Reading Romans 1 Differently

A reflection by Lindsey

Much of my personal sense of spirituality has been shaped by various evangelical movements within Christian traditions. When people ask me to describe my spirituality, I’ll frequently say something like “evangelical with a small ‘e.'” I understand the Gospel of Christ to be fundamentally good news, even the absolute best news to be delivered to this planet. I have a special love for the Gospel of Luke, the book written to present the story of Christ clearly to a Gentile audience. I am grateful for everyone I have met who has helped me learn how to read the Scriptures, to learn from them, and to apply them to my life.

There are certain Scriptures I’ve heard so often that they pop into my head completely unannounced. When I’m waiting for clarity in a decision, I’ll hear, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” As I take a moment to ponder the Resurrection, my heart leaps into a chorus of “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered.” After I have presented a request to Christ in prayer, my brain reminds me, “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.'” When I ponder the usefulness of reading the Scriptures, I find myself hearing, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

As much as there are certain Scriptures that organically spring to mind, there are also certain verses that often get thrown at me. Virtually every LGBT person who is or has been a Christian can talk about run-ins with 6 specific passages. Romans 1 ranks high on the list. What LGBT Christian has not sat down to lunch with a concerned Christian friend who pulls out his or her Bible to “share” these verses:

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.

One of the things that always struck me about these lunchtime “heart to hearts” was how rarely the person sharing the verses thought they applied at all to him or her. After all, these verses have made the short list of what you should say when your friend indicates that he or she might be gay. I think it’s time to read Romans 1 differently. Specifically, what would happen if people began reading the Bible with the intention of seeing how the Scriptures spoke into their own lives as readers rather than focusing on how they might apply to others?

Throughout history, Scriptures have been abused by assertions that a certain verse applies exclusively to condemn a particular group of people. It’s a bit different when you start to consider yourself one of the out-group. I remember being in high school and performing in a passion play at my church. Turning to face the person playing the role of Jesus and shouting “Crucify Him!” caused me to read Matthew 27:25 a bit differently. Matthew 27:25 reads, “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!'” This verse historically has been used as a justification that the Jewish people bear a blood-guilt for killing Jesus. I cannot imagine the number of Christians who have used this particular verse in an attempt to justify anti-Semitic behavior.

However, it’s possible to read Matthew 27:25 differently. It’s possible for us as Christians to reflect on how we need Christ’s blood to cover us because we are people who have fallen short of the glory of God. Perhaps we will see how the crowd included those who, not even a week before, had greeted Jesus as a triumphant king. What would happen if we started to search our own hearts for ways that we all too easily reverse our attitudes towards God? My high school youth group showed me that I too could stand in the crowd shouting “Crucify Him!” More than a decade later, I can still play that memory back in full color.

The crowd gathered at the trial was the same crowd as the throng of people greeting Christ with palms shouting Hosanna. This discussion of Matthew 27:25 is relevant to how we might learn to read Romans 1 differently. After all, Romans 1 includes a significant discussion of how people have turned their backs on God: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

I think all of us would benefit from reflecting on Romans 1:24, which says, “ Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” The lusts of our hearts are many. We thirst for power, prestige, favor, and glory. In these pursuits, we often find ourselves dishonoring our bodies in countless ways. We punish our bodies through fad dieting and the latest exercise trends. We use our bodies to enact violence on other people or on creation. We run on the ever-present hamster wheel of materialism and deny our bodies adequate rest, nourishment, and refreshment. And that’s to say nothing about our diverse battles with concerns about sexual purity. Who among us has a perfect record of always honoring the body?

When we truly embrace that all Scripture is useful for teaching, we can see that we need to consider ourselves first among students. None of us can claim to be the head of the class. It can be hard to look at a particular passage and discern, “How does this text speak to my life? How can I possibly share how the Holy Spirit is inspiring me along my journey with Christ?” It’s all too easy to read the Scriptures and envision ourselves as the various protagonists: we can emulate Christ as he says, “Go and sin no more,” we can be the publican who prays humbly in the temple, and we can be prodigal son who has done the right thing in returning to the house of the father. It’s much harder for us to ask the Holy Spirit to show us how we might embody the people who are clearly on the wrong side of God’s judgement. How are we the Pharisees who have tied up heavy loads? How are we Judas who has betrayed Christ? And how are we like those who have exchanged the truth of God for a lie?

When we start asking those kinds of questions, we might just start reading Romans 1 a bit differently.

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8 thoughts on “Reading Romans 1 Differently

    • Hi Samara, I’m glad this post resonated so much with you. Do feel free to share it with others. I’d love to hear more about how they responded. -Lindsey

  1. Actually, be careful abusing the Pharisee sect in the New Testament as well. Frankly, the picture painted by most that I’ve heard tend to stack “The Pharisees” as a single monolithic group. They were not. There were general principles that they followed, but each region had its own take on those.

    Most are surprised that the general belief that they were the strictly legalistic. They were attempting to reform the way that Judeans of the first century could practice the Mosaic Law by taking those activities of the daily life and providing guidance in how the Law could be applied. They were much less legalistic than the Essenses and other sects of the time. But, because of the their portrayal in the John, last cononical Gospel to be written, they tend to have a flawed image. The Church had finally completely broken away from Judaism and the Christian community had an antoganonistic relationship with Jewish leaders. The Gospel of John let’s that show through in its accounting of not just the Pharisees but the chief priests and scribes as well.

    • Hi Ed, thanks for your comment. I’d be prone to agree with you that the Pharisees are often taken out of context. Many people overlook, for instance, that Jesus dined with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7). Additionally, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees. Matthew’s Gospel was written for principally a Jewish audience, and it could be argued that that the seven woes of the Pharisees found in Matthew 23 were an effort to return the Pharisees to their original intentions. -Lindsey

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  4. This post is both encouraging and convicting. I’m meeting soon with a Christian sister who wants to discuss Romans 1 with me, and I’ve been dreading lunch with her. Somehow despite our best efforts, conversation regarding this passage always seems to disconnect both sides from each other. It feels like we become two people having two completely different debates. I’m encouraged by your post to disengage from the debate and instead focus on our relationship as two sisters bound by devotion and obedience to Christ, figuring out how to apply scripture to our own lives. I’m convicted by your post to consider where I might identify with the condemned in scripture. Thank you for handling the subject with grace and thoughtfulness.

    • May God be ever-present in your conversations. I would love to hear an update when you have a chance! -Lindsey

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