Scripture and the Theology of Sexuality
(Hermeneutics Hui, Auckland, 1 February 2013)
In this paper I would like to set out in broad terms some theological issues raised by the matter of human sexuality, suggest some responses to them, and then buttress that with brief comments about the Scriptures that are generally taken to be referring directly to homosexuality and some reflections thereon. My talk reflects the reality that the reason we are struggling with sexuality is that we do not quite know what to do about homosexuality (at least collectively; individually many of us do). This talk adapts material that I have previously presented in two different contexts: a meeting in Helensville about a year ago, and a talk at Taranaki Cathedral.
I speak as a white Anglo-Saxon middle-aged (just still) male, who has been and remains happily married to one white Anglo-Saxon middle-aged woman. The result has been four white Anglo-Saxon daughters and nearly nine grandchildren. That is the perspective from which I view sex.
And I am conscious of the hospital pass that any attempt to talk on this topic is in today’s context. But I accepted probably out of hubris. I have never quite grown out of the notion that something that has never been done can be, that the midfield backs lining up to smash me the minute I catch the ball will be fooled at the last minute by a brilliant little shimmy and body swerve from me leaving the try line beckoning. But it never happens, because I am not Ma’a Nonu nor his theological equivalent.
I also accept because these are important matters that we need to grapple with, although I claim no great expertise. I say that because even though I am a Scripture specialist, the fact of the matter is that the Bible does not give us a neat culture-free blueprint for the conduct of sexual relationships. A great deal of hard theological work has to be done to perceive what is wise and faithful in our context and which may be discerned as in continuity with the trajectory of Scripture. My remarks will attempt to lead in that direction.
The matter of human sexuality
I want to propose several things about human sexuality that do emerge in Scripture.
First, sexual identity is close to the heart of what it means to bear the image of God as humans. The early chapters of Genesis are sufficiently vague on the matter, so that it cannot be the only thing and this aspect should not be overdone. Work, technology, relationship, language, creativity and so forth are also potentially part of this image bearing.
But I have argued and won’t go into detail here that a close reading of Genesis 1 leaves a strong impression that our nature as differentiated sexual beings is pretty central to our bearing of the image of God.
That is why sexual sin achieves such a high profile, even though it annoys us that we let it. We may say theoretically that it is no more important than any other sin, like Paul’s list in Romans 1 (gossip, greed, forgetting to put out the rubbish, flying without buying carbon indulgences etc). But at a visceral level we don’t respond as if that were the case, because the effects of sexual brokenness drive so deep into our self-perceptions. If my house is burgled, I might employ a sexual metaphor and speak of feeling “violated” by the burglary, but being burgled has not nearly the effect on my long term well being as actually being cuckolded or raped or abused in some way.
Would you rather be in love with a rapist or a bank robber (if that’s the choice)? See what I mean.
I am not an anthropologist but I think that sexuality is incredibly important in any culture and getting it wrong has disproportionate effects in any culture. What constitutes getting it wrong may vary, of course.
So it is around the area of sexuality that we are likely to have the strongest feelings about the character and behaviour of Christian people. And this is quite right, because one of the programmatic metaphors woven through Scripture to explain the human-divine encounter is that of sexual wooing and faithfulness. It is a fundamental expression of the relational nature of our humanity.
This brings me to my second point, which is that we all participate in the fallenness of the world. We are all in some way broken or incomplete sexually, whether from our own sin or the effect on us of others’ sin or simply by the fact that the world is broken (the old triad: the world, the flesh and the devil). This can express itself in myriad ways. I won’t ask us each to share at this point! And we are all capable of sinning in sexual ways. We all face points at which we are called to resist this sinful impulse by God’s grace. And also to receive and offer forgiveness in this realm. As Christians we cannot possibly expect of ourselves or of those with whom we are in communion to be exempt from this simple fact of being human – being sexual beings – and of being broken sexually.
What to do about the natural
But when we come to the matter of sin we struggle accordingly to understand what is sinful in us and what is not. In particular, we get into a pickle when we speak of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ as if one is sinful and one is not. But, remember, we all have a sinful ‘nature’. So to say that something is unnatural, by which we usually mean we cannot understand it or identify with it, does not necessarily mean it is sinful. The category confusion does not take us any further ahead.
This is where homosexuality does my head in. I just cannot understand the phenomenon. I cannot remotely identify with the experience. And I can find no analogue by which to help me think about it. Anything I say it’s like breaks down. It is not like marriage because it lacks the dimension of having to figure out what women want (not that that is actually possible) and does not have reproductive potential; it is not like illness or handicap either because it is experienced by those who are such as part of who they are in God; it is not unnatural to those for whom it is natural (although I am cautious of that exegesis of Romans 1). A gay friend said to me: I am sick of being treated as either sick or handicapped. And I sympathise. So I have resorted to simply accepting that the phenomenon is. And to try (and sometimes fail) to appreciate people as I find them.
The difference between sinfulness and fallenness
I’m about to tread on thin ice here and a proper theologian would be unhappy with this rather un-nuanced attempt, but never mind. I think we need to make a distinction between our participation in a fallen/broken world and our behaving in a sinful way. It may well be that we express brokenness and experience being sinned against in ways for which we cannot be held morally responsible. For example, I am restricted in my abilities to conduct pastoral and collegial relationships with women, because of my inbuilt male responses to the other gender. Yet I am not morally responsible – or, perhaps better, personally culpable – for the fact that there exists in the world a need for boundaries in the conduct of relationships because of these forces. Yet that they are necessary is an outcome of sinful nature in which I participate and I look for a day and a time when I can have friendships with women that have the same sense of freedom about them as do my friendships with men (I quite understand if I now have to have supper on my own after that confession). I also must be held accountable for how I behave within those limitations. I have the possibility or not of sinning. This is an important aspect of sexuality vis a vis the way we live out our Christian discipleship.
I think this is relevant to the matter of the acceptance of gay people and relationships among us. In two possible ways. First, that gay people are morally responsible for the conduct of their sexuality within the parameters of how they find themselves to be as sexual beings. How this is agreed upon in the matter of gay people is a huge issue for the church. It would all be much easier if there were a socially agreed set of canons of behaviour such as exist for the conduct of the sexual lives of heterosexual people, but there are not. As an aside, I actually think more attention should be paid to this question in the debate than usually is. And I would like to be hearing more from gay Christians on this matter.
Secondly, and this is where I tremble a little (and am acutely conscious of the plea from minorities: nothing about us without us) but I have been given the floor for the moment and will plunge on. Secondly, the question arises as to whether the category gay is innate to being human or is part of fallen sexuality. If it is the latter, then the logic of the late Hui Vercoe is inescapable: No Gays in Heaven. Remember the Herald headlines. By which he meant the phenomenon rather than the people. He was not saying gay people will not be in heaven; he was saying gay people won’t be gay in heaven. I always thought he was a little hard done by and misunderstood. Nor will there be any other form of human brokenness in heaven. No abused people in heaven, but the people who have been abused will be there. And so forth. But even here I am straying into an analogue that does not quite work, thus illustrating a point just made.
But I think I could make an argument that sexual differentiation and reproduction and selection is fundamental to the way the world works in all its glorious diversity and growth, and that the Bible, notwithstanding any use of the few proof texts there are on homosexual behaviour (not orientation) (of which see further below), has a fairly determinedly heterosexual view of the world. And so perhaps it is legitimate to recognise homosexuality as in some sense anomalous (but not necessarily problematic unless you have a mechanistic view of a world that should not contain departures from the pattern). Assuming that an anomaly is not a problem, that it may be so is beside the point. Perhaps an analogy could be that some valid generalizations about the difference between men and women could be made (men never ask for directions; women are better cooks; women think more right brain and so forth). But these generalizations sit as a paradox with the fact that it is a God-given reality and blessing that some women are left-brained and some men ask for directions; and they are not to be pigeon-holed into roles or types. So the paradox is that it is fundamentally a heterosexual world as a generalization; but the exceptions to that are at the same time valid and God-given. Or am I perhaps at this point in need of my own caution about making a category error around natural/unnatural?
This reflects the basic question: is homosexuality part of fallen nature or simply one way of being human?
With respect to the living all of this out in discipleship, we as Christians are people who have been set apart, but we still put our trousers on one leg at a time and are subject to human frailty as much as anybody else. As Christians, there is always this tension between our human frailty and our vocation. And this is true in the matter of sexuality.
Responsibility to model
In the matter of sexuality, there is a call to model a better way I believe. It is not that we are innately better people than others. But the level of accountability is higher. Jesus was quite clear on that point, especially with respect to leadership. We might expect that growth towards Christian maturity will include growth towards a state of more or less having our act together as sexual beings.
Acceptance of our sinful nature
At the same time, there is the other side of the paradox. Part of that modeling to which we are called is that we too are broken and forgiven people who are wounded companions on the journey of discipleship. The church must come to terms with that and be clear on the grounds on which one kind of brokenness might be worse than another, and one might be the recipient of greater hermeneutical hospitality than another when it comes to deciding whose relationships may be recognized and who may or may not be ordained.
Recognition of certainty
And we should be clear and courageous about what we do know, which is that for most people chastity or temperance and faithfulness is called for in the area of sexuality.
Recognition of and patience with uncertainty
And we should be accepting of uncertainty, of what we do not know, such as the kinds of questions that I have articulated that swirl around expectations for those who identify as homosexual. This may all take time to settle down.
In any case, the church will within a generation or so have to grapple with the fact that what constitutes marriage even between a man and a woman is going to get rather murky.
Which all suggests a need for humility as we explore these things. So let us continue to walk carefully and respectfully together.
In that spirit, I make a brief comment about passages commonly identified as about homosexuality in Scripture (see below). I look at each in turn:
What I find in the Old Testament is that, apart from the Leviticus material (Genesis 19:5-8, Deuteronomy 23:17-18, Judges 19:22-23, 1 Kings 14:24, 1 Kings 15:12, 1 Kings 22:46), the concern is with cult prostitution, and with promiscuous and abusive behavior. The levitical material (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13) is quite unambiguously against homosexual behavior. However, it is so in the context of the purity laws in which there is a concern about the crossing of boundaries of all sorts that ought not to be crossed. Sexual behavior within rather than across gender is one such boundary. There is a basic hermeneutical question that must be asked of all the purity material, which is, what is concerned with ceremonial matters and what is concerned with moral? So I need to acknowledge that Leviticus on its own cannot shut down the debate. And I do wonder that there is no reference to the matter in the writing prophets at all.
As far as the New Testament material is concerned, the Acts passage (Acts 15:28-29) does not appear to apply to homosexuality per se. Aside from Romans, the Pauline material (assuming 1Timothy to be such) touches on it very lightly in the context of lists of other sins (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:9-10). 2 Peter and Jude both focus on Sodom and Gomorrah in the context of wider licentiousness (2 Peter 2:6-7, Jude 7). They seem concerned with the problem of following false teaching, and homosexual behavior is one, but only one, aspect of this. Then there is the Romans passage (Romans 1:26-27), which is quite unambiguous, although debate remains, and is probably not finally solveable without time travel to find out how words were used on the ground, whether or not Paul is talking about egalitarian consensual relationships or exploitative relationships across power differentials.
What all of this says to me is that there remains lots of room and need for discussion on these things. We will not achieve consensus by exegetical jousting so much as by theological wrestling. We have to accept that. At the same time on the very small evidence available to us the Bible is against homosexual sexual activity, and God has made a thoroughly heterosexual world. That must be acknowledged. Cumulatively, though, it says to me that it is not good enough to walk away from talking and being with those with whom we disagree on the grounds that the authority of Scripture has been violated. Where the authority lies and how it may be applied on this issue is a point of legitimate debate.
Moreover I am struck by the 1 Tim. 1.10 reference to “whatever is contrary to sound teaching.” That tells me that if we are to make the ordination of homosexual people in committed relationships a point on which to stand over the question of authority of Scripture, we have to be clear why this is more so the case than for any number of things in our beloved church that could come under the rubric “whatever is contrary to sound teaching.” And we are not.
Paul or Jesus?
To illustrate the above point a little further and in conclusion, as I look at the biblical evidence, I find myself wondering what conclusions we might reach if we only had access to the Gospels as material for which we claim some ethical authority. We would end up with impossibly high standards of integrity and purity around every aspect of human interaction, but would also have a strong sense that Jesus welcomes all sorts into the kingdom. Such exclusion as he indulges in normally relates to the “pure” religious insiders. We would also be much more likely to exclude divorced people than homosexual people from ordination.
That must give us pause to give the benefit of the doubt in favour of more relating and more conversation if we are to take Scripture seriously in the matter of human sexuality.
Genesis 19:5-8: 5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” 6 Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
Leviticus 18:22: 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
Leviticus 20:13: 13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
Deuteronomy 23:17-18: 17 None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. 18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the Lord your God.
Judges 19:22-23: 22 While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing.”
1 Kings 14:24: 24 there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
1 Kings 15:12: 12 He put away the male temple prostitutes out of the land, and removed all the idols that his ancestors had made.
1 Kings 22:46: 46 The remnant of the male temple prostitutes who were still in the land in the days of his father Asa, he exterminated.
Acts 15:28-29: 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
Romans 1:26-27: 26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11: 9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
1 Timothy 1:9-10: 9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching
2Peter 2:6-7: 6 and if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the lawless.
Jude 7: 7 Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.