Reading Scripture in Conflicts

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

Last Sunday I spoke about divisive moral conflicts that have serious religious dimensions, mentioning for purposes of illustration the issues about abortion, homosexuality, and the war in Iraq. Christians of good faith are in deep conflict with one another about these and other issues, and I argued that the conflicts should be addressed within the Church. Christians need to hold their divisive passions in check and work through the issues together. A university pulpit such as this one at Marsh Chapel has a special obligation to provide analysis and guidance.

Today I want to consider the role of scripture in such deep moral conflicts because scripture is the first authority for Christian discussion. Although in a reflective sense the Bible bears upon all moral conflicts in ways mediated by traditions of analysis, the Bible does not directly address abortion or the war in Iraq. So I will discuss the biblical background of homosexuality as our test case, and next week will discuss non-biblical aspects of conflicts about homosexuality within church debates.

To discuss homosexuality from the pulpit is dangerous. Although I will treat no topic half so risqué or violent as the standard fare on evening network television, we should note that in a University Church there are few if any small children who might be confused or offended; any small children glued to the radio for morning worship have this preacher’s permission to go play elsewhere and return when they hear the next hymn.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was long taken to be the definitive condemnation of homosexuality. (The Bible speaks only of homosexual acts, never of homosexuality as a lifestyle or orientation.) The Sodom text is Genesis 19, and it is printed in the bulletin insert. You will remember that Abraham’s nephew Lot was visited in Sodom by two angels who looked like men. All the men of the town, young and old, gathered outside Lot’s house and demanded that the angels be sent out to them to be raped. Lot offered his two virgin daughters instead. When the townsmen started to break down the door the angels struck them blind and led Lot and his family out of town while God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. In time, the name Sodomy became synonymous with homosexual and some disapproved heterosexual acts, but that time, surprisingly, was not until the European middle ages, about the tenth century. I commend to you a book by the scholar Mark D. Jordan called The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, for a documentary history of how the story of Sodom and Gomorrah came to be associated with homosexuality. In biblical times and long afterward it was associated instead with a brutal violation of hospitality. Raping a person under the hospitality protection of a town-member was about as bad as inhospitality could get. A parallel to the Sodom story, similar in language and plot, is in Judges 19 according to which a visitor to Gibeah was taken in by a townsman, the men of the town demanded he be sent out to be raped, his concubine was sent out instead, and she was raped to death, leading to a disastrous war. In those days, hospitality was valued so high, and women’s lives so low, that protecting one’s guest, even when a stranger, was worth sacrificing women you love. Westerners do not share that balance of values now. That the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was taken in biblical times to be about violations of hospitality is confirmed by Matthew 10:5-15, also on your insert, in which Jesus says it will be worse in the last judgment for the towns that are inhospitable to his disciples than for Sodom and Gomorrah.

Let me remark here on an important point for biblical understanding. The authors of the biblical books shared with their intended readers a particular imaginative background or context in which what they wrote made sense. This imaginative background contained cultural assumptions, such as the high premium put on hospitality, the low premium put on women, and the acceptability of slavery. It also contained scientific assumptions, such as that if you go up far enough you get to heaven and that there is a world of angels and spirits to which we have access. Most of us in the West now have a vastly different imaginative background from that of biblical times, especially regarding matters such as physical cosmology, the spirit world, slavery, the role of women, and even hospitality. Many contemporary Christians in Africa engage the world with an imaginative background rather like that of biblical times, sharing assumptions about spirits and women, for instance. For them there is little cognitive and emotional dissonance over such matters. Most of us Westerners, however, feel sharp cognitive and emotional dissonance with much of the ancient imaginative background. We always have to distinguish the religiously binding truth in scriptures from the cultural and scientific assumptions in the ancient imagination that we reject, for good reasons. We need to work around elements in that imagination to which we believe our own moral and intellectual world is superior, say, about slavery as an evil, the equality of women, and scientific cosmology. We can dismiss the biblical readiness to sacrifice women in order to protect the honor of hospitality as deriving from a cultural assumption that we reject. The contemporary Islamic societies that sacrifice women for honor strike us with horror. How shall we read what the Bible says condemning homosexuality? Does it come from mere cultural assumptions that we rightly reject? Or is it religiously authoritative?

The book of Leviticus is clear in condemning homosexual acts. Chapter 20 repeats and expands upon a list in chapter 18, saying you should not lie with a male as with a woman in a long agenda of proscribed acts having to do with adultery, incest, bestiality, child sacrifice, sex during menstruation, witchcraft, and cursing one’s father or mother. Scholars know this list as the “Holiness Code.” Death is the punishment for adultery, child sacrifice, cursing father or mother, incest with mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, bestiality, and lying with a man as with a woman. Banishment or barrenness are the punishments for the other forms of incest, sleeping with a menstruating woman, and using mediums or wizards. All the laws are directed at men even when women are involved in the proscribed behavior and are punished. Women were not regarded as sufficiently important moral agents to be addressed in law.

Does anyone today accept the Holiness Code fully and literally? Few of us would put to death people for the acts Leviticus proscribes. The violent gay-bashers who kill people such as Matthew Shepard do follow the biblical commandment to put to death men who lie with men as with women; nevertheless such gay bashers are regarded in the United States as murderers. That we reject or seriously modify the biblical approach to punishment means we do not follow a purely biblical rule for morals, and that we already make discerning judgments about what to accept. We in the West do not believe in witches and would be very slow to believe that cursing parents deserves the death penalty. Concerning the proscription of lying with a man as with a woman, should we liken that to child sacrifice, which we condemn, or to consulting mediums or making love during menstruation, which we do not?

Turning to the New Testament, no mention of homosexuality or homosexual acts is ascribed to Jesus, although he repeatedly condemns adultery, divorce, greed, and other sins. No author in the New Testament except Paul mentions homosexuality unless the author of 1Timothy is someone other than Paul, which probably is t
he case. In 1 Corinthians Paul clearly lists homosexuals in what scholars call a “vice list” along with fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers. In 1 Timothy the list includes the lawless, disobedient, godless, sinful, unholy, profane, those who kill parents, murderers, fornicators, slave traders, liars, and perjurers. You have the texts in your insert. The word used in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy for homosexuals is arsenokoitai, which is a rough Greek translation of “lying with a man as with a woman.” 1 Corinthians uses an additional word, malokoi, which means “soft” and probably referred to the passive, perhaps younger partner. Paul has other vice lists that do not include any reference to homosexual acts or desire (Galatians 5:19-21; 1Cor. 5:10-11; Romans 13:13).

In Romans 1, which the only biblical mention of homosexuality as more than an item in a list, Paul says that all nations know that God is creator, but that people suppress that knowledge with idolatry, become confused by sin, and “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural,” women with women and men with men. This is the only mention of female homosexuality in the Bible. Scholars have debated what “natural” and “unnatural” meant in Paul’s world, based on Greek philosophy that I will discuss next week. Part of what is meant is the hierarchical ordering of things Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11, also in your insert. God is the head of Christ, “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife.” (11:3) A man is the image and reflection of God, and woman is the reflection of man. “Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” (11:7-9) In Paul’s culture, although not all Hellenistic culture, sexual relations reflected those hierarchical relations between the sexes. Sexuality was conceived always to have dominant and submissive partners. It was natural for a man to dominate a woman, but unnatural to dominate a man who was supposed to be his equal. A sexually passive man is unnatural because men are supposed to dominate in sex. Similarly with women, the active sexual partner is unnatural because women are supposed to be sexually dominated. It is not the case today, I should note, that homosexual, or even heterosexual, relations always have dominant and submissive partners.

In many parts of the world the hierarchical dominance of men over women, in sex as in other matters, is enthusiastically asserted, often on these or other biblical grounds. Some traditional Asian, African and Islamic societies are close to this biblical tradition. For most Americans, however, that dominance relation has been successfully challenged by an ethics of equality and reciprocity that largely has been written into law. Although feminists might claim that true equality is yet to be achieved, our current American customs and law are very far from the oppressive biblical model. Most liberal, moderate, and even conservative Christians reject the extreme cultural model of male dominance and female subservience expressed in Paul’s writings. Even Paul qualifies his own hierarchy by saying, in our 1 Corinthians text in your insert, that men and women are mutually dependent and that really both come from God. He says in Galatians 3 that gender differences like ethnic and slavery differences make no difference for those in Christ. The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus treating women as equal to men in deserving respect and attention. The dominance hierarchical model is in strong conflict with the model of reciprocal love already present in the Bible, which applies to sexual love as well as friendship and social roles. To the extent that Paul regarded homosexual acts as unnatural because they perverted the so-called “natural” hierarchical dominance relations between men and women, that sense of unnaturalness is to be set in opposition to the biblical ideal of being one in Christ and friends among whom true leadership or dominance is a matter of service. Whereas hierarchical dominance might be natural in the sense of being the customary way, that cultural assumption was criticized and rejected, however unevenly, by the biblical ideal of the unified community of God’s children.

The few biblical references to homosexuality need to be understood as part of a larger cultural imagination defining the relative roles of men and women in a dominant relation that includes sex as well as other matters. Our contemporary Christian brothers and sisters (Islamic as well) who share some of those assumptions of male dominance are likely to share the Levitical and Pauline condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural to the hierarchy. I count myself among those who reject that part of the imaginative background of the ancient world and find it troubling in contemporary society anywhere in the world. The women’s movement has introduced a reformation to the Christian church far more profound than the Protestant Reformation that we also commemorate today. The women’s movement is global and all religious cultures are feeling its effects. It is the only element of moral progress in civilization that matches the scientific progress of the last several centuries.

Not everyone agrees, of course, with the ideals of equality and reciprocity among men and women, and the argument in that respect must take into account many considerations other than biblical ones. With regard to the Bible, however, I believe that the liberating gospel itself is so central to the great drama of creation and redemption that it thoroughly trumps the cultural assumptions of hierarchy. With that, the Levitical and Pauline condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural, because it confuses the hierarchy, falls to the ground. The explicit condemnations of homosexual acts in the Bible stem from a hierarchical culture that denigrates women and forces all people into relations of dominance and passivity. That culture is incompatible with the larger themes of the Christian gospel. Therefore I see the explicit biblical condemnations of homosexuality as merely reflective of a culture against which the Church should witness, and as non-binding in any authoritative way on our current moral reflections, unless extra-biblical considerations prove the contrary, a topic for next week.

Let me close by reminding us of the larger scale of the Christian gospel, the grand story of creation and redemption. Created with the infinite bounties of God’s grace, we are rich beyond measure and yet have let ourselves be estranged from God. This estrangement affects everything we are and do, including our sexuality. Our redemption in Christ, for which God be praised, allows us to overcome estrangement and, in sanctification, redeems our lives in all aspects that can be corrupted. Is homosexuality nothing but the corruption of heterosexuality, as Leviticus and Paul can be read to say, and therefore to be given up as part of redemption? Or is it a form of sexuality subject to alienation but also capable of being redeemed, and therefore to be lived out in a holy way by those whose impulses are for same-sex love? The scriptural case for the former is ruined by its connection with the corrupted hierarchical dominance model of human relations. The scriptural case for the latter celebrates the goodness of creation and the sanctifying grace of redemption.

Redemption also means, however, engaging with love and respect those Christians who share the ancient world’s assumptions about hierarchical dominance and persuading them that those assumptions are counter to the central trajectory of the gospel. If my conviction is mistaken, it is the obligation of those who oppose it to engage those of us who hold it and persuade us lovingly of the error. That would be the way to engage moral conflict within the Body of Christ. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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