Friday, May 11, 2018

Guidelines for Gender-Liberated Ethics

This is the final post in my blog series on same-gender marriage. For an outline with links to the whole series, click here. The views expressed in this series are my own and do not represent those of my denomination, conference, or local church.

No issue divides progressive and conservative Christians more fundamentally than the debate over same-gender marriage. Conservatives are insistent about preserving a traditional definition of marriage because they want to honor Biblical authority and defend public morality. From their perspective, to affirm same-gender sex in any context when the Bible so clearly condemns it is to make the meaning of Scripture so fluid and flexible that it ceases to have any authority at all. Conservatives are deeply suspicious of progressive attempts to justify same-gender marriage because they view these as a part of a larger project to abandon objective morality altogether. [E1] They view our society as one that is becoming relativistic, in which everyone “does what is right in their own eyes.” [E2] And many of them believe that the traditional institution of marriage is one of the last Jenga pieces that is keeping Western society from collapsing into ethical anarchy. Consequently, for reasons bigger and broader than the issue of same-gender marriage itself, many conservatives feel that they cannot budget on this issue.

Progressives, on the other hand, are concerned about treating people justly and about preserving the good news of the Christian faith. Progressives are painfully aware of the harm that the Church has done in the past by supporting patriarchy, slavery, racism, colonialism, etc. And for most progressives, the parallels between these examples and the present way that the conservative church treats LGBTQ individuals are undeniable. Although progressives often challenge plain and rigid interpretations of Bible, their ultimate goal is not to undermine Biblical authority but to preserve the good news of the Christian message. Progressives feel that this good news gets overshadowed or obscured by fixating on teachings against same-gender sex, and they fight for a more progressive understanding of marriage so that the greater teachings and themes of Scripture will not get lost.

I recognize that the divide between conservative and progressive Christians over this issue is deep, and I do not pretend that I can resolve it by what I have written in this blog series. Nor do I claim to have transcended the debate myself. In one sense, this debate can be reduced to a yes-or-no question, “Can God bless two people of the same gender as they enter into the covenant of marriage?” I answer that question with an unequivocal “yes,” and that means that I have taken a side – the progressive side – in this ethical debate.

However, the way that I understand this issue and the reasons that led me to answer “yes” are different from most progressives: I affirm same-gender marriage on the basis of the gender trajectory of the Bible, not on the basis of our modern understanding of sexual orientation. [E3] And that matters. It influences the way that I talk about these issues, especially when I am in dialogue with other Christians. It gives me a different framework for questions relating to sexual orientation. And it preserves a respect for Biblical authority and public morality, albeit in a different way than many conservatives preserve these concepts. [E4] In this final post, I’ll offer a brief overview of the implications of my gender liberation approach to same-gender marriage for Christian ethics.


The language that we use to talk about ethical issues matter. Unfortunately, both progressives and conservatives have allowed the debate over same-gender marriage to be framed in terms of homosexuality, and so we ask imprecise questions such as, “What does God think about homosexuality?” or “Is homosexuality sinful?” There are many problems with this way of posing the question, but chief among them is the fact that this obscures the key issue at stake: this is primarily a debate about gender norms and only secondarily a debate about sexual behavior. Clarifying this can help us have a discussion about whether same-gender marriage is appropriate without putting a spotlight on the sexual desires of gay people.

In saying this, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that gay people ought to drop their gay identity or to stop mentioning the concerns of the LGBTQ community. For many people, having a gay identity is important not only because it describes their sexual orientation but also because it indicates that they are a part of a class of people who have experienced widespread discrimination in society. I believe that the church should be a space where people can say, “I’m gay,” where we should be able to openly discuss our sexual desires, and where the persecution against the LGBTQ+ society should be condemned. However, when we discuss the Biblical teaching on same-gender sex, we need to remember that the Bible assesses the appropriateness of desire based on ethical norms, not the other way around. Therefore, our attention should be fixed on the gender norms that undergird the Biblical teachings and the way that the Bible treats gender in general.


What are we supposed to do if a teenager says, “I’m gay”? Conservative Christians are inclined to tell that teenager that their sexual feelings are bad and should be avoided. Progressive Christians are inclined to tell that teenager that their sexual feelings are good and should be pursued. From my perspective, both of these responses put way too much pressure on the teenager to understand and master their sexual feelings rather than giving them a more helpful way of understanding and responding to them.

Ok, I’ll backpedal on that a little bit. Because there is still so much stigma around being attracted to people of the same gender, progressives are wise to emphasize to teenagers that it is ok for them to have homosexual desires by saying that these desires are good. [E5] But ultimately, we should teach teenagers – whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual – not to stress so much about finding someone who fulfills their desires. Instead, we should teach them to seek first the kingdom of God.
As a part of this, we should present celibacy as a legitimate option for all teenagers to pursue. But a teen should only be encouraged to pursue celibacy if there is evidence that it is spiritual gift or calling for them. [E6] We should not turn celibacy into a requirement for teens who have sexual urges that they don’t know how to manage. That is an abuse of the gift.

After encouraging teenagers to put their primary focus on learning their spiritual gifts and how they might be called to participate in the reign of God, we should encourage them to be open to the possibility that they will meet someone to whom they are attracted, who shares their values, and who would enhance their ability to contribute to God’s kingdom. At that point, we should tell them their attraction is a blessing from God, and we should encourage them to invest in and enjoy that relationship – regardless of the gender of the person involved. I think this is more helpful than either a conservative approach, which encourages heterosexual marriage early on, or a progressive approach, that encourages people to “figure out” their sexual preferences and orientation. This approach takes the pressure off to find the most fulfilling partner as soon as possible, and it allows space for more marital possibilities that we might not have conceived ourselves. For example, I know a woman who identified as straight for her entire life but ended up falling in love with another woman who shared her values and who has become a partner with her in a flourishing Christian marriage. I also know a man who identified as gay but who ended up in a very healthy Christian marriage with a woman. We should allow space for all of these possibilities within the Christian community.


One of the reasons that the language we use is so important is because it shapes the way we think generally about ethics. When we debate about a specific issue such as same-gender marriage, the vocabulary, metaphors, and framework we use influence the way that we think about ethics in general. For this reason, I am concerned about the way that progressives generally argue for same-gender marriage. We claim that we ought to embrace it in order to be inclusive, non-judgmental, or non-discriminatory. And while I agree that we should include gay couples in our Christian fellowships and that we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, I don’t believe that inclusivity and non-discrimination are absolute Christian principles in and of themselves. There are occasions when Christians need to exclude, to judge, and even to discriminate. For example, if it is discovered that a church leader has sexually abused a church member, we have an obligation to judge the action that has occurred as sinful, exclude the perpetrator from positions of leadership and possibly also fellowship, and be more discriminating in our hiring practices in the future. [E3 – not against the possibility of reconciliation] Despite the broad consensus of intolerance on this particular topic, I do believe that an overemphasis on inclusivity can weaken our ability to name and prevent sin from occurring in the future.

My appeal for same-gender marriage is not based on a general appeal to inclusivity, but on a specific appeal to the gender trajectory in the Bible. Because gender is one of the specific structures that the New Testament overturns, Christians should be free to disregard gender norms. However, this does not mean that Christians are free to disregard all norms. For example, the sexual norms of the Bible still apply, which means that a gender liberation ethic is not slippery slope that leads to an “anything goes” mentality. Instead, it maintains the principle that God calls us to seek sexual fulfillment in the context of covenantal relationships.

All of this ties into our understanding of Biblical authority. Conservatives insist that Christians ought to submit to Biblical authority (which is true), while progressives insist that conservatives do not abide by their own understanding of Biblical authority on other issues (which is also true). Here, I think it is important for churches to reflect on the hermeneutics that they already practice and to embrace a broader (but not weaker) concept of what Biblical authority means. For me, the ultimate authority of Scripture is not found in any one verse but in the story it tells as a whole. In order to discern what that story is, we have to read specific passages very carefully and dialogue with other Spirit-filled Christians, while remembering that it is God who ultimately decides what the Bible means. This is not as black-and-white an approach to Biblical as many of us would like, but it does give the Bible a real authority in the Christian life.

I hope that I have demonstrated how an honest wrestling with Scripture can lead to an affirmation of same-gender marriage. Thanks to all who have dialogued with me – publicly or privately, in agreement or disagreement. I welcome further conversation on this topic because I believe that this is the way that we seek to follow Jesus together, by discerning the meaning of the Biblical story.


End Notes

[E1] This explains why some of the dialogue between conservatives and progressives never goes anywhere. Conservatives place great value in the authority of Scripture as a means of providing moral accountability in each Christian’s life. I have found that conservatives are relatively open to different ways of reading and understanding Scripture, so long as that function of authority is preserved. Many progressive Christians also place a high value on Scripture, and they understand the value of having it as a source of personal moral accountability. However, progressives are aware that the same Scriptures which are designed to provide moral accountability can be weaponized and used as tools of legalistic oppression. (Indeed, the Bible itself gives us examples of this happening, especially with the Pharisees.) 

In order to undermine the harmful use of the Scriptures, the majority of progressive arguments begin by calling into question the clarity or reliability of the Biblical witness. Progressives may appeal to the ambiguity of the Greek words, or some of the textual issues in transmission, or to other passages that Christians have disregarded, etc. The progressive argument usually goes, “Look – you thought you were sure about this and it’s not as clear as you thought. So you have no legitimate basis for making these claims against same-gender sex!” But when conservatives hear this argument, they understand progressives to be saying, “Here are some problems with the Scriptures, and therefore they cannot be trusted at all. Therefore, since Scripture cannot be trusted, all we have left are our own individual preferences to sort out right and wrong.” This, of course, runs in conflict with one of the core “conservative” values.

In my approach, I do bring up some of the issues that other progressive mention such as the ambiguity of Greek words and comparisons with other passages, but all of this is subsumed by an overriding confidence I have in the authority of Scripture (as a whole) and our ability to interpret it in the way that God would like us to interpret it as a religious community. Moreover, the crux of my argument does not find its basis in a distrust in the reliability of Scripture’s teachings about same-gender sex but from a commitment to honor the broader Scriptural testimony about gender. This is the kind of argument that is required for real dialogue to occur in the church – one that understands and seeks to honor the core values of the opposing side, to the extent that such an act is possible.

[E2] At one level, I believe that this conservative assessment of society is accurate. In some ways, we are becoming more relativistic, and there is a legitimate threat that American society could collapse if the values, narratives, and trust that holds us together as a nation breaks down completely. However, I think conservatives are wrong to attribute this philosophically to postmodernism and to blame it politically on the left. Ultimately, the roots of relativism lie in individualism, and both political parties are complicit in pushing it forward. Indeed, the great irony is that Donald Trump is the most relativistic president our country has ever had, and it was conservatives who overwhelmingly voted for him.

[E3] To clarify, I do believe that most people have a sexual orientation, but I don’t think that this fact has much bearing on the moral status of same-gender sex. Having a feeling – whether that is a pain or a desire – or even an orientation does not in and of itself have moral value. However, I do believe that the experience of gay people bears weight on this discussion. When thousands upon thousands of gay Christians say, “I tried to live according to the interpretation that God wants me to desire people of the opposite sex, but that did not produce ‘good fruit,’ in my life,” then this is something we ought to take seriously.

[E4] For many conservatives, the language of inerrancy and/or infallibility is used to express their view of Scripture. This language was invented about a little over century ago in reaction to a liberal tradition of Christianity that did not have much respect for the authority of Scripture. Ultimately, I believe that the conservative instinct to preserve the authority of Scripture is right, but the language they are using is problematic. It is not language that the Bible itself uses, it is not in keeping with the tradition of the church, and it doesn’t even guarantee that people who hold this view will allow the Bible to convict and guide them. (Most conservatives believe that one must understand the “cultural context” to really understand a Scripture, which makes it possible to avoid accepting the literal meaning of about 95% of the Biblical commandments.)

My own understanding of Scripture still maintains the concept that it is authoritative, but it puts that authority in the Bible as a whole, and specifically, in the narrative of salvation. I don’t have time to develop this understanding further in this post, but I believe it more accurately reflects the ways that churches such as the Free Methodist Church and the Mennonite Church currently use Scripture than the language of “infallibility” does.

[E5] More accurately, I don’t think we can judge the goodness or badness of homosexual desires in and of themselves, just like I don’t believe that we can judge the goodness or badness of heterosexual desires in and of themselves. But I certainly believe that homosexual desires can be good, and I think that is the most important point for teenagers who are feeling confused and possibly ashamed at their feelings need to hear.

[E6] The classic discussion of celibacy is in 1 Corinthians 7. The apostle Paul lived a celibate life and found great value in it, because it allowed him to focus all of his intention on serving God. Although he remarked that “he wished all were as I am” in verse 6, he acknowledges in that same verse that celibacy is a spiritual gift, and he goes on to say that it is “better to marry than to burn with passion” in verse 8.

But how do we discern if someone has the gift of celibacy? That is still not clear to me, but here are a few initial thoughts. First, if someone has a strong desire for sexual intimacy with others, that is a pretty good indicator that they probably do not have the gift of celibacy. It is our tendency in the West to assume that everyone has strong sexual desires, but even the LGBTQIA community recognizes that there are “asexual” people, which means that not everyone is driven this way. However, I don’t think the spiritual gift ought to be assessed on the basis of sexual drive alone, but it is a factor.

More likely, it is related to calling. The two most prominent figures who were celibate in the New Testament were Jesus and Paul, and they gave themselves so fully to the people of God that there simply wouldn’t have been much leftover for a spouse or children. For those who feel drawn to that kind of consuming work, which I would call apostleship, they ought to consider the possibility that they should be single. Protestants tend to overlook this because we implicitly make marriage a norm for pastors, and this is to our detriment. I believe, for example, that John Wesley likely had the gift of celibacy, but it was not something that he was seriously encouraged to consider. As a result, one of the only ways in which I look at John Wesley’s life and see moral failure is in the way that he neglected his wife in order to dedicate himself to his ministry.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Weighing Romans 1 in the Broader Witness of Scripture

This is the sixth post in my blog series on same-gender marriage. For an outline with links to the whole series, click here. The views expressed in this series are my own and do not represent those of my denomination, conference, or local church.

In this blog series, I have made a Biblical argument in support of same-gender marriage. Of course, I am not the first person to do this. On the contrary, there are many Christians who have argued for same-gender marriage, and they have done so by appealing to a wide variety of Biblical principles. However, what sets my approach apart from the rest is that I do not argue that Christians need to be more liberal or inclusive in regards to what sexual behaviors we endorse. Instead, I make my case for gay marriage based on the gender trajectory of the Bible, which points to the ideal in which “there is no male and female…in Christ.” I argue that the Bible has a revolutionary vision of gender, one that celebrates our gender difference but rejects the notion that our gender should regulate our behavior. This goes beyond treating males and females as “equals.” It challenges the gender binary itself and the rules that we have set for how “the two genders” should relate to each other, including the “rule” that two people of the same gender cannot marry each other. Indeed, I argue that this rule must be removed, for it clings to an arrangement of society based on gender norms rather than allowing the Spirit to re-arrange society according to the kingdom of God.
That is my argument for same-gender marriage in a nutshell. But if this blog series is to have any integrity, then I must also engage the Biblical argument against same-gender marriage. I’d like to start by observing that the Bible neither approves nor rejects same-gender marriage directly, because gay marriage had not even been imagined as a possibility in the first century. [E1] Consequently, both progressives and conservatives must draw from Biblical principles to make conclusions about whether or not gay marriage should be allowed. While I make my argument for same-gender marriage on the basis of the gender trajectory of the Bible, conservatives argue against gay marriage on the basis of the prohibitions against same-gender sex. So let us turn our attention to those passages now.
There are quite a few references to same-gender sex in the Bible, but only five passages offer a direct moral commentary about it: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. [E2] Out of these five, Romans 1:26-27 stands out as the most important Scripture for the conservative argument. As I have already explained, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are overturned by the New Testament teaching about gender, [E3] and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 only make passing references to homosexual behaviors, which are too brief and ambiguous to form the basis for an argument against same-gender marriage in and of themselves. [E4] However, Romans 1:26-27 offers a direct theological criticism of same-gender sex from a New Testament perspective. Consequently, it deserves to be taken seriously.
Let’s start by explaining the context. In the second half of Romans 1, Paul is describing “the Fall” of the human race from God’s favor, which prompted the need for salvation. However, rather than focusing on the individual acts of Adam and Eve, Paul describes the Fall from the perspective of humanity as a whole. In this re-telling, Paul identifies three successive steps that humanity took that separated us further and further from God. First, we rejected proper worship and exchanged it for improper worship (of idols); second, we rejected proper desire and exchanged it for improper desire; and third, we rejected proper thinking and exchanged it for a debased mind, which opened us up to all kinds of sin. It is in the second step of moving away from proper desire where our passage appears:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with other men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

As you can see, Paul depicts same-gender sex as a deviation from God's will. He argues against it not because it is associated with rape or prostitution, but because it allegedly moves away from God's "natural" design for men and women to be in heterosexual relationships with each other. This fits with the larger themes of the section, and it makes an argument against same-gender sex in and of itself.
            Now, there has been a lot of vigorous scholarly debate around this passage, and progressives have come up with several different arguments to qualify, mitigate, or invalidate Paul’s criticism of same-gender sex. However, for the sake of intellectual integrity, I am compelled to acknowledge that I don't find any of these arguments to be convincing. [E5] I believe that Paul really believed that same-gender sex was wrong. He likely would have taken the conservative position in the debate over same-gender sex today. Moreover, his argument not only prohibits same-gender sex, but it speaks against the larger gender trajectory that I described in my third post. I argued that gender norms were a result of the fall, but in this passage, Paul claims that gender norms are a part of creation, and humanity’s deviation from them is a result of the fall. [E6] Clearly, this poses a challenge to my argument for same-gender marriage.
It’s costly for me to admit this. I wish I could say that the Biblical testimony about same-gender marriage is unanimously favorable, but it is not. Consequently, I understand why many of my conservative friends in the Mennonite and Free Methodist churches oppose it. However, I hope that my Mennonite and Free Methodist friends will match my gesture by acknowledging that they have the exact same problem with Paul when it comes to women in ministry. After all, the Pauline writings prohibit women from serving as leaders in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. These passages do not prohibit women from leading on the basis of historical circumstances, but on the same appeal to gender norms in nature. In 1 Timothy, Paul rejects the idea that patriarchy is a part of the Fall, but instead claims that it was built into creation. He draws this from the idea that God created Adam first, and then Eve. [E7] In 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that “nature itself” teaches that women ought to cover their heads when they pray, as a sign of their submission, and therefore makes a universal rule that women should never be teachers. [E8] Is it a coincidence that two out of the three New Testament condemnations of homosexuality occur in the exact same books that speak against women in leadership? I don’t think so. These arguments draw on the same “complementarian” reasoning that Romans 1 uses, the logic of gender norms. 
So what does this mean? Did we misread the gender trajectory of the Bible? Must we all subscribe to rigid gender roles? Let’s not rush to that conclusion quite yet. Yes, Paul believed that God ordained gender norms, but many other Biblical writers, including Isaiah, Matthew, Luke, and John, believed that God wants to free us from them. In fact, Paul himself gives us some of the most important passages to support the gender trajectory, including Galatians 3:28 [E9]. So, rather than immediately rejecting the gender trajectory on the basis of a few verses, let us acknowledge that there is some tension within the testimony of Scripture on this subject. The question is, how are we supposed to discern God’s will in the midst of this tension?
This is where the “objective tool” of Biblical scholarship ceases to be useful, and we must turn collectively to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As God’s people, we are uniquely equipped to interpret the Scriptures. Following the model of the early church, we ought to begin our interpretation by asking which of these two passages – Romans 1:26-27 or Galatians 3:28 – is closer to the heart of the gospel.
Now, I realize that some of us are very uncomfortable with this way of speaking, which seems to pit one Scripture against another. It almost seems like a rejection of the authority or trustworthiness of the Bible. [E10] But I would argue that this is, in fact, a very Biblical way to discern God’s will. For the Bible itself teaches us that some Scriptures are closer to the heart of the gospel than others. For example, when a lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus didn’t reply, “What do you mean, ‘Which is the greatest?’ God’s word is infallible, so you just keep all of his commandments and stop worrying about which one is ‘the greatest.’” Instead, Jesus picked out two verses from the Bible (i.e. the Older Testament) and identified them as the most important: Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) By giving this answer, Jesus engaged in a kind of practicing of weighing different Biblical teachings in light of the Bible’s overriding message. He concluded that Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 were more important than the other commandments.
And this is not the only place where this type of weighing occurs. Paul does the same thing in the book of Galatians. In this case, he is evaluating the Biblical texts that require God’s people to receive circumcision. He analyzes them based on the categories of law and promise, noting that there are some Scriptures that give us guidance in the mode of law – they seek to regulate our behavior us “because of transgressions” – while there are other Scriptures that give us guidance in the mode of promise – based on God’s ultimate vision for humanity. Paul argues that “the law… does not nullify a promise.” In other words, any passages that try to restrict our behavior in order to preserve some kind of order are overcome by passages that re-direct our behavior according to the new patterns of the kingdom of God. [E11]
When we evaluate the tension between Romans 1 and Galatians 3 over gender in the terms that Paul himself presents, we can see Romans 1 looks back to an old order and seeks to regulate behavior in the mode of law, while Galatians 3 looks forward to a new order and seeks to free us to live in the mode of promise. As a matter of fact, Galatians 3:28 is given to us in this very context! For this reason, I believe that the passages that point toward gender liberation are more central to the gospel than those which hold onto gender norms. In other words, despite the dissenting voice of the Pauline tradition, I believe that the Bible points toward gender liberation.
Now, this still leaves us with the question… what do we do with Romans 1? Do we ignore it? Describe it as sinful? Cut it out of our Bibles? No, none of this will do. Romans 1 is an important part of the written Word of God. Instead, we should consider the possibility that God may want us to understand this text in a way that extends beyond Paul’s intended meaning. Ok, I need to pause, because I am sure that this is setting off conservative alarm bells. Conservatives have a great and understandable concern that if we draw meaning out of these texts other than what their human authors had in mind, then Scripture ceases to have any meaningful authority in our lives. But this is not true. The ancient church (and indeed the Bible itself) frequently used Scriptures in ways that extended beyond their original intent. However, there were limits to their interpretations. They were bound by the ancient principle of “letting Scripture interpret Scripture.” The idea here is that Christians can only “reject” the intended meaning of one passage if it can be justified by a higher commitment to another Scripture, one that is closer to the heart of the gospel. Admittedly, this gives us some freedom from the authority of every single Biblical command, but it keeps us bound to the authority of Scripture as a whole.
So how might we read Romans 1 in light of the broader testimony of Scripture? The progressive church has produced a very powerful interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, even if it does not pass the objective tests of Biblical criticism. [E12] According to this interpretation, humans deviated from God’s will when they exchanged their natural, God-given desires for unnatural ones. Remember, the text says, “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” Surely we can all acknowledge that human desires can spin out of control, and that some sexual behaviors do not reflect God’s will but an excessive indulgence in passion. For heterosexual people, this may mean that they indulge in sexuality that excites them because it goes beyond their natural desires – such as when heterosexual men watch lesbian pornography. But for homosexual people, it is natural for them is to seek relationships with people of the same gender, and so it would not deviate from God’s plan for them to have a sexual relationship in the context of a same-gender marriage.
Admittedly, this is an interpretation that goes beyond Paul’s meaning, but I believe it is one that is in keeping with the testimony of the Bible. Having said that, I also think it’s important to recognize that Paul himself believed in gender norms and to honor his voice as a dissenting opinion to the gender trajectory of Scripture. However, at the end of the day, we can’t debate about this forever. The church must discern the testimony of the Bible as a whole, and I have proposed a way to do that. All of this comes from my conviction that it is not ultimately Paul but the Holy Spirit who determines the meaning of the Word of God.

End Notes

[E1] I am aware that there are a few scholars such as Bernadette Brooten who claim that same-gender marriages did exist in the time of Paul, and I know that there are a few examples from ancient history in which we see pairs of men or sometimes women acting as though they are in a marriage, such as Emperor Elagabalus and his male lover, Hierocles, whom he called a husband. However, although I find Brooten’s argument to be informative, I am remain unconvinced that same-gender marriage was practiced in the Roman world, due to the centrality of patriarchy as a fundamental structure in ancient Rome. Indeed, Elagabalus is a case in point, for if anyone should have had the power to defy social norms and enter a same-gender marriage, it would have been an emperor. However, despite his passion for Hierocles, Elagabalus married and divorced five different women.

[E2] For those who are interested, below is a summary of the other passages that discuss same-gender sex in the Bible, including those passages which use ambiguous language and may or may not be referring to same-gender sex. But in every case, the type of same-gender sexual act that is described is one that both progressive and conservative Christians would condemn. They are…

a. Some interpreters believe that Ham’s transgression against Noah in Genesis 9:18-27 may have been some kind of homosexual violation of his father. They argue that Ham was cursed because of this sexual transgression. First of all, it is not clear what the phrase, “Ham uncovered the nakedness of his father” means, and so this argument is on shaky ground. Second, even if it was a sexual transgression, progressives would insist that the Bible rightfully condemned Ham’s behavior because of its violent and incestuous nature, not because Ham and Noah had the same gender.

b. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-29), the men of those cities demand that the (male) angels who were visiting Lot should come out so that they could rape them. This is rightly portrayed as an egregious act of sin in Genesis, and it becomes a symbol or paradigm for utter corruption in the rest of the Bible. A similar story is told in Judges 19:1-30, which is clearly modeled after Genesis 19, and comparisons to Sodom and Gomorrah are frequently made in the Older and New Testaments to make a point about corruption. However, once again, progressives argue that the Bible rightfully condemns the Sodomites not because Lots visitors were males, but because they intended to commit gang rape.

c. There seem to be several brief references to male prostitutes in the Older Testament in passages such as 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12, and 2 Kings 23:7, but there is not enough context for scholars to be sure what people or behaviors are being referenced. However, even if it can be shown definitely that they refer to male prostitutes who serviced other males, progressives would agree that this should have been banned because it involved prostitution, not because the prostitutes were men.

Whenever same-gender sex does appear in the above cases, it is depicted negatively and is associated with sexually deviant behaviors, such as incest, rape, and prostitution. Some conservatives argue that this association shows that the Bible views same-gender sex as a deviant behavior that ought to be condemned alongside of these other three. But some progressives take the same evidence and make the opposite argument: the fact that the Bible always associates homosexuality with these negative sexual behaviors explains why it is condemned. The Biblical authors did not conceive of covenantal same-gender sexual relationships. If they had, they would likely have supported them.

Neither of these arguments is very strong on its own, so I personally don’t think that these examples contribute positively or negatively to our discernment about same-gender marriage. The only passages that are relevant to that discussion are ones that condemn same-gender sex as such, not in connection with other sexual behaviors that we ought to condemn. That is how I get the “five” I mentioned above: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, and Romans 1:26-27. And actually, when we look more closely at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, it’s likely that these are also closely associated with deviant sexual behaviors and are not directly relevant to our discussion, which only leaves the two from Leviticus and the one from Romans. However, although the remaining three are few in number, they do have great importance, which is why I discuss the Levitical passages in detail in post 2 and Romans 1 in this post.

[E3] Some progressive Christians argue that anything in Leviticus is automatically rejected in the New Testament. I don’t follow that line of reasoning myself. However, I am also deeply suspicious of the various tools that different Christian groups to try to discern which passages from Leviticus should be kept and which should be overturned, whether they are based on a distinction between ceremonial law and moral law or based on ritual purity versus natural protection, etc. Instead, I argue that both Leviticus passages are specifically derived from gender norms, and that gender norms are one of the specific principles that the New Testament overturns in Galatians 3:28.

[E4] Alright, let’s briefly consider 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. They can be considered together because they have a very similar structure, to such a degree that many have concluded that 1 Timothy 1 was modeled after 1 Corinthians 6. They both offer a vice list of sinful behaviors that exclude people from the kingdom of God, and some of same-gender sexual behaviors come up on the list. Here are the key words as they are translated by the NRSV in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”

When you read this passage in English, it is pretty clear what behaviors Paul is condemning. However, the Greek words are fairly difficult to understand, which is why almost every translation of the Bible offers a different rendering of these words.” The Greek words behind “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, and scholars have proposed several different definitions for them. They may be referring to the passive and active partners in a same-gender sexual encounter, or they may be referring to a specific type of same-gender sexual encounter such as prostitution or pederasty, or (less likely) they may not even be referring to same-gender sex at all. The Biblical debate on this topic has been extensive, and I’m not going to try to review it in an end note. But I think most scholars would agree on the following points: Whatever precise meaning these words have, they seem to refer to behavior that is (1) decadent and (2) involves same-gender sexual intimacy. Because (1) and (2) are conflated in the vice lists, these texts do not offer a clear testimony about people of the same gender who have sex only in covenantal relationships.

[E5] I don’t feel compelled to outline and refute the progressive arguments that I don’t agree with, but Harold Miller does a good job of this here.

[E6] This is clear not only from Paul’s use of the words “natural” and “unnatural” but because he uses a very specific word for “men” and “women” in Romans 1:26-27, which I think should be interpreted as male and female. This is the same language that Genesis 1 uses, and so he seems to be interpreting Genesis 1 in such a way as to make gender norms part of creation. There are only two other passages that use this same language in the New Testament: one comes from Jesus in Mark 10/Matthew 19 in his direct quotation of Genesis 1, and the other comes from Galatians 3:28, which argues that the gender norm reading of Genesis 1 has been over come. So, in a deeper way than most people realize, Romans 1:26-27 and Galatians 3:28 are at odds with each other.

[E7] This is in 1 Timothy 2:13. This is a new interpretation of Paul’s that does not reflect the witness of Genesis or the rest of the Bible.

[E8] From 1 Corinthians 11:14, 11:7-9, and 14:33-34

[E9] Most scholars believe that Galatians 3;28 was originally a saying in the early church that Paul quotes, not a saying that Paul himself invented. He quotes it in order to provide support for an argument he is making about Gentile equality. In the larger argument in Galatians, Paul argues that Gentiles should not be forced to regulate their behavior on the basis of their ethnicity. And so he cites the “abolishment saying” in order to make his point, a saying which indicates that Christian behavior should not be determined by our ethnicity, social status, or gender. But in making this point about ethnicity, he does us the service of putting the whole saying in the Biblical record. Like Balaam of Peor, he utters the truth of God against his will.

[E10] Much of this stems from the fact that we have come to associate Biblical authority with concepts such as inerrancy or infallibility. But this is a very modern way of reading the Bible. It reduces the Bible to a set of propositional and/or normative statements and claims that honoring the authority of Scripture means accepting that each and every one of them is true.

But this misses the deeper way in which Scripture is authoritative: it is the story, the narrative, that shapes the way we view God, the world, ourselves, sin, salvation, good and evil. This kind of authority does not stand outside of us as a rule that all of our beliefs must be measured again; it comes from within us, giving substance and structure to our beliefs. We can “disagree” with a particular passage in Scripture while still being shaped by its overriding narrative, and that is what I believe it means to submit to Scriptural authority.

[E11] All too often, we try to read Paul's comments about the law versus the promise in a simplistic way, as though Paul is talking about the Older Testament and its relationship to the New Testament. But Paul is not focused on testaments, but rather on types of teachings in the Bible. After all, both the law and the promise that he references come from the Older Testament, and the New Testament hadn't been compiled yet.

In any case, I believe that law and promise refer to types of Scripture, each of which can be found in both the Older and New Testaments. Paul didn't want Christians to be bound by any kind of legalism, even if it was found in his own writings.

[E12] This is an interpretation that has its roots in Robin Scroggs but has been re-worked and improved by Biblical scholars, such as James Brownson, and Christian teachers, such as Matthew Vines.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Christian Sex Ethics: “Performing Covenant”

This is the fifth post in my blog series on same-gender marriage. For an outline with links to the whole series, click here. The views expressed in this series are my own and do not represent those of my denomination, conference, or local church. 

So far, I have managed to write four posts on the topic of homosexuality without saying much about “sexuality” at all. And there is a reason for that: As I argued in my second post, the Biblical passages that speak against homosexuality do not seek to regulate specific sexual behaviors or desires. Instead, they are concerned about maintaining gender norms: they only seek to regulate who engages in which sexual behaviors based on gender of the participants. However, because the trajectory of Scripture releases us from gender norms, these regulations lose their legitimacy. This opens up the possibility of same-gender marriage. However, it does not release us from all of the Bible’s norms and expectations about sex. Instead, it leaves us with a Christian sexual ethic that applies to heterosexuals and homosexuals equally. [E1] But it presses upon us to consider the question, what is the Christian sexual ethic?

Once again, we find that progressives and conservatives are divided on this subject. Conservatives maintain that Christians should only pursue sexual intimacy in the context of marriage, [E2] while progressive Christians tend to be supportive of several other expressions of sexual intimacy, so long as there is consent between all of the parties involved. [E3] In this case, I believe that conservatives do a better job discerning the teaching of Scripture. For although the Bible offers a “progressive” narrative of gender, it maintains a “conservative ethic” about sex. [E4]

Unfortunately, many progressives have become so distrustful of the Bible that the testimony of Scripture doesn’t hold much weight with them. So in order to make the case for what I understand to be the Christian Sex Ethic, I’ll begin not with Scripture but by engaging one of the most important and intelligent sexuality theorists from the past 50 years: Michel Foucault.

If you have dabbled with philosophy at all, you have probably heard of Foucault before. He is typically identified as one of the major “postmodern philosophers.” [E5] But in a more specific way, his work is relevant to our discussion because it has been very influential on the LGBTQ rights movement. [E6] Bearing this in mind, one might expect Foucault to recite the standard progressive narrative about how conservatives are threatened by sex and therefore seek to repress sexual desire, while progressives recognize that sexual desires are good and that they ought to be explored and celebrated. Instead of doing this, Foucault rejects the idea that we suffer because our sexuality is repressed and that we ought to respond by talking about sex more frequently, openly, and accurately. Instead, he says,

 “One can raise three serious doubts concerning what I shall term the ‘repressive hypothesis.’ First doubt: Is sexual repression truly an established historical fact?... Second doubt: Do the workings of power, and in particular those mechanisms that are brought into play in societies such as ours, really belong primarily to the category of repression? Are prohibition, censorship, and denial truly the forms through which power is exercised in a general way, if not in every society, most certainly in our own?... A third and final doubt: Did the critical discourse that addresses itself to repression come to act as a roadblock to a power mechanism that had operated unchallenged up to that point, or is it not in fact part of the same historical network as the thing it denounces (and doubtless misrepresents) by calling it ‘repression’?” [E7]

I want to call attention to his “second doubt” in the above quote, which asks, “Do the workings of power… really belong to the category of repression?” By asking this question, Foucault reveals to us what he is most interested in understanding: how power works. Indeed, this is a theme that comes up in all of his major works: Foucault is convinced that there are forces at play in our modern society that seek to control us. At one level, this is not new; powerful people have always tried to control the masses. But the “mechanisms” of control are more subtle and pervasive than they have ever been before. Social forces seek to control us through seemingly harmless tools such as architecture, medical research, therapy, and – most of all – through discourse. [E8] If we can be manipulated into talking in a certain way about a specific topic, then this shapes the way in which we think about that topic, and eventually, even how we feel about it and even react to it. Consequently, if we don’t want to be controlled and manipulated by others, we need to think more broadly about the ways in which power works.

Foucault goes on to argue that there have been forces at work in the past few centuries that have been seeking to control us by getting us to talk excessively and in a particular way about sexuality. [E9] This is ironic, because many talk about sexuality in order to be free from the repression we feel by a rigid, controlling sexual morality. However, as Foucault suggests in the above quote, the act of talking about sexuality only puts us further in the power of the forces that are controlling us. What are these forces? Foucault struggles to give a clear answer to this question because he knows that these forces– although cohesive and powerful – are not individual people. [E10] However, Christians have a language for describing these kinds of forces: powers and principalities. [E11]

Like Foucault, the Bible recognizes that there are powers in society that seek to control us. However, unlike Foucault, it insists that the only way to be free from them is to submit ourselves to the power of God. [E12] Doing this not only involves explicit acts of submission, such as pledging our allegiance to God in a conversion prayer, but also by giving ourselves to God in the more subtle and profound patterns of our lives, including and especially by re-forming our sexual patterns in ways that align with God’s vision for society. [E13]

What does that mean? How can our sexual behaviors “align” us with either God or sinister social powers that try to control us? To understand this, let’s not think about some kind of “possession” occurring in a single moment, as though we gain or lose God’s favor in the midst of a sexual act. Instead, let’s think more broadly about the ways in which we pursue sex, and how that pursuit eventually influences our thinking, feeling, and doing. The progressive and conservative ethics that I described above offer two different approaches to ways to pursue sexual fulfillment: the former is modeled on a contract and the latter is modeled on a covenant.

When progressives claim that consent is the primary factor that should shape our sexual pursuits, they may or may not realize it, but they are drawing on a contractual approach to sexual fulfillment. They depict every sexual experience as a contract between two parties, in which both parties must consent for the contract to be valid. I completely support the principle of consent, but what is subtly hidden behind this over-emphasis on consent is the fact that the reason it needs to be considered each and every time is because the “contracts” never extend beyond a single experience. Even long-term couples who abide by this model cannot assume that the contracts they made in the past still hold true. Consent in one transaction doesn’t apply to the next, and both parties are free to end the partnership at any time and for any reason.

This freedom to leave at any point has a certain appeal when you are the receiving party – especially in light of the abusive way in which women are all-too-often bound to sexual relationships. However, there is a negative side as well: it means that the other person can leave at any point and for any reason, and this is something that you be ethically prepared to accept. After all, each sex act in the contractual model not only involves consent but also negotiation: what am I willing to offer to get what I want? And so we must not only be prepared to consent but we must also make ourselves desirable or marketable – which is true of the conservative model as well.

However, the difference is that in the contractual model, I have to recognize the fact that my partner could leave at any time for any reason, and so I have to make myself marketable to a general audience, I have to look to the “market” to learn what the standards are, I am compelled to make myself “sexy.” Consequently, the broad social forces that define and re-define sexiness have a stronger hold on me than they do on someone who is not threatened by the short-term nature of contractual relationships. Some people might protest that I can resist the market impulses if I just decide to “be myself” and “learn what I want.” However, if Foucault is right and our understanding of what we want is shaped by the social discourse, then here too I find myself unwittingly under the control of the powers and principalities of our society. As Foucault writes near the end of his first book: “We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power; on the contrary, one tracks along the course laid out by the general deployment of sexuality.” [E14]

By contrast, the Christian emphasis on marriage – though often used in a legalistic way – can be understood as a covenantal model for pursuing sexual fulfillment. When entering a covenant, you give up some of the freedom of the contractual model – you cannot leave a relationship as soon as it loses its appeal or something better comes along. [E15] But this also makes you less susceptible to the general demands of sexiness, trends of the market, and the need to figure out “who you are and what you want.” [E16] Ultimately, this is because you have decided to value togetherness above personal fulfillment. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have sexual or romantic fulfillment, just as it doesn’t mean that people who follow the contractual model can’t experience togetherness. But the priority matters, not primarily because of the psychological impact it may or may not have on you, but because of the broader social/spiritual patterns to which it subjects you.

After all, this pattern of seeking sexual fulfillment (or giving it up!) in the context of covenant forms coheres with the broader Christian pattern of relating to God. God asks us to let go of the pursuit of our own fulfillment in order to maintain unity and togetherness with Christ, but the Bible promises that we can still experience fulfillment once our priorities are properly ordered. To borrow the language of another seminal gender theorist, we might say that we are performing covenant when we pursue our sexual desires in this way. [E17] These ways of thinking, talking about, and using bodies transform our minds. They shape us at a deep, subtle, and fundamental level.

All of that is really just a primer to what I understand as the Christian sexual ethic. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered, including… How are teenagers supposed to “perform covenant” when we discourage them from thinking about marriage until their 20s at least? How can we “perform covenant” in the context of a dating system that is inherently evaluative and contractual? What do we do when our covenantal partner simply ceases to honor the covenant?  Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I hope that good dialogue emerges around them.

But I hope you come away with two conclusions from this post: First, that there is more at stake spiritually in the Biblical sex ethic than progressive Christians generally recognize. And second, that the Biblical sex ethic is centered on the idea of covenant, not the concept of gender, which means that there is no reason that same-gender couples can’t practice it within their own covenantal commitments.

End Notes

[E1] It also applies equally to bisexuals, asexuals, and people with other sexual orientations (toward human beings). I speak above in the binary frame because that is the context in which the prohibitions emerge.

[E2] This is clearly expressed in the Nashville Statement, Article 2, which is a pretty good representation of conservative Christian sexual ethics.

[E3] This HuffPost article is pretty representative of a progressive Christian sexual ethic: However, there are a number of prominent Christian thinkers who have advocated for monogamous and covenantal gay relationships, including Matthew Vines, James Brownson, and Rob Bell. Although my reasoning differs from theirs slightly, I tend to identify closely with this subset of “affirming Christians.”

[E4] Once again, I feel compelled to confess the inadequacy of the terms “progressive” and “conservative” here. They reflect our own modern divisions and it is not necessarily.

[E5] Describing Foucault as a “philosopher” – even a postmodern one – is somewhat misleading because he doesn’t engage Western philosophy in a direct/classical way. However, it is accurate to identify him as one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century and to think of his work as moving Western thought in a very different direction from the Enlightenment project.

[E6] Broadly speaking, Foucault challenges various Enlightenment concepts by exposing them as historical particularities rather than universal principles. He looks at the contexts in which they arose and looks for the powers that benefited from the emergence of these ideas. The LGBTQ community often adopts this approach when challenging various notions about what is natural, healthy, or divinely ordained. They point to the evidence of sexually ambiguous individuals (which is a move that Foucault himself made), they argue that our modern rules against homosexual behavior were not universal or timeless, and generally speaking, they are more sensitive to social constructions. These all reflect Foucault’s influence. That being said, few of Foucault’s specific insights about sexuality make it into the contemporary discussion. I find that really disappointing, because I think that both progressive and conservative Christians could be challenged by Foucault’s insights, if they understood them.

[E7] I am pulling my quotes from the Robert Hurley translation of The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction by Michel Foucault, which was produced by Random House in 1978. This quote comes from p. 10.

[E8] For an example of architecture, consider the way that aisles are designed in supermarkets, in lines with no natural places to stop, sit, rest, or gather, in order to keep people moving efficiently and maximize the number of business transactions possible. For an example of medical research, consider the psychological handbook DSM-II, which classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Several more examples could be listed, but hopefully this gives the general ideal that power is exerted in modern society in really subtle ways. Discourse is the way in which we talk and think about certain concepts, and for Foucault, this is a primary locus of power. If you can get people to think and talk about homosexuality as a mental disorder, for example, then this sets the frame for the various responses to it and keeps us from even considering the possibility that it might be healthy or normal. (Or at least it did… for a while.)

[E9]  “When one looks back over these last three centuries with their continual transformations… one sees a veritable discursive explosion.” (Foucault 17)

[E10] He has a pretty good grasp about how these social forces emerge from a complex web of relationships within society and yet come together and act as a singular force. Not finding any vocabulary in Western academia that could adequately describe this, he invents a new term himself to describe this force: bio-power. The key quote goes: “If one can apply the term bio-history to the pressures through which the movements of life and the processes of history interfere with one another, one would have to speak of bio-power to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life.” (Foucault 143)

[E11] I introduce the concept of powers and principalities in this older blog post. Western Christians were rediscovering this concept around the same time that Foucault was producing his History of Sexuality series.

[E12] This is the big point where I break from intellectuals such as Michel Foucault or Judith Butler. They seem to be chasing after a “freedom” in which we as individuals are not under the influence of any greater power, even though they must understand that this individualistic notion of freedom cannot exist. For me, the question is not, “How can I be an autonomous being?” but “Which power is beneficent?” and “Under what power can I flourish?” The Bible appeals to this kind of reasoning when it suggests that we must choose between being slaves to sin, the flesh, and/or spiritual forces such as “Mammon,” or slaves to God. Cf. Matthew 6:24, Galatians 5:16-25, Romans 6:12-14.

[E13] Both Foucault and the Bible acknowledge that our sexual behavior patterns have a deep and pervasive influence on us that extends far beyond sex itself. Foucault writes, “Sex was a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species.” (Foucault 146) In the context of sexual ethics, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a prince; therefore glorify God in your body.”

[E14] Foucault 157.

[E15] That being said, there are some legitimate reasons to break a covenant, as even the Bible acknowledges. But they should only be pursued after other options have been exhausted or in cases of abuse.

[E16] I should clarify that being married doesn’t automatically guarantee that you are less susceptible to these forces, because many people who get married in our society today perceive that marriage as more of a privileged contractual relationship than the Biblical model of covenant. They may stay in the relationship because it is too inconvenient to leave or because they feel social pressure to stay married, but they will resent it, and it will not be good for their spiritual life because they are not ultimately functioning in a covenantal context.

[E17] I am referring to Judith Butler. Originally, my post was going to engage both theorists, but because it turned out to be so long and so dense, I felt that I needed to reduce it to one. But to make a brief comment, I think Butler's concept of performativity offers a healthy corrective to Foucault's over-emphasis on discourse.