On behalf of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I am producing a book called “Who Owns Marriage?” Scheduled for release on Easter Monday, this book seeks to dig a bit deeper into the issues raised Ireland’s forthcoming Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage. EAI has already released a statement concerning the Referendum, available at http://www.evangelical.ie
The book aims to encourage us to think through what we really believe about Evangelicalism, the Bible, our identity in Christ, civil society, how we hold religious values without trying to enforce them on unbelievers, and how biblical marriage relates to civil marriage.
We have invited a number of thinkers, theologians, leaders and public figures (including some non-Christians) to contribute to the book. This is your opportunity to join the conversation! Each morning, for 9 days, segments of the book are being posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).
A small number of the best contributions (by that I mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of my points) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.
Today, you are invited to join in the conversation as we discuss how we interpret Scripture, and what the New Testament has to say about homosexual behaviour.
The New Testament and Homosexual Behaviour
I have followed with interest attempts to reinterpret the New Testament in order to celebrate homosexual activity in the context of a loving relationship, but in each case the arguments have been far from convincing. I am always wary of any kind of approach that approaches the text of Scripture with a predetermined desire to reach a desired conclusion. This can produce something that I call ‘the X-Factor School of Biblical Criticism.’
If you’ve ever watched that TV Talent Show, you’ve probably seen the point in the auditions where an obviously untalented singer is asked, “Why should we put you through to the next stage of the competition?” Sooner or later someone will reply, “Because I really want this. I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.”
At this point I tend to stop what I’m doing, look at the TV screen, and shout, “That’s not the point! They’re not having a competition to judge who wants to be a star more than anyone else. They’re having a competition to discover someone who has an exceptional talent!” Indeed, it is partly to avoid such outbursts that I try to avoid being in a room where anyone is watching such TV talent shows!
When Evangelical Christians say that we see the Scriptures as being inspired and authoritative, we mean that we should seek to read the Bible in as objective a way as possible. We don’t say, “But I really want the Bible to say something else. I want it more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life!”
For example, I wish that the New Testament didn’t teach about hell. I hate the idea of hell. The idea of anyone suffering eternally is not one I can easily acceptable. But, as an Evangelical Christian, I am not at liberty to make the Bible say what I want it to say. My belief in biblical authority obliges me to be as objective as possible in ‘following the evidence.’ And when I do that, I am convinced that the New Testament does indeed teach the existence of hell.
Trying to make the Bible say what you want it to say invariably results in eisegesis (reading your meaning into Scripture) rather than exegesis (drawing the biblical author’s meaning out of Scripture).
For example, if we read Romans Chapter One, we find that both gay and lesbian practices are spoken of in the most negative terms. However, those who want the Bible to teach something different display great ingenuity in finding different ways to interpret this passage.
Some suggest that Paul was only condemning pederasty (older men engaging in sex with young boys) here. Certainly such practices were common in the Roman world, with older men in positions of authority grooming boys and youths to submit to their sexual advances. However, this interpretation does not explain why Paul also refers to lesbian activity. There was no tradition in Paul’s time of powerful older women abusing young girls as their male counterparts did. A plain reading of the text would not suggest pederasty at all. It is referring to men engaging in intercourse with other men (not boys), and women with other women.
Others, quite astoundingly, have claimed that Paul was condemning the practice of men having intercourse with angels. Quite how they manage to see angels in a passage where they are not mentioned at all is a mystery. And does anyone seriously think that Paul’s readers would immediately say, “Ah, yes, we all know there’s a big problem at the moment with people having sex with angels”? Whoever came up with this idea deserves ten out of ten for ingenuity, but zero out of ten for credibility.
A more common reinterpretation of the passage is that it condemns homosexual activity when it occurs as part of pagan ceremonies, but not in other circumstances. So, according to the proponents of this theory, Paul wasn’t actually saying anything that would be applicable to loving consensual same-sex relationships today. It is certainly true that homosexual activity was, on occasion, involved in some forms of paganism. However, heterosexual couplings were far more common in pagan worship. So, if Paul wanted to condemn the immorality that went on in pagan temples, why would he dwell on the rarer homosexual variety to the exclusion of the much more prevalent heterosexual intercourse that occurred in paganism? Are we supposed to believe that Paul condemned same-sex couplings in pagan temples but was perfectly OK with pagan ceremonies involving heterosexual activity?
The pagan ceremony theory falls apart when we examine it closely. What about the other things mentioned in the same passage? Are they things that are only to be considered sinful when they occur in a pagan ceremony, but are fine when practiced in normal everyday settings? Is murder only wrong if you do it in a pagan temple? Is gossip bad when the tale-bearing occurs in a pagan ceremony, but morally good when you gossip in the market place or in your home? Of course not.
An objective reading of Romans Chapter One, one that genuinely tries to practice exegesis, cannot support such interpretations. They can only be reached if you practice eisegesis and say, “I really don’t care how this passage was intended by the author, or how it was understood by the original readers. If I try hard enough, I’m sure I can find some way of explaining it so as to make it say what I want it to say.”
The question has been asked, and it is a fair question, whether theological conservatives are also guilty of practicing a similar form of eisegesis. Has 2000 years of church tradition, all of it overwhelmingly negative towards same-sex attraction and behaviour, so conditioned us that we also approach Scripture with a predetermined conclusion? Are we so afraid of the consequences of radical change that we would be unwilling to listen if Scripture did indeed challenge the traditional view?
I can only answer from a personal standpoint. I have a very dear friend, a close family member whom I love more than life itself, who is currently in a same-sex relationship. She appears to be very happy in that relationship – probably more happy than I have ever seen her before. With every fibre of my being I would love for this person whom I love so much to be exercising their considerable talents and gifts in the life of the local church. However, that is rendered impossible by our church’s insistence, on what we believe to be biblical grounds, that active members and church workers should adhere to particular standards of personal and sexual morality. Although still welcome, of course, to attend worship services, she nevertheless feel separated from, and rejected by, the community to which she used to belong. That is intensely painful to all concerned. She feels cut adrift by a community that played a formative role in her early life. Meanwhile, not a day goes by that I do not mourn her absence from our church community.
If I could honestly believe that an unbiased interpretation of Scripture permitted this family member to remain in a loving same-sex physical relationship and also to be an obedient follower of Christ then I would be overjoyed. However, everything I know and understand about biblical exegesis and interpretation prevents me from reaching such a conclusion. It is not prejudice or tradition that leads me to conclude that the Bible opposes homosexual behaviour in the life of a Christian believer – it is integrity and intellectual honesty.
Arsenokoites – A New Word?
Another passage in the New Testament that is crucial to developing an Evangelical approach to homosexual behaviour is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This passage refers to a number of different behaviours which would prevent someone inheriting the Kingdom of God. All of these behaviours, which at least some of the Corinthian Christians had once been involved in, are incompatible with living in an obedient relationship with Jesus Christ. They include arsenokoites – often translated as ‘men who have sex with men.’ (NIV)
At first glance one would suppose that, for those who see the Bible as in any way inspired and authoritative, this settles the matter. Yet there are those who argue that almost every Bible translation ever produced has misunderstood this word. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those with no knowledge of Greek whatsoever to confidently assert that they can translate this word better than the hundreds of Greek scholars who have spent much of their lives seeking to faithfully and accurately produce translations of the New Testament into English and other modern languages.
Arsenokoites is a compound Greek word. Arsen was a word for a male, and one often used in connection with sexuality. Koites literally meant ‘bed’ – but was often used to refer to sexual activity, just as in English we might say “He bedded her.” Indeed, koites has entered the English language as our word ‘coitus’ – meaning sexual intercourse. Put the two words together and you get the idea of men who go to bed, in a sexual sense, with other men.
However, we rarely find the word arsenokoites used anywhere else in ancient literature. This has led to the claim that Paul coined a new word here and, since we can’t be entirely sure what a new word means, we should just give up and not try to understand it at all. Of all the arguments I have ever encountered concerning the Bible, this must rank as one of the weakest.
Just because a word has been newly coined, that does not mean that we can’t understand it. Some years ago, while watching a British TV show, I heard a character describe someone else as a ‘shirt lifter.’ I had never heard the word in my life before, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t work out what it meant. It was a compound word, based on someone lifting up someone else’s shirt tail in order to engage in sexual activity. It was clearly a crude, derogatory and homophobic expression used to describe a gay person. And that is how language usually works. Newly-coined words often persevere and become part of the language because they are descriptive and we readily understand them without needing much explanation.
Yet there are compound words that, at first glance, don’t seem so obvious. Matthew Vines cites the word ‘butterfly’ as an example. You wouldn’t immediately add the words ‘butter’ and ‘fly’ together and understand it as referring to the colourful insect we identify by that word.
David Gushee cites another example from his own experience. He once coined a word of his own – ‘name-hug’. This refers to a practice he used to try to remember the names of his students in class. He would try to memorise their names from index cards, and then to place the names with the faces he saw before him in the classroom. With the few that he had trouble remembering, he would greet them with a brief hug while repeating their name. ‘Name-hugs’ therefore meant students whom he now remembered by name.
Gushee goes on to speculate what would happen if, centuries in the future, a scholar stumbled across his writings. How would they interpret this term ‘name-hug?’ He suggests that the same thing might have happened to arsenokoites.
Again, we must give Gushee top marks for ingenuity, but low marks for credibility. His ‘name-hug’ story is entertaining, but it falls apart when we realise that Paul, and his initial readers, had a powerful and authoritative cultural reference that would immediately make the meaning of arsenokoites clear.
Paul and the Corinthians lived in a Greek-speaking world. The Corinthians, being mainly Gentile converts, could not read the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) in its original language. Therefore they relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures. We also know that Paul, when he quoted Scripture, tended to do so from the Septuagint. The Septuagint renders Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination”) as καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν.
There you find, in close proximity, arsenos (man) and koite (intercourse) occurring in the specific context of a strongly-worded prohibition in the Jewish Law against homosexual activities. So when Paul put those two words together to form the word arsenokoites, he was not creating a word that could be in any way ambiguous as to its meaning. Both Paul and his Corinthian readers knew that such a word could only be understood in one way – as referring to men having intercourse with other men, something they all knew to be forbidden in the Jewish Law.
This is where Vines’ butterfly example and Gushee’s ‘name-hug’ example are extremely poor analogies. Paul’s use of this term can be much better understood by comparing it to another example of a new word being coined from an authoritative and well-known text.
When my wife and I first started the Solid Rock Church in Drogheda, it was the first Pentecostal Church in the town. There were already some Evangelicals in Drogheda, but the vast majority of the population were Roman Catholic. I was trying to rent a building in which we could hold our Sunday meetings. On one occasion I met a prospective landlord who stared at me suspiciously and asked, “Are you one of those twice-borns.”
I had been an Evangelical Christian for 12 years, and I had never in my life come across the term ‘twice-borns.’ However, both that landlord and I knew exactly what he meant. Why? Because we both shared a familiarity with an authoritative text where Jesus had said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:3)
When you coin a new word from an authoritative text that is familiar to both the speaker and the hearer, then it is not hard to discern the meaning. That was true of the ‘twice-borns’ and was true of Paul and the Corinthians when he referred to the arsenokoites.
The Perspicuity of Scripture
Not only do Evangelical Christians believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but we also hold to something called ‘the perspicuity of Scripture.’
To understand this concept, we need to go back to the Reformation. During the Middle Ages the Scholastics had developed an allegorical method for interpreting the Bible. This meant that, in addition to the plain meaning of any text, there was a secret allegorical meaning. This was obviously very useful for a hierarchical Church that wished to stifle dissent. If anyone questioned why any given Church practice appeared to contradict Scripture, then the Church could reply by saying, “Ah, but it just looks that way. If we look at the allegorical meaning, then you’ll see that there isn’t really a problem at all.” And, since the Church was the only institution that had the key to understand this hidden allegorical meaning of the Bible, that enabled the hierarchy to effectively control what everyone else believed.
Martin Luther, when he called for Reformation in the Church, stressed the principle of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture. It basically means that an ordinary person, given a copy of the Bible in their own language, can, through prayerful study, discover as much as is necessary to know of the plan of salvation and the will of God.
It is easy to see that this approach to theology would, in one fell swoop, strike at the roots of any hierarchy that sought to control what others believed. Indeed, Luther himself did not like the consequences when radical groups such as the Anabaptists pushed the Reformation further than he had intended it to go. It is for this reason that Alister McGrath entitled his history of Protestantism ‘Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.’
Nevertheless, the principle of perspicuity is integral to modern Evangelical Christianity. That is not to say that we cannot benefit from the insights provided by linguists, historians, theologians and other scholars. But, when all is said and done, we expect to be able to interpret the Bible in a way where we don’t have to rely on some authority figure to provide us with the secret key needed for true understanding.
Indeed, it is this principle of perspicuity that enables someone like Matthew Vines to challenge traditional Evangelical approaches to homosexuality in his book ‘God and the Gay Christian.’ Evangelical leaders cannot legitimately brush him off by saying, “How dare you challenge our authority? We are the only ones who can decide what the Bible teaches or doesn’t teach.” If they are to remain true to their Evangelical principles, then they need to respond to Vines with arguments that will convince others of the validity of the traditional beliefs.
Unfortunately for Vines, the same principle of perspicuity is also what undermines his overall approach. Vines is a likeable and passionate writer who argues that we have all misunderstood the New Testament passages about homosexual behaviour. In his view, the verses cannot be taken to refer to loving consensual same-sex relationships today because the apostle Paul had a mistaken notion of patriarchy. Therefore the passages that we all thought prohibited homosexual behaviour are either condemnations of ‘bad’ homosexual behaviour (such as unbridled promiscuity, pagan rites or abuse) or else are examples of Paul’s inability to think beyond his patriarchal mindset.
From an Evangelical standpoint, there’s two problems with this approach. Firstly, it betrays an inadequate appreciation of biblical inspiration. Evangelicals don’t just think that the Scripture is a record of Paul’s mistaken ideas. We believe that God the Holy Spirit guided and superintended the biblical writers, so that the Bible that we hold in our hands is, in a very real sense, the Word of God.
Secondly, Vines’ approach is inconsistent with the principle of perspicuity because he is, whether he realises it or not, setting himself up as the authority who holds the secret key for understanding Scripture. The rest of us, apparently, cannot rely on reading the plain sense of Scripture, but we have to apply Matthew Vines’ key to any passage that might seem to speak about homosexuality. Only when we read the New Testament through the lens of the assumption that Paul was defending a patriarchal mindset can we really know what is going on.
Now we get to the crux of the matter. How can we know that a distorted view of patriarchy provides us with the key to understanding Paul’s references to homosexual behaviour? We can’t get this insight from history or biblical scholarship, because the majority of historians and biblical scholars who have studied this issue would not agree with Matthew Vines at all. His reasoning in support of his case is far from convincing.
In the end, the only way we can decide to interpret these passages as being all about an outdated patriarchal mindset is to abandon the principle of perspicuity and to take Matthew Vines’ word that he is the one who holds the key of interpretation. And why has Vines chosen this key, rather than any other, to interpret these passages? Because, as someone who identifies both as a gay man and as an Evangelical, he really wants it to be so. He wants it more than he’s wanted anything before.