Unchastity and Motives

The 2017 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America passed a resolution this week on the interpretation of “sexual immorality” or “unchastity” in questions #108 and #109 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  The statement that was passed reads as follows:

To affirm that the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 and 109 categorically states that God condemns “all unchastity,” which includes same-sex sexual activity, and that faithful adherence to the RCA’s Standards, therefore, entails the affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman.

I want to address specifically the words in this statement that “all unchastity” “includes same-sex sexual activity.”  I would note, first of all that the statement does not say that “all unchastity” includes all same-sex sexual activity.  This is the first problem with this statement.  It doesn’t consider LGBTQ people who desire to sanctify their sexual activity by incorporating it into a marriage covenant, raising questions, of course, about the final clause in the General Synod’s statement.  Given the absence of legalized same-sex marriage, both during the period when the New Testament was written, and during the period when the Heidelberg Catechism was written, I would not dispute that the writers of the catechism would have included the same-sex behaviors with which they might have been familiar within the general category of sexual immorality.  Yet this hardly is a conclusive argument that same-sex marriages of today would have been automatically included.  That is a case that needs to be argued, not merely asserted.

But this, of course, raises the deeper question about what sort of moral logic governs the concept of unchastity or sexual immorality in the Bible.  The Greek word used in the New Testament for this concept is porneia.  Certainly, some uses of this word are clear and unmistakable.  It is used for various kinds of sexual acts that everyone would agree are morally wrong.  It is linked to prostitution in 1 Cor 6:13-18.  It is linked with adultery in Matt 15:19, and the same moral logic appears to be reflected in the use of the word in Matthew 19:9 (cf. Sirach 23:23).  1 Corinthians 5:1 speaks of incest using this word.  So it seems clear that forbidden sexual acts are envisioned by this word.  At this level there is no dispute.  Any form of sex outside of marriage, any form of sex that creates conflicting roles within families, or any form of sex which violates a marriage bond that is already in place is always considered sexual immorality, and Christians are always to resist such behaviors or inclinations. We see this “objective” approach in other New Testament texts, such as Revelation 9:21.

But the New Testament is not only concerned about behaviors, it is even more centrally concerned with the motives and desires that lead to immoral behaviors.  Mark 7:21-23 is a classic and important text here:

 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication (Greek porneia), theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

This concern about motives and desires appears commonly in the teaching of Jesus.  The most common problem Jesus addresses is not about actions that are wrong; it is about the motives and desires that lead to our actions.  He speaks often about hypocrisy, and confronts those whose lives are “whitewashed tombs,” whose behavior is technically acceptable, but which springs from corrupt motives.  We see these thoughts reflected in Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication (Greek porneia), theft, false witness, slander,” and in the words of Colossians 3:5 “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication (Greek porneia), impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).”  Note that all the words in Colossians address motives and desires.

This concern with motives and desires is evident, even in the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Q&A 109, which states in part, that “God forbids all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires, and whatever may incite someone to them.”  So clearly the Heidelberg Catechism is not only concerned with the “objective” side of unchastity, but also with the “subjective” side.

This focus on motives and desires is also reflected in the link between sexual immorality and impurity in the New Testament.  Note, for example, the way in which 2 Corinthians 12:21 links together “impurity, sexual immorality (Greek porneia), and licentiousness.”  We see the same linkage in Galatians 5:19. Ephesians 5:3 links together fornication (Greek porneia) and impurity, together with greed.  Of course, many things that the Old Covenant regarded as “impure” (e.g. dietary restrictions, exposure to blood, etc.) are treated differently in the New Testament.  But what the New Testament continues to affirm is the motivational side of the category of “impurity.”  If behavior of any sort springs from impure motives or desires, then that behavior is still considered “impure” by the New Testament, and is to be resisted.  In the New Testament, what makes behaviors “impure” is not some objective moral standard, but rather that these behaviors spring from wrong desires or motives.

So here we come to two dimensions to the biblical concept of “sexual immorality,” both of which need to be included in order to fully understand this concept.  On the one hand, there is the “objective” side of unchastity or sexual immorality.  Certain behaviors like prostitution, sex outside of marriage, adultery, or incest are always morally wrong, and the New Testament treats them consistently in this way.  However, the New Testament itself provides another “lens” through which to construct a sexual ethic as well, and that lens focuses on motives and desires.  This is important for two reasons.

First, there may well be sexual acts which are permitted by “objective” standards (like sex within marriage), but which are still problematic because of problems with motives and desires (such as excessive lust in marriage, or the failure to treat one’s spouse appropriately during sex).  The New Testament is rarely content to look merely at objective behaviors; it always probes to motives as well.

This leads to the second reason why the New Testament focuses on motives and desires.  The church often encounters marginal cases in its construction of sexual ethics, which require the exploration of motives and desires, beyond merely a focus on objective actions.  I think that the clearest case of this has to do with divorce and remarriage.  Mark 10:11-12 clearly forbids all divorce and remarriage: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  Matthew 19:3ff. qualifies this case, allowing for divorce and remarriage in the case of “sexual immorality” (Greek porneia).  But most Christians today call for an examination of the circumstances and motives leading to divorce and remarriage, and are generally open to a consideration of motives and desires, as a way of discerning which sorts of divorce and remarriage cases should be accepted by the church.  In other words, a consideration of motives and desires helps to solve sexual ethics cases which are at the margins, and for which more “objective” criteria seem problematic for one reason or another.

And so we return, finally, to the question of whether “unchastity” or “sexual immorality” as applied to same-sex marriages should fall under the “objective” category of those behaviors that area always forbidden by Scripture, or whether specific cases should be evaluated according to the motives and desires which drive them.  This strikes me as an important question worth pursuing, and a conversation worth having in the church in general, and in the RCA in particular.  I hope we can have such a conversation, even after the General Synod’s vote.

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16 thoughts on “Unchastity and Motives

  1. Thank you so much, Jim. This is a very helpful and important addition to the conversation that hasn’t yet happened and needs to happen within the RCA.

  2. After all the discussion of the various amendments and strategies, it seemed that Synod spent very little time discussing the motion itself before the question was called. Impatience? Resentment? And little willingness to listen to the people who know something? I kept thinking that there has to be a better way to make these decisions and wrestle with these issues.

    • Yes, I was appalled by the lack of respect afforded our professors of Theology when they sought to teach us on pertinent matters. The people who wanted it to pass were past listening to reasonable arguments.

      • Lisa and Lynn,
        Very respectfully, I wish to correct why the majority (I have no better term to use, not meant to say any more than that) appeared to you to be impatient. We were tired of the endless amendments, which were viewed by the majority as procedural maneuvers (yes, our perception). If there was a desire to have careful debate, we would have loved to debate and educate on both sides. However, after 4 or 5 amendments, that was enough.

  3. I would love us to leave the empty, hurtful statement of a now-gone general synod behind and have a serious discussion together instead.

  4. Thank you, Jim. This is exactly the kind of in-depth, thoughtful consideration that cannot reasonably be expected within Synod, and without which I wish we would not act.

  5. Jim, what you express on this blog is in continuity with what you have laid in your book on the same issue. In that you are consistent and coherent. However, what you have laid out in your book as hermeneutic is also very revolutionary and subversive. Just some points, if I may (I hope I have all the references right….If not, please correct me….) I will be very frank and confrontational, if you do not mind . . .

    Jim, according to you, as is clear in your book and now again on this blog, our moral logic, or our interpretation and its ethical implications, should not be grounded in what is first creational, historical, etc. No, it should be grounded in what is pre-eminently spiritual, dispositional, and internal. That is what the New Testament requires, in fact. This is what you reiterate above as well. Let me illustrate this referring to your interpretation of Gen. 2:24, in the context of your discussion on 1 Cor. 6:12-20, which is also very pertinent here. Looking at those two passages, it becomes again very clear how your hermeneutic works.

    In the context of looking at 1 Cor. 6:12-20, you apply your hermeneutic of Gen. 2:24 by clearly prioritizing the spiritual, and/or what is metaphorically implied, over what is naturally considered first, namely our creation and our historical and bodily reality. I will cite the passage in its entirety. Speaking of 1 Cor. 6:12-20, you write,

    “Here the basic kinship background we have already seen is evident in Paul’s reference to “one-flesh.” Sexual union is intended to create a shared and continuing social reality. . . . As we noted, Paul’s use of Genesis 2:24 exposes the core form of moral logic that underlies the problem with sexual promiscuity. We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the “real world” governed by God’s purposes and decrees,…” p. 102.

    No longer grounding your interpretation first and foremost in the historical, creational, and concrete, a reversal has taken place, the roles reverse: the real world is the spiritual world, now metaphorically alluded to by the concrete world. The historical is no longer the bearer of the spiritual, but the spiritual, the “real world,” should be reflected in the historical. The individual disposition (which is your description of what person might mean), and the social order of things, precede the ontological-biological.

    This is, finally, the consequence of the application of your hermeneutic, which you coherently and consistently apply. This makes your book, indeed also so persuasive, but at the same time so revolutionary, turning God’s created order and intentions up-side down. That is the spirit of the book. And so you can write, almost concluding your book,

    “These Christians may celebrate the way in which, by the providence of God, such “queer” folk can naturally deconstruct the pervasive tendencies of majority voices to become oppressive and exclusionary. In this vision, the inclusion of committed gay and lesbian unions represents, not an accommodation to a sexually broken world, but rather an offbeat redemptive purpose in the new creation. That purpose can destabilize the assumed exclusivity of the heterosexual majority, challenging all of God’s people to discover more deeply the richness of interpersonal communion, beyond socially constructed roles and responsibilities shaped by a heterosexual majority that is too often oblivious to the ways it can oppress minority voices.” p. 253.

    According to you, Christ was the first one to break through, in this way. Was he not the first revolutionary, as he eschatologically introduced these principles of understanding and practice, not fully understood then, yet? Therefore you say, “The way forward is not to be found by a return to a pristine, original nature—or even by more focused attempts to keep the whole law–but rather by following the crucified Messiah, who is ushering in a new creation, empowered by the Spirit of God.” p. 250. And did not Paul, even Paul, cautiously join Him, cautiously as not to upset the status quo too much? “The whole world as Paul knew it had come to an end. The gospel of Christ entails nothing less than a radical eschatological reordering of society as a whole. . . . ” p. 66.

    And you continue elsewhere, “To reach this world, we need to read and live into the rest of Romans, with its remarkable message of radical grace, freedom from the law, transformation in Christ, and hope of a new creation.” p. 254.

    See here, the results of your hermeneutic loosened from its creational, historical foundations, its ontological groundings. That is finally the subversive spirit that blows through your book and this blog. No, not a return to the way it was, or to even the keeping of the whole law, but a way forward. The moral logic turns out to be from the start also an eschatological, a revolutionary logic, an eschatological moral logic, dare I say, an eschatological-anarchical logic, that is, not back to origins, or to the body of the law of God, but forward!

    Jim, I do not wish this to become a long discussion, but I do need to say that is finally the danger and subversive fervor of your book and what you display on this blog. I believe, it is in the final analysis, a subtle, but clear eschatological inauguration of lawlessness, ready to sanctify immoral behaviour in marriage and that under the guise of a spiritually deeper understood hermeneutic and practice. I would say, this might just as well be the eschaton of what Paul describes as the mystery of iniquity (ανομιας) (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:7), the eschaton of the spirit of apostasy now having entered the church, our Reformed church. I know this is direct and confrontational, but I believe grounded in what I have read in your book, and now again on your blog.

    • Two responses, Meine: first, the quote you cite from p. 253 of my book is one option I lay out, but I have not committed myself to it. I offered it for further conversation, not as a single conclusion.

      Secondly, I stand by my argument that the New Testament as a whole develops an eschatological logic that looks forward to the New Creation, rather than back at the old creation. If this were not so, you would never see the celebration of celibacy in the church, for this has no grounding in the original creation. I do not believe that I am over-spiritualizing. I made it clear in my blog that there are absolute requirements of chastity that continue to be binding. But where motives and desires are positive, we need to look again.

      Finally, I would invite you to consider that the New Testament is pretty clear that the result of iniquity is death and the failure of flourishing. I know lots of gay couples who have been together for decades, and who flourish in those relationships. i also would note the research that shows that, for whatever reason, the Holy Spirit is apparently not curing men of a same-sex sexual orientation. We need to honestly and directly ask what this data means for our ethical deliberations.

      • Thanks for your responses, Jim.

        As to your first point, of course you as author know the intent of what you have written, however, it seems to me that a little later you reinforce the same thrust of argument, when you write, “The Biblical vision of a new creation invites us to imagine what living into a deeper vision of “nature” as the convergence of individual disposition, social order, and the physical world might look like, under the guidance and the power of the Spirit of God. This might also entail the cultivation of a vision for how consecrated and committed gay and lesbian relationships might fit into such a new order.” P, 255. Does this not reinforce your point of committed gay and lesbian unions providing an offbeat redemptive purpose in the new creation? Again, it seems to be that you are quite committed to such a vision of things, but I shall not pretend to know you better than you know yourselves….

        As to your second response, it seems to me that Jesus, in talking about divorce, precisely refers the Pharisees back to the beginning, both with respect to the Magna Carta of marriage and consequently, divorce, “He answered, “Have you not read that who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:4-9).

        Twice in this passage Jesus uses the phrase, ‘from the beginning,’ “who created them from the beginning made them male and female,” and “but from the beginning it was not so.” Jesus applies a, from-the-beginning-creational-logic.

        In the same context, in the next verses, in fact, he speaks about celibacy, not denying the creational-from-the-beginning-context, but speaking about eunuchs as exception, by way of gift, by force, or choice; by birth, or by volition to serve in the Kingdom of God. “But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it”(Matthew 19:11-12).

        The divine standard remains, according to the original divine institution of marriage. The exception to this reinforces the divine institution, when Jesus adds the last phrase, meaning, ‘only those who have received this, exceptionally.’

        Also, Jim, looking at the text I quoted from p. 255 of your book, it seems to me that precisely there you propose a, if not almost gnostic, certainly a more ‘spiritualized,’ or ‘moralized’ understanding of nature, as a “convergence of individual disposition, social order, and the physical world might look like, under the guidance and the power of the Spirit of God.” This, in fact seems to be the whole thrust of your argumentation, loosening a biblical interpretation from a more creational-from-the-beginning-logic, towards a more ethical-spiritual-eschatological interpretation. This provides with you the vision, combined with your redefinition of ‘one flesh’ as kinship bond, to be able to apply an eschatological-revolutionary hermeneutic with respect to the issue of same-sex relationships, etc., as well.

        Finally, I think flourishing in a same-sex relationship, which is clearly contrary to Scripture, cannot be a reason why one should accept such relationships. I am reminded of Ps. 73,3-5, where the Psalmist writes, ” I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are;
        they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. . . . ” etc., etc. He concludes these observations, with, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin” (16-18).

        The Holy Spirit does not always intervene. When the Holy Spirit intervenes to convict of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16: 8) it is grace. At the same, Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:24-25). This is the great paradox and reality of a justified sinner, which will not be resolved until the believer will be translated into glory, completely cured.

  6. You provide great direction for debate.  I could easily posit that sexual activity conducted on a greed-theft-beyrayal continuum might be most biblically inappropriate,  regardless of gender.    Rev. Charles Spencer,       Oklahoma City, OK, cell, 405-641-0498

    Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

  7. Added to our theological debate, “(t)his is graphic (and long) but if you want a gripping, poignant, at times poetic, and utterly candid description of the emptiness of what counts for standard fare in male homosexuality read this article by Joseph Sciambra.” -R. Gagnon

    “There was a battle taking place between how my body was designed and what I wanted to do with it. I think I knew I was losing. However, I always found solace in friends who were having similar problems and in the collective exuberance of the gay male community to dance through disaster and disease.”

    Full article: Surviving Gay…Barely | http://josephsciambra.com

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