Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sexual Ethics and Scripture

From Walter Wink:

The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no biblical sex ethic. Instead it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand-year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible only knows a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, culture, or period.

The very notion of a "sex ethic" reflects the materialism and splitness of modern life, in which we increasingly define our identity sexually. Sexuality cannot be separated off from the rest of life. No sex act is "ethical" in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person's life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God. What we have are simply sexual mores, which change, sometimes with startling rapidity, creating bewildering dilemmas. Just within one lifetime we have witness the shift from the ideal of preserving one's virginity until marriage, to couples living together for several years before getting married. The response of many Christians is merely to long for the hypocrisies of an earlier era.
Wink offers us some specific examples in support of the above statement:

...virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting:
  • incest
  • rape
  • adultery
  • intercourse with animals

    The Bible condemned the following behaviors which we generally allow:
  • intercourse during menstruation
  • celibacy
  • exogamy (marriage with non-Jews)
  • naming sexual organs
  • nudity (under certain conditions)
  • masturbation (some Christians still condemn this)
  • birth control (some Christians still forbid this)
  • And the bible regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which most of us do not

    Likewise, the bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn:
  • prostitution
  • polygamy
  • levirate marriage
  • sex with slaves
  • concubinage
  • treatment of women as property
  • very early marriage (for the girl, age 11-13)

    And while the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it. In short, of the sexual mores mentioned here, we only agree with the Bible on four of them, and disagree with it on sixteen!
  • Regarding the specific passages from the bible that are often quoted as evidence against same sex relationships, I offer a long quote from the presentation given by representatives of the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Consultative Council. The presentation, which can be viewed in its entirety online, is entitled To Set Our Hope on Christ.


    ...Two biblical texts that have sometimes been read as condemning same-sex relations are Genesis 19:1-29 and its companion story in Judges 19. Both stories are more about violent attempts to undermine ancient traditions of hospitality through guest rape than they are about same-sex relations. Except for the lone voice of Jude 7, the rest of the Bible comments on the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as the sin of greed. Ezekiel 16:49 says, “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.”

    Several other biblical texts (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Acts 15:28-29) contain vice lists (strings of prohibited behaviors). Written in Greek, the meaning of these words is sometimes contested. Among these words are two that have been interpreted to describe same-sex relations. At least one of the words (malakoi) is so uncertain in its meaning that no solid argument can be based on it one way or the other. The other word (aresenokoitai) is probably a shorthand expression for the prohibition of a man lying with a man as with a woman in Leviticus 18:22.7 These vice lists do not contribute substantially to the debate, but they do point us to a text which does, Leviticus; and they serve at least to underline the importance of Leviticus for several New Testament writers.

    Bearing these points in mind, we turn now to what, in our judgment, are the two most significant biblical sites for the present discussion.

    a. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Leviticus, which is a book about what constitutes holiness, is distinctly relevant to our holiness argument. Moreover, we have an obligation to take seriously the texts which seem to oppose our position. In Leviticus, holiness is not a private thing; the text makes clear that we can only be holy in a community that intends hospitality to God. The challenge in reading Leviticus (or any biblical book) is in its application to our own lives in a different context. For the writers of Leviticus, the issue was about boundary crossing. The sexual prohibitions, like those against cross-breeding cattle, sowing hybrids or sowing different crops in the same field, eating amphibians or wearing clothes made out of wool blended with other materials, are meant to observe the distinctions that God (presumably) established at creation. Holiness is then defined as staying in one’s class, and not mixing or confusing classes of things. One of the major difficulties of applying a text like Leviticus is that although our goals are the same—holiness, offering hospitality to God, living in such a way that God would feel comfortable in our midst— our categories are not the same as those of the biblical authors. For example, we do not see mildew as a problem for a priest to treat with a ritual of purification. Leviticus does.

    The holiness code (Leviticus 18-26) is generally dated to the early exilic period, a century or two later than much of Leviticus. It seems to have been a new synthesis of Torah for the community that survived the destruction of Jerusalem and was now living in exile among the nations. Maintaining Israel’s distinctiveness would be a matter of survival. It is an axiom of sociological studies that pollution/ purity beliefs receive emphasis where social boundaries are precariously maintained.10 The holiness code makes no distinction between ritual and moral regulations, as is especially clear in chapter 19—which follows the chapter on sexual regulations and forms the rhetorical center of the holiness code. The rights of the poor and the duty to the neighbor are listed side by side with the prohibitions about not breeding two different kinds of cattle or wearing clothes made of different kinds of cloth. But even if the text itself makes no distinction, no interpretive community—including orthodox Jews—treat all the commandments with the same weight. The interpretive tradition is a living and growing conversation with the text about where “the density of holiness” lies. Interestingly, Judaism and Christianity have agreed about this: the commandments that help us sift out and interpret the others are those to love God above all else (Deuteronomy 6:4ff) and to love the neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18). As the scribe says to Jesus in Mark 12, these are far more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.

    b. Romans 1:26-27. When we read in Leviticus or Romans that a specific behavior is proscribed, it is helpful to acknowledge from the first that the biblical writer’s words are neither unclear nor irrelevant. St. Paul, as a first century Jewish male steeped in the tradition that includes Leviticus, was strongly opposed to same-sex relations even though he had reversed his position with respect to the issue of Gentile holiness. If we had Paul here, we might legitimately press him about the logic that crosses one boundary but not another. Since Paul wrote his letters expecting to have to defend his arguments, that approach is neither far-fetched nor unfaithful. Paul himself invites his readers to “discern for yourselves” (1 Corinthians 11) what is natural or unnatural, the very issue which is at stake in Romans 1. Paul also seems to have thought that long hair for men is “unnatural” while it is “natural” for women. While Paul’s letters had the status of advice from a trusted apostle, the members of his churches who received them probably felt free to argue with him about what was natural and what was unnatural. But now, as a result of the canonization of his letters, they have become Scripture for us and we honor them appropriately. Does this mean we can no longer engage Paul as if he were a living conversation partner? We do not believe so. As Jesus himself argued against the Sadducees in Mark 12, God is the God of the living. Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Paul is alive in the Lord and very present in the current debates of the Church.

    It is useful to speculate about where Paul might be on these issues today, given his unusual and brave commitments to Gentiles, women, and slaves in his own day. The logic of Paul’s letters as a whole stands in some tension with the specific words he wrote in Romans 1. Paul’s subject in Romans 1:18ff is the way idolatry leads to many other kinds of sinful acts. That is the most important point of Romans 1, and we might well ask ourselves what forms of idolatry endanger us today: militarism? consumerism? wealth, status, or power? Perhaps whatever we most obsess about may become idolatrous. Thus the Wisdom of Solomon 14:12 and other texts suggest that the first sin, idolatry, leads to all the others and sexual immorality is an easy example. But it is not the only example: Paul’s vice list at the end of the chapter includes a wide range of other equally serious sins, some much more serious than sexual activity between those of the same gender. In fact the point of the list seems to be that all of humanity, having engaged in one or more of these sins, is radically dependent on the grace of God. He also warns us that passing judgment on the sins of others is itself a participation in the sin of idolatry, since it usurps God’s role as judge. St. Paul picks up this theme in Romans 14- 15 when some members of the community are judging and despising others who disagree with them, encouraging us to read Romans 1 and Romans 14-15 together...

    Religious Tolerance has compiled some good information on these particular verses, including both conservative and liberal interpretations of the texts.

    Personally, I'm getting a bit weary of all this focus on the bible. Until those who accuse me of "rejecting the bible" admit that they also engage in some "picking and choosing" in their selection of the verses they consider authoritative today, we have nothing more to talk about. Beyond that, the "sola scriptura" approach to the Christian faith has always seemed theologically dangerous to me, for the reasons which follow, offered by William Countryman in his comments about the Windsor Report:

    The Report rightly adds that the authority of scripture always points beyond itself to the authority of God. It can never substitute for the latter. To treat scripture as if it were the very voice of God in the present moment is to commit the favorite sin of the religious: idolatry. Idolatry takes some good gift of God and treats it as if God were so fully involved in it that one can no longer tell the two apart. This is what we are doing when we assume that the bible, by itself, can provide us with complete and unproblematic access to the authority of God here and now - the idea that a single text or a short catena of texts can resolve complex problems like the ones Anglicans are now debating.

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