For the next two weeks we are going to address some of the more controversial passages that get used frequently in the midst of this struggle. Sometimes these passages are called “clobber texts,” because they are used to “clobber” people – to judge them or call them to true righteousness as we see it. And then, there are those who interpret these passages differently and use them to “clobber” back – and back and forth it goes. I am absolutely convinced (and convicted) that there is a more faithful and fruitful way to read these passages. These words are not weapons. So, we are going to see if we can read them to help us build up rather than tear down, unite rather than divide, and heal rather than harm – as God intends.
We will start with Romans 1:18-2:1. I’m going to read the whole passage, then make a few comments about how this passage is used and sometimes abused, and then invite you into a conversation.
This passage is part of a larger discourse, where Paul argues that we are all guilty, none are righteous, “not even one,” he says. Here is a key verse: “Since we all fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 3:23). And then Paul goes on to reveal this grace. He makes the case that to grasp God’s life-giving amazing grace, we first must see our need for it. We can’t measure up to God’s love by our own work; we cannot justify or save ourselves. To try is to only bring God down to ourselves. If it is up to us to align ourselves to God, then our only option is to bring God down to our level…
In these verses, the clear backdrop is some kind of idolatrous worship practices. Idolatry (or the worship of idols) is defined as the worshiping of the creature or creation rather than the creator. It is exchanging the truth for lies. Perhaps one way to explain Idolatry is to note that it starts with “I.” Idolatry is the effort to manipulate spiritual forces to get our own way. That’s what Paul is talking about here.
Idolatry is an “abomination.” And that’s an important biblical word here. An abomination is something that is unnatural – like the abominable snowman. An abomination is something unnatural and offensive. And this brings us to the verses that are most often used in the struggle to discern matters of human sexuality.
Our exchanging truth for lies and devotion to God for devotion to the world is as unnatural for us as exchanging what is natural for us when it comes to sexual attraction with what would be unnatural, and yet, because of sin, we do this so easily.
It is an illustration, not the point. But many make it the point. They stop here and say, “See, same-sex intimacy, in any form, is a distortion of God’s purpose and design for us. It is an abomination. End of story.” And then, others will say “See. Paul didn’t understand same-sex attraction in the way we do today. It is not a choice, and Paul is right, none of us should exchange what is natural for us and engage in behaviors that are unnatural for us. That would be wrong.” On this side, it is pointed out that the assumption here is that heterosexuals are exchanging what is natural for them for something unnatural, and that the context is probably some kind of pagan ritual to appease the gods. So, we have two sides focused on these few verses to make a point, or to “clobber” the other side.
Paul’s whole point is that this is not the point. We can’t stop here. Paul gives a long list of “unnatural” acts (abominations) that are against the will of God — envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, insolence (or being disrespectful), boastfulness (arrogance where we build ourselves up by putting others down), foolishness, disobedience, and “all manner of wickedness” or “etc” (v.28-31). All of these acts and attitudes point to a disorientation of life and lead us into lies. The big point is that no one has escaped the reality of sin. We are all in need of grace. And so, Paul concludes this section by saying, “Therefore you (earlier he said “they;” now we know that we are included in the “they”) have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” (2:1).
For our purposes here, we must conclude that using this passage to judge others is to totally pervert God’s word. This is an example of exchanging truth for a lie. This is an example of us creating God in our image and using God to justify our own prejudices and desires. We are all called into a bigger reality where we can all be transformed by grace.
So, now I want to read it again, and then have you discuss around the tables, with these questions to spark your conversation. Where do we see ourselves in this passage? What are we really not supposed to do? And how might we turn that into a statement about what we should do as people of faith and as the church? (If you need help re-read Eph 4:1-6, or Romans 12:9-18, or Gal 5:22-23, or Col 3:12-14, for starters).
A Report of Conversations
As a report, there were rich conversations around the tables and then in the larger group. One of our youth asked about free-will, referencing how God allows all this to happen. I responded with an affirmation that God does allow us to try out forms of idolatry, but never abandoned us and is able to use even our sinfulness to bring us back into grace.
One table turned to Colossians 3 to help answer the questions. Here we see back to back lists of what not to do and what to do. The list of “don’t” is similar to the list in Romans – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying. We are then invited to “clothe ourselves,” as God’s beloved, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and above all love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Note how similar this is to the list we used from Ephesians 4. Our calling is to behave in holy ways, more than it is to believe certain things about how others should live.
Many have used this passage to define sin for others in an effort to uphold God’s standard and combat immorality in the world. I would agree that this passage helps us in this effort, but only as we look at the whole and at ourselves as well. It does not serve the cause of Christ well – to pick out verses to use as weapons in defense or condemnation of an “agenda” or “lifestyle” of others. Our concern is how to respond faithfully to anyone who comes and says, “I want to live in relationship with Christ, and practice faithfulness and commitment even when sacrifice is required. I want to live in a relationship where I can cultivate the love of Christ. Will the church help me do that?” That’s our “agenda.” Perhaps if we focused more on promoting this life-giving way of relating to one another, we might get a lot more interest from people who are searching for something more. I believe that would glorify God.