that, personally, I don’t know any backstabbing, envious, heartless, malicious LGTBQ+ people who also enjoy disobeying their parents for the heck of it.
Honestly, who are these terrible homosexual deviants Paul is referring to? I’m sorry to say I haven’t met any!
Now granted, you can go to some seedy strip clubs in a questionable area of a city and witness strange gay behavior. You can also go to seedy strip clubs and witness strange straight behavior.
I know a same-sex couple who have been together for decades. I know of opposite-sex couples who got divorced in no time at all.
In short, if there are “good gays” and “bad straights” and every other combination you can think of, than the logical conclusion is that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is in fact not a reflection of their moral fiber or general character in how they relate to other human beings (or God for that matter).
So back to Paul for a moment. If it simply doesn’t follow in our modern-day experience that LGBTQ+ people are inherently terrible, then either (a) Paul is entirely mistaken and talking nonsense, or (b) Paul isn’t talking about modern-day LGBTQ+ people at all!
I’m putting my money on the latter interpretation.
At least three options present themselves to us, according to a growing number of Biblical scholars:
- Paul had a very narrow class of activity in mind when he wrote Romans 1, namely certain homosexual acts which were conducted in pagan temples at the time— practices he would have associated primarily with pagan worship.
- Paul isn’t actually talking about homosexuality as we understand it today. For example, he might have had in mind a scenario where one man would dress as a woman and pretend to be female, and allow a “manly man” to penetrate him in a role-play scenario.
- Paul’s thoughts on homosexuality were inextricably bound up in the culture norms of his day. A modern monogamous, same-sex couple wishing to pursue love and even marriage in a similar manner to an opposite-sex couple simply isn’t anything he would have recognized or commented on.
I’ve heard of one or two other possible interpretations that I find less convincing, but I appreciate the efforts many people have made in recent years to contextualize these challenging verses.
Folks, it’s time put the so-called “clobber passage” of Romans to rest. Not only is Romans 1 by and large a rhetorical device which then gets resolved in Romans 2—making a point about the Jewish need for Jesus—but even when looking at these verses through a microscope and ignoring the rest of Romans, it is hardly convincing as a blanket condemnation of alternative sexual orientations as we understand them today.
Compared to later chapters of Romans, Romans 1 & 2 can be a bit of a slog. But I strongly encourage you to put chapter and verse aside and read through these passages as a singular narrative. Quoting from my previous essay, Paul starts out Romans by laying important groundwork for this fundamental statement:
Nobody has a monopoly on truth or goodness. Jews, Gentiles, anybody else who might come along…we’re all flawed people. So let’s all cut each other some slack here because, guess what? That’s what God is like towards us. He has grace and love for us in abundance. All we have to do is receive it. It’s a free gift.
I think this is an amazing, universal message with ramifications that benefit everyone—no matter who you are, no matter what you are, no matter where you came from. God’s love for you is real, it’s sincere, and it’s beautiful!
Next week, we’ll go full-tilt-boogie into an examination of the doctrine of original sin, the first and last Adam, and what Paul is really trying to tell us about our need for redemption. Stay tuned!
✢ ✢ ✢