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.

Response to Gagnon in First Things

In a recent online article in First Things, Robert Gagnon wrote a piece entitled “WHY SAN FRANCISCO’S CITY CHURCH IS WRONG ABOUT SEX.”  I write this response, not in order to defend City Church (I don’t know the details of their position, and they can defend themselves quite well without my help), but in order to shed some light on important aspects of the debate over LGBT inclusion that are obscured or unclear in Gagnon’s article.  Gagnon sometimes writes with a tone of finality and clarity, when the facts are less clear or more multi-faceted than his writing may suggest.

For example, early in the piece, he writes, “In fact, adult-committed relationships in the ancient world were widely known, with early Christians and rabbis forbidding even adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex as abhorrent acts.”  What Gagnon’s comment obscures is the fact that the dominant pattern of same-sex eroticism in the ancient world is pederasty—men with boys or men with slaves.  There is a lively debate about whether this was the only form of same-sex eroticism that was known, but almost everyone will agree that, if “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex” existed at all, they were extremely rare, and did not constitute the most common form in which same-sex erotic relationships took place.  Moreover, I find absolutely no evidence that first-century Christians or Jews ever spoke of “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex.”  I would welcome Gagnon’s pointing to evidence to the contrary, but I know of none.  Debates over LGBT inclusion are not assisted by distortions of the relevant facts.

Gagnon proceeds in the next paragraph of his article to argue his case in more detail.  But note how the ground shifts.  He now argues, not that Paul is directly condemning “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex,” but rather that Paul’s condemnation of “homosexual practice” is absolute and not subject to any sorts of restrictions.  Therefore, by implication, even “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex” are forbidden.  So now the ground has shifted.  We are no longer talking about a direct prohibition, but rather a prohibition by implication of the nature of Paul’s argument.  This leaves considerably more room for debate.

And in fact, there is room for debate on many fronts.  Gagnon says nothing of the fact that three times in Rom 1:24-27, Paul characterizes the same-sex eroticism he speaks of as marked by excessive lust.  In 1:24 he speaks of how God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.  Later, he speaks of how this activity is marked by “degrading passions” (1:26) and as “consumed with passion” (1:28).  The intensity of Paul’s argument seems appropriate to promiscuous and abusive encounters, but it seems less relevant to those who want to live together in life-long bonds of committed love, “for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.”

Paul’s focus on lust and passion here is consistent with what we know about ancient Jewish and Christian attitudes toward same-sex eroticism generally.  They viewed this behavior as arising, not from a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation, but rather from desire which was inflated to excess, not content with more “normal” means of gratification, and driven to increasingly bizarre and exotic forms of stimulation.

We see this perspective commonly in the ancient world, in both Roman and Jewish authors.  The Roman orator Dio Chrysostom, for example, who wrote shortly after Paul’s time, speaks of same-sex eroticism as the manifestation of insatiable lust:

The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given—in fact, too utterly feminine—and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure.  His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweating, salted foods, and condiments.[1]

The early Jewish philosopher/theologian Philo, writing a bit earlier than Paul, makes a similar equation between same-sex eroticism and self-centered lust which refuses any boundaries.  He comments on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah:

The land of the Sodomites, a part of the land of Canaan afterwards called Palestinian Syria, was brimful of innumerable iniquities, particularly such as arise from gluttony and lewdness, and multiplied and enlarged every other possible pleasure with so formidable a menace that it had at last been condemned by the Judge of All.  The inhabitants owed this extreme license to the never-failing lavishness of their sources of wealth, for, deep-soiled and well-watered as it was, the land had every year a prolific harvest of all manner of fruits, and the chief beginning of evils, as one has aptly said, is goods in excess.  Incapable of bearing such satiety, plunging like cattle, they threw off from their necks the law of nature and applied themselves to deep drinking of strong liquor and dainty feeding and forbidden forms of intercourse.[2]

It is particularly interesting how Philo, like Paul, equates this excess of lust with the abandonment of the “law of nature.”  “Nature” here is not focused on creational design as much as it concerns the sort of moderation that is commonly assumed as “natural” in philosophical circles of the day.

When we confront this distance between the perspective of ancient writers on same-sex attraction, and the experience of LGBT folks today, we face some important questions.  The vast majority of gay and lesbian persons do not experience sexual attraction to those of the opposite sex.  Their interest in those of the same sex is not driven by a thirst for the exotic; it is simply the only form of sexual desire that they have ever known.  It may be strong or weak, insistent or occasional, but though its intensity may vary, its orientation does not.  In short, the experience of gay and lesbian persons today does not match the perspective that underlies the rhetoric of ancient Jews and Christians toward same-sex behavior.

As Christians, we can all agree that self-centered eroticism that is driven by a thirst for the exotic should not be embraced by any sort of Christian perspective.  When we encounter erotic desire of the sort that Paul, or Chrysostom, or Philo speak of, we should also raise substantial moral questions about its propriety.  But to equate all same-sex behavior to the lustful excesses that Paul and other ancient writers have in mind is to make equations where they do not exist, and to subject contemporary gay and lesbian Christians to unfair and inaccurate accusations.  Paul is speaking about lust and excessive passion; he is not speaking about loving, self-sacrificing, committed, mutual relationships.  To equate the two is to ignore the specifics of Paul’s language in its context, and the specifics of the experience of gay and lesbian persons today.

Of course, there are other dimensions of Paul’s argument that Gagnon speaks of, and which I address in my book on this topic,[3] but space does not permit a complete response here.  In general, one of the major disagreements between Gagnon and me in our interpretation of Romans 1 is the extent to which we believe that Paul is basing his argument explicitly on Genesis 1-2.  Gagnon frames his argument in this manner, speaking of the “strong intertextual echoes to Genesis 1–2,” but I am more cautious.  My caution arises from the fact that Paul is arguing in the first chapter of Romans for the reality of Gentile sinfulness, and the inescapability of their guilt.  But the Gentiles have not received the book of Genesis as a revelation from God.  If Paul’s argument is dependent on Genesis, then the Gentiles have an excuse—they have not received the revelation that Paul allegedly speaks of in Genesis.  But Paul explicitly argues against such a position in Rom 1:20—the Gentiles are “without excuse.”  Paul is not arguing from special revelation in Romans 1, but from general revelation, and his argument flows from an assumption that he shares with Greeks and Romans—that excessive passion is one of the clearest signs of human brokenness and weakness.  So this problem of excessive lust is not peripheral, but is central to his argument.

And there are further issues to argue about as well.  Gagnon writes, “The best biblical scholars who have studied extensively the issue of homosexual practice, including advocates for homosexual unions (such as William Loader and Bernadette Brooten), know that the scriptural indictment of homosexual practice includes a rejection of committed homosexual unions.”  Of course Gagnon singles out these particular writers as “the best” because they agree with him.  But if one surveys in general the biblical scholars who advocate for same-sex unions of one sort or another (including myself), the vast majority do not reflect the assumption that Gagnon associates with those that he terms “the best,”  that “the scriptural indictment of homosexual practice includes a rejection of committed homosexual unions.” Such rhetoric is powerful, but deceptive.

Gagnon also critiques rather heavily Ken Wilson, whose book[4] is commended by City Church, San Franciso.  Wilson has formulated his own response to Gagnon’s critique, which you can review here. I will let him speak for himself.

Finally, I want to say a few words about Gagnon’s argument regarding the parallels between incest and same-sex relationships.  In his article, he states, “The same scriptural justification City Church offers to treat as permissible homosexual sex in the context of what City Church deems a marriage could be used to say that incest is acceptable so long as it occurs in the context of a “marriage” between consenting adults.”  One might observe, first of all, that the vast majority of cases of incest do not involve “consenting adults” but rather the abuse of children, and are thus both irrelevant to this discussion, and are clearly wrong on multiple grounds.  But Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5, speaks to an issue of incest which was apparently consensual between adults, and roundly condemns it.  I believe, with Gagnon, that Christians today should reject all incestuous relationships, even if they are mutually consenting relationships between adults.  But I disagree with Gagnon about why such relationships are wrong.  Gagnon believes that they are wrong because the participants are “too much alike.”[5]  But if one reads the incest prohibitions of Leviticus 18 & 20 carefully, it is clear that the issue is not “too much sameness” but rather the involvement of persons in incompatible roles:  one can’t be both mother and wife, or father and husband, or brother and spouse, or son and husband.  Such role conflicts create innumerable problems that have been recognized in all cultures and almost universally rejected.  But it is hard to see how such role conflicts speak to committed same-sex unions that do not involve persons from the same original household.  So yes, incest is always wrong, even between consenting adults, but this doesn’t really speak to the question of same-sex unions composed of those who are not from the same household.

In short, I agree with Gagnon that the church must stand against all forms of sexual immorality, and refuse to condone such behavior under any circumstances.  However, when Gagnon insists that all same-sex relationships must necessarily be characterized as sexually immoral, he fails to recognize the context and underlying rationale regarding biblical sexual ethics, and obscures, rather than aids the current conversation.


[1] Dio Chrysostom, Dio Chrysostom, trans. J. W. Cohoon, Crosby, H. Lamar, The Loeb Classical Library.  (London, New York: W. Heinemann. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, 1932), 7:152, vol. 1, p. 373.

[2]de Abr. 133-135. Cited from Philo, Philo, trans. F. H. Colson, 9 vols., vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, Heinemann, 1935), 69f.

[3] Bible, Gender, Sexuality:  Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2013).

[4] A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender in the company of Jesus, (Crumm, 2014).

[5] Homosexuality and the Bible:  Two Views, (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2003), 49.

Jesus and Marriage

I got a question a couple of days ago in the comment section on this blog about Jesus’ statement on marriage and divorce in the gospels.  LCH writes,

Some of the “Side B” Christians I’ve read essays from have mentioned Jesus’ talking about marriage and divorce, and saying, “It was not so from the beginning,” and referencing humans being created male and female. Since this isn’t one of the so-called “clobber passages”, it wasn’t addressed in your book. I’m wondering if you could provide thoughts on what we’re to take from that, and why one might not have to read it as establishing marriage between persons of opposite gender.

This is one of the texts that I wish I had said more about in the book!  I get a lot of questions on it.  Here’s the text from Mark 10:2-9 from the NRSV:

 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

First, as I note in my book, this whole text is centrally about whether divorce is permitted.  Since divorce is the severing of kinship ties and obligations, Jesus’ citation of the “one flesh” text in conjunction with his prohibition of divorce makes it clear that he sees the language of “one flesh” as pointing to the permanence of this particular kinship bond.

But why does he also cite the reference to “God made them male and female?”  I suspect that the reason is fairly simple.  The marriage bond is not the only kinship bond, and people feel free to walk away from many kinship bonds, given their personal circumstances.  We are not eternally obligated to live with our cousins.  But Jesus wants to say that the bond of marriage is a special kinship bond, that one can’t simply walk away from.  It is special because it is established by divine decree, rather than by simply being born into a family. So I suspect that he quotes from the rest of the Genesis text to do two things:  First, he wants to return to original principles on which the law rests, rather than operate in a casuistic manner on the question of divorce.  Secondly, he wants to single out the marriage bond as a unique kinship bond that cannot be walked away from like other kinship bonds can.

It is quite another question whether Jesus alludes to “male and female” not only descriptively, to point to the special character of the marriage bond, but rather than in a way that is exclusively normative.  Given the fact that the subject in focus in Jesus’ discourse is not a definition of marriage, but a discussion of the legitimacy of divorce, I think it’s probably over-reading to attempt to derive an exclusively normative understanding of male-female marriage from this passage alone.  Jesus alludes to the Gen. 2 text to make it clear that marriage is a particularly significant and distinct kinship bond. He assumes that the marriages he speaks of are between a man and a woman (there were no  other marriages in his day), and thus he alludes to the Gen. 2 text to make it clear that he is speaking of a particular sort of “one flesh” constituted by marriage, and not by other kinship ties.The very fact that he makes such an allusion underscores that the language of “one flesh” might not be construed in Jesus’ day to refer exclusively to marriage, but could refer to a variety of kinship bonds (e.g. Gen 37:27, Lev 18:17, 25:49, Jdg. 9:2, 2 Sam 5:1, 19:12, 1 Chron 11:1)

So that’s the key question:  does Jesus speak of “male and female” and  allude to Gen. 2 because he intends to teach that this is the only form of marriage that is possible, or does he do so because he wants to clarify that he is speaking of the “one flesh” bond of marriage, rather than any other kinship bond?  I think that the latter is actually the more plausible explanation.  In other words, Jesus’ usage underscores my central argument that the language of “one flesh” in Genesis 2 is concerned with the origin of the kinship bond in marriage, not with the origin of gender complementarity.

Epistle Lection, March 16 2014 Romans 4:1-4, 13-17; Comments on the Greek Text

Epistle Lection, March 16 2014

Romans 4:1-4, 13-17; Comments on the Greek Text

Ro 4:1 Τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν εὑρηκέναι Ἀβραὰμ τὸν προπάτορα ἡμῶν κατὰ σάρκα[A]; What then shall we say Abraham found—our forefather according to the flesh?
Ro 4:2 εἰ γὰρ Ἀβραὰμ ἐξ ἔργων ἐδικαιώθη, ἔχει καύχημα· ἀλλ’ οὐ πρὸς θεόν, For if Abraham was justified from works, he has a boast, but not before/toward God.
Ro 4:3 τί γὰρ ἡ γραφὴ λέγει; Ἐπίστευσεν δὲ Ἀβραὰμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη[B] αὐτῷ εἰς[C] δικαιοσύνην. For what does the Scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was counted for him as righteousness.”
Ro 4:4 τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ ὁ μισθὸς[D] οὐ λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν ἀλλὰ κατὰ ὀφείλημα· But for the one who works, the wage is not counted according to grace, but according to obligation.
Ro 4:5 τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ, πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ[E], λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην, But for the one who does not work, but who trusts on the one who justifies the ungodly, his [or her] faith is counted as righteousness.
Ro 4:13 Οὐ γὰρ διὰ νόμου ἡ ἐπαγγελία τῷ Ἀβραὰμ ἢ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ, τὸ[F] κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου, ἀλλὰ διὰ δικαιοσύνης πίστεως[G]· For [it was] not through law [that] the promise [came] to Abraham or to his seed, [that] he [would] be [the] heir of the world, but through [the] righteousness of faith.
Ro 4:14 εἰ γὰρ οἱ ἐκ νόμου κληρονόμοι, κεκένωται ἡ πίστις καὶ κατήργηται[H] ἡ ἐπαγγελία· For if the heirs [are] from [the] law, faith has been emptied and the promise has been wiped out.
Ro 4:15 ὁ γὰρ νόμος ὀργὴν κατεργάζεται[I], οὗ δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν νόμος, οὐδὲ παράβασις. For the law accomplishes wrath, but where there is no law, neither [is there] transgression.
Ro 4:16 Διὰ τοῦτο ἐκ πίστεως,[J] ἵνα κατὰ χάριν, εἰς τὸ εἶναι βεβαίαν τὴν ἐπαγγελίαν παντὶ τῷ σπέρματι, οὐ τῷ ἐκ τοῦ νόμου μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ τῷ ἐκ πίστεως Ἀβραάμ (ὅς ἐστιν πατὴρ πάντων ἡμῶν, For this reason [righteousness/promise comes] from faith, so that it [might be] according to grace, so that the promise might be secure to all the seed, not to the [one] who [lives] from the law only, but also to the one [who lives] from the faith of Abraham, (who is father of all of us,
Ro 4:17 καθὼς γέγραπται ὅτι Πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν[K] τέθεικά σε), κατέναντι οὗ ἐπίστευσεν θεοῦ τοῦ ζῳοποιοῦντος τοὺς νεκροὺς καὶ καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα[L]· as it is written, “I have appointed you [as] father of many nations/Gentiles,) in the presence of the God whom he trusted—the God who makes the dead come to life and calls the things that do not exist as if they do exist.

[A] The phrase could be adjectival (not just any forefather, but our forefather according to the flesh), or adverbial (What did Abraham our forefather find according to the flesh?)  Word order favors the former, but the latter is possible, and avoids the seeming oddity of Paul suddenly seeming to address only Jews.

[B] The more traditional translation is “reckoned.”  The word comes from the world of accounting.  That’s why I used “counted.”

[C] Or perhaps more literally “counted for him into righteousness.”

[D] The word can have the connotation of reward (beyond what is earned) or simply what is earned.  It may be better to translate simply “payment.”

[E] A surprising word here.  Paul has spoken earlier in chap. 3 of the justification of those who were not themselves righteous in their behavior, but implicitly identifying Abraham as one of the “ungodly” is a bit shocking here.  Cf. Rom 5:6.

[F] The article goes with the infinitive (thus neuter), not with the masculine κληρονόμον.

[G] Either a genitive of origin (the righteousness that comes from faith) or an appositional genitive (the righteousness that is faith.)

[H] Both verbs are perfect tense, indicating a continuing state which is the result of a prior action.

[I] See Rom 3:9ff.

[J] The subject is unstated.  “Promise” is suggested by its use later in the verse, but “righteousness” seems more like to come from faith.  The promise doesn’t originate in our faith, but in God’s free gift.  Nor is the giving of the promise dependent on faith, but only its reception.

[K] Note in Greek that this word could be translated either “nations” or “gentiles.”

[L] Literally, “calls the things not being as being.”  The “if” in my translation is interpretative.

Epistle Lection, March 2, 2014; 2 Peter 1:16-21, Comments on the Greek text

Epistle Lection, March 2, 2014-02-17

2 Peter 1:16-21

2Pe 1:16 Οὐ γὰρ σεσοφισμένοις[A] μύθοις ἐξακολουθήσαντες[B] ἐγνωρίσαμεν ὑμῖν τὴν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δύναμιν καὶ παρουσίαν[C], ἀλλ’ ἐπόπται γενηθέντες τῆς ἐκείνου μεγαλειότητος[D]. For we were not following cleverly crafted myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of that one’s majesty.
2Pe 1:17 λαβὼν γὰρ παρὰ θεοῦ πατρὸς τιμὴν καὶ δόξαν φωνῆς ἐνεχθείσης αὐτῷ τοιᾶσδε ὑπὸ τῆς μεγαλοπρεποῦς δόξης· Ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός μου οὗτός ἐστιν, εἰς ὃν ἐγὼ εὐδόκησα[E]— For having received from God [the] Father honor and glory, such a voice was borne to him by the majestic glory:  This is my son, my beloved, in whom I have become well pleased.”
2Pe 1:18 καὶ ταύτην τὴν φωνὴν ἡμεῖς ἠκούσαμεν ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἐνεχθεῖσαν[F] σὺν αὐτῷ ὄντες ἐν τῷ ἁγίῳ ὄρει. And we heard this voice, borne from heaven, [since or when] we were with him in the holy mountain.
2Pe1:19 καὶ ἔχομεν βεβαιότερον τὸνπροφητικὸν λόγον, ᾧ καλῶς ποιεῖτε προσέχοντες ὡς λύχνῳ φαίνοντι ἐν αὐχμηρῷ τόπῳ, ἕως οὗ ἡμέρα διαυγάσῃ καὶ φωσφόρος ἀνατείλῃ ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν· And we hold more firmly the prophetic word, which you do well to hold fast to, like a shining lamp in a dark place, until a day dawns  and a morning star rises in your hearts
2Pe 1:20 τοῦτο πρῶτον γινώσκοντες ὅτι πᾶσα προφητεία γραφῆς ἰδίας[G] ἐπιλύσεως οὐ[H] γίνεται[I], [And] we know this first [and foremost], that no prophecy of Scripture is [a matter] of one’s own [private] interpretation,
2Pe 1:21 οὐ γὰρ θελήματι ἀνθρώπου ἠνέχθη προφητεία ποτέ[J], ἀλλὰ ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν ἀπὸ θεοῦ[K] ἄνθρωποι. For prophecy was never borne by the will of a human being; rather,  people borne by [the] Holy Spirit spoke from God.

[A] Literally “sophisticated.”

[B] The same word that is used for following as discipleship—an alternate discipleship is envisioned here.

[C] Could be either “presence,” focusing on immanence, or “coming,” focusing on the return of Christ.

[D] or “greatness,” “splendor.”

[E] Slightly unexpected use of aorist.  Literally “I was well pleased.”

[F] Note the same verb as the previous verse, as well as verse 21 in two different forms (ἠνέχθη and φερόμενοι).

[G] “personal” or “private.”

[H] Note the way that negatives work with “all” in Greek, which is different than in English.  Hence the non-literal translation here.

[I] or “does not become”

[J] οὐ . . . ποτέ means “never”

[K] I.e., the meaning is “carried” by the speaker, not by the hearer.

Sex Without Bodies?

Branson Parler, in a recent review, takes issue with a number of things in my book Bible Gender Sexuality.  But at the crux of our disagreement is this statement of his:  “I disagree with him because his argument disconnects procreation and children from human sexuality. This disconnects human sexuality from materiality and actual human bodies.”  Andy Crouch wrote an editorial last summer in Christianity Today entitled “Sex Without Bodies,” making a similar point (though not addressing my book directly).  He writes, “There is really only one conviction that can hold this coalition of disparate human experiences [i.e., LGBTQIA] together. And it is the irrelevance of bodies—specifically, the irrelevance of biological sexual differentiation in how we use our bodies.”  Both of these articles make a connection between a more open posture toward LGBT people and Gnosticism, the ancient heresy which regarded the body as irrelevant to true spiritual life, and saw the body as left behind in the experience of salvation.  The Gnostics denied one of the central statements of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

That’s a fairly serious charge, and deserves an answer.  My first response is to observe that it is a rather odd sort of argument to say that bodies don’t matter to LGBT people.  In fact, bodies matter a great deal.  LGBT people, like straight people, find themselves attracted to particular sorts of bodies and not to other sorts of bodies.  The only difference is that the bodies they are attracted to (in the case of LGB folk), and the sorts of body they identify with (in the case of transgender folk) don’t fit the more common pattern in society as a whole.  But this is no Gnostic escape from the body; it is a deep inclination toward a different sort of body from the dominant pattern in society as a whole.  Bodies matter a great deal for LGBT folk; they just matter in different ways than they do for straight folk.  To equate this with Gnosticism represents a bit of a leap, in my judgment.

We also have to recognize that the church has not always gotten things right in its attempt to read the will of God from bodily characteristics.  A classic example in America is the question of race.  For most of American history, states have had laws on their books prohibiting inter-racial marriage.  The state of Alabama was the last to remove this ban from its constitution, voting to do so finally in the year 2000 (with 40% of the population voting to keep the ban).  The obvious differences in skin color suggested, to those favoring such a ban, that people of different races should not be married, and that to do so would be to ignore the obvious will of God implanted in bodies created by God. The same assumption undergirded the Apartheid laws of South Africa.

This tragic story suggests an extremely important qualifier to any attempts to read the will of God from bodily characteristics.  We must clearly and carefully distinguish those bodily characteristics which express the normative will of God from those bodily characteristics which express the creative diversity intended by God.  Thankfully, most Christians today put racial differences in the second category, rather than in the first.

So how do we decide whether any particular bodily characteristic is expressive of divinely intended diversity, or whether it points to a norm that should shape human life?  I write as a Protestant Christian, and for Protestants, the answer is fairly clear.  The only bodily characteristics that express the normative will of God are those bodily characteristics that are interpreted in a normative fashion by the full witness of Scripture itself.  Everything else is part of the creative diversity of God which expresses itself in the creation as a whole.

And this brings us back to one of the central contentions of my book.  There I argue that, while procreation is an important part of marriage, it is not essential to marriage.  The absence of procreation is never in the Bible an acceptable reason for divorce (though this was the most common reason why people in the ancient world would seek divorce).  And neither the church nor the witness of Scripture has ever expressed reservations about marrying heterosexual couples who are incapable of procreation because of age or sterility.  So (at least for Protestants) procreation is part of the creative diversity of God, but is not always normative.  Childless couples have not, simply because of their childlessness, necessarily failed to fulfill the will of God (though in many cases, childbearing may well be an opportunity that God intends couples to pursue).  But when procreation is pursued, it is sought, not out of a “bodily mandate,” but rather out of a discernment of the particular ways in which love may overflow, for any particular couple, from marriage into fruitfulness.  Accordingly, the use of contraception (for Protestants) represents one of the particular ways in which heterosexual couples exercise this discernment in the modern world.

Interestingly, Scripture as a whole even takes an open position with respect to the obligatory character of marriage itself.  One might readily read procreative capacity as normative, in the sense that human beings have not fulfilled their true destiny unless they marry and seek to bear children.  Many in the ancient world held such an assumption.  Yet Jesus commends those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12).  Hence even the normativity of marriage itself (over against singleness) cannot be drawn from gender distinctions or procreative capacity.

But this brings us back to the crux of the matter with respect to bodies and LGBT folk.  In my book, I argue that Scripture itself never argues in a focused way on the basis of bodily characteristics when it addresses the question of same-sex eroticism.  It uses other categories:  Romans 1 speaks of excessive passion, shame, impurity (which in the New Testament carries the connotation of wrongful motives), and of actions that are “contrary to nature,” which I argue, (based on Pauline usage and patterns of use in the ancient world,) represents the convergence of individual inclination, social consensus, and procreation.  I just don’t see how you get a normative interpretation of bodily differences based simply on gender or procreation from these texts.

I readily acknowledge that some Christians read Scripture differently from me, and believe that Scripture itself interprets gender differences in a normative fashion that should constrain whether or not we regard same-sex relationships as capable of being sanctified and drawn into divine love.  But let’s not just accuse each other of ignoring bodies.  Let’s read the text more deeply, and argue out whether or not the full witness of Scripture treats this particular sort of bodily difference in a binding, normative fashion.  Accusations about Gnosticism and “sex without bodies” don’t help, and don’t address the real issues at stake here.

Response to a Review: How to Interpret Ephesians 5

My thanks to Wesley Hill for a thoughtful review of my book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, recently published online at the Living Church website.  Hill disagrees with my book in fundamental ways, but his review helps to highlight some key issues.

Hill’s central objection to my argument is based on his reading of Eph 5:32, where the relationship between husband and wife is likened to the relationship between Christ and the church.  He states,

“God established marriage, Ephesians suggests, in order that it might be a sign (mysterionsacramentum) of Christ’s love for the Church. In order for this parable to “work,” the difference between the covenant partners is required. The relationship between man and woman is here “related over and above itself to an eternal, holy, and spotless standing before God, in the love of the incarnate Christ for his bride, which is the Church” (see Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, VII: Theology: The New Covenant [T&T Clark, 1989], p. 482). Or, to borrow Karl Barth’s language, marriage is a parable, and for the parable to communicate its truth effectively requires certain kinds of characters, certain kinds of bodies, and not others.”

I offer first a brief preliminary response.  I think that it will always be true that the “normal” experience of marriage in society as a whole will be between a man and a woman.  Same-sex attraction affects a very small and relatively stable percentage of the population, so these relationships will never become the norm for marriage in society as a whole.  And it may indeed be the case that we can learn some things about the relationship between Christ and the church from heterosexual marriages that we can’t learn from same-gender committed relationships.  The question I raise in my book is not whether heterosexual marriage is “normal” in Scripture; the question is whether it is necessarily exclusively normative, or whether we can make exceptions to this “normal” pattern in those cases where it seems appropriate to do so.  Clearly Eph 5 assumes a marriage between a man and a woman.  The critical question is whether that assumption should also be interpreted in an exclusively normative way.

That question leads to my primary response to Hill’s critique.  I simply do not see anywhere in Ephesians 5 where the bodily differences between men and women are in view.  In fact, bodies are mentioned in this passage, but what the text actually says is that “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself” (5:28).  It is not the otherness of the wife’s body that is in view, but the fact that the husband and wife are part of the same body.  They are inter-connected with each other.  This is the way this text interprets the “one flesh” of Gen 2:24.  Some interpreters see this inter-connectedness in terms of the “fittedness between penis and vagina” (e.g. Robert Gagnon).  But one might just as readily see the allusion to “one flesh” in Eph 5 in broader terms such as kinship (which I argue in my book), or physical intimacy more generally, or as the shared social status of married couples.  There is nothing in the text that requires or even suggests a genitalized interpretation for this inter-connectedness.

Balancing this theme of inter-connectedness is another theme in the passage:  The difference between husbands and wives that Eph 5 focuses upon is the relationship of authority and submission.  It says clearly that, just as wives submit to husbands, so also the church submits to Christ.  These two themes—authority/submission and inter-connectedness—are the central themes in Eph 5.  I submit that neither of these focuses on bodily differences between male and female at all.  In fact, an emphasis on bodily differences between Christ and the church in this text might well undermine the doctrine of the incarnation.  It might lead some to wonder whether Christ has the same sort of body that we in the church do.  In point of fact, Christ is different from the church, but that difference is not a bodily one, but a difference in rank and status.  So I just don’t see how this text requires that we have in view “certain kinds of bodies, and not others.”

But let’s push this further, to explore the problems with focusing on the bodily differences between men and women as an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the church  in more detail.  Does Christ impregnate the church, in the way that a husband impregnates a wife?  I don’t find that theme in the Bible elsewhere, or in this text in particular.  Or perhaps one might claim that it is the (bodily) job of the wife (rather than the husband) to nurture and feed offspring, and that this difference is also reflected in the contrast between Christ and the church. Yet the New Testament never uses the verb for nurture/nursing (τρεϕω, trepho) with the church as its subject, though it does use the verb twice with God as the subject (Matt 6:26; Luke 12:24).  Where in the Bible are the anatomical differences between men and women explicitly stated to constitute the relationship between Christ and the church?  I just don’t find any examples at all.

But Hill and others will probably counter that Eph 5 assumes that the male and female roles are not interchangeable.  The church can’t substitute for Christ, and Christ can’t substitute for the church.  This is at the heart of the quote that Hill cites from Simon Gathercole in his discussion of Rom 1:26-27:

“The key correspondence [between idolatry on the one hand and homosexual behavior on the other] lies in the fact that both involve turning away from the ‘other’ to the ‘same’ …. Humanity should be oriented toward God but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.25). Woman should be oriented toward man, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.26). Man should be oriented toward woman, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.27)” (see “Sin in God’s Economy: Agencies in Romans 1 and 7” in Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment [T&T Clark, 2007], pp. 158-72, at pp. 163-64).

But note, first of all, that the argument has shifted significantly, though quite subtly.  Now Hill is not talking about the bodily differences between men and women, but rather about the difference between “otherness” and “sameness.”  This is not the same as “bodily differences”—it is a much more general, non-specific way of speaking.  In fact, if we are to take Eph 5 as our guide, the problem in Rom 1 is not the abandonment of bodily differences but rather the confusion of differences in authority and social status between men and women.  This is the form of “otherness” that is explicitly advocated in Eph 5, and I have argued quite extensively in my book that one of the things that makes same-sex eroticism “degrading” in Rom 1 is that the status differential between male and female is reversed or ignored in these relationships (see the chapter on “Honor and Shame”).  The language of “otherness” and  “sameness” cited by Hill obscures the question of whether anatomy or social roles is the focus of Rom 1.  This is at the heart of the question I am trying to raise:  What exactly is wrong with the same-sex relationships Paul condemns in Romans 1?  Why are they wrong?  Collapsing “bodily differences” and violations of status differentiation into a single category does not help to illumine that question.

I also argue in my book that in our culture, where differences in status and social roles between men and women are not usually considered binding or normative, this whole form of argument needs some cross-cultural translation, but that is another topic for another day (see the chapter on “Patriarchy” in my book).

But I want to finish this exploration by identifying one way in which Hill and I may find some common ground.  I agree with him that Christ and the church are not interchangeable, and that in at least some contexts, male and female are not interchangeable.  I also agree that we must recognize something important about our most intimate relationships (of which marriage is the prime example): In these relationships, it is absolutely necessary that we see our partner as an “other” and not simply as another version of ourselves, or (even worse) as a projection of ourselves.  I would even agree that this is part of what Paul finds objectionable in the same-sex relationships he condemns in Rom 1:26-27.  He sees these relationships as fundamentally self-centered and self-absorbed, rather than genuine and authentic relationships.

But the crucial question is whether all same-sex relationships, including all long-term committed unions, should always be characterized in the same way, as lacking an adequate focus on “otherness.”  Some analysts see same-sex intimate relationships as inherently and necessarily narcissistic—driven by self-love rather than love of a genuine other.  Often, this approach is coupled with a neo-Freudian explanation of the origin of same-sex attraction in relational difficulties with the parent of the same sex.  Yet these neo-Freudian theories have failed to be verified by contemporary study, and therapies based upon them have failed to help gay people become straight.  They just don’t fit the data or the experience of people who experience same-sex desires.

Even more important, however, is the fact that there are many healthy gay and lesbian couples that do manifest substantial valuing of the experience of “otherness” that Hill also values so highly.  These couples do not regard their partners as identical to themselves, or as extensions of themselves, any more than healthy heterosexual couples do.  They differentiate their roles, and value the contributions of the “other” to a bond which is greater than either could establish on their own.  So can this valuing of “otherness” exist even in couples where the anatomical differences that Hill values so highly are not present?  Hill seems to think that this is impossible.  I would be more inclined to consider his line of argument if biblical texts could be cited that focus on these anatomical differences.  But that’s one of the overall theses of my book—that the Bible is not centrally concerned with anatomical differences between male and female.  This doesn’t mean that gender differences are unimportant; it is only to say that Scripture doesn’t teach a normative gender complementarity based on anatomy—a particular understanding of gender differences that must be upheld always, everywhere, by all.  Such a doctrine is completely absent from the entire creedal tradition of the church, and there is no Scriptural basis for adding it now as a new creedal requirement of Christian faith.

Response to a Review: Sexual Orientation

The last couple of weeks have been hectic, and I haven’t gotten to posting here as much as I would like to.  But here’s another piece of response to Ron Citlau’s review.  Ron complains about my treatment of the issue of sexual orientation.  He begins this way:  “Another problem I have is Brownson’s conviction that sexual orientation, as discussed in popular culture today, is something unknown to the biblical writers.”  What I actually say on this topic is found on p. 156 of my book:  “Such a perspective [i.e., that people might be sexually inclined only to people of their own gender] is found nowhere in the literature of Paul’s day.”  My focus is not on what is known generally, but what is acknowledged by Jewish and Christian writers.  Later in the book, I spell all this out even more clearly.  Here’s a more extended discussion of the issue on p. 229:

Such an awareness of a “natural” orientation toward same-sex relations is attested in some Greek and Roman sources. The myth of human origins presented in Plato’s Symposium (189C-193D) assumes such a view: Aristophanes recounts how some humans long to be reunited with their “other half ” of the same sex, from whom they were divided by the gods in the beginning. However, the absence of such perspectives in early Jewish and Christian sources suggests that these Jews and Christians did not recognize even the possibility that persons might be naturally inclined (in terms of their own true nature) toward desiring others of the same sex. To concede such a possibility would allow a construal of nature that violated their understanding of divine law, and thus it would be understood as unacceptable a priori.

My point is a simple one.  Even if such theories about same-sex orientation were known, they were certainly not embraced by Jewish or Christian writers. We find absolutely no references to a natural or innate same-sex orientation in any Jewish or Christian sources (that’s my central point).  As a result, therefore, Jewish and Christian writers opted instead for a different theory about same-sex desire—that it was driven by excessive lust, by an insatiable appetite for increasingly exotic forms of stimulation (see my chapter on lust in the book).

So my question is a simple one:  does the early Jewish and Christian explanation of same-sex desire—that it is driven by excessive lust unsatisfied with heterosexual gratification and driven to increasingly exotic forms of stimulation—do justice to the actual experience of gay and lesbian persons today?  (Take a look at pp. 154ff. of my book for direct quotes from ancient Jewish authors taking this view.)  If it does not, then we have to reckon with the fact that what the biblical writers took for granted or simply assumed may not reflect the actual experience of gay and lesbian Christians today who seek to temper and refine their desires in long-term committed relationships.

Ron complains that my argument is simply “that psychological insights can change/modify the biblical vision of human sexuality and sin.”  But that’s not really my argument at all.  I’m merely suggesting that when Paul in Romans 1 speaks of same-sex reationships that are driven by excessive lust, impure, degrading, and contrary to nature, these characteristics don’t always seem to fit very well, when applied to committed, long-term same sex relationships in the church’s contemporary experience.  This gap between Paul’s assumptions about the relationships he addresses, and what gay Christians are experiencing today, raises the question about whether his indictment should be considered categorical of all same-sex relationships.  Perhaps instead it should be read as a qualitative condemnation of relationships that are marked by sinful excesses of all sorts.  And this therefore raises the question of whether all same-sex relationships should be tarred with the same brush.  I still think that’s a question worth asking.

Ron goes on to assert that “the jury is still out on what sexual orientation is and whether it’s immutable or changeable.”  He goes on to cite Jones & Yarhouse’s 2007 book entitled Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation.  Yet if you actually read Jones’ and Yarhouse’s book, some interesting conclusions emerge.  Even with the support of the Exodus International board (a board which has since renounced any form of reparative therapy for gay Christians), they were only able to find 15 people in the whole country who testified to a complete change in sexual orientation.  At least one of these people later admitted that he had not completely changed.  Other research, relying solely on self-report, for religiously motivated persons who wanted to change from gay to straight sexual orientation, also suggests that, even under the most optimistic read of the data, only a small percentage of persons who are gay–especially men–successfully change fully to a heterosexual orientation.

The reality is that the conservative response to homosexuality has morphed through a range of positions.  At first gay behavior was regarded as just a bad choice.  Then, when that approach failed to match the experience of gay Christians, neo-Freudian theories emerged about absent fathers and dominant mothers, and strategies for reparative therapy were attempted.  When those theories were disproven, and attempts at reparative therapy proved unsuccessful, many conservatives (including Exodus International) abandoned this approach.  The consensus now is simply that gay Christians need to learn how to be celibate and live with their desires, finding more constructive and holy ways to form their identities and to express themselves than in erotic relationships.

So I respectfully disagree with Ron on this one.  I don’t think the jury is still out.  The data is pretty clear, that a small minority of gay folks can live successful heterosexual lives (I don’t deny this), but that for the majority of gay people, it’s unhelpful and counter-productive for them to try to change their sexual orientation.  It’s not only liberals who are saying such things.  Even the conservative umbrella organization for groups trying to help gay people live celibate or heterosexual lives—Exodus International—says this.  For most gay Christians, it is simply unhelpful to hold before them the hope of a change in their sexual orientation.  That’s the concrete experience of the vast majority of gay folks.  It remains a lively issue of debate whether they should therefore remain celibate, or whether they should be permitted to enter into long-term committed unions.  But for most gay Christians, the jury is in, and change in sexual orientation is at the margins, not at the center, of their experience.

Response to a Review, Part 2

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Ron Citlau has published a review of my book Bible Gender Sexuality on the Gospel Coalition Website.  I responded in that earlier post to his complaint that my book does not affirm gender complementarity.  In this post, I want to take up a second complaint of his review, that my book does not have a proper definition of lust.  In particular, he argues that I “forget an important, inherent dimension of lust:  breaking God’s boundaries.”  He goes on to quote Robert Gagnon’s book, which defines lust as the desire for anything that transgresses God’s will.  Citlau concludes,

 “In other words, homosexuality is lustful not just because it has to do with excessive desire. It is lustful because by participating in homosexual behavior a person dismantles one of God’s most important sexual boundaries.”

This sentence reveals the crux of the problem I am trying to address, and confuses two distinct issues.  Citlau seems to agree with me that homosexuality is viewed in the ancient word, in fact, as marked by excessive desire.  That seems to be the function of the word “just” in the quote above.  But he then goes on to add (seemingly) a second reason why homosexual behavior is wrong, in his view:  it dismantles a divinely intended sexual boundary.  I note first of all that the language has shifted, from desire to behavior.  The question of homosexual behavior is an important one, but it’s not the one I am addressing, when I speak of “lust.”  Lust is a problem, before one ever gets to behavior, according to the teaching of Jesus (see Matt 5:28).  Citlau collapses these unhelpfully.

But let’s focus on the two different dimensions of wrongful desire that I speak of in my book:  such desire can be excessive and/or misdirected.  But are these two things simply to be equated with each other?  Is every desire for something that is forbidden, no matter how small or passing, an experience of lust?  Robert Gagnon seems to think so, in the quote that Citlau cites.  Citlau apparently agrees.

I do not agree.  The starting point for my disagreement has to do with the use of Greek words, so some of you will need to bear with me in a little more technical discussion.  The Greek words that are commonly translated with the English word “lust” (the verb is epithumeo, and the noun is epithumia), are not always used negatively in the New Testament.  For uses of the same verb to reflect intense positive desire, see Matt 13:17; Luke 17:22; Luke 22:15 (of Jesus himself); 1 Tim 3:1; Hebrews 6:11; 1 Peter 1:12.  For positive uses of the noun form, see Luke 22:15 (of Jesus himself); Phil 1:23; 1 Thess 2:17.  To put it differently, in English the word “lust” always has negative connotations.  The same is not true for the Greek word.  The same Greek word can be positive, negative, or neutral.  What all the usages of the Greek word have in common however, whether they are positive, negative, or neutral, is that the word is characterized by a particular intensity of desire.  This is not a peripheral meaning of the Greek word; it is the central meaning, and the only meaning of the Greek word that is consistent, whether the word is used positively, negatively, or neutrally.

So an ancient reader would never assume, simply by seeing the word epithumia, that the word always meant desiring something that was forbidden by God.  If that were the case, texts like Luke 22:15 would make no sense at all, because Jesus declares himself to have an intense desire, using the same Greek word!  But an ancient reader would certainly assume that, whenever the word epithumia appeared, it was a reference to particularly strong desire.  The reader would judge by the context whether that strong desire should be interpreted as positive, negative, or neutral.  I take it as a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation that the starting point for the meaning of words is how they would be understood by their first competent readers in the ancient world.

So Gagnon and Citlau may be correct in their expounding of the meaning of the English word “lust,” (though even on this I would have qualifications—see below), but they have not adequately engaged the full range of meaning of the Greek words used in Rom 1:24-27.  For the Greek words translated “lust,” the central meaning connotes excessive or intense desire, and the context of Rom 1 suggests that this intense desire is also in violation of the will of God.  But in the context of the ancient world, a desire is not “ruled by passion” because it is misdirected; it is misdirected because it is “ruled by passion.”  Or as I say in the book, if behavior is not characterized by excessive desire in the Bible, it may still be morally wrong, but it cannot be characterized as “lustful” (p. 168).   And as I also try to argue in the book, this focus on excessive desire raises a different sort of question, particularly when we see gay and lesbian Christians who seek to discipline their desires in the context of life-long commitments.  Are these also necessarily and unavoidably characterized by excessive desire, and therefore lustful, in the original sense of that word?  It seems at least a question worth asking.

Nor is this simply a technical, lexical matter.  Even for heterosexual marriages, “lust” can sometimes occur, even if the object of my excessive or self-centered desire is my spouse.  Or to put it more technically, desire can be excessive, and therefore lustful, even if it is not directed toward an object forbidden by God. Excessive desire is its own problem—a problem that lies at the heart of Romans 1.  Paul argues that when humans abandon the worship of God, desire loses its proper place and proportion, and self-centered behavior goes wild.  Humans who abandon the true worship of God are “filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,  without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Rom 1:29-31).  If that is not a description of desire gone amok and excessive, I don’t know what is.  We cannot define lust only or even primarily  in terms of its wrongful object.  At the heart of lust (even in English) is the excessiveness of desire, an excessiveness that is only properly restrained and focused by the true worship of God.

The absence of lust does not necessarily make behavior acceptable to God.  But in the ancient world, the absence of excessive desire means that even wrongful behavior cannot be termed “lustful.”  Sinful behaviors may be motivated by anger, rebellion, hatred, confusion, or any other of a myriad emotions.  Not all sinful behavior is lustful.  Not all “breaking of God’s boundaries” is lustful.  Yet Paul speaks of same-sex behaviors in Rom 1 as “lustful.”  This necessarily means that these behaviors are marked by intense desire.  In this context, the presence of excessive desire is at least a necessary part of what makes these behaviors wrong.  To downplay the importance of excessive and self-centered desire in a discussion of lust does not clarify things.

Gender Complementarity and Polygamy

I spoke with a group last night about my book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, and got a rather long and complicated question toward the end of the Q&A session.  There was one piece of the question that I didn’t respond to at the time, but I ended up pondering that issue a bit as I woke up this morning, so I thought I would take this chance to offer some thoughts.

The question came from someone clearly worried about one of my book’s conclusions—in particular, my claim in the book that Scripture does not teach a divinely intended and normative gender complementarity.  He fears that this conclusion of mine will lead to other unhappy social consequences.  In this case, the “slippery slope” might lead, according to this questioner, to a call for society to approve all sorts of polygamous arrangements:  not just one man and multiple wives, but perhaps even  a free-for-all with multiple participants of a variety of genders and/or sexual orientations.  Without a doctrine of divinely intended gender complementarity, isn’t this fall into polygamy an inevitable consequence, or at least an unavoidable and dangerous possibility?

Answering this question is complicated, of course, by the fact that Scripture itself contains multiple examples of polygamous marriages, including many of the great heroes and leaders of Israel in the Old Testament:  Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.  This fact underscores one of the other central theses of my book, that we have to explore the “moral logic” underlying the biblical witness—why the text says what it does, and what is the larger witness of Scripture as a whole—before simply quoting individual texts as the “last word.”

In the case of polygamy, the church has clearly taught that this is an issue where divine revelation unfolded and became clearer over time.  Scripture itself devotes considerable attention to the problems created by polygamous relationships in the Old Testament.  But the heart of the reason why almost all Christians reject the practice of polygamy stems from the words of Jesus found in Mark 10 (cf. also the parallel text in Matthew 19).  Here Jesus cites Genesis 2:24 “the two shall become one flesh” as the ground for forbidding a man to divorce his wife and to marry another.  (Matthew 19:9, of course, allows for an exception to this prohibition in the case of sexual immorality, but that’s another topic for another day.)  So the conclusion is fairly clear:  if it is a violation of “the two shall become one flesh” for a man to divorce one wife and to marry another, how much more of a violation would it be for a man to marry another without divorcing the first wife?  Jesus’ words seem clearly to assume monogamy as a divinely intended norm.

But Jesus’ teaching is based, not on a notion of gender complementarity, but rather on the kinship obligations implicit in the words “the two shall become one flesh.”  It is not because male and female exist in some normative sort of complementary relationship that divorce is forbidden, but rather that sexual union creates a “one flesh” kinship bond established by God, which must not be set aside merely by human will.  Divorce is not the negation of complementarity; it is the negation of kinship obligations.  The “one flesh” kinship obligation established by marriage is clearly assumed by Jesus to be an exclusive, monogamous relationship.

Of course, this text also speaks of the marriage of “male and female,” which raises questions about whether marriage laws should be extended to gay and lesbian partners.  But that is another topic for another day, and I don’t speak directly to those legal issues in my book.  But my point here is a simple one:  The moral logic used by Jesus in forbidding divorce (and therefore forbidding polygamy of any sort) is not based on a notion of gender complementarity, but rather on the exclusivity of the “one flesh” kinship bond.  Hence the question of gender complementarity is not the moral logic underlying most Christians’ objection to polygamy.  That concern lies elsewhere, with the link between the “one flesh” marriage bond and exclusive kinship obligations.

So there may be some grounds by which some people want to call into question my thesis that Scripture does not teach a normative gender complementarity, but I don’t think that the “slippery slope” argument, that this will open the way to polygamy, should be a relevant worry.