When Scholarly Arguments about Homosexuality Are Inaccessible

by Nov 20, 2014ChurchLife, Culture, Homosexuality, NTScholarship, Theology6 comments

No matter what field of study you name, there will be people in it who are arguing over your head—even if it’s your own field of study, the one you trained in. There are countless topics in the broad field of biblical studies that I am not qualified to say much if anything about: Hebrew calques from Ugaritic (I think they exist), Monothelite Christology (it’s either bad or good, can’t remember, but I know where to look it up), and anything in Aramaic (it uses the same letters as Hebrew). Even in my sub-field of New Testament studies, there are some discussions I can’t follow very well, and conversations I can’t contribute to even if I can follow them. One of the values of my time in grad school was that my teachers drastically shortened the list of discussions in NT studies that I can’t follow, but we live in an age of specialization, and that means you and I are going to feel left out sometimes.

So what if you feel left out of what appear to be key discussions in a hot topic, like the specific topic of this post: whether or not the Bible can be read to approve of faithful, monogamous homosexual relationships? I really do believe that you should listen to the arguments of the pro-gay theologians—they’re coming your way, so you might as well be ready. And not mainly to win an argument but to help people in your church or family who struggle with homosexual desires. They’re coming your way, too. And they will be tempted by the pro-gay biblical arguments. Who isn’t tempted sometimes to twist the Bible into letting us go our own way?

What can you do in such a situation, and with regard to pro-gay theology in particular? You can’t just trot out the names of the biblical scholars on your side, whichever side that is, because biblical scholars with full credentials from accredited institutions hold the conservative view of opposition to all expressions of homosexuality (Rob Gagnon is a leading example; Doug Moo is another), and biblical scholars with full credentials from accredited institutions hold the liberal view, too (John Boswell and Robin Scroggs are leading examples). It’s a point worth making that conservative scholars pretty reliably line up on one side and liberal ones on the other—but that’s not a sufficient basis upon which to make an informed decision.

The person in the pew is left with dueling authorities whose dog fights (to transpose the metaphor) are mostly happening above his or her head. It’s doubtful to me whether most Christians without Greek training can really handle the difficult arguments (from both sides) about the meaning of ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites) in Pauline literature. I suspect that many Christians take their position on homosexuality for the same reason that most people take their position on global climate change: party loyalty. And what else can they do? Some of the important arguments in this field are simply not perspicuous. They require knowledge of ancient customs and of Koine Greek linguistics. Most Christians have to take Doug Moo and the NIV committee’s word for it—or not—that Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 condemned all expressions of homosexuality, not just exploitative forms.

Leaders and teachers like Moo, Gagnon, Boswell, and Scroggs will be held responsible for their teaching. They’ll be “judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1) “as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). But let’s remember one of the questions regularly on Jesus’ lips throughout the Gospels: “Have you not read…?” Ordinary Christians, people not called to be biblical scholars, will also be held responsible for how they read Scripture.

I regularly think of a little comment by Andree Seu Peterson in WORLD Magazine:

I appreciate [biblical] scholarship, but it is rarely conclusive. The question is this: When push comes to shove, do I go with Christian peer pressure or with God’s Word as I see it? All my obediences to received practice are suspect when I balk at the one point where conscience makes a contrary demand. It’s when there is disjunction that my true allegiance shows.

Christians watching aerial combat among biblical scholars should still try to follow the action—and the best of biblical scholars are gifted at flying low to the ground, making their work accessible to the church they’re dedicated to serving.

And it’s okay if there are still arguments you can’t follow, because there is at least one accessible argument regarding homosexuality (I think there are more) that doesn’t require advanced biblical training but is nonetheless decisive: it’s a biblical natural law argument used by Jesus himself. When asked about divorce in Matthew 19, Jesus appealed to the original created order. He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:4-6). Jesus, in other words, appealed to the creation narrative and its original purposes for marriage as abidingly normative. If the Bible is the story of grace restoring nature—of Creation, Fall, Redemption—then hetero- marriage is at the beginning of the story. And it’s the end. Christ will marry his bride (consistently portrayed in the feminine in Rev. 19). To introduce homosexuality into this story is to subvert the entire Creation, Fall, Redemption metanarrative of Scripture.

You can say it’s different strokes for different folks—that “it’s as okay to be a Christian and liberal as it is to be a Christian and conservative” as one young ex-evangelical put it recently. But this relativizes Scripture, turning it into a wax nose. It is an implicit denial of God’s authority and ability to speak to us through His word on important issues. As Machen demonstrated many years ago, Christianity and theological liberalism are separate religions entirely, formed on different bases with different authorities. (Is it an accident that nobody in the history of the church got pro-gay views out of Scripture until the 20th century?) Jesus didn’t just condemn sexual immorality, he condemned those who promoted it—and those who tolerated those who promoted it: “I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality” (Rev. 2:20; cf. Rom. 1:32).

Jesus condemns members of the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira for merely “holding the doctrine” of false teachers. Whether someone commits homosexual acts or not, holding the doctrine that those acts are okay is itself immoral, and Christ’s commands to those two churches are apropos: “You have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent.”

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  1. clynn

    I appreciate your posts on homosexuality. I find the natural law argument from the creation order to be persuasive. I don’t think that God approves of homosexual marriage. I have wondered how to apply Jesus’ words in Mark 10:5 to the issue of homosexual marriage. Jesus conceded that people’s “hardness of heart” prompted Moses to regulate a practice that God abhorred (i.e. divorce). Many 1st century Jews mistook Moses regulation of divorce as God’s endorsement of the practice. God, however, did not condone it. He only allowed Moses to regulate divorce in order to protect the vulnerable parties involved from extreme economic and social hardship. Along the same lines, God clearly did not approve of polygamy in the Old Testament (i.e. argument from the created order) and yet polygamous marriage was regulated (Lev 18:18; Duet 21:15). I do not currently know if or to what extent these observations apply to the homosexual civil marriage issue, but I want to know. I would appreciate your feedback.

  2. Mark Ward

    These are valid points, Cecil, and I think the problem is that conservatives are being forced to have this conversation under the glare of public scrutiny and even hatred. We should have figured out the relevant issues a long time ago, but there was no impetus to do so. Now there is, and the pressure is knocking some people down. And dividing us—different Christians are going for different strategies.

    Your points are a big reason why I admitted to some amount of “ad-hoccery” in my viewpoint. I’m writing/editing a chapter on government for a textbook on biblical worldview, and I’ve been writing this morning about prudence. I acknowledge that we’ll never have the ideal society until Christ comes and establishes it by a force we don’t possess. (And even if we had the ideal society, my own presence as a sinner would mar it!) That means we’ll be forced to, in some measure, accept evil—like abortion. Christians haven’t gone on a massive strike; we haven’t started a civil war; we’ve worked incrementally for change in every way we can. The same may occur with gay civil marriage. We won’t and shouldn’t all emigrate if/when it becomes the law of the land. But we should keep up a perpetual protest for the good of our neighbors and their children. And our spirits need to show that we’re doing it for their good, that we truly love them. It’s going to be hard to sell. Cultural forces make it nearly impossible to hate the sin and love the sinner; our love will have to be very real and unshakeable.

  3. John


    I have had several discussions with liberal pastors on this matter and other theological topics. I am wondering if appealing to natural law argument used by Jesus himself will only hold weight with those who put weight in the words of Jesus. When I have appealed to the words of Jesus to liberal pastors in my discussions they respond saying something like, “Jesus was only a man and was teaching the doctrine of the day.” In the instance of Matthew 19, they would probably say Jesus was correcting their teaching to conform to what it should have been for that period in history. They would probably say Paul and John were teaching what customary beliefs for that day also.

  4. Mark Ward

    Right, John. Mainline liberalism is another religion; it’s not Christianity. It’s formed on a different basis than Christianity. Machen saw this long ago.

    If you can graciously lead people to the place where they’re acknowledging that the Bible does in fact teach that homosexual acts are immoral, then the disagreement can be between them and God and you can step back. I want to leave room—especially as time passes—for genuine Christians who are genuinely confused by pro-gay theology. I’ll spend much more time with them than with theological liberals who reject the authority of Scripture, and I’ll have much more patience: “Correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Ti 2:25–26).

  5. Sidney

    You forgot to quote the rest of Jesus’ Matthew 19 verse convenient. “For their are some Eunuchs born so from the womb, made so by man, and made so for the Kingdom of Heaven.” What Jesus actually said is man and woman was the way they were first created but there was other things that YHWH had in mind for after Adam and Eve and he intended it to be this way. People love to half quote Matthew 19.

    If same sex Unions are so wrong. Why wasn’t King David and Prince Johnathan not punished for merging their households? Why were they not punished for kissing? Why was it ok for King David to take in Johnathan’s son as his own? Why was he not immediately stones for saying Johnathan’s love for him was greater than that of a woman?

    Fundamentalist are definitely a separate religion, I agree. Their faith is not biblical and it’s heretical.

  6. Mark Ward

    Sidney, you make a good point and a frankly silly one. Yes, the fall has changed our situation. That’s a good point to add. Now there are people who are single who are not sinning to be so—just as the fall brought sickness to some people who don’t “deserve” their sickness (John 9). But “eunuch” doesn’t mean “homosexual.” It means “single.”

    But Jonathan and David did not have a homosexual relationship. Among many, many things that could be (and have been) said about their friendship, one is obvious: a “man after God’s own heart” would not violate God’s law. If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments.

    But here we go again: scholars with accredited degrees and arguments difficult for most laypeople to process stand on both sides of the question of whether or not Jonathan and David were homosexual lovers. You’ve got your PhDs from Columbia saying they were, and you’ve got your PhDs from Cambridge saying they weren’t (for the life of me I can’t find the citation, but I’m just sure Carson reviewed Knust’s book).

    I’m convinced that the side you take is more likely to be determined by your overall religion—orthodox Christianity or theological liberalism, rather than by the arguments.