Pastor Bob on Romans: Christian Diversity; Sin and Grace; Excessive Lust

Pastor Bob

(This is the follow-up to “What Do Christians Do with the Jews? It is the handout Pastor Bob wrote for the fifth class of his five-week course on Romans.)

WEEK #5 OF 5 “REFLECTING ON ROMANS”

THE DIVERSITY OF CHRISTIANS IN COMMUNITY

  • Paul addresses his Roman audience amidst its diversity, particularly with regard to Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians.

o   He consciously shapes much of his Epistle with regard to these two groups:

§  Gentiles fall short (1:1 – 32)

§  Jews fall short (1:18 – 2:29)

§  Righteousness by faith, first the Jews then the Gentles (3:21 – 31)

§  Place of the Jews and role of the Gentiles (9:1 – 11:36)

§  Gospel for both the Jews and Gentles (15:7 – 13)

o   Paul also makes further delineations within the Christian community.

§  A diversity of gifts:

  • Prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leading, compassion (12:6 – 8)

§  Differing dietary practices:

  • Those who “eat anything” and those who “eat only vegetables” (14:2)

§  Differing fasting practices:

  • Eating or abstaining on particular days in order to honor the Lord (14:5 – 6)
  • Paul’s point:

o   Don’t judge! Don’t put unnecessary stumbling blocks in front of people to dissuade their faith in Jesus.

§  Jesus adds his two cents to this (Mark 9:38 – 42) when the disciples are all bent out of shape because someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

§  Jesus goes on to say that if “any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)

  • People often interpret “little ones” as being children and connect it with the blessing of children (Mark 10:13 – 16), but this text comes significantly afterwards.
  • More accurately, Jesus warns not to put a stumbling block in front of those who seem not to be “one of us” yet claim Christ, or we will find a millstone around our neck!
  • Lastly, what’s missing from this conversation? à Slavery!

o   Christianity was extremely popular among those who had little power in society, especially slaves.

o   Slavery was also such a part of the fabric of society, particularly Roman society, that Paul does not highlight the diversity in wealth and power among the Christians in Rome.

o   Furthermore, Paul reinforces these societal power structures by saying that governing authorities are not to be challenged, that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Rom 13:1)

§  This text has been used for centuries to both maintain public order and suppress anyone who revolt against authority or governance.

§  Martin Luther used this text when he told the Nobility to brutally put down the revolt of the Peasants.

§  Slave owners in the 1800s justified their ownership of humans partly from this text and also from the relative silence of the Bible regarding slavery.

§  A good reason to pay your taxes! Explicit in Romans 13:6-7.

 

SIN AND GRACE

  • “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom 3:22 – 23). This summarizes Romans 1:18 – 3:20.

o   Gentiles, or as Paul sometimes refers to, “Greeks,” have fallen short.

§  They should have known better. They should have recognized God in creation and regarded themselves as God’s creatures, but instead they worshipped everything else but God and this led to all sorts of bad behaviors born out of concupiscence, out of excessive lust and desire.

§  The Gentiles have thus fallen short, however, as Paul goes on, so have those who pass judgment on them!

  • Paul goads them, “do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience?” (Rom 2:3)

o   The Jews have fallen short.

§  Are they so much better because they are circumcised? No says Paul.

§  Are they so guaranteed a free pass because of their diet. No says Paul.

§  All have fallen short.

  • “…they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…through faith” (Rom 2:24 – 25)

o   Paul stresses that it is by faith that we are justified before God, just like Abraham was before he was circumcised; his faith made him right before God.

o   This means that not only the Jews, but the Gentiles are capable of such faith, and therefore being right before God through Jesus Christ. Yes!

  • Original Sin and Ancestral Sin

o   Original Sin

§  This may be one of the hardest concepts for a modern person to grasp, let alone accept.

§  Not a new idea, but one particularly formalized and named by St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) in the early stages of a Christian Church that was working hard to Christianize a Roman Empire with its multiple religions and philosophies.

§  Because in ancient times they literally conceived of human conception as a male implanting a complete, tiny baby within a woman, then it makes sense that Augustine (and Paul?) would describe sin and its consequences, death, as being passed down from the “First Adam” (Rom 5:12, 19) and then being redeemed by the New Adam, Jesus.

  • “The Fall” of Adam (and Eve) is the “original sin.”

§  Why is this hard for a modern mind? Here are a few reasons:

  • We don’t think of ourselves as particularly “bad” or that a baby is born a “sinner” à they’re so cute!
  • Augustine will tie sin to pro-creation, which results in subsequent Christian traditions having a slightly skewed understanding of human sexuality exhibited most profoundly in the American mind, through Puritanism.
  • The following sequence of thought becomes popular:

o   Puritanism à Sex is a sin à Puritanism is crazy!

o   Also, declaring people as witches and killing them à Puritanism is crazy!

o   Original sin à crazy or at best, old fashioned

§  Augustine’s thought will affect the Western Church (not the Eastern Church) and particularly Protestantism.

§  Roman Catholics: Original Sin imputes a guilt that passes from generation to generation, but is removed by Baptism

 

o   An alternative to Original Sin: Ancestral Sin

§  Eastern Orthodoxy would not be influenced by Augustine in the same way

  • They would view the “Original Sin” as “The Original Sin,” something that happened in the past, but only its consequences were passed on: death (not imputed guilt for what Adam did as Roman Catholics believe)

§  Adam and Eve, represent humanity’s ongoing struggle to exercise free will

§  Humans are still made in the image of God, but it is distorted by Ancestral Sin

§  Conceive of God and humans in synergistic terms (cooperative)

o   Protestants à “Original Sin” …with emphasis on “Grace”

§  Protestants emphasize the grace part of the equation, but are largely Augustinian in their approach to sin

§  Radical Grace ßà Radical Sin AND Racial Sin ßà Radical Grace

 

CONCUPISCENCE [meaning: strong sexual desire; lust]

  • Romans 1:26-27 is often used in anti-gay/lesbian language, but this is a poor choice of texts if you are seeking such a position.

o   This section is about concupiscence, about excessive desire and lust that pushes one beyond “natural” barriers.

o   Paul describes such actions as caused by idolatry, and part of a Gentile Roman culture that blurred all boundaries between humans, animals and nature.

o   In other words, as witnessed in the multiple religious cults of the Roman world, heterosexual people, caught up in frenzied states of concupiscence were not to have same-sex behavior with each other, nor with animals, etc.

o   Where does this leave homosexuals engaged in long-term relationships? Good question. Some translators will add the word “homosexual” or “homosexual behavior” to texts such as this one in their Biblical translations or commentary, but interestingly, the word “homosexuality” was coined in the 19th century and is not found in early translations of the Bible such as the King James Version.

o   The Biblical understanding of same-sex behaviors seems to be limited to short-term expressions of concupiscence, especially around cultic ritual, hence Paul’s association with idolatry. Homosexuality as a long-term, same-sex attraction, let alone relationship does not seem to be on the Biblical radar. And, treating such long-term homosexual relationships as some kind of prolonged concupiscence seems inadequate—ask any heterosexual couple who have been together for more than 50 years if their relationship is sustained by concupiscence!

o   To be honest, I think we are living in a time when we don’t really understand all the biological, chemical, psychological, sociological nor theological variables that shape this complex and emotionally charged issue. I really don’t like adding terms to the Bible that weren’t there before, nor am I appreciative of those who simply want to dismiss the Bible and its perspective on creation, our relationships and what it means to live in Jesus Christ.

o   Getting back to our particular text in Romans, to be fair to everyone, homosexuals should not be excluded from the point of this text any more than heterosexuals: Everyone, regardless of sexual orientation should be wary of excessive lust and desire that mutates a relationship into only self-gratification and thus idolatry, and not self-giving love.

o   When one succumbs to unbridled concupiscence, you will know it through the results of selfish behavior: covetousness, malice, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slandering, God-hating, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventing evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom 1:29-31).

§  If you observe this behavior, you are witnessing the effects of idolatry.

END TIMES

  • Christ will come again. Yes.
  • We don’t know when. Yes.
  • There will be signs to indicate Christ’s imminent return. Yes.
  • Those signs have been occurring the past two millennia. Yes.
  • We must be ready. Yes.

 

JUDGEMENT

  • Whenever we self-promote ourselves to a higher plane of existence, or worse yet, of judgment over others, we find ourselves at the “pointy-end” of the gospel, that not only condemns our better judgment, but crucifies it.

o   Think about Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, or Paul’s condemnation in Romans of those who somehow believe that they are better (Rom 2).

o   Those who judge are condemned already. All have fallen short.

o   And then resurrected…Christ has died for all, everyone, your friend, your enemy and most startling, you.

  • I can’t help but think we can learn something of a lesson from the Nazi’s judgment and corresponding dehumanizing treatment of those who were non-Aryan, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-German, etc.

o   Do we put yellow stars on those who appear different than ourselves, or whose difference makes us question our own place in the world?

o   Was the death of all those soldiers, of families, of villages, of whole religious communities simply for naught?

o   Do we truly believe we are both saint and sinner?

o   Do we own Luther’s anti-Semitic language later used by the Nazis to justify their mistreatment of so many groups of people?

o   The question we should keep on asking ourselves (particularly as saint/sinners) is who are the people that we consciously or unconsciously place yellow stars on? Who places them on us?

 

OTHER RELIGIONS

“So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” (Rom. 11:20b)

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://gaychristiangeek.blogspot.com Rainicorn

    This is absolutely amazing – so rich, so insightful, so wise! Of course, your blog always is, John, but it’s exciting to have another voice adding another dimension here. Thank you, John, and thank you, Pastor Bob.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Thank you so much for this, Rain. Pastor Bob is just now across the country at an ecumenical conference. I know your encouragement will mean a lot to him. Thanks from both of us.

  • Misty Irons

    Very nice treatment of the gay and lesbian issue. It’s rare to find a pastor so restrained and informed and able to stay within the boundaries of the text. And able to admit when he doesn’t know all the answers. I’m impressed!

  • Richard W. Fitch

    Thanks for the timely manner in which this set of notes has appeared. Del Shores, creator of the “Sordid Lives” series has challenged Stacey Campfield, a senator in the TN legislature and author of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, to a debate on “The Bible and Homosexuality” to take place either in Nashville or Knoxville later this month. There is outstanding material here to promote understanding of the modern concept of same-gender relationships as opposed to the First Century concepts of same-sex behavior. Thanks again to both you for publishing and Pastor Bob for gleaning this complex analysis.

  • http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

    Whenever the “original sin” question comes up, I always find it tricky. I tend to define it as “No, I don’t think babies are sinners – they aren’t capable of moral judgements yet,” but that I do think we are all born with the “inclination to sin” as it were, and that I define as self-interest, abundant ego, and the desire to put others below oneself to lift oneself up. In other words “Gimme!”

    I suppose it is a function of nature, as well, as animals are pretty much all about “gimmie!” (Be late feeding a cat, you’ll know…) but I think it goes “above and beyond” in humans, perhaps because we know better. It’s not thta some self-interest isn’t good and healthy, self-preservation and whatnot, but… we really do take it to extremes.

    Against my better judgement, I got into commenting on HuffPo again, and I commented a little in a topic about a need to create secular morality. I agreed with most others that the language in the article was a bit loaded, since no group seems to agree on a single black and white set of values books are written about books on these matters. The thing I noticed in the convesation, however, is that everyone who thought they and those that agreed with their worldview had an innately “better” morality seemed to have a gist about them of “and that means we can condesend to you, you unintelligent, weak slug.” (Okay, I’m exaggerating the language, but I felt the implication). Cuts both ways, too, it wasn’t just people of one group with this attitude (though one kind of person was far outnumbered by the other). It leaves me wondering if this kind of pride, this kind of need for ego and being better than the next guy – worth by comparison to others – is what leads to wars (beyond “you have rescources and we want ‘em!” which is another kind of ego/self interest thing).

    Sorry for crazy-person rambling. I’ve been working on fiction and trying to worldbuild.

  • http://www.BuzzDixon.com buzz

    Really liked this outline & insights. (Are the other weeks’ outlines online, by any chance?)

    I had gotten the same sense re “unnatural” acts in my earlier readings of Romans. To me it seem to say behavior that was contrary to a particular individual’s nature was sinful, not necessarily behavior contrary to a cultural/societal norm.

    Anyone who argues there are some people w/sociopathic or psychotic natures who would be inclined to act out harmfully has to acknowledge that both Christ and Paul said it was never wrong to refrain from something that might cause harm to another, even if the harm was just the potential of making them stumble. As Pastor Bob points out, there is a distinction to be made between personal intimate relations & the very public hedonism Paul was writing about. What is translated in Romans & other epistles as “fornication” in the KJV and “sexual immorality” in more contemporary translations is better understood as “whoredom” from the original Greek.

    This supports a reading of the text that steers away from innate orientation & towards a deliberate (& by implication, somewhat mercenary) action for ulterior motives.

    Anyway, this is great stuff; I hope to see more.

  • Don Rappe

    Certainly a lot of material to consider at once. I wonder if the followers of the way of Jesus were called Christians yet when Paul wrote his letter. I wonder if the “church” in Rome met anywhere besides in the synagogues at that time. I bet Bob knows. I’d like to know too!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I’m interested in where Pastor Bob got the idea from that the ancients “literally conceived of human conception as a male implanting a complete, tiny baby within a woman”? The picture that I get of their understanding is that the male implants the seed, but the seed does not contain a complete, miniature version of whatever it is the seed of. What results depends heavily on the womb which bears it: a baby’s flesh is conceived in the fertility of a woman, and, obviously, offspring inherit traits of all their “fathers”: including both of the parents, the grandparents, etc.


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