Every year, Kuyper College has an annual Faculty and Alumni Scholar Day, where faculty and alumni give presentations based on scholarly work they've done. In April, Calvin Theological Journal published an article I wrote entitled, "Hair Length and Human Sexuality: The Underlying Moral Logic of Paul's Appeal to Nature in 1 Corinthians 11:14." You can find the article here or you can watch the video below, which is a summary of key points from the article. I thoroughly enjoyed researching this article, as it brought together several strands of teaching and research interests, including hermeneutics, ancient philosophy, and sexual ethics. And although the question of the morality of hair length for men and women may not be much of an issue in many Christian circles, the question of how to understand "nature" and Paul's use of it in 1 Corinthians 11 and Romans 1 is directly connected to current discussions of same-sex relationships.
One of the things I'm passionate about is biblical interpretation. I want Christians to dig into Scripture and to not only understand what they believe but why they believe it.
I'm also passionate about Christians having good conversations when they disagree about how to interpret the Bible. Rather than just stand in different camps and lob theological grenades at each other, I want people to understand why and how others came to different conclusions. This is not just a matter of nice manners. Rather, fair-mindedness, humility, and love for truth are Christian essentials.
Over the past several years, I've also been drawn to the research area of marriage, family, and sexuality. Needless to say, this is an area where both biblical interpretation and the skill of good dialogue come into play. The denomination I am part of, the Reformed Church in America, has people in it who disagree on how to interpret and apply what the Bible says about same-sex marriage.
To help facilitate discussion and clarity on that particular issue, I've developed a series of twelve short videos and discussion questions that could be used by individuals or groups. You'll find this resource on my website under "The Bible and Human Sexuality" tab above.
The first four videos discuss basics of biblical interpretation and how to think about the task of process of interpreting the Bible. For many Christians, it's something we do all the time, but precisely for that reason is something we just do without always thinking about why we do what we do.The second section of videos walks through an affirming interpretation of Scripture--that Scripture does not in fact prohibit loving, same-sex relationships, while the third section of videos walks through the historic interpretation of Scripture--that marriage is for a man and woman. The final video asks some questions of consistency and coherency of both sides of this discussion as we place our views of same-sex marriage in the context of broader questions about marriage, family, and sexuality.
My hope and prayer is that this resource will further equip Christians as we seek to understand Scripture and God's call on our life today.
It's no secret the god of sports reigns over many realms of our culture, including youth culture. In fact, pastors identified it as a key cause in declining church attendance. In a region of the country that has many Christian schools, it makes me wonder: what makes them Christian? Their beliefs? Their practices?
If the sports schedules of Christian schools demand just as much (maybe more!) time, energy, and effort from high school students on down, then what's the difference between them and our broader sports-obsessed culture? In our words, we may proclaim the priority of God's kingdom, but if the actual practice and liturgy of sports places sports on a higher pedestal than our commitment to the practice and liturgy of the church, it's pretty clear what our Christian schools are teaching. And it's not Christianity.
What does the Heidelberg Catechism say about human sexuality? I’m glad you asked. It addresses human sexuality in the context of the Ten Commandments, specifically the seventh command (questions 108 and 109). Here’s the text, with Scripture references:
Lord's Day 41
Q. What does the seventh commandment teach us?
A. That God condemns all unchastity,1 and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it2 and live decent and chaste lives,3 within or outside of the holy state of marriage.
1 Lev. 18:30; Eph. 5:3-5
2 Jude 22-23
3 1 Cor. 7:1-9; 1 Thess. 4:3-8; Heb. 13:4
Q. Does God, in this commandment, forbid only such scandalous sins as adultery?
A. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and holy. That is why God forbids all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires,1 and whatever may incite someone to them.2
1 Matt. 5:27-29; 1 Cor. 6:18-20; Eph. 5:3-4
2 1 Cor. 15:33; Eph. 5:18
A few observations. First, this isn’t just about adultery. You may have been thinking, “Wow, I’m really glad the Ten Commandments focus on adultery, and not internet porn!” If so, I’ve got bad news. Ye olde Heidelberg follows the pattern of Jesus’ interpretation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount: it’s not only about the sinful act but about the sinful heart. So, for example, “thou shalt not murder” is about the sinful root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness.
Furthermore, the Heidelberg employs a rhetorical tool called synecdoche. (I know what you’re thinking—isn’t that in New York? No, that’s Schenectady). The idea is that a part represents the whole. Again, the command against murder is instructive. The Heidelberg declares that “thou shalt not murder” not only prohibits murder but it means that “I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor—not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds—and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge.” (Q&A 105) Yeah, just when you were thinking, “Hey, I haven’t murdered anybody today. I’m good,” the Heidelberg comes along and says that belittling someone in my thoughts violates the command not to murder? Crap.
Finally, the commands are primarily stated in the negative—“thou shalt not.” But the Heidelberg makes it clear that these imply a positive. In other words, not murdering is not enough. In fact, that’s the bare minimum—“I showed Jesus’ love today by not murdering!” Good start, but please tell me you’ve done more. So Q&A 107 reads:
Q. Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?
A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.
It’s not just about refraining from doing evil; we are called to actively do good.
So what does the Heidelberg Catechism say about human sexuality?
Well, it condemns “all unchastity.” What is chastity and unchastity? Chastity is the virtue that enables you to exercise proper control of your sexual appetite. Chastity is not to be confused with celibacy, which is complete abstention from sexual activity. What I appreciate about a focus on chastity is that it gets at the heart of our sexuality. The opposite of chastity is lust (not to be confused with properly ordered sexual desire), which places the self at the center of sexual desire. Maybe an example will help.
If you’re married, it’s certainly morally permissible to engage in sexual union with your spouse. But your sexual desire for your spouse could be self-centered and self-focused; that is, I could place my own desire for physical gratification at the top of my priority list (which is not evil in itself but can be if it is made the ultimate goal). I can lust after my own wife, seeing her as just an object and a means to the end goal of my pleasure. That would be morally wrong. That’s different from proper sexual desire. Lust attempts to possess, own, control, or use another for my own selfish ends.
So in condemning “unchastity,” the Heidelberg speaks broadly, condemning “actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires” that are condemned by Scripture. This includes both certain objective acts but also subjective dispositions (like lust). This is why it says that single and married people alike are called to chastity. A legalistic approach to sex focuses solely on the external action—is a person married or not?—whereas this heart-centered approach looks not only on the external action but also at the heart.
But what “unchaste” acts are prohibited, beyond adultery?
Before I address that question, let me just clarify: unchastity is not merely about internal intention, but also about objective actions. In other words, you can't say something like "Well, I really have a self-giving love toward this person I'm committing adultery with." Whatever your internal intentions, the objective act is wrong.
And the biblical references in the Catechism are telling here. The first Scripture reference is to Leviticus 18. Why is this significant? Because Leviticus 18 is a key baseline for biblical sexual ethics. Remember synecdoche? “Adultery” is the part; Leviticus 18 is a whole, more complete list.
Many of the New Testament references listed in the Catechism mention “sexual immorality” (the Greek term is porneia). If you’re familiar with the Bible, you probably realize you hear this term quite a few times (25 in the New Testament). Maybe you haven’t asked the question: what exactly is included in this term? I’m glad you asked. As New Testament scholar Scot McKnight puts it, “when you double-click on the term porneia, it takes you to Leviticus 18.” For first-century Jews, including Jesus and Paul, this is a broad term that refers to all forms of immoral sexual activity, which are most clearly stated and catalogued in Leviticus 18.
So for the early church, Leviticus 18 wasn’t to be discarded. The Jerusalem Council expressly states that Jews and Gentiles alike are to refrain from porneia, in part because the text of Leviticus 17-18 makes clear that the commands contained therein applied to Jew and Gentile alike in the Old Testament as well (Lev. 18:26). In fact, the text of Leviticus 18:24-28 makes clear that God’s judgment on Jew and Gentile alike are linked to the land being defiled through these sexual practices. Another case in point from the New Testament: Paul condemns incest in 1 Cor. 5 because it’s a prime example of porneia as forbidden in Leviticus 18. The Belgic Confession affirms this pattern of hermeneutics of the New Testament here by stating that “we continue to use the witnesses drawn from the law and prophets to confirm us in the gospel and to regulate our lives with full integrity for the glory of God, according to the will of God.” In other words, much in the Old Testament (including the Ten Commandments and the principles behind them) applies to us today.
Although the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t give us a full list like Leviticus 18 or name any specific sexual sin other than adultery, I think it’s reasonable and accurate to say that it intends to condemn not only adultery but other things listed in Leviticus 18 and other Scripture, including incest, rape, sex with prostitutes, and same-sex sexual activity.
So it turns out that, in saying a little bit about sex, the Heidelberg Catechism actually has a lot to say about sex.
Postcript: What does this mean for the Reformed Church in America?
Okay, if you’re not part of the RCA, feel free to ignore this. Part of what’s currently up for debate in our General Synod is a “constitutional” way forward on the issue of human sexuality, specifically same-sex relationships. Here’s what I think is significant: the RCA’s Standards (which are part of the Constitution) include the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism does indeed condemn same-sex sexual activity in question 107 and 108. You could argue that it’s not mentioned specifically. True. Neither is rape or incest. Grand theft auto and insurance fraud are not mentioned under “thou shalt not steal.” So while you could make the claim that they are not specifically named, I think it’s fair to say that the RCA’s constitution does indeed speak to the moral order of human sexuality. If someone introduced a motion to affirm larceny or make a misleading declaration about a presidential candidate, I’d make a similar argument—that doing so would ultimately, at root, go against one of our confessions.
Admittedly, I’m not an RCA polity wonk, so I’m open to feedback here.
But I think this also makes it clear that the divergence of views about how to interpret Scripture and the Standards on this matter should be treated as a confessional issue, not merely a liturgical issue. Or, at the very least, we need to clarify whether our confessions and liturgies may disagree with one another. In my opinion, a motion that would approve a liturgy for same-sex marriages would fly directly in the face of the Heidelberg Catechism. The liturgy would violate the Standards. We could do it, but our constitution would then be inconsistent.
Short answer: yes.
But why is this significant? Because some scholars try to make this case:
1. There were no loving, non-abusive same-sex relationships in New Testament times.
- What relationships there were (so the argument goes), were abusive: master-slave, or older man with younger, teenage boy (pederasty).
2. So when New Testament authors condemn same-sex sexual activity, it's because those relationships were abusive.
3. Therefore, the New Testament does not speak to loving, non-abusive same-sex relationships. As a result, we can affirm loving, non-abusive relationships that involve same-sex sexual activity.
The underlying moral logic to this revisionist argument is: same-sex sexual activity condemned by Scripture is sinful because these relationships are abusive, not because they are two people of the same sex.
This differs from the traditional understanding of these texts, which is: same-sex sexual activity is sinful precisely because it is same-sex sexual activity. It's the objective act and fact that makes it wrong, just as (for example) one could have an adulterous relationship that is loving, mutual, consensual, and non-abusive but still morally wrong.
At the heart of the above argument is the basic historical statement of #1. Is it true? No. Here are some examples of loving, non-abusive, and often lifelong same-sex relationships, ranging from Plato's Greece to the Roman Empire centuries after Jesus:
Here's how scholar Mark D. Smith summarizes the situation: “Whether the same thing is meant by ‘marriage’ in all these cases is unclear, as is also the legal status of such unions, but the existence of some form of homosexual marriages cannot be doubted, and none of them can be termed pederastic in any meaningful sense.” (“Ancient Bisexuality and Romans 1:26-27,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 2 (1996): 237).
Historian Kyle Harper notes we have “extraordinary testimony” to “durable forms of same-sex companionship. In a peaceful and prosperous society, amid a highly urbanized and remarkably interconnected empire where marriage was valorized as an institution of the greatest moral and emotional fulfillment, same-sex pairs openly claimed, and ritually enacted, their own conjugal rights.” (From Shame to Sin, 36).
So why does the myth of #1 persist? I don't know. Revisionists like James Brownson and Matthew Vines don't mention these historians or address their viewpoints head on. I suspect that many modern people, including scholars, have so bought into the myth of enlightenment--that we moderns are so much more morally developed than the ancient world--that we simply ignore the historical data.
What I find interesting is that historians like Louis Crompton (Homosexuality and Civilization), Eva Cantarella (Bisexuality in the Ancient World), and Kyle Harper (From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity) are top-notch historians who consider the argument made by revisionists--that the New Testament condemns same-sex sexual activity because it is abusive--and explicitly reject it. Rather, these historians, whose focus is on understanding the moral logic of those in the Greco-Roman world, argue that the underlying moral logic of the Bible is indeed what Christians have traditionally held: that same-sex sexual activity per se is wrong, not merely when it takes place in abusive relationships.
So can one make the revisionist case? Perhaps. But it can't be rooted in the historically inaccurate idea that all same-sex relationships in the Greco-Roman world were abusive or exploitative. They weren't. Of course, the other option would be to simply acknowledge that the Bible does intend to condemn same-sex sexual activity per se, but we don't want to. That would allow us to be honest with the historical scholarship and honest about what some are doing with the Bible: setting it aside.
James Brownson’s Bible Gender Sexuality is one of the most prominent works that attempts to make a biblical case for affirming same-sex relationships. I've worked through the book several times for a variety of purposes. I greatly respect Dr. Brownson as a theologian and as a fellow member of the Reformed Church in America, and it is in the spirit of respectful dialogue that I want to examine briefly his chapter on how to understand the biblical phrase “one flesh,” which, in my view, makes some problematic assertions about this phrase. I’ll briefly summarize what I see as key moves that Dr. Brownson makes in this chapter and explain why I question some of these moves.
Brownson rightly asserts that the phrase “one flesh” in Genesis 2 is not simply a euphemism for sexual intercourse, but speaks of the “kinship bond”—Brownson’s key phrase here—forged between husband and wife. I agree. Sexual union is the union of two bodies that points to something deeper and greater—the union of two persons, two lives. As Brownson helpfully puts it, “Sexual union is conceived in the Bible as profoundly metaphorical—it points beyond the physical act to the relational connections and intimacy that undergird and surround it” (89). Sex says something, and Brownson rightly asserts that “we cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent” (102).
So far, so good.
But the central focus of this chapter is not sex, but kinship—the lifelong obligations to care for another person and live in a relationship of commitment and care. Thus, in Brownson's view, “one flesh” has little if anything to do with gender complementarity, biological differences of male and female, or procreation; in short, with anything that might suggest that “one flesh” implies that the male-female relationship is exclusively normative. The Bible may largely assume male-female marriages, but there's nothing in the concept of "one flesh" that logically entails it.
However, at a certain point, Brownson recognizes that focusing on a committed kinship bond alone can’t be enough to define marriage. If this were the case, Ruth and Noami’s relationship would certainly qualify, as well as celibate spiritual friendship relationships. If “a committed kinship bond” = “one flesh,” then a man could have a “one flesh” relationship with his sister, grandma, son, or good friend. But clearly Brownson needs and wants “marriage” and “one flesh” to be more specific than a general committed kinship bond. So while he begins the chapter by rightly wanting to avoid “oversexualizing” or “overgenitalizing” the term “one flesh,” he also acknowledges that one-flesh relationships must be connected to sex and genitals (otherwise, we’re back to questioning why I don't have a legitimate one-flesh relationship with my grandma and celibate friends). And this is where things get interesting and, in my reading of Brownson, a bit convoluted.
In order to emphasize the sexual nature of the “one flesh” relationship, Brownson makes recourse to 1 Corinthians 6:16 and Paul’s language of “one flesh” to refer to a man having sex with a female prostitute (107). Paul’s use of “one flesh” here is clearly and overtly referring to sexual intercourse. So, yes, says Brownson, “one flesh” clearly has to do with sex and genitals, not just a committed kinship bond.
But, Brownson asks, why doesn’t Scripture refer to same-sex relationships as “one flesh” relationships? Well, he says, same-sex relationships were “marked by differences in social rank and status, and they were always described as episodic rather than permanent” (107). Furthermore, same-sex relationships were often unilateral and one-sided, with one partner being dominant and the subordinate partner serving the other’s sexual needs. For the sake of summary, note the characteristics again:
I can understand why Brownson makes this strategic move. In this chapter, he’s simply trying to establish that “one flesh” relationships might include same-sex relationships. He imagines an objector saying something like “But the Bible never refers to these relationships—including their sexual component—as ‘one flesh’ relationships!” So Brownson responds in two steps: first, one-flesh relationships are more than just sexual and second, that same-sex relationships in Bible times didn't live up to what the Bible means by "one flesh." To this second point, I imagine him saying something like, “Well, these relationships were abusive in Bible times, so that helps us see why the Bible would never use the term ‘one flesh’ to talk about one-sided, episodic, power- and status-driven relationships!”
Except that’s what Paul just did. In 1 Corinthians 6, the very passage to which Brownson has just appealed earlier in the very same paragraph (107-108). Prostitution clearly involved these characteristics:
What’s the point here? Precisely this: less-than-ideal sexual relationships are not a barrier to biblical authors referring to sexual relationships as “one flesh” relationships. This being the case, Brownson’s main response to the objector noted above loses its force. In the Bible, the concept of "one flesh" is a prescriptive concept--it shows us what should be. The one-flesh sexual union should take place only within the context of the one-flesh lifelong kinship bond. But Paul can also use it as a descriptive concept--simply to describe the nature of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. That objective act still says something (as Brownson agrees) and you shouldn't say with your body what you aren't saying with your whole life. But Brownson's argument depends on treating "one flesh" as a purely prescriptive concept; if it can work merely descriptively to talk about the act of sexual union, regardless of the other factors in play, his argument breaks down.
So, if Brownson’s explanation doesn’t hold up, why don’t the biblical authors refer to same-sex relationships as “one flesh” relationships? One possibility is that two people of the same sex can't actually be "one flesh" in the most basic physical sense. In other words, the biological complementarity of male and female is actually necessary to the concept of "one flesh," and thus to marriage. One can certainly be committed in a life-long kinship bond with someone of the same sex (friendship), but it can't be the specific form of life-long kinship bond that involves sex and genitals.
The historic Christian view of marriage would say something like this: the one-flesh marriage relationship entails the union of a woman and man. It unites their bodies, emotions, lives, selves, and souls. But this communion of persons includes the one-flesh sexual union that requires male-female difference: in the ‘marital act,’ their love can literally become personified in the one flesh of the child produced as a result of their life and love. In other words, the metaphorical meaning of sexual union--the union of two lives, not just two bodies--is built on the literal sexual union of male and female (Brownson's view would want to keep the metaphorical meaning while jettisoning the literal meaning; I want to say that they're distinct but inseparable). The one-flesh sexual union is a sign and seal of the whole-life one-flesh union of the couple, which brings forth, with God’s help, the one flesh of the child. The term ‘one flesh’ is thus a theological concept rich in meaning and one that has a view toward the unitive meaning of sexual union—that it unites husband and wife not just as bodies but as persons—but to the procreative meaning—it is fruitful and participates in the mystery of life.
And here is where Brownson has to avoid or erase the particularities of male-female difference as somehow inherent to the meaning of ‘one flesh.’ He alludes to the fact that our bodies say something and that sexual intercourse says something, but he doesn’t explain what different bodies say. In other words, do two male bodies or two female bodies involved in sexual activity ‘say’ the same thing as a male body and female body involved in sexual union? He does say this: "People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives" (109). He doesn't seem to consider this statement from a different angle: people may be able to say something with the whole of their lives that they cannot say (or should not attempt to say) with their bodies, i.e., sexually. I have life-long, committed kinship bonds with numerous people, but there's only one person with whom it's legitimate for me to have a specifically sexual relationship. Historically, part of the reason that same-sex couples were not treated as married was because it’s literally impossible for them to engage in the ‘marital act,’ the act of sexual union that actually says, with our bodies, that we give ourselves fully, faithfully, freely, and fruitfully to one another. Is this exclusionary and prejudicial? It may be, but it seems as though we here simply come up against the scandal of particularity, the limits of our bodies, and the limits of the givenness of creation (limits and givenness that modernity hates). But for his argument to work, Brownson would have to disagree; for him, male and female bodies may not be identical but they must be fundamentally interchangeable to the meaning of sex, which means in part that children have nothing to do with the meaning of sexual union. Said differently, the historic view affirms that marriage is the peculiar kind of kinship bond aimed at least partially (but essentially) at creating more kin; Brownson’s revisionist position has to say that marriage as kinship bond has nothing to do with procreation, i.e., producing more kin. But that’s another chapter in his book and a post for another time.
In Donald Trump's op-ed piece in USA Today, he says this, "The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind."
As a Christian, I see two problems: first, the assumption we are supposed to respond to enemies "in kind." It would seem that Jesus speaks directly against this "in kind" response in the Sermon on the Mount, noting in fact that our not responding in kind is exactly how we imitate our Father in heaven. Early Christian martyrs won nonbelievers to Christ precisely through their suffering love; this is why they are seen as so different and so attractive. If there are accounts of Christians being tortured and killed who scream out, "All Christians, respond in kind to my torturers and killers!," we have no record of it. Trump's mindset was certainly not presented as an ideal or example in the early centuries of persecution.
A second problem: the assumption that our politically correct culture is rooted in ideological PC rather than in Christian influence on our culture. There are some forms of PC culture that I don't always agree with (including the PC notion you can't end a sentence with a preposition. I march to the beat of my own drum, you grammar ideologues!). But I think many in America, including non-Christians, have a big problem with torture precisely because of Christianity's influence over the centuries. Christians should not be lured into anti-PC rhetoric that blinds them to how their own convictions have shaped our culture. Nor should they allow an anti-PC ideology to cause them to abandon their Christian principles. If doing the Christian thing--refusing to torture--also happens to be the PC thing (or, to be honest, just a basic human rights thing), Christians should do it and be clear about their specifically Christian reason for doing so.
For more on Christians and torture, see my ThinkChristian article: "For Christians, there is no torture debate."
Hey students, ever wonder about your professors' pet peeves? Now you know! You're welcome!
About the blog
My thoughts on how following Jesus calls us to go with the grain of the universe and against the grain of the world. I love the Bible, theology, and philosophy and how they intersect with just about anything else.