In recent posts on Romans, I have described Romans 1.18-32 as a description of a socio-moral descent of humanity that becomes implicit throughout Romans in the word hardening. However, after making this claim, I realized there are a potential hermeneutical misstep one might take from seeing Romans 1.18-32 as an example of hardening that would have dramatic, if not traumatic, implications for people. It pertains to the relationship of the sexual transgression of 1.26-27.
As I have argued previously, I don’t think these passages refers to what we today would refer to all of what we today would refer to as homosexuality, but rather the way that husbands sexually substituted another male in place of their wives. Nevertheless, there is still the assumption that marriage bed is understood to be between a male and female, and so while Paul is not describing consensual, non-adulterous relationships between two people of the same gender, that would still not fit within Paul’s Jewish moral universe.
Consequently, there is a risk of a misinterpretation of Romans 1.18-32. We might be inclined to think that the violation of the marriage bed is part of the socio-moral descent of a person, that it is what leads to further sin. Put differently, the inference may be drawn that this form of sexual deviance itself will lead to an entirely different ‘lifestyle,’ to use a modern phrase.
However, this is not the case. Sexual inversion is not included in Paul’s discourse as the midway point between idolatry and utter moral depravity. Rather, it is included as an analogy to what happens with idolatry. Where Paul describes people exchanging (μετήλλαξαν) for a lie and hearts being drawn to these idols in Romans 1.23-24 , the women are said to exchange μετήλλαξαν) in 1.26 and the men have a passion for one another in 1.27. The implicit, rhetorical purpose of Paul’s similar description of idolatry and the sexual inversion is to suggest that the sexual degradation corresponds to their idolatry. In other words, the nature of idolatry is then reflected in their behavior.
The point then is not to suggest their sexual deviation is the cause of moral decay. Far from that, Paul’s overwhelming point is that it is idolatry that is primarily and overwhelming responsible for socio-moral descents. After describes the sexual transgressions in 1.26-27, Paul then starts the description of further moral decay by describing their continued ignoring of God in 1.28.
Here then is the fundamental problem of the socio-moral decay for Paul, the ignorance of God that comes from idolatry. It wasn’t that they were foolish by nature leading to their ignorance, as the Wisdom of Solomon (13.1), as if they were part of the “depraved reprobate,” but that their idolatry blinded them from their original knowledge of God and thus defaced the image of God in their lives.
However, the point of Paul’s telling of this narrative of hardening is to then implicate the hypothetical Jewish sage in Romans 2 and all those who exhibit a Maccabean-like zeal in Romans 10.1-3. The problem is that in their pursuit of righteousness through Torah, they did not come to an appropriate knowledge of God, because the Torah provides a knowledge of sin, not God’s righteousness (Romans 3.20). So, by being fixated on a developing system of moral rules and regulations based upon Torah, they were fixated upon sin that the Torah address, which Paul says leads to the moral descent into further sin in Romans 7. While Paul doesn’t refer to this behavior of idolatry, we might suggest that Paul thinks the zeal for Jewish nationalism through a hyper-focus on application of the Torah had lead to a blindness for God. Hence, it is Paul’s conviction that God has revealed His righteousness in Jesus Christ in the midst of human sin that has made all people, Jew and Gentile, morally descend and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3.21-26).
The point then, in application today in the American context, is that the fall into social decay that we are witnessing isn’t simply the fault of the “progressives” who have left behind God, but that it is the “Christians” who have exchanged God for an illusion of national righteousness and glory that have also fallen into great socio-moral decay. It is the ignorance of God, whether through idolatry or through replaced God Himself with another agenda hat has mutually assured the social and moral decay of American and her institutions. Not that it was ever a perfect pinnacle of righteousness as the stories of brutalization of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans and their subsequent “freedom” into a highly oppressive and discriminating society makes clear. However, the very grounds of socio-moral ascent that allow for the success of the Civil Rights movement has become all but universally bereft, leading to degradation of the social progress that was made for African Americans.
May those who call themselves by God’s name come to truly know yet again the Father in the Son who demonstrates the Father’s love through the Spirit who demonstrates and explains the righteousness and life of the Son.