Epistle to the Romans Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
Have you ever voted? Or, say, turned on the TV? Then you know that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues are a hot topic in American society. People have tons of questions about what it means to be gay, or in many cases, if it's even okay. And many people look to the Bible to find their answers.
What Does Romans Say?
Romans only has one reference to people engaging in same-sex relations, but it's a doozy. Paul is busy talking about non-believers when he starts to accuse them of all kinds of out-of-the-ordinary things. Let's take a peek:
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (1:26-27)
Okay, so Paul seems to come down pretty hard on anyone, man or woman, who is engaging in sexual relations with a member of the same sex. But what does it all mean and how have people interpreted this passage over the years?
Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve
One pretty obvious way to read this verse is that Paul, and by extension, God, is condemning all homosexual behavior. And you're probably not surprised to learn that along with some other verses of the Bible, Paul's words here have been used to tout the idea that being gay is just not okay with the Almighty:
- The verse specifically calls the behavior of these non-believers "degrading passions."
- It also states that these people switched "natural intercourse" for "unnatural," which implies that only being heterosexual is natural and good.
- And don't forget that God then punishes these people with a "due penalty." Some folks take that to mean that God gave these immoral heathens their just desserts by giving them all STDs. Harsh, God. Harsh.
Free to Be You and Me
But other commentators have urged Christians to look at these verses in context. Paul is speaking specifically about non-Christians who engage in pagan fertility rituals. They already have one strike against them because "though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him" (1:21). Basically, their rituals are paying homage to the wrong deity. Oops.
Before this verse, Paul specifically calls out their idolatrous behavior. These non-believers worship "images remembering a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" (1:23). They serve "the creature rather than the Creator" (1:24). This is a big no-no in Paul's eyes.
God went on and let these non-believers do all kinds of crazy things. They engaged in sex acts with members of the same sex, though this was contrary to their nature. This could mean that men and women who were straight had sex with members of the same sex for the ritual, even though that wasn't how they would have acted otherwise. Apparently, they've all been whipped up into some crazy same-sex frenzy over there.
Paul goes on to list all kinds of other terrible things these folks do:
They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (1:29-32)
Really, Paul's whole point seems to be that since these non-believers have turned away from God so radically, they've just flown into a crazy downward spiral.
Historically, this list has to be an exaggeration. The early Christians themselves were accused of all kinds of crazy things, even sexual immorality and incest during their worship services (source, 129). It seems that people love using their imaginations when it comes to what goes on behind closed doors.
But Paul doesn't say anything in this famous verse about sexual orientation—probably because he didn't know such a thing existed. That means you could read his words simply as a condemnation of homosexual behavior in the context of these pagan rituals.
Let's Argue About It
As you'd expect, this verse has been contentious for the last two thousand years and it will continue to be a problem for anyone who wants to decide once and for all what God thinks of same sex relationships.
There are basically two options. You can look at it and say, "Yup, there it is in black and white—God does not anyone to be gay." Or you can take a more nuanced view. Look at the context. Read a good Bible commentary. Literature just loves to be analyzed, after all.
To snip or not to snip? That is the question. More specifically, it's the big question of Paul's day. Did converts to Christianity have to also follow Jewish law? Did Gentile men who wanted to follow Christ have to be circumcised? And what does this mean for us today?
Hey, Put Those Scissors Down
Paul comes down pretty clearly on the "No" side of this argument. He maintains a foreskin is just fine for anyone who loves Jesus. He doesn't see circumcision as a literal requirement. Instead, he sees it as a symbolic quality:
Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? […] For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal. (2:25-29)
Paul's making it clear that circumcision isn't a thing you do, it's a thing you are. You're either oriented toward God or you're not. According to this guy, having an intact member doesn't make you worse than someone who doesn't. It's what's inside that counts. Awww.
On the other hand, Paul also doesn't specifically say not to do it. Though being circumcised doesn't make you more holy than the next guy, it's still an okay thing to do:
What is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. (3:1-2)
So if you really want to be circumcised have your son circumcised, Paul would say there's nothing inherently wrong with that. If you always remember to keep God in your heart, then you're good.
Despite the fact that Christians aren't required by their faith to be circumcised, circumcision is a standard practice in most American hospitals. Many parents undergo the procedure for aesthetic reasons (doesn't everyone want their son to have a pretty penis?). The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends circumcision for newborn boys because it can help prevent the spread of STDs. Sounds like a good reason.
But there are a growing number of parents and organizations who see infant circumcision as immoral and dangerous. Since babies can't consent to the procedure, some parents don't think it's fair to remove healthy skin that can't be put back if the kid decides he wants it later. Other folks regard circumcision as nothing more than genital mutilation. Yikes.
What does Paul think? For him, it's a personal choice. Circumcision doesn't make you better than anyone else. Neither does a foreskin. Basically, Christians are free to do what they like with their penises. Within reason, of course.
Ronald Reagan famously said, "The nine most dangerous words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'" Wow. This issue never gets old. Way, way, way before this, the early Christians were debating the role of government in their own lives.
What laws did Christians have to obey? Should they pay taxes? And what right does the government have to tell people what to do anyway? Well, if we believe Paul, a lot. This is not looking good for anarchists.
What Does Romans Say?
Paul comes down pretty heavy on the side of authority figures:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. (13:1-5)
Okay, so that's pretty hardcore. But what does it mean?
You Must Obey!
Some proponents of this passage have interpreted it as meaning that Christians are required to obey governmental authorities under all circumstances. After all, Paul explicitly says that those leaders have been "instituted by God." That means whatever they decide is what God wants, right?
Not quite. During World War II, some Germans used this passage to justify their obedience to the Third Reich. Martin Luther King Jr. faced challenges from Christians who thought his opposition to racially discriminatory laws was not in line with Paul's teaching. And even some support for the Iraq war was boosted through this verse (source, 10).
So does that mean that in those situations, murder, oppression, and war were ordained by God? Are Christians really supposed to sit by and let the government act in an unjust way?
Don't Tell Me What to Do!
You'd be hard-pressed to find many people who see this verse as an absolute in every circumstance. It's mostly trotted out when the person saying it personally agrees with the issue.
For example: are you cool with the death penalty? Then who are we to rock the boat and change the law? Besides, it says right there in Romans 13: "Authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer." See, God totally wants the state to execute people. Besides, we cannot question the oh-so-wise authorities.
But even Christians who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God will still oppose laws and government institutions they see as unjust. Try to tell them that abortion is all right with God because it's the law of the land and see what they say.
Many people have interpreted this passage to mean that only "good" leaders are supposed to be followed without question. That seems to make sense, but invites a kind of anarchy. How do we know which laws are good? How do we know which leaders are bad? Sure, we could look in the Bible, but then we find this passage that says we shouldn't be questioning these laws in the first place. It's a vicious circle.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This is a tough one and, ultimately, some people believe that Paul didn't really mean what he said. It's really not practical to obey authority in every circumstance. That makes Christians into nothing more than mindless sheep and opens the door for tons of abuse and tyranny. No one, definitely not God, wants that.
It's possible that Paul was just using this statement to help keep order in the early church. He was afraid that the Christians in Rome might rise up and violently oppose the government. That would not end well. Remember, Paul's pretty big on people getting along. So, if they have to put up with some nonsense from the government and pay their taxes, then it's a small price to pay for not instantly being crushed under the boot of Rome (source, 118).
There's also Paul's personal history to consider. He's had more than one run-in with unjust rulers. Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities. Jewish-Christians were kicked out of Rome by imperial decree. And, less than ten years after writing this letter, Paul himself would be put to death by the Empire for his Christian beliefs.
We're guessing he wasn't 100% on board the obeying authority train then.
Women have come a long way since the 1st century. Suffrage. Equal pay for equal work. Bras. But there are still lots of issues around women and leadership in the church. What roles can women fill? What is their place in the church? Let's see what Paul has to say about all this.
What Does Romans Say?
At the end of his letter, Paul sends greetings to a huge list of people in Rome. Nine of them are women. The first and most prominent lady is Phoebe, who would have been the one to carry Paul's letter to Rome, read it aloud to the community, and explain and answer any questions the people had about it:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. (16:1-2)
Other ladies who are listed (their names are italicized for those who aren't familiar with Roman and Jewish naming customs):
- "Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles." (16:3-4)
- "Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you." (16:6)
- "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was." (16:7)
- "Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa." (16:12)
- "Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord." (16:12)
- "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother — a mother to me also." (16:13)
- "Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them." (16:15)
That's a lot of holy women. So, what does this all mean?
Women Need Not Apply
For the majority of Christian history, women were left out of the ministry. The Catholic Church and some other more conservative Protestant denominations still do not ordain women. Part of their reasoning is based on the fact that women did not have leadership roles in the early church. Men have traditionally been entrusted with spreading God's word and so that must be what God wants. Hey, if it was good enough for people two thousand years ago, it should be good enough for us today.
You know, like dying from leprosy.
But Paul's letter seems to blow a huge hole in that theory. Of the women he mentions, many are called out for having important leadership roles. Phoebe is called a "deacon" of the church and is entrusted with the important job of delivering Paul's letter to the Romans. As a deacon, she would have ministered to other Christians, instructed candidates for baptism, and probably also contributed financially to Paul's mission. So she's not only a deacon, she's also a benefactor, Nice.
There's also Junia who is called "prominent among the apostles," which indicates that, like Paul, she was an apostle, called by God to spread the word of Jesus Christ around the world. That's some pretty good credentials right there.
These are the same words that Paul uses for himself and for other men in the church. Does that mean that Paul sees the actions of good Christian men and women as essentially equal? Go, Paul!
Other passages that have been attributed to Paul, outside of Romans, are sometimes held up to support the inferiority of women. 1 Corinthians 14 has a lovely verse about how women are supposed to stay silent in church. 1 Timothy 2 (which is not one of Paul's authentic letters) also has all kinds of rules about the way women should dress and act. Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 (which many scholars also don't think were written by Paul) have the charming advice, "wives, submit to your husbands."
But Romans doesn't have any hint of this kind of stuff. Paul is more in line with his statement in Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." He's all about recognizing the ladies and their achievements within the church.
All the churchy ladies, put your hands up!