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February 14, 2011 by Ben Witherington
It¶s St. Valentine¶s day, a day which once was a holy day, and now has become a holiday. While I could spend some time as I have before on this blog on the subject of who St. Valentine really was, in the wake of the recent provocations by Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan trying to reinvent the wheel in regard the Bible¶s supposedly mixed message on sexual ethics, in particular on the ethics of same sex sexual intercourse, it¶s time to say² enough, is enough. Neither the Bible, nor for that matter, my own Wesleyan heritage can be used to further the sort of agendas Knust and Coogan want to promote. The Bible is not an ink blot which one can read whatever way one pleases on controversial issues such as sexual ethics, and when the pontification involves absurd remarks like, Paul has no sexual ethic (has the author actually read 1 Corinthians 7?), or there can be little doubt that the love that David and Jonathan shared involved eros not just philos, then it is indeed time to say, enough is enough. These are not only not plausible interpretations of key Biblical texts, in light of the highly conservative sexual ethic of honor and shame cultures in the ANE and in particular Jewish culture when it came to such matters, they are not even very possible interpretations of such material. What follows here is an expanded version of a piece I have offered before, with some tune ups in light of the recent salvos by Kunst and Coogan, and in preparation for the next batch of salvos on this subject that the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. ON DEALING WITH EROS IN A SEXUALLY CONFUSED AGE Before speaking about the issue of the day, I need to just say a few things about myself. I have been a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, indeed I am so old that it was the Methodist Episcopal Church when I was born. Rumor has it that my first two words were John Wesley. I personally doubt this, but my point is that this has been my faith tradition my entire life. I have taught at Methodist institutions like High Point University and Duke Divinity School (where I taught the
same sex sexual sharing. and I understand the issues of authority involved in assessing the relative weight of the Bible. and reason in our tradition. Let me be clear that the position proffered to us by David Lull. experience. full time.theology and history of Wesley himself). I have been mentored along the way by luminaries like Albert Outler. pederasty and the like. pornography. neither to the right or to the left. I am also an ordained clergy person in the N. Luther. Anselm said no to same sex sexual sharing of any kind. And I have been a part of this debate about human sexuality. who coined the term quadrilateral if I am not mistaken. We cannot afford to encode multiple points of view on issues like adultery. even if all around More importantly we need to take a us there is a cacophony of conflicting sounds. I have done some teaching of the New Testament at a former Methodist institution known as Vanderbilt Divinity. as did Augustine. all the Wesleys and so on. the final authority on all matters of faith and practice is the Holy Scriptures² in other words the quadrilateral was not and is not an equilateral. . One thing that Outler made ever so clear to me is that he did not want to do or say anything that would compromise the Reformation principle that for any good Protestant worth their salt. nor a configuration of authorities by which µexperience¶ however defined should ever be allowed to trump Scripture in a matter as important as upholding the principles of holiness and entire sanctification that our Wesleyan heritage calls us to. and I know our Methodist ethos well. tradition. conference and I have served six churches along the way. stand that comports both with Scripture and with our Methodist tradition of holiness of heart and life and in no way wavers from it. I quite agree with Richard Hays and many other Methodist exegetes and theologians that the church cannot afford the luxury of offering an ambiguous sexual ethic in an age in which sexual promiscuity and aberration is so rampant and prevalent. including the debate about homosexuality for the some thirty years and more that it has been going on. Tex Sample and others in the United Methodist church is a position that John Wesley himself. and before them all the great theologians and exegetes of the Church rejected. Cranmer. I am not an ivory tower theologian unaware of the pastoral issues and problems that are created by one or another sort of sexual ethic. Francis Asbury himself. Calvin. Bucer. Knox. The Gospel trumpet needs to make a clear sound.C. From a pastoral point of view. Aquinas.
In terms of church tradition. This one flesh union is seen as only appropriate in a context of heterosexual marriage. Firstly. it is simply false to say that Jesus has nothing to say against same sex sexual sharing. We cannot afford in this sexually confused age to turn a blind eye to one sort of sexual sin. I have spent 30 years exegeting the New Testament and the Old Testament and I have now written exegetical commentaries on every book of the New Testament. So far as church tradition including especially our Methodist tradition goes. I will attend briefly to a few key points. So should we. 19. the Bible was to be strictly adhered to. Wesley. and applicable to all. Here he makes clear that he views marriage just as the author of Genesis did²a man shall leave his parents and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. a historian. being the good son of his Puritan mother Susanna that he was. it says no. If you doubt this I would urge you to spend some time reading John Wesley¶s little tracts µThoughts on Celibacy¶ and µThoughts on Marriage¶.1-12. both in the OT and in the NT. It is morally wrong to single out homosexual persons as if they were somehow worse sinners than heterosexual sinners. and excoriate another For them the holiness code of . it rules out extra-marital sexual acts of all sorts as well. There can be no reasonable doubt about this. So would his mother. the notion that the original human being was both male and female. This is absolutely false. There is little room for debate I am afraid that same sex sexual sharing of any sort is seen as sinful in the Bible. I do not say this lightly or flippantly. There is no argument to be made otherwise on this front. This is not about androgyny. and a theologian. I speak as an exegete. He would have affirmed wholeheartedly our current cliché about celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. It involves a poetic story about how woman was created out of a portion of the man. And here it will be worthwhile to remind ourselves that our sexual ethic needs to be broad. Consider for a moment what Jesus says in Mt. Emphatically so. the position which advocates the morality of same sex sexual sharing under certain limited circumstances is a position almost universally and certainly overwhelmingly rejected before the 20th century in western culture. Nothing in the Genesis text even remotely suggests Adam was originally androgynous. The Bible takes all sexual sin equally seriously. This rules out not only homosexual unions. as well as a NT ethicist. But what about the Bible itself? Well the Bible is quite frankly equally clear. believed that sexual intercourse had one primary purpose²procreation to be engaged in monogamous heterosexual marriage only.
all are born with fallen inclinations. He speaks of this in terms of being a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom and the language could hardly be more stark and clear²a eunuch is one who does not engage in intercourse with anyone. This Ps. The proper broad approach to this issue is to say the following² all persons are welcome to come into the church as they are. He offers his disciples two choices: 1) fidelity in heterosexual marriage. This means we must be welcoming of all.sort. You will notice that nothing in these discussions is said about sexual orientation. 7 to those widows who want to And here is where I stress that no form remarry that this is fine ³only in the Lord´. a part of the great mea culpa of King David does indeed say he was conceived in sin.5. say St. It has to be morally evaluated. a grace gift to either remain single as he is. But no persons are welcome to stay as they are. What Jesus means is that it requires a grace gift to either remain celibate in singleness or faithful in marriage. And even if one were to allow that some persons might be born with an inclination towards or attraction to members of their own sex. The phrase ³to whom it has been given´ means to whom God has given them the grace to live this way. That is an entirely modern category. but affirming no one¶s sin²whoever they may be. Nor has this got anything to do with David¶s adultery with Bathsheba² that was much later. same sex or otherwise. Lord. We have no evidence for that. That is the worst sort of hypocrisy and anyone has a right to call us on it. Back to Jesus. 7²he speaks of a charisma. It has to do with David¶s confession that he had sinful inclinations from day one. . 51. Paul says much the same in 1 Cor. Paul stresses in 1 Cor. what an early Jewish theologian such as Jesus or Paul would say to that is that we are all born with an inclination to sin. Jesus presents us with three key points. Augustine. it the glory of God. Homophobia is as much of a sin as any other sort of sin. and not be baptizing anyone¶s sin and calling it good. This is not because his mother was immoral. perhaps especially sexual behavior. But there is a third point Jesus makes²each of these conditions²fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness should be pursued ³as it has been given to them´. does not make it good. of behavior should be engaged in. It¶s one of the reasons Paul says we have all sinned and fallen short of Just because a person is born with this or that sexual inclination At the same time. as do we all. that cannot be done ³in the Lord´ in a way that would be pleasing to the Lord Jesus Christ. We should be equal opportunity exhorters in regard to all sorts of sexual sin. or to be married in the And while we are at it. is not an invention of later Christian tradition. or 2) celibacy in singleness.
at least tolerable. His is more specifically Christian because he is writing to Christians. both Jesus.should be stressed that David is certainly not saying the sexual expression itself is inherently sinful. they are an incomplete or unwhole person. Since we have broached the subject of Paul. but I want to stress that Paul is certainly not enunciating a sexual ethic any different from Jesus¶. Indeed Genesis says it was a good gift from God. while Jesus was speaking to Jews. This double standard Jesus would have nothing to do with²remember the . This needs to change drastically. at least by the Roman patrician class. I will begin with 1 Corinthians because it is an earlier document than Romans. including his Jewish followers. There was also sex with a prostitute (male or female) which was allowable. or sex between a man and a young boy was only one form of homosexual behavior that was condoned. and also sex between consenting male adults. but what the two men say comports not only with each other but with the rather clearly articulated sexual ethic of early Judaism² which is not a surprise. if not fully acceptable. Indeed we have suggested or implied that if a person is not partnered off. and there was without question a sexual double standard in that world. After all. In my own home church in Lexington Kentucky we used to have a Sunday school class called ³Pairs and Spares´²horrible! As if a single person is but a spare tire until they get yoked to another person. Who are we to cast aspersions on it? From a pastoral point of view. it will be well to walk down the Pauline road a bit further. it was a patriarchal culture. one of the very reasons we have so many marriages that are train wrecks in the church is because there is too much social pressure to get married in the church. The new element is that both Jesus and Paul affirm the equal goodness of remaining single for the sake of the kingdom as being married in the Lord. We need to have an adequate theology and ethic of the goodness of chaste singleness. Paul and others modeled such a lifestyle for us. all sorts of homosexual and lesbian behavior was deemed. But we must bear in mind that the opinion shapers in that era were almost exclusively men. whereas in early Judaism the latter is overwhelmingly emphasized. for certain. and some people simple aren¶t grace gifted with the ability to be in a marriage relationship. This is a truth we need to grasp hold of now. A little background is in order. And herein lies a problem with my own church and indeed many Protestant denominations. In the Greco-Roman world. We have done a very poor job in affirming the goodness of chaste singleness in our church. though sex between consenting female adults was usually seen as a degenerate form of behavior. Pederasty.
perhaps even coined originally by Paul. 6. is an echo of the LXX of the Holiness Code which condemns a man who lies with a male as if the latter were a woman. Romans and elsewhere in the NT? So far as I can Why do I see. shall not enter the Kingdom of God. since it takes two to tango. and then Paul lists more specifically some of those he has in mind²adulterers. where is the man caught in adultery? Jesus¶ famous Solomonic pronouncement ³neither do I condemn you. or effeminate. This brings us to the terms malakoi which has as its root sense²soft. like Jesus and Paul. and 2) the terms used suggest not a one time activity. The question then becomes. then he mentions malakoi and arsenokoitai. whether it involves consenting adults or not. would have stood out from the Greco-Roman culture due to their much stricter sexual ethic. say this? Well consider for a moment 1 Cor. A list of those persons who. Early Jews. It¶s a pretty broad list including a variety of types of sin. This list includes first all sexually immoral persons and idolaters (the two broadest terms used²pornoi is the former term covering all sexual sins). what sort of same sex sexual activities are being condemned in 1 Corinthians. the answer is the same one given in general in early Judaism²all forms of same sex sexual sharing. but a persistent course of activity such that one could be rightly characterized as in general sexually immoral or in general a thief and so on. and is used in a sexual context to refer to the person in a homosexual relationship that plays the more female role. It needs to be understood about these vice lists that 1) Paul is addressing those who are Christians already and he is saying that this sort of behavior must stop if they hope to reach the Kingdom goal. The word arsenokoitai literally refers to a male who beds with a man. sexual and otherwise. drunkards. slanderers. Since there are clear echoes of the Holiness Code throughout 1 Cor. coming in the future on earth as in heaven. the greedy. but go and sin no more´ is the sort of balanced ethical rejoinder we would want to strive for in this whole discussion.9-10 which provides us with a rather all encompassing vice list. and swindlers. Few would dispute this fact. 4-7 it is exceedingly likely that this term. the one that mostly allows themselves to be penetrated by the more aggressive partner. then he adds thieves.story of the woman caught in adultery? One should have immediately asked. µMale-bedder¶ or better µmale-copulator¶ is the sense of the term just as this language suggests in Leviticus . if they persist in their current chosen behavior.
And this brings up a very good point. I have no doubt that both Jesus and Paul would be completely opposed to the attempt to reinvent the wheel and redefine marriage to include anything else other than the covenantal . Here is where I reiterate that the NT has nothing to say on the issue of the modern notion of µsexual orientation¶. as we seek to be conformed to the image of Jesus the holy one. our example and our goal. 1. There are of course many kinds of relationships that could be called partnerships. because only they are capable of coupling to the divine end of procreation.26-27 speaks of exchanging natural sexual relationships with unnatural ones. And what the theology of creation enunciated in Genesis and repristinized in the NT says is that God made us male and female for each other. The possibility and need for change is incumbent on all of us. and the assumption throughout the NT is that by God¶s grace one can at a minimum control one¶s sinful inclinations if not be transformed into one who ceases to have such inclinations. Only a male and a female can be a couple. Rom. So the issue is not merely is it µnatural¶. He is both our paradigm and our paragon. if I did not believe in the possibility of changing from a fallen person to a new creature. but rather is it the way God designed nature in the creation before the fall. 10²no temptation has overcome us that is not common to humankind such that with the temptation God can provide an adequate means of escape or overcoming it. If I did not believe that grace could overcome fallen human inclinations and nature. That is entirely forgetting the effects of human fallenness on our affections and emotions and predilections. In other words. There is a consistent reject of same sex sexual activity. I should cease to be in ministry altogether. and by unnatural Paul means against the original creation order design of God. He is perfectly well aware that fallen human beings have all sorts of ungodly or unnatural inclinations. or not. As Paul goes on to say in 1 Cor. What about Romans 1? Here we have the only direct condemnation of lesbian behavior as well as homosexual behavior in the NT. a different ethic is not enunciated in the NT on this issue than is found in Leviticus. It is behavior.and elsewhere. It is not cogent to say ³I am naturally inclined to behave in X manner and therefore this is the way God made me´. but only one kind of relationship the Bible suggests can create a couple² namely a male-female relationship. A theology of creation without an adequate theology of human fallenness becomes an unbiblical theology of creation. Only they are able to share a one flesh union that could potentially create another human life. not inclination that is at issue.
What I know about fallen persons is that they have an infinite capacity for selfjustification. if we are honest. Feelings can be deep and genuine and immoral. That¶s what ethical restraint of sinful inclinations is all about! All of us. Whenever µexperience¶ or µfeelings¶ becomes the ultimate litmus test or measuring rod in a fallen person¶s life. especially when it comes to sexual behavior. and they can be the other way around as well. Ours is an emotive and experiential age. do it´. our culture is so sick that it produces bumper stickers that say things like ³if it feels good. Holiness without love is mere censoriousness. Alas. There are a few red herrings I would like to deal with at this juncture. The truth however about feelings is that they are notably unreliable guides to what is right and wrong. which is precisely why it is so important for the church to uphold the clarion call to celibacy in singleness in a sex saturated lust. Put another way. good theology and good ethics go together. indeed all of us do even Christians. and we should always bear in mind the Biblical principle that whatever you cannot do in good faith and with a clear conscience is sin for you. they are well on the road to narcissism and all the sins that come with it²selfcentered. self-seeking. It is then necessary for the good of our souls that we uphold a high standard of sexual ethics. self-indulgent behavior. and not love without holiness. Not holiness without love. Our God is a God of holy love. and it isn¶t loving or helpful. Without some objective moral standard like the Bible we have no basis to tell the difference between heartburn and John Wesley¶s heartwarming experience. have many feelings that we need to deny rather than indulge. when in doubt.relationship between one man and one woman which God has joined together. We often here the phrase ³my experience tells me´ and we have endless counselors asking ³how does that make you feel´ as if feelings were the ultimate guide to truth or what is right. In other words. don¶t. Another red herring is of course asking ³What is the loving or compassionate thing to do?´ If one takes that question outside the context of the Biblical call to holiness almost any answer is possible. and where one finds the endorsement of something unethical. I am well aware that a person¶s spirituality is closely entwined with their sexuality. it usually brings in its train bad theology as well. But love without holiness is mere indulgence without . Sometimes we will also here the cliché ³I cannot deny my feelings´ My response to that is²Of course you can.filled culture.
and it is equally wrong. I say this not only because over 90% of all gay persons live in cities of 300. even in a long term relationship. it is not a loving thing to allow either homosexual or heterosexual persons to follow behavior the Bible and the long history of Christian tradition clearly says is immoral. It is a great pity that our English lexicon of love is so truncated. Same sex sexual sharing even between consenting adults. When you muddy those waters you lose your moral authority to say anything with integrity when it comes to a sexual ethic. and yet one adopted a heterosexual and one a homosexual lifestyle when they came of age. What about the so-called evidence that there is a gay gene. or that people are born gay? In the first place. sexual sharing. but never love their sin. we must still ask the ethical question²is it a good thing that you were born this way? . So many times in our culture people think they are in love. identical twins that share the very same genetic make up. never mind having violated the agape love. philia. However well meaning. The balance between love and holiness must be upheld²we must always love the sinner. and grew up in the very same home with the very same parents and the same schooling. their very spiritual life and relationship with God.sanctified discipline. storge and a variety of other terms as well. Why is this? If it were genetically predetermined then we would expect either both of these children to be gay or neither of them. we would still need to ask whether this might not be an abnormality that we should work to remedy like other birth defects. agape. but because there are good scientific studies of zygote twins. But it is not so. it has violated the Biblical spirit of brotherly or sisterly love. So. But when it trespasses into the area of eros. I do not put much stock in arguments that say ³I was born this way´. I put more stock in those who say that a gay lifestyle has far more to do with nurture than nature. for the very good reason that the sin is destroying their souls. falls under this prohibition. I am doubtful we shall ever find evidence of a gay gene. In Greek we have eros. There is a difference between lust and love. the higher spiritual love the NT calls us to over and over again. Brotherly or sisterly love is a good thing. Even if it is so.000 or more where their lifestyle can be practiced and reinforced. there is no such evidence as of yet of a gay gene. but in fact they are just lonely and in heat. and even if there was. It is a wonderful thing to have loving friends. and that difference all Christians are called upon to make clear.
There is no such trajectory of change found in the NT when it comes to the prohibition of same sex sexual activity. The logic usually goes like this²µthe Bible says a lot of things we can no longer condone or agree with. I don¶t think we are in any position to be smug or just assume we have our ethical sensibilities more fine tuned than the writers of the Bible. and homosexuality. not the least of which is thinking we are smarter than the inspired writers of Scripture on key ethical issues. So on St. whether within the bonds of marriage. The NT position is little different from what we find in the OT. but as a brother´). unlike our present discussions! That gives them an authority we simply cannot pretend to have.Another red herring that one often finds in the relevant literature is the attempt to lump together the issues of women. But the other major thing wrong with this whole approach to the homosexual issue is that there is a clear trajectory of change enunciated in the NT when it comes to the roles of women and when it comes to the abolition of slavery in a Christian context (see Philemon² ³no longer as a slave. that the church since time immemorial has said that these writers of the Bible were inspired by God to say what they say. share. I would say just the opposite. For those wanting more on this heated debate. slavery. women. or in the context of singleness.¶ There are several problems with this. They should not be lumped together. I would suggest they read Dr. such as what it says about slavery or women. In view of the atrocities perpetrated in modernity against all kinds of persons. They were far more rigorous in keeping their ethical codes than we are and being sensitive to the ethical nuances of positions taken. as Jesus and Paul define it (which does indeed involve the good gift of sexual sharing). We are wiser than they were on these subjects. including against Jews in the Holocaust. Indeed. and so there is no reason not to think we have outgrown the need to agree with the Bible about homosexuality. The love God calls us all to is a holy love. and homosexuality are three very different ethical issues. And finally. Valentine¶s day. and they should each be addressed on their own terms as they present us with different ethical problems and issues. Rob Gagnon¶s detailed studies either in his full length book study The Bible and Anything other than fidelity in Biblical marriage or celibacy in singleness falls short of being either holy or love as God designed it for humans to . Never mind. it might be a good thing to recognize that eros is not agape and neither is eros the same as philos. slavery. and against the refugees in Darfur and against the unborn.
the battle lines too clearly drawn. the issues too consequential. to live a chaste life of celibacy in singleness. Ordination and marriage and church membership are privileges not rights. or at his website www. I wish them the best and God¶s blessings. Besides. but really after 40 years it is time to stop debating this issue anymore. they are blessings not entitlements. of all persons. we need look no further than to the mayhem wrought in the Episcopal Church in the last years as they broke faith and covenant with most Anglicans on the issue of homosexuality. We have spent millions of dollars on it. then of course there is no reason . or gay marriage. or be ordained or be married or for that matter be sexually immoral. or gay ordination as a justice issue or an issue of rights. it is time for the gay and lesbian lobby in our church to stop lobbying for change in our Discipline and praxis. If a person simply cannot abide by either the Bible or the Methodist Discipline on these issues.Homosexual Practice (Abingdon 2002). new creatures. and it is entirely unlikely we will all come to a meeting of the minds on this issue. If a gay or lesbian person is prepared. We need to get on with the primary Gospel mandate of making disciples. Thereafter it would be good if we had a moratorium on such debate. The positions are too entrenched. frustration. both of which are rather clear on this matter. Firstly. no one has an inalienable right to be a church member. I would add this. then it is time for those persons as persons of integrity to go and join another church say the Episcopal Church. If we want to see what it would look like to change our position on this issue. not an endorsement of it. They see these issues as issues of sexual morality. If we ask the question²How can we go forward. I have a few suggestions.net/ AND SO? Our United Methodist church has agonized over the homosexual question for decades. not fighting expensive unprofitable battles amongst ourselves. and longing for an alternative to its own malaise.robgagnon. and division. or found one¶s own denomination (the new Methodists perhaps). and the world is watching. even while we agree to disagree on this issue. This is unlikely to accomplish anything but more alienation. It would result in a disastrous loss of church membership and of good clergy as well. In closing. When the 2012 General Conference transpires it is entirely unlikely we will change our positions on these matters. Our church is dwindling in numbers for a reason²we continue to put the Emphasis on the wrong syllable. by the grace of God. Most Methodists do not see same sex sexual sharing.
we will have no one left to ordain! But the call to Christian life. is what we all are called to.why they should not be members of our church and be ordained as clergy. nor the mistake of baptizing anyone¶s sins and calling them good. and should strive for. what then will iron do´ when he spoke of clergy. like the call to ordination is a high calling which calls for the highest standards of ethical rectitude. We all have our besetting sins and flaws. It would be my hope and prayer that we would all re-embrace fidelity in heterosexual marriage and celibacy in singleness as at the heart of our social principles on these matters. That sort of balance between justice and mercy. and if we stop ordaining sinners. since these principles are already in there. between holiness and love. and that God will bless us all as we struggle to overcome our sins and shortcomings. We must not make the mistake of either stigmatizing one group of sinners more than others. AMEN . I am reminded of the words of Chaucer who said ³if gold rusts.
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