Empire, Idolatry and Homosexuality: Romans 1.18-32 revisited

by Brian Walsh

(a sermon preached at Wine Before Breakfast on October 2, 2012)

Let’s be clear about something from the start this morning.

No one in this room – not one person, I am willing to wager – actually believes everything that St. Paul wrote in this passage to the churches in Rome.

There may be someone in this room who believes that the death penalty is the just punishment for murder.

But if we believed that the death penalty was in store for insolence, well there wouldn’t be many adolescent children left, now would there.

And how about haughtiness, boasting, gossiping and being rebellious to your parents?

Or let’s take covetousness. I mean we’ve got a culture and an economy that is founded on covetousness. Without covetousness, without greed, without consumptive desire, our whole economy would collapse.  As the character Gordon Gekko so memorably put it in the film Wall Street, “greed is good.”

You get my point.

Of the twenty-one vices and sinful activities that the apostle names at the end of our passage, only murder is illegal in North America, though many of these vices and behaviours could well lead to illegal activity.

But there is no necessary legal sanction in our society against being wicked per se, or evil, or covetous, or harboring malice thoughts and intentions, or envy, personal strife, deceit, craftiness, gossiping, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, rebellion towards parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness, or even hating God.

You can do all of these things without breaking the law, and you certainly do not deserve death because you do these things.

So let’s simply be honest and say that we don’t necessarily agree with what Paul is saying here.

And yet we are foolish, impious and arrogant if we too easily dismiss Paul’s words as simply out of touch with contemporary life.

Paul means what he says here, even if he seems to be a little over the top.

Indeed, he means what he says here, even if the whole thing is a set up.

And a set up it is.

You see, while some folks in the room are listening to Paul’s all-out attack on the vices of Gentile life in the empire; indeed, while they are quietly saying, “Amen, brother Paul you preach it, because we sure don’t live that way,” he is also setting up those very self-righteous folks for a profound judgment in the very next sentence:

“Therefore you 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 things.” (2.1)

And he says this as if it were a fait accompli. No real argument, just that in the very act of judging others we demonstrate our own guilt.

So whatever you do with this passage, if you somehow find it in judgment on other people but not on yourself, then you are seriously missing the point.

And notice that all of this is rooted in idolatry.

Precisely because they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being (read: Caesar)  or other creatures (read: all the gods of Rome and Greece) – that is, precisely because they abandoned their call to bear God’s image in faithfulness and embraced idols instead of God … so …

“God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,”

“God gave them up to degrading passions,”

“God gave them up to a debased mind.”

And we are left with:

hearts that have turned their backs on love, and lust after ever degrading physical sensations,
passion that is so caught up in insatiable and uncontrollable desire that it knows no restraints,
and a debased mind that is manifest in an imagination taken captive by injustice and evil.

Kind of sounds like the gluttonous, obese, hyper-consumptive and oppressive culture of the 21st century West, doesn’t it?

Or more to the point, it sounds and looks suspiciously like the sexual and over the top consumptive culture identified with the imperial court of Nero.

Take a look at Nero’s court.

Take a look at how he takes little boys as his sex toys.

Take a look at how he will rape his guest’s wives and then come back and pass judgment on their performance.

Take a look at how he was complicit in the murder of Claudius and then of his own mother.

Take a look at his opulent feasts and spectacles, his paranoid maliciousness, his imperial covetousness, how lives and reputations are destroyed through gossip, slander and murder.

The empire professes to be the repository of all true wisdom, but the imperial household is full of fools.
The empire claims to be a site of piety, fidelity and justice, but everywhere there is evidence of hating God, faithlessness and injustice.

But what about homosexuality?

Well, first, remember the set up. If you want to come down hard on homosexuality, then know that that judgment will come right back on to you.

So lets be clear that those Christians in the world who will advocate for the criminalization of homosexuality, and even in some extreme cases, the death penalty are, by the terms of this text, themselves worthy of death. Their malice, slander, heartless and ruthless stance towards gays and lesbians in their community is, by the very terms of this text, worthy of death.

Why? Because these are death dealing attitudes and practices. Paul says that people who do such things are worthy of death – even though he is setting us up – because the patterns of life that he is describing here are in fact deathly.

Because this worldview and cultural practice murders community, destroys families, does violence to others and strips us of any foundation for a healthy common life, it is a path of death and to death it will go.

But again, Paul means it nonetheless, doesn’t he?

He means what he says about homosexuality, doesn’t he?

Yes, he means it. But what is it that he means?

I know, friends, I know very well the range of debate that there is around these two verses. And even though they are the only two verses that might address the question of consensual homosexual relationships in the whole Bible, and therefore, can never be taken to be central to orthodox biblical faith, and even though this is not an issue that we ever hear about from Jesus, Paul means what he says here.

But what is it that he means? Is he addressing consensual adult same sex relationships here – as my friends Richard Hays and Tom Wright argue – or is he attacking an imperial sexuality that was by definition violent, exploitative, non-consensual, oppressive and promiscuous?

Well, consistent with the explicitly counter-imperial tone of the opening sentences, I think that the apostle is criticizing an out-of-control sexual licentiousness in this passage and that he would not have known anything of what we today would describe as a homosexual orientation or the longing for faithful same sex covenantal relationships.

So do my gay brothers and lesbian sisters
who are not idolaters,
who do not have an imagination of evil,
who are not covetous, or malicious, or heartless and ruthless,
but who, instead
love Jesus,
are shaped deeply by biblical faith,
embrace a life of loving stewardship, care and service,
are these brothers and sisters condemned in this passage?

Humbly, I must confess that I don’t think so. And that is why I will refuse to use this text against these sisters and brothers.

Paul calls us to abandon the empire’s path of death before it kills us.

And that means that we must embrace faithfulness in the face of promiscuity
and covenant in the face of sexual consumption.

We must abandon covetousness for generosity,
truthfulness must replace gossip and slander
contentment erases envy,
respect takes the place of insolence,
love of family overtakes rebellion,
gentleness replaces malice,
honour replaces shame,
compassion replaces heartlessness,
tender intimacy replaces ruthlessness,
and hearts and minds and passions sacrificed on the altars of idolatry
must be transformed, liberated and healed by the power of the gospel.

May it be so, dear sisters and brothers.
May it be so.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

2 Responses to “Empire, Idolatry and Homosexuality: Romans 1.18-32 revisited”

  1. “We’re all sluts” « Empire Remixed

    […] as Brian assured us in his sermon last week, and again in his email yesterday, judgment is a demonstration of our own guilt, an act of […]

  2. Matthew Ramsay

    I really appreciate the language used here to parse out the difference between the moral standards God has given to humanity and the law’s role in controlling injustice. The western church would be in a better place if it was aware that our government, not being a theocracy, is not meant to enforce every moral standard. There are plenty of wicked acts that go unpunished by our legal system. Partly this is because no legal system in the world can really stop someone from being a terrible human, but also because one of our foundational cultural and governmental priorities is freedom. I happen to think that is helpful to the church. We should be aware of legalism’s shortcoming and put our efforts into better knowing and communicating the fullness of the gospel in its context so that others may come to know the same and thereby be transformed by the only hope humanity really has of overcoming the grips of sin.

    Are homosexual acts sin? I honestly don’t know. After meeting so many amazing people, followers of Christ and not, who are attracted to the same gender, I feel the weight of what saying yes or no means to that question. If the answer is yes, then there are a lot of folks out there who have a much greater burden to bear in a lot of ways than I do. I have a wife, who I love and have never had to question if that was right or wrong. I have never had to question my attraction to her. I have never had to wonder if I could be a member of a church if we got married. I have never had to wonder if moral law demanded that I either stay single for my entire life or force myself into a loving relationship with someone I am not attracted to. I never had to question why I was attracted to who I was attracted to, and I have never had to face the fierce scorn of the church for the many sins I have committed because my sins are either too private or too common.

    I should say that the church’s response to the homosexual community has been downright nasty and hypocritical. Plenty of brothers and sisters have told me they think the church is being misrepresented here because many people they know are not so condemning. That does not matter here. When some of the church has spewed out such awful venom, the required action from the rest of the church is not silence or indifference. A compassionate response to the homosexual community and a public rebuke against bigotry is required. The church in the west, I believe, has failed in this matter, and done so in a lasting way.

    Because of the church’s lack of love in engaging this conversation in public discourse but also in engaging people, I think the church has largely lost its right to inform people what is right or wrong on the subject. It has become an impossible task for me to attempt that debate with anyone I know who is gay. Or if the issue is brought up, all I can offer is a big apology from the church and a compassionate response that focuses on God’s grace and empathy with sinners in contract to the attributes they see in the church.

    All that being said, I have recognized my desire for homosexual acts not to be sin because of the seemingly unreasonable burden that places on so many. But scripture does not give us an easy way out here. If I really wanted to, I could make scripture say what I wanted it to say, but I wouldn’t really want it to say what I want it to say, otherwise I would be following myself instead of Jesus. Still, the best I can do is say I don’t know.

    However, I do question a line of reasoning here from Walsh. There is not much evidence to suggest Paul is specifically targeting the upper class of the empire in his judgement. The anti-imperialism in Chapter 1 is there, but it is subtle. I think Paul addresses both the governance of Romans and the entire Roman culture as proved not only in the rest of Romans but more pronounced in Colossians. Yes the judgement sounds “suspiciously” like Nero’s court. It also sounds like a holistic judgement against the sin of an entire culture. The licentious feasts and orgies were not limited to the court. In fact, they were so common, that even the underground movement of Christianity in its infancy was accused of such practices along with cannibalism (communion) and witchcraft.

    And it doesn’t make sense for Paul to be specifically talking about the aristocracy in one case when he says “they, they, they”, and then bring it home to the everyday people in the church in Chapter 2 when he says “you who practice the very same things”. How is it possible to say Paul is talking about the licentious feasts, orgies, and rape by Nero’s court or the aristocracy on the whole in the one sense, and judge it, and then say to the average church-goer and citizen, “you do the same things”? They only do the same things if they are the same things.

    Now if we say it was a common practice of the culture to engage in non-consensual, same-gender sex, we have a case to dismiss (in this case) consensual, same-gender relationships. But if Paul really means what he says, then we have to take him at that. He doesn’t give us any consensual / non-consensual distinction there. He simply compares natural to unnatural. Now it is possible Paul was specifically addressing non-consensual sex. But I don’t think we have enough to convince us of that. And Paul is neither shy nor timid. If he meant rape, why didn’t Paul simply say rape? Paul is neither shy nor timid

    Thank you for the thought-provoking message.


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