It’s St. Valentine’s day, a day which once was a holy day, and now has become a holiday. While I could spend some time as I have before on this blog on the subject of who St. Valentine really was, in the wake of the recent provocations by Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan trying to reinvent the wheel in regard the Bible’s supposedly mixed message on sexual ethics, in particular on the ethics of same sex sexual intercourse, it’s time to say— enough, is enough.
Neither the Bible, nor for that matter, my own Wesleyan heritage can be used to further the sort of agendas Knust and Coogan want to promote. The Bible is not an ink blot which one can read whatever way one pleases on controversial issues such as sexual ethics, and when the pontification involves absurd remarks like, Paul has no sexual ethic (has the author actually read 1 Corinthians 7?), or there can be little doubt that the love that David and Jonathan shared involved eros not just philos, then it is indeed time to say, enough is enough. These are not only not plausible interpretations of key Biblical texts, in light of the highly conservative sexual ethic of honor and shame cultures in the ANE and in particular Jewish culture when it came to such matters, they are not even very possible interpretations of such material. What follows here is an expanded version of a piece I have offered before, with some tune ups in light of the recent salvos by Kunst and Coogan, and in preparation for the next batch of salvos on this subject that the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
ON DEALING WITH EROS IN A SEXUALLY CONFUSED AGE
Before speaking about the issue of the day, I need to just say a few things about myself. I have been a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, indeed I am so old that it was the Methodist Episcopal Church when I was born. Rumor has it that my first two words were John Wesley. I personally doubt this, but my point is that this has been my faith tradition my entire life. I have taught at Methodist institutions like High Point University and Duke Divinity School (where I taught the theology and history of Wesley himself), I have done some teaching of the New Testament at a former Methodist institution known as Vanderbilt Divinity, and I know our Methodist ethos well.
I am also an ordained clergy person in the N.C. conference and I have served six churches along the way, full time. I am not an ivory tower theologian unaware of the pastoral issues and problems that are created by one or another sort of sexual ethic. And I have been a part of this debate about human sexuality, including the debate about homosexuality for the some thirty years and more that it has been going on. I have been mentored along the way by luminaries like Albert Outler, who coined the term quadrilateral if I am not mistaken, and I understand the issues of authority involved in assessing the relative weight of the Bible, tradition, experience, and reason in our tradition.
One thing that Outler made ever so clear to me is that he did not want to do or say anything that would compromise the Reformation principle that for any good Protestant worth their salt, the final authority on all matters of faith and practice is the Holy Scriptures— in other words the quadrilateral was not and is not an equilateral, nor a configuration of authorities by which ‘experience’ however defined should ever be allowed to trump Scripture in a matter as important as upholding the principles of holiness and entire sanctification that our Wesleyan heritage calls us to.
From a pastoral point of view, I quite agree with Richard Hays and many other Methodist exegetes and theologians that the church cannot afford the luxury of offering an ambiguous sexual ethic in an age in which sexual promiscuity and aberration is so rampant and prevalent. We cannot afford to encode multiple points of view on issues like adultery, pornography, same sex sexual sharing, pederasty and the like. The Gospel trumpet needs to make a clear sound, even if all around us there is a cacophony of conflicting sounds. More importantly we need to take a stand that comports both with Scripture and with our Methodist tradition of holiness of heart and life and in no way wavers from it, neither to the right or to the left.
Let me be clear that the position proffered to us by David Lull, Tex Sample and others in the United Methodist church is a position that John Wesley himself, Francis Asbury himself, and before them all the great theologians and exegetes of the Church rejected. Anselm said no to same sex sexual sharing of any kind, as did Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Bucer, Knox, Cranmer, all the Wesleys and so on.
In terms of church tradition, the position which advocates the morality of same sex sexual sharing under certain limited circumstances is a position almost universally and certainly overwhelmingly rejected before the 20th century in western culture. There is no argument to be made otherwise on this front. So far as church tradition including especially our Methodist tradition goes, it says no. Emphatically so. If you doubt this I would urge you to spend some time reading John Wesley’s little tracts ‘Thoughts on Celibacy’ and ‘Thoughts on Marriage’. Wesley, being the good son of his Puritan mother Susanna that he was, believed that sexual intercourse had one primary purpose—procreation to be engaged in monogamous heterosexual marriage only. He would have affirmed wholeheartedly our current cliché about celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. There can be no reasonable doubt about this. So would his mother. For them the holiness code of the Bible was to be strictly adhered to.
But what about the Bible itself? Well the Bible is quite frankly equally clear. I do not say this lightly or flippantly. I have spent 30 years exegeting the New Testament and the Old Testament and I have now written exegetical commentaries on every book of the New Testament. I speak as an exegete, a historian, and a theologian, as well as a NT ethicist. There is little room for debate I am afraid that same sex sexual sharing of any sort is seen as sinful in the Bible, both in the OT and in the NT. I will attend briefly to a few key points.
Firstly, it is simply false to say that Jesus has nothing to say against same sex sexual sharing. This is absolutely false. Consider for a moment what Jesus says in Mt. 19.1-12. Here he makes clear that he views marriage just as the author of Genesis did—a man shall leave his parents and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. This one flesh union is seen as only appropriate in a context of heterosexual marriage. This rules out not only homosexual unions, it rules out extra-marital sexual acts of all sorts as well. This is not about androgyny, the notion that the original human being was both male and female. It involves a poetic story about how woman was created out of a portion of the man. Nothing in the Genesis text even remotely suggests Adam was originally androgynous.
And here it will be worthwhile to remind ourselves that our sexual ethic needs to be broad, and applicable to all. It is morally wrong to single out homosexual persons as if they were somehow worse sinners than heterosexual sinners. The Bible takes all sexual sin equally seriously. So should we. We cannot afford in this sexually confused age to turn a blind eye to one sort of sexual sin, and excoriate another sort. That is the worst sort of hypocrisy and anyone has a right to call us on it. Homophobia is as much of a sin as any other sort of sin.
The proper broad approach to this issue is to say the following— all persons are welcome to come into the church as they are. But no persons are welcome to stay as they are. We should be equal opportunity exhorters in regard to all sorts of sexual sin, and not be baptizing anyone’s sin and calling it good. This means we must be welcoming of all, but affirming no one’s sin—whoever they may be.
Back to Jesus. Jesus presents us with three key points. He offers his disciples two choices: 1) fidelity in heterosexual marriage, or 2) celibacy in singleness. He speaks of this in terms of being a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom and the language could hardly be more stark and clear—a eunuch is one who does not engage in intercourse with anyone, same sex or otherwise. But there is a third point Jesus makes—each of these conditions—fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness should be pursued “as it has been given to them”. What Jesus means is that it requires a grace gift to either remain celibate in singleness or faithful in marriage. The phrase “to whom it has been given” means to whom God has given them the grace to live this way. Paul says much the same in 1 Cor. 7—he speaks of a charisma, a grace gift to either remain single as he is, or to be married in the Lord. And while we are at it, Paul stresses in 1 Cor. 7 to those widows who want to remarry that this is fine “only in the Lord”. And here is where I stress that no form of behavior should be engaged in, perhaps especially sexual behavior, that cannot be done “in the Lord” in a way that would be pleasing to the Lord Jesus Christ. You will notice that nothing in these discussions is said about sexual orientation. That is an entirely modern category. And even if one were to allow that some persons might be born with an inclination towards or attraction to members of their own sex, what an early Jewish theologian such as Jesus or Paul would say to that is that we are all born with an inclination to sin, all are born with fallen inclinations. This is not an invention of later Christian tradition, say St. Augustine. Ps. 51.5, a part of the great mea culpa of King David does indeed say he was conceived in sin. This is not because his mother was immoral. We have no evidence for that. Nor has this got anything to do with David’s adultery with Bathsheba— that was much later. It has to do with David’s confession that he had sinful inclinations from day one, as do we all. It’s one of the reasons Paul says we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Just because a person is born with this or that sexual inclination does not make it good. It has to be morally evaluated. At the same time, it should be stressed that David is certainly not saying the sexual expression itself is inherently sinful. Indeed Genesis says it was a good gift from God.
Since we have broached the subject of Paul, it will be well to walk down the Pauline road a bit further, but I want to stress that Paul is certainly not enunciating a sexual ethic any different from Jesus’. His is more specifically Christian because he is writing to Christians, while Jesus was speaking to Jews, including his Jewish followers, but what the two men say comports not only with each other but with the rather clearly articulated sexual ethic of early Judaism— which is not a surprise.
The new element is that both Jesus and Paul affirm the equal goodness of remaining single for the sake of the kingdom as being married in the Lord, whereas in early Judaism the latter is overwhelmingly emphasized. And herein lies a problem with my own church and indeed many Protestant denominations. We have done a very poor job in affirming the goodness of chaste singleness in our church. Indeed we have suggested or implied that if a person is not partnered off, they are an incomplete or unwhole person. In my own home church in Lexington Kentucky we used to have a Sunday school class called “Pairs and Spares”—horrible! As if a single person is but a spare tire until they get yoked to another person. This needs to change drastically. We need to have an adequate theology and ethic of the goodness of chaste singleness. After all, both Jesus, Paul and others modeled such a lifestyle for us. Who are we to cast aspersions on it? From a pastoral point of view, one of the very reasons we have so many marriages that are train wrecks in the church is because there is too much social pressure to get married in the church, and some people simple aren’t grace gifted with the ability to be in a marriage relationship. This is a truth we need to grasp hold of now, for certain.
I will begin with 1 Corinthians because it is an earlier document than Romans. A little background is in order. In the Greco-Roman world, all sorts of homosexual and lesbian behavior was deemed, if not fully acceptable, at least tolerable. Pederasty, or sex between a man and a young boy was only one form of homosexual behavior that was condoned. There was also sex with a prostitute (male or female) which was allowable, and also sex between consenting male adults, though sex between consenting female adults was usually seen as a degenerate form of behavior, at least by the Roman patrician class. But we must bear in mind that the opinion shapers in that era were almost exclusively men, it was a patriarchal culture, and there was without question a sexual double standard in that world. This double standard Jesus would have nothing to do with—remember the story of the woman caught in adultery? One should have immediately asked, since it takes two to tango, where is the man caught in adultery? Jesus’ famous Solomonic pronouncement “neither do I condemn you, but go and sin no more” is the sort of balanced ethical rejoinder we would want to strive for in this whole discussion.
Early Jews, like Jesus and Paul, would have stood out from the Greco-Roman culture due to their much stricter sexual ethic. Few would dispute this fact. The question then becomes, what sort of same sex sexual activities are being condemned in 1 Corinthians, Romans and elsewhere in the NT? So far as I can see, the answer is the same one given in general in early Judaism—all forms of same sex sexual sharing, whether it involves consenting adults or not. Why do I say this?
Well consider for a moment 1 Cor. 6.9-10 which provides us with a rather all encompassing vice list. A list of those persons who, if they persist in their current chosen behavior, shall not enter the Kingdom of God, coming in the future on earth as in heaven. This list includes first all sexually immoral persons and idolaters (the two broadest terms used—pornoi is the former term covering all sexual sins), and then Paul lists more specifically some of those he has in mind—adulterers, then he mentions malakoi and arsenokoitai, then he adds thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers. It’s a pretty broad list including a variety of types of sin, sexual and otherwise.
It needs to be understood about these vice lists that 1) Paul is addressing those who are Christians already and he is saying that this sort of behavior must stop if they hope to reach the Kingdom goal, and 2) the terms used suggest not a one time activity, but a persistent course of activity such that one could be rightly characterized as in general sexually immoral or in general a thief and so on. This brings us to the terms malakoi which has as its root sense—soft, or effeminate, and is used in a sexual context to refer to the person in a homosexual relationship that plays the more female role, the one that mostly allows themselves to be penetrated by the more aggressive partner. The word arsenokoitai literally refers to a male who beds with a man. Since there are clear echoes of the Holiness Code throughout 1 Cor. 4-7 it is exceedingly likely that this term, perhaps even coined originally by Paul, is an echo of the LXX of the Holiness Code which condemns a man who lies with a male as if the latter were a woman. ‘Male-bedder’ or better ‘male-copulator’ is the sense of the term just as this language suggests in Leviticus and elsewhere. In other words, a different ethic is not enunciated in the NT on this issue than is found in Leviticus. There is a consistent reject of same sex sexual activity.
Here is where I reiterate that the NT has nothing to say on the issue of the modern notion of ‘sexual orientation’. It is behavior, not inclination that is at issue, and the assumption throughout the NT is that by God’s grace one can at a minimum control one’s sinful inclinations if not be transformed into one who ceases to have such inclinations. As Paul goes on to say in 1 Cor. 10—no temptation has overcome us that is not common to humankind such that with the temptation God can provide an adequate means of escape or overcoming it. If I did not believe that grace could overcome fallen human inclinations and nature, if I did not believe in the possibility of changing from a fallen person to a new creature, I should cease to be in ministry altogether. The possibility and need for change is incumbent on all of us, as we seek to be conformed to the image of Jesus the holy one. He is both our paradigm and our paragon, our example and our goal.
What about Romans 1? Here we have the only direct condemnation of lesbian behavior as well as homosexual behavior in the NT. Rom. 1.26-27 speaks of exchanging natural sexual relationships with unnatural ones, and by unnatural Paul means against the original creation order design of God. He is perfectly well aware that fallen human beings have all sorts of ungodly or unnatural inclinations. So the issue is not merely is it ‘natural’, but rather is it the way God designed nature in the creation before the fall, or not. And this brings up a very good point. It is not cogent to say “I am naturally inclined to behave in X manner and therefore this is the way God made me”. That is entirely forgetting the effects of human fallenness on our affections and emotions and predilections. A theology of creation without an adequate theology of human falleness becomes an unbiblical theology of creation.
And what the theology of creation enunciated in Genesis and repristinized in the NT says is that God made us male and female for each other. Only a male and a female can be a couple, because only they are capable of coupling to the divine end of procreation. Only they are able to share a one flesh union that could potentially create another human life. There are of course many kinds of relationships that could be called partnerships, but only one kind of relationship the Bible suggests can create a couple— namely a male-female relationship. I have no doubt that both Jesus and Paul would be completely opposed to the attempt to reinvent the wheel and redefine marriage to include anything else other than the covenantal relationship between one man and one woman which God has joined together.
There are a few red herrings I would like to deal with at this juncture. Ours is an emotive and experiential age. We often here the phrase “my experience tells me” and we have endless counselors asking “how does that make you feel” as if feelings were the ultimate guide to truth or what is right. The truth however about feelings is that they are notably unreliable guides to what is right and wrong. Feelings can be deep and genuine and immoral, and they can be the other way around as well. Sometimes we will also here the cliché “I cannot deny my feelings”
My response to that is—Of course you can. That’s what ethical restraint of sinful inclinations is all about! All of us, if we are honest, have many feelings that we need to deny rather than indulge. Alas, our culture is so sick that it produces bumper stickers that say things like “if it feels good, do it”. Whenever ‘experience’ or ‘feelings’ becomes the ultimate litmus test or measuring rod in a fallen person’s life, they are well on the road to narcissism and all the sins that come with it—self-centered, self-seeking, self-indulgent behavior.
What I know about fallen persons is that they have an infinite capacity for self-justification, indeed all of us do even Christians, which is precisely why it is so important for the church to uphold the clarion call to celibacy in singleness in a sex saturated lust- filled culture. Without some objective moral standard like the Bible we have no basis to tell the difference between heartburn and John Wesley’s heartwarming experience.
I am well aware that a person’s spirituality is closely entwined with their sexuality. Put another way, good theology and good ethics go together, and where one finds the endorsement of something unethical, it usually brings in its train bad theology as well. It is then necessary for the good of our souls that we uphold a high standard of sexual ethics, and we should always bear in mind the Biblical principle that whatever you cannot do in good faith and with a clear conscience is sin for you. In other words, when in doubt, don’t, especially when it comes to sexual behavior.
Another red herring is of course asking “What is the loving or compassionate thing to do?” If one takes that question outside the context of the Biblical call to holiness almost any answer is possible. Our God is a God of holy love. Not holiness without love, and not love without holiness. Holiness without love is mere censoriousness, and it isn’t loving or helpful. But love without holiness is mere indulgence without sanctified discipline, and it is equally wrong. The balance between love and holiness must be upheld—we must always love the sinner, but never love their sin, for the very good reason that the sin is destroying their souls, their very spiritual life and relationship with God. However well meaning, it is not a loving thing to allow either homosexual or heterosexual persons to follow behavior the Bible and the long history of Christian tradition clearly says is immoral. Same sex sexual sharing even between consenting adults, even in a long term relationship, falls under this prohibition.
It is a great pity that our English lexicon of love is so truncated. In Greek we have eros, philia, agape, storge and a variety of other terms as well. Brotherly or sisterly love is a good thing. It is a wonderful thing to have loving friends. But when it trespasses into the area of eros, sexual sharing, it has violated the Biblical spirit of brotherly or sisterly love, never mind having violated the agape love, the higher spiritual love the NT calls us to over and over again. So many times in our culture people think they are in love, but in fact they are just lonely and in heat. There is a difference between lust and love, and that difference all Christians are called upon to make clear. When you muddy those waters you lose your moral authority to say anything with integrity when it comes to a sexual ethic.
What about the so-called evidence that there is a gay gene, or that people are born gay? In the first place, there is no such evidence as of yet of a gay gene, and even if there was, we would still need to ask whether this might not be an abnormality that we should work to remedy like other birth defects. I am doubtful we shall ever find evidence of a gay gene.
I put more stock in those who say that a gay lifestyle has far more to do with nurture than nature. I say this not only because over 90% of all gay persons live in cities of 300,000 or more where their lifestyle can be practiced and reinforced, but because there are good scientific studies of zygote twins, identical twins that share the very same genetic make up, and grew up in the very same home with the very same parents and the same schooling, and yet one adopted a heterosexual and one a homosexual lifestyle when they came of age. Why is this? If it were genetically predetermined then we would expect either both of these children to be gay or neither of them. But it is not so. So, I do not put much stock in arguments that say “I was born this way”. Even if it is so, we must still ask the ethical question—is it a good thing that you were born this way?
Another red herring that one often finds in the relevant literature is the attempt to lump together the issues of women, slavery, and homosexuality. The logic usually goes like this—‘the Bible says a lot of things we can no longer condone or agree with, such as what it says about slavery or women, and so there is no reason not to think we have outgrown the need to agree with the Bible about homosexuality. We are wiser than they were on these subjects.’ There are several problems with this, not the least of which is thinking we are smarter than the inspired writers of Scripture on key ethical issues. In view of the atrocities perpetrated in modernity against all kinds of persons, including against Jews in the Holocaust, and against the refugees in Darfur and against the unborn, I don’t think we are in any position to be smug or just assume we have our ethical sensibilities more fine tuned than the writers of the Bible. Indeed, I would say just the opposite. They were far more rigorous in keeping their ethical codes than we are and being sensitive to the ethical nuances of positions taken. Never mind, that the church since time immemorial has said that these writers of the Bible were inspired by God to say what they say, unlike our present discussions! That gives them an authority we simply cannot pretend to have.
But the other major thing wrong with this whole approach to the homosexual issue is that there is a clear trajectory of change enunciated in the NT when it comes to the roles of women and when it comes to the abolition of slavery in a Christian context (see Philemon— “no longer as a slave, but as a brother”). There is no such trajectory of change found in the NT when it comes to the prohibition of same sex sexual activity. The NT position is little different from what we find in the OT. And finally, slavery, women, and homosexuality are three very different ethical issues, and they should each be addressed on their own terms as they present us with different ethical problems and issues. They should not be lumped together.
So on St. Valentine’s day, it might be a good thing to recognize that eros is not agape and neither is eros the same as philos. The love God calls us all to is a holy love, whether within the bonds of marriage, as Jesus and Paul define it (which does indeed involve the good gift of sexual sharing), or in the context of singleness. Anything other than fidelity in Biblical marriage or celibacy in singleness falls short of being either holy or love as God designed it for humans to share.
For those wanting more on this heated debate, I would suggest they read Dr. Rob Gagnon’s detailed studies either in his full length book study The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon 2002), or at his website www.robgagnon.net/
Our United Methodist church has agonized over the homosexual question for decades. We have spent millions of dollars on it, and it is entirely unlikely we will all come to a meeting of the minds on this issue. The positions are too entrenched, the battle lines too clearly drawn, the issues too consequential. If we ask the question—How can we go forward, even while we agree to disagree on this issue, I have a few suggestions. Firstly, it is time for the gay and lesbian lobby in our church to stop lobbying for change in our Discipline and praxis. This is unlikely to accomplish anything but more alienation, frustration, and division. Most Methodists do not see same sex sexual sharing, or gay marriage, or gay ordination as a justice issue or an issue of rights. They see these issues as issues of sexual morality. Besides, no one has an inalienable right to be a church member, or be ordained or be married or for that matter be sexually immoral. Ordination and marriage and church membership are privileges not rights, they are blessings not entitlements.
If a person simply cannot abide by either the Bible or the Methodist Discipline on these issues, both of which are rather clear on this matter, then it is time for those persons as persons of integrity to go and join another church say the Episcopal Church, or found one’s own denomination (the new Methodists perhaps). I wish them the best and God’s blessings, but really after 40 years it is time to stop debating this issue anymore. When the 2012 General Conference transpires it is entirely unlikely we will change our positions on these matters. Thereafter it would be good if we had a moratorium on such debate. We need to get on with the primary Gospel mandate of making disciples, new creatures, of all persons, not fighting expensive unprofitable battles amongst ourselves. Our church is dwindling in numbers for a reason—we continue to put the Emphasis on the wrong syllable, and the world is watching, and longing for an alternative to its own malaise, not an endorsement of it. If we want to see what it would look like to change our position on this issue, we need look no further than to the mayhem wrought in the Episcopal Church in the last years as they broke faith and covenant with most Anglicans on the issue of homosexuality. It would result in a disastrous loss of church membership and of good clergy as well.
In closing, I would add this. If a gay or lesbian person is prepared, by the grace of God, to live a chaste life of celibacy in singleness, then of course there is no reason why they should not be members of our church and be ordained as clergy. We all have our besetting sins and flaws, and if we stop ordaining sinners, we will have no one left to ordain! But the call to Christian life, like the call to ordination is a high calling which calls for the highest standards of ethical rectitude. I am reminded of the words of Chaucer who said “if gold rusts, what then will iron do” when he spoke of clergy.
It would be my hope and prayer that we would all re-embrace fidelity in heterosexual marriage and celibacy in singleness as at the heart of our social principles on these matters, since these principles are already in there, and that God will bless us all as we struggle to overcome our sins and shortcomings. We must not make the mistake of either stigmatizing one group of sinners more than others, nor the mistake of baptizing anyone’s sins and calling them good. That sort of balance between justice and mercy, between holiness and love, is what we all are called to, and should strive for.