I take it that when Paul says, “Those who do such things deserve death,” he is thinking of the punishment appointed to Adam and Eve in Genesis. Paul is not calling for vigilante justice or state-sponsored execution of those guilty of hate speech, arrogance, and greed. He is pointing to the fact that we all are under the sentence of death; none of us deserves to live forever. His point is not that some deserve to die more than others, but that we are all in the same boat.
But I still want to come back to the idea that Paul expects his readers to agree that all those guilty of the vices he catalogs deserve to die. Paul is not teaching morality here: he is not trying to persuade anyone of the evil of “murder, envy, rivalry, deception, malice” and so forth. He assumes they all agree, they will all say Amen!
By overhearing Paul, I might learn that hate speech, slander, character assassination, whether whispered or shouted, is seriously evil. But Paul isn’t teaching, he is appealing to common beliefs in his reader. The list is organized for rhetorical effect; the words are organized according to alliteration or assonance, words that rhyme or begin with the same letter are linked together. For example:
adikia poneria pleonexia kakia . . . phthonou, phonou . . .
asynetous, asynthetous, astorgous, aneleemonas
But here’s a puzzle: If you read any classical literature (from Gilgamesh to the Greek and Roman poets and philosophers) you find that same-sex love was highly praised in the ancient world. Against this background, Paul’s rejection of same-sex behavior is almost an anomaly. Is it the influence of his Jewish upbringing?
Well yes. It is pretty clear that Paul understands marriage to be a life-long commitment between one man and one woman: a partnership in serving the Lord together and in bringing up children dedicated to the Lord. Any other expression of sexuality he considers a serious aberration.
But is there more than that here? After all, Paul had a live and let live attitude toward the promiscuous behavior of unbelievers (1 Cor 5:10).
Most of Paul’s readers were either slaves, former slaves, or slave owners. The dirty little secret that cultured Greeks and Romans never talked about directly–they did wink and hint at it–and the dirty little secret the New Testament writers must have been aware of but never mention directly is the sexual exploitation of slaves.
Slaves had no dignity, honor, or virtue to maintain. Masters owned the bodies of their slaves and used them as they pleased. Both male and female slaves were at the disposal of their masters and mistresses.
I know several women who have been raped. My gut reaction to the perpetrators–Christian discipline tells me I have to overcome it–but my gut reaction is to regard the violators as subhuman monsters who deserve to die.
Many of Paul’s readers, male and female, had experienced subjugation and the repeated violation of their bodies by those with the power to get away with it. They would have also experienced various forms of belittling and humiliating hate speech. They might have agreed with Paul that “those who do such things are worthy of death.”
(Some of these thoughts were inspired by Robert Jewett’s Hermeneia commentary on Romans and Carolyn Osiek’s A Woman’s Place).