Friday, June 25, 2010

Final Pre Hui Thoughts

Some final thoughts before the Hui next week.

(1) This next Hui is part of a work in progress, building up to a final Hui next year. Please do not expect some 'conclusion' of great seminal importance to emerge from next week.

(2) It remains quite unclear to me how any conclusion we reach next week will be translated into resolution of this church, be it via General Synod or diocesan synods and hui amorangi. Any conclusion reached by a small group of our widespread church will need to be received, and the character of that reception is not at all clear to me.

(3) A great challenge for the particular task of the forthcoming Hui will be to engage members in real communication with each other (not talking past each other), and in real communication with the texts (not talking solely about each other's experiences and doing so disconnected from the text).

(4) Please pray that the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture will illuminate it for us. Thank you!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

1 Corinthians 6: the most important passage? (Pt 2)

"'Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of heaven.And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God." 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (ESV)

In my previous post I note a number of questions raises by this passage which I am afraid I do not have time currently to take further, but I happily commend two great commentaries on 1 Corinthians to you, those by Fee and Thiselton. So, just a few more exploratory thoughts - more questions, than answers!

Important here is the opening question, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?" Paul is writing (as he has been on other matters up to this point) about things of ultimate importance. The alternative to inheriting the kingdom of God is not retirement in Bermuda. It is non-trivial to find that, in the end, the judgement is made that we shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

This gives a general edge to our considerations: let's understand this passage well. But it also gives a particular edge to an important element in Anglican Communion debates (and similar debates in other churches): we are not talking about a range of ethical possibilities, all equally valid, and wondering if we can agree to disagree and all get along; rather, many conservatives are pointing out, we are talking about salvation itself, and the possibility that making the wrong ethical choice can lead to loss of salvation. In blunt terms, it is often said, the gospel itself is at stake in the debate over homosexuality. Here I do not want to take these points further as they involve some considerable questions and issues, but I think it worth reminding ourselves that for a substantial number of Anglicans what is at stake is not only 'ethics' but also 'theology', and their depth of concern is such that they have in many cases made a decision to walk away from Anglican churches which deny their concerns.

Then there is the question of what kind of 'unrighteousness' is envisaged here. 'Thieves', 'drunkards', and 'swindlers' appears to refer to egregious criminal behaviour. But is 'greedy' referring to a criminal level of behaviour (pace certain moneymen appearing in courts around the world today) or to me and the mysterious disappearance of chocolates from the chocolate box last night? Who are 'revilers'?

With reference to the sexual matters mentioned in the list, sexual immorality, adultery, and homosexual practices, are these the lurid kinds of acts that tabloid newspapers love to salivate over, or a simple indicative list of sexual behaviours which are outside of the bond of marriage?

Then, and this takes us back to the intriguing question of the meaning of the Greek words (see my post below), is there anything here which impinges on 'loving, stable, permanent, faithful same sex partnerships'? Most Christians, liberal through to conservative are unpersuaded by arguments for the righteousness of casual sexual promiscuity: if that behaviour is all that Paul is referring to here, then we agree with him!

I suggest we take care not to get too anxious over the meaning of the Greek words used, malakoi and arsenokoites, as though if we can prove they mean X and Y but not Z then Z is 'in the clear'. Paul clearly is not giving a comprehensive list of the practices which imperil salvation. He does not mention incest or bestiality but it is incomprehensible that their absence here means we can think them righteous behaviours. Similarly for cruelty to people or animals, or murder, or drug-taking.

It is quite possible - but not often noted - that Paul (a) consistent with other passages in the Bible which affirm marriage (including the treatise he is about to pen in 1 Corinthians 7) and do not affirm homosexual practices, believes God to judge any same sex partnership, casual or permanent, to be unrighteous, and (b) singles out two practices here (i.e. via use of malakoi and arsenokoites) which are unrighteous but also represent God's salvation at work, for the Corinthian congregation includes post-malakoi and post-arsenokoites washed, sanctified, justified Christians.

Another way of putting the point just made is this: doubting the applicability of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 to faithful, stable, permanent same sex partnerships is not the same thing as establishing the righteousness of such partnerships. To establish that case involves some other steps (e.g. along the lines being advanced by Howard Pilgrim in his comments on this site, and in particular in reference to the most recent posts here).

I need to stop for now. A further point, which I think is important: the whole of 1 Corinthians 5-7 is a complex, creative, and wide ranging treatise on human sexuality. It earths Christian sexual ethics in a theology of creation (6:16), welds it into a theology of the Holy Spirit (6:19), nails it to the cross (6:20), and refuses to pit it against Christian freedom (6:12). Much more can and should be said, but this treatise is one of the most sophisticated pieces of theological argumentation you will ever read!

Thus Paul in tackling the question of consorting with prostitutes does not resort to saying "It's wrong. Do not do it." Instead he takes his readers in 6:15-20 through a subtle argument in which he teases out the implication of our bodies being members of Christ, of sexual intercourse with any woman being a marriage act, of the special character of sexual sin, of the character of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, and, above all, of the significance of belonging to God.

Our minds should boggle at the thought of what Paul would write were he preparing a paper for the forthcoming Hermeneutical Hui. Would his exacting theological analysis and creative (inspired!) exploration of all relevant themes combine into a conclusion which would fit with your present views, or mine, or neither?

Monday, June 21, 2010

1 Corinthians 6: the most important passage? (Pt 1.1)

Howard Pilgrim, a theological colleague within ACANZP (and contributor to the forthcoming Hermeneutical Hui) has responded to my Pt 1 below ... but had difficulties with Blogger 'chewing' the comment. So here it is (with a couple of comments from me in italics):

A second attempt to respond to your post, Peter ... Blogger ate the first one, so I will try to keep this one leaner and less appetising to the lurking nemesis. Without knowing where you intend to go with Pt2, I want to pick you up on two points so far.

1. You read this text as affirming that “our sexual behaviour ... impinges on our salvation.” This is true only to the extent that other offences on Paul’s several lists in Chapters 5 and 6 carry exactly the same consequences. Broadly speaking, those offences are matters of sexual behaviour (mostly heterosexual) and financial/economic oppression. I want to suggest that even these do not comprise an exclusive list of danger areas, but are included in this part of the epistle as a response to the particular presenting issues before Paul – the forbidden relationship between a man and his step mother, the court case(s) between fellow Christians, and some tolerance of the use of prostitutes. Paul’s rhetoric against these abuses includes condemning them by association with other sexual and economic wrongdoing. There is no suggestion that salvation is not imperilled by other classes of sins, and indeed idolatry and pride find their way into his condemnation, by association. My point then is this, that this text cannot be cited to single out sexual sins as specially perilous as you appear to be doing here. [PRC: Agreed.]

2. Your discussion of possible meanings for the key terms naming homosexual relations makes one thing clear – that the meanings of these terms, as Paul used them, is not clear at all! What does this portend for our discussion of homosexuality? How can an unclear text guide us towards the mind of God? I submit that there is a clear answer ... that we do not need to concern ourselves with the exact meanings of any of the terms in these lists of sins. Now let me explain myself:-

a) It is no easier to determine just what Paul meant by greed or robbery than it is to decipher the exact meaning of his sexual terms, but that does not lessen the impact of his warning regarding them.

b) His warning does not refer to these sins in their particular nature, but to sin in general. Sin is incompatible with salvation. Each of these particular sins is an abuse of our duty to love God and/or our neighbour, and none of them is a victimless crime. In each case, the Christians involved should have known better, and their failure to act out their faith is what puts their salvation at risk.

c) This is where my argument gets really Anglican, appealing to the tradition of Hooker, Sanderson, et. al. Any attempt to derive moral theology from the scriptures involves a fusion of at least two things: an exegetical process of reading the text to ascertain what it most probably meant in its original context; and a “reading” of our own particular social context to determine the facts on the ground to which the scripture may speak. As the two contexts, separated by 2000 years of cultural change, will have differences as well as similarities, finding the mind of God for today involves a transforming process of reasoning, prayer and consultation (as in Rom 12:1-2). One part of this process that cannot be bypassed is the “facts on the ground” investigation. Specifically, if we are considering homosexual relationships, then we need to find out what is happening in such relationships today, in our own context, among faithful Christians. Those facts, as we find them, are far more significant than what was happening among homosexuals in Paul’s day (which is why Lambeth 2008 called in vain for conservatives to engage in respectful conversations with gay Christians, as had happened among a minority of bishops at that conference). To know whether our economic arrangements constitute greed or theft, in the light of Paul’s warning, we need to examine the facts of modern life, asking whether we are loving our neighbours as ourselves. Similarly, a Christian ethic of homosexuality can only be derived from considering the facts of life as lived out by our brothers and sisters committed to faithful same-sex relationships. [PRC: The words 'can only be derived' is a very strong statement limited, apparently, engagement with what Scripture says.]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

1 Corinthians 6: the most important passage? (Pt 1)

In our haste to interpret texts which speak about an issue of the day we can rush ourselves and miss relevant wider contexts. Two wider contexts for the text 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are Paul's lengthy addressing of a range of questions and issues concerning marriage and sexual behaviour, and the connection made between sexual behaviour and salvation. It is the latter context which relates this text, perhaps more than any other, to a strong theme in 'current Anglican troubles'. That theme, as emphasised by many Anglicans described as 'evangelical' or 'conservative' or both, is that our sexual behaviour is not a small, let alone trivial matter; rather, it impinges on our salvation. At the very least this means it is no light matter for the church to press ahead seeking change to our understanding of sexual ethics: we could - with the best pastoral intentions in the world - deceive fellow Christians into thinking that something was right and unproblematic when not only was it wrong but also that it represented a problem for our salvation.

Here is the text:

'Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality,* nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of heaven.' 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV)

Actually, I think we should extend this to include 6:11:

'And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.'

Now first a technical matter of translating two key Greek words (indicated by the asterisk above): 'men who practise homosexuality' translates the words malakoi and arsenokoites. It is not too difficult to work out that these words concern men and sex: malakoi means a 'soft man' and arsenokoites literally is 'men' plus 'bed'. What is more difficult, indeed the subject of ongoing debate, is what behaviour or behaviours are being indicated by these words. To give one for instance, is malakoi about 'effeminate men' akin, say, to certain stereotypes about homosexuals, or is it a word indicating a male prostitute, or is it a word for the (so called) passive partner in a sexual act between two men? If the last then is arsenokoites a reference to (so called) active partners in such acts? Further, noting the Hellenistic background , with its custom of men loving men in a socially accepted manner, that is, older men having a younger male for a period prior to marriage, is Paul 'having a go' at this specific practice by using these two words?

Or, is malakoi a reference to something we cannot now be clear about, but arsenokoites is a generic word for all men who engage in sex acts (for which 'bed' is a euphemism) with other men? One part of the debate (indicated by me in an earlier post) concerns whether arsenokoites is a coined word from Leviticus 18:22 and thus is a very direct linkage between New Testament and Old Testament concerns about homosexuality.

In short, quite a few questions. In Part 2 I will explore these and further matters.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Romans 1

The sad thing about focusing on homosexuality in this chapter is that we quickly move from considering the role the chapter places as the foundation to the whole of the Epistle to the Romans which is, arguably, the greatest single piece of Christian theological literature ever written. If Romans is the gospel, God's solution of grace to the problem of the human condition, then Romans 1 sets out the problem, 'For the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.' (1:18)

One way to look at some issues in the chapter in respect of homosexuality is via a dialogue between two people GSE and GUE! The first is Gay Sympathetic Exegete and the second is Gay Unsympathetic Exegete.

GUE: Romans 1 is a key passage in understanding the Bible on homosexuality. It is the one passage which clearly condemns both gay sex and lesbian sex.

GSE: Just so we are talking about the same words, can you please point me to the condemnatory words.

GUE: Here they are, in verses 26 and 27, 'For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.' Pretty clear don't you think?

GSE: Well, maybe not as clear as you think. What is clear is talk about 'exchanged natural intercourse' and 'giving up natural intercourse'. But, do you not know, that many gay and lesbian people have no nature or natural longings to exchange or give up? They are the way they are made. The passage, I suggest, only applies to people who make sex such an idol that they will have sex with anyone or anything - Paul had probably heard about the party antics of Roman nobility at orgies, and about the Roman emperor who wanted to marry his horse! After all the main wickedness Romans 1 is aimed at is idolatry (verses 21-23).

GUE: Let me get this very clear in my own mind because it is something I have not heard about before. Are you saying that for many gay and lesbian people, the way they are is their 'nature' and being gay or lesbian means nothing is given up or exchanged about their sexual identification?

GSE: That's right. And I am only saying 'many' because I recognise that some gay and lesbian people have been married and produced children, so the question could arise about whether they have 'exchanged' what was natural. But even then, lots of questions exist about why they married, against their true nature. Was there, for instance, a social pressure which led them to go against their natural inclination? In a sense, Romans 1:26-27 could be a condemnation of a heterosexist world in which people feel forced to conform to it, against their natural condition.

GUE: So that's it, then?

GSE: No. There are a few more things to be said. Verse 26, for instance, begins with this sentence, "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions." But our debate in the church today is not about "degrading passions." It is about whether two people may love each other, passionately, yes; but not with any sense of degradation. When we read verses 26 and 27 against the whole of the chapter, we see Paul condemning what is gross wickedness, not the ordinary things of human life, a family at play, a couple in love, a community enjoying God's good creation. Whatever is going on here, this passage is not a condemnation of two people of the same gender committing themselves to each other for life.

GUE: OK, I think I get all that. But I think I am still left with some questions. Perhaps they will be answered at the Hermeneutical Hui! :) Here are two:

(1) When I read Romans 1:1-3:20 it seems that Paul is writing about the whole of humanity, Jew and Greek (i.e. Gentile), all of us sinners, none of us righteous. Is it straightforward that Romans 1:26-27 is talking about individuals and their natural sexual natures, and then singling out those indulging in licentious sexual idolatry, or is it talking more representatively about abnormal sexual tendencies in human society, measured against norms in creation, resulting from our general rebellion as humanity against God?

(2) Suppose, according to your arguments above, Romans 1:26-27 is, indeed, only focused on naturally heterosexual people pursuing sexual pleasure to a point where they will indulge in what is for them unnatural sexual intercourse, does that not leave us with 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 to consider?

GSE: Naturally (!) I do not agree with your (1). And (2) is logically correct!!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fiddling While Romans Burns?

Our Hermeneutical Hui project in ACANZP is clear that there is an important need to talk about the Bible and Human Sexuality. Albeit slowly, we are making our way with determination towards the 'topic of the day'. None too soon in respect of the Communion to which we belong being on the verge of a meltdown.

So you will understand if I am not entirely convinced that a much bigger Bible reading project for the Communion is okey-dokey starting with the environment as a key issue of the day. The environment is an urgent issue; but is it the Communion's most urgent issue?

From an ACNS release:

"Members of the worldwide Anglican Communion are working together on a project to discover what the Bible tells the church about saving the planet from environmental damage.

The Bible in the Life of the Church project manager, Stephen Lyon, said that World Environment Day was the perfect moment to reveal that the first issue under discussion would be the Environment.

“We are already seeing the impact of climate change, particularly in the developing world,” he said. “Most Anglicans live in countries like India and Nigeria that will be worst hit by greater flooding, or diminishing levels of potable water.

“All faiths have a duty to protect the environment, for themselves and others. Our particular tradition, Anglicanism, has enshrined the need to protect our world in its mission statement The Five Marks of Mission*. This is one of the reasons why we have picked this issue—to ensure that all Anglicans everywhere realise the biblical imperative to protect and sustain God’s creation.

“We also hope that, through exploring together a selection of key biblical passages which relate to this theme—widely acknowledged as one of the most crucial challenges facing the Churches and humanity today—we will be able to offer evidence of the way in which Anglicans actually handle the Bible, and to identify principles of biblical interpretation.”

Speaking about the project, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams stressed that God was a creator who was faithful to what he created.

“I hope that through this project we learn not just to say words about how important the Bible is, but really to allow God’s Spirit and God’s Word through the Bible to come into us and make us the community of people that God wants and so make the world the world that God wants;” he said, “the God of the Bible who loves what he’s made, is faithful to what he’s made, and who has actually come to work within the world he’s made through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”

The Bible in the Life of the Church is a major project being undertaken over three years by the Anglican Communion, mandated by the Anglican Consultative Council at its Jamaica meeting in May 2009. It is seeking to discover how Anglican Christians read the Bible, recognising the very diverse contexts they inevitably bring to this reading. The work of this project will largely take place in a number of regional groups based around theological education institutions in East Africa, Southern Africa, South East Asia, Oceania, North America and Britain. The Steering Group also includes members from Cuba and Nigeria."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Old Testament as Prelude to Romans and 1 Corinthians

If we read the whole Old Testament, with an eye to texts which speak about same sex sexual relationships, we find very little material. The story of Sodom (if we might allow that this story, multiple themed as it is, at the least touches on same sex relationships, albeit in respect of threatening, inhospitable, rapaciousness); the proscription in Leviticus 18:22; a reference or two elsewhere to male prostitutes; and (if we may mention this without engendering lots of controverted comments) the enigmatic story of David and Jonathan. I estimate that less than 1% of all verses in the Old Testament relate, even tangentially, to same sex sexual relationships.

This is not unexpected! If Leviticus 18:22 represents a very dim view in Israel of same sex sexual intercourse; and if, generally, Israel steered clear of many sexual practices endemic in other cultures, we should not be surprised that the writers, and then compilers of the Old Testament felt no great compunction to put together material about same sex sexual relationships.

So, with just a few weeks to go to the next Hermeneutical Hui, our next look at biblical material will be the New Testament. Intriguingly, there also, we find very little material devoted to the subject.