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Issues Facing Missions Today 60: Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality


The following tables offer a ‘thicker ethic’ for discussing the Bible and homosexuality.  Too often, the focus in popular discourse—and among scholars—is only on texts that directly address the topic.  What the Church’s authoritative Scriptures say is, of course, at the heart of the matter—and what they say is perfectly clear.  The Old Testament and New Testament, narrative and legal texts, and sin lists in the New Testament recognized homosexual practice as sinful.  There is ample reference to the sin of homosexuality in Scripture where God’s people encountered other cultures and religions (Canaanite, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman) that practiced same-sex acts.  However, explicit texts on the topic are only one part of a Biblical ethic related to homosexuality.  Not only is homosexuality a part of a more all-encompassing Biblical sexual ethic; it is also a part of Biblical ethics in general.

The tables explore the ‘thicker ethic’ of Scripture and homosexuality in two ways.  First, the columns in the table cover three ways of considering ethics: character, actions, and ends.  The rows in the table examine the use of Scripture at four levels: concrete ethical guidance, more general warrants for ethics, Biblical witness for morality, and the Biblical worldview.  The table, therefore, incorporates different ethical theories without favoring one over the other so that what the Biblical text says might come into focus.  It also incorporates different uses of Scripture without presuming that a more general ethic of principles is preferable to a more concrete ethic of moral rules, for example.  Again, the Biblical voice is not drowned out by the presumptions of ethicists or the presuppositions of readers biased by their own cultures and contexts.  The tables are intended, therefore, as tools to ‘hear’ the voice of Scripture rather than as a methodology that might skew the results of Biblical, moral enquiry.  They are meant to be used for reflection and argument.

What the tables do not do is focus on questions that must be discussed beyond what can be represented in this format.  They are unable to engage in the exegesis necessary to understand the meaning of specific texts in their historical and cultural contexts.  They are also unable to explore fully hermeneutical concerns in Biblical theology and ethics—concerns related to the unity and diversity of Scripture and the appropriate use of Scripture by believers in different cultural and temporal contexts.  (Consideration of such issues would only strengthen the case, however.)  Yet the tables are able to flesh out some of the hermeneutical concerns over how we are using Scripture for ethics, and this is what results in a ‘thicker ethic.’ 

One final word on this is important: the New Testament nowhere sets out to challenge Old Testament ethics on issues of sexual morality, except to hold the Church to higher standards.  Thus, on the matter of a Biblical sexual ethic, concerns about unity and diversity in Biblical theology and ethics are not as significant as might be with other moral issues, such as on a question of war or laws pertaining to Israel’s unique identity (circumcision, food, special days, cultic practices).

Two tables are presented.  Table 1 sets out on a single page the overall categories (in the first row and first column).  Examples of what might be explored appear in the subsequent columns and rows.  So, for example, a concrete character ethic might explore habits, practices, roles, and social norms (mores, folkways).  Table 2 is broken up so that the different uses of Scripture appear each on its own page—but it is a single table.  It takes the categories of Table 1 and examines what Scripture says to the issue of homosexuality and related moral topics, locating the specific narratives and rules in Scripture on this topic within the larger, Biblical ethic.

Given Western culture’s reductive approach to ethics since the 18th century (when the goal became to discuss ethics around a single principle), this sort of exercise in Christian ethics is very important.  Many ethicists from the Enlightenment onwards—even in our day--have attempted to balance the entire weight of ethics on a single principle or two.  Immanuel Kant focused ethics on two principles: (1) treat others as ends, not as means; (2) the right thing to do for one person will be what is right for everyone to do.  Utilitarian ethicists balanced ethics on the single principle that we should do whatever will bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.  In the twentieth century, ethicists in the West struggled to find some guidance within the human experience itself, a principle.  Thus, existentialists focused ethics on doing what brings self-authentication, and situation ethicist said that one would simply know the right thing to do when in the situation itself.  The latter often gravitated toward the single, vague principle of ‘Do the loving thing,’ which gives no guidance of any worth.  Yet, probably the most significant challenge to finding a thicker ethic by which to live in Western culture comes from the overriding principles of freedom and equality, understood in terms of autonomous rights rather than as being allowed to act out of conscience and for the good (however defined).

Christians face the problem of explaining their unique views in ethics over against an increasingly post-Christian culture in the West.  Grounding ethics for a community in authoritative teachings in a book, the Bible, and in the authoritative witness of the community over centuries, Christian tradition, sets the Church over against the culture on many moral issues, especially against the ethic of freedom from Christian norms in matters of sexual behaviour.  Wherever Churches revise their long-held beliefs on homosexuality, they are doing so because they have lost the vocabulary for Christian discourse and are adopting the language of culture.  No wonder, for example, Anglican provinces such as the Episcopal Church in the US, the Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and lately the Anglican Churches of both Ireland and New Zealand—all in Western, cultural contexts, are affirming homosexual practice over against Scripture and the teaching of the Church through the centuries.  No wonder, alternatively, Anglican Churches not so dominated by Western culture are able to see through this moral fog and uphold Biblical and orthodox teaching on the issue.

Christians also face the problem of explaining a thicker ethic to the culture at large that thinks very narrowly about ethics.  The public square of Western ethics has a single, narrow gate through which all are expected to pass if they want to engage culture.  Christians are expected to unload their thicker ethic as unnecessary baggage and to unhinge the connections between narratives and virtue, principles and rules, values and consequences, or between character and actions and ends.  They are especially expected to remove any concrete guidance governing actions that comes from Christian authorities, especially Scripture.  Yet, if we are to be Biblical Christians, we will have to stand awkwardly in such a public square with all our baggage, standing out as some country bumpkins who forgot the rule to offer only a single, universal principle for ethics and who do not give maximal autonomy to ‘independent’ (which is neither possible nor desirable) reason.  Precisely in the peculiar figure we cut in the public square, however, whether as individuals or as a unique community, we will draw attention to a radically different alternative from the anemic, Western ethic. 

We must, however, learn the language of our rich, thicker, Biblical ethic.  To this purpose we now turn, offering the tables with their language and examples for further consideration.  Note that the information suggested here is indicative and not intended as exhaustive.


Table 1: The Use of Scripture for Moral Enquiry
Use of Scripture for ethics
Characters
(Argument: Analogy)
Behaviours (Argument: Authority)
Ends—Outcomes or Goals (Argument: Deliberation)
Specifying
habits, practices, roles, norms (mores, folkways)
moral actions, laws
Outcomes, reward or punishment
Warranting
virtues (and vices), honour or shame, innocence or guilt (conscience)
general rules, principles, definitions
intentions, values (and disvalues), pleasure or displeasure; deliberations
Witnessing
character, community, narratives, heroes and villains
duties, obligations, heroic examples
Performances (and their outcomes)
World View
the metanarrative of God and His creation
God’s eternal law and the natural order
God’s purpose and the world’s future




Table 2: Homosexuality and a ‘Thicker Biblical Ethic’
Character
Actions
Ends/Goals
Concrete Ethics
Gal. 6.1 (community: spiritual restore the sinner)
1 Th. 4.3-7 (abstain from fornication, control your own body, no lustful passions)
2 Cor. 6.14-7.1 (separation from every defilement making holiness perfect in fear of God)
Rom. 12.1-2 (bodies living sacrifices, do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by renewing of your mind)
Eph. 4.19 (loss of sensitivity and abandoned to licentiousness)
Eph. 4.22 (taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by lusts)
Eph. 5.3 (fornication and impurity not even mentioned)
Eph. 5.7 (do not associate with fornicators and impure persons)
2 Pt. 3.14 (without spot or blemish)
2 Pt. 3.17-18 (don’t be carried away with the error of lawlessness and lose your stability but grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord)
Specific Texts:
Lev. 18.22 (homosexuals);
Lev. 20.13 (homosexuals);
Rom. 1.26-27 (lesbians, homosexuals);
1 Cor. 6.9 (homosexuals);
1 Tim. 1.10 (homosexuals)
Punishments:
Rom. 1.27 (in their own persons the due penalty of their error), 28 (debased mind), 32 (deserve to die);
1 Cor. 6.10 (will not inherit the kingdom of God);
Jude 7 (eternal fire);
Eph. 5.5 (fornicators and impure persons will not inherit kingdom of Christ and of God)
Church discipline: Mt. 18; 1 Cor. 5



Character
Actions
Ends/Goals
Warrants
Virtues
1 Th. 4.3-7 (sanctification, holiness and honor)
Rom. 13.13-14 (live honorably, not in reveling and drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness…; put on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires)
Conscience: by rejecting conscience, some have made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1.19)
Obedience:
Procreation Mandate: Gen. 1.28 (be fruitful and multiply);
Righteousness: Rom. 6.16-23 (slaves to sin or obedience, righteousness for sanctification)

Definition of Marriage:
One Flesh (Gen. 1.24; Mk. 10.6; 1 Cor. 6.16; Eph. 5.28, 29, 31)

General Moral Terms (e.g., debauchery, fornication)
Values:
Celibacy (E.g., Mt. 19.10-12; 1 Cor. 7)
Marriage (E.g., 1 Cor. 7)
Biological Genders (E.g., Deut. 22.5; 1 Cor. 11.2-16)
Virginity (OT Laws on sex and marriage; NT teaching on sexuality)
The problem with freedom as a moral value: people are enslaved to the ‘corruption of sinful desire,’ what masters them—2 Pt. 1.4; 2.19-20; Rom. 6.16-23



Character
Actions
Ends
Witness
Narratives:
Gen. 19; Jude 7; 2 Pt. 2.6-8 (Sodom);
Jdg 19 (Gibeah)
Examples of Actions:
Jude 7 (example of Sodom and Gomorrah)
Household Codes (e.g., husband and wife in Eph. 5.22-33)
‘Heroic’ Examples of celibacy (Jesus, Paul)


Examples of repentance and forgiveness (David, Ps. 51; John the Baptist; the cross)



Character
Actions
Ends
World View
Story of Creation:
Gen. 1.27 (created male and female)
Gen. 2.23-24 (Creation: woman taken from man, so man clings to the woman)
The Human Condition (the Fall): Gen. 3; Ps. 51.5; Isaiah 59.1-15; Rom. 1.18-3.20, 23; etc.
Desire:
James 1.14-15 (temptation—lured and enticed by desire—sin—death)
Desire/10th Commandment (Gal. 5.6, 17, 24; Rom. 1.24; 6.12; 7.7f; Eph. 2.3; 4.22; Col. 3.5; 1 Th. 4.5; 2 Tim. 2.22; 3.6; 4.3; Titus 2.12; 3.3)
Natural Law:
Gen. 2.24 (one flesh)
2 Th. 2 (man of lawlessness)
2 Pt. 3.3 (in last days, scoffers indulging their lusts will come); 3.9 (God’s patience); 3.10-12 (2nd coming, judgement); 3.13 (a new heavens and new earth ‘where righteousness is at home’)