For although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give Him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. - Romans 1:21-23 (NET)
The above passage goes on to speak of impurity, dishonorable passions, unnatural sexual relations, shameless acts, error, unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility, gossiping, slander, boasting, evil, disobedience, heartlessness, ruthlessness, and approval of all such things. Paul’s recitation of mankind’s abuses would flow from out of him quite naturally, as for all practical purposes all that is to be found in verses eighteen through thirty-two of Romans one, was very likely nothing more than standard rhetoric directed at Gentiles by members of Israel, as they sought to maintain the purity, integrity, and identity of their people and their special, preferred status in the eyes of the Creator God. The words that can be found there could form something of a propaganda against Gentiles, playing into the “us versus them” mentality that marked much of second temple Judaism (and unfortunately much of Christianity).
This is not difficult for us to understand. We in the church are quite accustomed to adopting such language and using it in such ways. We sit in our pews and applaud (or perhaps just nod our heads in tacit, comfortable agreement) as preachers and teachers lift accusatory fingers and point them at the pagans and heathen of “the world,” whom our just God will rightly judge. This is done while perhaps tossing in pithy and condescending statements (in the face of not-well-masked vitriol) such as “but Jesus loves them,” or “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Even worse, we often find the “us versus them” mentality moving from the church versus the world (there is some necessary opposition, though it is often mis-directed) to church versus church, as one church, inevitably holding itself up as the repository of the true Gospel message, offers blanket condemnations to other churches that, by extension, fail to preach the “true Gospel.” It must be said that this dualistic mentality is quite difficult to escape or to avoid altogether, requiring Christians to be on constant guard against falling into its unhelpful and damaging-to-the-Gospel clutches.
How can we, after a perusal of the second half of chapter one of Romans, draw a conclusion in which we see Paul employing the propagandizing rhetoric that Israel has reserved for Gentiles? Is this a legitimate observation? We are aided in our reaching of that conclusion by that with which Paul opens the second chapter, which is “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things” (2:1).
Following some intervening material in which Paul highlights God’s judgment, kindness, forbearance, and patience, in which he also tosses in “He will reward each one according to His works” (2:6) while also briefly railing against “selfish ambition” (2:8), we proceed to stumble upon a helpful statement, which is “There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek. For there is no partiality with God” (2:9-11). When reading Romans, we have to recognize the fact that the language of covenant extension and inclusiveness is everywhere, that it is woven into the text as a central theme, and that it must effect our reading and comprehension of Paul’s position.