Before we start: No the Bible does not talk about ‘homosexuals’. The word was only coined (in German) in 1869 and the collection of ideas if expresses in particular at of a sexual orientation may only have emerged a little earlier. Therefore, there is no way (in a simple straightforward sense) that the Bible writers could talk about ‘homosexuals’.
Enter Ed Oxford
Someone linked to a post by Ed Oxford, on the Gay Christian Blog Forge. His post has the title ‘Has “Homosexual” always been in the Bible?’ What interests (and perhaps incenses) him is the habit (beginning in the 1946 with the RSV) of Bible translators using this word to translate Hebrew or Greek terms. Ed is particularly taken with the translations in German and other Germanic languages beginning with Luther which render the term arsenokoites in two of the key New Testament passages (1 Cor 6:9-10 and 1 Tim 1:10) in ways which speak of the sexual abuse of boys.
Ed has a point, many Bible translators from 1946 onward have clearly allowed their own preconceptions to drive their translations in the search for relevance to say something the biblical authors would not have been saying.
Actually perhaps Ed could have (like Luther?) gone back to Jerome (4th C) Latin translation. Jerome rendered the key term in 1 Cor 6:9 as ‘masculorum concubitores‘. The concubitores bit poses few problems it refers to sleeping together (both literally and metaphorically). however mas = a man or male, the –culus suffix is usually some form of diminuitive, so (as Luther presumably assumed) the phrase could mean ‘those who sleep with little men = boys’. though masculus can refer to adult men, as Tyndale and others seem to have assumed.
What this information about English translations does is to warn us that the translation of these few key passages is far from simple and straightforward.
If you want a simple and straightforward presentation of the key passages from a gay affirming perspective you could do worse than the short post by Justin Cannon on GayChurch.org titled ‘The Bible, Christianity and Homosexuality‘. Personally I am finding the affirming case stronger and the ‘traditional’ case weaker as time passes. Maybe I’ll have to actually read Loader’s more solid work one day to convince me!
I’m reading Gushee’s book Changing our Mind.1 While reading, I posted a short quote on Facebook, which provoked interesting discussion, and happily no vitriol. One of the points made there, which was also made by Gushee’s main critic back in 2015 when the book was new, is that Gushee does not do serious exegesis on the key passages. I plan to think about that critique in this post. This post is not a careful presentation and analysis of Gushee’s writing, rather it summarises what he seems to me to be saying – that is, I may have got him wrong, or gone beyond what he says, but this is how his argument looked as I read it.2
The first part of the book (roughly half), after setting the scene, deals with the biblical texts and arguments most often cited in support of the traditional Christian ethical position on LGBTQ sexuality. As I understand it, Gushee is making the point that all of the passages that may directly address the issue are either seriously debatable (the story of Sodom, or what the terms malakos and arsenokoitos referred to exactly) or are not directly addressing our questions but are concerned to make other points (Romans 1).
On Romans 1 it seems to me that Gushee follows Loader in agreeing that Paul understood sex between partners of the same biological gender as abhorrently unnatural. This indeed tells us Paul’s attitudes, but the text does not address our questions, and aspects of sex are mentioned as illustrations rather than the main point. To me this implies that Paul is not teaching about sexual ethics here.3 Now, when we affirm Scripture as authority we are careful not to claim that everything the Bible seems to say is authoritative (thus when it is apparently describing the sun orbiting the earth, or a flat earth with corners, these are not things that Scripture is teaching and so are not authoritative). The fact (assuming with Loader, and I think Gushee, that it is a fact) that Paul perceived sex between same gender partners as disgusting and unnatural, and thus sinful, is not binding on us if this was not what Paul and the Holy Spirit was ‘teaching’ here – and I do not think it was the point of his teaching here.
Because these direct passages are weak (debatable, difficult to translate with confidence, or talking about something else), and certainly not addressing our questions, the main weight of the traditional case must rest on the doctrine of marriage derived (by both Jesus and Paul as well as us today) primarily from Gen 1 and 2. But these passages also are not concerned with the ethics of stable covenanted sexual relationships between homosexual partners. (Unlike the shepherd in Jesus’ parable their interest is in the 95%4 and not in the others.)
Thus the biblical case for claiming that ONLY heterosex is ethically acceptable under any circumstances (the traditional position)5 is weaker than most of us (e.g. Gushee, me, and probably you) assumed.
The conclusion from this is that this set of issues and questions around sex and sexuality cannot be answered responsibly by an appeal to our exegesis of a small set of texts – almost however we understand them after careful exegesis, they simply will not respond to our 21st C questions. We are therefore required to engage in some deeper and broader hermeneutics – as we have had to do consciously or unconsciously on many other issues. Gushee has not stopped being an evangelical ethicist who writes about and believes passionately in marriage as a lifelong covenant, though he has stopped believing that such a lifelong covenant ought necessarily to be restricted only to heterosexual couples.
I was given a copy by friends who hope it will help me change mine. It is the 2017 edition – though the blog posts on which the book is based appeared first in 2014 and the main response to the book dates from that time. Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2017. [↩]
That is do not hold Gushee responsible for anything I say, and do not complain too much if I have not reproduced his thought closely enough. [↩]
Note this approach is not the same as the minority who claim that this passage does not express Paul’s own thought but rather the approach he is criticising – because that IS a minority position it does not seem helpful to depend upon it. [↩]
In this case, unlike Jesus’ sheep, it is far more than 1 in a 100. [↩]
NB even this heterosexual expression is only acceptable within the stable lifelong covenant relationship we call marriage. [↩]
Well actually, of course, it doesn’t. What it does say, at least in a couple of places is shocking enough:
…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. (1 Cor 14:34 NRSV)
And as many famous US pastors with powerful ministries have noted and proclaimed:
I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1 Tim 2:12 NRSV)
Which, you have to admit, sounds pretty close to my deliberately inflammatory title!
At this point, if you are like me, all your hackles are rising and you are muttering to yourself: What about the gospel? What about Paul? Paul summed up the consequences of being baptised ‘into Christ’ and so being (each and together) ‘clothed in Christ:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28 ESV)
Indeed, if we just look at the question of women teaching men, what about Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman who when he suggested that he should not offer her daughter the healing mercy that he was offering to proper Israelites, argued back against him and evoked the response:
“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt 15:28 NRSV)
You are just twisting the Bible
Anyone who tries to explain how context, careful attention to the wording, and other cues might cause us to understand the two passages about women being silent differently from their literal surface meaning will have met the response: ‘You are just twisting the Bible to avoid its plain meaning.’
This sounds like a ‘nice knock down argument’,1 after all surely we must all prefer the plain obvious meaning?
But that is precisely the problem. By their focus on the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a couple of passages, and their staunch and principled refusal to consider revisionist readings of these passages, these teachers must twist the plain, simple, obvious meaning of the gospel and of loads of whole passages and stories from across the Bible from at least as early as Deborah (in Judges) to at least as late as Jesus and Paul (in the New Testament).
Here is a rule you can trust
Whenever the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a few passages seems to conflict with, contradict, or merely seems uncomfortable alongside the great truths of the gospel that are proclaimed across the whole of Scripture then we have somehow misunderstood those passages!
This phrase was chosen because it echoes Humpty Dumpty, because I believe these famous pastors with the powerful ministries are followers of Dumpyites. [↩]
In these glorious Antipodes a storm has blown up in the conventional and the social media — not the series of sub-tropical storms that have been wreaking havoc with our homes and power poles, but a storm of opprobrium. It concerns (as you might expect)1 a rugby player. This rugby player expressed a theological opinion concerning the eternal destiny of some other people. Since rugby players are quasi-divine, naturally, his opinion on this matter is of huge importance….
Many of my Christian friends are (rightly) concerned about issues of tolerance and the possible suppression of religious views that dissent from the majority opinion (especially when those dissenting views are our own). In this respect several decades of liberalism have made us unprepared for such a resurgence of the Spanish Inquisition. But then no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
I am more interested in the theological question, is Israel Folau correct that gays are going to hell?
On what grounds might we say this with theological authority? If sin alone is the grounds then we are all doomed, if unrepented sin, I suspect likewise… Or is there a scale of sins with some (mine and your’s perhaps?) being venial and others (on whose unacceptability to God we agree) being mortal – ah, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
You might expect this since rugby players here play the quasi-divine role that billionaires and film stars play in the USA, or royalty in some more conservative places. [↩]
I have several times in different forums expressed sadness that ‘our’ (which varies somewhat in its content depending on my context when making the claim, but usually implies NZ Baptists or more widely Evangelicals in NZ) theology of sex and marriage does not cohere well with our pastoral practice. In this post I am focusing on one such area, contraception.
At the end of the last century Al Mohler, writing in a reevaluation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae three decades after its publication, made this point in typically forceful style:
Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of “The Pill” much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin-as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress and the conquest of nature.
R. Albert Mohler untitled in “Contraception: a symposium” First Things, 1998
Has this changed substantially in the first two decades of the 21st C?
Having asked this question in a number of places and received only louder and louder affirmations of the splendours of the imperial sartorial equipment, I would really like to be pointed to something better than the threadbare old trousers that her Imperial Highness only permits her husband to wear in private!
I am not aware of any readily available teaching by/for NZ Baptists that suggests limits on their use of contraceptive technologies. Mohler’s article made a strong distinction between contraceptive technologies that could have abortifacient effects and those which did not. I am sure that (insofar as they are aware of this issue) most NZ Baptists would share Mohler’s concern. Looking around at the number of children in the families in churches I visit it seems clear that (as is apparently true according to census data) family sizes are often higher than the current societal norm (with three and even four children being not uncommon) however families with more than five children are almost as rare in church as outside.1
Thus the pastoral practice seems to be that contraception as a means of ‘family planning’ is quite acceptable in our churches, and that the only firm restrictions on the methods used are those put in place by the medical establishment.
Christian theological understandings of marriage have (at least since Augustine) presented the conception, birthing, and raising of children as (at the very least, one of) the ‘goods’ (in the sense of the good things that are inherent in the institution) of marriage. For Augustine it was indeed the first good.
However, procreation cannot be a necessary condition of marriage. Infertile couples remain married even when their hopes of bearing children seem (possible miracles apart) dashed. Our approval (even if nuanced as Mohler suggests) of birth control measures makes this even more clear. Yet an ‘openness’ (whatever that is understood to mean and to me the phrase seems vague) to procreation by the bearing and raising of children has been understood to be a necessary part of marriage.
This is an inconclusion not an ‘in conclusion’ because I have not clarified for myself these questions.
The bearing and raising (both and each) of children is a great ‘good’ of marriage and beyond that is part of what marriage is about. Yet, some remain childless and know that they will. Must such couples adopt? Or does anyone’s definition of marriage exclude the possibility of childless marriage. This seems to me an impossible and arrogant claim. For the childless couples I know simply are married.
Given the social2 and economic context in which NZ marriages are lived, birth control seems sensible. It is allowed, and by default (through the witness of average family size) encouraged, in our churches.
Procreation is a good, but not a necessary, feature of marriage.
Little of this is clear, or worked out in theologically consistent and biblical ways. None of it is much taught in churches. We do however in many ways devalue or exclude singleness. Even widows (those once, but tragically no longer, married, because death has intervened)3 find their position in church is somehow ‘less’ (less easy, less clear, even less esteemed).
So, finally, I return to the question I started with: Do 21st C Evangelicals in New Zealand have a clear and widely accepted theology of sex and marriage that coheres with our pastoral practice? My answer is: No, we do not. Yet each time I pose the question I am told forcefully (though so far without any referencing of such theological teaching) that we do, it is ‘understood’ by 90% of us!
Can anyone point me to a nice clear simple expression of this ‘understood’ biblical theology?
In writing this I am thinking of the few such families that I know. They are exceptional, in every sense! [↩]
E.g. an assumption of nuclear family households, combined with geographical mobility. [↩]
I plan to write about divorce in another post. [↩]
The introduction, with its disparaging remarks about Thomas the Tank Engine is a powerful reminder of how far we have come in my lifetime. The first book (in which Thomas did not even appear!) was published on my birthday but three years before I was. Thomas himself is just a couple of years older than I. Back then it was “normal” that women were almost absent from the public space, though the second world war had recently made huge dents in the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideology so beloved by Adolph Hitler and other male chauvinists across the ages. (Yes, I am looking at you American “Christian Complementarians”.)
That such attitudes still survive (and not only in such classics as Thomas) is a powerful reminder that the battle for gender equality is far from over.
If you are not ideologically-minded and are in a hurry (as many looking for children’s videos are ;) then please skip Thalia’s fine introduction and just point your children to her recommendations – at least you will have done something to stem the waves of male chauvinist indoctrination the US politico-entertainment complex swamps our psyches with each year.
Among the women in Scripture we glide over and miss thinking about, what about poor Mrs Noah? Eve gets discussed ad nauseam often asking whether her share of the blame for the first sin is bigger than her mate’s, Cain’s wife gets asked about all the time… But Mrs Noah, another anonymous woman, only named and known for her relationship to her husband. Not even as mother of her sons, who are regularly named as HIS.
Back in Gen 3, when Eve ate the apple (or whatever the anonymous fruit really was) we quickly get told that Adam is right there beside her (Gen 3:6), but when something good happens, and God warns Noah to build the Ark (Gen 6:8-21) we aren’t told if God included Mrs Noah in the instructions. In fact although her boys are mentioned already in v.10, she herself (who bore them and nourished them) is not mentioned till v.18.
Preachers love to embellish the story of the flood. They often imagine Noah’s heroic, or ironic, conversations with the skeptics as he built an enormous gigantic boat miles and miles inland in a desert where “sea” was a word the neighbours hardly understood. Do they ever imagine the work required, most of it probably done by Mrs Noah, with Mrs Shem, Mrs Ham and Mrs Japhet helping out (and they are as unnamed as their mother-in-law) to collect and preserve food for all those people and animals for the half-year long voyage of the NS1 Ark.
Noah and the boys could never have done it without their “other halfs”, yet these hard-working and courageous women don’t get named, in fact their description “your/their woman/women” is in Hebrew just the same as that of the animals “mates”.2
On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…
But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.
Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)
29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
There is a sermon here, folks :)
PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!
I have not yet pointed to the series of posts on The Tri-une God and Motherhood by kbonikowsky at The Happy Surprise, I should. They are very good, offering a careful, gentle presentation of the topic. .One of the things I like is that she approaches the theology simply, yet insists on a Trinitarian understanding. So many people thinking about emotive topics, like gender or like God, let alone when we mix echoes of our relationships with parents into the mix, seem swiftly to lose their sense of proportion and theological “niceities” get thrown to the winds. I saw this years ago when I briefly explored Catholic theologians treatment of Mary when preparing my thesis. Catholic dogma concerning Mary is careful (to a lifelong Protestant it is odd, but it is careful), yet once these otherwise sensible theologians started to write about Mary the mother they seemed to lose all the restrictions their tradition had put in place to ensure that Mary did not seem to enter the Godhead. kbonikowsky avoids such emotion-driven excess in her talk of the Tri-une God and Motherhood, so far it is good stuff!
Paul bases his teaching about sex and marriage on Genesis. As usual, he is in some ways less of a dreamer and more down to earth than Jesus. His argument does that if sex makes two “one flesh”, then sex outside marriage would make you one flesh with the “prostitute” (1 Cor 6:15-20).
This talk of infidelity (un-chesed) is the basis of Paul’s teaching about sex and marriage. Sex unites, making love – makes two into one. Already this idea is foreign to the Western world with its “serial polygamy”1 and frequent divorce. Another of Paul’s conclusions is even less comfortable for modern thought:
“The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” – a shocking thought (which confirms some people’s bad opinion of Paul?), except that, for Paul, the reciprocal is equally true “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)
You see sex is like a sacrament. One consequence of making love is making babies. With God’s blessing, sex makes a new being, in His image, see Gen 4:1; 5:1-3. But (as many infertile couples know) this is not what makes sex sacramental. Making love cements two beings together in partnership. It both celebrates and produces chesed – a covenant relationship.
While the marriage ceremony marks the beginning of this process – of itself it does not create the partnership. Sex and the ongoing co-operation of daily living are the effective agent that builds union. Rather like the relationship between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism affirms our desire to be covenant partners of Jesus. Communion continually seals this as we drink the “covenant cup” declaring our continued desire to be faithful, as he is.
As my African colleagues used to call the all too common Western experience of marriage plus divorce plus re-marriage. [↩]