In Romans 2:17-24, Paul accuses some of hypocrisy. He asks if those who denounce adultery and stealing are themselves guilty of adultery and stealing. He speaks of those who boast in the law while breaking the law. Most of this passage is quite clear, but one part can be confusing. In the latter half of verse 22, Paul asks: “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” It’s confusing because the two are not an apparent contradiction to us. In our minds, robbing temples would contradict our denunciation of stealing, but an expression of abhorrence of idolatry. However, Paul treats them in way showing he intends this to be contradictory: you abhor idols, in keeping with the law, but then act towards them in a way that violates the law. But the behavior towards them is not worship of idols. Paul’s meaning would have been evident had he said, “You who abhor idols, do you worship idols?” But he didn’t. He actually uses a negative treatment of idols (robbing temples) as the moral antithesis of a negative opinion of idols.
This passage, like many, is best understood by keeping it in context. Verse 24 says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The word literally translated ‘rob temples’ is also used to describe any act of blasphemy or sacrilege. Paul is decrying those who abhor idols and then act in a way that turns away and offends those who worship the idols. When we act disrespectful to those holding another belief we do not inspire them to adopt our beliefs. Too often such blatant disrespect causes people to shut down and turn off. Few are convinced into the faith. Most are modeled into the faith. By this I mean that few will adopt our faith simply because it is explained to them. Most will come because the faith is explained while being modeled. Paul is saying that just as we should not steal if we are against stealing, we should not live out our opposition to other faiths by being disrespectful to those who practice those faiths. This ill treatment of them is itself equivalent to violation of the law. We must love the person trapped in idolatry. This includes respecting them enough to not blaspheme (or ridicule, or misrepresent) their beliefs. We must take their beliefs seriously, if for no other reason than to respect those holding those beliefs.
Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand what I mean by this. This is not to say we should see all beliefs as relative and therefore true. The idea that whatever you believe is true because it is true for you is laughable at best. Some beliefs are right and some are wrong—holding to a false belief strongly does not make it true. That is simple logic. The opposite is…well…illogical (said in my best Spock voice). Let me give you an example of two beliefs:
Christian: Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16).
Muslim: He (God) neither begets nor is born (Quran 112:3).
It is impossible for these two beliefs to be true because it would violate the Law of Noncontradiction (Av~A). This is because God begetting a Son contradicts the premise that God does not beget. They are mutually exclusive. This means either both are false or one is true and the other false. It is impossible for both to be true.
Respect for another’s faith does not mean accepting it as truth. Likewise, pointing out the facts and even errors of another’s faith is not disrespectful—unless you do it in a way which disrespects the person. This is dialogue and discussion. Actually the issue itself is not even about having respect for the other faith. The passage is warning about treating the other’s faith in a way that drives away the other person—that is, therefore, disrespectful of the other person. While we must stand against false beliefs and share the truth, we must always remember we are dealing with people and not just impersonal premises.
To paraphrase Paul’s question in Romans 2:22b, “Do you who abhor idols drive people away from God and closer to their idols by how you treat them?”