Good morning! Today we begin the book of Romans, the first of many New Testament letters (also called “epistles”) written by Paul or other apostles to specific communities or people, expressing guidance for a given situation. These letters form the rest of the New Testament except for the final book, which we’ll approach in the week after Christmas. Epistles have been judged worthy of inclusion in the New Testament by how well their specific admonitions inform Christian theology (decided largely by vote of councils that convened the Bible’s current contents). These books follow ancient forms of letters or public address, since they were understood to be read aloud in assembly as a substitute for the writer’s actual presence.
As the first letter in this section of the Bible, Romans takes on an outsize reputation and is considered by some to be the finest distillation of Paul’s Christian thought. However, as my New Testament professor suggested, the fact of its place in the canon has less to do with its excellence of thought and more to do with the importance of Rome as a city in ancient times. Even though Paul didn’t know the Roman Christians at the time of this writing, his letter has its current prominence because it addresses the capital city of the Roman Empire. In the same way that his other letters take into consideration the context of the recipients, Paul’s epistle to the Romans praises, then subverts, their pride at being the center of the “civilized world”. Paul flatters their cosmopolitan sensibilities, but argues in finely-developed logic for them to value honest faith rather than the pinnacles of law-abiding works.
Today’s passage (Romans 1-3) begins to set this forth with Paul’s stated purpose for all his ministry: “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of [Christ’s] name” (1:5). After a customary opening section of thankfulness which he tailors (again) to his audience, Paul summarizes his understanding of the gospel for the Romans in two theme verses for this letter (Romans 1:16-17). Faith is the single greatest sign of righteousness and leads to salvation for Jew and Gentile both. Whereas the Romans likely pride themselves on excellence in abiding by the demands of Hebrew law, Paul emphasizes faith instead of works.
Paul’s famous condemnation of “unnatural” homosexual activity comes from Romans 1, and the context persuades me that his argument has much more to do with the sacred than the sexual. Paul contends that human sinfulness comes from humans acting out of place, choosing our own gods (crafted with human hands) rather than submitting to the natural recognition of God as sovereign. Paul lists same-sex erotic behavior among a host of other vices that are symptoms of the inability to accept the way God has made the world. However, this argument leaves open the possibility that truly expressing faith might exist within same-gender loving relationships, as inconceivable as this would have been in Paul’s time. Indeed, these days with our understanding of sexual orientation as more or less “baked in” and part of how God makes people, those attracted to people of the same gender ought not submit to heterosexual relationships to please the social status quo—that would be “unnatural”.
Paul’s arguments in Romans 2-3 largely address Jews who think themselves better than Gentile believers, or who compel Gentiles to adopt Jewish cultural practices as a prerequisite of being Christian. Jews have received the law of God (the Ten Commandments, Torah, prophets, etc.), but what truly matters is upholding the law, and this can be done by Gentiles as well as Jews. Paul takes umbrage with Jews who act with hypocrisy, speaking against some sin from a place of covenantal privilege but then doing worse sins themselves. Ultimately, he concludes that everyone fails to uphold God’s priorities all the time, and so falls short in the “works” department. Faith trusts in the deliverance of Christ rather than the saving power of one’s own works. We’ll extend this line of thinking tomorrow, but for now notice how it fits with the community Paul is addressing. Elsewhere, he can be quite prescriptive when it comes to the works required for healthy Christian community, but here because of the prideful self-sufficiency of folks in Rome, he emphasizes the importance of faith over works. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Romans 4-6. Thanks for reading!