If I am dead to the Law, does that then mean I can do anything I want? After all, if I am free from the Law, then nothing is against the Law. Paul got this question a lot, it seems. The Gospel is always open to this accusation, if it is in fact the Gospel. If the Good News doesn’t sound a little too good, it’s probably not the Good News at all. I know I’ve struggled often with actually believing and then asserting that we are truly and completely free from the Law and its demands. It just sounds too simple, too good, and too open to abuse: someone might say, “Well, then, anything goes! Do whatever you want because you’re ‘free’ in Christ.”
Not so fast, Paul says.
1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? …
10 The death [Christ] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires … 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
But again, what is sin if there is no Law? What is against the Law in the absence of a Law? Another way of asking this is to say, what pleases God and what does not?
I go back to what Jesus said about the Law before we died to it, before he fulfilled it perfectly. He said,
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
If the Law and the Prophets are summed up in two “simple” commands to love, then I assume God’s heart is that we love him and love people even in the absence of any Law. What this does is free me from thumbing through the Old Testament’s nearly-innumerable commands and prohibitions, trying to figure out which ones still apply and which don’t. I can simply approach each decision in my life with one question: Is the action I’m about to take loving toward God and people? Am I hurting anyone with what I’m doing? Am I offending God? And what seems to offend God most is how we mistreat people, which probably is why Paul sees the greatest commandment implied in the second:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh [flesh here refers to a power in opposition to the Spirit of God, not literal human flesh; Paul often used the term flesh this way]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.
For Paul, there is only one command: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If you do that, you’ll be pleasing (loving) God, so the first and greatest command is implied in the second.
He says this even more sharply in Romans, his great treatise on the Gospel.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
“Whatever other command there may be …” The sum of the whole thing and the final word is, love.
So, can we simply cut loose now that we are free from the Law. Nope. Paul says we were called to be free, but never free from love. Love is the one command that never dies. We are under grace, thankfully, for we fail at love constantly, but love is the goal.
Again, then, I am free from picking and choosing from the Old Testament Law to please God (this never really was an option anyway; how much less so now that we are dead to the Law?). I am free now to ask myself one simple question in each and every life situation: Is this a loving action? Am I doing to my neighbor what I would want him or her to do to me? If not, it is sin, for whatever is not loving is against the Law, even in the absence of any law.
It ought to be obvious by now how I suspect Paul would answer the question, what is sexual sin, why I think gay relationships are not inherently sinful, and why I think malakoi and arsenokoitai must speak to some abusive aspect of the homosexual conduct Paul witnessed, and not simply to homosexual relationships in general. But we’ll talk more about it on the morrow. Don’t y’all go nowhur, now!
So what do we do with the Law? I think Paul would say, “Die to it!” And if you are a Christian—that is, if you are “in Christ”—he would say you already have! You are dead to the Law, and it is dead to you. Period.
1 Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.
4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
This is the message throughout Romans and throughout the New Testament. You are dead to the Law. You are no longer “married” to it. When Jesus died, you died, if in fact you are in him. And if you are, then you are no longer bound by that old Law to which you died. There is a new way of living.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
We are justified, made right with God, by grace and apart from the works of the law. Period. You cannot mix the two, grace and law. You cannot say, well, yes, we need Christ for salvation, but also our own good works. For, not only are you dead to the law, but …
10 … All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us …
The Law does not contain (nor has it ever contained) a pick and choose option. If you choose to remain married to the old Law instead of to Christ—if you choose to trust your ability to obey the Law versus his, your righteousness instead of his which comes to you by faith—then you are obligated to keep all of the Law, and to keep it continually and perfectly. And that means you are doomed. Destined to fail. Under a curse.
Paul and James sound very different in their letters, but on this point they are singing the same tune.
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
When someone points to a verse in Leviticus as reason why homosexuality is an abomination, I like to take them on a trip through the letters of Paul and James. Things don’t end well for the person who insists on keeping the Law. A curse is a heavy thing to bear. You must keep the entire Law to succeed at keeping any of it. So Paul says, forget it! Let go of it! You are dead to it anyway and have taken on another “spouse,” Jesus. And if you insist on mixing obedience to the Law with faith in Christ, you make Christ of no value to you because he died to free you from that very Law.
1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised [according to the Law], Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
So forget the Law. Let it go. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
It seems that we have a choice. Either the Law shall be of no value to us, or Christ shall be of no value to us. Take your pick.
But what is sin, then, if not a violation of the Law? Does being free from the Law mean we can just cut loose? What is sexual sin? What do I do if I’m honestly just not sure what God thinks about homosexuality? Y’all come back now, yuh hear?
The apostle Paul said it best, I think. “The Law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Timothy 1:8, emphasis, mine). IF one uses it properly. And people before and since have been debating how exactly one does that. During Jesus’ time on earth, the Pharisees thought they had this figured out, as do some churches today. The Law says what it says. We should do what it says. If we would do what it says, God would be pleased, and pleased to send the Messiah. Strict obedience to and enforcement of the Law would garner God’s approval.
Jesus seemed to disagree. Strongly. The Messiah was already among the Pharisees, though they couldn’t (wouldn’t?) recognize him, and Jesus appears to say that strict obedience to the Law had led to unjust treatment of the “innocent.” (Remember, the “innocent” were technically guilty of violating the Law concerning the Sabbath. See my post, “Homosexuality: Jesus on the Law”.) Unless I’m misunderstanding Jesus, if there is ever a choice between sacrifice and mercy, between obedience and mercy, mercy wins. “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “’I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). So a strict enforcement of the letter of the Law does not seem to be a proper use of the good Law, and it does not seem to bring God’s approval.
Jesus could say this because of how he viewed the Law as a whole. He says in Matthew 22,
37 … “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Again, I’ve added the italics. What a radical statement! ALL of the Law and EVERYTHING the Prophets preached—all of it; every single bit of it—hang on fulfilling two “simple” commands: Love God; love people. Any use of the Law that does not promote these two things is not a proper use of the Law—hence why Jesus could say those who’d technically broken the Sabbath Law were innocent, and hence why I think the commands in Leviticus concerning male homosexuality, and the terms malakoi and arsenokoitai in the New Testament, must refer to some abusive or exploitive aspect of homosexuality. A strict prohibition against even loving gay relationships does not seem to promote love of God or mercy toward people. A prohibition against slavery, prostitution and religious sex rites would.
But anyone who’s tried fulfilling even those two “simple” commands—love God, love people—knows how simple they are not. I like how Paul puts it in Romans 7.
“I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting … Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good [i.e., the Law] to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”
So the Law, far from helping us love God and love people, only serves to show us how incapable we are of successfully doing either! We don’t love God, not very well anyway. And we don’t love people, particularly when those people are people we don’t like very much.
Basically, the Law points out our failure. It doesn’t help us live well. It doesn’t help us love. And if we’re not loving, then I think Jesus would say we’ve missed the whole point of the law in the first place, for ALL the law and the prophets hang on the two commands to love.
So this Law that is good accomplishes nothing good in us. Why then do some insist on turning the Law into a rule book for life and then judging how good we are by how well we succeed at the law? That is a recipe for misery and self-loathing, for the law only points out how utterly awful we can sometimes be. No wonder Paul says all who depend on the law are “under a curse” (Galatians 3:10)! His words, not mine. If you insist on trying to keep the strict letter of the law to gain approval from God or to simply be a good person, and if you insist on others doing the same, you are under a curse, and you are putting others under a curse. Could that be why Jesus said one day to the Pharisees,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).
I wonder how many of our churches are worthy of such a rebuke.
One of my favorite contemporary authors is Andrew Farley. He has a passion for Christians understanding their freedom from having to futilely try keeping the law. (And in case you’re wondering, Farley is not in favor of gay relationships, so I am not getting my theology only from people who agree with me on this issue.) Farley says Christians should have “no relationship with the law.” No relationship at all. That sounds outrageous, and outrageously far from what some churches teach. It also sounds, at least to me, very much like what the apostle Paul taught, and so in the next Gay Post, we’ll look further at what Paul said concerning the Law.
I received an email from a reader. It reminded me of questions I said we were going to address:
“‘We have some serious questions to consider: what then does the Bible mean by sexual immorality? What sexual behavior is acceptable to God and what isn’t, given that the passages on homosexuality are unclear at best? What was Jesus’ approach to applying the Old Testament Law to our New Testament reality? What is sin if not the violation of a hard and fast rule that always and continually says ‘no’? And for me, and for all gay Christians, if the Scriptures aren’t crystal clear on how we should view and respond to our sexuality, how do we proceed in life? Much to discuss as we continue on from here.’”
The email went on,
“I think about these issues a lot and I was wondering if I had missed any further writing you had done on this particular subject, concerning the subject of sexual immorality as a whole. Having struggled with sexual sin for most of my adulthood, I find it a difficult subject to seek support for within Christian groups … In the past, I have had … Christian peers shun me or treat me with disdain upon discovering my lack of purity.”
I appreciate the email. I do intend to give my take on all the questions above. In fact, I had every intention of doing that this week, but the week has been quite busy. Good, but busy. You should listen to WDAV.org this Sunday afternoon at 5:00 EST. I’ll be hosting “Reel Music: At the Oscars.” We’ll sample music from this year’s nominees for Best Original Score, and I’ll play some Oscar-winning favorites from years past. Seriously, you should listen, even if you think I’ve lost my mind with this gay stuff. It’ll be fun.
But about that busy week … Things have finally slowed down, so I was going to write today, but I’m soooo sleeeepy. Ever had a day where you just can’t wake up? You feel like you’re walking around in a mind fog? All your thinking is fuzzy? Yeah, well, that’s me today. Not exactly the proper frame of mind to attempt blogging about such ultimate questions as, oh I don’t know, WHAT IS SIN? Or, what is it that makes sex in some contexts immoral? Or, if we’re dead to the Old Testament Law, as Paul says we are, why do some insist I still follow its requirements? And if I don’t have to follow its rules, then, well, back to the beginning: WHAT IS SIN?
Ah, so many good questions. Unfortunately, my brain went walking through a poppy field this morning, and I just shouldn’t attempt writing today. Soon, I promise. Soon.
Thanks for checking in and reading these posts. I’m thankful for anyone who will take the time and exercise the humility to consider anew these ultimate questions. They matter. A lot.
Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get back to the Scriptures; I want to look further at what Jesus and Paul say about the Christian’s relationship to the Law to see if there is a consistent standard by which we can determine what is acceptable behavior for a Christ follower. Today, though, I wanted to respond to a Facebook message I received from a friend. He says,
“Matt, I will be praying for you in your struggle. In response to your recent blog posts attempting to justify homosexuality in the Word, I ask that you read this article:
As always, I appreciate anyone’s prayers, and certainly the polite expression of concern. I would say, however, that this is no longer a struggle for me. Not at this point anyway. Unless someone comes forward with something I hadn’t considered or read regarding Christian faith and homosexuality, I would say most days I am at peace over the issue for the first time in my life. The struggle seems to be on the part of some of my past acquaintances who are scratching their heads at how Matt Rogers could have so lost his mind. I can understand that. If a friend had done this a couple years back, I would have been scratching my head at them too.
As requested, I read the article I was sent. It’s by some guy named Kirby Anderson at PROBE Ministries (I think it’s okay to snicker, I did).
Of the Sodom story in Genesis 19, Anderson writes,
“One of the keys to understanding this passage is the proper translation of the Hebrew word for ‘know.’ Pro-homosexuality commentators point out that this word can also mean ‘to get acquainted with’ as well as mean ‘to have intercourse with.’ In fact, the word appears over 943 times in the Old Testament, and only 12 times does it mean ‘to have intercourse with.’ Therefore, they conclude that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality.”
Anderson goes on to say that statistics alone should not determine the meaning of a word in Scripture. I think he’s right. And in the few thousand pages of reading I did on this topic over two years I heard other anti-gay commentators suggest that some pro-gay theologians make the claim that “to know” in the Sodom story doesn’t involve sex. However, I never found any pro-gay theologian who in fact argued for this interpretation. I sometimes wonder if Anderson and others of a similar mind float these ideas to discredit pro-gay folks, but that’s my cynicism talking. At any rate, I don’t know of anyone who seriously supports the idea that Sodom is not about sex. Of course it is. But it’s about gang rape, not sex within a committed relationship. To treat Genesis 19 as a blanket prohibition against gay sex, given the brutal nature of what’s happening in the story, is terribly dishonest. And I think most theologians would say Jude’s mention of “strange flesh” references the fact that the Sodom visitors were angelic beings, not that the men of the town were desiring gay sex.
Next, Anderson takes on the Levitical proscriptions and the assertion by many people, not just gay theologians, that Christians are not bound to keep the Old Testament Law.
“If the Mosaic law is irrelevant to homosexuality, then it is also irrelevant to having sex with animals or having sex with children. More to the point, to say that the Mosaic law has ended is not to say that God has no laws or moral codes for mankind. Even though the ceremonial law has passed, the moral law remains.”
Anderson is getting to the heart (though he doesn’t seem to realize it) of what confuses many, many Christians. How do we determine what we keep from the Old Testament Law and what we set aside in the New Testament era. That’s where we’re headed next, to see what Jesus and Paul say about this. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a consistent standard for making those judgments. Anderson’s standard seems to be the old “moral law versus ceremonial law” argument. The problem with that approach is two-fold. One, it is unclear whether ancient Israel made any such distinction. Quite likely, this is a contemporary invention we created to try to settle this very question: what of the Law do we follow? Second, since the Bible contains no guidelines for determining what is moral (eternal) law and what is ceremonial (temporary) law, it is left to folks like Anderson to decide for us. Convenient for Anderson.
As for Romans, Anderson deals only briefly with it, taking a decidedly traditional approach to the passage but never once addressing the questions and objections of those who hold a differing view. And I think those questions and objections are good ones worthy of an honest treatment. Anderson offers none.
Anderson moves on to the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages. He does not address (or, indeed, even acknowledge) the uncertainty of interpretation inherent in the words malakoi and arsenokoitai. Is he even aware of this debate among scholars? It’s impossible to tell from what he has written. At any rate, he offers no response. Anderson says,
“Pro-homosexual commentators make use of the ‘abuse’ argument and point out that Paul is only singling out homosexual offenders. In other words, they argue that the Apostle Paul is condemning homosexual abuse rather than responsible homosexual behavior. In essence, these commentators are suggesting that Paul is calling for temperance rather than abstinence. While this could be a reasonable interpretation for drinking wine (don’t be a drunkard), it hardly applies to other sins listed in 1 Corinthians 6 or 1 Timothy 1. Is Paul calling for responsible adultery or responsible prostitution? Is there such a thing as moral theft and swindling? Obviously the argument breaks down.”
Anderson misses the point that every other sin in the vice lists involves some exploitive, deceitful, or otherwise harmful characteristic. If malakoi and arsenokoitai do not, then they are alone in the passages and rather out of place, since gay sex within a committed relationship doesn’t seem to cause any demonstrable harm. And since Anderson doesn’t tell us how he arrived at his interpretation of these two Greek terms, we have no way of knowing why he thinks they do not involve an abusive aspect of the sexual culture in which Paul was living.
Anderson then goes into a lengthy rebuke of the “born this way” argument. I don’t believe I have ever suggested people are born gay because, honestly, I have no idea what causes homosexuality. Could be nature; could be nurture; could be some mix of factors; could be different in different people. Who knows? I don’t, and neither does Anderson, and since I’ve never argued that people are born gay, I’ll pass on responding to what he says.
Okay, back to the Scriptures next time …
Thank you to everyone who has been respectful of my wish to keep my Facebook wall clean of discussion on this topic. Those of you who have felt the need to respond have, at least lately, been (a) very polite in responding even when disagreeing, and (b) have emailed or Facebook messaged your comments rather than posting them on my wall. I appreciate it.
I received an email this evening that I wanted to take a few moments to respond to because it raises an issue I’ve been thinking much about lately. The person gave their name, but I’m not sure if they intended I use it, so I will call this person Mark for no reason other than it is the first name that came to mind.
“I read a couple of your blog posts about being gay and you continually mention how you believe being gay is ‘not’ a choice, rather you are born gay. What would you say to those people who seem to grow up having a same sex attraction, then end up realizing the love of Jesus, and marry a woman? These people choose a life of heterosexuality. If they can choose to be heterosexual, how can it be argued that being gay is ‘not’ a choice. I believe it very possible for one to tell themselves something long enough to the point of actually believing it.”
Thank you, Mark, for you question and comments. I must say, I’m somewhat shocked by the number of responses I’ve received that have suggested (or outright declared) that being gay is a choice. Whether it was my friend who fired off, “You’re gay because you’ve chosen to be,” or something more subtle, such as the above email, I’m truly shocked. I guess I thought it was understood today that people don’t choose to be gay.
And that is my first point. I believe Mark is conflating attractions with the choice to act on those attractions. Being gay and having a gay relationship are not the same thing. Back to that point in a moment. Second, I don’t believe anywhere in these posts have I ever said I or anyone else was “born gay.” I have no idea why I or anyone else is gay. (Neither does Lady Gaga.) I used to think maybe parental and peer influences early in life caused people to be gay. I no longer have any idea, and I suspect the causes of homosexuality may vary greatly from person to person. We’ve gotten stuck in a debate of nature versus nurture. What if it’s a confusing mix of causes? Why does it have to be one cause for all? Mark suggests a false dichotomy, that if you aren’t born gay then you chose to be gay. No, there are many factors in life beyond my control that contribute to what I feel and think. I didn’t always choose the outcome of those factors, but in some cases, I’m stuck with them.
Mark asks, “What would you say to those people who seem to grow up having a same sex attraction, then end up realizing the love of Jesus, and marry a woman? These people choose a life of heterosexuality.” I’m glad he asked because in just the short eight months I’ve lived in Charlotte, I’ve met three gay men in separate social groups who once were married to a woman. In each case, divorce was the end result because the man wasn’t straight. Yes, as Mark says, they “chose a life of heterosexuality.” They chose to act as though they were heterosexual. But they weren’t! They were gay. They were behaving, to use a Pauline term, para physin. They were behaving contrary to the nature of a gay person, having rote sex with a person they liked on some level but didn’t really love. Some Christians will say, “Well, every marriage goes through times where the couple barely likes each other, much less loves each other.” Yes, but do we set this up as an example to revere and follow? I sure hope not. Yet, I hear of churches encouraging gay people to marry someone of the opposite sex because every relationship “requires work.” Folks, finding your spouse sexually desirable on your wedding night should not “require work.”
To be fair, I do have a friend who, though attracted to men sexually, chose to marry a woman, and it seems to have been a good thing. He was completely upfront with his then-girlfriend about his situation, so both entered the marriage with full disclosure. It has thus far proven successful. (Note: this friend is not a Christian and did not marry out of religious conviction or a “need” to be “normal.” He simply felt he was better completed emotionally by a woman than by a man.)
Does this mean everyone can or should try to make such an arrangement work? I can only imagine how many women have been put through loveless marriages because their churches answered that question, “Yes.” Let me ask you straight folks, particularly you straight fellas, to close your eyes and imagine making out with a person of the same sex. I mean, you’re really going at it. Lots of tongue.
Now imagine having sex with that person. Again, you’re really going at it.
Thrown up yet? How many of you could make a marriage like that work? My guess is, though you’d never admit it, a few of you would say, “Yeah, if I had to, sure.” You’re not repulsed entirely by the prospect, but success would “require work,” to say the least. Should the fact that a very few of you could make such a marriage work lead us to suggest that everyone could make it work? Should the fact that you straight fellas “chose a life of homosexuality” lead us to conclude that you were now gay? It’s absurd. You’re as straight as you ever were. You’re just acting para physin, contrary to what would be expected of a straight person.
The fear of loneliness, the hunger for sexual intimacy, and the craving for acceptance among our peer groups are so intense, some of us are capable of almost anything, including marrying someone with whom we’re not the least compatible. Doesn’t mean gay people who do this have suddenly turned straight. Behaving and being are often separate experiences entirely.
Mark in his email says, “I believe it very possible for one to tell themselves something long enough to the point of actually believing it.” I agree, and some in the church have been doing just that for a very long time.
What would Jesus say to and about gay people today? What would he say to people, like me, who call ourselves “gay Christians”? Would he say, “Right on, man!” as some assure us? Would he say “gay Christian” is a contradiction in terms, as others assure us? If neither of those two options are right, what is? What would Jesus say? I suspect the answer is less clear than some would like to believe.
Further, how do we settle on a consistent standard for deciding what is sin and what isn’t in cases where Scripture isn’t clear? In other words, how do we end the picking and choosing from parts of the Bible? We would all agree that cheating on your wife is wrong, but we don’t all agree that homosexual acts are wrong, depending on their context. Why? And what do we do about that disagreement within the church? Can we ever find a path toward settling the matter?
As with our look at Romans, this latest topic will probably play out over several blog posts because I don’t want these things getting too long.
The Pharisees were not exactly honest in their assertion that they were simply concerned about righteousness and the appearance that Jesus and his disciples were violating the Law. The Pharisees were jealous of Jesus. They felt threatened by him. They wanted to get rid of him. They actively plotted his murder while arguing with him about what the Old Testament Law said and how to fulfill its requirements. Still, I think their objections to Jesus and his responses are worth examining.
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
The Sabbath, I’m sure you know, was very serious stuff to first century Jews. It remains so for many today. Work was strictly prohibited. The Old Testament penalty was death. Yes, death. Like I said, this was serious stuff. Jesus’ disciples are picking heads of grain like it’s no big deal, and the Pharisees are incensed. Why do they blatantly defy one of the most serious laws, one of the “big ones,” one of the Ten Commandments? And in case you don’t think God took the Sabbath as seriously as his people did, consider this brief account from Numbers 15.
32 While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, 34 and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. 35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.
Twice it says God commanded the punishment of death. So the Pharisees in Jesus’ time would seem to have been on solid ground questioning the apparent Sabbath violation of Jesus’ disciples. “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” Jesus’ response?
3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
One could spend a lifetime pondering what Jesus says, and what he doesn’t say to the Pharisees. As a friend pointed out, he doesn’t say, “Oh it was just a few harmless heads of grain. That’s not technically working, so no violation of the Sabbath has occurred.” He seems to agree that his disciples may have technically violated the Law because he points to an even greater infraction on the part of King David from the Old Testament. “Haven’t you ever heard what he did?” Taking the consecrated bread from the house of God? Major no-no, even if you’re hungry, and a far more serious matter than eating some unconsecrated heads of grain. A strict obedience to the Law would never have considered doing such a thing. David did, and Jesus says he was innocent (!), as were his disciples: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
Wow, apparently you can break the Law and be innocent. But what is the standard for doing so? How do you know whether your setting aside of the Law is anything other than rebellion (I suspect defiance was the case in the Numbers account, and thus, the stoning)? In a parallel account of the Matthew story, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). That was his standard, it seems. The Law is made for man, not man for the Law. Does this mean that, if at any point the Law can be shown to hurt rather than help, it is acceptable to set the Law aside? If the choice is between mercy and sacrifice, do we always go with what Jesus said, that God desires mercy, not sacrifice? I realize this is risky business because we humans are good at convincing ourselves any restriction is a hindrance, but Jesus said what he said. Did he not mean it? And seriously, we can all imagine scenarios where a strict observance of the Law would hurt rather than help human beings, where sacrifice would negate mercy.
Nazi officer: Are you hiding Jews in your basement?
German citizen: Well, I wish I could lie and say no, but that would violate the Ten Commandments, so, yeah, you’ll find the compartment just beneath the rug in the dining room.
The Law was made for people, not people for the Law. Even if Paul and other biblical writers were clear in their opposition to homosexuality in general, which I do not believe they are (see the plethora of my previous posts on this topic), is there ever a point at which we say, look, this restriction doesn’t help anyone? Homosexuality doesn’t seem to hurt anything or anyone when it is within the context of a committed, monogamous, loving relationship. On the other hand, the constant tearing down of gay people by some churches, the constant telling them they are wrong or broken or abominable, is hurting people, with no demonstrably good outcome for anyone involved–not for the churches and not for gay people.
I once heard Erwin Lutzer, a famous pastor and author, speaking on how his church approaches the topic of homosexuality. Without a hint of compassion that I could detect, he argued strongly for the unfortunate but necessary sacrifice of celibacy and singleness on the part of gays and lesbians. I sat there wondering, does this man (who, conveniently, is married with children) have any idea the loneliness he’s prescribing for millions of people? Is this really what Jesus would say? “Sorry, folks, gotta sacrifice to keep the Law! Obedience is costly. I know you had no choice in being gay, but thems be the rules.” Or would he say, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. If you had only understood this, you would not have condemned the innocent”?
Since it’s Valentine’s Day, and since we’ve recently been thinking through Paul’s letter to the Romans, I thought it might be appropriate for us to look at how the ancient Romans celebrated this day of love, if only to point out just how different their culture really was from ours, and, therefore, how different their context for homosexuality likely was from ours. My point in recent posts has been to encourage us to reconsider whether it’s fair to cut and paste Paul’s comments on homosexual conduct from his world to ours, when those worlds were so unalike.
I’ve received a few comments recently that suggest some folks remain unconvinced that the cultural differences between ancient Rome and modern day America were all that great. Sure, maybe they were a bit looser in their morals, but hey, human nature is human nature, right? People are basically the same throughout the ages, right? So of course we can apply Paul’s writings to today without any concern that we might be wrenching them from their context. That seems to be the thinking anyway. I’m not sure we’ve fully appreciated yet just how different Roman society was from ours today.
NPR.org recently posted a story on how those “crazy” Romans “loved” one another on what became our day for celebrating romance. NPR’s Arnie Seipel writes,
“From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.
The Roman romantics ‘were drunk. They were naked,’ says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.”
Just like today?
No. Not so much.
I continue to believe it is only fair to consider the differences in our world and Paul’s when reading his thoughts on homosexual behavior. When he speaks of gay sex acts in relationship to idolatry in Romans 1, he is almost certainly referencing heterosexual men engaging in homosexual sex rites to honor the goddesses of the day. In 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, it seems at least a good possibility (I would say probability) that malakoi and arsenokoitai have some abusive, exploitive characteristic in mind in whatever they specifically reference because that was the nature of the homosexual conduct of which Paul would have been most aware. Pederasts (child abusers), call boys (male prostitutes), and emasculated temple priests do not a modern day gay relationship make. The culture was simply and significantly different.
Joel Osteen’s smile is so perfect, so all-consuming, that I once turned his picture upside down to see what he would look like with a frown, and he was still smiling. Seriously.
This is just an aside, a brief interruption in the flow of my posts on homosexuality and the church. A friend asked me a question yesterday that reminded me of something Osteen once said in an interview with Larry King. My friend wanted to know my thoughts on the Genesis account, why if homosexuality is ok did God make the first couple male and female. Joel Osteen would say that the heterosexual arrangement is “God’s best.” At least, that is what he told Larry King when the famous interviewer asked Osteen about gay couples. Osteen, never one to rock boats, did his best to dodge the question, but King wouldn’t let him off the hook. Finally, Osteen said, “I don’t think homosexuality is God’s best.”
I’ve heard this line before, and I don’t follow the logic. It’s as though Osteen and others think gay people could have chosen God’s best and for whatever reason decided they would settle for less. I seriously hesitate to use the following analogy for fear someone will think I’m suggesting homosexuality is a handicap. Not what I’m saying. It’s just an analogy, clunky perhaps, but the best I can come up with this morning: if you are confined to a wheelchair, and that chair is your only means of navigation, how helpful is it to have someone tell you, “I don’t think that wheelchair is God’s best. God’s best is that we use our legs and feet to get around”? We can all agree that most people can and should walk on two legs, but for some people, that just isn’t an option, and no amount of protesting will change that. What use is there in telling someone, “That’s not God’s best,” if God’s best is not available to them? Or does Osteen still think being gay is a choice, that gay people could get up and walk if they’d just decide to?
Again, clunky analogy, I admit.
Or maybe what Osteen meant by “God’s best” was singleness and celibacy. If that’s God’s best, why didn’t Osteen choose it for himself and his wife? Does he not love his wife? Does he not want God’s best for her? I’m not being snarky. Well, maybe a little. But really, we need to think more critically about this issue before we speak because silly comments on the topic are hurting the reputation and witness of the church in our culture. Why didn’t Jesus encourage celibacy more strongly if it is “God’s best”? He only says, “The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:12). Paul, who seemed to think the whole world would be better off single as he was, nevertheless concluded in 1 Corinthians 7 that this was not an option for most people:
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of “God’s best,” be it heterosexuality or celibacy. “It’s good not to have sex, but since it’s apparent you’re going to, at least keep it between you and your spouse. Stop taking someone else’s wife or husband as though they were your own.” That’s my paraphrase. Seems as though Paul didn’t have much faith in the practicality of celibacy for most people.
Whatever Osteen means by God’s best, I’m not sure it makes much sense to tell those for whom it isn’t available that they should choose it.
A couple years ago I was talking with a fairly well-known pastor and author. Not Philip Yancey (he’s not a pastor) and not Jim Pace (stop trying to guess who). I was trying to figure out what I thought about the whole gay issue in Scripture, and I wanted to know this man’s opinion. I had enjoyed his books a great deal.
He said, “Well, what does your gut tell you?”
I honestly didn’t know. “My gut kind of goes both ways right now,” I said. “Hence my confusion.”
He said, “Well what do you think Paul means when he says homosexuals will not enter the kingdom of heaven?”
He wasn’t being snarky. He really wanted to know if I’d considered this and what conclusion I’d reached. Still, I was rather stunned by the question. It seemed as though this pastor and author to thousands didn’t have the first clue that there was considerable disagreement concerning the translation of the term “homosexuals” in the verses this pastor/author was referencing. I knew because I’d been reading up on the subject. I guess I should not have been surprised by this man’s ignorance. Most modern Bibles include no mention of the uncertainty in translation. Had I not gone a-diggin’ to figure this stuff out, I never would have known, myself.
Beyond Romans 1, Paul makes two other brief mentions of what may refer to male homosexuality: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. In both cases, the references are contained within vice lists, a cataloguing of sinful behavior. The Greek terms Paul uses are malakoi and arsenokoitai. What do they mean? It’s difficult to say; scholars have changed their minds over the years, and translations have repeatedly differed on how best to render the words in English. One author has rightly said that as people’s prejudices have changed, so have their translations of malakoi and arsenokoitai.
The 1952 version of the Revised Standard Version translates 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 this way:
“Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (Greek: oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
The 1977 revision of the Revised Standard Version changed “homosexuals” to “sexual perverts.” Homosexual or heterosexual or both? The translators did not say. The 1989 revision translated malakoi and arsenokoitai separately: “male prostitutes and sodomites.” So the problem in view became not just homosexuality or sexual perversion, but male prostitution (homosexual or heterosexual, the translators didn’t say) and homosexuals (active or passive sexual partners, or both—again, the translators did not say). This is a questionable translation at best since it would include female homosexuality as a vice, and, as we’ll see, the Greek doesn’t allow for this. Also, the term “homosexual” is a 19th century creation. No such word existed in Greek.
As for the 1 Timothy reference, malakoi doesn’t appear. Only arsenokoitai is mentioned, which the New Revised Standard Version renders as “sodomites.”
In general, today’s translators seem to prefer combining the two Greek terms in 1 Corinthians, rendering them as “practicing homosexuals,” or something of the like, and without an asterisk indicating uncertainty as to the exact meaning. This is extremely misleading. In Paul’s day, malakoi literally meant “soft.” It was often a term used derisively to describe people who were lazy, lovers of luxury, or morally loose. Sometimes the word was used specifically to refer to male call boys—boys and young men who were free citizens, not slaves, but who chose prostitution as their profession, dressing effeminately to attract older men looking to pay them for sexual favors. Whichever usage Paul has in mind here in the New Testament, I can see no justification for combining malakoi with arsenokoitai. If malakoi does refer to homosexual behavior, the reference is most likely to the passive call boy. It is hardly fair to compare first century male prostitutes to twenty-first century gay marriages.
The word arsenokoitai is even harder to translate with confidence. The word only appears twice in the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. There is no recorded use of the term in history before these references, and historians can only find a handful of uses after the New Testament, a few of which (according to one historian I read) do not appear to be referencing homosexual practice. Did the word change meanings over time? Did it have meanings we do not know of today?
The most reasonable theory I found on the origin of this word is that early Greek Christians coined the term as a shorthand Hebrew-to-Greek translation of the prohibition in Leviticus, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” Arseno- means “men” and –koitai means “lying.” Though entirely speculative, this seems like a solid, plausible theory for how arsenokoitai came to be a word. It would also make sense that the word would not appear often outside of the New Testament if it was a Greek Christian invention.
But what exactly does arsenokoitai mean in Paul’s context? The Levitical prohibition likely has in mind some form of pagan sex rites used in the worship of Canaan’s gods. Is that what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy? Or does he intend a broader meaning, male homosexuality in general? Maybe, but every other sin in the vice list has an exploitative nature to it. In other words, someone is being hurt by the other actions—greed, drunkenness, stealing, etc. What is the demonstrable harm in homosexuality itself? For the vice list to have continuity, Paul must have had some abusive or exploitative characteristic in mind. Some scholars have argued that, just as malakoi might refer to the passive call boy prostitute, arsenokoitai might refer to the older male customer who hired the call boy. This makes sense to me and preserves the continuity of the vice lists, but without Paul here for us to ask him, no one can say for sure what interpretation is exact.
And that’s it. We’ve now examined all the biblical passages that mention homosexuality. (Some people find a veiled reference in the brief letter of Jude, but most scholars believe this is not the case, so I’ll pass on blogging about it.) We have the Sodom story which is about rape, not homosexuality. We have a couple verses in Leviticus that gave instructions on how the Israelite people were to separate themselves from their pagan neighbors. We have some discussion of homosexual acts in relationship to idolatry in Romans. And we have a verse a piece in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy that probably deal with some form of likely abusive homosexual acts. There is nothing in all the Bible that describes or discusses homosexuality as we most often hear of it today—two people of the same sex seeking a loving, respectful relationship with each other.
At this point, we have some serious questions to consider: what then does the Bible mean by sexual immorality? What sexual behavior is acceptable to God and what isn’t, given that the passages on homosexuality are unclear at best? What was Jesus’ approach to applying the Old Testament Law to our New Testament reality? What is sin if not the violation of a hard and fast rule that always and continually says “no”? And for me, and for all gay Christians, if the Scriptures aren’t crystal clear on how we should view and respond to our sexuality, how do we proceed in life? Much to discuss as we continue on from here.