Romans 1:18-32: Paul’s Condemnation of the Pagan World
Romans 1:18-32 begins Paul’s actual argument that runs throughout Romans. It cuts to the heart of the Gospel itself, highlights the implications the Gospel has for living together as a community. Simply put, as I ended the last post, Paul isn’t talking about how one gets saved. He’s pointing to the new challenge facing all believers once they are saved: how are you to live out the Gospel?
Now, in order to prove that the salvation and righteousness of the believer comes on the basis of faith alone, whether that person is a Jew or a Gentile, Paul first has to prove all are, in fact, sinners in need of salvation. He takes this first step in 1:18-32 by focusing on the Gentile-pagan world. The easiest way to understand this section is to see that Paul is giving a thoroughly Jewish understanding of the Gentile world.
He begins his indictment against the Gentile world by declaring that God’s wrath is being revealed upon the wickedness of the pagan world. Throughout the New Testament, God’s ὀργὴ (wrath) is used exclusively in regards to God’s punishment of the wicked and ungodly. In contrast, the word θλῖψις (suffering/tribulation) is used exclusively to denote what Christians go through because they follow Christ. Simply put, Christians suffer θλῖψις but will not suffer God’s ὀργὴ. Fittingly, Paul says that the Gentile world is experiencing God’s wrath because of its wickedness. And what is the cause of this wickedness? It’s the rejection and the suppression of the truth about God.
Paul says that since the truth about God can be seen in the natural world, the Gentile world is without excuse for its rejection of that truth. Because they did not acknowledge the true God, their senseless minds became darkened. Their God-given rational faculties, meant to continually enlighten them as they continued to acknowledge the true God, became darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they were, in fact fools. And the very expression of this foolishness can be seen in the idolatry of the pagan world: bowing down and worshipping what your own hands have made.
You Become What You Worship
Now, this focus on idolatry is key, for it goes back to a fundamental theme that runs throughout the Bible: you become what you worship. Remember, in the ancient world, the word “image” was essentially idol language. An idol was believed to be the “image” of the god, and wherever that image was, so was that particular god. The Jews were commanded at Sinai not to worship “images” of other gods that they had made, because they, in fact all humanity, were made in the image of God. Therefore, since mankind was made to be in God’s image, to worship the true God means you will become a true human being, being spiritually able to hear, speak, and see, and being able to reflect God’s mercy, grace, and justice throughout the world. But to worship a hand-made “image” of another god in the form of a beast means you will become less than human; you will, in fact, become beast-like: spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind; given wholly over to your baser instincts and passions.
Therefore, it is no surprise that when Israel worshipped the golden calf at Sinai, that YHWH referred to them as “stiff-necked people.” They had become what they worshipped: a cow who needed to be yoked and forced to do what God wanted. This is the very concept that Paul is getting across concerning the Gentile world. Their rejection of the true God was seen in their embracing of idol worship. And so, what we see in 1:18-23 is that Paul is stating what the cause of human wickedness is: it is to be found in idolatry—the ultimate stupidity of human existence.
It should be noted, though, that idolatry is not simply something that was done back there and then. The essence of idolatry can be seen in 1:23: exchanging the truth of the immortal God and choosing to worship mortal things in nature—it is ultimately the denial of the divine. The ancient pagan world might say they were worshipping “gods,” but in reality they were worshipping something they had, in fact, made—something purely natural and mortal that was bound to eventually decay. And since there really was no such thing as “the gods,” what the pagans were, in fact, doing with their worship was attempting to manipulate and control things by their own hand. They were not trying to be like the true God in whose image they were made; but rather they were trying to be their own gods; and the result was they became what they worshipped: their own beast-like desires and passions.
Paul’s Take on “Homosexuality” (Well, Sort of…Clarification is Needed)
And so, without the image of God, human beings are essentially nothing more than natural beasts. God’s wrath, therefore, comes in the form of him letting us suffer the consequences of our decisions. That’s what Paul’s general indictment is in 1:24: God gave them over to the lusts of their heart. But then Paul mentions in 1:26-27 the specific sin of same-sex sex acts, what he calls “dishonorable passions” and “shameless acts.” Given the current culture’s debate over homosexuality, a few words need to be said to clarify what Paul is saying.
First of all, Paul is not talking about “homosexuality” in the way that it is commonly understood today. The term “homosexual” wasn’t even a word until the mid-1800s, and it is used today to denote people who claim a certain sexual orientation. Back in the ancient world, no one identified themselves as “homosexual.” No one identified themselves according to “sexual orientation.” Men and women would marry the opposite sex and raise families. But in the pagan world, engaging in same-sex sex acts was common place. It was accepted and encouraged. Here’s the key, though: same-sex sex acts were something that people in the pagan world would engage in, but they were not seen as a defining characteristic of any person’s very being. It was simply something one did; it didn’t indicate anything about who that person was.
The bulk of such sexual activity would happen, not surprisingly, in the context of pagan temple worship. It was common place for a man with a wife and children to occasionally go to a pagan temple, offering his sacrifice to a particular god or goddess, and then hire a temple prostitute—sometimes a woman, and sometimes a young man—and have sex with that person as a part of his pagan worship. But that man was not considered a “homosexual.” He was simply a good pagan who engaged in a religious practice that was accepted and encouraged in the Gentile world. The reason why this is important is that Paul is condemning the actual practice of same-sex sex acts. He is not condemning, or even speaking about, some modern nebulous concept of “sexual orientation.” Acknowledging this leads us to two additional points.
The reason why Paul chooses same-sex sex acts as the “poster child” for Gentile wickedness is not because it is somehow more dangerous or evil than, let’s say murder. He chooses same-sex sex acts because it represents the kind of “futile and foolish thinking” he mentions in 1:21. To be blunt, putting a man’s member into another man’s anal cavity is stupid because the sexual organs do not work that way, biologically or naturally. We also know that such acts are extremely dangerous and open the door to a wide variety of diseases. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find such practices in a pagan and idolatrous culture. Unnatural and biologically harmful sex acts were encouraged and were considered a part of worship. For Paul, this is the epitome of human stupidity and foolishness. This is the natural outcome of a society that rejects the true God and turns to worshipping things made of their own hands.
One more thing must be noted, though: Paul is saying nothing about our modern concept of “sexual orientation.” There might be a variety of reasons why a man finds himself not attracted to women, but rather attracted to other men—perhaps there was some trauma in his childhood, or perhaps he really was “born that way.” But for Paul, one’s “sexual orientation” would be a non-issue in this case. Regardless of one’s urges or attractions, Paul is clear: engaging in same-sex sex acts is wrong and emblematic of idolatrous foolishness, but Paul is simply not condemning a person’s feelings or “orientation.” He is condemning the specific sexual act.
Given the current controversy regarding homosexuality, reading Paul honestly should serve as a challenge to both sides of the debate: Conservatives have to wrestle with the fact that perhaps people really are “born that way,” but liberals must face the biblical reality that engaging in same-sex sexual acts is clearly condemned. As is almost always the case, an honest reading of Scripture will inevitably challenge you to reconsider your personal views. This case is no exception. More can certainly be discussed concerning the current controversy regarding homosexuality, but my focus is simply to articulate what Paul is saying in Romans. I’ll leave it at that.
Paul ends his indictment of the Gentile world in 1:28-32 by saying that “God gave them over” to a worthless mind, and then proceeds to give a laundry list of wicked and evil behavior. What Paul is saying is that the pagan Gentile world, because it has rejected the true God, is experiencing the wrath of God—God has let them suffer the consequences of their actions. The pagan world has become what it worshipped. They have become senseless and violent beasts who are ruled by their unbridled passions and lusts.
I think we need to see that such an indictment holds true, not only for the ancient world, but also for us in the modern world. Yes, I know that the focus on Romans 1 tends to be on same-sex sex acts, but we cannot gloss over the laundry list of wicked behavior Paul gives. Yes, he might highlight same-sex sex acts, but he does not suggest that that is somehow worse than anything else. And if you take the whole laundry list into consideration, it is pretty condemning of our society, just as it was of the ancient pagan society.