Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 5

Let’s review where we are in this series on Paul’s trustworthiness on the topic of sexuality.

First, we discussed the fact that Paul includes something not many of us would consider a sin – effeminacy – in one of his vice lists, which should raise some red flags that we’re dealing with a culture that deals with these topics differently than we do.

Second, we looked at the importance of self-mastery in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day.

Third, we noticed chapters 1 and 2 of Romans seem to contradict each other, and looked at the fact that both Greco-Roman and Jewish philosophy of the first century prized masculinity over femininiy, and that this influenced the culture’s view of sexual relations.

Fourth, we looked at the Jewish apologetics’ use of Greco-Roman concepts like self-mastery as a way to argue for the superiority of Jewish law in the Roman system.

Here’s the conclusion to that piece:

When Paul writes Romans 1, he and his audience both understand that he is tapping into intersecting strains of first-century thought – the Greco-Roman priority on self-mastery and the Jewish apologetic – in order to propagandize the superiority of Jewish law over the untrammeled passions and desires of those living without it.

So why do this? Why tap into these two rhetorical veins?

On one level, the answer is obvious: He does this because his readers are used to this language. We are not, and so we take away things from it Paul and his audience would never have expected. But first-century Roman gentiles, whether or not they are used to hearing Jewish apologetic, are certainly aware of the notions of self-mastery and the consequences of failing to acquire it.

For that, we need to look past Romans 1.

First, Paul pivots to condemn those who are reading his remarks and nodding their heads – “every single one of you who judges others is without excuse.” Like King David, their judgment condemns themselves. Then Paul moves into a discussion with a rhetorical questioner – a Jew who has been teaching Gentiles how to follow the law. This foil argues with Paul about Jews, Gentiles and the law. At the end of it, Paul says both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin, and Paul argues in 3:20 that “no human being will be counted as righteous in his presence by doing what the law says because knowledge of sin comes through the law.”

Well, that’s a bummer because, as Paul noted in chapter 2, some Gentiles had done a pretty good job of following the law. So what are the Gentiles to do? In 3:21-26, Paul turns the table. Although the Jews had used the same rhetoric of Gentile degeneration into vice and inability to master passions to argue for the superiority of law, Paul makes a sharp break and instead argues for the superiority of Christ.

But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets. God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over sins that happened before, during the time of God’s patient tolerance. He also did this to demonstrate that he is righteous in the present time, and to treat the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous.

Stanley K. Stowers, whose Rereading of Romans has been the key to helping us unlock these difficult passages, says this:

The arguments of 1:18-2:29 do not aim to show the sinfulness of all humans. Rather, they seek to establish that God will accept gentiles, provided they behave toward God and neighbor as the law requires, even if they do not become Jews or live as some sort of God-fearing gentile community that possesses the law. Paul’s argument drives toward 3:21: “But now God’s righteousness has been manifested apart from the law.”

Stowers argues that in much of chapters 2-3, Paul is arguing with a stereotypical Jewish teacher who believes the only way for gentiles to be saved is through the law. As early Christians in many cities worshipped in Jewish synagogues, Paul knew his gentile audience would have heard these arguments, so he is knocking them down – first by appropriating the language of self-mastery used by Jews to declare the importance of the law, then by extending the concept of Jewish righteousness to gentiles through Jesus.

How ironic, then, that Paul’s comments on sexuality have been turned into a law all their own! Christians for centuries have taken a shallow view of Romans 1:18-32, seeing them as a condemnation of homosexuality and little else. Yet we can see that Paul, as a first-century Hellenized Jew writing to a throughly Greco-Roman audience, is using the norms of his culture to propagandize against their previous lives, showing them – and their Jewish neighbors – that Christ is the source of self-mastery, not the law. By focusing on the trees, we have missed the forest.

So, as usual, the question I ask in my headline is the wrong one. Can Paul be trusted on sexuality? In a way, he cannot. But that’s only because we’re asking him to hold forth on a topic he never thought to discuss. The norms of his day were firmly in place, and he never thought to question them. Rather, he was far more interested in overturning a different set of norms – those that argued his audience could only be made righteous through a law code.

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