Some of you- fairly, I’ll admit- suggested to me that my previous post on this subject needed to provide a closer look at specific scriptural passages and show how two Christians might apply them to their viewpoints.
Here you go:
Using Paul as a Model for Ethical Re-Evaluation:
In his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, biblical scholar Brian Blount advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective. Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for such ethical re-evaluation.
Blount points out that the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce. Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce. Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus allow the stipulation of divorce in cases of sexual infidelity (5.31-32). In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (1 Corinthians 7.10-11). Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.
The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.
In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ. Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery. Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ tradition in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to such discernment today.
When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount. If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner. It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.
Experience as a Lens for Scripture Not as a Counter-Balancing Authority:
In his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays acknowledges that the New Testament provides no definitive, applicable “rule” on homosexuality. The New Testament, as in the case of Romans 1, offers only theological principles against homosexuality, yet Hays stresses that scripture’s negative prohibitions regarding homosexuality be read against the larger backdrop of the male-female union, which scripture presents as the normative location for love and intimacy.
However marginal or unclear are the bible’s teachings on homosexuality, the scriptural canon clearly and repeatedly affirms that God made man and woman for one another. Any contemporary discernment over homosexuality must struggle with this positive norm that is the overwhelming witness of the scriptural narrative.
For example, Hays turns to Acts 10 and 11, Luke’s story documenting the entrance of Gentiles into the fledgling (Jewish) Christian Church. In the story, God directs the apostle Peter in a dream to understand that God desired the inclusion of the Roman, Cornelius, into the community of Jesus. Cornelius’ inclusion represents God’s invitation to all Gentiles, an invitation that shatters all of Peter’s preconceptions about sin, purity and righteousness. Advocates for the acceptance of homosexuals frequently point to this story from Acts as evidence that God desires the church’s fellowship to extend to those previously judged sinful, impure and unrighteous.
Richard Hays, however, argues that such a reading of Acts 10 and 11 misses the mark, for the early church did not conclude from Cornelius’ story that the biblical witness had, up until then, been wrong on the issue of the Gentiles. Instead Cornelius’ inclusion prompted the church reread their scripture and discover that the welcome to the Gentiles had been consistent throughout scripture. Homosexuality is not an analogous issue, Hays would argue, because no where in scripture does the narrative advocate the inclusion or acceptance of homosexuals.
Because scripture consistently adopts a negative view of homosexuality and affirms the heterosexual norm, Hays, unlike Blount, argues that any change to the church’s traditional teaching must come only “after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful.”
The Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson echoes Hays’ urging of consensus-building caution and discernment, writing that:
“The burden of proof required to overturn scriptural precedents is heavy, but it is a burden that has been born before. The Church cannot, should not, define itself in response to political pressure or popularity polls. But it is called to discern the work of God in human lives and adapt its self-understanding in response to the work of God.”