Text and Context: the Bible and Homosexuality
Glynn Cardy 30th April 2017
Luke 24: 13-35
The fictitious story of the Risen Jesus meeting and talking with two unknown disciples, listening to their interpretation of current events, and then [v.27] ‘beginning with Moses and the all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures’, is an early model for Christian Bible study. Context, text, and the need to interpret the text are all there.
One of the paramount contextual issues of our day - on our road to Emmaus - is homosexuality. In many countries and denominations the idea of people of the same gender being in love, and being married, whether clergy or laity, is anathema. Many Christians, including many in our own denomination, think the Bible is adamantly opposed to homosexuality. For some even the idea of a member of the clergy identifying as gay or lesbian is plainly wrong. This morning, drawing on the work of scholars like Walter Wink[i], I want to take you on a short tour through the biblical references to homosexuality.
Some references that have been advanced as pertinent to homosexuality are, in fact, irrelevant. One is the attempted gang rape in Sodom.[ii] That was a case of heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers - this is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21 - and both have nothing to do with genuine love expressed between consenting adults. Likewise Deuteronomy 23:17-18 must be pruned from the list since it most likely refers to a heterosexual prostitute involved in Canaanite fertility rites [the King James Bible Version inaccurately labelled this prostitute a "sodomite."]. Several other texts are ambiguous. For example, it is not clear whether 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 refer to the "passive" and "active" partners in pederastic relationships, or to homosexual and heterosexual male prostitutes. It is unclear whether the issue is homosexuality alone or "sex-for-hire."
Putting these texts to the side, we are left with three references, all of which unequivocally condemn homosexual behaviour – two from the Book of Leviticus[iii] and one from the Book of Romans. The Hebrew pre-scientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life (both egg and sperm), and women provided only the incubating space. Hence the spilling of semen for any non-procreative purpose was considered tantamount to murder.[iv] In addition, when a man acted like a woman sexually, male dignity was considered degraded. The patriarchal assumptions of Hebrew culture show themselves in the very formulation of the commandment, since no similar stricture was formulated to forbid homosexual acts between females. Culturally too homosexual acts were considered pagan not Jewish. Whatever the rationale however the Levitical texts are clear: men committing homosexual acts are to be executed.
Romans 1:26-27 also unambiguously condemns homosexual behaviour. Paul seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, "leaving" their regular sexual orientation behind. Paul believed that everyone was heterosexual. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. Likewise, the relationships Paul describes are not relationships between consenting adults who are faithfully committed to each other.
And Paul believes that homosexual behaviour is contrary to nature, whereas science teaches us that it is manifested by a wide variety of species, especially (but not solely) under the pressure of overpopulation. It would appear then to be a quite natural mechanism for preserving species. We cannot, of course, decide human ethical conduct solely on the basis of animal behaviour or the human sciences, but Paul here is arguing from nature, as he himself says, and new knowledge of what is "natural" is therefore relevant.
Nevertheless, the Bible quite clearly takes a negative view of homosexual activity in those few instances where it is mentioned at all. But this conclusion does not solve the problem of interpretation, for there are other sexual attitudes, practices, and restrictions which are normative in Scripture but which we no longer accept as normative today. These include forbidding intercourse during menstruation,[v] executing people for adultery,[vi] and executing women for having sex before marriage.[vii]
Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced in the Old Testament, and neither is condemned by the New Testament.[viii] Jesus' teaching about marital union in Mark 10:6-8 is no exception, since he quotes Genesis 2:24 as his authority (the man and the woman will become "one flesh"), and this text was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. A man could become "one flesh" with more than one woman, through the act of sexual intercourse. We know from Jewish sources that polygamy continued to be practiced within Judaism for centuries following the New Testament period.
One form of polygamy was the levirate marriage. When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with each of his brothers in turn until she bore him a male heir.[ix] I think we would be shocked to find anyone engaging in such behaviour today.
The Law of Moses allowed for divorce;[x] Jesus categorically forbade it.[xi] Yet many Christians, in clear violation of a command of Jesus, have been divorced. Why, then, do many Churches ordain divorcees but not homosexuals? What makes the one so much greater a sin than the other, especially considering the fact that Jesus never even mentioned homosexuality?
The Old Testament regarded celibacy as abnormal and 1 Timothy 4:1-3 calls compulsory celibacy a heresy. Some Churches demand celibacy for homosexuals, whether they have a vocation for celibacy or not. Others argue that since God made men and women for each other in order to be fruitful and multiply, homosexuals reject God's intent in creation. But this would mean that childless couples, single persons, Catholic priests and nuns would all be in violation of God's intention in their creation. Those who argue thus must explain why the apostle Paul, and Jesus, never married.
Certainly heterosexual marriage is normal otherwise the race would die out. But it is not normative. God can bless the world through people who are married and through people who are single, and it is false to generalize from the marriage of most people to the marriage of everyone. In 1 Corinthians 7:7 Paul goes so far as to call marriage a "charisma," or divine gift, to which not everyone is called.
These cases are relevant to our attitude toward the authority of Scripture. They are not cultic prohibitions about eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of two different materials that are clearly superseded in Christianity. They are rules concerning sexual behaviour, and they fall among the moral commandments of Scripture. Clearly we regard certain rules, especially in the Old Testament, as no longer binding. What is our principle of selection here? Why do we appeal to proof texts in Scripture in the case of homosexuality alone, when we feel perfectly free to disagree with Scripture regarding most other sexual practices?
The Bible exhibits a variety of sexual norms, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Christians pick and choose which sexual norms they will observe. And all Christians do – liberal and conservative, evangelical and progressive (although we might pick different ones).
If we insist on placing ourselves under the old law, as Paul reminds us, we are obligated to keep every commandment of the law.[xii] But if Christ is the end of the law,[xiii] if we have been freed from the law to serve, not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit,[xiv] then all of these biblical sexual norms come under the authority and liberty of the Spirit.
Sexual norms are necessary in any society, but as Christians we must critique them by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Defining such a love ethic is not complicated. It is non-exploitative (hence no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence no patriarchal treatment of women), it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving.
Approached from the point of view of love rather than that of law, the issue of homosexuality is at once transformed. Now the question is not "What does Scripture command?" but "What does the Spirit say to the churches now, in the light of Scripture, tradition, theology, and, yes, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?" We can't continue to build ethics on the basis of bad science.
In a little-remembered statement, Jesus said, "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?"[xv] Such sovereign freedom can strike fear in the hearts of some Christians; it seems there are a number of Christian who would rather be under law and be told what is right.[xvi]
If now in the 21st century science has radically revised biblical perceptions of homosexually are we not obligated to re-evaluate in the light of all the available data and decide what is right, under God, for ourselves? And if we find that the biblical condemnation of homosexually is wrong are we not obligated as the Church to not only repent of our crimes – all the centuries of judgement, pain, and persecution meted out upon gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families – but also change our ways and our laws so that every ritual of the Church [including marriage] and every office of the Church [including minister] is open to everyone irrespective of gender?
So on our road to Emmaus as we seek to interpret context and text in the light of God’s resurrection Spirit let us, to paraphrase Jesus, judge what is right and then do what is right.
[i] Walter Wink was the Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.
[ii] Genesis 19:1-29.
[iii] Leviticus 18:22, 20:13.
[iv] Female homosexual acts were consequently not so seriously regarded, and are not mentioned at all in the Old Testament (but see Romans 1:26).
[v] Leviticus 18:19; 15:19-24.
[vi] Deuteronomy 22:22.
[vii] Deuteronomy 22:13-21.
[viii] Save for the questionable exceptions of 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6.
[ix] Jesus mentions this custom without criticism (Mark 12:18-27).
[x] Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
[xi] Mark 10:1-12; Matthew 19:9 softens Mark’s Jesus’ severity.
[xii] Galatians 5:3.
[xiii] Romans 10:4.
[xiv] Romans 7:6.
[xv] Luke 12:57 NRSV.
[xvi] Paul himself echoes Jesus' sentiment when he says, "Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!" (1 Corinthians 6:3 RSV).