Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is one thing like another?

In a comment to my post below on Parameters, Tobias Haller, himself a published author on the subject of homosexuality, suggests:

"I would suggest a study of how the church managed to do this in the past on issues of a similar nature -- starting with the Apostolical coming to terms with Gentile inclusion in the people of God, without the Scripturally mandated circumcision -- which was achieved in part by coming to understand what had been a matter of the flesh in terms of the Spirit."

I think there are a series of interesting questions connected to this suggestion.

(1) Is there an analogy between "Gentiles" (outsiders to the Jewish nation) and people identifying themselves as gays and lesbians (often experiencing themselves in relation to the church as outsiders)?

(2) If there is an analogy, what consistent sexual ethic applies across the integrated people of God (i.e. heterosexual-and-now-integrated-homosexual people of God)? Or, do two different sexual ethics apply within the one people?

(3) What relevance, if any, does the original insistence have, in the apostolical inclusion of the Gentiles, that Gentile Christians share the same sexual ethic as the Jews?

(4) Is it fruitless to pursue an analogy with the Gentiles in this instance, because Scripture knows nothing of a people group determined by behavioural characteristics?


  1. Hi Peter,
    I have been out of internet connection for a few days and come back to a very interesting interchange etween you and Tobias Haller, whose book "Reasonable and Holy' I hold in high regard, to the point that is constitutes a reposte to your complaint that TEC has not produced any substantive hermeneutical work supporting their policy innovations ...

    That aside, your four questions above all seem weighty, and here is a brief response to each:-

    1. I do see an important analogy with Gentile inclusion, and it is not about their feelings of exclusion but rather with Jewish Christians' shared conviction that Gentiles per se were unclean an excluded from God's people. How was this belief overcome, given its solid scriptural basis? I agree with Tobias that a key to this change was a category transformation, from flesh to spirit. The analogous move might be considering the relational and spiritual dimensions of faithful homosexual partnerships as the key to moral judgements about them, rather than focusing on physical aspects.
    My response to Question 4 follows directly from this. We should cease do define homosexuals as people who perform physical acts A B or C, as you seem to be doing. Homosexuals are those who fall in love with others of the same gender. Partnerships are then eveluated in terms of the quality of their loving - that is, on exactly the same basis as heterosexual partnerships (ansering Qeustion 2. There is only one sexual ethic for the people of God, and its goal is to build loving, committed relationships that glorify God.
    That leaves only Q 3. My take on this one is that Jewish ethics lie on the same developmental trajectory as Christian ethics. Gentiles entering the Christian community in the first century took on first-century Jewish sexual ethics. Since then both Jews and Gentiles have learned some new things about human nature, and grown in understanding of our biblical roots accordingly.
    A brief response, must go!

  2. If, as many scholars seem to believe, the purpose of the decree of the Jerusalem Council was not to lay down a full code of law for Gentiles, but rather to provide a minimum guideline to allow for coexistence of Jews and Gentiles in one church --- how might we apply that principle to the present situation? That's what I was getting at.

    Reading the Apostolic list of items from which Gentiles are to abstain as if it were still relevant -- in its explicit legal demands -- to our contemporary situation raises a number of problems.

    1) the Western church no longer observes the prohibitions concerning consumption of blood or of meat from animals that have not been bled. (Irish or English Breakfast anyone? How about Peking Duck?)

    2) the question of food offered to idols is moot in most of our circumstances --- and who bothers to check?

    3) whether porneia refers to "any sexual immorality" (vaguely defined as anything one disapproves of) or with more narrow range of meaning, "harlotry" -- as attested in the contemporary texts -- is a matter of contention and disagreement; but the weight of evidence tends towards the narrower reading.

    4) when read in context of Paul's larger concerns in Galatians 2 and Ephesians 2, a return to a legalistic reading seems very much at odds with over all evangelical hermeneutic --- this is not about works but faith.

    Finally, what if we were to apply the hermeneutic of coexistence --- that is, of people getting along with each other in fellowship rather than judging each other --- as the primary goal of the text? The notion of the church building itself up in love seems to lie at the heart of our present dilemmas.

    In any case, I think that one overarching sexual ethic can embrace gay and strait people: monogamous, life-long, committed relationships. The "ethics" is about the spirit, not the flesh.
    Ethical standards of fidelity, care, mutual love and so on can apply equally.

    Sorry I don't have time for a more detailed response, but I was only just liberated from jury duty yesterday and am dealing with a pile of unfinished work!

  3. Hi Howard
    While appreciative of the line you drive at, I remain somewhat dissatisfied/not yet convinced by a key statement you make, "Partnerships are then evaluated in terms of the quality of their loving - that is, on exactly the same basis as heterosexual partnerships". Is this subjectivity actually grounded in Scripture, or in an ethic of appreciation of relationships which we have derived from Scripture? Scripture, that is, which seems to find and teach something important about the objective state of "marriage"? (E.g., perchance reading Matthew 19:1-12 today, where Jesus seems focused on objective matters not subjective in the declarations he makes about marriage).

    Thus I am not convinced by this, "There is only one sexual ethic for the people of God, and its goal is to build loving, committed relationships that glorify God." What the Bible actually says, is that the goal of marriage is a one flesh, lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). Incorporated here is interest in "physical aspect" (with the contrasting condemnation in Leviticus 18:22 being a logical corollary of that interest): the Bible is not actually completely ethereal about relationships as a meeting of minds and hearts in "quality of their loving"! "Knowing" in OT speak is people knowing each other bodily! And there is the annoying (so to speak) objectivity of both Genesis and Jesus/the Gospels, that the "quality of loving" is between a man and a woman.

    (Tobias, if reading this, I will reply to your comment, but, like you, busy, so one at a time!!)

  4. Hi Tobias,
    The coexistence of Jews and Gentiles in one church could proceed on the basis that they shared one gospel, and one repentance from sin. The coexistence of heterosexuals and homosexuals in the one church could proceed on the basis that one gospel is shared, and one repentance from sin. Just the small problem that we cannot agree on what 'sin' is in connection with human sexuality. Thus I do not find any kind of shortcut to a solution via Acts 15. Even if one were to agree with you that each part of the Apostolic Letter can be explained away, there remains, in fact, the whole debate about what 'sin' is in connection with human sexuality.

    The larger concerns of Paul in Galatians and Ephesians include some very strong talking about sexual morality: I do not see that it is "legalistic" to determine with Paul that some clear and abiding rules for sexual behaviour in the Christian community are in accord with the gospel rather than in discord with it.

    It is quite unconvincing to talk about a hermeneutic of coexistence because it does nothing to resolve current differences over what constitutes sin. If I think my brother or sister is sinning, then the New Testament is clear that a hermeneutic of coexistence does not apply, rather, what applies is a responsibility to lead my brother or sister away from sin.

    It is possible that one day the church (universal) might agree with you when you say "In any case, I think that one overarching sexual ethic can embrace gay and straight people: monogamous, life-long, committed relationships. The "ethics" is about the spirit, not the flesh.
    Ethical standards of fidelity, care, mutual love and so on can apply equally." But to get to that point of agreement will require better arguments than I am seeing proffered by you and by Howard.

    The point, of course, is not to persuade me (per se) but to persuade rank and file conservatives. I am just not seeing anything much which is going to persuade them!

  5. Peter, it is of course also clear that there were "rank and file conservatives" on the issue of circumcision, and they remained unconvinced in the apostolic era!

    But you correctly focus, I think, on the key issue: is all same-sex sexuality a "sin" or can it (like mixed-sex sexuality) lose that status by taking place within a covenanted, life-long, monogamous relationship. My point here is that even heterosexual sex is not judged to be a "sin" simply in itself, but in large part by its context. Even within a marriage, sex can be a sin -- if it is coerced, brutal, etc.

    On the "one flesh" -- note that even this is not always a virtue, and in 1 Cor Paul clearly condemns it in relation to sex with a prostitute -- again, context is what determines the "sin" not the "pure act" considered in and of itself apart from the actors.

    And I do see a growing willingness on the part of many in the church to accept the arguments in this direction, towards an overarching appreciation of the locus of morality not in the "flesh" but in the spirit. As a moral approach this seems to be in keeping with the teaching of Jesus, in particular in the movement away from a "taboo" mode of thinking about actions divorced from context. This may leave many unconvinced as well -- just as there remained many who continued to insist on circumcision, unconvinced by the Pauline argument that what God had once required was required no longer, and had in fact become a detriment to salvation!

  6. Hi Tobias
    I agree that beginning with context could be a fruitful way forward for a church to talk together on sexual ethics. Better than trying to make texts either say what they do not say or yield conclusions with shaky underpinnings!

    I would hope, for example, that rank and file conservatives would agree that a relationship that is faithful, permanent, monogamous is a better context than a (series of) casual one(s).

    I am less convinced (partly because framing sexual ethics in this way is new to me) about "spirit" rather than "flesh" re locus of morality, but open to learning more. There is a moral issue at stake here - I am glad we are agreed on the locus of difference - and it will be interesting to see where we go with that.

    While not at all sure that it is helpful to keep referring analogously to circumcision as an issue of difference, one can certainly ponder that passing generations changed the context of difference: Jewish Christianity in the end was swamped by Gentile Christianity and the pro-circumcision party shrivelled away.

  7. Peter, I address the issue of the moral locus to some length in Reasonable and Holy. It appears to me that Jesus' ethical principle finds the locus of morality in what he calls "the heart." He also uses imagery of the "inside" vs the "outside." So the question has to be, in relation to any act or situation, "What is moral about this?" In marriage, for instance, as I note, the moral locus is not the sexual act itself (because the same act is immoral in other circumstances or contexts) but precisely the fidelity, love, care, mutual self-giving and so on that are identifiable moral virtues.

    I think the conservatives, such as Dr. Fleming Rutledge, who state clearly that same-sex unions are a better (or more "moral") context than promiscuous or transient relationships -- just as with heterosexuals -- are moving in a positive and helpful direction in keeping with Jesus' teaching. I have greater difficulty with the hardliners who treat all of this almost purely as taboo -- the act is wrong in and of itself regardless of the context. That seems to be out of keeping with the Way of Jesus.

  8. Hi Peter,
    In a reply to Tobias, you wrote, "But to get to that point of agreement will require better arguments than I am seeing proffered by you and by Howard." The arguments you are seeing in your blog comments are necessarily brief and indicative rather than comprehensive, and intended to point out a possible direction of thought rather than offer irrefutable proofs.

    However, there is a fundamental difference between me and Tobias: he has published a substantial book on the subject of same-sex relationships, distilled from an equally substantial blogsite development of his thought in dialogue with others. Have you read either? If not, it is rather unfair to dismiss his arguments as in inadequate.

    I will respond to some of your own points tomorrow, time permitting.

  9. Hi Howard
    I am not dismissing Tobias Haller's book per se. I have not yet read it (nor am promising to - quite a bit on the plate right now etc). But I do not think it unreasonable, in the context of working on how our church moves forward together on these matters (rather than merely satisfying my own intellectual curiosity), that any arguments for, against, or somewhere in the vicinity of change should be able to be expressed succinctly ... so responding to indicative arguments offered here is, I think, in order!

  10. OK Peter, so we agree that we only need indicative arguments here, which in view of our common busyness is a relief. This leads me to a further question: what sort of argument would it take to convince you, given that you require "better arguments" than those offered to date? Are you able to give a succinct indicative response to this question that would guide further discussion?

    While you ponder your response, ask yourself what it might have taken to convince the conservative Jewish Christians opposed to Paul in the first century that their firm stand for circumcision was wrong? In terms of hermeneutical process, the analogy does
    seem to be instructive, as I have previously argued on your blog. Unconvincingly, I know :-)

  11. Peter, I will now try to respond to your challenges to my position set out in your first comment above, in the hope that indicative answers to each of them might register somewhere above zero on your index of persuasiveness. :-)

    1. I am puzzled by your "objective/subjective" dichotomy as a response to what I first wrote. To say that relationships should be evaluated primarily on "the quality of their loving" is not a resort to subjectivity. Rather, it appeals to agreed criteria that enable us to identify qualities of faithfulness, caring, self-sacrifice, mutual accountability, honesty, and so on. Are these generally recognised as aspects of a healthy marriage or just matters of personal taste?

    2. In Matthew 19, Jesus is focused on the incompatibility of true marriage and divorce, rather than on defining marriage as such. His theme is the permanence of the relationship entered into when two become one flesh. He is not addressing a question about the validity or nature of same-sex relationships. Like Paul, he also advocates and embodies the idea that for some people a single life is better than marriage. Again that can be seen to focus more on avoiding entanglement and obligation (a relational matter) rather than on advocating celibacy (in contrast to the later patristic devaluing of sexuality). So while I concede that "one flesh" references the physical nature of intimate bonding, it is not the focus in this text.

    3. "What the Bible actually says, is that the goal of marriage is a one flesh, lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6)." I know what you mean to say, but would it be helpful to acknowledge that this is an inference, an act of interpretation involving you bringing three texts together and then giving that conjunction a particular reading? The Bible does not actually "say" anything about the goal of marriage, in the sense of expressing it in a particular text. Jesus says about divorce in the third text, referencing the first two. So this is something else, and not quite a definitive, all-encompassing theology of marriage. In fact, the Genesis texts don't explicitly say anything about marriage (as opposed to sexual partnerships) either (Jesus is applying them to marriage, in a reasonable inference) let alone set it up as a social or legal institution with a single explicit goal. What I am trying to say here is that acknowledging our inferences is one way to get past some of our disagreements.

    4. "And there is the annoying (so to speak) objectivity of both Genesis and Jesus/the Gospels, that the "quality of loving" is between a man and a woman." I acknowledge this fact without finding it "annoying". Biblical texts deal with many relational matters by addressing particular relationships such as man-woman, master-slave, parent-child, teacher-pupil, and so on. We have no difficulty in generalising from those situations to others, and in retaining the important relational principles as social structures change... which is just what we are advocating now regarding same-sex bonding. For instance, we might well argue that what Jesus drew from Genesis regarding the permanence of the bonds formed through sexual intimacy in heterosexual relationships can also be recognized as a God-given constraint on same-sex bonding. The "quality of loving" Jesus demands of men and women in marriage is not restricted to them!

    Weak arguments, you may still say, despite your expression of appreciation for the general line I am driving at... :-)

  12. Hi Howard
    In this response I am not wanting to be picky, or to particularly prolong this part of our conversation/dialogue, but feel - in the spirit of what will lead to conviction across out church - a need to underline some points in what you say that "need more work"!

    (a) from your point 1: "agreed criteria". What are these? Who has, or will agree to them? One point about the 'objective' state of marriage v the objective state of singleness is that it forms a criteria on which the church is agreed: marriage is good, singleness is good, neither ... raises questions! (Note: if a neither married nor single clergyperson goes to the bishop seeking a licence on the basis of "qualities" of the relationship he or she is in, they are likely to get short shrift. Yes, even in 2010.)

    (b) Your point 2: Jesus is defining the nature of marriage. The church has always understood that. The context is divorce. That only heightens or deepens the definition: divorce is serious because of the importance of marriage defined in terms of "one flesh" and "permanence".

    (c) your point 3, re inferences from the text leads to a simple observation: the inferences involved re marriage/Genesis/Jesus in the gospels (to say nothing of Paul's writings) are minimal relative to other inferences a pro same sex case seeks to make; they are inferences authorised by Jesus himself.

    (d) your point 4: here inferences are more agreeable in the sense that, yes, universally, Christians build inferences in sensible ways, e.g. master-slave relationships lead to reflection on employer-employee relationships; and, yes, agreed, that if the church in its collectiveness agreed to formally sanction same sex partnerships it would presumably offer guidelines re qualities built on what the Bible says about marriage, about friendship, about relationships in general.

    There is just that little difficulty that many still think that same sex bonding involves sin, e.g.

  13. Fr. Howard – has it no always been so: when only simple points are expressed succinctly in favor of allowing mixed-race or same-gender marriage or abandonment of slavery or acceptance of usury or other new developments, the cry is for more substantive hermeneutical work supporting their policy innovations. Then when such substantive hermeneutical work is produced the cry is I cannot promise to read this, quite a bit on the plate right now etc and anyway any arguments for, against, or somewhere in the vicinity of change should be able to be expressed succinctly. Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. (Matthew 11:16-19)

  14. Hi Peter,
    I appreciate that you want to wrap up this thread and that I cannot expect you to respond to every point raised earlier by Tobias or me.
    I have followed up on your suggestion that people like Bill Muehlenberg pose a "little difficulty" by visiting his site. Having trawled through all his entries tagged "homosexuality' for the last fifteen years, I did not find one that engages in serious exegesis of the key passages he references. That is, he appears to be a commenter on the political aspects of the debate rather than engaging in the depth of hermeneutic self-examination called for in the current debate.
    So in what sense do such people pose a difficulty we should consider on this blog? Is it just that their rhetoric is intimidating for many within the evangelical community, designed to shut down discussion? Seems familiar, somehow...

  15. Peter, without dragging this out too much, I would like to respond further to your last comment.
    1. You seem to agree that some things would change for the better if the church were to make a collective decision to recognise same-sex partnerships in some "objective" (meaning public?) form, whether that were to be marriage or registered civil partnerships. That, of course, is what I and others are arguing for - that the church is free to bring a rather covert social reality into formal, public recognition, with the social controls inherent in such a new structure. Such a structure has already arisen in New Zealand, in a civil form.
    So already a question for the church here is how to relate to this new objective reality, quite apart from whether marriage should be stretched to include gay partnerships. The challenge for a bishop is more likely to come in the form of an applicant for ordination presenting their state-registered partnership as a fact than that they argue for the quality of that relationship.
    2. That, of course is what just what happened in the USA, with the episcopal elections of Gene Robinson and Mary Glasspool. In each case, their church made a decision that their civilly-registered, "objective" partnerships could be treated, at least functionally, as the moral equivalent of marriage in determining their sexual propriety. The long-term public, civil nature of their partnerships, along with a lack of evidence of sexual indiscretion, meant that they passed to the test in the minds of those who elected them and those who approved that election. That is to say, they faced the same testing as any heterosexual candidates would have, once their church decided to accept the objective nature of their civil partnerships.
    3. Nevertheless, the church does have an inherent interest in the more subjective quality of its leaders' relationships. A man accused of abusive behaviour towards his wife or children is likely to find that a barrier to ordination ... the "objective" fact of being validly married in the eyes of the church is not the end of the story.
    4. My point about Matthew 19 is that Jesus is addressing one aspect of marriage; its permanence, rather than offering a complete definition of the institution. Even taken as an interpretation of the Genesis texts in view, this does not exclude the possibility of any future developments in our understanding of God's creative intentions for human relationships. Its focus is on divorce, and Jesus' teaching should be understood in the light of that focus, rather than having defining significance for questions that were not even in view. For instance, none of the disciples suggested "In that case it would be better if we hook up with one another" :-) So Jesus didn't get to address homosexuality, and our attempts to apply his teaching to same-sex relationships all involve inferences, unfortunately.

  16. Hi Howard

    The Muehlenburg post is important because I think he represents what a lot of people in our church think. Whether or not they have reasons they can articulate to justify their thinking, that is their thinking. Given that such thinking is in accordance with the general, normative understanding of the church on these matters, it may be worth reminding you and others seeking change that the burdon of proof actually lies with those seeking change and not with those convinced that the guidance of the church to date is correct.

    You are historically in error re the ordination of +Gene Robinson: he was not in a civilly recognised partnership at the time of his ordination (though he now is). TEC at that time acted on a subjective judgement about the quality of the relationship.

    Last point here (but clearly many more to discuss ...): I find it interesting to observe that the tenor of your argument in this last comment is "society has changed, the church should catch up". Call me old-fashioned, but that does not seem to me to be the approach Paul sought to foster in Romans 12:1-2. I observe not to make a "smart" retort, but to challenge you to do better in your arguments. Conservative Christians are least likely to be persuaded to follow any change when they perceive that the pressure comes from society rather than the Spirit or Scripture!

  17. No, you got me wrong on your last point, Peter. The tenor of my argument was addressing your preference for "objective" relationships, which you seemed to be defining as those that are publically verified (as married or single in your example). All I did in response was to point out that civil partnerships registered with the state fulfil that criterion, and that the church's problem is how to deal with these new facts on the ground. Whether these newly objective relationships are morally legitimate or not is for the church to debate. I am not saying that we are obliged to follow society's lead, just that there are some new facts we must deal with that have the "objective" nature you are demanding.
    As an aside, it seems to me that one aspect of marriage Paul is dealing with in 1Corinthians 7
    is its objective nature within pagan society, as opposed to its ideal nature within the church ... but that is a whole new story :-)