The New Testament and Gay Sex

The New Testament and Gay Sex April 13, 2015
Jeff Cook

As stated in our introductory post, my friend Jeff Cook and I are going to have a long dialogue/debate about the New Testament and homosexuality over the next few weeks. In this opening post, Jeff will lay out his position regarding the New Testament prohibitions of same-sex relations.

 

A few years back, a Pew Research poll discovered 79% of white evangelicals thought torturing a suspected terrorist to gain information could be justified while only 30% thought monogamous gay sex was moral. That is, white evangelicals were 3 times more likely to approve of abusing a man to the edge of death than they were of a gay marriage.

And I think I know why.

When thinking about the moral life, many Christians only consider the rules found in the Bible. We like rules. We want clear guidelines to judge ourselves and others. We want to hear laws, follow them, and know that we are good folks. Because there are no biblical passages forbidding torture in the legalese we commonly use, Christians can rationalize using enhanced interrogation techniques (they calm our fears, might keep us safe, and are hopefully used only on bad guys). Conversely, the Bible does have six passages that seem to forbid all forms of gay sex.

But doesn’t it seem strange that many Christians can quickly argue against a committed gay relationship with chapter and verse, yet have difficulty objecting to locking a man in a small box filled with insects? Doesn’t it seem odd that we can criticize faithful, monogamous lesbians, yet in theory endorse chaining a man to a concrete floor until frozen?

I’m not a trained Bible student. I am a philosopher specializing in ethics and religion, and in the debate about human sexuality the arguments pitched by Bible scholars on both sides of the debate seem to misunderstand how the New Testament writers do ethics. Christians commonly trade the New Testament focus on character, the fruit of the Spirit, and a healthy inner life for an ethic focused on rule-following.

(To be technical, apologists from both sides assume “deontology” as the Biblical normative ethic. Deontology judges how moral a person is by how closely his or her actions follow a set of rules. For deontologists rules, and rules alone, tell us what is right and wrong. Because Christians often assume that rules are the way God displays his will for human life, they argue about monogamous same-sex relationships almost exclusively with those six passages in mind.)

This is a huge mistake.

Not only is a commitment to a rule-focused ethic a misstep for thinking about gay sex, it is a horrible way to think about moral living in general. When unveiling the best possible life, the New Testament writers rejected a system of morality focused on rules, and it’s easy to see why. As Jesus showed us, those who follow all the divine commands can at the same time be the worst human beings (Mt 5.20). Jesus described one set of meticulous rule followers as “sons of hell” because they neglected the real source of moral goodness—the life of virtue (Mt 23).

But what of all the divine commands centered on behavior in the New Testament?

Divine commands focused on action can be important, but they are always a means, not an end. Action-focused commands are ladders we climb in order to push them away, for once you become virtuous rules no longer matter. As Paul argued “against [the fruit of the Spirit] there is no law.” (Gal 5). Over and again, the moral life the New Testament prescribes does not target what you do; the early Christians cared first and foremost about who you are. Why? Because there is not one immoral deed we can name that could emerge from someone fully living out the Christian virtues (Mt 7).

Virtues are the building blocks and description of soul health. Virtues are character traits that parallel Christ’s own (love, patience, courage, faithfulness, wisdom, etc). Without virtue we cannot be moral, for “a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Mt 7.18). In all things, the New Testament invites us to reflect the goodness and moral health of God, and God is not good because God follows a set of rules. God is good because of God’s exceptional character (Mt 5:44-48).

So, why think Jesus and the New Testament writers affirm a virtue ethic?

Jesus unveiled his picture of the good life—the proper course and aim of humanity—in the Sermon on the Mount. In that teaching, Jesus focused extensively on the inner qualities of faithfulness, honesty and love, rejecting the inner vices of anger, lust, fear and judgmentalism. The disciplines Christ offered for the changing of our habits—prayer, fasting and generosity—all target the heart (Mt 6.1-18). This is “the narrow gate” and by following Jesus’ teaching one’s core will become like a rock upholding the disciple against all evils. Conversely, those who neglect Jesus’ character-focused ethic will be like homes built on sand destined to crash (Mt 7.24-27). The inner life is essential for it is “from within, out of the heart, that evil proceeds … and pollutes the whole person” (Mk 7:21-23). Yet when one embraces the virtues—specifically love—one will naturally fulfill all that the law and prophets taught and progress much further toward real moral goodness (Mt 5.17, 7.12).

The Epistles build on Jesus’ ethic.

Peter introduced his second letter by telling us God’s Spirit has “given us everything we need to for life and virtue (arête) … that through [the virtues and knowledge of Christ] we may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2Pt 1.3-4). The virtues picture what it looks like for a human being to reflect God. The virtues describe our proper function and are the attributes we exhibit when we are fully sanctified.

So too James said the “wisdom from heaven” launches the moral life inevitably producing good fruit (Js 3.17). James’ ethic reflects the Sermon on the Mount in which he repeats his Brother’s observation that, “grapes do not grow from thorn bushes or figs from thistles” (Mt 7.16; Js 3.12). For both Jesus and James, the source of good moral behaviors matters. They argue that once our insides are healthy, we cannot fail to act morally.

Paul likewise followed Jesus in pushing beyond deontology. At the end of Romans, he argued, “Those who love others have fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder’… and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Why? Because “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13.9-10). Paul categorically said that love, the chief virtue, “never fails” (1Cor 13.8).

Given the New Testament’s claims, all the healthiest action-focused laws we could affirm or create must be met if one lives the life of virtue.

Conversely, Paul said actions that are wondrous yet not inspired by virtue—are “clanging cymbals”, and the person who commits them “gains nothing” and “is nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3). Apparently our actions do not matter if they do not emerge from virtue. Therefore Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rm 12.2); Jesus Christ’s humility and love are our target (Phil 2.5-8). When we aggressively incorporate the virtues of Christ in our lives with fear and trembling, we should expect “God to work within us [first] to will and act [second] in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2.12-13).

In short, the New Testament writers, unpacking and recording the ethic of the Lord Jesus, reject the moral foundation of the deontologists. True moral goodness and the life that is pleasing to God are a matter of virtue, and virtue alone.

So let’s talk about gay sex.

Nothing about monogamous same-sex relationships by necessity contradicts a life of virtue. Physical relationships between same sex individuals may be enjoyed by faithful, courageous, wise, hopeful, loving, grace-filled, self-controlled people. Those who disagree will need to show how committed homosexuality, by its nature, always keeps a person from reflecting Christ or violates some Christian virtue. If they cannot a decisive argument emerges: Because monogamous gay sex does not violate the demands of Christian virtue, monogamous gay sex cannot be the target of the New Testament’s prohibitions when speaking about vicious sexual behavior.

Said another way, if we believe:
(1) The New Testament infallibly displays the good life.
(2) The good life displayed in the New Testament is the virtuous life.
(3) Monogamously committed homosexuality does not violate virtue.

Then it necessarily follows that the New Testament does not prohibit monogamous gay relationships.

Just as some have used the scriptures to advocate slavery, violence, or the silencing of women in church—so too, if virtue is primary and committed homosexuals do not act viciously then it’s a mistake to interpret the passages in Romans, 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians to condemn actions enjoyed by Spirit-filled men and women dedicated to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Friends, virtue has hermeneutical force. Once embraced as the Biblical normative ethic, virtue will do the work of interpretation for us and trump readings, parsings, and word studies that cannot be understood through its lenses.

Now, perhaps you are unconvinced and continue to see the rules as the foundation of moral living. Perhaps you believe divine commands must be followed to the fullest extent of the law. Question: if you took a quick look at the New Testament, which sexual act would you guess requires the most severe remedy and is tied to the harshest punishment?

In my reading, the answer is masturbation. In his teaching on lust, Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Mt 5.30). If the problem continues, Jesus the Great Physician insists masturbators gouge out an eye. For those assuming a rule-focused ethic, following Jesus will require many of their friends, children, parishioners, and perhaps they themselves to break out the cleaver. The divine command could not be more clear.

However, if we affirm virtue as Jesus’ target, then we will interpret the passage differently. Through the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus showing us the futility of rule-focused ethics, for true righteousness remains a matter of the heart. Cutting off your hand will not cleanse you of lust. To be moral, your inner self must change.

Friends, because the virtuous life—not rule-following—is what matters most to God, we ought to interpret the prohibitions against gay sex in a similar, character-focused light. We may rightly read a passage like Romans 1 and say: pederasty, pagan temple prostitution, or using sex to dominate others (arguably what Paul has in the front of his mind when writing about gay sex) are soul-destroying because they cannot arise from love or faithfulness or self-control. But monogamous same-sex relationships are not soul-destroying; faithful, compassionate, Spirit-empowered, Christ-honoring people can enjoy them.

As such, committed same-sex relationships should not be injected into our reading of the New Testament passages outlawing vicious sexual behavior. They simply do not fit.

In my debate with Preston, I will defend two claims: (1) Jesus and the New Testament writers embrace a virtue ethic focused on character and the kind of person you are becoming, rejecting the deontological ethic of the Scribes and Pharisees. And (2) the virtue ethic painted in the New Testament does not prohibit monogamous gay relationships. In fact, monogamous gay relationships may make a Christ-follower better.

On a final note—if you are convinced by the argument above yet find the divine command passages of Romans or Leviticus an obstacles to your communion with God, I would strongly encourage you to read Galatians all the way through and replace the word “Gentiles” with “gay-folk” and replace the words “circumcision” and “the law” with “celibacy” or “becoming straight”. I have found this one of the most spiritually enriching exercises I have done this year.

 

*Jeff Cook lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes (Zondervan 2008), and a pastor of Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. You can connect with him at everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook.

 

Editors Note: This debate is also featured at Patheos Head to Head. For more debates on this and other topics visit our Patheos Head to Head main page.

 

* [PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU COMMENT]

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