Living in the World - Issues that Christians face
Housegroup leaders - We'll be running an evening session to pick up some of the themes emerging from this topic on Nov 6th, 8pm at SGCC.
This paper explores some of the issues surrounding homosexuality from a more evangelical and theologically conservative perspective.
As a balance to my own views, I thought it would be helpful to everyone if I gave a summary of Richard Hays’s chapter on Homosexuality in his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. As I don’t agree with him or others like him I haven’t been able to do anything than express my own position on this issue, but I have been conscious that the conservative position has not been adequately put so that we can begin our process from a laying out of two positions.
The biblical passages about homosexuality
Hays begins by noting that the Bible “hardly ever discusses homosexual behavior” so he says this means that when it does we should pay heed. His central argument, in fact, is that it is significant that whenever the Bible does talk about homosexual behaviour it does so negatively. Hays believes that this can’t be bypassed or played down. However, he also wishes that the passion expended on such a minor issue in the Bible would be devoted a the major biblical issue of enconomic injustice. Let’s see what he says about the passages themselves.
He argues that this passage is irrelevant to the topic of homosexuality: “…there is nothing in the passage pertinent to a judgement about the morality of consensual homosexual intercourse”. He continues by oberving that, apart from an obscure reference in Jude 7, there is nothing to connect the sin of Sodom with sexual misconduct of any kind. In fact, the clearest judgement on Sodom occurs in Ezekiel 16.49 where we read: 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.
Leviticus 18.22 & 20.13
Hays notes that the proscription against male homosexual intercourse deals with an act, not at all with inner motives which he says, “are not treated as a morally significant factor”. He concludes: “this unambiguous legal prohibition stands as the foundation for the subsequent universal rejection of male same-sex intercourse within Judaism”. Hays understands that this is a prohibition of anal intercouse only and so, in a footnote accepts the view of another scholar that other forms of same-sex activity would have been regarded as forms of masturbation and still frowned upon but not subject to the same severe sanctions. Hays accepts the view that the rabbis had no category corresponding to the modern idea of homosexuality.
Hays argues against the view that as part of the Law that has been superseded by Christ the Levitical proscription is no longer relevant. He points out that in the “Holiness Code” (Lev 17-26) ritual and moral laws intertwine inseparably so the issue is why we adhere to what we regard as moral laws while easily discarding the ritual laws. Hays simply notes that we have to make up our minds on this but turns to the NT where, he says, we will see how the NT writers interpreted Leviticus. This for him is the way Leviticus remains a text of central importance in the debate.
1 Cor 6.9-11; 1 Timothy 1.10; Acts 15.28-29
He notes that the first two passages find “homosexuals included in the lists of persons who do things unacceptable to God”. He argues that the term malakoi doesn’t mean “homosexual” because the word was unknown at the time in 1 Cor 6, but refers to the young boys who were the passive partners of older men. As far as arsenokoitai is concerned he accepts the argument of Robin Scroggs that the word is a translation of the Hebrew in Leviticus which means “lying with a male”. “Thus, Paul’s use of the term presupposes and reaffirms the holiness code’s condemnation of homosexual acts”.
At 1 Cor 6.11 Paul asserts that “the sinful behaviors catalogued in the vice list were formerly practiced by some of the Corinthians. Now, however, since Paul’s correspondents have been transferred into the sphere of Christ’s lordship, they ought to have left these practices behind. At 6.12-20 the Corinthians are counselled “to glorify God in their bodies because they now belong to God and not to themselves”. 1 Timothy uses arsenokoitai without any discussion of sexual morality, but Hays includes the Acts passage because of its use of the term porneia (translated by “fornication” or “immorality”). On the basis of the fact that the NT writers are interpreting Leviticus, he argues, homosexual acts should be included under this term.
This Hays regards as the most crucial text with regard to homosexuality because it is “the only passage in the New Testament that explains the condemnation of homosexual behavior in an explicitly theological context”. He notes, too, that this passage is distinguished by being the only discussion taking lesbian sexual activity into account.
He begins by noting the context within Romans, that Paul is focused in 1.16-17 on the righteousness of God: “for in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’”. He summarizes: “This theologically pregnant formulation emphasizes first of all the character of the gospel as an active manifestation of God’s power”.
From this opening Paul moves to a condemnation of the unrighteousness of fallen humanity (1.18). Hays points to the significance of Paul’s use of adikia (unrighteousness), the exact opposite of dikaiosyne (righteousness). Thus one righteousness, God’s, stand opposed to its opposite in humanity: “humanity’s unrighteousness consists fundamentally in a refusal to honor God and render him thanks (1.21). God has clearly shown forth his ‘power and divine nature’ in and through the created world (1.19-20) but the human race in general has disregarded this evidence and turned on a massive scale to idolatry (1.23)”, the consequence of humanity’s “radical rebellion of the creature against the creator (1.24-31)”. Hay’s point is that humanity’s fallenness reveals an underlying rebellion against God; not merely an ignorance of God.
This is where the crucial passage enters: 1.24-31 “is not merely a polemical denunciation of selected pagan vices: it is a diagnosis of the human condition. The diseased behavior detailed in verses 24-31 is symptomatic of the one sickness of humanity as a whole…Rebellion against this Creator who may be ‘understood and seen in the things he has made’ is made palpable in the flouting of sexual distinctions that are fundamental for God’s creative design”. Here is where Hays brings in Gen 2 which “describes woman and man as created for one another…Thus the complementarity of male and female is given a theological grounding in God’s creative activity. By way of sharp contrast, in Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual behavior as a ‘sacrament’ (so to speak) of the antireligion of human beings who refuse to honor God as Creator. When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality; the rejection of the Creator’s design”.
Hays then argues that the use of “exchange” language connects homosexual acts to idolatry and that up to the point of Paul’s using this term at 1.23 & 1.25 Paul could have been talking about any sexual offence, but that this word provides a rhetorical link between homosexual acts (applied to women also by the use of the same word at 1.26) and the rebellion against God that is the fundamental feature of human unrighteousness.
From here Hays moves to consider how Paul uses the concept of “nature”, arguing that “natural” and “unnatural” are synonyms for heterosexual and homosexual, and that Paul in his description of homosexual acts as “unnatural” was not making any original contribution to human thought but reflecting a widespread attitude to homosexual acts in Hellenistic Judaism. “The understanding of ‘nature’ in this conventional language does not rest on empirical observation of what actually exists; instead it appeals to a conception of what ought to be, of the world as designed by God and revealed through the stories and laws of Scripture. Those who indulge in sexual practices para physin [against nature] are defying the Creator and demonstrating their own alienation from him”.
Hays is fully aware that the biblical writers had no concept of sexual orientation and notes the interpretation that argues for a different understanding of the language of “exchange”, namely that it describes heterosexual persons behaving promiscuously. Hence, Paul’s judgement does not apply to those who are homosexual by orientation. Hay argues against this position by arguing that the “exchange” is not a matter of “individual life decisions; rather it is Paul’s characterization of the fallen condition of the pagan world…The fact is that Paul treats all homosexual activity as prima facie evidence of humanity’s tragic confusion and alienation from God the Creator”. Thus Hays’s entire reading of Romans depends on his reading of Gen 2.
Hays end with a warning that “for Paul, self-righteous judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself…all of us stand in radical need of God’s mercy. Thus Paul’s warning should transform the terms of our contemporary debate about homosexuality: no one has a secure platform to stand upon in order to pronounce condemnation on others. Anyone who presumes to have such a vantage point is living in a dangerous fantasy, oblivious to the gospel that levels all of us before a holy God”.
Hays returns to the notion that the whole Bible speaks with a single voice about homosexuality as distinct from its ambiguity on other issues, such as slavery. He deals with the problem of how little mention homosexuality gets in the Bible by highlighting his belief that these ‘little’ texts on homosexuality have to be read within the context of what the canon of Scripture says about human sexuality; and the key here, he repeats, is God’s design: “From Gen 1 onward, Scripture affirms repeatedly that God has made man and woman for one another and that our sexual desires rightly find fulfillment within heterosexual marriage”.
Hays then moves to the doctrine of original sin to argue that “it is the very nature of sin that it is not freely chosen”, from which he concludes that homosexual orientation can’t protect itself from the charge of being sinful on the ground that it is not chosen. He then argues that we are obsessed with sexual fulfilment in our culture, but in the biblical world-view sexuality is never the basis “for defining a person’s identity or for finding meaning and fulfillment in life. The things that matter are justice, mercy, and faith…The love of God is far more important than any human love. Sexual fulfillment finds its place, at best, as a subsidiary good within this larger picture”.
Hays then asks how what he has said relates to the three images in his subtitle. The first of these is “community” from which he concludes that “The biblical strictures against homosexual behavior are concerned not just for the private morality of individuals but for the health, wholeness, and purity of the elect community”. Sex for Christians is never purely a private matter of what consenting adults do together. The second image, the “cross” mandates the Christian community to react to homosexuals in sacrificial service, not in condemnation. Additionally, as the cross delivers us from the power of sin “no one in Christ is locked into the past or into a psychological or biological determinism…the judgement of Romans 1 against homosexual practices should never be read apart from the rest of the letter, with its message of grace and hope through the cross of Christ”. With regard to his final image, “new creation”, Hays recommends “disciplined abstinence” “in this time between times…the only viable alternative to disordered sexuality”.
Hays then asks the hermeneutical question as to how the Bible should be applied to homosexuality, and concludes that no passage operates as a “rule” governing homosexual behaviour. Rather, the Bible offers “principles”, especially that of honouring God as Creator by Glorify[ing] your body (1 Cor 6.20b), and “paradigms”, both within a narrative context through which “the texts function to shape the symbolic world within which human sexuality is understood”.
Hays concludes by asking how “in the church we respond to the pastoral and political realities of our time…What decisions should the church make about the practical questions surrounding its response to homosexuality?” Especially, Hays asks whether homosexual should be welcome in the church to which he answers “’Can envious persons be members of the church’”? “Unless we think that the church is a community of sinless perfection, we must acknowledge that persons of homosexual orientation are welcome along with other sinners in the company of those who trust in the God who justifies the ungodly…If they are not welcome, I will have to walk out the door along with them, leaving in the sanctuary only those entitled to cast the first stone”.
At the same time, “the pastoral task of the church is to challenge self-defined homosexual Christians to reshape their identity in conformity with the gospel. He equates dealing with homosexuality in the church with dealing with soldiers in the church (he is a pacifist): both the military and homosexuals reflect fundamental disorder but “in both cases the questions are so difficult that we should receive one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and work towards adjudicating our differences through reflecting together on the witness of Scripture”.
What about same-sex erotic activity? Can it be condoned? No: “Unless they are able to change their orientation and enter a heterosexual marriage relationship, homosexual Christians should seek to live lives of disciplined sexual abstinence”. This leaves them in the same situation as the heterosexual who would like to marry but can’t find the right partner. Finally, should homosexuals be ordained? His answer: “Strictures against homosexuality belong in the church’s moral catechesis, not in its ordination requirements. It is arbitrary to single out homosexuality as a special sin that precludes ordination”.