Me of Lesser Faith: Romans 14 – 16

Stop Judging Please. Passing Through Rome. The Thank You Circuit.

To misquote a misquote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, I lost my faith slowly, and then all at once.

I was unbelievably rigid in my spirituality growing up, to the point of being obnoxious. This only became apparent in my teenage years, when I transitioned from a private Christian school to a public school. I participated in group hold-hands-around-the-flagpole prayers before school and frequently took a holier-than-though stance about others religions. A Wiccan classmate trolled me by asking if a sexually promiscuous Christian could pray their virginity back. I took the bait and stupidly said “yes.” I think I enjoyed the martyrdom of being outwardly public – I viewed it as a way to minister to my friends. I even chastised two female friends who lost their virginity; both cried and apologized to me.

I’m surprised I exited high school with any lasting friends at all. I was just so judgmental.

A creeping ambivalence caused the first cracks in my façade. It was so easy to stay faithful when I could look in judgment at those around me – a hardnosed approach that left little wiggle room for nuance. But when I met these people – just like me – who were considered “fallen” and “lost,” it just seemed so much less appealing. My parents grew up secular and became Christian after my older sister was born, and there was a communicative iron curtain put down about their lives before then. My mother always said, “I don’t talk about my life before God. I had no purpose to my life.” and so my imagination ran away with the secrecy. These kids in my high school – I thought – were little versions of my parents before Christ. They were purposeless and stray, distraught and angry.

Except they weren’t. They were happy and healthy – and yeah a little screwed up, but we were all high schoolers, so that was expected. They sought to do good in the world – and yeah, they were a little self-serving, but they were high schoolers. And so, my ambivalence continued to grow.

But then came college – and once my sexuality was set so firmly in opposition to my faith, it disappeared at once.

Paul closes out his sermon with instruction on how to deal with those of lesser faith, starting by first saying:

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” (Romans 14:1)

He compares all of our journeys in faith, drawing the metaphor of those who eat meat and those who eat only vegetables. One may be more faithful than the other (can you guess which one?), and yet, the greater must accept the weakling’s plight. In fact, the greater should adjust their behavior to help the other. “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat,” Paul says, “you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.” (14:15)

Don’t judge, don’t judge, don’t just. That is quite the recurring theme in all of this, isn’t it?

Ambivalence: Romans 13

Submission. Love. Acceptance.

Really? You have no idea who Kim Davis is? Here’s the rundown.

Earlier this week, a county clerk in Kentucky name Kim Davis stood against marriage equality by refusing to give out marriage certificates to same sex couples. After the Supreme Court ruling granted marriage rights to lesbian and gay couples, Davis issued an appeal to her local court that would allow her an exemption from this decision due to religious freedom. She is a devout Christian, and as her name appears on the certificates, she felt this allowed her the right to refuse these couples. The local courts denied her request, and so it went to the Supreme Court. They denied it.

And still then, she refused to issue the licenses.Now she is in jail in contempt of court.

A confrontation between her and a gay couple has made the rounds around the Internet this week, and I encourage you to quickly watch it:

There is little doubt this video (and the action of Davis) is divisive. Those in favor of marriage equality are outraged – after all, she has no leg to stand on as SCOTUS has spoken. I imagine that some, however, are lauding her as a hero – someone who has stood up for God in a moment when the moral fabric of our country has been compromised. Actually, I don’t need to imagine. The Foundation for Moral Law – a religious law film headed by Roy Moore – just issued a statement in support of Davis, saying that they “hope and pray millions will be inspired to follow her example.” Oh, and Mike Huckabee has just thrown his hat in the ring, calling this the beginning of the war on Christianity.

If you are surprised by any of this, then I think you have living nicely under a cloak of ignorance for quite some time.

Let’s take the Christian viewpoint for a moment and game this out, because ironically or not, Paul had a lot to say about this in my reading today.

Romans 13:1-2 says:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Taken at face value – and without any context – one could conclude that Paul would tell Davis to comply with the law of the land and give out those marriage licenses. After all, the next verse states simply:

“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.”

Rulers hold absolute authority, acting as judges of God who morally uphold right above wrong.

Except that we know that is not at all the case. To cite the oft-used example of slavery, the constitution – for over a century – upheld the ideal that black people were less than whites, allowing for the degradation of an entire race of individuals for no reason other than skin color. In this case, with hindsight as our proof and logic as our ally, we know unequivocally that the government had it absolutely wrong. The government did “hold terror for those” who were right.

Paul double-downs on this thought process by making the issue a moral one. In verse 5, he says:

“Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” 

Interesting, as Davis keeps referencing her conscience.

I find this verse odd for a few historical reasons, ones particular relevant to the Christian religion. Moses’ ascension to leader relied on the fact that his mother disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders that all male children ought to be killed. A similar order was passed during Jesus’ birth, and Mary and Joseph’s refusal to adhere led to the birth of Christ. Speaking of the Christ himself, Jesus broke the law of Israel by performing miracles on the Sabbath, capital crimes in the time, in order to make a point about logical exceptions to the rules.

Paul tells us to follow the government, but history reveals a different pattern.

So from the Christian viewpoint, is Kim Davis in the right or the wrong here?

She’s neither. Because there is no “Christian viewpoint.” We hold the Bible up as a litmus test to every situation, like a 3rd grader scouring a dictionary for answers to a vocab quiz. Christians quote passages from the Bible about marriage being about a man and a woman coming together, and now detractors are finding verses on divorces to defame Davis as retribution.

Does anyone read these words and get a clear sense of the “Christian viewpoint?”

No, because the mind and the heart immediately take over. Your thoughts slip back over your life, and suddenly, your experience and empathy enable you to make a value judgment against the preceding.

The Bible is not a glossary, equating one term to another. It is a series of examples, meant to inspire a heart into action. And from that, a truth – known only by you – will be understood.

Love the Sinner: Romans 11 – 12

The Coming Rise of Israel. Service and Love for Christ.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2 (NIV)

 “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

For the uninitiated, this is a mantra of many Christians, especially young ones, who have trouble with loving those who are particularly unlovable. For a while after coming out, I grew a strong resentment to the phrase, especially when I was at my most defensive about my newly emboldened sexual identity. It felt as though the true sentiment behind it was something like “the Bible forces me to love you, and I would never do that otherwise.” But now, my emotions have cooled over it. I think I read too far between the lines there and missed the point of it all.

If we love someone, then I think it is then necessary to worry. Sure, sometimes that worry gets misplaced, and a lot of times, it is completely unfounded. But perhaps in those situations, we should be glad someone worries for us at all – even if we know in the deepest place in our hearts that the fear is unfounded.

Let me give you an example. During high school, my church planned a missions’ trip for upcoming sophomores and juniors to Kenya. I remember checking my answering machine every night, waiting to hear if I had “made the cut” – that is, placed on the team. After an anxious week, I got the call. I was going.

But it didn’t take long until some parents noticed a travel advisory for the country and called a meeting. They felt as though the trip should be cancelled, as the United States government had issued a warning for travelers, citing concerns of terrorism and violence. Half of the parents threatened to pull their kids out of it – the church had no choice but to cancel it.

Worry – unfounded or not – indicated the deepest of love.

Paul does this with the Jews. He tells the Gentiles to love them, even if they rejected Christ, for they are still God’s chosen people. Basically, “love the sinner, but hate their sin.” I realize the metaphor is not exactly sound. The Gentiles did not love the Jews at all, and the “hate the sin” part of the caveat was a carrot of sorts to keep them strung along.

Not a perfect analogy. I hope you’ll forgive me.

I should also say – a lack of worry does not indicate anything. For the trip to Kenya, my parents were not a part of the “pull ‘em out” group. Does that mean that they were not concerned? Does that mean they didn’t love me?

Of course not. They love me.

And their worry for my soul? That’s love too.

One Giant Step Back: Romans 9 – 10

The Blessed Will Be Blessed. The Damned Will Be Damned.

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
Romans 9:15b (NIV)

Two weeks ago, I posted an entry that – to put it bluntly – indicted a former Bible Study teacher of mine. He had strongly (and sincerely) held Calvinist beliefs and asserted that God’s grace required favoritism – that is predestination of some people to thrive and some to perish.

In the entry, I recalled the leader and his views:

He said God’s grace required favoritism – that for it truly to be meaningful, some must be meaningfully excluded, and that God’s grace meant we were picked to receive it. 

I hated that and so did others. The Bible Study dissolved the following year. No one wanted to believe in a God who took all choice out of the matter. 

I ended the discussion with a verse from Paul in Acts, where he says that since God regards Gentiles and Jews in equal regard, He must not be capable of showing favoritism. End of discussion.

Maybe not.

Here’s what Paul now says on the matter:

“It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” (9:16-18)

That one doesn’t sit well with me, not only for its seeming contradiction to what Paul himself said earlier, but also for the obvious implication. What’s the point of a religion – or life for that matter – if it has been decided all in advance? You’re telling me that we have a God who will create souls, just to be damned for all eternity? That seems twisted, among other adjectives.

We don’t need to wait for an answer, because Paul could hear what we were all thinking:

“One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?’” (9:19)

Yeah, Paul! What’s your response to that?

“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?” (9:20)

…Okay.

He goes on to say we are like clay to a potter, and what foolish lump of clay would dare question its master (9:21). He also states (in somewhat convoluted language) that God deals with the objects of His wrath with great patience (9:22), although I’m not sure what that means in the context of certain souls being predestined to Hell. Then, he concludes that it is all worth it, since God’s wrath on those objects proves the “riches of his glory” to those He has chosen (9:23).

I think I owe that Bible Study teacher an apology.

I need to think on this one. It’s just not sitting right.If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them on this topic. 

Insurance: Romans 7 – 8

“For What I Want to Do I Do Not Do.”

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
Romans 7:6 (NIV)

I chose to be baptized around 16-years-old. The thought occurred to me when some gentle prodding from my mother lined up with a baptism announcement in our church pamphlet that read: “Want to make it official?” I was a sparkling example of Christianity already – I think – I mean, I always showed up for missions’ trips and volunteered when necessary. It just seemed like the logical next step. My parents had my older sister baptized as an infant – a sort of spiritual insurance policy – but then they abandoned the ritual for my brother and me. They had changed their minds about the whole thing. It needed to be a conscious decision on our parts. She would not hold our hands through this.

I couldn’t just jump in a pool and take a dunk; my church required those willing to take the plunge to work through a six-week course, all centered around the biblical importance of baptism. As I understood it, the purpose of it all was two-fold. First, it was a public declaration of faith, sort of like a wedding ceremony between you and Jesus. Second, it cemented our intention to remain a loyal follower of God.

But there seemed to be a third purpose, unspoken and implicit, that encouraged each of the eight participants in the class. We wanted the insurance policy – the same one my mother took out for my sister at infancy. Paul sums it up nicely:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38-39)

That is exactly what I wanted. I demanded a guarantee that no matter the source, nothing would rip me away from my faith.

My parents their invoked this sincerely-held belief when I came out of the closet. It was her proof – in addition to my love of football and a long-held crush on Jane Fonda – that I was not gay. I had prayed the prayer. I had delivered my testimony. A pastor had dunked me into the body of the river after I had announced my intention to be baptized.

I had checked the boxes. I was covered, right?

Paul discusses the “death of the law.” He speaks in convoluted terms at times, laying out arguments for Christianity that sound more like riddles than tenets. For example, when explaining the relationship between sin and the law, he says:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.” (7:15)

I don’t know about you, but it took me about four times reading that to even unfurl all the “dos.” And even then, it made little sense to me. Why would the act of doing evil, as the third sentence asserts, lead to the conclusion that the law is good?

Do I have to understand this to believe in God?

I thought all I needed was to check boxes?

Religious Cult(ure), Pt 3: Romans 3 – 6

The Nature of Righteousness.  

“Someone might argue, ‘If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’”
Romans 3:7 (NIV)


This is the third and final part of a three-part entry, told intermittently throughout the course of the past year. It refers to a renowned church leader named Frank who ended up committing evil against our community. I recommend reading part one and part two before diving in.


Frank did not contest the charges set out against him – the evidence had piled up so high and so fast, we could imagine him thinking: what was the point? It was strange, seeing the mug shot of our charismatic leader, the favorite of all the kids throughout the years, now plastered on the internet paired with graphic descriptions of his crimes. The experience felt like a personal 9/11 – one of those world-flipping scenarios, but on a much smaller scale. But still, it seemed as though a layer of paint had been stripped on the walls of my childhood, and some ugly varnish was all that was left behind. I knew Frank to be good, and it turned out he was a menacing evil. How do you live in such raucous uncertainty?

The news reports were blunt – a little too much so. It was enough to hear personal accounts from friends and family, recounting what they thought happened in general terms, and now here we had some journalist spelling everything out in clinical language. The evil became palpable in such a vicious way. Suddenly, it felt immediate – the locations were divulged, and the details provided the entire context. The victims, although nameless in identification, were obvious in description. It felt too heavy. Nothing like this was ever remotely imaginable.

There were a handful of victims – I personally knew two. Both remained devout in their faith. Both spoke out openly about the experience. They gave speeches. They spouted their belief in God as a binding factor, something that held them together during the “tough time.”

I didn’t get it.

God does not promise utmost protection for His followers. He warned that he would open Paul up to martyrdom with regards to his actions, and we all saw what happened to Jesus at the height of his ministry. The Bible is clear: Christians will face persecution at a continual pace. We may have eternal safety, but the temporal is not guaranteed.

As Paul says:

“…We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (5:3-4) 

How do you look in the face of such insurmountable evil and determine that, “well, at least there was some good that came out of it”?

With a tremendous amount of faith.

Clobber Me, Pt 2: Romans 1 – 2

The Jew. The Gentile.

(This is the second part of a two-part entry about the Romans “clobber passage.” Check out the first part here)

I ended my entry yesterday with a question. After reading the context around the infamous anti-homosexuality verse in Romans, it became abundantly clear that Paul’s intentions were to push us away from judging others and instead focus on ourselves. Even with that thesis, though, is it still possible that Paul believes homosexuality is a sin?

Of course. Paul most definitely thought it was a sin.

Perhaps it is my narrow-mindedness, but I find it difficult to believe that any individual at the time would have any understanding of homosexuality as we know it today. To Paul – and to everyone at the time – people truly chose homosexual desire. It was born out of a depraved mind and an active rebellion against God. It says it right there in the clobber passage we discussed yesterday: “Men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.” (Romans 1:27a) I have to say, talk to any gay man on the streets of Los Angeles, and ask them if sex with a woman feels natural for them.

You don’t have to go back 2,000 years to see people who misunderstood homosexuality. How about 30 or 40 years instead? According to a Gallup poll taken in 1977, only 13% of individuals believed homosexuals were “born that way,” meaning that the vast majority of the population understood it to be a choice or based on environmental factors. Sure, if you think that there is this wild pack of men, running around and just fooling around for no real reason, then maybe I might take issue with it as well.

Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1651/gay-lesbian-rights.aspx

Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1651/gay-lesbian-rights.aspx

http://www.gallup.com/poll/1651/gay-lesbian-rights.aspx

http://www.gallup.com/poll/1651/gay-lesbian-rights.aspx

“Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?”
Acts 2:25-26

Here, he refers to an ongoing argument about whether a person must be circumcised in order to be saved. His viewpoint, which is revolutionary at the time, is that the content of a person’s heart matters to God more than something physical, for if someone keeps the Law, but happens to be uncircumcised, why would God hold that against him? It’s almost like Paul is saying, “I think God can see past a silly little ritual and into the hearts of man!”

  • That’s why Christians don’t tell consumers of rare steak that they are going to Hell (Acts 15:20).
  • That’s why divorcees aren’t lambasted in our culture (Matthew 19:9)
  • That’s why churches do not receive punishment for putting up pictures of Jesus everywhere (uh… the Second Commandment).

Because we believe in a God that “gets it.” He understands intent and knows when hearts are set for evil and when they are aimed for good.

So if you are divorced and eating a steak under a portrait of Jesus – and you still believe that two faithful men who are married are going to Hell – then count yourself lucky. Your sin doesn’t seem to count.

Clobber Me, Pt 1: Romans 1 – 2

They. You.

Let’s just dive in, shall we? 

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Romans 1:26-27 (NIV)

I once had this verse shouted at me, or rather near me, from a zealous person to an adjacent gay man. Their disagreement had reached the point of no return.

I am gay.
That’s fine, but you can’t act on it.
But it is love. Love is love.
Not all love is equal. Homosexuality is unnatural. 
It feels natural to me.
God doesn’t want it.
Then why did He make me this way?
And so on…

From bornlikethis.org

  From bornlikethis.org

Once you reach that level, the only thing left to do is pull out the Bible and see what it says. And as you can read above, the Bible seems extraordinarily clear. This is not Leviticus, where we ignore lots and lots of rules. This is not Sodom and Gomorrah, where we can blame inhospitality and rape. This is the freaking New Testament, people. This is what counts (although there are still some laws in this half of the Bible that we, I promise, do not follow).

Paul goes further than merely condemning our sexual immorality. He extends past this passage into a full on rant against society. He goes on to say that they have “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” These people “are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.” He continues, calling them “gossips, slanderers, God-haters” who are “insolent, arrogant, boastful” with “no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.”

Oof, I would say that Paul is turning into quite the rage monster here, going after every inclination that a man might have. He ends the first chapter of Romans on a dour note, surmising that they “deserve death.”

How then does he continue his 16-chapter sermon?

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself.” (2:1)

Paul performs gotcha journalism at its finest. In the entirety of the first chapter, he uses the pronoun “they” when referring to a group of people that the Romans considered to be extraordinarily dangerous and worthy of judgment. Throughout this section, Paul is setting up the Romans for a tough realization, getting them riled up about all the evil that surrounds them, before laying down the hammer.

You agree with me, right? You think these are depraved individuals and we ought to bring God’s hammer of justice done on them, right?

But as he quickly explains, that was never the point. Paul argues now that the Romans ought to stop judging others and take a hard look in the mirror. When Paul says, “God gave them over to shameful lusts,” he speaks from the perspective of the judgmental Romans, who he then lambasts in the next chapter. He refers to “your stubbornness, your unrepentant heart.” He describes the Romans as self-seeking, followers of evil, rejecters of truth, thieves, adulterers, and idol-worshippers.

It’s all about pronouns.

Chapter 1They are evil. They are despicable. They deserve no mercy. Am I right?
Chapter 2: No, no no. You are judgmental if you say these things. Do you have any excuse?

They v. You.

This is not a passage about homosexuality. This is a passage about followers of Christ judging others, and how abhorrent that is in the eyes of the Lord. When you, as a Christian, use this passage to clobber homosexuals into submission, you become the evil that Paul so clearly despises.

Now, having said all of that, does Paul agree with the standards that he chastises the Romans for having?

In other words… Even though we are called to be non-judgmental, does he still believe that homosexuals sin against God?

That, my friends, is the question for tomorrow.