People appeal to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for a number of reasons, especially the first chapter! In chapter one the reader finds Paul’s oft quoted statement about the Power of the Gospel (Rom 1:16); as well as the Protestant raison d’être–justification by faith (Rom 1:17). Among all the deep truths is a dark description of the truth-suppressing, ungodly, unrighteous idolaters–a favorite proof text for those who oppose homosexuality and homo-sexual marriage (Rom 1:18-32). Those who seek to reconcile the Christian faith with homosexuality also use these verses in an attempt to support their position. Further still, apologists point to this section defending God’s justice in judging the unbeliever, appealing to general revelation and so forth. For whatever reason one comes to Romans 1, the chapter is certainly worth studying! At the very least, Paul is setting up a very deep, philosophically minded, biblically accurate, theology of the gospel. While a prolonged, personal study of this epistle would be beneficial for us all, I will limit my comments to my personal reflections.
I come to this chapter often because I am daily confronted with my own sin. Lest I continue to wallow in my own filth, I seek God and he brings me to humble repentance (Rom 2:4). This daily experience brings me back to re-read Romans over and over again. In my reading of the introduction to this great explication of the gospel, something has struck me about the play between two “different” groups of people — “you” (i.e. the readers, or “US”) and “they” (who are they?, or “THEM”).
First response I expect to hear – what about the Jew/Gentile distinction? Well, we can talk about that if you want, but I think Paul is doing something else in 1:18-32. While some will argue that “them/they” in these verses refers to Gentile pagan idolatry, I think his audience is broader than that!
Textually, there are some clues. First, contrast “the righteousness of God is revealed” in verse 17 with “the wrath of God is revealed” in verse 18. Also note the “everyone” in verse 16 with “all” in verse 18. Perhaps the “everyone/all” connection is weaker than the other more obvious parallel, but notice in Chapter 3 of Romans, when Paul picks up the “we/us” “they/them” language again, “all” appears again in verse 9 and its made explicitly clear in the remaining verses of that chapter that Paul is connecting all men (both Jew and Gentile) together. See again the revealed language in verse 21 “righteousness of God has been manifested”.
So Who are they?
I’m not yet convinced that Paul’s intention in 1:18-32 is to identify “they” with a particular people/person/or group of persons. The reader is left thinking “they” (in other words, not I/we/us). Jews would think Gentiles, Gentiles would think Jews, perhaps. I’ll admit, at first glance, I want to identify “them” as Gentiles. The Greek and Roman culture of the time fits the bill. But Paul roots his argument in God’s self-revelation since the time of “creation”. Also, Paul makes the claim that not only that did “they” knew God (1:21), “they” also know the ordinance of God (though this is answered in chapter 2). Still, he doesn’t make clear here if he’s speaking of Jews or Gentiles, though he could have!!! I have begun to think that he is being intentionally ambiguous. Why?
Who are they?
You’re thinking, why is he asking me this question again? If Paul is being intentionally ambiguous, I think the reader is left asking this question–“who are they?”. Really, the reader has probably already started thinking that they’re glad that “they” are not “us”. Who wants to suppress the truth in/by unrighteousness? Who wants to worship idols and images of animals?
Who wants to be given over to “the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored” or “to degrading passions” leading to homosexuality, or “to a depraved mind to do those things which are not proper…also [giving] hearty approval to those who practice them”. The reader is probably thinking they’re glad that “they” are not “us”. That’s not me!!! Is it?
In this vein, Romans 1:18-32 is most often used apologetically and polemically (here: you be the judge) and socio-politically. We are readers get all too caught up in trying to identify who “they” are. Its not that the other questions are unimportant, only that we mustn’t miss where Paul is taking us in this letter. When we understand what he is really saying, then the answers to those other important questions can be better answered. Paul is talking about the gospel; apologetics and polemics without the gospel is useless and very dangerous!!! This makes us ask: Why hasn’t the church been persuasive, why is our progressive culture angry with us? Sure, the world is an enmity with God! However, how much of our influence has been lost because we have lived an “Us” vs. “Them” Christianity.
Lets read on: Romans 2:1-11
See verse 1: “Therefore you have no excuse…”
Say what?!?!? Me? Us? What about “them”? Paul has just turned the argument on its head and aimed it properly. He has brought “us” right where he wants us. Verse 11: “There is no partiality with God.” Its not about “us” versus “them”. We are all under sins curse. We all suppress the truth of God by/in unrighteousness. We all deserve God’s wrath. The rest of Romans tells us, among many other things, how “we” are saved from that wrath! As we read Romans 1, then, let us remain humble. Certainly, homosexuality is a serious issue in Romans 1 as well as in our culture, but do not think you are better than “they” when it comes to the gospel. His kindness to us, instead of the wrath we deserve, should lead us to repentance (2:4). We all are in need of repentance. It is from that vantage point that we must address the issues of God’s providence and of God’s view towards homosexuality.
So I ask again, Who are they?
THEY ARE US!