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.
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.
Yesterday, Kevin DeYoung had a post asking 40 great questions of Christians who support gay marriage. Regardless of your position on that issue, I would hope we can all agree that asking and answering tough questions like DeYoung's is a good exercise all around. To that end, here are 40 questions that I think Christians who affirm the biblical view of marriage (of which I am one) as one man and one woman need to answer some questions themselves. Here's a start:
1. What is marriage for? What's the end goal?
2. What Bible verses, passages, or themes shape your understanding of marriage?
3. A lot of people, including many Jews, Muslims, and non-theists would affirm that marriage is between one man and woman--so what, if anything, makes the Christian view of marriage different from those?
4. What difference does Jesus make for your view of marriage?
5. What does it mean for Christian husbands and wives to live "as if they do not" have spouses, for the sake of the kingdom (1 Cor. 7:29)?
6. If Christ is a picture of the Christian husband, then why has Christian thought and practice often tended toward abusive patriarchy instead of loving and self-giving service?
7. What about our thinking and practice needs to be corrected, or better killed, and then transformed so that Christian husbands can better take up their cross?
8. Since you think that gay Christians are called to a life of celibacy, are you committed to making sure that the church is a genuine family?
9. Since Jesus tells his followers to place their biological families second to his kingdom, do you married Christians give the single Christians in your church a place of priority above your extended biological family?
10. If you have kids, do they know the single Christians in church as well as their aunts and uncles and grandparents?
11. Are single and married Christians alike willing to take Ruth and Naomi kind of vows to show that, in a mobile and changing world, they are committed to long-term, even life-long friendships?
12. If we're not willing to make that commitment to each other, shouldn't we admit that we're refusing Christ's commands for his disciples just as much as those involved in same-sex activity?
13. Since Scripture affirms that singleness is a calling (and a preferable one) that allows one to seek first God's kingdom, how are we actively encouraging young people--gay and straight alike--to pursue that calling?
14. How do our Christian churches, colleges, families, and subcultures hold up singleness as a viable and worthy option?
15. How are single Christians being affirmed in their singleness rather than being seen as a "problem" to be solved by "fixing" them up with someone?
16.How can we actively rid ourselves of the idolization of marriage and the family?
17. If marriage won't persist in the resurrection, how can we affirm its good but relative status in the church today?
18. As you think about the history of the church and the near universal rejection of contraception and sterilization, what do you think that you (assuming you affirm the use of contraception) understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin did not?
19. Since thinkers like these saw a link between same-sex sexual activity and sexual activity that divorced itself from procreation, why do you think so many straight Christians who affirm the latter reject the former? Is this consistent?
20. Is procreation an essential part of the marriage relationship?
21. If so, in what sense?
22. If not, how is the end result of sexual activity between a man and woman that is closed down to procreation different from the end result of same-sex sexual activity?
23. If we're against same-sex relationships because they are 'against nature,' that is, because it expresses an misalignment of our wills with the way God has created us (to be procreative, see above), then how do we address reproductive technologies, especially those that go beyond simply enabling husband and wife to conceive? For example, what does combining one spouse's sperm/egg with the sperm/egg of someone who is outside the marriage say about our view of the integrity of the marriage bond?
24. If you are for using medical technology to assist reproduction, why are you also against using medical technology to assist those individuals who identify as transgender or transsexual? How are these different?
25. While affirming the male-female distinction, are you able to identify the way that our expectations for "gender-appropriate behavior" is often conditioned by sinful cultural constructs?
26. Are you actively working to distinguish between what the Bible does and doesn't say about men and women, husbands and wives, and the way that our sin-affected culture (even sin-affected Christian culture) puts forth ideas about 'manhood' and 'womanhood' that may be more a product of tradition and less a product of sound biblical and theological thinking?
27. Why do you think the Bible supports monogamy, especially when there are plenty examples of polygamy, especially in the Old Testament?
28. Leviticus prohibits same-sex sexual activity. It also prohibits eating shellfish and wearing clothes made of two different kinds of cloth. So why do you still hold to some commands in Leviticus but not others?
29. The New Testament uses specific Greek (not English!) words to talk about same-sex sexual activity. Are you familiar with those words and how they functioned in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century? What were the New Testament authors condemning?
30. Are you willing to consistently speak against all forms of sexual immorality and not make it seem like same-sex sexual activity is somehow a sin above all others?
31. Is having a sexual orientation toward the same sex sinful in and of itself?
32. If so, how is this different from being attracted to (or lusting after) people of the opposite sex?
33. Why do people perceive many Christians to be anti-gay? Are you willing to confess the sins of the church in how it has handled Christians who are attracted to people of the same sex?
34. Do you think it is wise, for the sake of the Gospel, to fight so hard in the political sphere for your views to prevail?
35. If the first Christians lived in the Roman Empire, where their sexual ethic was a distinct minority, why do you think Christians in America fight so hard to have their ethic as the law of the land?
36. Should there be a way for gay couples to ensure their legal connections to one another, including having access to medical insurance, property rights, shared adoptions, and a host of other rights and privileges that recognize the long-term, even life-long, commitments they have made to one another?
37. Why do so many kids grow up in the church simply hearing the "no" of sex rather than learning the richness of why God created humanity as male and female?
38. How do you and your church constantly work against letting proper Christian discipline turn into legalism?
39. Do you make sexual sinners feel as welcome and forgiven as Jesus did, while also preaching the word of life and exhortation to 'go and sin no more'?
40. Can we see in LGBT persons a sign and pointer inherent in all human sexuality--that despite the sinful distortions we all have, our desire is a sign and pointer to the ultimate Beloved, the One alone who can fulfill our deepest longings and desire?
The marriage confusion that persists in Christian circles today is not because we've said or explained too much about marriage and singleness but said far, far too little, as though simply saying "one man and one woman" was a biblical defense of marriage. Much more could be added to these 40 questions, but answering these would be a good start.
In response to the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage, I've seen a number of folks on social media make a comment along the lines of Jonathan Merritt:
I can appreciate the satirical point that Merritt and others are trying to make, but I think comments like these are a great demonstration of how our culture thinks about marriage: as an island of two individuals who independently choose to do what they do (including marriage). It shows great naivete about how our culture and society shapes our thinking. The notion that the law of the land and my neighbors' practices do not shape or affect me is extremely odd, but extremely common to most Americans.
When the law of the land and my neighbors' practice of marriage reinforces that promises and vows don't matter, it's more likely that I'm willing to think and act the same way, buying into a no-fault divorce culture.
When the law of the land and my neighbors' practice of marriage trains me to view children as a mere afterthought to marriage (and certainly not part of the essence of marriage), it's more likely that I'll see having and raising children as one option among the smorgasbord of life choices with which I'm faced. I might even tend to see my childrens' existence (or lack thereof) as something that is ultimately geared toward making me happy and fulfilled.
When the law of the land and my neighbors' practice of marriage encourages me to see marriage as an avenue of individual self-expression and self-growth, to be abandoned if my spouse fails to play a role in that process, it's more likely that I'm willing to think and act the same way.
The atheist W. K. Clifford summarizes well the point that none of us is an independent thinker or actor:
"And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handed on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live....
[N]o belief held by one man, however seemingly trivial the belief, and however obscure the believer, is ever actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of mankind."
In the end, the kind of radical individualism expressed in the sentiment "my straight marriage can't be affected by anyone else's view or practice of marriage" is, ironically, one of the key indicators of an individualism that can't help but corrode the institution of marriage. Please note: I am not saying gay marriage is going to cause the erosion of Christian marriages. I am saying that the widespread cultural acceptance of gay marriage is a symptom of how our culture already thinks about and practices marriage. Thus, rather than congratulating ourselves for not affirming gay marriage, Christians who affirm Scripture's authority need to subject their own views and practices of marriage to sharper scrutiny. In a world that sees each individual as sole captain in a world of their own making, Christians ought to be humble enough to recognize that there is nothing we have not received--including our views and practices of marriage--from somewhere. The question is: where?
1. Their straight orientation will most often be a source of life-long temptation and struggle.
2. Straight people have been told that their sinful lust is just a normal part of human sexuality.
It's not. Humans have been created by God as sexual beings. But proper sexual desire is not the same as sinful lust that uses another person as a means to the end of pleasing oneself. Lust is a problem across the board. Straight lust does not somehow have a privileged standing with God because it's straight.
If the statistics are correct, around 2% of the American population identifies as gay or lesbian. Quantitatively, then, we should expect far more problems with straight people lusting than gay people lusting. It would be good if Christians kept that 98%/2% balance when they're highlighting sexual sin. I realize that questions about same-sex relationships are going to dominate the landscape right now, but we dare not give the perception that people sinning with the same sex is qualitatively different than people sinning with the opposite sex.
3. Straight people have been told that they have to have romantic and sexual relationships to be fulfilled as people.
Not true, at least according to 1 Corinthians 7. Although it's all over our culture, nowhere does Scripture say that one must be married or have a significant other to find fulfillment. Scripture does assume, I think, that many people will be married and it speaks highly of the value of marriage as an icon of Christ and the church. But it nowhere assumes that it is necessary as an essential part of the good life.
So we cannot affirm the common belief among straight people that romance and marriage are better than the single, celibate life. We must affirm, however, that community is necessary for the good life. And the church itself is called to be that community for everyone, married or single.
4. Straight people are constantly bombarded with images and stories of unbiblical practices of straight sexuality.
Take, for example, Modern Family. I'm not talking about Cam and Mitchell; I'm thinking Jay and Gloria. From a biblical perspective, Jay's divorce (prior to the timeline of the show) is, as far as I can tell, unbiblical. There were differences, I suppose, and he and his wife split. Unfortunately, no-fault divorce is to be expected among pagans but should not be practiced by Christians. Too many straight Christians, however, wring their hands over the gay marriage portrayed on the show without raising questions about the just-as-problematic straight marriage.
This is just one example. From magazine covers emphasizing lust, promiscuity, and sex as nothing more than technique to TV to movies, straight people are constantly and consistently being sold images and stories that are contrary to biblical teaching. The default view and practice of straight people in our culture--including straight Christians--is likely going to be profoundly unbiblical because we are so saturated with images and stories that form and shape us. So we dare not simply affirm the assumptions that straight people bring with them to the church.
5. Straight people have been told by the church that their sexuality is mostly good but just needs tweaking.
That's not true. I think our churches need to be clear: we will welcome straight people into our congregations, but not without recognizing that their sexual orientation makes them susceptible to a whole host of sins. Although Christian marriage is a possibility for straight people, we need to be clear that there's nothing 'natural' about it. It is possible only by the supernatural grace and strength of the Holy Spirit who conforms us to the image of Christ, so that we may love and serve one another as we ought. We therefore cannot simply affirm straightness as inherently good. Instead, we must call straight Christians to let their sexuality die and be resurrected in light of Christ.
First, Christian teaching is that celibacy is a requirement for all Christians unless they are called to marriage. There's no point (senior year at Bible College?) that all Christians must declare henceforth whether they will pursue life-long celibacy or life-long marriage. So even saying that it must be "freely chosen" isn't clear. Unless you're Roman Catholic and taking a vow of celibacy as you enter a religious order, my guess is that the celibacy vs. marriage question is worked out within the limits and contingencies of everyday life. But unless one is being called to marriage (as discerned through life circumstances), celibacy should be understood to be the default position.
Second, Vines' position reflects the assumption that only something that we "freely choose" can be authentic, real, and possible. But what about the celibate Christian who lives their whole life open to marriage, perhaps even desirous of marriage, but who wholeheartedly embraces their part in the family of God as a celibate person? I imagine there are a good many single, celibate Christians who would resent being told that "real" celibacy is only for those who freely choose it, over against those who might choose marriage if they were presented with the right person at the right time. Are there two classes of celibacy? Those who freely choose it at some point along the line and those who embrace it as God's calling even if they may prefer marriage, given the choice?
One might even think about this "freely chosen" criteria in relationship to marriage as well. A good many people--perhaps even the majority of pre-modern Christians--do not simply "freely choose" to get married to whom they want, when they want, for reasons they want. From arranged marriages to marriages based more on economic survival than romantic inclinations, one could easily argue that personal choice or preference plays a very minimal role in these marriages. This may still be the case for Christian marriages in many cultures beyond the individualistic and industrialized West. And yet, those marriages can be good, true marriages that are icons of Christ and the church. The question is not whether maximal personal freedom was exercised in 'choosing' this path, but the extent to which the persons embrace their part in in a way that points to Christ.
Many Christians unfortunately see celibate Christians as somehow second-class because they are not married. That's wrong and unbiblical. So it's strange, but perhaps not unexpected, to see the pro-gay marriage movement reinforcing the popular but unbiblical marriage-over-singleness thinking.
It's worth remembering that we exalt as Lord a single, celibate Jewish rabbi who prayed, "Not my will, but Yours be done," reminding us that the question is less about what we freely choose and more about who we will freely obey.
Here are two mistakes Christians make when interpreting what the Bible says about human sexuality, in particular in the debate about same-sex sexual relationships.
First mistake: assume our culturally-specific words and concepts map directly onto the Bible
The phrase "identity mapping" is used by Roy Ciampa to describe what happens when contemporary English readers "map" an English word and all its connotations onto a word used in Scripture. For example, when Paul talks about "slaves," what do contemporary readers think of? If you're American, you likely think of slavery as it existed in the antebellum South. I once heard Doug Moo make a similar point by asking how many in the American context think of a white person when they hear the word "slave." Ciampa points out that the term "homosexual" is a relatively recent English word that has been used in English translations of the Bible, but does not exactly map onto the Greek terms used in Scripture (I've addressed this elsewhere as well). In other words, when we're using terms for people groups--even groups like "husbands" and "wives" --we need to be attentive to how the words and world of Scripture is different than our own. Otherwise, we're likely to have a "naive" view about how the Bible speaks into our context today. So we should NOT simply assume that the text has in mind precisely what WE have in mind when we hear certain words. It is relevant to consider, then, what same-sex relationships looked like in the 1st century and WHY Scripture would speak against them (what James Brownson refers to as the "underlying moral logic" of the text). This exercise is something that all good biblical interpretation should do on any topic, not just questions of human sexuality. This is something that the more conservative side of the same-sex debate needs to acknowledge and be clear about.
But people on the 'progressive' side of this issue engage in this kind of "mapping" as well. For example, when President Carter was in Grand Rapids a few weeks ago, he stated that "Jesus wouldn't discriminate against anyone," a statement that was received with a round of applause. I get what he's trying to say. But this is a classic example of mapping modern identities or concepts back onto the Bible. The concept of "discrimination" is fundamentally linked to modern notions of human rights, especially the rights of the individual. It's anachronistic to say that Jesus either did or didn't discriminate; it would be like asking if he drove a Ford or Chevy. Of course, Christians have to think through how to wisely and pastorally address various issues of rights in the modern world. But we're not helped by naively mapping our concepts of rights and justice onto the Bible's. If by 'social justice,' we mean something like "making sure everyone's individual rights are upheld," we need to acknowledge that's not what the Bible means when it talks about 'justice.' It can't, because the concept of human rights doesn't exist in biblical times.
Second mistake: assume that if our culturally-specific words and concepts don't map directly onto the Bible, then the Bible does not really speak to the issue
Some conclude that unless there is exact one-to-one correspondence between the biblical world and our world, then the Bible has nothing to say on the topic. For example, some commentators argue that monogamous, committed, long-term same-sex relationships didn't exist in ancient Israel or the 1st century Roman world. Nor did the modern concept of sexual orientation. If they are right, the question is precisely what impact this observation should have on our biblical interpretation. With a text like Romans 1, some will note that Paul's use of the term 'natural' is connected partially to procreation, but also partially to gender roles in sexual intercourse and to issues of honor and shame woven into ancient patriarchal culture. So some will argue that unless we bring ALL of these aspects forward into our time, then we shouldn't bring ANY of them forward into our time. Or others will say, more simplistically, that because there's neither monogamous, committed, long-term same-sex relationships nor the concept of sexual orientation in Bible times, then the Bible doesn't speak one way or the other to the issue.
There are a couple reasons that thinking is flawed.
First, this doesn't follow the pattern within the Bible itself. Take the concept of human sexuality. In Leviticus, human sexuality is not only a moral issue but also tied to the ceremonial practices of purity and impurity. The Jewish writers of the New Testament assume that human sexuality is indeed a moral issue even though it is no longer tied to the ceremonial purity laws of the Old Testament. In other words, bringing SOME aspect of the Old Testament text forward doesn't require bringing ALL aspects of the Old Testament text forward. Indeed, this is why we distinguish between civil, ceremonial, and moral law in the Old Testament: as the story of Scripture unfolds, it is clear that some elements of the law are universal and transcultural, whereas others are not.
Second, thinking about other examples helps us to recognize the complexity of biblical interpretation. In many cases, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between our moral, cultural issues and their moral, cultural issues. Nuclear war didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on the issue of nuclear war? Capitalism didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on the issue of capitalism? The idea of social justice--conceived especially in terms of human rights--didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on the issue of social justice? Egalitarian marriages--where husband and wife are considered equal in terms of being, function, personhood, and legal standing--didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on marriage?
Here's the kicker: most Christians who hold that Scripture prohibits same-sex sexual relationships and most Christians who hold that Scripture gives us good reason to advocate for social justice are using a complex path of interpretation to get there. I'm increasingly convinced that the biggest issue in numerous debates (including dialogue surrounding same-sex relationships) is not that we fail at the practice of biblical interpretation; rather, we are not very good at explaining to others and to ourselves the principles that do (and should) guide our biblical interpretation.
So, on all these issues, how do we interpret the Bible? For starters, we...
1. Pay attention to the historical-cultural context of Scripture to understand the communication of the biblical authors within the context of Scripture.
2. Pay attention to the literary genre of the text.
3. Pay attention to where this text falls within the unfolding drama of redemptive history.
4. Interpret Scripture with Scripture. Whether Leviticus, Revelation, or anything else, we interpret these texts within the entire canonical context so that we see similarities and differences throughout the entirety of Scripture.
5. Pay attention to the surrounding context so that we don't pull verses or paragraphs out of context.
Once we've done our best to put on the ears of the original audience and examined the totality of Scripture, then we're prepared to think through how the message originally written to a different audience is still for us today. My point here is not to solve all issues relating to the complex question of same-sex relationships. But we need to avoid (a) thinking that our words, concepts, culture, and circumstances map directly on to the world of Bible times, and (b) thinking that if our words, concepts, culture, and circumstances DON'T map EXACTLY on to the world of Bible times, then those texts are irrelevant to contemporary discussions.
I'm working on an upcoming piece for ThinkChristian on Protestants and contraception. This post is a little heavier and more philosophical and theological than my ThinkChristian piece will be, but I wanted to put this out there as well.
In the Introduction to Pope John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, I came across a passage that helped me understand why John Paul II's teaching on contraception makes sense to me: I have read a lot of Wendell Berry. Berry is well-known for his attacks on some fundamental tenets of modern thought and life, including the great divorce between body and soul/mind. This divorce sees "nature" (including the body) as something to be controlled and mastered to whatever ends we want. One of the root causes of much of our woes--environmental, economic, social, and cultural--comes from splitting the self into mere nature (the body) and freedom (the mind/soul). Part of the solution, Berry argues, is a more holistic view of the self: the self as body-soul unity. A human being is not two different things (body and soul) smashed together in one person, but one thing: a body/soul unity (which, by the way, means that Berry is much closer to the anthropology of Aristotle and Aquinas than of most moderns).
Here are some insightful excerpts from Michael Waldstein's Introduction to John Paul II's Man and Woman (which illustrate, I might add, the deep connections between Berry's work and Roman Catholic sexual ethics):
"This agreement [on the central, dividing issue] between the two sides, those who opt for contraception and those who reject it, is striking. There is agreement that the Baconian project of technological mastery over nature lies at the heart of the issue of contraception. The manner in which the Catholic advocates of contraception see the nature of sexuality seems to be formed precisely by the way of seeing nature that emerge from the scientific-technological project..."
Waldstein goes on to quote James Gaffney, who expresses his opposition to the Catholic teaching on contraception this way:
"It is certainly true that for a great many people who take morality very seriously the mere description of a bit of human behavior as, say, 'sexual intercourse with the use of a condom' is not morally significant; the statement, of itself, communicates nothing to elicit moral blame, moral praise, or even moral interest...It is alternately funny and sad that an official doctrine of the Catholic church holds that anything identifiable as 'contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile' can be denounced as 'intrinsically evil' and 'gravely disordered' behavior without knowing anything at all about the motives or results of these practices in individual case."
Waldstein's commentary on this is helpful:
"This text expresses the main issue particularly well in the dismissive formulation, 'the mere description of a bit of human behavior as, says, 'sexual intercourse with the use of a condom...communicates nothing to elicit moral blame, moral praise, or even moral interest.' Sex appears in this statement, and particularly in its dismissive tone, as it does in Kant, namely, as a process that runs its course outside the realm of the person and of meaning. It is only when further motives of the person and results considered by the person enter that the biological process takes on moral interest. The point of the view of the author of this attack on John Paul II is hardly surprising. It is the default point of view of any person raised as a child and high school student in the twentieth century. No special effort is needed to breathe in the air of Cartesian dualism...
"In contrast to the dominant mentality, John Paul II sustains Humanae Vitae to proclaim the good news--and it is indeed good news--that the human person 'also is a body'--not merely "has" a body, but is a body...The meaning of the human body as experienced in sexual intercourse is deeply personal. The body, endowed with its own rich intrinsic meaning, speaks the language of self-gift and fruitfulness, whether the person intends it or not, because the person "is a body." The body is not outside the person. Self-gift and fruitfulness are rooted in the very nature of the body, and therefore in the very nature of the person, because the person 'is a body.'"
Waldstein then goes on to quote John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, where we see further critique of the body-mind or nature-freedom split that is so engrained in modern thought and ethics:
"A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear as presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act. Their functions would not be able to constitute reference points for moral decisions, because the finalities of these inclinations would be merely physical goods, called by some 'pre-moral.' To refer to them, in order to find in them rational indications with regard to the order of morality, would be to expose oneself to the accusation of physicalism or biologism.
In this way of thinking, the tension between freedom and a nature conceived of in a reductive way is resolved by a division within man himself.
This moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom. It contradicts the Church's teaching on the unity of the human person, whose rational soul is per se et essentialiter [through itself and essentially] the form of his body. The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole--corpore et anima unus--as a person. These definitions not only point out that the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory. They also remind us that reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties. The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts. The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self."
Waldstein summarizes and concludes this way:
"The purpose of the theology of the body is to defend the body against its alienation from the person in Cartesian rationalism. Put positively, the purpose is to show the divine plan for human spousal love, to show the goodness and beauty of the whole sexual sphere against its cheapening in the 'objective, scientific' way of looking at nature. God's plan and its renewal by Christ, the redeemer, is imprinted deeply within the bodily nature of the person as a pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness. For the person to live sexuality in an authentic manner is to speak spousal love in conformity with this truth of the language of the body."
Apostle Paul wasn't a heterosexual. Neither was David (or Jonathan). Jesus wasn't either. Or Mary Magdalene. Or Lazarus, Mary, or Martha.
Here's the most obvious reason why: the current cultural construct of sexual identity (with it's accompanying categories of 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual') is a recent invention.
This is how Jenell Williams Paris explains it in her book The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are:
"Sexual identity is a Western, nineteenth-century formulation of what it means to be human. It's grounded in a belief that the direction of one's sexual desire is identity-constituting, earning each individual a label (gay, lesbian, straight, etc.) and social role. Perceived as innate and as stemming from inner desire, sexual identity has to be searched out, found, named and expressed in order for each person to be a fully functional and happy adult. Finding our sexual feelings is part of how we come to know ourselves and present ourselves to others.
Heterosexuality is a sexual identity category, and because people believe in it, it has real social and personal impact. It is also an idea that came from somewhere--it's a concept that has a history, albeit a relatively short one. Of all humans who have ever lived, very few have had sexual identities. Defined in a wide variety of ways, social identities related to sex (such as male and female) and gender (such as boy and girl) are common across world cultures. Identity categories based in sexuality (such as heterosexual and homosexual) are much less common. Most cultures that have ever been present on the earth, including biblical ones, didn't have heterosexuals. They didn't have homosexuals either, because heterosexuality requires homosexuality; each makes sense only with reference to the other. Like fraternal twins, they may not look alike, but they shared a common gestation." (p. 41)
A couple pages later, Paris further explains the biblical problem with heterosexuality:
"Heterosexuality is a concept riddled with problems. I'd even call it an abomination. The fact that heterosexuality is a social construction isn't what's problematic. We need identity constructs in order to function...It's even possible to 'Christianize' social constructs...The major problem for Christians with heterosexuality, and sexual identity in general, is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes. No pattern is perfect, but this one isn't even close. And 'Christianizing' sexual identity--whether by affirming or negating the morality of various sexual identities--doesn't help, because it doesn't address the faulty connections that sexual identity categories make between human desire and identity." (p. 43)
Here are a few helpful things I take away from Paris' points.
1. We have to be self-aware about the cultural constructs both of our own time and of past ages. This is why questions like "Is it a sin to be gay?" can be misleading. The very way the question is framed presupposes a cultural construct from our present time. This means that before answering the question, we need to do more work to unpack the assumptions behind the question. The Bible certainly speaks to sexual ethics today, but we have to be aware of how our own categories shape our reading of the Bible and how ancient categories shaped the biblical authors. Christians shouldn't be afraid to engage in this kind of cultural and historical analysis of the past and present.
2. Paris helpfully underscores that we have to analyze cultural constructs themselves. To say that something is a "cultural construct" is not a criticism. Humans are naturally culture-makers, and this includes cultural constructs with respect to gender and sexuality. So the question is not whether we are operating with cultural constructs, but how those cultural constructs are more or less in line with key biblical themes, as Paris points out.
3. Paris' observation cuts both ways in the current debate around same-sex relationships. 1st-century writers like Apostle Paul are not working with the concept of orientation. So some people think that nothing in the Bible speaks about (or against) loving, monogamous same-sex relationships. But those same interpreters often seem to assume that our cultural constructs are somehow timelessly true. Paris helpfully points out that it's one thing to talk about sexual attraction, but another thing altogether to connect our identity to that desire. Before we ask about what the Bible has to say to both gay and straight people, we need to question the underlying assumptions that give us the identity markers "gay" and "straight."
4. All this leads to the real reason I think Paul wouldn't claim to be a heterosexual, as understood in our culture. Our culture thinks sexual identity determines behavior: if I'm straight, that dictates what I should do sexually; if I'm gay, that dictates what I should do sexually. And of course, in a culture where sexual identity reigns supreme, the idea that anyone might be called to celibacy or singleness sounds ridiculous. But in Gal. 3:28, Paul relativizes the cultural constructs surrounding the terms "Jew and Gentile," "male and female," and "slave and free." All three of these terms refer not just to 'natural' differences but to cultural constructs that are identity markers and indicators of how one should behave. With respect to all of these identity markers, Paul says, "It is Christ, not the surrounding culture, who dictates how you are to operate within these roles." Jews eat with Gentiles because of Jesus; husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church; Philemon treats Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not a slave. In the same way, neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality determines how Christians ought to act in their sexual lives. I want to be clear: I don't think Paul would affirm same-sex eroticism of any kind. But he also wouldn't affirm probably about 90% (or more) of our culture's practices with respect to opposite-sex eroticism. All Christians are called to sexual lives of self-sacrifice, discipline, and holiness. All Christians are called to derive their identity from Christ and their ethics from Scripture, not surrounding cultural constructs. To the extent that some Christians have employed sexual identity constructs and used them to look down on or single out those who self-identify as gay, it's a problem. To the extent that some Christians have employed sexual identity constructs and used them to justify sexual activity that Scripture doesn't approve, it's a problem. All this simply means that we have more work to do in "taking every thought captive to Christ." (2 Cor. 10:5)
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.