The clobber verses vs. ‘the only thing that counts’

The clobber verses vs. ‘the only thing that counts’ September 11, 2012

I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:12-14

So, yes, the anti-gay clobber verses are there, in the Bible. Open the Christian scriptures and, if you know where to look, you can find all six of them right there in the pages of the Bible that many Christians, rather unbiblically, call the “Word of God.”

Thus we have to ask two things: First, do these clobber verses mean everything that those who rely on them want them to mean? And, secondly, is there anything in the other 31,000 or so verses of that Bible that might lead us to a different conclusion?

Regarding that first question, the answer is no. Those who wield these six verses as weapons almost never cite them in a way that acknowledges or accounts for their textual or cultural context. We could, yet again, go through them verse-by-verse to rehash all of that, but the clobber-verse enthusiasts have ignored or dismissed every other such discussion, so I don’t see any point in trying to summarize a shelf-full of scholarship here only to have it, yet again, ignored or dismissed.

Instead, I think it’s more helpful to focus on that second question, because this whole argument is nothing new. It quite exactly parallels an argument that forms one of the dominant recurring themes in Paul’s epistles and, indeed, the entire New Testament.

Paul, in particular, dealt extensively with the question of Bible-as-rulebook and found himself embroiled in some very contentious arguments with those who wielded clobber-verses against him, accusing him of violating the authori-tah of scripture. That passage quoted at the top of this post summarizes Paul’s response: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

You may recognize that maneuver. It’s the same duplicitous, weaselly trick I’ve constantly employed here as an explanation for why “love your neighbor as yourself” trumps a half-dozen context-deprived clobber verses. I don’t regard it as duplicitous or weaselly myself, anymore than Paul did, but that’s how it always gets characterized by Team Authoritah — as a dodge, an evasion, a way of “playing fast-and-loose” with the Bible. Paul was quite familiar with that criticism because he was well acquainted with that team.

Actually, Paul was up against a much more formidable incarnation of Team Authoritah. The six-verse case against homosexuality is nowhere near as robust as the massive scriptural case for mandatory circumcision, but this modern reprise of the same clobber-verse argument takes the same form. The contemporary anti-gay argument is just a paler, thinner version of the anti-Gentile argument wielded by Paul’s sparring partners in the early proto-church.

That conflict involved the clear teaching of scripture — much clearer, in that case, and much more prominent. And Paul’s argument directly challenged — directly contradicted that clear teaching.

Then, as today, one side argued the brute authority of scripture and the other side responded with talk of love and essential principles that trumped particular rules, no matter how explicit.

Same argument. Same hermeneutic. Same body part.

The other similarity between that argument and this one, of course, is that both were intensely focused on the same body part. It’s a bit depressing that after nearly 2,000 years, the followers of Jesus are still cycling through the same arguments over rules, love, and the authority of scripture as pertaining most importantly to what must or mustn’t be done to that very same body part.

I’m trying to tread delicately here — more delicately than Paul did, actually, as the first part of that passage from Galatians shows. The apostle eventually got so fed up with all the but-the-Bible-says anti-Gentile arguments that he eventually just snapped and said that. Rules, rules, rules — “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” You want this to be about rules? Well, then, you don’t just get to spotlight the rules for other people’s genitals, if you want to make this about rules than you are “obliged to obey the entire law.” In that case, “Christ will be of no benefit to you” and you “have cut yourselves off from Christ.” Trust me, you do not want this to be about rules.

Oh, and speaking of cutting things off, here’s a suggestion …

One key to Paul’s argument there in Galatians — and the reason he could not have come to any other conclusion than the one he did — can be seen there in his colorful suggestion in Galatians 5:12: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!”

That right there is the huge difference between the argument Paul is making and the argument being made today by the anti-gay Christians conscripting Paul as a forger of clobber verses. “Those who unsettle you,” Paul says. Other translations render that “trouble you,” or “agitate you.” Paul was talking to the very people that the rules clearly taught by scripture demanded to be excluded. Nowadays, anti-gay Christians talk about those same people, but not to them. And that changes everything.

When people are an abstraction, it’s easy to exclude them, or to imagine that some holy text renders them intrinsically in violation of sacrosanct rules. But when you talk to such people, rather than just talking about them, they become real and it becomes impossible to pretend that they are less important than your precious rules.

Paul broke those rules and taught others to break them. How did the apostle respond when confronted with the clobber verses that directly contradicted his teaching? He said such clobber verses do not “count for anything.”

“The only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

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  • I read this to the tune of The Smith’s “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”. Makes it even funnier.

  • guest

    OK…what’s the Bible verse about the kittens?  (A quick Google search isn’t coming up with anything useful.)

  • friendly reader

    @guest, I believe I read somewhere that cats are never mentioned in the Bible
    (though lions are… sad that there aren’t any in the area any
    more), so I’m pretty sure there isn’t one.

  • Amaryllis
  • Mathbard

    Did he not use any symbols, either? They don’t turn on with Caps Lock.

  • Fusina

     It is a joke. The biblical laws regarding clean and unclean things has a lot of things listed, and although cats (and kittens) are not mentioned, they do have a lot of the attributes attributed to unclean animals, which were not to be touched lest one rendered oneself unclean. I tend to fall asleep while trying to get through these sections, which I believe can be found in Leviticus–they are one of the better sleep aids I have tried–so I can’t get any clearer than that. Hope that helps.

  • The Guest That Posts

    Interestingly, the Latin word  “gallus” can mean either “rooster” or “eunuch” (specifically a castrated priest of the goddess Cybele, the Great Mother).

    In fact, I’d be surprised if an ancient-cultures nerd like Fred didn’t know this.

  • I’m not sure, but I think his mind would have been completely blown by the concept of symbols, frankly.  I can’t imagine what he would have made of Function keys.

    Over my objections, my manager actually ended up hiring him as a full-time employee (“Because we can” was the reason given), though thankfully he ended up on a completely different shift from mine, so I never had to deal with him again.

    Some time later the company pretty much eliminated my department entirely, leaving only him behind, as it allowed the company to keep some level of coverage while not paying a lot in the way of salary, as he was a recent hire.

    Sometimes I like imagining the look on his face (as has been described to me) when everyone except him got up to go to the mandatory “you don’t work here anymore” meeting and he realized that he was completely on his own.

  • DStecks

    Well, that pretty conclusively proves that cats do not exist. In all seriousness, I’ve heard arguments like this. Not about cats, obviously, but more esoteric things.

  • Ross Thompson

    And yet, the Bible does mention dragons and unicorns, so they must be real.

  • Robyrt

    I don’t think Paul was talking about the Bible as rulebook in Galatians. He was talking about the Jewish law, and relying on it as a stand-in for “faith working through love.” He is quite comfortable with appealing to authority, declaring the gospel inviolate, etc. but not in tacking an entire other religion onto Christianity.

    What immediately comes to mind here is Acts 15, where James presents a list of things not to do, despite clearly not being a fan of Bible-as-rulebook and agreeing with Paul’s arguments:

    For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that
    you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and
    from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep
    yourselves from these, you will do well.

    Now, these are pretty culturally specific, but they’re still rules.

  • JustoneK

    I nominate this for Best Thread.

  • Mathbard

    I’m boggled by that. How does one program computers without them? IIRC, ( and ) are at least needed to write code. Possibly even :, . None of which can be written without the shift key, unless you have a really unusual keyboard.

  • For me, part of the joke about “Adam and Steve” is that Charles Darwin would definitely agree there, at least biologically. Fish, mebbe; frogs, mebbe; snails, no trouble, but two male primates would have a wee bit of trouble cranking out a few progeny. 
    Darwin, that EEEvul man who created evolution, on the side of Real True Xians? Uh-oh….

  • redsixwing


    Edit: Late to lunch. Crock will have to do.

  • LoneWolf343

     He would probably have more problems with just two parents of a species. The inbreeding would doom it to extinction in a handful of generations.

  • LoneWolf343

     Dragons, only time mentioned that even the literalists will agree is metaphorical; Unicorns; where?

  • Magic_Cracker

    The fundamentalist preacher (and drunkard) father of a childhood friend of mine used to to read the Red Book to his children, a very Bible-looking volume, with the result  being that my friend thought goblins — and elves and hobbitses — were real well into high school.

  • vsm

    The dragons are obviously dinosaurs, and being mentioned in the Bible proves they lived at the same time as humans, making the earth 6000 years old. Checkmate.

  • Ross Thompson

    I’m boggled by that. How does one program computers without them? IIRC, ( and ) are at least needed to write code. Possibly even :, . None of which can be written without the shift key, unless you have a really unusual keyboard.

    That would depend on the language. Maybe he wrote in Shakespeare, or Whitespace

  • Ross Thompson

    Numbers 4:28: God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

    Deuteronomy 33:17: His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns:
    with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth:
    and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of

    Job 39:9-10: Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

    Isaiah 34:7: And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with
    the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust
    made fat with fatness.

    Some of these are references to unicorns as real things that perform actual actions, other are references to them as entities that have measurable attributes, that other things can be compared against.

  •  What was their homoerotic behavior like?

  • DavidCheatham

    @Carl Oscar Isaacson
    I have to wonder what the homo-erotic behavior was that Paul and the writer of Leviticus inveighed against. 

    The thing is, we don’t even _know_ what Paul was talking about. Not only is it not modern homosexuality, it’s likely not even _ancient_ homosexuality. It would be rather hard to be, as ‘homosexuality’ wasn’t any sort of thing. And a lot of people realize this, but think that means ‘They didn’t realize men could be attracted to men and not women’.
    Not really. It’s more like men were allowed, and expected, to penetrate anyone they had control over, and that was part of showing such control. And being on the other end of that demonstrated the lack of control. And this had nothing to do with sexual attraction, which also was a concept, but somewhat secondary to the entire thing of ‘having sex’.

  • TheFaithfulStone

     It’s a picture of a tasty treat.

    You can get some at Chik-fil-a.

    Gobble it right up.

  • AnonymousSam

    Specifically, I was mentioning them in another thread as being untouchable because baby kittens squirm about on their bellies, and Leviticus specifically prohibits touching anything which crawls upon many legs or its belly. In certain translations anyway; most of them actually specify that this only counts for the corpse of such a creature. But that in itself was part of my point, since apparently my damnation or redemption hinge around whether or not the book I’m reading had any nontrivial typos.

  • LoneWolf343

     Huh…so it has. I think my translations might have said “goat” or something.

  • Nicanthiel

    The others that got tossed around in my childhood/adolescence are all variations on the “driving out the gheys!” theme:

    Deuteronomy 23:171 Kings 14:241 Kings 15:121 Kings 22:462 Kings 23:7

    While modern scholars would agree that all those references were actually to cultic practices, the handed-down-from-Jebus! KJV has every single one of those verses translated as “sodomites”

  • Nicanthiel

    Damn. I hate you Disqus, I hate you, Disqus, so very, very much


  • Lunch Meat

    I don’t think Paul was talking about the Bible as rulebook in
    Galatians. He was talking about the Jewish law, and relying on it as a
    stand-in for “faith working through love.” He is quite comfortable with
    appealing to authority, declaring the gospel inviolate, etc. but not in
    tacking an entire other religion onto Christianity.

    What immediately comes to mind here is Acts 15, where James presents a
    list of things not to do, despite clearly not being a fan of
    Bible-as-rulebook and agreeing with Paul’s arguments:

    I have to disagree with you here. For one thing, it’s exegetically fraught to use Luke’s writing to interpret Paul’s, even if Paul was present in the incident being described. It’s noteworthy that it’s James who suggests rules, not Paul. For another thing, that’s not Bible-as-rulebook, that’s careful-theological-discussion-and-wisdom-of-church-leaders as rulebook. For a third, in Galatians Paul doesn’t contrast Jewish law with Christian law, but law with Spirit. Specifically, being controlled/limited by the law with being led/freed by the Spirit.

  • Jenny Islander

    The “unicorn” thing is a mistranslation.  The verses refer to the aurochs, the gigantic, fierce wild ancestor of modern cattle.  By the time the KJV was translated, the aurochs, which used to live in the entire deciduous forest belt of Europe, had been wiped out almost everywhere.  IIRC it was restricted to a few royal and noble hunting preserves far away from England.  The translators of the KJV may not even have heard of them and they probably hadn’t ever seen a picture of one*.  Unicorns, OTOH, were common in religious art.  So it probably seemed logical to the translators of the KJV to choose “unicorn” for the unfamiliar Hebrew word.

    *But you can.  Just look at a Spanish fighting bull.  Now imagine it about 50 percent bigger.  That’s roughly what an aurochs bull looked** like. 

    **The aurochs is extinct, but there have been repeated attempts to “breed back” an animal that looks like the aurochs seen in art, including cave art.  There is a bit of a stinky, greasy aura about the endeavor because some Nazis were into it, with their whole pure-ancient-race thing, plus IIRC Goering wanted to hunt them as part of his fantasies about being a great noble hunter etcetera.

  • vsm

    There’s a similar incident in the first Finnish translation of the Bible, as our lead reformer had no idea what a lion was supposed to be so he translated it as “jalopeura”, meaning “noble reindeer”. Needless to say, the Book of David lost something of its impact.

  • Yep, sexual reproduction exists. This is how many species on earth, including humans, propagate. What this has to do with marriage equality, I have no idea.

  • Tricksterson

    But he could walk across it.  It’s true!  It came to me in a vision!

  • vsm

    …By which I mean Daniel, of course.

  • The interesting thing (and something RTCs hate to even contemplate) is that many species on earth also include homosexual members.  From a survival standpoint, homosexual animals often do something very useful: they adopt orphaned young.  This has been observed many times, particularly with birds, wherein a gay bird couple will take care of a nest of eggs when the mother has died.

    But hey, it’s not like we would want to look upon homosexuality as something natural, right?

  • vsm

    And the less said about the bonobo the better, I’d imagine.

  • Jenny Islander

    In one of the circumpolar languages, the sheep metaphors in the Bible have largely been replaced with scenes of baby seals because no other animal is so helpless, feckless, and vulnerable at those latitudes.

  • PJ Evans

    Snakes can be <a href=""parthenogenetic. Demonstrated by DNA analysis on two definitely related snakes.

  • EllieMurasaki

    For me, part of the joke about “Adam and Steve” is that Charles Darwin would definitely agree there, at least biologically. Fish, mebbe; frogs, mebbe; snails, no trouble, but two male primates would have a wee bit of trouble cranking out a few progeny.

    Darwin, that EEEvul man who created evolution, on the side of Real True Xians? Uh-oh….
    You do know that the lowest the human population has ever been, going by evidence and not storybooks, is four or five digits? (Wiki ‘Toba catastrophe theory’.) And there’s no reason, none whatsoever, to suppose that none of our ancestors circa the genetic bottleneck were bisexual, nor that none of our ancestors then had relations who left no descendants for possible reasons including (but not of course limited to) being gay.

  • hf

    For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements

    Notice anything odd about that?

    The Bible describes a council coming to a political decision and claiming the Holy Spirit supported it. The Bible never once says this was true. To judge from the text, the council was interpreting those visions and signs which pointed towards inclusion. They had no special divine support for the exclusion part. James in fact says explicitly:

    “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

  • You really have nothing better to do than this? I recommend incessant prayer and Bible study.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If the best thing I could think of to do were incessant prayer, or Bible study for any reason other than something I am writing requires checking a Bible reference, then the next thing I need to be doing should looking up mental hospitals because clearly I would need to be checking into one on account of having utterly lost it.

    (I intend to imply absolutely nothing about anyone but me.)

    Anyway, this is fun.

  • Ryan

    Man, I’m not trying to stir the pot here but I think an important distinction needs to be made in the Galatians argument. It isn’t just “rules” or the “law” that was on the table but “The Law” – God’s good and perfect standard set down for the Israelites, fulfilled by Christ. Jesus didn’t destroy, hate or shed contempt on the Law – He lived it perfectly and so contractually fulfilled it to usher in the new covenant or contract built on grace. We as Christians are to respect and admonish the Law, realizing that by God’s grace alone are we saved now through, thank God, NOT the Law but through the blood of His Son. But to disregard the Law as unimportant and evil is to show contempt for the God who gave the Law and to attempt to cast Him in your own image – an image of a God, then, who is not holy and just to the utmost. What was evil in Galatians were the Judeaizers in Galatia, who were trying to convince new believers that their faith wasn’t enough to save them and thus negating the whole point of Christ’s sacrifice by requiring the Law along with Faith.

    That said, then, I find it fallacious to equate your interpretation of the new Testament statutes against homosexuality with the fulfilled in Christ Law of the Old Testament. NT verses about homosexuality, though scant, are stridently clear. There is a compelling understanding to be had of the OT “clobber verses” as perhaps not pertaining entirely to homosexuality as we understand it today – we can perhaps look at the statutes in regard to prohibiting the raping of male captives or look to the very fact that Levitical (plus all other OT Law) law altogether is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ – homosexual clobber verses included. But Romans 1, for an example, clearly delineates that homosexual acts are still not within God’s intention for sexual relations and that in fact such relations, as the chapter points out, are the very passions God surrenders people to when they enthrone and worship another God other than Him:

    Romans 1: 18-32For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.      For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.  For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.      Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them.  For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.      For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.Today, we have began to define our whole personhood and worth merely on the actions of our genitals and base ourselves and our souls on the sexual lusts of our hearts. It very well is true that it is an innate desire in the hearts of some men to lay with men and women with women just as it is in the hearts of some men to lay with women who aren’t their wife or women to burn with lust for men who aren’t their husband. All are natural, innate desires and they are all equally not within God’s design nor are they fully life-giving as God would intend for His children. They are symptoms of a broken and bent heart and it is a great sin in our world today to enthrone the desires of the human heart as ultimate, self-affirming and universal truths when we know from Proverbs that our hearts are deceitful above all things. We serve the creature – ourselves and our wants – and we do not honor the God who created us. We believe that WE are God and whatever we desire is right and good merely because we desire it. We seek to make the God of the Bible in our own image as our errand-boy deity who affirms whatever it is our hearts want, not as the God who lovingly and strongly can and will correct our hearts by His Son and His Spirit. It is perhaps a bitter pill but to make sexuality our God is foolish and unsatisfying, it is not? What is gloriously true is that no one is too far from God and all are welcome in His fold and under His grace. The Church does indeed need to love the “outsider” and the “outcast” much, much more – just as Jesus did. But Jesus did not charm with self-gratifying words or flattery but rather, as He spoke to the adulteress to be stoned – “Go and sin no more”. He both blessed with the labor of His hands and He steadfastly proclaimed the Truth of His Father to all who heard, Pharisee, prostitute and tax collector. So must we. “9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”I write in love and in concern that God’s Word be weighed well and in context on this matter. I am also not an ultimate authority nor am I without error. I just see a dangerously idolatrous bent in our culture that is masquerading as being true to ourselves when in reality is making our selfish desires our God and placing ourselves on the throne only He can sit on and reign rightly.

  • EllieMurasaki

    How about you try that again with acknowledgement that there is a way for the man who lusts for a woman not his wife or the woman for a man not her husband to fulfill that natural desire in keeping with conservative Christian morality, but a woman who lusts for a woman or a man who lusts for a man cannot fulfill this natural desire in keeping with that same morality. Which is to say, someone consumed with heterosexual lust can marry (or could have instead married) the object of that lust, while someone consumed with homosexual lust cannot, not according to conservative Christian morality.

    The problem here is that double standard.

  • Carl Oscar Isaacson

    It seems to have been a social function, a way of introducing the young male into the patriarchal society. The older male courted and loved the beautiful young male. It was not a romance between equals. I wonder if the Pauline objection had something to do with temple prostitution.

  • Well, some people do believe the word was intended to translate to “male temple prostitute,” and some translations actually use that phrase elsewhere in the Bible.