They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. (Romans 1.25-26)
I recently heard someone observe that Americans have grown comfortable with war because they no longer have to look at it. When the Bush Administration launched the Iraqi invasion, it shrewdly sequestered the media in selected military regiments, thereby censoring war coverage before the fact. (With their “preemptive strike” came preempting freedom of speech, an insane policy for a government that cloaked its motives in the guise of “spreading democracy.”) Not since the days before cameras documented Civil War casualties have Americans been shielded from the horrors of war. Yet, after Iraq, rarely, if ever, do we see young men and women in actual warfare. Very seldom do we gaze on ravaged landscapes, combat carnage, lifeless bodies, maimed soldiers, and flag-shrouded coffins. By mutual consent, the government, press, and we—as citizens and media consumers—exchanged the truth of war’s inhumanity for a fastidiously polished myth of America’s superior ideals and strength.
Although we quickly realized our government acted in bad faith, it didn’t end in sobriety. Our foolish exchange of truth for lies has benefits we'd rather not surrender. Believing what we’re told is much more comfortable than facing facts and truing our ways. Proclivity for denial has reshaped our character. We now clamor after bald-faced lies, consciously ignoring their power to warp morals and shatter principles. Bad faith born of an ideologically corrupt, needlessly invented war permeates the whole of American society—to the degree that even seeing miseries perpetuated by our neglect has ceased to compel us to correct our errors. There’s always someone in easy reach to justify our wrong by offering up scapegoats. What began as a political ploy has festered into personal rancor and social injustice the likes of which we’ve never known. Why does none of this provoke us to reject lies and reclaim truth? As Paul explains in Romans 1, bad faith breeds bad behavior. Exchanging truth for lies causes us exchange native affinities for ones we adopt in service to myths we invent.
With the mire of politics being something we do our best to avoid here, we’ll touch lightly on the irony of Romans 1’s prominence in the national civil rights debate and move on. Neoconservative Christians mounting a political agenda of LGBT oppression befriend this passage above all clobber texts. Their reasons for pouncing on Paul’s verdict on idolatry as Scripture’s definitive ban on same-sex orientation are obvious. The chapter contains the lengthiest, most explicit portrait of same-gender sex in Scripture. (Remember: same-gender sex and same-sex orientation are not the same.) Second, it allegedly impugns gay men and women alike. No other clobber text remotely addresses lesbianism, which, if not for Romans 1, would present an insurmountable problem to Christians who condemn homosexuality in principle. Next, as the text can be readily lifted out of context, it’s simple to use and, supposedly, easily understood to say what the clobber crowd claims it must mean. Finally, Romans 1 is the all-time favorite because it suggests God finds homosexuality so disturbing God has no use for gay people. Ergo, this “proves” homosexuality is an elective lifestyle—ruling out any possibility it reflects the Creator’s image or purpose. Drop your guard to read the dismembered passage without prejudice and you’ll see it’s ready-made for abuse:
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned sexual relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (v26-28)
As it turns out, Paul is discussing a lifestyle. But homosexuality ain’t it. That same-sex orientation is decidedly not what he’s talking about is so apparent we’re spared consulting original texts and clarifying translations to deduce this. Paul (God love him) graciously sandwiches his sensational depiction of same-gender sex between two inescapable transitions: because of this and furthermore. Without naming the cause Paul identifies for behavior he says God detests we can’t define its real nature. Without the initiative to learn what results from it, we can’t discern why God loathes it.
When we do the work, however, we can’t dispute Paul is excoriating an idolatrous lifestyle—a conscious exchange of truth for lies that leads to consciously exchanging native behaviors that honor God Who created us for adopted ones that exalt gods we create. The text couldn’t be plainer about what’s happening, why it happens, who does what, and why they do what they do. If we genuinely believe Scripture is true, to insist Romans 1 says anything (good or bad) about same-sex orientation is to stand liable of the very thing it decries: consciously exchanging truth for lies, thereby consciously exchanging godly thoughts and deeds for ungodly ones. Paul is so explicit about this he gives no latitude for alternate readings. Nor does he leave any room to insert meaning beyond his intention. Either we take Romans 1 in its entirety or we throw it away—and with it, the entire letter, as everything that follows, all the treasured verses about grace, forgiveness and faith, flows from Paul’s opening attack on idolatrous living.
What is “This”?
“Because of this” begs the question, “What is ‘this’?” Like the Jude text examined in the previous post, Paul uses transitions to ensure we read him correctly. And he begs no question, having already answered it with the preceding text:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forevermore praised. Amen. (v18,21-25)
Two exchanges precede the one frequently abused as a clobber text (“natural sexual relations for unnatural ones”). The first identifies those “who suppress the truth” as idolaters and—on the off chance we’re too dense to get that—the second confirms who they are. They exchanged “the glory of the immortal God” for images of humans and wildlife; they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator. “This” is idolatry, plain and simple, and there’s not enough explaining in the world to contort the text into a comment, let alone a doctrine, opposing same-sex orientation. Paul insists stealing honor that belongs exclusively to our Creator and lavishing it on manmade ideologies and inventions inevitably leads to behavioral trade-offs that foster self-degradation. Since he’s talking about exchanging faithful worship of the intangible God for faithless glorification of tangible idols, it makes perfect sense to underscore physical extremes common to idolatrous lifestyles. (While Paul’s cultural blinders often occlude his detection of sexism and other elitist traits dogging him, his legal expertise as a Pharisee equips him with first-rate argumentative skills. Every situation, metaphor, and Scripture he references to advance his opinion fits like a glove.)
With the letter written expressly to first-century Romans—the all-time champs of meticulous recordkeeping—history serves up a plethora of examples that illustrate what Paul refers to. Perhaps the most prominent of them occurs in the Temple of Cybele, near the Palatine, Rome’s ruling class enclave atop its highest hill. Originally a Phrygian Earth goddess, she becomes a revered figure in Caesar Augustus’s global domination ideology. Romans go to bizarre lengths to display their devotion to her. Priests and priestesses sacrifice their reproductive capabilities to her; men castrate themselves and women employ prostheses to perform sexually as men. Adherents to Cybele’s cult—which include Rome’s power-elite, given Caesar’s ardor for the goddess—also partake in gender-bending sex acts, disavowing their procreative power in subservience to her life force.
After a gruesome initiation bathing them in warm blood drained from a bull, senators and army commanders regularly submit to fruitless intercourse with neutered priests. The Cybele myth holds that voluntarily exchanging their native (i.e., heterosexual) drive, surrendering their bodies to seedless men, pleases the goddess, who blesses them and their nation with bountiful fertility. The same myth brings wives of Roman leaders and those hoping to bear children to the temple. There they voluntarily exchange their native (again, heterosexual) attraction to seed-bearing men by coupling with female priests posing as males. Paul ridicules this as total nonsense. He uses belief that patently unproductive heterosexual activity moves an inert idol to magnify one’s reproductive prowess as a prime example of what comes of replacing one’s natural understanding of God with unnatural trust in manmade gods. In verses 19 and 20, he writes, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, so that people are without excuse.”
So that’s what “this” is: an extreme example of bad faith engendering bad behavior. While this is not to say similarly extreme instances of homosexuals exchanging native drives in service to idols don’t exist, this isn’t one of them. In fact, by limiting his illustration to straight people who engage in same-gender sex, Paul effectively neutralizes its relevance to LGBT people. Before we rejoice at one of very few times exclusion works in our favor, however, we should pay close attention to the “furthermore” following the scurrilous depiction of pagan rites. Much more than twisted gender-reversals grow from exchanging our natural desire to honor our Creator for unnatural idolization of human ideologies and inventions. And everyone—gay and straight—is susceptible to these extremes.
Furthermore, Paul says, since they voluntarily abandon knowledge of God, God leaves them to their own devices, “so that they do what ought not to be done.” And what’s “that”? “That” is a long list of equally degrading, non-sexual depravities: envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, crafting evil, dishonoring parents, and refusal to be understanding, faithful, compassionate, and merciful to others. “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them,” chapter 1’s final verse (32) reads.
“These very things” also qualify as exchanges signifying previous exchange of God’s immortal and just truth for humanity’s deadly, unjust lies. Awareness of them not only empowers us to judge how faithfully we glorify our Creator. It also enables us to assess the validity of those who misappropriate Romans 1 to condemn and cripple believers, regardless of orientation or gender identity. If they—or we—perpetuate and approve practices Paul reviles, we must repent of our evil ways, turning our hearts and minds back to God. Conscious refusal to true our lives to the Creator’s purpose leaves us to our own devices, given over to sinful desires and shameful lusts. Of course, we need not look at Romans 1 this way, no more than America need look at destruction and suffering caused by exchanging truth for lies. But refusal to see idolatry’s wickedness doesn't absolve us from its blame. “God’s invisible qualities have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse,” Paul reminds us in no uncertain terms.
As we close our series on abuse of Scripture that doubts God’s infinite power and wisdom, denigrates LGBT people as electively disobedient to God’s Word, discredits our reflection of the Creator, and denounces our rightful inheritance of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we’re chastened to search our hearts and lives for indications of idolatrous exchanges. If pain or pride goads us to behave in a manner that forsakes God’s glory and bows to human ideology and invention, we must rectify our course. The clobbering will continue as long as idolatry of erroneous doctrines and hateful ideologies persists. Yet living in an idolatrous world cannot force us to submit to its wicked ways. Jesus came to instill in us the hope, clarity, and power to overcome human ideologies and inventions. We defeat unlearned, misguided abuse of Romans 1 by reversing its exchanges. We disavow faithless human conceits and faithfully cling to Christ’s declaration, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14.6) That gets us to God. That establishes us as God’s creation. That’s why we replace our longing for compassion with Christ’s command to offer it—why we obey God’s Word and pray for those who maintain we haven’t got a prayer.
The Temple of Cybele, where exchange of fruitful heterosexual behavior for futile same-gender rites evidenced the exchange of God’s truth for human ideologies and inventions.