Sunday, March 29, 2009

Romans 1-3 and Homosexuality

Today in Dr. McGrath's Sunday school class it was emphasized that those who use the material in Romans 1 about homosexuality as a weapon with which to condemn and "clobber" others have clearly made the error of stopping reading at the end of chapter 1 - which, like all the chapter and verse divisions in the New Testament, was not in the letter Paul wrote. If we continue reading, we discover that Paul engaged in a stereotypical Jewish condemnation of Gentiles (compare for instance Wisdom of Solomon 13-15) not as an end in itself, but in order to get Jewish readers who joined in the condemnation to understand that they themselves were in the same situation.

It was also noted that the dominant form of homosexual act in the Greek world in Paul's time was between a teacher and his male student. It is thus worth considering that Paul may have been more interested in condemning pederasty/paedophilia rather than addressing committed same-sex relationships. We also discussed whether an appropriate Christian outlook today is to condemn homosexuality in general, or to expect gay and lesbian Christians to hold themselves to a higher standard (monogamy) than prevails in our society, whether among homosexuals or heterosexuals. Also worth noting is that no one today practices "Biblical marriage", and to the extent that our view of the "nature" of men and women has changed (considered in Paul's time to be inherently active and passive respectively), is there any reason in our time to continue to view it as inherently demeaning for a man to take on a passive (i.e. female) role?

It is worth noting that in Romans 1, Paul apparently views homosexual practices as a punishment for Gentile turning away from God, rather than as something that itself is a cause of the divine wrath. Time prevented us from looking at the ways in which objects of wrath are turned into objects of mercy on numerous occasions in the Bible. Also left for consideration on another occasion is whether, should we wish to welcome homosexuals in a Christian community, we cannot find at least as much justification for doing so in the Scriptures as we have for other groups that might, on Scriptural grounds, be excluded (e.g. for instance the divorced).

The aim is to conclude the series on homosexuality next time, after which will follow some Easter-related topics.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Leviticus 17-20 and Homosexuality

Today in Dr. McGrath's Sunday school class, we continued our discussion of homosexuality. Today's class began by focusing on the section of Leviticus that includes its two mentions of the prohibition against "lying with men the lyings of women", usually understood to prohibit same-sex male intercourse.

It was crucial to begin by pointing out that some of the things in this part of Leviticus we do not consider necessary. And in spite of slogans that affirm belief in the whole Bible, it should be clear to those who have actually read the whole Bible that those who claim to do so in fact don't. We need to be honest that we not only are not doing everything the Bible says, but deep down we don't think that we should. And so a key question becomes was whether there is any underlying rationale for why some things continue to be practiced while others do not.

One route that is sometimes followed is to defer the matter to the New Testament: those things that are reaffirmed there remain in force, those things that are set aside there do not. But apart from the question of whether all the New Testament authors agreed about what did and did not remain in force, it must be asked whether there is an underlying rationale for what is and isn't maintained in the New Testament. We will, at any rate, discussion Romans 1-3 next time.

Whether we are dealing with homosexuality, shaving, tattoos or other subjects mentioned in this part of Leviticus, we are not given a clear rationale explaining why these things are prohibited. Sometimes attempts have been made to give a rationale - e.g. pork was prohibited to prevent disease, tattoos were prohibited because infection as a result was far more likely back then. But it must be asked whether such concerns are likely to have been in the minds of the Biblical authors.

A number of issues were touched on but set aside until we can consider them in their own right in a well-informed way. These included whether homosexuality's acceptance in society threatens traditional marriage, whether this is an issue about which Christians ought to agree to disagree, and whether, even if Christians agreed in viewing homosexuality as a sin, that would necessarily translate naturally into an attempt to impose Christians' views on others through legislation. The historic Baptist committment to the separation of church and state seems to point in a particular direction on this last point.

Perhaps the most important point to note, however, is how those who claim to be "defending traditional marriage" or "defending Biblical morality" in fact are picking and choosing in ways that suggest ulterior motives on their part. This part of Leviticus includes laws about honesty in business, payment of workers' wages, and treatment of foreigners living in one's territory. Why are such topics ignored by some in favor of a focus on homosexuality? Clearly it is not a desire to be faithful to the Bible that is at the heart of this, since the other matters mentioned are scarcely less pressing issues today. Why do those claiming to "defend marriage" not focus more on divorce, which is the subject of much clearer Biblical teaching and is more obviously a threat to heterosexual marriages? It seems obvious that there must be other motivating factors than those claims. Indeed, one possibility is that this simply reflects an instinct we all have, if we are honest, namely the tendency to focus on that which others are doing, to shift blame, find scapegoats, and see the shortcomings of others more clearly than our own. But on this matter the teaching of Jesus is clear: our focus ought to be on the beams in our own eyes, not on the splinters in others'.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Homosexuality and the Bible: Genesis 19, Judges 19

Today we began a new topic in our series "When Christians Disagree": homosexuality. We're beginning with those passages that have often been singled out as relevant to the issue, although in the present instance, Dr. McGrath suggested that Genesis 19 might not be about homosexuality so much as about hospitality, rape, violence and a number of other issues. Also noted was Ezekiel 16, which condemns Sodom in particular for lack of concern for the poor. The question of what rabbinic tradition had to say about this story was also posed, and there are some interesting web sites that address that question.

It is important to read Judges 19, one of the most horrific stories in the Bible, when considering this subject. There a rape does actually take place, and the victim dies, yet even though the originally-intended victim was a man, because the actual victim ends up being a woman, few would say that this is a story about homosexuality, i.e. about sexual orientation. In neither story are we given the impression that the men of the city who surrounded the house wanted to take the male visitors to the city to a local bar, get them drunk, and then be promiscuous with them. Whatever else the people of Sodom or of Gibeah may have been up to at other times, in both these stories we appear to be dealing with acts of violence intended to humiliate and victimize strangers who came into these cities.

Over the next few weeks we'll look at some other passages from the Bible that may be relevant to our topic. For next time we'll read Leviticus 17-20, then Romans 1-3, and after that 1 Corinthians 6-8.