The other shoe has dropped, as the Supreme Court has decided in a narrow decision handed down this morning to redefine marriage for our entire country. As most who believe in the authority of the Bible and the right of the One True God to define our lives, I am saddened by the decision, but not surprised. According to Romans 1 this is the inevitable trajectory of a culture who has chosen to idolatry and chosen to worship the created rather than the Creator who is eternally blessed. Many people will turn to Romans 1:18-32, and rightfully so to give a Biblical response to the events of the day. Yet, few will then set that passage in the overall purpose of Romans in order to see the appropriate response by the Christian community.
Yes, the passage of Romans 1 does indicate that sexual confusion of a culture is a result of the wrath of God as God withholds his restraint and gives a culture exactly what it wants. But the core issue is not the culture’s sexual ethic, the core issue is idolatry.
“For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:21-23)
Here is the logic of the passage, people do not want the true God, they want a designer god who will affirm them and give them what they want. So they reject the One True God and replace him in their spirituality with the worship of the created. They make cars, and careers, and family, and sex, and their six pack abs the ultimate thing in life. Rather than giving thanks to God as the great gift giver they take the gift and reject the giver. Then they worship the gift. As they do this, God literally gives them over to the desires of their heart and the desires consume, which leads to the rejection of any purpose given by God and the embracing of a human-centered ethic which will always spiral away from God’s design and toward God’s judgment.
I know, so far I sound like a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, like people all over the place using Romans 1 to bemoan the horrible state of things in our day, and to call for the return of America as a Christian nation. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I actually think this day is an amazing opportunity for the people of God in our culture to return to the primary purpose for which the church exists in the world, the mission of God. In order to do that, we need to reclaim more than Romans 1, we need to reclaim all of Romans, and let this passage speak in its context.
So, let me begin by telling every Christian that Romans is for the church, for us, and is not primarily for our use to blast the world for the way they see life. Believe it or not, the sexual ethic of our culture is really no where near as decadent as the sexual ethic of Roman world. It was standard practice for a man to be married, but also to have servants in the house, both male and female, for the sole purpose of his sexual pleasure, and for him to visit a shrine to Roman deities filled with cult prostitutes weekly as an act of worship. Paul’s purpose in this passage was not to give the Romans church a tool for blasting their culture and showing them the wrongness of their actions. Romans 1:18-32 sits in a section that runs through Romans 3:20 with one central theme, the universal guilt of humanity. All people are in desperate need of redemption. But chapters 2-3 Paul moves his argument from those in the culture who are engaged in the sexual ethic of the day to the religious and self-righteous church-going type people. In other words, half of one chapter here addresses those who might be celebrating the decision today, and almost two chapters address those who are ready to charge the steps of the Supreme Court with signs and banners quoting Romans 1. Interesting that he builds a longer case against the cultural believer than he does against the irreligious rejecter of the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Why does he do this? Because the purpose of the entire book of Romans is the mission of God and the beauty of the Gospel. Starting with Romans 3:20, Paul gives a lengthy treatise on the theology of the Gospel, explaining in great detail and in deep theological concepts exactly what the Gospel is and what the Gospel does. He is compelling the church in Rome to do the hard work of understanding the Gospel in its fullness and clarity. Paul calls them to be theologically sound and have a rich and deep understanding of the work of Jesus on their behalf. Romans is one of the richest theological works, not only in the Bible, but one of the richest theological works ever written. Yet, theology is not the primary purpose of Romans either? So Paul writes about the universal guilt of humanity, yet this is not his primarily purpose. And Paul gives a rich theology of the Gospel in all its beauty, but this is not the primary purpose. Then what is the purpose of Romans?
Simply put, Romans is a call to the beautiful mission of God. Paul’s response to Romans 1:18-32 is Romans 1:14-17:
I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
(Romans 1:14-17 ESV)
Paul is clear here, the Gospel is the hope for the culture described in Romans 1, and the church’s response is mission. This means the loving and clear proclamation of the Gospel and planting of new churches. In fact, Paul writes this letter because he hopes to come preach in Rome and beyond, even to the point of heading to Spain. He is not looking to stand in the streets of Rome with a sign shouting condemnation to people with alternative life-styles. He is not looking to dig his heels in so that he can engage in a cultural war. His response to the condition of the culture is to come to them (presence) and preach the Gospel (proclamation). He will not give up his theology of the Gospel, only the true Gospel has the power of God to save (v. 16). But neither is he going to proclaim the truth in Romans 1 without the hope of Romans 3-10.
Well, if you have stayed with me this long, let me make my conclusion simple. Many Christians will respond to this decision today by shouting at the culture using the text of Romans 1, while mourning the loss of the Christian morality of our society. Others will seek to gain approval in the culture by gradually abandoning the core truths of the Gospel. But the Gospel response is to love the culture and to preach the Gospel. To have a deep desire to see people saved and a strong belief in the power of the Gospel to save. To do this we must move toward Rome, not away, but also move toward a hearty theology of the Gospel, not away. This day may seem difficult, but it is really an opportunity for the Christian community in our country to recalibrate toward the mission of God and the advance of the Gospel in our own land. The big question for us is will we be more interested in that than we are in winning the culture war?