This is a very lengthy, but I hope helpful, blog post. I want to say a little something about epistles as a form in the early church period; a bit about the background of this specific letter; a bit about Paul's real inability to understand either hetersexual or homosexual relationships; and I want to offer a chapter-by-chapter guide to the letter's contents. Here we go!
With Paul's letter to the Romans – written probably in the late 50s A.D. - we enter into the most popular form of writing in the New Testament, the epistle or letter. Twenty-two of the books in this Christian section of the Bible are letters, and even Revelation makes use of the contemporary conventions of letter-writing. The standard format, while seemingly obvious, is worth noting as variations would have been recognized by readers/listeners as making important statements. Letters begin with a greeting, from the letter-writer (usually named) to the reader or readers; a statement of thanksgiving to God follows; the main body of the letter then takes up the central themes, often mentioned in the thanksgiving section; and finally there are closing greetings to other members of the recipient's community or families. The absence, then, of a statement of thanksgiving in the Letter to the Galatians is a clear sign to its readers of Paul's deep anger; the lingering over the thanksgiving in the Letter to the Philippians, on the other hand, long into the main body, shows how deeply Paul is rejoicing over the news he has had of them.
The Letter to the Romans is different from Paul's other letters in that it was written to a community that he did not found and did not know. Thus rather than addressing issues within a congregation over which he has a large degree of authority, here Paul is introducing himself to an already-famous church. It is the longest of his letters, then, because it is the most comprehensive statement of his faith, and therefore it is placed first among his epistles in the Bible. Its overarching theme is the parallel relationships between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) and between the law and grace. Paul wishes to justify the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian community without leaving behind the special relationship between God and the Jewish people; and he wants to base his understanding of faith on the gift of Jesus Christ as the means of God's grace to free us from bondage to the law and sin, yet without denigrating the importance of the law for establishing the need for salvation. Early in the first chapter (1:17), Paul takes the stand that underlies the rest of his arguments: "the one who is righteous will live by faith." It is our faith in Jesus that frees us from sin, not our wayward and futile efforts to obey God's law.
About Paul and human relationships: he's not really good on them. Relationships between humans and God are his specialty, but relationships between genders or within genders - especially relationships of love - seem to leave him baffled. Add to this a fairly standard (for its time) belief in a wrathful God, and a tendency to make sweeping remarks, and we end up with some pretty awful stuff. This must be noted here because Romans 1:26-27 is an extremely difficult passage for all of us convinced of the full humanity of, and love of God for, homosexual persons. Many efforts have been made to explain that Paul's condemnation here is not of committed homosexual love as seen in our world but of prostitution in fertility god and goddess temples or other types of excessive sexual licentiousness of his time (especially in Corinth, where the letter was written, and in Rome itself). Personally I find such arguments persuasive and yet rather convoluted and torturous. Paul, in his letters, reveals himself to be a person of deep faith, powerfully and often movingly articulated; he also reveals himself to be fully human, capable of jealousy, arrogance, occasional whining, and deep gratitude for friendships and communities of faith. But he is not the best authority on relationships between men and women, or on the roles of women in the Church, in his time or ours; I do not find it at all inappropriate also to assert that he is not the best authority regarding the authenticity and naturalness of homosexual love.
A brief guide to a difficult but powerful letter: all humans can know God through God's creation, yet all turn away from him to self-created idols and self-centered wickedness (chapter 1); Jews have no right to judge as they do the same, and in fact have more to be ashamed of as they have been told what is right in the law (chapter 2); yet while all humans stand condemned in God's eyes, all are now offered the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (chapter 3); Abraham, actually, is the first example of this, for his righteousness came by his act of faith, before there was any circumcision or law (chapter 4); so as Abraham believed God would make him and Sarah the beginning of a people, we are called to believe that God raised Christ from the dead to reconcile us to him while we were still in sin (chapter 5).
Then chapter 6 opens with one of my favorite parts: if our awareness of our sinfulness shows us how great is God's grace, should we sin even more to get even more grace? What a great question! Yet Paul's response is even better: in essence, he says that if we truly understand the saving nature of that grace we would respond in kind, not by seeing if we could get more of it – for there is no "more" grace, it is not something of which we can amass quantities, it is what we already have. In other words: when we know we are loved, would we want to take advantage of that love or would we want to respond to that love with love? Paul thinks the latter course would have greater appeal, which is why he presents the former line of reasoning and then opposes it. It's a lovely way of thinking about our relationship to God.
But it gets better: Paul returns to the idea that the law makes clear where our sinfulness lies, and takes it one step further – the law also makes clear our own inability to be the best we can be: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (7:15) In this context, God's grace to us is even more amazing – which takes us to chapter 8, one of the most powerful statements of faith in God's unending love to be found in all of Christian literature: "For I am convinced that neither life, nor death...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (8:38-39) This is tough going, but it is worth the effort.