Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Cast the net anew...

Here's a Polynesian perspective on the problem of same-sex blessing and ordination - as presented by Dr Frank Smith, the Dean of Pasefika students at St John's College.

Dr Frank Smith  |  04 Feb 2013

Toe timata le Upega: The Bible, Sexuality and the Church

The metaphor toe timata le upega[1] carries a sense finding new pathways, of rethinking, of new ideas. The word timata has the sense of returning to a raw state of affairs. It means returning to the root. When used in this phrase it means to rethink from the beginning. The phrase is applied in the Samoan context when it appears there is no consensus on the subject matter under discussion. I have used it here to suggest that the way biblical texts have been used in relation to same sex relations, and because they come from the corpus which we regard as our scriptures, need to be re-evaluated. This means a need to understand the ‘authority’ of scriptures and what this means in terms of using it as guide and as witness.  But having said this, I recognise the numerous positions regarding biblical authority and what this means in relation to its language.

This paper is a brief discussion in which I make two points: First, there is a need to question how the bible is used and in the way the interpretation of biblical texts have been used to teach about sexuality and sexual ethics. Second, there is a suspicion that ideological concerns creep into translations of the bible that have come down to us. Translations are made in cultural settings. As such they are not immune to the unconscious conversation that occurs between interpreters / translators, the bible and the culture in which they are situated.

For the purposes of this discussion, I would like to touch on some issues of interpretation recognizing I cannot do justice to the large corpus of the work on texts.  My purpose though is not to offer new interpretations but rather to highlight the issues that require us to rethink the way we use the bible.  I also highlight assumptions of continuity of meaning as we encounter the different versions of the bible. To do this for the issues on the bible and sexuality, I focus on “homosexuality”.

The development of the various hermeneutical approaches to the bible testifies to the need for a satisfactory outcome in biblical interpretation.  In reading biblical texts dealing with same sex relations for instance, the translations in the current versions which are deemed to contain the words of the original authors is a simple and straightforward approach because biblical passages related to same sex relations in English Bibles are universally condemning and therefore no further effort is needed. But this is a simplistic and unsatisfactory way of approaching the bible. While methods or combination of methods and approaches biblical interpretation have been developed, at the end of the day, the conclusions drawn through these methods are reconstructions of what may have been, made plausible by how the arguments are put forward.

Added to this difficulty is a well-known fact that reader-interpreters of the bible are preconditioned by suppositions  each may have of the bible that leads to differing starting points from where the endeavour starts.  A good example appears in a book by Dan O Via and Robert A J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible (2003). Here, two contrasting views about homosexuality are evident. This is because they begin from different starting points. For example, for Gagnon, the bible’s authority is unequivocal. “The bible presents …convincing proof of God’s will for sexual unions.”[2] Therefore homosexuality is associated with “sin”. But he wants to separate the person from the condition resulting in his use of the phrase “practicing homosexuals.” Via, although agreeing with Gagnon regarding the bible as the “highest authority in theological and ethical matters” takes into account “experience” and location of the interpreter in the Christian tradition and therefore sees the bible as “authoritative only  in those parts that are existentially engaging and compelling –that give grounding and meaning to existence.”[3] Gagnon reads the bible with its assumed “authority”, a priori interpretation.

However, sensibilities regarding same sex relations and a sense that we are not doing justice to the dignity of persons as sexual beings have acted as stimulus for interpreters to seek alternative interpretations from the standard meanings attributed to texts.  

I take the example of Romans 1: 26-7.

26 For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. 27 And likewise also the men left the natural use of the woman, and burned in their lust one toward another and man with man wrought filthiness, and received in themselves such recompense of their error, as was meet (GNV).

I summarise, as examples, the diverse meanings attached to this passage.  I group them into three although I detect another group but for the purposes of this presentation I will have only three. The groupings are for illustration only.   The first example I call the standard view: Sex between women and women and between men and men entails submission to “vile affections” (πάθη ἀτιμίας).[4] It is against nature and therefore against what God intended for human beings. It is sinful and it leads to depravity and moral suspension. Other biblical passages confirm this view. Therefore homosexuality must be opposed because they contradict the Will of God and the moral and natural law.

The second example is the view that the passage is not about homosexuality as we know it today. The word used for “vile” (‘shameful’ in NIV) here applies to other biblical contexts to the shame associated with sexual organs or to faeces, for example (Deuteronomy 23:14-15).[5] Sexual organs are shameful in the Jewish culture but they are not “sinful.” It is difficult to know what Paul means by “nature,” (φύσιv). Therefore, the conclusion that lesbian sex is contrary to nature is mistaken.  The categories in which Paul makes these statements is alien to us in the present. In the other of Paul’s use of the phrase “against nature” (παρὰ φύσιν), it is in connection with the work of God grafting the Gentiles into the olive tree that represents the Jews (Romans 11:24). It is therefore difficult to know what Paul had in mind for women having sex with women in the phrase “their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature” because he refers to “their women.” Perhaps women were having sex with men other than those to whom they belonged, their husbands. This would be against the natural order as understood in Paul’s time. Thus, in relation to the rhetoric against the Gentiles in Roman’s 1, Moore can then conclude that: “The sexual practices of the Gentiles are then, not a sin, a crime against God to be punished: they are themselves the ‘recompense’ inflicted on the Gentiles for their deliberate turning away from the truth.”[6] Giving some lateral support to this view is Scrogg’s claims that the only form of homosexual activity that was openly discussed was pederasty.[7] If this is correct, it gives Paul’s denouncing of male same acts legitimacy even in the present time.

The third example is the view that is related to the overall argument in Romans 1:18-32. In this view, it is noted that Paul is writing to Jewish Christians who would be familiar with Jewish Scriptures. So Paul relates to his readers by reminding them of their general understanding regarding gentiles. Gentiles are “others”, not Jewish and everything associated to Gentiles does not fit what Jewish consider of God and their practices are therefore sinful. Fifteen versus are devoted to this understanding and the condition which arises from the Gentile rejection of the God of Israel. The rejection leads to Gentiles being reprimanded for their sins while Jews are not. Paul then collapses that argument in Romans 2:1-3.

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? (NRSV).

This means that the whole point about the passage in question was intended to preclude the condemnation of the gentiles. Paul’s rhetoric is quite evident here when the whole segment is read.

Whichever interpretation a person may feel satisfied with, it is because the scriptures, having “authority” have been used to define certain human sexual behaviour as abnormal.  And verses such as Romans 1: 26-27 are prime examples of “proof” that is needed. This now bears heavily on the way the church has viewed and teaches about homosexuality.  The perception of homosexuality as a misadventure of creation and therefore something that God did not intend, hence, not natural stems directly from the standard view. It was no wonder then that it was labelled as an abnormal human condition. As such, it was regarded a diseased state that needed treatment. It should be noted that only recently ‘homosexuality’ was removed from the list of mental disorders in the USA.

But changes to understanding of homosexuality have slowly emerged with corresponding changes in attitude toward it.[8] That is, the context in which same sex relations is understood has moved. Despite this,  categories in which meaning and interpretation within which many people understand homosexuality remain predominantly influenced by what the bible is construed to ‘mean’ when we read in it same sex relations – the standard view.  At the same time, the categories with which ‘homosexuality’ is conceived today is quite modern.[9] Hence, when we make decisions regarding acceptability of same-sex relationships in biblical times today, we are making quite a leap presupposing continuity of meaning. Martha Nussbaum has described briefly the differences in ancient and modern notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality. [10] 

The biblical versions have come down to us through the works of translators working within a historical period.  The notion that the contexts in which language occurs can be reconstructed accurately and therefore meanings are certain are now questionable.  Translators of the versions of the bible we now have are themselves lives lived in cultural worlds.  As such the language they use in the different versions over time change. An example may be made of the way two words have been translated in different versions at different times. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 two words μαλακοὶ and  ἀρσενοκοῖται occur. They are included in the list of vices which Paul warns “shall not inherit the kingdom of God”. Recent scholarship have shown a common view that the word means “soft” as related to fabric, so “the soft” are the “effeminate”, a characteristic despised in the ancient world among men who are commanding, firm, never showing feminine qualities . And ἀρσενοκοῖται is associated with “some kind of economic exploitation probably by sexual means: rape or sex by coercion, prostitution, pimping, or something of the sort.”[11]

The translations of these words in earlier versions of the bible bear similarities in the thinking prevalent. The word μαλακοὶ is translated in terms that denoted a general weakness in character.[12] Later versions translate the term as “effeminate”.[13] However, in the last 50 years, versions have come to use different words and phrases showing a marked shift in the language.[14]

In the discussion above, I have pointed out only some of problematic issues that biblical interpretation must deal with in relation to the use of biblical texts, in particular texts dealing with sexuality and sexual ethics. The meanings of words which Paul uses in his letters that relate to same sex relations, as shown above, are far from clear. At the same time, the versions of the bible that we have are translations where interpretation is integral to the work of translators. Yet translators are themselves influenced by cultural understandings in their own time. 

This raises a general question about the use of the bible as a ‘witness’ or as a ‘guide’. It seems to me that when its use as guide is depended on a literal interpretation of its content, it would negate a faith which is based on the triune God, made flesh in God the Word, to whom the bible and tradition bear witness. And the engagement that we find when we read the bible as scripture when new meanings arise, for renewal, inevitably becomes a victim of that view. Using it as a guide or rule book has resulted in devaluing others.[15] 

How then do I understand the authority of scripture? I believe the bible is not the revelation, Jesus is. What do I mean by this? For me, the bible bears witness to Jesus who points to God. The First Testament and the New Testament therefore point to God. The First Testament is a record of a community’s experience of God which Christianity sees as pointing to Jesus. The New Testament is a record of the experience of Jesus (the Gospels) and of the early church in its mission to tell of the ‘Good News’ that is Jesus. The ‘event’ of the life of Jesus, his death and Resurrection is made meaningful in light of the First Testament and in light of the living experience of those who “believed in Jesus”. That ‘event’ gave meaning to the experience of those who followed Jesus and their place in creation as understood through the First testament.  Our access to those experiences is through the written record we now have. For me the authority of the bible is derived from the way it engages us in new ways of understanding the God we worship. This is its transformative power. Paul’s way of understanding God anew, the God spoken of in the First Testament, is in his “in Christ” motif in the New Testament. This means, that the authority of the bible is functional, how it functions within the community of faith. How it functions within the community of faith should bear witness to the “Good News” of Jesus who showed us the God experienced as “love” in light of our present experience. To read the text atomistically is to negate the view that, as scripture, the bible should be read as a whole in its canonical status. It also negates the view that the Holy Spirit is active in renewing us whenever we read the bible.  

[1] Literally: Cast the net anew.

[2] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 37.

[3] Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 2.

[4] Modern translations include “shameful lusts” NIV, “degrading passions” NASB, NRSV.

[5] Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (New York: Continuum, 2003), 93.

[6] Moore, A Question of Truth, 89.

[7] Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

[8] In England and Wales consensual sex between men were partially decriminalized in 1967. The American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from their list of psychological illnesses in 1973.

[9] On the history, construction and or invention of ‘homosexuality’- see for example, Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality 1: An Introduction (New York: Random, 1978); David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 1990).  

[10] See Martha Nussbaum, “Therapeutic Arguments and Structures of Desire,” Difference 2 (1990): 46-66 [49].

[11] Dale Martin, Sex and the Single Saviour (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 41.

[12] For example, “weaklings” Tyndale, 1534; Coverdale, 1535; Cranmer, 1539.

[13] For example, in Douai-Rheims, 1582; KJV 1601 in modernised language “effeminate”, “abusers of themselves with mankind”.

[14] For example,  “male prostitute” in NIV, 1973; NRSV, 1989: or a combination of the two terms into “sexual perverts” RSV. The language of “passive homosexual partners” for μαλακοὶ and “practicing homosexuals” for ἀρσενοκοῖται appear in NET. The latter suggests a desire to separate the sin from the sinner.

[15]  Antisemitism, Slavery, place of women have all been attributed to the literalistic way and “the bible says so” approach in its interpretation. See for example, Adrian Thatcher, The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible (Chichester: Blackwell, 2008).