In his chapter on homosexuality in The Moral Vision of the New Testament Richard Hays argues that in Romans 1:
Paul is offering a diagnosis of the disordered human condition: he adduces the fact of widespread homosexual behaviour as evidence that human beings are indeed in rebellion against their Creator. The fundamental human sin is the refusal to honor God and give God thanks (1:21); consequently, God’s wrath takes the form of letting human idolatry run its own self-destructive course. Homosexual activity, then, is not a provocation of ‘the wrath of God’ (Rom 1.18); rather, it is a consequence of God’s decision to ‘give up’ rebellious creatures to follow their own futile thinking and desires. The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin. (387)
Now, doesn’t that definition of “humanity” as “Jews and Greeks alike” strike you as odd? If Paul is offering a “diagnosis of the disordered human condition” or, as Ian Paul puts it in the Grove booklet on Same-Sex Unions, “telling the cosmic history of the failure of humanity” (24), why does Paul speak specifically of the coming wrath against the Greek (Rom. 2:9)?
I suppose Hays would argue that Paul took classical pagan idolatry and its ethical consequences to be representative of the human condition. But that’s just an assumption, and it’s not a very good one—see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom for more.
The arena of divine action, the eschatological field of play, presupposed everywhere in the New Testament is the Greek-Roman world: from Caesar’s decree that the whole oikoumenē should be registered (Lk. 2:1), to Paul’s determination to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ lordship from Jerusalem via Illyricum and Rome to Spain (Rom. 15:19, 24), to his announcement in Athens that the God of Israel has fixed a day when he will judge the oikoumenē (Acts 17:31), to the climactic proclamation of judgment on Babylon the great, which is Rome (Rev. 18).
Wrath came against the Greek world, the old idolatrous culture was judged by the man whom YHWH had appointed, the great pagan powers fell, the philosophers were co-opted; and for 1500 years or so the nations of the oikoumenē honoured the Creator, after a fashion.
Then, with the European Enlightenment, a new anti-theism arose, and again the oikoumenē turned its back on the Creator. But it did not exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). It exchanged the glory of God for the glory of humanity. It stopped serving the Creator and instead pursued human self-interest by all means available, for better or for worse.
These are different narratives, following different pathways, towards different historical outcomes. We can, if we wish, make pagan idolatry a metaphor for the modern secular repudiation of the Creator, but we should not pretend that they are the same thing simply to save the superficial relevance of scripture.
Romans 1:18-32 is an accurate biblical-Jewish diagnosis of the corruption of ancient pagan society, and it is indispensable for how we tell our story. But it would be, in effect, a serious misdiagnosis of the corruption of modern secular society. Sexual depravity may well have been the defining characteristic of a pagan culture that so deeply offended Jewish sensibilities, but that is hardly the case today.
The church cannot afford to keep forcing its ethical analysis through the antiquated grid of Romans 1. We have to undertake our own prophetic diagnosis, we have to tell our own story.
Undoubtedly, the refusal of secular societies to worship the Creator is the starting point and, of course, sexual “impurity”—however we may understand that—remains a problem.
But surely it is rational, technologically advanced, unrestrained, globalised materialism that constitutes the fundamental modern offence against the Creator. Not sex.
It arises from the same place, but the sort of permissive wrath of God that Paul describes runs down historical and civilisational channels.
In the modern era it is the material world that is being so devastatingly dishonoured. It is our rampant, unthinking, everyday consumerism that embodies the offence in concrete personal actions—and for which, perhaps, we will receive the “due penalty” for our error (cf. Rom. 1:27).
And as Paul so scathingly noted in Romans 1-2, the people of God shares in the disorder of the prevailing culture and is complicit in the offence. Black Friday is not a good Friday.