Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Romans

Christians and the state

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul calls upon his readers to be subject to the governing authorities. The passage has been used to support Christian cooperation with evil regimes with disastrous consequences. Some Christian clergy and other leaders during the American Revolution appealed to these verses to oppose resistance to British rule. One should recognize that Paul wrote to people in Rome where some Jewish Christians had already been expelled under Claudius not many years before. Paul wrote to a place where Christians could suffer from civil disobedience. Whether he wrote for all times is another matter. In the end Paul himself must have been executed for civil disobedience, presumably refusing to participate in worship of the Roman emperor. Paul relativized the authority of the emperor by declaring that he is God’s servant (13:4), not a god.


The term is derived from the Greek word diatribē, a word with several meanings, including “discourse.” It refers to a form of presentation, oral or written, in which the speaker or writer confronts and debates an imaginary addressee in order to instruct those actually being addressed. Typically, it makes use of hypothetical questions and false conclusions. Paul uses the technique frequently in his letters by setting up false inferences of the gospel and then correcting them. In Romans, diatribe is particularly evident in 1:18-3:20 (using an imaginary opponent at 2:1, 17; showing the opponent to be wrong at 2:4; naming false conclusions at 3:3-4, 9; and making his own conclusion at 3:19-20).

The “I” of Romans 7

Romans 7 is an extensive and deeply moving treatment of the human being before the law of God. Interpreters struggle and disagree among themselves concerning Paul’s use of the first-person singular pronoun “I” in much of the chapter. Proposals have included the following: (1) Paul writes autobiographically, describing his own personal struggle; (2) Paul is talking here about the struggle that the Christian has in resisting sin; (3) he speaks about the non-Christian person, particularly the Jewish person; and (4) he describes the life of the non-Christian from a Christian perspective. It appears that Paul is not simply talking theology apart from some experiential basis. He could be referring to the experience of the Christian, whose only hope is the salvation that God brings (7:24-25).

Faith in or of Christ? 

At several places in his letters (Romans 3:22, 26; Galatians 2:16, 20; 3:22; Philippians 3:9), Paul uses expressions in Greek (such as pistis Christou) that have traditionally been translated as “faith in Christ” (or some other christological title). That is how the phrase is rendered in the NRSV, Revised Standard Version (RSV) , New International Version (NIV), and other modern translations of the Bible. But the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVue) has “faith of Jesus Christ” or something similar in most of the texts cited above, thereby placing more emphasis on Christ’s own faithfulness than on a person’s faith in Christ. The “Pistis Christou Debate,” as it is often called, continues among New Testament scholars.

The “law”

Paul uses the Greek word for “law” (nomos) in several senses. It can refer to the law of God in a broad sense, which even gentiles can know and by which they can live (Romans 2:14-15); to the Mosaic law that guides Jewish life (Romans 8:3, 7; 9:31; Galatians 3:10; 4:21); to the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) in a more general sense (Romans 3:19; 1 Corinthians 14:21); to the books of the Torah (the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Old Testament) in particular (1 Corinthians 9:9; Galatians 4:21-27); to some general principle (Romans 7:21); and to “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Romans and homosexuality

Romans 1:26-27 has been a key text in views about homosexuality historically and in modern times. According to some people, the passage is definitive and normative, the basis for opposing the full acceptance of homosexual individuals in the church and in society. According to others, homosexuality is an orientation, and therefore the passage is not about homosexuality but about certain same-gender behaviors evident in Paul’s time (primarily the exploitation of youths, slaves, and other vulnerable people). With this reading, the passage would have nothing to say about “homosexuality” as an orientation and perhaps nothing about some same-gender activities by homosexual individuals.

The salvation of the Jewish people

In Romans 9-11 Paul laments that the Jewish people have not accepted the gospel. He probes why that is so, often drawing upon the Scriptures of Israel with a thoroughness not found elsewhere in his letters. Near the end of these three chapters Paul concludes that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). The salvation of Israel will not be on the basis of observing the law of Moses but purely by the grace of God. Although interpreters have found it difficult to think that here Paul might be thinking of salvation of the Jewish people without their prior faith in Christ, Paul says that he is disclosing a “mystery” (11:25), a revelation from God that is not according to reason.

Women as Ministers of the Gospel

Paul’s letters indicate that women, as well as men, were active in spreading the gospel in the first century and helped establish and lead early Christian communities. Romans 16 names seven such women: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis. At least one of these women, Prisca, was a ministry coworker of Paul. One should not assume that the ministry roles women exercised in early Christianity were necessarily different than those of men and/or excluded preaching the gospel, as some interpreters have concluded. For example, Paul states in Romans 16:7 that Junia is an apostle (see commentary on this verse in “Passages”), just as he describes himself (e.g., Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1).  And Prisca (a shortened form of Priscilla), together with her husband Apollos, led house churches both in Rome (Romans 16:3–5) and also in Asia (possibly Ephesus—see 1 Corinthians 16:19; Acts 18:24–26). The fact that she is typically mentioned before her husband suggests that she may have been the more prominent Christian leader, including when she and Aquila provided corrective instruction about Christianity to Apollos (Acts 18:26). And though the precise nature of the work that Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis do is not specified (Romans 16:6, 12), the same Greek verb (kopiaō) that is used for their labor also describes Paul’s ministry (e.g., Galatians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 15:10). The fact that Paul mentions women’s active participation in the ministry of the gospel without explanation or defense suggests that he did not see this as unusual or controversial.