We have a champion who has become our champion. Many articles proclaim this young footballer’s courage in taking a stand against publicly stand against a range of moral ills. ‘Our world needs’ such courage, one article proclaims. A champion, slammed by the media. Hailed by the faithful.
I have not read what Israel Folau said in detail; I am interested in our responses as he has become a focal point for comment.
The standard text for most Christian commentators is Romans 1:18 and following in which the apostle Paul speaks about various manifestations of ungodliness. Included, of course, is homosexuality.
Ungodliness is what it is. But what we need to do is work with Paul’s words as they were written and as God intended. We need to make sure that if we use them as broadsides in our fight to clean up society, we are speaking truth as it was intended to be spoken, and to the right audience.
Basic interpretive questions come into play. The first would be, ‘To whom were these words written.’ Then would follow, ‘Why were they written?’
Let’s look at the first of those, ‘To whom…’ The words were written to believers. The letter to the Romans was written to ‘All in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.’ Paul tells them of his gratitude to God for them and that their ‘faith is being reported all over the world.’ Believers.
They were not written to your gay neighbours or politicians of a colour you dislike. They are from God to you and me. Think of it as an internal memo, or email with a private circulation. God wants us as believers to learn something. Paul suggestively notes that he longs to preach the Gospel to them. (1:15) But why? Obviously, although believers, some things about the Gospel as yet must have been unclear in thought or practice. Things to learn.
Our understanding of God’s intention must come from that primary understanding that we as believers are the intended audience. So why was it written to us?
There are many clues. As we get to the latter chapters of the book, we see that the numbers of small house-churches in Rome comprised Jews and Gentiles. Therein lay the seeds of division. And judgement.
For the Jew, the Romans were ungodly in the extreme and carried the residue of that ‘ungodliness’ into the life of the ecclesias. These Romans had lived all of their lives in moral corruption, and even worse, religious corruption—the absence of all essential Jewish piety. No Sabbaths. No sacrifices. No acknowledgement of Yahweh at all. Rampant promiscuity and the open defilement of marriage. And here they were, pretending to be equal! No, we can’t have that!
For the Romans, the Jews were extreme social inferiors. Roman thought, like Greek thought, had its hierarchy of worth. A person’s value came from the role he or she played, or were fated to play, within society. Based on birth—race, gender, slave or free and so on. Perhaps not quite the life-sentence of the Indian caste system, but not far from it. If you were a slave, you had the value of a slave. If you were a citizen, you had the superior worth of a citizen. Jews were in there among the lesser beings. A ridiculous minority grouping of monotheists cut off from the birthright of citizenship.
In an extreme perhaps, think of a Roman house church like an imagined church of bygone years in the Southern states of the USA. Black and white in the one church. One side saw the other as corrupted, brutal, subhuman in its treatment of fellow ‘image-of-God’ humans of a different skin colour. The other side saw those with darker skins as subhuman, with none of the graces and intellect and assumed majesty of the Western culture that made the whites the natural rulers of all who were below them.
Jews and Romans, in one local church, in someone’s living room, eating from the same plates and cups and each, according to the apostles, equal in the sight of God. No. Equality must have its limits, surely.
Indeed, it is possible to read the whole of chapters 1-11 of Romans, that majestic unpacking of the truth of the Gospel of God’s grace towards all, Jew and Gentiles alike, as the letter’s introduction. The real letter, the real purpose of the letter, is in chapters 12-15. ‘Therefore, I urge you brothers…’ and the appeal was for minds to be so transformed by the Gospel that they would stop judging each other. To live in humility of grace. It was a message and purpose that could not be understood without the intricate forensic detail of the Gospel as spelled out in chapters 1-11. The Gospel alone would cut through both Greco/Roman and Jewish prejudice.
So, back to the opening chapters and Paul’s description of ungodliness. What chapters 1:18-3:21 do is include all Romans, all Greeks, and all Jews in the same basket—corrupted from the core and deserving death.
Paul’s headline, or subject, is ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel.’ Jews—I am not ashamed to have Roman men and women included and fully equal with you even though you had the law and the prophets, Sabbaths and every other jot and tittle of piety while they drank from the wells of corruption.
And Romans—I am not ashamed to have your so-called racial and social inferiors, your so-called fated lower beings, included in with you as your social equals in total disregard of the roles they might play in Roman hierarchical society.
‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel!’ The ‘shame’ of the Gospel about which Paul is speaking is the shame of grace dispensed equally across every perceived flavour of corruption.
Chapter 1:18-32 is not written as a weapon to wield against those who do not know Yahweh. What it says is true. God’s judgement is upon them. But it is not given to us as men and women who have been made righteous only because of the grace of God to use as a weapon for coercing people who do not know Yahweh to live like the people of Yahweh. Law never works that way.
And above all, let’s get this absolutely clear—no man, woman or child is destined for eternal destruction because they are greedy, disobedient to their parents, or gossips or anything else in Paul’s list including homosexuality. It is a list of consequences stemming from one core issue. They are under the wrath of God for that one core issue, clearly stated: they fail to honour God as God. As we see those manifestations of ungodliness we are looking at symptoms, not causes. Unless we clarify that confusion we will always caricature the Gospel. To make them the criteria for eternal destruction is just not truth.
Doesn’t Scripture say that murders, adulterers etc will not inherit the kingdom? And in Revelation will not be allowed into the eternal city? Yes. But again, symptoms and causes. You and I are, in Jesus’ words, adulterers and murders. But our inclusion or exclusion is not on that basis. It is on one basis alone—our acknowledgement of God in Christ.
These shocking statements of Romans 1:18-3:20 are intended to reshape our thinking as believers. To help us understand that whether we came from the gutters of moral degradation or the pious parades of Sunday church services, we were equally under the wrath of God and are equally reborn by the grace of God. Our better use of those chapters is to describe what we once were, rather than what unbelievers now are.
To take this in-house memo written by Paul and use it as our license to arbitrate on people who are, like we once were, blind and groping for some glimmer of light in all the wrong places, is not going to show the wonders of the Gospel unless it is accompanied by tear-stained love and mercy from God through us.
Should we speak of sin and judgement? Of course. Should we speak of it in random sprays in social media and pulpit broadsides? Of course not.
Why? Because people are both sinners and sinned against. And every life is different. My wife and I had a young, drug-addicted prostitute living with us for a while. Abused by her father and subsequently sexually abused in two foster homes she ran away. As a thirteen year-old her only perceived option for survival was prostitution. To numb the pain, she took drugs. Did she need a spray about the evils of prostitution? No. Nor did she ever receive one from us. She needed to know that there was a form of love that was non-abusive and unconditional. That was where her journey needed to begin. It did. She reached out to Christ for that love.
Meander through your New Testament and list all of the places where the sins of Romans 1 are used in public proclamation of the Gospel. By Jesus? No. By Paul in Athens? No. By Peter at Pentecost? No. By Philip in Samaria? No. By Paul in Psidian Antioch? No.
You will also notice that no New Testament sermon was one-size-fits-all. Each audience heard its own relevant message.
Truth without wisdom can become folly. Let’s stir each other up to wisdom so that the Gospel is heard clearly in each situation, by each individual life. And as we work to stem the decline of our society, to do it as men and women of grace.