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What is Paul saying in Romans 1?
A plain reading, the traditional view, has been that Paul is describing the conditions of humanity – perhaps using a specific Roman situation as an example. When Paul condemns the idolatry and homosexual behavior (we’ll try to avoid the anachronism of labeling it “homosexuality” for now) of the men and women about whom he writes, it’s generally considered to be a universal indictment, and therefore universally applicable to today’s culture, as well.
As Stanley K. Stowers describes this view in A Rereading of Romans, “Paul describes the problem so he can announce the solution of righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ.” Believe in Christ, and he will set you free from the passions and lust of this world, right?
Stowers argues this reading is flawed; indeed, some scholars have used the passage to criticize Paul’s “lack of objectivity and his rhetorical exaggeration.” Not everyone has actually done the things Paul lists in Romans 1: 23-32:
They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans: birds, animals, and reptiles. So God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other. They traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies. Since they didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. They are gossips, they slander people, and they hate God. They are rude and proud, and they brag. They invent ways to be evil, and they are disobedient to their parents. They are without understanding, disloyal, without affection, and without mercy. Though they know God’s decision that those who persist in such practices deserve death, they not only keep doing these things but also approve others who practice them.
In fact, quite a lot of people who don’t believe in God are quite the opposite of what is described, and they certainly haven’t traded one kind of sexual relation for another.
Further, in chapter 2, Paul says the exact opposite!
Gentiles don’t have the Law. But when they instinctively do what the Law requires they are a Law in themselves, though they don’t have the Law. They show the proof of the Law written on their hearts, and their consciences affirm it. … So if the person who isn’t circumcised keeps the Law, won’t his status of not being circumcised be counted as if he were circumcised? The one who isn’t physically circumcised but keeps the Law will judge you. You became a lawbreaker after you had the written Law and circumcision. It isn’t the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn’t people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person’s praise doesn’t come from people but from God.
Are gentiles utterly without hope, abandoned by God to their insatiable lusts and horrific crimes? Or are there some who follow the law despite not even knowing it, to the extent that they have more of a right to claim Jewishness than some Jews?
So we could conclude, as many scholars have, that Paul is employing gross exaggeration to the point of propaganda in chapter 1, or we could follow Stowers’ argument that the writer is not being as blatantly inconsistent as the text appears on its face.
Stowers instead sees Paul doing something else entirely in chapter 1.