For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
How a person interprets this text will vary, depending on life experiences and culture. In 2023 UK, we may be tempted to look at this passage through our experiences of culture wars and conclude this passage is condemning same sex relationships. However, someone living in Rome 55 AD most likely would have seen this part of the letter in a different way. For them, Paul wasn’t talking about loving same-sex relationships. Paul wrote about the perils of idolatry, culminating in a description of the worship practices of the Cult of Cybele. What Paul describes is very much how historians of the time described the worship practices of that cult (Affirmative by J Tallon, p.53-70). Let’s be mindful of how different Rome 55 AD is to UK 2023, so we don’t read into this letter what isn’t there. Then we can focus on what Paul said.
At that time, the church in Rome had internal struggles between the Jewish-Christians and the Gentile-Christians. Paul began his letter by exploiting stereotypes that Jewish-Christians may have had about the Gentile-Christians, with the Gentiles reduced to idolaters, with degrading worship practices, who are “filled with every kind of wickedness.” Later, Paul will describe the stereotypes the Gentile-Christians may have had of the Jewish-Christians.
Sadly, we can still hear dehumanising language in church disagreements. “You are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” “You are a thief who has come to steal, kill and destroy.” “You are demonic.” “You are woke.” “You are anti-woke.” “You are not a true Christian.”
If we reduce this part of Paul’s letter to a mere ‘proof text’, then we have missed Paul’s point. Throughout this letter, Paul reminded them (and us) that whatever our religious and cultural backgrounds, whatever our life experiences prior to hearing Christ’s call to join His Church, we would do well to stop dehumanising each other with stereotypes. Instead, let’s focus on who we have in common – Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
For more information about different interpretations of this part of Paul’s letter, see the book Affirmative by Jonathan Tallon or check out his webpage.
God, when I focus on the wonders You created and not on You the Creator, forgive me. Help me to see You in every person I meet. Amen
The Rev’d Angela Rigby is minister at Christ Church URC in Tonbridge and St Johns Hill URC in Sevenoaks.