Feast upon the Word Blog

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Paul’s legacy: Romans 1:18-32, sexuality

Posted by cherylem on September 30, 2007

I want to get his post out of the way because I am teaching Romans after General Conference, and I want to get this clear in my mind, even if I don’t touch on it in my lesson.

This is my fourth post under the title: Paul’s Legacy. Remember that these posts are drawn largely, but certainly not entirely, from Neil Elliott’s book: LIBERATING PAUL: THE JUSTICE OF GOD AND THE POLITICS OF THE APOSTLE.

I suggest we start by reading this section in three translations: King James, NIV, NRSV.

In this post, I’m going to:

1) talk about who the “they” is in these verses
2) give a new reading of this section

Elliott says “these verses from Romans 1 exercise an inordinate influence today in public debate over the rights of gays and lesbians and in ecclesiastical controversies over the place of gays and lesbians in the church (p. 193).” Of course he is NOT writing about the LDS church, but rather the Christian church in all its variants.

1) Who were the “they” in these verses? In order to try to figure this out, we need to take a look at the theology of Rome. Romans was, after all, written to the church in Rome, so the theology of the Roman empire would be the backdrop against which all people lived out their lives, including members of the new Christian faith.

Elliott, using careful sources, makes the argument that the immediate environment of the time has to be considered, specifically, the eschatology of Roman propaganda, prevalent in “a time when the gospel according to Augustus held the world spellbound” (quoting Dieter Georgi). Imperial theology was evident in the writings of the time period, along with the “mute testimony of coins, art, and sacred architecture. . . Rome taught its subject to celebrate the Roman order as the coming of a golden age of peace and security, the Pax Augustus.” This age of peace, however, was held together by force, and people had to be convinced that they benefited from a system that actually harmed them. They were convinced by constant propaganda that “no other system is feasible, that God had placed the divine imprimatur on this system and no other (Classical historian Richard Gordon).” Elliott says (p. 195), “Surely it is reasonable to suppose, against this context, that by juxtaposing the senselessness of pagan idolatry with a lurid depiction of sexual perversion Paul sought to evoke for his readers the moral bankruptcy of the imperial house itself . . . As a description of the horrors of the imperial house, however, Paul’s words actually seem restrained.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans is clear: the justice of God is not what the empire calls justice . . . regarding sexuality, “While others suppress the truth in the service of injustice and violate one another’s bodies in unspeakable acts, Christians are to yield their bodies to God “as instruments [hopla, ‘weapons’] of justice” (6:13-14).

What are these unspeakable acts? “In Paul’s world. . . sexual penetration normally rehearsed the prerogative the freeborn male enjoyed over the bodies of others. . . homosexual activities generally took place within relationships characterized by inequalities of power: the use of prostitutes, the abuse of slaves, and pederasty (p. 193).”

Not only that, but sexual outrages in high places are summarized on page 194. This is a long passage, but I’m going to quote almost all of it:

“When Tiberias had retired to Capri, he had stocked the island with male and female sex slaves, procured from throughout the empire for their talent in “every imaginable unnatural act”; the emperor especially liked to watch threesomes, according to the historian Suetonius (Tiberius 43). His successor Gaius Caligula, had horrified Rome not only through his monstrous claims to self-deification . . . but also through his sexual predation. Not satisfied by his incestuous relationships with his sisters (Suetonus Gaisu 24), he had routinely pulled the wives of dinner guests from his table, noisily raped them in nearby rooms, then returned to the table to criticize his victim’s performance. He had submitted sexually to men, even – the Roman mind boggled – to “foreign hostages” (36). Rather than contribute his own funds for building projects, he had launched an imperial brothel, serviced (under what duress we can only imagine) by the wives and sons of Rome’s nobility (41).

“The conspirators who assassinated Caligula included an officer he had sexually humiliated, who stabbed the emperor repeatedly in the genitals (56-58). “Men imposing shame on men,” Paul writes, “and receiving their own bodies the penalty for such deviance” (Rom 1:27).

“Caligula’s assassination, and the relative moral gravity ensuing with the reign of Claudius, had brought welcome relief to many in Rome. But Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Claudius’s successor, the tyrant Nero, whose rapes of Roman wives and sons, brothel-keeping, incest with his mother, and sexual submission to various men and boys prompted his tutor, the philosopher Seneca, to conclude that Nero was “another Caligula” (Suetonius, Nero 26-29).”

Read Romans 1:18-32 against this background.

2) In speaking of a new reading, according to Elliott it should be made clear that this passage cannot be read as “Paul’s theology on homosexuality (p. 193).” The ancient world did not recognize homosexuality as an orientation. Paul is also not speaking in these verses of man’s alienation from God. Rather he is referring to specific practices, noted above. Elliott writes, “Romans 1 simply doesn’t provide an adequate foundation for theological reflection on homosexuality.” Then, quoting Scroggs, “The basic model in today’s Christian homosexual community is so different from the model attacked by the New Testament that the criterion of reasonable similarity of context is not met (p. 193).”

That is, comparing the “They” of Romans 1:18-32 to today’s homosexual Christian community is like comparing apples to bicycles. The comparison does not hold, according to Elliott.

Because this is a controversial subject (more than slavery anyway), I also want to note that the Harper Collins Study Bible footnotes vs. 26-27 this way: “. . . It is questionable whether Paul thought of homosexuality as a condition or a disposition (see also 1Cor. 6:9). . . . ”

Taking a different tact, J. Harold Ellens, in his book Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration (2006) writes regarding Romans 1:26-27: “It seems clear that whatever is abhorred in Romans 1:26-27 is that special kind of homosexual behavior that was involved in pagan worship rituals. At the very least it must be said that it is homosexual behavior of this cultic type, carried out by heterosexuals, rather than homosexual orientation, which is discussed in the Pauline passage (p. 122).” (And actually, Elliott did discuss this ritual homosexual and other ritual sexual activities in the pagan worship rites also.)

Ellens continues: “Neither the Greco-Roman world, nor the Biblical documents specifically, distinguish between homosexual behavior and inner homosexual orientation. There was no understanding, in that age and in that world, of the psychological or genetic condition of heterosexuality or homosexuality as a psychological or biological and hence systemic orientation (p. 123).”

There are plenty of commentators and theologians that would argue against the arguments presented above. However, remembering my brother’s comments (quoted in this post), I find these arguments interesting – and however the conversation regarding homosexuality moves forward (see Elder Holland’s October Ensign article), it is important to note that there are optional readings of Romans 1:26-27 being discussed.

32 Responses to “Paul’s legacy: Romans 1:18-32, sexuality”

  1. Robert C. said

    This is great, Cheryl, thanks—and for the link to Elder Holland’s article which I hadn’t seen yet.

    (Looking again at your original “Paul’s Legacy” post, I notice Elliott does seem to address Rom 13:1ff rather directly, so I’ll be interested in how he addresses this topic—it’s hard for me not to see at least some sort of teaching against what I will simplistically call “revoluationary activity.” Also, I’d be very interested in hearing some elaboration on your comment here regarding Elliott’s take on women keeping silent in the churches per 1 Cor 14:34, though I know there’s probably a good chance you won’t have time….)

  2. Cheryl McGuire said

    I’m trying to make time, Robert . . . actually, I’ve committed to giving a 45-minute lecture in January based on Elliott’s book, so this is good practice for me.

    I also – finally – posted something on the Girard blog. I have some catch up to do there. But life has regained its rhythm, at last.

  3. “There are plenty of commentators and theologians that would argue against the arguments presented above.”

    What is being argued? That Paul’s epistle did not here condemn homosexuality, that mainstream Christianity makes an overly broad application of some of Paul’s condemnation?

    As Elliot states “Romans 1 simply doesn’t provide an adequate foundation for theological reflection on homosexuality”, I must presume he is making the first argument, which from the little material presented above seems to hinge on the false premise that Paul was merely naively condemning the practice because the ancient mind only understood it in tandem with idolatry and the horrors of Caligula/Nero. (Hence, since, modern homosexuals don’t generally fit his presumed stereotype, the passage doesn’t qualify to have any application to this “new” breed of homosexuality.)

    I should make clear, I don’t think that you would argue that there is no grounds for religious condemnation of homosexuality (we have modern prophets, after all, to make that point clear), but rather see the argument made by Elliot (as I understand it) regarding this passage, as being weak, thought the details give it a nice historical backdrop.

    It would seem to me immaterial how the ancient world recognized homosexuality, (genetic, or otherwise) for it would seem sufficient that it was recognized and specifically condemned. (In other words, I could see a good case being made for the second thesis, but not for the first.) Paul seems to clearly delineate homosexual behavior as an evil. (“vile affection” KJV, “shameful lusts” NIV, “degrading passions” NRSV) The ancient world also had sufficient background to dissociate the behavior from the common horrors practiced in tandem.

    The sodomitical practices of Greece, for example, while not the same as what we see today, were institutionally much more similar to what we have today than the examples Elliot brings up. The Law of Moses, as well, which would have been Paul’s early tutor, condemned sodomy without any apparent presumption of the horrors Elliot highlights.

    So not only would it superficially seem from Paul’s writings here, to be a sufficient abomination of its own right adding to the final condemnation, but there would seem to be plain reason to believe Paul could understand it thus plainly without any attendant myopia.

  4. cherylem said

    I think Elliott’s point is whether or not these Pauline verses should be used to tell a gay man or woman that they are vile, shameful, a degradation, an abomination, because of their orientation. Since I have experience with these very terms used against people I love, based on these particular verses, I am interested in what Elliott (and others) has to say.

    It is interesting to me that Elder Holland’s article does not reference these verses at all, and his tone is quite different.

    However, this is not the only issue that interests me in the context of using Paul to argue political and moral controversies, as my earlier posts demonstrated.

    Regarding “weak” arguments, perhaps I am doing Elliott a disservice in my poor attempts at summation.

    Last, hopefully these posts will remain relevant to our study of Paul generally.

  5. Robert C. said

    Sean’s question (#3) makes me wonder about the whole blind faith thing. A comment made many years ago in the context of discussing morality has stuck with me. The Bishop, I think it was, asked the class the reasons for why we should obey the law of chastity. He was ultimately dissatisfied with every answer and said the only ultimately satisfying answer is “because this is the commandment we have been given.” I still struggle with that statement and viewpoint, because I think it has a lot of truth in it that I cannot deny, and yet I think it some denies or at least tends to devalue or dismiss a lot of truth at the same time. The reason I find this post interesting is because it casts Paul’s words in a much more compassionate light, sounding less like, say, homophobic rhetoric of gay-bashers. But I think this is an overt attempt on Elliott’s part to demystify the text, and I think there’s a certain danger in trying to demystify scriptural teachings—as well as Church teachings—in this way (which is partly related to my belief in the veil as a positive symbol, to hark back to some previous discussions we’ve had…).

  6. “I think Elliott’s point is whether or not these Pauline verses should be used to tell a gay man or woman that they are vile, shameful, a degradation, an abomination, because of their orientation.”

    That would certainly make sense in light of his comment that the ancient world didn’t distinguish this whole idea of orientation. Clearly, as Mormons we have been taught, that those who struggle with same-sex attraction, for whatever reason are not inherently abominable, or even unclean, by virtue of this attraction. They can go to the temple just like anyone else can.

    Unfortunately, we run into too many individuals who abhor those who struggle with same-sex attraction. If this is the point being made, then it is a good one, though I can’t see why he goes to such lengths to make a point that could more simply made by noting that Paul only spoke in practical terms, and that while we are all tempted, it is those who are overcome by temptation that are condemned. (Though even to that extent, such has never been a justification for any persecution on our part. We are to love even the sinners.) Perhaps you simply can’t make a book out of that.

    If by saying “Romans 1 simply doesn’t provide an adequate foundation for theological reflection on homosexuality”, Elliot means that it fails to justify some of the homophobia found in some quarters, then he is certainly correct. Is that however, how you take his meaning? (You knowing more of the context than I do.)

  7. m&m said

    I am not clear on what you are trying to get across. I see what you have included as really quite consistent with the Church’s teachings (focusing on the vileness of behavior, not of the person — separating orientation and behavior. But it feels like you are trying to debunk something, but I’m not sure what. Is it the use of these passages to denounce orientation alone?

    I guess I feel like I’m missing something. Lil’ help? :)

  8. cherylem said

    Sean #6,
    Yes, that is exactly how I take his meaning. That is, and to explain further, these specific verses in Paul have been used to justify certain oppressive attitudes, behaviors, cruelties, theological statements and word patterns for many years. However, Elliott does not take a political stand, for instance, regarding this issue, and it is only one small part of Elliott’s book.

    To explain further, and perhaps unneccesarily, Elliott suggests that certain Pauline texts (this is just one of them) have been misread and misused, and the misreading has damaged Paul and his legacy, and more importantly, has damaged the Gospel message as presented by Paul. Elliott believes, I think, that we can’t really understand Paul until we unpack the baggage that has accumulated over the centuries regarding his letters.

    Hopefully this will continue to come clear in future posts.

  9. cherylem said

    #7 m&m,
    The only thing I’m attempting to do is to bring some food to chew on to our feast table regarding certain aspects of the Pauline letters. That is, I’m doing a series of posts regarding specific sections of the letters that have been interpreted as a license to oppress (women keeping silent in church, slaves should not seek their freedom, Christians should not seek social change, etc) and offering a different way of reading these sections, based on Elliott’s book, sometimes bringing in other writings also. I’m not claiming to be always right, I’m really NOT seeking a bully-pulpit, but I am trying to work my way through Paul, especially those sections that have troubled me since childhood.

    Perhaps I need to give more background as to how the scriptures have been used oppressively; this may not be self-evident. I’m not going to go back and do this, but in future posts, I will spend a little bit of time on this.

    And that is all for tonight.

  10. cherylem said

    Well, I will make one more comment. Let’s say your fourteen or fifteen year old child comes to you and says, with terror in his eyes, “Mom, Dad, I’m gay.” Based on past readings of these verses in Paul, it was not uncommon for a parent to say, “But that is vile and abominable. YOU, my own child, are vile and abominable.” Because the reading of Paul was so widespread, the parent would even be justified in saying this, indeed, would know NO OTHER WAY to think about this.

    Reading Elliott, one can now say, well, Paul was talking about a situation that does not include my child. My child is precious and loved, and we will work through this together. Paul’s words in Romans 1 are NOT REALLY RELEVANT to this situation in my family, and to the communication we will now begin within our family. Vile, Abominable – these are words we will not use. And nothing in Paul says we need to use them.

    So that is one reason new readings of these particular verses can be helpful.

  11. Robert C. said

    Let me try to clarify a bit what I said in #5 because I think it will address some of the subsequent questions also. It seems to me that any attempt to interpret scripture involves understanding more than just a minimalist exercise in trying to understand the words on the page. That is, I think a certain amount of this kind of demystification is unavoidable. For example, to say that Paul said what he said (or, more literally, we have this record of Paul saying what he said) is a merely tautological statement. What is interesting, and what requires interpretation, is to say why Paul said what he was saying. So, despite my trepidation in doing so, I think the text itself calls for us to interpret it. In doing this, we are faced with the question of why Paul made this statement about homosexuality in Romans 1, sort of like I think we are inevitably faced with questions about why God gives us certain commandments. To not probe these deeper questions is, I think, to become Pharisaical. This is not say that obedience and the process of interpretation itself do not require much faith, but I think the kind of faith required is a seeking/searching kind of hearkening, not a lazy, “I don’t care why, I’ll just do what I’m told” kind of hearkening.

    So, in this sense, I think Elliott’s comments are very insightful, helping us think about what it is that Paul is taking aim at. Another interpretation, one that I think has been common through history, is the idea that experiencing a homosexual desire makes you an evil person. In light of Elder Holland’s article, this would seem to be a bad interpretation, or at least a bad doctrinal belief to hold.

  12. douglas Hunter said


    Have you read The Archaeology of Knowledge? In it Foucault writes on many topics related to the way our reception of the passages in question function in contemporary discourse. Granted he does not do so directly, he does not discuss theology or Paul. But Foucault is fond of pointing out that discursive objects have specific historical origins and that we project discursive objects (including homosexuality in the various ways we understand it) backwards through what he calls “retrospective hypothesis, and by an interplay of formal analogies or semantic resemblances.” It is exactly the kind of retrospective hypothesis Foucault describes that is at work when the passage from Romans is thought to somehow be about homosexuality. Foucault is a good source to strengthen the argument that you are already making. and he provides a specific form of historical/discursive analysis that is rather handy.

    As an aside I think the starting point of such an analysis might just begin with the chapter heading of Romans 1 that specifically mentions *homosexuality*. Its the chapter heading that i think is most telling. If the chapter heading, a bit of text grafted onto the biblical text by modern editors, did not make a direct claim about the text in romans, would homophobes be able to make the historical leap that they do? Or would Robert have had such as easy time writing in #11″ we are faced with the question of why Paul made this statement about homosexuality in Romans 1″ I think it would be more difficult at least. So there is a discursive history that needs to be explored. Although looking at the Church’s website I see that the chapter heading on line uses the phrase “homosexual practices” so that’s a telling change from earlier print versions of the LDS KJV. I think this adds credibility to the idea that the reception of romans is historically constructed by a specific homophobic energy or assumption. Anyway, using foucault I think one can make the argument that its a historical impossibility that the text of Romans 1 addresses homosexuality, which it seems is exactly the direction you are already going.

  13. Robert C. said

    Douglas, thanks, I think you make a very good point, and I think it would indeed be better to begin thinking and speaking about the condemnation in Romans 1 using more careful language. In addition to distinguishing between “homosexuality” and “homosexual practice,” what other suggestions do you have for talking about what Paul is saying in Romans 1? “Paul is condemning violent, disrespectful sexual attitudes and practices among homosexuals”? (I was going to write “in the gay community” since that sounds somehow more . . . acknowledging, I guess, but I would think that would be even more problematic in terms of blurring the differences over time in term of the social identity that gays have developed in the last few decades…).

  14. I just want to make clear what we’re talking about here. Are we using the term “homosexuality” to refer to same sex attraction and the term “homosexual practice” to refer to actual fulfillment of that desire in any practical, homosexual way? These terms are often understood differently by different people, and I’m having trouble following the thoughts above. I think there are plenty of Christians who would say “homosexuality is evil” who are referring to the practice. It does not seem a linguistically unjustifiable use either. So, in any case, I want to make sure I understand the conversation up to this point.

    To me, as I understand terms, Romans 1 certainly does refer to homosexuality inasmuch as it refers to sex and/or sexuality between individuals of the same gender. It more specifically, as I see things, refers to homosexual practice, and only in a limited sense, homosexual feelings. (Only in the context of practice, that is.)

  15. douglas Hunter said

    I think Sean correctly describes the distinction between the terms homosexuality and homosexual practice as they are being used in the context of the chapter headings of Romans but from my point of view they are both unfortunate (read totally bogus) choices, and represent an attempt to make the text primarily about something that it is not, and simply can not be.

    Robert, I don’t really know how to answer your question. First I think we start by abandoning the use of the terms homosexual and homosexuality in the context of Romans 1. Then we need to deal with the specifics of the text which is about a form of religious practice, sexual longings or behavior only occur in the text through metaphor. Then I think we need to leave first century biases, how ever we understand them, in the first century.

    Further we should allow people who identify themselves as homosexual to define their own relationships and sexual practice and not impose bogus definitions on them.

  16. cherylem said

    In fairness to Elliott, and to admit my own weakness in trying to provide a summary, I think I should clarify more what Elliott wrote about this section of Romans. I’ve been working on a post regarding chapter 13, but I’m going to backtrack a little. Perhaps this further clarification will also help when we’re talking about chapter 13.

    This will seem like a long diversion, perhaps, but it relates to the topic at hand. And, because I didn’t want to repeat myself, you probably need to reread the original post before reading this comment.

    In a section entitled ‘Discerning the Lie: “Justice and Faith”‘, beginning on page 190, and which section contains Elliott’s comments noted above on 1:18-32, Elliott lays out the following:
    Paul’s revolt (Elliott calls it an intifada) is an ideological one, and it is against Rome. The clearest expression of this ideological revolt is the book of Romans.

    That is, Romans is not, or not only, a dogmatic treatise on Christian salvation. Paul, according to Elliott, was laying out comparisons with the theology of Rome and the theology of Christ. He was drawing people OUT OF Rome and INTO Christ. For more on the theology of Rome, see the starting post above.

    Important to Elliott was the fact that antijudaism was infecting Rome, and this same antijudaism was beginning to infect the Gentile Christians there also. Elliott writes:

    “Paul appeals to the Christians of Rome to throw off the mental shackles of the empire’s theology, to resist conformity to the world and embrace the transformation of their minds, and to come at last to share in God’s compassionate purposes toward humanity, and more particularly toward the covenant people Israel.”

    This is Elliott’s position.

    Elliott says that 1:17, which announces “the justice of God (dikatosyne tou theou) is now being revealed, from faithfulness to faithfulness” is not about justification by faith as opposed to the Jewish works-righteousness justification, as traditionally thought. [This should be interesting to us Mormons!] Instead, “the justice of God” is “God’s integrity, faithfulness to God’s own being and purposes. Those purposes, according to the broad sweep of the biblical tradition, are the redemption of the creation and the fulfillment of the covenant with Israel (which has the redemption of creation as its horizon). [footnoted several references]”

    However, to the Romans, to Roman theology, “justice” was the name of a divinity enshrined in Augustus’ mind. Faith was inscribed on the coinage. So Paul’s use of justice and faith was diametrically opposed to Roman theology, which theology made victims of many people, including Jews.

    Elliott claims that Paul is writing to an audience – the Roman Christians, who are tempted to identify with Rome’s perspective on its victims, including Jews. His first mention of 1:18-32 is in this context – Elliott says that this IS a statement of the awfulness of human rebellion, and is only the first such statement in Romans which will culminate in chapter 11 which will provide the argument climax regarding the arrogance of Gentile Christianity. In Chapter 11 Paul will be concerned that the Gentile boasting will exclude them from God’s purposes.

    So, Elliott claims, Paul is trying to help the Roman Christians discern the lie of Roman theology/Imperial policy. God’s justice is manifest, not in pomp and circumstance of Roman ceremony and decrees, but in the “royal proclamation (euangelion) of the crucified Messiah.”

    Elliott, using Juan Luis Segundo, defines injustice as “the generic sin against all that is due any human being,” and holds first place as “the mechanism of enslavement of sin.”

    Now we come to the verses at hand 1:18-32. And I don’t want to disappoint Douglas, but Elliott specifically names homosexual acts (using the term homosexual) as follows:

    “. . . the syndrome of injustice and idolatry among the wicked produces “impurity, the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,” that is, sexual perversions (1:24-27). Homosexual acts are particularly in view, between women (1:26) and between men (1:27).”

    Elliott terms these acts sexual abuse, and wonders why they play so important a role in Paul’s indictment of injustice.

    It is here that he writes about the inordinate influence these verses have today in public debate over the rights of gays and lesbians (mentioned above in the original post). Elliott immediately says that these verses cannot be read as Paul’s theology on homosexuality, for the reasons already given in the original post. Elliott addresses the long-held idea that Paul is making homosexual practice as a “sign of humanity’s alienation from God the creator,” and argues against this concept. Elliott says the perversions Paul describes (already quoted in the post) do not define homosexual orientation, nor do they define the Christian homosexual community. The perversions he describes are not even entirely homosexual in nature – that is the perpetrators could easily be heterosexual. Sexuality, in Paul’s world, he argues, was a medium of power (see again the original post). Quoting Robin Scroggs, he says: “the homosexuality the New Testament opposes is the pederasty of the Greco-Roman culture; the attitudes toward pederasty and, in part, the language used to oppose it are informed by the Jewish background.”

    [It is ironic that pederasty has become such an issue in our time.]

    It is then that Elliott says that Romans 1 “simply doesn’t provide an adequate foundation for theological reflection on homosexuality.” He continues, parenthetically, “(It certainly does not justify the antagonism gays and lesbians face as they seek housing, employment, civil rights, and even full participation in the life of the church.)” This is where he makes the argument, quoting Scroggs, that the criterion of reasonable similarity of context is not met (again, see original post).

    But Elliott’s immediate interest in the passage of Romans “lies in another direction.” He wonders why Paul concentrates on sexually abusive behavior at just this point in the letter to the Romans.

    Some have thought this section was actually an intellectual trap for the Jews, blending as it does idolatry with sexual immorality. Elliott rejects this. He thinks Paul is counting on a profound revulsion among his readers, and this revulsion comes from the common knowledge of the sexual behaviors and predations of recent emperors. Thus, Elliott believes that these verses apply to well-known behaviors of people in power, people in high places (see original post). That is, these verses are not aimed at your homosexual brother, your gay daughter, or anyone else in the normal course of life. They are aimed at a specific group of people (who may be heterosexual) who claim to understand and embody “justice” and “faith,” who are powerful, and who are predatory.

    I’ll quote the final two paragraphs of this section:

    “Paul’s repudiation of the imperial pretension to justice, and of the imperial slander of its victims, is nowhere more evident than in Romans. His target from the letter’s beginning is not the false religiosity of an individual in the abstract, or of the Jew as the paradigm of “religious humanity,” despite the tireless labors of Christian exegetes to prove that it is. Paul’s target is the arrogant pretense at the spiritual core of the empire, that the “golden age” of the gods’ favor is at hand; that the world is awash in piety and the benevolent justice of Augustus and his successors; and that those who suffer within this sacred order are pernicious rebels, whom the gods have justly abandoned to their fate.

    “The letter’s message to the Roman congregation is clear: The justice of God is not what the empire calls justice. Those who have been baptized into Christ are to understand themselves as “demobilized” from the Roman order, having left the “dominion of sin” behind. While others suppress the truth in the service of injustice and violate one another’s bodies in unspeakable acts, Christians are to yield their bodies to God “as instruments [hopla, ‘weapons’} of justice” (6:13-14). They must practice an ideological intifada, refusing to be coerced into conformity with the world and allowing their minds to be transformed (12:1-2).”

    This is long, but I felt like I needed to let Elliott speak for himself rather than me speaking for him. However, my original post still holds – Elliott says clearly that no longer do we need to look at Romans 1 as a vocabulary and an attitude toward homosexuality generally. This does not represent a “theology of homosexuality,” and the comparison between the believing homosexual and what Paul is writing about here is so different that “the criterion of reasonable similarity of context is not met.”

    The best comparison I can come up with is the idea that “Jews killed Christ,” therefore ALL Jews are Christ-killers. In this section, certain powerful, predatory people abuse others sexually in homosexual ways; therefore ALL homosexuals are abominations. To make these comparisons is simply tragic, and puts those who believe the comparisons in the same position as the abusers, a position that Paul is actually arguing against.

  17. cherylem said

    Douglas #12,
    I have never read the Archeology of Knowledge – will put it on my list.

    I certainly agree with this:

    I think this adds credibility to the idea that the reception of romans is historically constructed by a specific homophobic energy or assumption.

  18. Rebecca L said

    I appreciate your discussion here, especially your well-stated objectives, and I am hugely impressed by your generosity in sharing these posts. I share your thoughts about the importance of understanding Paul afresh. I am skeptical, however, of Elliot’s readings and of any reading which makes Imperial Rome the primary object of Paul’s discourse. One of the dangers of intellectual history is assuming that the general cultural context is the precise context of any document. Texts tend to be driven by very specific concerns and communities of discourse. While Elliot’s reading is very interesting, it doesn’t ring true to my sense of Paul’s audience. If Paul were attacking Imperial cults or rulers I believe he would have been more direct and that this would have provided more of a structure for all the arguments he makes throughout the letter. Moreover, to single these out for blame misses the theological point Paul underlines repetitively: we are ALL under sin and that we are all guilty. The stronger criticism is against ALL who judge then or now (Romans 2:1). Paul specifically points out that those who do the judging are Jewish and their presumed judgements according to the law (2:17ff) and that both jew and gentile will suffer (2:9)as if those are the only relevant categories. This is part and parcel of the argument he does develop throughout the epistle that Jews share the same fate as Gentiles in that we are all guilty and fallen without Christ’s redemption. He seems to be most interested throughout the epistle in contrasting the Jewish notion of law with grace. In short, Romans doesn’t really seem to be directed to Roman Romans at all but rather to the to the Greeks and Jews at Rome.

    How about latching onto Romans 1:28 as a distinction between “retaining God in our minds” and not acting on our fallen nature, and forgetting him and doing those things which are not fitting?

  19. Jim F. said

    cherylem: thanks very much, both for your original post and for #16. They are very helpful in thinking about Romans.

  20. Rebecca L said

    Last thought. What does Elliot or Cherylem do with Romans 13 and the extended discussion political authority: “Let every soul be subject to higher powers etc…? It seems to fly in the face of “Paul’s repudiation of the imperial pretension to justice, and of the imperial slander of its victims, is nowhere more evident than in Romans. His target from the letter’s beginning is not the false religiosity of an individual in the abstract, or of the Jew as the paradigm of “religious humanity,” despite the tireless labors of Christian exegetes to prove that it is.


  21. cherylem said

    Jim, Thanks. I’ve wondered what you thought of Elliott’s readings . . . at least as I’ve expressed them. (and of course you haven’t really said . . . )

    Rebecca, your point in #18 is interesting and one I really cannot answer. That is, Elliott’s information is new to me, his readings are new to me, and I find them fascinating, even compelling, but I don’t want to put myself in a position of defending or not defending them – I simply don’t know enough. Saying that, I will also add that I do find Elliott’s reading of Romans 1 very spiritual, however, and not just an intellectual exercise in historical context. Especiallly I liked this:

    “Elliott says that 1:17, which announces “the justice of God (dikatosyne tou theou) is now being revealed, from faithfulness to faithfulness” is not about justification by faith as opposed to the Jewish works-righteousness justification, as traditionally thought. [This should be interesting to us Mormons!] Instead, “the justice of God” is “God’s integrity, faithfulness to God’s own being and purposes. Those purposes, according to the broad sweep of the biblical tradition, are the redemption of the creation and the fulfillment of the covenant with Israel (which has the redemption of creation as its horizon). [footnoted several references]”

    What I really like about this book is Elliott’s agreement with me (!) that certain passages in the Pauline letters have been used to oppress others over a very long period of time in a way that perverts the gospel and damages Paul’s legacy. Because those readings/passages have been very important to me since my childhood forward, as I’ve seen people use them in order to justify acting in the most unloving ways, I am interested in Elliott’s work in this area.

    Regarding the Gentile/Jewish thing, I’ll try to address Elliott’s thoughts on this in later posts. And I AM working on Romans 13. Give me a couple of days . . . writing Elliott’s thoughts requires that I understand them, and this takes a little time. (Joe – and others – could probably do it in an instant!)

  22. Robert C. said

    Cheryl, thank you so much for taking as much effort as you have to share with us Elliott’s thoughts. These posts make his views much clearer to me, though now you’ve only whet my appetite to understand his views all the more!

  23. Rebecca L said

    Thanks, Cheryl. Of course Romans 13 poses its own problems, having been used to justify submission to unjust powers. Good luck on your Romans lesson!

  24. Jim F said

    cherylem: I’m not yet sure what I think about Elliot’s reading of Romans. There are many things about it which are very attractive. I particularly like thinking about 1:27 in the broader terms he proposes. I think that there is no question that we interpret the verse out of cultural context if we think it refers simply to what we call homosexuality. As you point out, it almost certainly has as much to do with pederasty as with anything else, that and the sexual abuse of slaves.

    There is also no question that the verse has been used to justify and excuse all kinds of vile behavior against homosexuals, though I think those justifications don’t work, any more than verses 29-30 can justify vile behavior toward the gossips and the boastful.

    However, I worry a bit that concern for the violence that people have done using verse 27 as an excuse becomes an interpretive principle: Many who have assumed that the verse refers to homosexual behavior in general have committed violence against people using that verse as their justification. Therefore, it must not refer to homosexual behavior in general. So I agree that we cannot build a theology of homosexuality on the verse, but I’m less sure what that means than it seems to me, via your explanation, that Elliot is.

    Textually, my problem is that I have a difficult time understanding the beginning of the attack, beginning in verse 18, as directed only (mostly?) at the rulers and oppressors. The people he describes in verse 27 are first described in verse 18 as those who hold [suppress] the truth in unrighteousness [injustice] (KJV + my readings). Elliot’s interpretation hangs on taking that to refer to the rulers and I am not yet convinced, as tempting as the interpretation is.

  25. cherylem said

    You’re not alone in the difficulty you describe in your last paragraph – some give and take on the Net regarding Elliott’s take on these verses basically focus on the same thing. Elliott is pretty much convinced of this argument, however.

    Regarding Paul not referring to homosexual behavior in general, I’m not sure I personally make that claim absolutely. I do agree that no one in Paul’s time understood homosexuality as, as Ellens’ says, a systemic orientation.

    Elliott writes more regarding his views in a very short article here: http://thewitness.org/agw/elliott071203.html

    I got your book, by the way. I immediately turned to your readings of this section in Romans 1 – your understanding of the language is very significant and enlightening.

  26. Jim F. said

    Thank you, Cheryl. I speent a lot of tiem thining about that passage and didn’t know about Elliot’s reading (perhaps it had not yet been published–I don’t know). My conclusion was that, whatever Paul believed about homosexual practice, he that wasn’t the point of the verse. The point was that this sin–whatever it was–is one of a long list of sins committed by those who suppress the truth by their injusstice.

    For me the most interesting verses in the list are those at the end (verses 29-31), where some of the sins mentioned are the sins I commit. (I think that fact also goes against Elliot’s reading of the section as a whole.) I read Paul as leading us from the sins we all recognize as being worthy of death–in his case, those of the idolaters–step-by-step to the sins that we commit and don’t recognize as making us worthy of death.

    I take the beginning of chapter two to be a rhetorical twist on that list: you think you are so righteous because you don’t think you are one of those people, but you are!

  27. Jim F. said

    Wow! Sorry about all of the typos. I think you can understand my post anyway, but they reveal what a poor typist and reader I really am.

  28. Robert C. said

    Oh, that we could all read as poorly as Jim F….

  29. John said

    You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? — Romans 2:1-4

    Paul is painting a picture of LUST, the malaise of the heart that separates us all from God. To interpret the passage strictly in term of homosexuality (or anyone who practices moral and sexual depravity) is missing the mark, IMHO. Whatever Paul believed about it, the continuation of his argument makes clear that even by condemning those who participate in such acts, we are condemning ourselves. Or, to paraphrase Alma, if we are not “stripped of envy” and pride, or “make a mock of our brother” with harsh words or heartlessness, or do not become “sufficiently humble,” we are not prepared to meet God. These sins are common human failings, born out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. Self-serving rather than God-serving.

    “Because they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him, their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” This is the first stop in the long road to eternal condemnation and spiritual death. Paul merely has provided us with a travelogue for the rest of the journey. The picture is bleak, and the people involved sink to the level of mere animals.

    O how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world! — Helaman 12:4

    I can personally attest that even these can return from such a depraved state with a renewed faith and commitment to serve God with “heart, might, mind and strength.” Indeed, all the power of your spirit is required to successfully “put off the natural man, and become a saint through the atonement of Christ” but it is possible to do so with God’s help and love.

  30. brianj said


    I just wanted you to know how much I have enjoyed this series. I printed them out—along with the comments—to take on my flight this post weekend. I really hoped I’d have something to add or a good question, but I don’t. But the series is still very interesting.

  31. cherylem said

    Thanks Brian and all those that have posted comments, here and elsewhere. I am really learning from what everyone else is writing . . . I’ve enjoyed the other posts on Paul also. I think we are doing a relatively good job thinking about Paul here on the Feast – and that is exciting to me.

  32. […] have already written about “the theology of empire” in Paul’s legacy: sexuality. I will only repeat here that the theology of empire incorporated the idea that the Roman emperor, […]

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