The Conversation Continues

Recently, I received a comment from a reader who wished to challenge me on some preliminary thoughts I offered on the subject of how I came to my position on homosexuality.  I am including “Mark’s” letter and my response to him.  I have not identified “Mark.”  If he wishes to do so, I will make space for him on my blog to offer yet another response.  The reason I am offering this is to continue the conversation about what it means to interpret scripture–especially as it relates to the issue of homosexuality.  I have not edited “Mark’s” comments in any way.  They have also been published in the comment section of “What is the What?”  You may read that post to get a full sense of what “Mark” is responding to.

“Mark’s” Comments

Dr. Penwell, you seem to be conflating the punishment with the crime. I think everyone agrees that today we don’t believe in stoning those who commit adultery, however most of us still believe adultery is wrong. in John 8 Jesus gives us a new model for how to deal with a person who is living in adultery and it specifically rejects stoning. Yet as Jesus sends the woman away, he says in verse 11, “Go and sin no more.” He hasn’t ceased to call adultery sin….he has just ushered in an era of grace under which we now live until the eschaton. The same thing seems to apply to homosexuality as far as I can tell. In no place in the Bible is the prohibition against homosexuality overturned, but I think John 8 gives us an excellent blueprint for how to respond to it. I think Jesus’ very kind words to the woman caught in adultery would still apply to all of us who are caught in any sin….”Go and sin no more.” Furthermore, I don’t merely read that as a commandment to me…i read it as a promise. Because of what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection, I am now able to step into a relationship whereby I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to “Go and sin no more.”

I think when you conflate the punishment with the crime, it makes for very cute rhetoric, but seems to misunderstand the text rather severely. I am not suggesting for a second that this is yours (or anyone else’s) goal, just being descriptive of what I see in those fallacies.

As for dietary laws and all other Kosher laws, I believe Acts 10 deals with them rather nicely. While the dietary laws were in place under the Old Covenant, Jesus gives Peter a vision that in effect wipes out those laws freeing us to eat all the shrimp we want! (; ) )

Going back to the issue of homosexuality, I would encourage you to read Leviticus 18…one of the most explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible, and notice where homosexuality is found. It is right between child sacrifice and bestiality. Expanding our pericope a bit further we find that most of us (whether followers of Christ or not) would agree with just about every moral law written in that chapter with the possible exception of having sex during a woman’s period. The rest of them read quite comfortably as acts that we would not condone. e.g.

1. don’t have sex with your step mom (or mom)
2. don’t have sex with your step sister (or sister)
3. don’t have sex with your child or daughter-in-law
4. don’t have sex with your Aunt
5. etc

You will search in vain for a controversial law in that chapter of sexual prohibitions apart from having sex during a woman’s period or homosexuality. Why do you think that is?
I appreciate your blog and would love your thoughts on this. Thanks!

My Response


First, thank you for doing such a careful reading of my post.  I appreciate your thoughtfulness, as well as your generous spirit.

I do want to challenge you on a few things, though.  Any conflation of sin and the punishment for sin that I would defend now has as its purpose to call into question a particular hermeneutical strategy, which goes roughly something like this:

The bible is a sacred text inspired by God, and its clear commands should therefore be taken seriously as commands that are universally binding, which is to say, good for all times and all places.

This is certainly a defensible interpretative method, and one that claims a wide number of backers.  It must answer a few questions of its own, however, before it gains the status of the hermeneutical high ground.  First, what scripture “clearly” commands is never as innocent an assertion as those who would offer it tend to imply.  To suggest that “my” reading of a text is the “clear” meaning implies that those who differ are either ignorant or self-consciously sneaky.  This is a meta-critique of the tack you seem to take.

Second, and more specifically, you must first answer why it is that the commands of God should be broken down into (at least) two categories—punishment and crime—the latter of which is universally applicable, while the former is merely contextual.  The postmodern in me wants to ask, “Says who?”  Offering Jesus’ handling of a particular case from a disputed passage as evidence of God’s foreclosing of a particular kind of punishment engages in the same practice of drawing inferences that you seem to think bad when I do it.  Your point is an arguable one (and clever) . . . but it is only that; it is by no means the “clear” meaning of the text.  It is, as you say, “cute rhetoric.”

Although your point may be that Jesus sets out in John 8 to overturn antiquated laws, it is by no mean obvious that that is, in fact, Jesus’ point.  In other words, you’re thrown back on an interpretation of a text to which you bring a host of interpretative assumptions—which, of course, was my point in the first place.  In other words, that’s how scripture always gets interpreted.  That doesn’t mean that “anything goes” when it comes to scriptural interpretation.  What it does mean is that scriptural interpretation is a contextual and communal practice requiring lengthy conversation to discern the meaning of a text—as well as the humility to say, “We’ve long thought such and such is the case, when, as it turns out, that does not seem to be the case at all.”   The question is not whether we do that (your parsing of sin/punishment is evidence that we can’t get beyond doing it), but rather how will we make an ancient document speak to a contemporary world it couldn’t envision.

Moreover, you never make clear how it is that I “severely misunderstand the text.”  If the text says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them,” and you say that the first part is universally valid while the second part is time-bound and need not be bothered about anymore, it is you who must offer more convincing proof as to how you split that particular hermeneutical hair—beyond extrapolation.   For that is what you provide: an inference concerning the obviation of capital punishment for sex crimes from a text whose primary purpose seems to be dealing not first with punishment but with the self-righteous attitudes that set one person over another.  And if you take your inference to be true in some universal sense, then you must provide an explanation as to why it is that your inferences occupy the privileged position of universal norm, while other textual inferences made by “severe misunderstanders” like me are invalid.

Acts 10 and the argument on the rescindment of kosher dietary laws by reference to Peter’s vision—c.f., the previous two paragraphs.

Let us turn now to Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with males as with a woman; it is an abomination.”  You rightly point out that this verse is wedged into a list of other uncontroversial sexual proscriptions.  That is to say, 18:22 follows a long list of injunctions against incest–which no one would seriously defend.  And although you never go on to explain by what interpretative mechanism it is that one of the verses (i.e., “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness” Lev. 18:19) is no longer binding, you do draw attention to it.  I think we ought not to leave it quite so quickly.  Why does this particular verse escape universal condemnation?  By what authority does this passage no longer claim normative status in your view?

As to the seemingly straightforward condemnation evident in Leviticus 18:22 against males lying with males “as with a woman,” I would draw your attention to the previous verse about sacrificing children to Molech in 18:21.  This shift is significant, signaling that we have moved to concerns about the worship of other gods.  Leviticus 18:22, read in context, may very well center on the ritual sexual practices of fertility religions that bespoke allegiance to other gods.  If true, what is at issue is the enduring problem Israel faced with respect to the worship of foreign gods manifest in particular kinds of cultic practices.

Whatever the case, I’m not willing to cede the point that the sexual arrangements that are at issue in 18:22 between two males approximate the loving commitments between two people of the same gender for which I am arguing in our contemporary world.  What is at stake in the “clobber passages” that are used to argue against homosexuality seem to have less to do with the anatomy of the beloved than with whether one person exercises power over another by sexual means.  In other words, I am arguing that Christians have a greater investment in promoting just and loving relationships built on mutuality than to ensure that everyone has the appropriate sexual equipment before being accepted as partners.


2 thoughts on “The Conversation Continues

  1. Derek,
    We are entering dangerous territory. If I were to try to respond to every point you made one by one, this would be an incredibly long post indeed (and it is already QUITE long!). So with that disclaimer in mind, let me respond to your primary points (you made some great ones by the way) and you can reiterate any I fail to answer to which you would want to hear my response. I think in the interest of brevity (after all, we want people to read our points right?) it makes sense to try and capture your best points as I understand them and respond to them.
    As I see it, one of the primary issues we need to get ironed out here at the beginning of this discussion is our own views of Scripture. Apart from some sort of cohesive approach to interpretation we could easily be debating past each other due to wildly different presuppositions. Rather than me try to guess yours, I will lay mine out and you can let me know where we part company or if we are on the same page or not.
    I do see Scriptures as the Word of God and understand the law, as expressed in the Torah, to be perfect and true….yet somewhat arbitrary. I don’t mean that in a negative way because as far as I am concerned God is allowed to be as arbitrary as He wants. I mean it as a descriptive statement of how I perceive some of the laws. Perhaps as time progresses I will understand some of the laws that seem “arbitrary” in ways that will help me remove that classification, but I still don’t understand why someone with “crushed gonads” was not able to serve before God in the Old Testament (although I do have some interesting ideas, but that would be a huge tangent). So when I approach laws about conduct and sexuality, I come to them assuming that they are correct and even good. In fact, the same goes for dietary laws and kosher laws.
    In light of that perspective, it would take a fairly radical agent or messenger for me to change my commitment to those laws. Thankfully, we have that in Jesus Christ. But I don’t see this as a carte blanche overturning of all laws, but a “fulfillment” of the laws as well as a new standard of law that both raises the “old” to a higher level as well as postponing (and that is a hugely deliberate use of a word) of the judgment against sin that will be realized in the eschaton. I referenced John 8 because it was merely one place where Jesus’ attitude about judgment is revealed as being different and his judgment being postponed. Actually the Johanine record has much to say about this starting with John 1 as I understand it. For instance in verse 29 of that chapter we read: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!“ To be clear, I don’t see any justification for interpreting that to mean that Jesus changed something that was sinful into being not sinful (except for you and me and “all who called on his name”). In other words, sinful acts have not become righteous. Rather, verse 29 is suggesting that Jesus has taken my sinful acts on himself and called me clean (i.e. imputed righteousness ala 2 Corinthians 5:21). This theme continues in John 3 where Jesus says to Nicodemus “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
    The awkward truth is that Jesus spoke of judgment MUCH during his earthly ministry. In fact, no one spoke of hell more than Jesus (something that is damning for both mainliners and evangelicals as it seems we all want to mention that as seldom as possible if at all) yet his references to judgment and retribution are with a look towards the eschaton. He not only rescued the lady caught in adultery in John 8 (yet never excused her sin or said it was no longer sin), but he cautioned us to “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1, although that deserves a richer treatment because it is not saying what people often want to claim it is saying). We also find that in John 5:22 it is reported of the Father that “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” Thankfully this is the SAME “Son” (Jesus) who “came not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” There could be MUCH more said about this, but I suspect we both agree that Jesus ushered in an era of grace under which we now are privileged to live. Yet this does not mean that sins cease to be sins.
    Getting back to the subject at hand, I see no reasonable hermeneutical grounds for suggesting that the prohibition in Leviticus 18 against homosexuality is within the context of child sacrifice. There is nothing within the verse itself that would suggest that and the verse immediately following it says nothing of the sort unless there is some ancient practice of worship that includes bestiality. But if that is true, then does bestiality get a clean bill of health if we extricate it from the evils of idol worship? But to make the critique a bit more damning, 2 chapters later virtually all of the same laws are reiterated but this time homosexuality is completely set apart from both bestiality and idol worship by 6 verses and the context is now merely the already mentioned various examples of sexual immorality. In short, your suggestion of homosexuality being tied to idol worship appears to fail on several grounds. Furthermore, we see prohibitions against homosexuality reiterated explicitly by Paul in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 as well as by Jude. Jesus does nothing to overturn the sexual laws of Moses so we are left with strong reasons (in my opinion overwhelming reasons) to believe that homosexuality is still seen as sinful by the authors of scripture.

    So revisiting Leviticus 18:22 and the issue of homosexuality I am absolutely convinced that as with the other 18 laws (depending upon how you count them I suppose) listed, the prohibition against homosexuality is true and firm and still applies to us today. I am also convinced that it comes out of God’s heart of love for His people and for those who are not yet His people. To be even more clear, I am convinced that God is absolutely good and loving and that His laws are intended for our health and happiness. As for the question of sexual relations with a woman during her period, you made a few assumptions about my position. I have been married for over 8 years and have never violated that law either. Frankly, I have never wanted to and have done so without any struggle or compunction. I do think it may be possible in the case of menstruation to understand it as being covered under kosher law and consider God’s words to Peter in Acts 10 about not calling “that which is clean unclean” as applying to this as well. But I feel no need to work out some lengthy exegetical framework to try and establish that one way or another. So as far as I am concerned, every law in Leviticus 18 still applies to us as believers (with the possible exception of the one just mentioned for the reasons given) and we are not at liberty to dispense with them unless some greater revelation trumps them in a clear and specific way.

    Thanks for hosting me, I will try to continue this discussion as long as you would like to. I always wanted to have this discussion in seminary, but at my seminary it was a foregone conclusion that my position was oppressive, hateful and homophobic so it was not a terribly safe place to discuss my views.

  2. feel free to enlarge my text and add spaces between my paragraphs! For some reason when i took this from Word to here it screwed up my paragraphs! Sorry…that is PAINFUL for the eyes, which no doubt violates some Old Testament law! ; )

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