Looking for Some Honest Debate
The “Background Essay on Biblical Texts for Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality” by Arland Hultgren and Walter Taylor evokes both gratitude and disappointment. Gratitude is due to these two accomplished New Testament scholars who have labored hard in a controversial field to provide our church body with a balanced review of a wide range of scholarship pertaining to those Biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexuality. Even more, we owe them gratitude for modeling a charitable and respectful tone that we would all do well to imitate. Let us not underestimate how important that is. The essay is also disappointing, however, mostly in relation to what it does not do...
The “Background Essay on Biblical Texts for Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality” by Arland Hultgren and Walter Taylor evokes both gratitude and disappointment. Gratitude is due to these two accomplished New Testament scholars who have labored hard in a controversial field to provide our church body with a balanced review of a wide range of scholarship pertaining to those Biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexuality. Even more, we owe them gratitude for modeling a charitable and respectful tone that we would all do well to imitate. Let us not underestimate how important that is.
The essay is also disappointing, however, mostly in relation to what it does not do. The broad effect of this essay in our denomination’s deliberations on homosexuality seems mostly to be summed up in its third conclusion that “the (interpretive) disagreements are genuine (18).” (This conclusion is the only content from Hultgren and Taylor’s essay that is cited in the Task Force’s Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies. See line 218, n. 11. The “Background Essay” is not cited at all in the proposed social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.) Having been reassured that neither side is “twisting Scripture to their own liking,” we march happily forward in the knowledge that the Bible itself is fundamentally unclear on these issues. The exegetical differences cannot be resolved, and we shall have to seek our primary guidance elsewhere.
In my view, the most substantive piece of Biblical study to be produced by or for the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality should have delivered more than this. In this brief response, I would to suggest four further items that I wish we would address with the help of Biblical scholars like Hultgren and Taylor. As I make these suggestions, I am well aware that they will reach beyond the scope of what Hultgren and Taylor were asked to provide. It seems to me that the disappointing limitations of this essay have much more to do with the scope of the assignment than with the authors’ execution of the task assigned.
1. I wish we would debate these questions. I realize this may sound almost silly at first. Most of us would probably say that we are weary of the seemingly interminable debates within our church over the topic of sexuality. Upon further reflection, however, I cannot recall ever hearing one actual debate between educated proponents of different Biblical interpretations. When I was a seminarian, for example, I knew which professors thought what, but I never heard them give an account of their views to each other in front of an audience. There is of course something of a scholarly debate in the secondary literature, but this medium is beyond the normal access of most people.
In the introduction to the Background Essay, James Childs explains regarding the assignment and scope of this work that Hultgren and Taylor “are not engaged in debate.” And why not? One understands that there are real complexities in the careful exegesis of the texts chosen for this essay, but is the complexity so great as to be completely opaque? Can we really hope for no more than a range of disagreements lined up next to one another as equally valid options?
The interpretation of para physin, customarily translated as “contrary to nature” in Romans 1:26-27, may serve as one example. Hultgren and Taylor (12) report that different interpreters read this phrase differently. For many it has simply meant that Gentile women and men engaged in sexual relations with members of the same gender instead of with members of the opposite gender, as might seem to be in accordance with nature. Others have suggested that the phrase is laden with social expectations for women to be passive, penetrated sexual partners and not to be unnaturally active or assertive. Other interpreters have even suggested that this phrase has nothing to do with same gender sexual activity at all. In this view, Paul is referring only to “an inordinate (sexual) desire” on the part of females within marriage.
Are each of these options equally likely to provide a faithful description of the intent of Romans 1? Does one or more of them make better sense in view of the relevant historical and literary context than the others? Can the continuation of this line of thought in 1:27, for example, clarify what is meant in 1:26? Hultgren and Taylor have listed and described a representative spectrum of interpretive options along with some of the evidence that could be cited in support of those options, but this evidence needs to be weighed and the conclusions debated on their relative merits.
2. I wish our Biblical attention span would be a little longer. It is no doubt important to pay sustained and focused attention to the specific Biblical passages that deal directly with homosexuality, but treating them in isolation from the rest of the Biblical narrative is not a helpful stopping point. Hultgren and Taylor cannot be faulted for holding faithfully to the scope of their assignment, but that assignment needed to have been part of a much larger study. Can we locate these particular texts within any larger Biblical narrative or trajectory that will inform how we use them now?
From a narrow, topical perspective, others have pointed out that practices of marriage and sexuality are not static throughout the Biblical canon. Old Testament practices of polygamy find no room in Jesus’ teaching about marital monogamy, and divorce practices are also represented more strictly in New Testament Christianity than in the Torah. If anything, the Biblical writings demonstrate a tendency toward stricter, not looser, sexual boundaries.
Alongside these considerations, one might also explore the early church’s decisions to include Gentiles, as Gentiles, in the Body of Christ and to pronounce God’s blessing on their Scripturally proscribed behaviors. The first Christians made these decisions (not without controversy) under the guidance of God’s Spirit, and they reinterpreted well-established Biblical norms to do it. These reinterpretations were possible, even necessary, in response to the new eschatological age that had dawned upon them in the resurrection of Jesus. This new age and the fresh revelation of the Spirit lead the early Christians to interpretations of their Scriptures that simply were not possible beforehand.
Lest I be misconstrued, it must be clarified that we are not in that situation again, though it may be better said that we are in it still. Also, the analogies between Gentiles in the 1st century and homosexually oriented persons in the 21st are not perfect. Nevertheless, we must ask these questions if we wish for our use of the Bible to be at all consistent with that of the first Christians.
3. I wish we could talk more candidly about the differences between homosexuality then and now. For the sake of illustration, allow me to hypothesize temporarily that the results of the debates I wished for in point 1 above would be to clarify that the Biblical writers took a negative view of every form of homosexual activity they knew: pederastic, exploitative, commercial, and consensual. Nevertheless, I know of no evidence to suggest that New Testament Christians had any familiarity with the situations we face today, i.e. homosexually oriented persons who wish to live together in lifelong, monogamous unions that approximate heterosexual marriage. Whatever Paul was condemning in Romans and 1 Corinthians, let’s admit that it was not precisely that.
Having had those clarifying debates, I wish we could reason together based on what the Biblical writers did say to discern the implications for us now. It seems to me that we are still a long way from that kind of communal discernment.
4. I wish we could reframe the Biblical conversation about fitness for public ministry. Too many of us are stuck asking the question, “Is it a sin?” as if that settled the question of ordination. A moment’s worth of introspection should prove otherwise.
Speaking hypothetically, what if our collaborative efforts addressing the three topics I’ve already enumerated resulted in the conclusion that homosexual orientation is one of many signs that we are sinful, broken creatures, not conforming to God’s creative intent for human design and community. Our responses to such a decision would be far from a foregone conclusion. Shall people who bear the signs of sin be denied civil rights in secular society? It’s hard to imagine how this should be so. Shall people whose sinful proclivities manifest themselves in sinful behavior be excluded from leadership in the church of Jesus Christ? I am still trying to understand what that means for the heterosexually lustful and the materially greedy. I wish that we were in a position to ask these questions fruitfully. I, for one, would benefit from the discernment.
The "Background Essay on Biblical Texts" concludes in its final paragraph that “decisions within and for the church concerning ‘homosexuality’ and its attendant issues cannot be arbitrated by Biblical scholars alone.” This seems to me to be beyond debate, though I suppose some will disagree. My fear, however, is that this essay’s nearly agnostic approach to resolving thorny interpretive questions has meant that Biblical scholars are actually of very little use at all in these decisions. I think we can do better than that, and I wish that we would.