Redeeming Homosexuality

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight is discussing a book by William Webb called Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts.

In the first post, McKnight looks at Webb’s savvy commentary on the history of corporal punishment in the Bible. Namely, the original commands for corporal punishment are so draconian that no one today would adhere to them without a full (and justified) expectation of being thrown into prison and having their children removed from their home.

In fact, Webb lists seven different ways in which even those who argue that spanking is mandated by the Bible advocate doing so in ways that are unbiblical. A sample:

The age limitations: most today advocate spanking up to six years or old or pre-elementary, though it used to be pre-teenage years. But the Bible indicates corporal punishment for teens — and perhaps even beyond.  The beating of fools in Proverbs seems to be focused on teens, and probably older than teens but it is a punishment that applies to children and older. E.g., Prov 18:6; 19:25, 29; 26:3; 29:19

Webb doesn’t point this out to ridicule James Dobson for hypocrisy (that’s low-hanging fruit anyway), but to argue that Christians – even those with an overly literal view of the Bible, known sometimes as biblicists – apply a “redemptive hermeneutic” to Scripture, which is to say we look at the culture of the era in which it was written and apply the principle while acknowledging that times have changed.

McKnight quotes:

Here’s his big thesis: “We do not want to stay with the static or frozen-in-time ethic reflected in the concrete-specific instructions of the Bible, rather Christians need to embrace the redemptive spirit of the text and journey toward an ultimate ethical application of that spirit” (62). And then this, and if you get this you get the whole: “Movement is (crucial) meaning.”

Spanking isn’t the only subject on which Christians apply a moving scale to the Bible’s commands. Slavery, for example. As Webb and McKnight note, Exodus 21:20-21 sounds barbaric today:

20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

Roger Taney would be proud. Nevertheless, the culture at the time was that masters could kill their slaves if they so desired, so God was calling his people to a higher standard than the culture required. In the New Testament, Paul says there is “neither slave nor free,” and he’s calling on masters to respect their slaves. There’s a movement in the text as the culture changes. As the culture changed still further into the 19th century, Christians continued that movement, claiming abolition as the only choice in line with the nature of God.

We do the same thing with women. Again, Exodus 21:

7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

Again, God is calling his people to act better than their culture. By the time of Paul, he is speaking of women prophesying and leading churches (though he, or someone claiming to be him, is also calling on them to be silent and not to have authority over men.) In both cases, we play the culture card and argue that in our egalitarian culture, God demands that we treat all people the same – outside and inside church.

Webb, in a previous book, discusses both these subjects and a third, homosexuality. He embraces the redemptive hermeneutic for the first two, but not the last. I haven’t read that book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, but when I raised the possibility in the Jesus Creed comments that homosexuality could be covered under this hermeneutic, a fellow commenter said Webb “sees both the OT and the NT as countercultural in its rejection of homosexuality as well as consistent in its rejection of homosexuality.”

I would disagree with both of those statements.

Assuming Webb has been summarized fairly, it is true that homosexuality was commonly practiced in the cultures surrounding the Jews in both testaments; however, the kind of homosexuality practiced – temple prostitution and pederasty – was far different than the kind practiced today, between consenting adults. Indeed, today’s homosexuality would be countercultural to the pagan world surrounding the Bible. This is a clear case of the cultural norms having moved in a redemptive direction; instead of taking advantage of prepubescent boys or using religion as an excuse for sexual depravity, homosexuality has become defined in recent years by a push for two consenting people to make a lifelong commitment to each other. That would have been unthinkable in the Canaanite, Babylonian and Assyrian world of the Old Testament or the Greco-Roman world of the New.

Likewise, the consistency of the Bible on this subject is very much up for debate. While male homosexuality is condemned as an unclean act in Leviticus, lesbianism isn’t discussed at all until Paul’s discourse in Romans 1, which is a description of temple prostitution and the depravity that marked the cultic rituals of the surrounding culture. Jesus, of course, is not recorded as ever having discussed homosexuality, and there’s the final problem of scientific understanding. The word “homosexuality” didn’t even exist until the 19th century, and the knowledge that it is an inborn, genetic trait was obviously nonexistent.

I think Webb is correct that we should view Old Testament law codes in a redemptive light – to look at what God was bringing them out of, use the New Testament as a guide to where he was calling them and continue that trajectory into the present day. I think he might be wrong about leaving homosexuality out of that process. If Paul had been dealing with today’s homosexuality and today’s scientific knowledge, would he have added “neither gay nor straight” to his words in Galatians 3:28?

I confess I don’t know. My wife makes a good argument in the other direction, based on Jesus’ citation of Genesis 1:27 and the strength of Paul’s vehemence in Romans 1:21-27. I remain a searcher on many things, perhaps this issue most of all. Truth be told, I want to affirm monogamous homosexuality as equivalent in God’s sight to monogamous heterosexuality. There’s been too much hatred, science denial and fear from the traditions in which I was raised; I’d like to separate from them as cleanly as possible. Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic may be the way to do that.

4 thoughts on “Redeeming Homosexuality”

  1. Allow me to offer my own reasoning on this subject. Spoiler Alert: I think they point me to a different conclusion.

    On the one hand, people use scripture (or their understanding of it) as an excuse to vilify or at best ignore anyone who condones homosexuality to a degree incongruous with their dealings with other types of sin. I think we’re all familiar enough with this kind of behavior that I don’t have to give evidence of its existence, and it makes me angry that believers would just refuse to deal with people like that. I think the scriptural notions you have to ignore to do so are equally familiar.

    On the other hand, however, I think one has to go to too much trouble to make it very advisable to use scripture to try and outright defend homosexuality. I think taking advantage of semantic or contextual ambiguity to swing the pendulum is at best not the strongest argument, and in the wrong hands can have implications of intellectual and spiritual integrity.

    The clearest communication we have on the subject, as you noted, comes from Old Testament law and specifically forbids homosexuality among men. Period. Believers have to make their own decisions as to the relevance and present-day implications of that scripture, but its original meaning is not up for debate; it’s a specific ban.

    Believers similarly have to judge the context of other scripture, the original meanings of which may or may not be as clear, to the best of their knowledge. If anyone can with intellectual and spiritual integrity come to grips with scripture in an honest belief that the law is outmoded in this regard, or that homosexuality didn’t play a spiritual or moral part in ancient instances of God’s punishments, or that the prophets and apostles were OK with homosexuality, or that any problems with homosexuality were the result of a culture that didn’t reflect God’s true purposes, then scripture is very clear in excluding me as their judge.

    That fact, and other teachings, then, suggest a particular conduct in my dealings with people. This is why I again hasten to say that there are many arguments to be made with concrete scriptural teachings to the effect that the kind of mistreatment or ignorance of homosexuality we often experience is not what God has in mind.

    And, as with many issues, I feel (or at least, should feel) no personal need to “be right.” Believing in a final judgment and in the power of grace to enable me to survive it, if God tells me at that point, “You had it all wrong. I created the world totally differently than you thought. The flood worked differently. You came down on the wrong side of the whale/fish question in Jonah,” I am not going to argue or even be disappointed.

    But if God hypothetically told me, “You had it all wrong. I didn’t mean ‘just don’t lie in court.’ I know there are instances in scripture where people lied and weren’t punished. I know that people were even considered Biblical heroes who shrewdly withheld information. But I made it pretty clear that I didn’t want you using ‘little white lies’ to make your life more convenient, stay out of trouble with the boss or avoid long explanations to people. Ananias and Sapphira weren’t ‘just’ punished because of the greed that motivated their dishonesty, but for the dishonesty itself,” what would I say then? Would grace still cover me? Obviously, that’s really more up to me than anyone, but my “answers” to the questions of personal moral responsibility have weight that wonderings about the mysteries of God’s ways don’t have.

    Thus I care more about the homosexuality question it than the creation questions. There are scriptures that seem to indicate at the very least a chance that sexual orientation has spiritual consequences. I feel it’s intellectually and spiritually dishonest for me to simply wave that notion away, regardless of my own, or any particular culture’s, ideas on its validity. Therefore I should accept the decisions of the people with whom I have relationships only when I know they’ve had the chance to consider “both” (or “all”) possibilities. I’m not always perfect on either front.

    As it turns out, this is exactly my conclusion on the things that I know for sure are sins, and that’s obviously another front on which I’m not perfect.

  2. > its original meaning is not up for debate; it’s a specific ban.

    Agree: the gist of the law was probably to prohibit any sort of sex between men.

    Disagree: the intent is still up for debate, and the fact that it’s a ban shouldn’t really have any ethical weight. The same texts ban eating shrimp.

    > My wife makes a good argument in the other direction, based on Jesus’ citation of Genesis 1:27 and the strength of Paul’s vehemence in Romans 1:21-27

    Is it a coherent theology of sexuality? It seems like any holistic answer to the question would have to do more than just point at a few verses, because you can justify anything if you just point to a few verses. Instead, it would have to present a broader theory (based on biblical ideas, if necessary) about why this particular human behavior is evil.

    1. Without speaking too much for her, I would say she sees it as an issue of divine institution in Genesis, confirmed by Jesus and backed up by the prohibitions of Leviticus and Romans – all without any sort of positive statements to contradict that narrative.

      I don’t see it that clearly. The “institution” in Genesis – such as it is, given the mythological nature of the story – could just as easily be a construct of greatest efficiency, as opposed to some sort of precedent. Likewise, Jesus was speaking against divorce in citing that verse, not making a comment on the sexuality of the partners. And there are the obvious cultural and scientific objections to the references in Leviticus and Romans.

      On the other hand, I’m still uncomfortable using that many caveats in absence of a single directly affirming scripture. On the third hand, should we expect affirmation of an activity not even properly understood in the 21st century, let alone the 1st? We don’t expect affirmation of biological evolution, after all. So I remain, as you can see, on the fence.

  3. I see this is an older post, so I’m not sure what you might have written on this subject since then, but here’s my two cents in response to your discomfort using that many caveats in absence of a single directly affirming scripture.

    1. While homosexuality per se may not be directly affirmed anywhere in scripture, romantic love and union is (see: Song of Songs). Marriage is one of the opening images in Genesis and one of the closing images in Revelation (the “bride of Christ”). Jesus performs his first miracle in celebration of a wedding. Marriage is affirmed as a sacrament in the Catholic church and as the bedrock of society in the Protestant churches. Etc. etc. The desire to be loved, cherished, and chosen by another before all others is intrinsic to the human condition, and how we manage that desire gets a lot of space in scripture, which demonstrates even further how important the practice of our sexuality is to the fulfillment of our spirituality. While Jesus himself remained single, and Paul affirms singleness, the solution for Paul if a person does not feel *called* to singleness is not draconian celibacy, but marriage. He acknowledges that God does not call all people to celibacy. So I think you are right to bring in the genetics. To me, an important question is: If people are born gay, if *God makes people gay*, then shouldn’t the standard be the same? If their desire to be loved and chosen orients itself towards others of the same sex (and those others are also mature, consenting peers), what essential aspect of their own spiritual journey do we deny them by saying that they may not experience love in this way? What harm do we do?

    2. Which brings me to the question of fruit. You acknowledge that there are ambiguities in the biblical texts regarding homosexuality. The “caveats” you mentioned. Where there is ambiguity and uncertainty, the biblical standard for discernment that I’m aware of is to watch the fruit, for no good fruit grows from a bad tree, and no bad fruit grows from a good tree. The fruit of the judgment of homosexuality as sin is obvious and severe – gay teens are four times more likely to complete suicide than their peers. Some will point to that statistic and say that this demonstrates just how deeply troubled a person must be to be homosexual, but gay teens who come from conservative/rejecting homes and communities are *eight times* more likely. It’s the rejection and shaming that kills, not the gayness. I have two close friends who both attempted suicide because they believed that what they were was wrong. Not what they *did,* not what they *chose,* what they *were.* They were both regular church goers at the time, and were well aware of the church’s stance of homosexuality, but they experienced that doctrine not as the liberating conviction of the Holy Spirit, which inspires us to change, but the crushing and nullifying burden of shame. On the other hand, I am blessed to know several long-term married gay couples who thrive in the light of their love for one another and some of whom are raising wonderful, loving families. The fruit of their union is love, peace, joy, patience, loving kindness, etc. When I take the ambiguities of the text and hold them up to my experiences with gay friends in real life, I personally have to come down in favor of full gay sexual equality. It’s the only life-affirming choice for me.

    I feel really strongly about this for personal reasons that I hope will be obvious, but if I came across harshly in any part of this commentary, please accept my apology and know that I respect where you’re at in your journey (or where you were at at this writing), and I’m just trying to contribute to the conversation. 🙂

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