It happens far too often that somebody thinks that they are criticisng simplistic fundamentalism, when in fact they are the practitioner, rather than the genuine critic, of simplistic thinking.
Someone recently pointed out a video clip of a guy named John talking about homosexual relationships and the Bible. This is the point where I would normally offer a one-sentence summary of what his central claim is, but I’m not absolutely sure what it is. It has something to do with homosexuality, the f-word (fundamentalists), and consistency. Here’s the clip:
Nice presentation. John doesn’t ever lay out a succinct argument here, but here are some possibilities for how the argument would go:
- If you think the biblical passages that speak against sexual acts between members of the same sex apply today, then you should also think that biblical passages that speak about eating (for example) shellfish apply to us today.
- “Fundamentalists” don’t think that biblical passages that speak about eating shellfish apply to us today.
- Therefore fundamentalists also ought not to think that biblical passages that speak about sexual acts between members of the same sex apply to us today.
Or perhaps it is this:
- If any passage in the Bible is properly interpreted in such a way that it does not apply to us as strictly as some might initially suppose based on appearances, then no biblical passage, rightly interpreted, applies to us as strictly as some might initially suppose based on appearances.
- Some biblical passages (such as those that speak about divorce) are properly interpreted (according to fundamentalists) in such a way that it does not apply to us as strictly as some might initially suppose based on appearances.
- Therefore those same fundamentalists ought to believe that no biblical passage (including those that speak about sexual acts between members of the same sex), rightly interpreted, applies to us as strictly as some might initially suppose based on appearances.
Or perhaps it is this (this will be my last guess):
- If you interpret a biblical passage in a way that means that its instruction does apply to us today, then you are logically committed to thinking that all instructions that were ever given in the Bible apply to us today with equal force.
- Fundamentalists interpret biblical passages that speak about sexual acts between members of the same sex apply to us today.
- Therefore fundamentalists are logically committed to thinking that all instructions that were ever given in the Bible apply to us today with equal force.
The problem is that each of these arguments starts out with a premise that is almost certainly false. The great irony here is that it is John’s approach, and not that of so-called “fundamentalists,” that is the simplistic one. Indeed, it is John who is the real fundamentalist here. He calls the reader, in effect to “be consistent” in their approach: To accept every biblical instruction as applying with equal force to everyone in every age: Either they all apply fully and without reservation, qualification or nuance of interpretation, or else none of them apply at all in any real way. All or nothing.
I can recall this very idea being expressed by conservative fundamentalists more times than I care to remember: It’s a slippery slope, and if we start “interpreting” some passages so that we don’t have to follow them, where will it end? We’ve got to follow ‘em all gosh darnit! John’s approach is the reverse: It’s a slippery slope, and if we think any of them apply today, where will it end? We don’t gotta follow any of ‘em, gosh darnit! But while the conclusion is the opposite, the line of argument is equally flawed.
“Liberals” (if I may use that term of John) and fundamentalists, it seems to me, are in the same boat. The reality is that nothing is quite this simple. It does no good to say “Hey, how come you get to interpret passages about slavery and divorce, but you just think we need to follow passages about homosexual conduct. That’s inconsistent!” It isn’t inconsistent in the least, provided the accused reader has principled reasons for believing based on the evidence that each passage means what they claim it does. Of course, if the “fundamentalists” are simply choosing not to use any interpretive method at all for one kind of passage, but exerting a whole lot of effort to interpret the other with a mind to simply explaining it away, then there would be a point to make. That really would be a case of inconsistency – and this is the innuendo John is trying to suggest. But merely noting that fundamentalists do not believe that one type of prohibition (e.g. eating shellfish) applies to them while they maintain that others (e.g. people who engage in sexual acts with members of the same sex) do apply is hardly a demonstration of inconsistency. Therefore, playing the “be consistent” card is really just a way of avoiding addressing the reasons that are offered.
John has thus not offered any substantial objections to the actual interpretations of the biblical passages that “fundamentalists” appeal to. All he has done is stir up the suspicion that really that interpretation fails, or that one of the above false premises is true so those interpretations should simply be overlooked, or worse yet, that they should not be overlooked – and may be correct after all, but that fundamentalists are too liberal on divorce and too judgemental on slavery!
I doubt that I qualify as a fundamentalist, having been called a liberal more times than I care to recall. But allow me to offer a very brief explanation that defuses this painfully naïve criticism of the traditional biblical case against homosexual conduct. For what it’s worth, I’d like to think maybe my grasp here is a little more nuanced than the barely literate fundies that John would like us to think of (the contemporary role of Old Testament law was the subject of my MTheol dissertation, for what it’s worth).
Take food laws, for example: Shellfish, pork, ravens, badgers and so on. Unclean! Yep, that’s what the book of Leviticus says about them in chapter 11 (or in the copy of these laws found in Deuteronomy 14). Israelites weren’t even supposed to touch the carcasses of unclean animals. But what about us? Is there any principled reasons why a Christian might think that these rules don’t apply to us? In fact there is, which is why this has always been the dominant Christian view. Here are a few clear pointers in this direction:
In Genesis 8, at the close of the flood story, God spoke to Noah, laying out some basic rules for life. One of those rules was that human beings can eat all kinds of animals: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” The scope of this instruction is the whole human race, which in this context is Noah and his descendants.
Next, there are clear indications that food restrictions that were introduced in the Law of Moses were temporary and restricted in scope. They were only intended for Israel, marking Israel out as different from other nations, until the purpose of God’s dealings with Israel was fulfilled when Jesus came into the world as the promised descendant of Abraham. God’s injunction to the Israelites was that these animals would be “unclean to you” (Leviticus 11:8). In Deuteronomy 14:1, all of these restrictions are mandated on the rationale that “You are the sons of the LORD your God.” In fact, for one of the restrictions (an animal that has just died of natural causes), we get another insight into the rationale (Deuteronomy 14:21): “You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.” Laws against theft, murder or kidnapping were certainly never expressed this way – It’s wrong for an Israelite, but foreigners living among you can murder to their hearts’ content! But food laws were different, applying uniquely to descendants of the twelve patriarchs.
These indications are only amplified in the New Testament. For example, Mark explains Jesus’ words like this in chapter 7: “ ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” Or there is the example of Peter, who in Acts chapter 10 saw a vision. To provide some context: Peter was from a Jewish background, and may have had reservations about going into the house of a Roman Centurion (Cornelius) and eating with him. So God showed him a vision to show that it was appropriate for him to do so. After he went to Cornelius’ house and talked with the people there about Jesus (in chapter 11), he recalled the vision as follows:
I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.
The point here was that God has called people to himself who are not Jews, and that distinction, so familiar to Peter, or “clean” and “unclean” was one that he needed to let go of.
While not speaking specifically about food but more generally about Jews and Gentiles in the church, the Apostle Paul provides an insight in Ephesians 2 that explains the above:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
And so while there were a number of regulations that existed for the purpose of making that distinction between Jewish insiders and Gentile outsiders, that very distinction no longer applies, and hence there is no need for those practices now.
Take the thorny example of slavery, arguably the most difficult. Slavery was common in the ancient world, but specific allowance for slavery is made in the Torah. But two important features stand out. There were two distinct types of slavery. The first was a voluntary arrangement to repay debt. This fact means that the Sabbath year takes on a special significance. Every seven years there was a Sabbath year, when all debts were forgiven and consequently all debt workers were released (Deuteronomy 15:1).
This meant that the longest possible period for which a person would work to repay a debt was six years (and this is specified elsewhere too, as in Exodus 21:2). At the end of the six years, the debt holder was to forgive any remaining debt and let the worker go free, and gladly so: “It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years.” What’s more, when he left, the debt holder was to liberally give him supplies so that he would not have nothing until he found more work (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). However, it was possible for this person to choose to work longer and actually stay with the master’s family for life – but again, this was the worker’s decision (Exodus 21:5-6). Of course, the period would be shorter than six years if the worker paid off the debt in one year.
It is hardly fair at all to compare this scenario with a situation where a man was banged on the head in Africa, shipped off to America and then treated as no more than property until he died, in what might have been a beating for disobedience.
But there was another kind of slavery in Israel, and this is the one that raises more concerns. The above conditions only applied to Israelites who were working off a debt. Leviticus 25 makes a clear distinction between debtors who are Israelites and slaves who are not. Fellow Israelites were forgiven their debt after a maximum of six years, but non-Israelite slaves were another story:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.
Yes, there were protections for foreign slaves and they could not be injured at will, let alone killed. But the point is, they were kept for life and this is a distinction that existed based on whether or not the slave was a native member of the covenant community – Israel. Remember, however, that the point here is not whether or not the various requirements or permissions are good. The point is to ask whether or not there are any grounds for thinking that the requirements apply (or do not apply) in our own context. And here too, as in the case of food laws, the issue of whether or not the practice is one that should be taken as universal ends up depending on the covenant uniqueness of the nation of Israel – as did the issue of food laws. Christians over the years have (with some exceptions) noted that, according to the New Testament, this is a uniqueness that no longer exists, and – to borrow from St Paul – There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:28).
Thirdly, what about the issue of divorce? Here the issue is not at all that conservative Protestants (and I assume that this is who John has in mind when he uses the rather derisive term “fundamentalists”) don’t believe that the biblical teaching applies in our day and age for some reason. Rather, they believe that it does, but that divorce is permissible (although of course not desirable) under some circumstances. Even the teaching of Jesus to which John alludes contains the evidence that something like this is true, in Matthew 5:32, which reads, “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (ESV). It is true that it may not be pristinely clear what porneia (translated “sexual immortality” here) refers to, but to cut a long story short, it is a word used in Greek to refer to a substantial sin, often sexual in nature, rather than something minor. Whatever you might think porneia is best understood to mean, it is at least clear that it is patently false to insinuate that Jesus’ comments about divorce are universal and without qualification. Yes divorce is bad, and anyone who does it – apart from a very narrow range of terrible circumstances, whatever they might be – does wrong. Similarly, many Christians (correctly, say I) find in St Paul’s writing the acknowledgement that a Christian’s spouse may reject them, and if they do so and depart, the believer is “not bound” to them any longer (1 Corinthians 7:15).
Maybe John believes that fundies don’t really follow this teaching. If so, then that’s a fair point to make – although of course it does not undermine anything they say about the biblical teaching on homosexual relationships.
That brings us to the topic that grabbed John’s attention. What is the nature of the biblical evidence that Christians have traditionally drawn on in support of their view that the Bible – all things carefully considered – does condemn homosexual behaviour (and bear in mind that it is the lifestyle we are concerned with here).
First there’s the creation story in early Genesis. God created Adam and said that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). To remedy the problem, God creates a woman, Eve. It may be tired and trite to use the line, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” yet it represents a biblical perspective on sexuality. Man is completed by woman. The creation story is prior to the existence of the nation of Israel and its law, and the role of men and women to complement each other applies to all of humanity.
The first time that sexual interaction between members of the same sex is even mentioned is in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis chapter 19. Whatever else the sins of the men of Sodom might have been, we get an ugly glimpse at it when they demand that Lot bring out his male visitors to them “so that we may know them.” It is widely acknowledged that to “know” somebody (yada) in the Hebrew language can mean to be sexually intimate with them, and this is the case in Genesis (e.g. Adam and Eve in chapter 4). This is further confirmed by the awful suggestion of Lot, who suggests that instead of having sex with the two male visitors, they take his daughters (!!), who “have not known any man.” The rest is history: Lot escapes and God destroys the city with fire. There is no covenant-specific context here. Rather, the two visitors visit the city to see if it is as wicked as they had heard, and they find out that it was – so it’s toast.
Next, men who have sex with other men are specifically mentioned in Leviticus 18, where incest, bestiality and sex between men are all forbidden. Here is where some people (perhaps including John) point out that this is in the law of the Israelites. And of course it is, but what of it? The fact that something appears in the law of Israel is not evidence that it does not reflect a principle that applies to everyone. As it turns out, in the New Testament church, a dispute broke out over the issue of which laws should be followed and which should not. The context suggests that there were some laws that were regarded as uniquely applicable to Jews under the Old Covenant, and people could not agree about which laws these were (in Acts 15, and event widely referred to as “the Jerusalem Council). The Apostles wrote a letter to the Gentile churches to report on the decision of the council, telling them to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” As some New Testament scholars (e.g. Hans Conzelmann) have pointed out, these appear to mirror the list of offences in Leviticus 17-18, even appearing in the same order. A side by side comparison confirms this clearly:
|1.) Prohibitions on idolatrous slaughter of animals (17:1-9, esp. v. 7; also perhaps 18:21, idolatrous human sacrifice)
2.) Prohibition on eating blood (17:10-14)
3.) Prohibitions on eating animals that die without being bled (17:15-16)
4.) Sexual immorality (18:6-23, with the unusual exception of v. 21)
|1.) Things sacrificed to idols
3.) Strangled animals
4.) Sexual immorality
So regardless of whether or not the prohibition appeared in the book of Leviticus, there is good reason to think that New Testament Christians accepted the validity of the commandments against sexual immorality found in the Old Testament law.
The Apostle Paul also refers to sexual acts between people of the same sex in a clearly negative light on a couple of occasions. John has already referred to one of them in Romans 1, where Paul refers to both men and women indulging in “impurity” and “dishonouring their bodies,” men with men and women with women. John, in passing, makes the claim that this refers specifically to these sexual acts when carried out in conjunction with idolatry, but that even if he overlooks this – fundies are inconsistent. I’m currently explaining why the “inconsistency” arguments goes nowhere, so the only real option left is for those who hold John’s view to do the work of actually engaging with the meaning of the text. Yes, idolatry is mentioned in this passage, but also in context Paul makes it very clear that he is talking about everyone who rejects God and therefore engages in all kinds of sinful behaviour, including idolatry, and sexual relations with members of the same sex, and “covetousness, malice. … envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Surely John is not arguing that insolence, malice or murder are only wrong, in Paul’s view, if they are carried out in the context of an idolatrous religion! In any event, it is inadequate to simply allude to the vague possibility of an alternative interpretation. This is clearly a condemnation in a context that Christians are justified in thinking has moral relevance.
The other occasion on which Paul condemns homosexual conduct is in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Here, Paul’s term for men who practice homosexuality, arsenokoites, is drawn directly from the prohibition found in Leviticus 18:22, which provides the basis of this rare term in its Greek version in the Septuagint: “You shall not lie (koiten) with a male (arsenos) as with a woman; it is an abomination.” It is an action condemned along with idolatry, adultery, theft, greed and other sins. Again, as in Romans 1, this is a context where “fundies” can quite legitimately think that there are teachings given to Christians that appropriately apply to us today. This has always been the mainstream Christian view of this passage.
It is one thing to sit back somewhat smugly and just observe that conservative Christians follow some instructions in the Bible and not others, while adopting the simplistic approach that insists that this is inconsistent. It is also somewhat ironic that in doing this, a person might actually believe that they are the ones bringing an intelligent perspective to an issue that has been so badly messed up by conservatives. But things just aren’t that simple. There are reasons for thinking that biblical passages about unclean foods are not meant to be universal in scope. There are also reasons for thinking that the enslavement of non-Israelites doesn’t apply outside of a specific historical context. The issue of divorce is not about applicability, but about what the passages mean – and John’s sermon to conservatives actually conceals the fact that the same is true of the passages that speak to the issue of homosexuality. There are reasons for thinking that they apply universally in a way that food laws do not – and it is simply lazy or less than honest to imply otherwise, as though nobody has ever pointed this out before (they have).
So what is required, if one is to take the condescending stance that John takes and get away with it, is to actually … do some work and engage with the so-called fundies over what these passages actually mean.
- Hogging the resources: Questions for you
- Sceptics on Christians on Homosexuality
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- Are there Categories of Biblical Law?
- Some advice for my evangelical friends
- Jesus never said ANYTHING about X!