Today we begin the book of Romans. It was written by Paul in approximately A.D. 58, after he had been traveling and preaching for about 20 years. Consequently, it represents probably his most advanced work of theology. It has many nuances that require thoughtful and prayerful reflection.
It is unclear exactly why he wrote the letter as he had never previously been to Rome. Paul had expressed repeated interest in traveling to Rome, which at this time had a thriving Christian community. We know from other evidence that Peter was in Rome. It also seems likely that Jews from Rome traveled on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and some may have brought back the good news of the Gospel with them. Also, it is quite possible that converts from many of the other cities Paul had previously evangelized moved to Rome during their lives.
There are many interesting things in the first chapter but I think the last sentence is the most important. The Chapter discusses how even among the pagans God’s ways are made manifest to the natural law and thus a person can be responsible for rejecting God’s law even if it is not explicitly known to them. Paul describes the immoral practices of the pagans and then says:
Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.
In speaking about those who engage in sin and immoral practices Paul says:
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
This is a striking thing to happen. For those who choose to go against the moral law in effect God says, “Have it your way” and God gives, “them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.” This how much God loves you, that he will respect your free will, even if you use it to make disastrous choices. The footnotes in my bible make another important point. This is God removing any pretense. Imagine an example of a husband having an affair. He goes to Church every week, boy scouts, little league, etc. He looks for the entire world to me a model example. Then one day inevitably it seems to come all crashing down. Eventually, the sin consumes the host. In some ways this is medicinal by God a sort of ‘you’ve hit rock bottom, now what’ moment. In other ways it is the wrath of God. It’s God saying, “fine but don’t pretend you’re on my side.”
But the last line is particularly disturbing, it suggests that once involved in an immoral life that you stop recognizing it for what it is and begins to see it normal, good and to approve of it. Eventually sin becomes the new normal. This is why we must be faithful in our understanding of what the Bible says about judging others. We are not to judge the souls of others, that is God’s domain alone. However, we are to judge actions, particularly sinful behavior. That we have to call out, correct it in love, and stand against, if only so that others can still recognize it.
As Archbishop Fulton Sheen famously said,
Tolerance is an attitude of reasoned patience toward evil … a forbearance that restrains us from showing anger or inflicting punishment. Tolerance applies only to persons … never to truth. – “A Plea for Intolerance” (1931)
Truth mattes. We must stand up for it. It must be defended. Tolerance is for people. All people must be loved by the Christian. At the same time, we can and must be intolerant of wrong behavior, wrong ideas, wrong opinions and error. Not with malice, anger or even impatience but still with love and earnestness, lest we become those who can no longer recognize the sin in front of us and begin to approve of it.