We’re doing a church-wide Bible study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. In addition to the crowd at church, literally thousands have downloaded the class notes or audio. It’s encouraging to see so many people from so many viewpoints earnestly want to learn.
THE CLOBBER PASSAGES AND CREATION (AKA: “THE GOOD STUFF”)
Where We Are
Last week, having solidified our understanding of Bible reading as a communal enterprise, we started to talk about sexuality through a positive, substantive understanding of marriage and its theological purpose: to reflect the mutual joy and vulnerability that constitutes the life of the Trinity.
And Now… the Good Stuff
After three weeks of re-learning how to read scripture, I know you are all anxious to get to the texts in contention. The day has finally arrived. The “clobber passages” are finally here. Just by the name, we must note the violence these passages have done, not only to certain LGBT people, but to the Church as a whole. The “clobber passages” have done harm to the body of Christ called the Church not only because we throw them at each other with such disdain for the other, but because when we do so, we resist and reject the idea that reading the Bible is a Churchwide enterprise for the purpose of discernment, not destruction.
That is, when we read these passages and (1) take them out of context, (2) use them to hurt one another, and (3) refuse to open ourselves to any interpretation other than the one we supposedly conclude on our own, we preclude God from working through the process of discernment. Like David Fitch told us a few weeks ago, such actions are the simple reiterations of cultural antagonisms.
Thus, the fact that we have even coined the term “clobber passages” belies our captivity to the ideology of the world, and the need for the freedom Christ’s grace provides. Before we even begin, then, we need to set out, once again, our communal assumptions. Doing so provides a consistent reminder that keeps us framed well within both tradition and the concrete world we inhabit. The interpretation of Holy Scripture is one of the most important tasks assigned to the Church, and in such a tumultuous world, this very activity of discerning the work of the Spirit in scripture and our lives can show the world the alternative that is Christ.
By the same token, narrow, closed interpretations cannot do justice to the complexity of the issue at hand. It is inadequate discipleship to approach this issue with a “the Bible says it’s wrong” attitude. Such a closed attitude treats scripture as a dead letter, and it fails to ask what the Holy Spirit might be speaking through the Word of God to the Church today.
It is also insufficient to respond to this issue with the contrary attitude which says, “Well, I know how I feel about this matter.” Such an individualistic attitude fails to take seriously the testimony of the larger Christian community, both past and present. The Church is a community, and its testimony is predicated not on individual suppositions, but on the community’s work in discerning God’s work.
With that, allow me one more remark about the nature of what we are doing here. Homosexuality is an issue that strikes at God’s intention for our relationships. Whatever answer one gives to this debate, it is clear that God intends for our conservations and discernment to be marked by mercy, humility and love. This study, which we are undertaking for the sake of the Church and in the assurance of the Gospel, must be undertaken with the conviction that our world, being a profoundly polarized world, needs a sanctuary, a place where complex issues can be discussed, where God’s will can be discerned, and where such dialogue is guaranteed to happen with a love born of grace and a hospitality tempered by humility.
This conviction necessarily takes every side of the issue with sincerity and with the assumption that each person comes seeking God and what God is doing in the world. It is inadequate to assume otherwise. If we treat this issue with silence, we do a deep injustice not only to LGBT people in our congregation, but to the Church as a whole. Christ came to forgive all sin, not to keep his people silent.
With that, let’s remind ourselves of the guiding parameters from the first session:
1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance, of Gentile behavior.
2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.
3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (”I know Jesus said, but I say to you.”).
4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriage was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.
5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.
6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.
7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced.
8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel.
The Good Stuff, Part 1 – Sodom and Gomorrah
Genesis 19.1-29 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a familiar, yet little understood passage that many insist is a clear moment of God’s wrathful judgment levied against homosexual activity. Clergy, laypeople, and theologians often make reference to this story to shore up their accounts of the absolute heterosexual proscription of the Bible.
In the story, a mob of men from the city bang on Lot’s door. Their apparent intention is to gang-rape Lot’s visitors, whom the reader already knows are really angels. No reason is given in the text for why the men of the city should be so moved. Rather, their threat stands as a sort of symbol in the story for the city’s general wickedness. That is, the specific intention of the mob is a byproduct of the city’s captivity to sin.
The angels rescue Lot’s family and later pronounce the city’s destruction. Despite the propensity of some to read this narrative as an anti-homosexual text, no where in the story itself or in the rest of scripture is Sodom’s sin identified as homosexuality. Instead of homosexuality, the prophet Ezekiel identified Sodom’s chief sin to be: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16.49). In discerning scripture’s will for homosexuality, it is prudent for the Church to look to other texts.
Further, reading the text in this fashion forces one to draw an analogy between gang-rape and consensual homosexual relations. This is a textual and a logical stretch, at best. Especially, in light of the work we have done in the past few weeks to resituate our communal understanding of marriage within the life of the Trinity, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah could hardly function as an example of such relationships. If there is some condemnation of homosexual activity here, it is most certainly not of the kind that concerns the Church. There is nothing that even remotely resembles the faithful, monogamous kind of nuptial relationships that are under consideration here.
The activity of the mob is, as the text tells us, one unnatural to the human condition. That is, there is nothing about the people in the mob that naturally inclined them to gang-rape. Whether or not you believe being gay is a matter of nature or nurture, gay people are who they are, and that will not change.
The attribution of the mob’s acts to their nature, and thus the blame of judgment on homosexual activity, does not hold. After all, the members of the mob had wives.
The Good Stuff Part 2 – The Household Codes
Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 belong to a portion of Leviticus referred to by scholars as the “Holiness Codes.” If you read them, you will see that they clearly prohibit male [but not female— because the texts are most interested in preventing unclear lines of inheritance] homosexual behavior. They seem straightforward and clear. Case closed, right?
As clear as these texts are, however, they are not satisfactory texts for many Christians. The Holiness Codes, after all, contain many moral admonitions that have been ignored by Christians since the days of the early Church. These are matters related to food regulations and the ritual necessity of circumcision. Both “Acts” and “Romans” confirm for us that these codes do not apply to the life of the Church. It is inconsistent with the larger Christian tradition to pull these texts out of Leviticus for the purpose of debate when the communal consensus has been that they belong to a code that is no longer normative for followers of Jesus. In fact, even the biblical literalist would have to acknowledge that while Leviticus prohibits male homosexual behavior, it makes no mention of female homosexual relationships. Indeed, such a jump to the condemnation of all homosexual relationships would be outside the bounds of a strict interpretive lens.
As interesting and provocative as these passages are, they are not binding to us unless we also do not eat bacon.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear Paul’s Gospel announcement that “for freedom [from the Law] Christ has set us free,” I first think of bacon.
The Good Stuff Part 3 – The New Testament
As we noted in our list of assumptions, the Gospels show Jesus teaching within the bounds of male-female normativity. That is, Jesus does not denounce homosexuality, but he does not condone it either. He is strongly within the bounds of male-female relations. To be fair, Paul does reinterpret some of Jesus’ teachings, but he does not question those bounds.
Beyond the Gospels, homosexuality and homosexual behavior receives few mentions. For now, we will leave Romans 1 aside. We will pick up on that next week.
For now, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10.
The First Letter to the Corinthians is a corrective that Paul issues out of frustration over their illicit actions. The Corinthians, as bible readers and church-goers will remember, believed that they were already enjoying the exalted resurrection life. They concluded, therefore, that traditional moral conventions no longer applied to them. An aggravated Paul calls the Corinthians “wrong-doers.” To illustrate what he means by wrong-doer, Paul very helpfully provides them with a list of the sorts of people he is including the Corinthians among: “…fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.”
For us, as Bible readers, it is important to note two things:
- Sodomy does not equal homosexuality. Sodomy is a particular sexual act, while homosexuality is a sexual orientation. The two are not exchangeable, equivocal terms.
- Where we find homosexuality, especially in lists like this, it is often serving a rhetorical purpose, more so than being treated as a topic in itself.
1 Timothy makes a similar move. Timothy presumes that homosexuality is wrong, but 1 Timothy is not concerned with examining it in its own right. Instead, Timothy provides a list of behaviors and vices that are opposed to the Gospel, such as: “fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers.”
In an earlier lesson, we talked about approaching scripture with a larger hermeneutical frame through which we interpret specific passages. In passages like these, such a hermeneutic is requisite for proper ecclesial interpretation. As much as these passages declare homosexuality as inconsistent with the Gospel, the broader theological condition that the New Testament diagnoses is that we are all incompatible with the Gospel.
That theological conviction aside, the acts described here are, again, not the kind of relationships that concern the Church presently. While it may seem like I am side-stepping the problem here, it is important to reflect on what kind of questions we want to ask, as a community, when it comes to this issue. The nuptial vows we take in our wedding do not reflect individualized actions and vices that occur outside the bounds of our relationships, but rather the life and grace of the Trinity that has the possibility of being reflected in our relationships. Such distinctions are important when we interpret passages like this.
What it is that we are after is a concrete, positive understandings of relationships in the life of the Church – relationships formed in the image of grace.
Reframing Normativity – Genesis 1
When the “clobber passages” have worn themselves down, the conversation usually turns to Genesis and the account of creation. Genesis 1 details the story of creation in pairs, and the heteronormative, supposedly binary creation of Adam and Eve, along with their complementarity, is used to support the doctrine of marriage.
There is no denying the force of the Creation narrative on discussions of relationships, marriage, and human sexuality. The beauty of the creation story seems bound up in the duality of the pairings. More negatively, such a binary view necessarily flows into an interpretation that sees non-heterosexual relations and people as a result of the Fall.
However, the narrative of creation is not primarily about the pairs that mark its ends. Creation, as St. Gregory of Nyssa argues, is the script of the revelation of God as love. Insofar as that is true, there must be a relationship of congruence between the Creator and creation. Along with Christ, creation is the “primary act of God’s self-expression and an important part of God’s self-revelation to us.”
With this frame, we can posit the creation narrative not as a strict narrative of ontology (a fancy word for the nature and existence of things), but rather,as a broad libretto that delineates the ends of the diversity creation inaugurates.
Creation, in other words, is “non-binary.”
The mystery such a conception of creation reveals is the notion that the pairings given in Genesis 1 are each “spectrums within which a variety of expressions occur.”
Take light, for an example.
Just as with day and night, light and darkness do not name the only possible options available within God’s creation. It’s not, that is, either light or dark. As I write this essay, it’s dusk.
The first act of creation is the creation of light and, as we know from quantum physics, light is “itself one, but with variety that’s visible when it’s passed through a prism.” Further, if creation is an expression of the triune Creator, then, of necessity, it cannot be contained by binary sets of parameters. Creation must reflect the full spectrum of the goodness of God.
The phrase “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” thus, has force only as a rhetorical insult, with little interpretive basis behind it. The phrase assumes an absolute doublet pairing, lacking the room of diversity reflected in every pairing of the preceding creation narrative.
A non-binary conception of creation, despite how counter-intuitive it might strike us, actually proceeds from the source of creation: God as Trinity, a unity of oneness that makes room for diversity. The cosmos mirrors such diverse unity, and the demarcation of creation as such with pairs, indicative, but not wholly descriptive of its inner diversity, opens for us a new way of seeing the pairing of Adam and Eve: descriptive, normative, but not proscriptive, nor exhaustive.
In Conclusion… Procreation?
You are probably wondering about the command ordered to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is not an incidental question, for most orthodox Jews even today will name “Be fruitful and multiply” as God’s very first commandment to his creatures.
As the ancient wedding rite makes clear, a willingness for a married couple to welcome children into their life (without condition— this is why Christians are against abortion) is an attribute constituitive of any understanding of Christian (or Jewish) marriage. After the clobber passages are set aside, Christians will often cite the inability of gay Christians to bear biological children as a disqualification of their marriage as Christian marriage. While this point is more constructive than resorting to the clobber passages, it often inappropriately elevates the role of child-rearing as a Christian vocation and, in doing so, dismisses the vocation of single Christians and adoptive Christian parents. Still, the command to create like our Creator is an important one for Christians to address.
I want to conclude by commenting briefly on this and bringing us back into the original frame of our conversation.
The command, so often thought to bear only on Adam and Eve, is really a creative command issued to all of creation for the sake of creation. That is, the procreative act is a necessary byproduct of creation’s contingency, which is a fancy way of saying that creation, unlike its Creator, does not have itself as its foundation, and thus must have certain procreative capacities to ensure its continuity. Moreover, the command to procreate comes after the declaration of everything as “very good,” which means that the diversity of the continuum of creation is imputed a goodness in its relation to God prior to any requisite necessities.
What does that mean?
It means that the inherent created “very goodness” of those who constitute a Christian marriage is not invalidated or insufficient by marriages which cannot have childrenor choose not to have children. Logically, this would apply to gay Christians every bit as much as it would apply to infertile Christians.
Christian couples are required to welcome children into their marriage (should children come); they’re not required to have children.
Further— and this is key for it’s oft forgotten— Christians believe the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is now a closed commandment.
The fullness of creation, in terms of Christian doctrine, is fulfilled in its entirety in the coming of Christ. That is, as Paul declares in Galatians and Romans, Christ fills all commandments, including the procreative command. What’s more, the need to fill the earth is no longer necessary, for, as the Bible declares to us in Ephesians, the Fullness of Christ is a Fullness that already now fills all of creation precisely because it is God condescending into His creation itself. The Creator enters creation, and in so doing, fills creation to its absolute core.
The crucified and risen Christ is in all of creation; such that, all of creation is a sacrament, rendering the command in Genesis not just closed but obsolete.
Our discussions of sexuality, keeping within the interpretive frame set out above, must acknowledge the coming of the Creator as the fulfillment of the world, and with it, the final completeness of the creative act. The love that inaugurated the world, the love that every Christian marriage has the capacity to reflect, was made flesh.