Sexuality & the Church: What’s Love, Jesus, and Covenant Got To Do With It?

*The following is a slightly revised version of an article I wrote a few years ago*

“Why don’t you just want to love people and follow Jesus?”

That was the question a pastor colleague asked me as we sat in the sunshine on the roof of a restaurant in Minneapolis. We were with several other colleagues attending a preaching conference headlined by names like Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, Mike Slaughter, Will Willimon, and others. I think by this point in the conference I had already heard Mike Slaughter call people who think like me Pharisees. Brian McLaren had already basically suggested that we conservatives just want to see the Earth destroyed and the only way for it to be saved was for progressives to band together against those forces of destruction. McLaren was very much laying out an “us vs. them” and I soon figured out that I was on the “them” side of his equation. “Full inclusion” of LGBTQ+, which of course for progressives means acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and LGBTQ+ behavior, was mentioned quite frequently without even the slightest hint anywhere that the traditional Christian sexual ethic might still have some validity.

So at dinner when the topic was brought up by someone else on my end of the table, I said that although I refused to argue in sound bites I would be happy to share with them why I believe the Church should stick with the traditional teaching on sex. One person said she was wrestling with the issue, although heavily leaning progressive. Then the other person really wanted to hear what I had to say because she just couldn’t understand “Why you don’t want to love people and follow Jesus?”DSC00618

Undoubtedly it was a sincere question. Apparently in her time in the United Methodist Church and at Duke Divinity School she had never heard anything but progressive arguments presented clearly. Nonetheless, these colleagues, both of whom I appreciate and care about, showed me a great deal of respect and listened as I began to address that initial question and a couple others. The following is the very little that I shared with them that day and a bit more.

First of all, I don’t see love as a blanket permissiveness, a fuzzy non-judgmentalism, or a generic niceness. Christian love is a holy affection (Hebrew: ahav Greek: agapaō) that inspires one to be faithful to the word of God out of Spirit-implanted gratitude. As the author of 1 John might put it, love is to gladly keep God’s commandments (see 1 John 5:2-3). In other words, from a biblical point of view, I believe love is a holy affection that issues in covenant loyalty. This is what I believe is at the heart of God’s love for us and our love for God in response. The Hebrew term chesed often translated “steadfast love,” regularly occurs in parallel with the word “faithfulness” in the Old Testament with regards to God’s posture toward his people (See Psalm 100:5, for example). Similarly for us, while deep feelings for our beloved are certainly involved, biblical love cannot be far removed from covenant without radically changing its meaning. This is whether it be speaking of God’s keeping his promise to bless, or even to discipline his covenant people (the Bible clearly speaks of God’s blessing and punishment being driven by love – see Heb 12 & Rev 3:19), or whether it be with regards to God’s forgiveness. In any case covenant loyalty is at the center of it. Covenant faithfulness is also at the center of the people of God’s love for him as a cursory reading of Deuteronomy 6 would clearly reveal. This doesn’t disappear in the New Testament, for New Testament people are a New Covenant people; hence 1 John’s equating the love of God with commandment keeping. Yes, we need forgiveness, and forgiveness is driven by love; but forgiveness is not permissiveness. Love forgives, but love also holds accountable. God does this for us, and he expects us to do this for each other.

If we love each other, not only should we forgive each other, but we should also hold each other accountable. That’s what the context of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” found in Leviticus 19:18 clearly indicates. Jesus quoted that verse along with Deuteronomy 6:5 to sum up—not to set aside—the rest of the law. Leviticus 19:17 specifies a covenant member’s responsibility to hold his fellow covenant member accountable to the covenant or else he would incur guilt himself. The context suggests that not to do this would be to hate one’s neighbor; while to be faithful to this task would be to love one’s neighbor. There is danger in breaking God’s commandments; to stand idly by while one’s brother or sister does so would be no more loving than not warning someone who was about to step off a cliff. Members of the Old Covenant were to hold each other accountable; members of the New Covenant are as well. Accountable to what? Well, to the New Covenant, wherein there is much overlap with the Old such that the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament as an authority for Christian behavior (see 1 Peter 1:16 which is a quote from Leviticus). Jesus held his disciples accountable and he called his disciples to hold each other accountable albeit with an abundance of forgiveness (see Matt 18).

Make no mistake, however, Christians don’t keep the commandments in order to merit God’s love and grace; they show covenant loyalty out of thankfulness for God’s love and grace already received by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Grace forgives, and it also inspires and empowers one to live a life pleasing to God, which includes accountable discipleship.

If all this sounds crazy, perhaps it is because we have been steeped into something other than genuine Christianity. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) as some have described the religion of many young people in the Church, a religion that was undoubtedly passed down from parents and even pastors as others have rightly discerned, IS NOT Christianity – no matter how Christian-ish it may be! The love described in both covenants is not a bland niceness that leads to blanket permissiveness; it is a holy affection of the heart that leads to a desire to please God by doing his will, keeping his word, and as a result being found faithful.

As preachers, as John Wesley would concur, we are not only called to preach the Gospel; we are also called to preach the law warning others of God’s righteous judgment. For a preacher to neglect this is serious business as Wesley well knew! Wesley would allude to or quote Ezekiel 3:16-21, which warns about incurring punishment for failing to warn sinners, as a reminder of this grave responsibility. A preacher’s job is not to make people more comfortable with sin, which is both covenant breaking and the inner compulsion of a corrupt nature to do so. A preacher’s job is to warn sinners “to flee from sin as from the face of the serpent”, as Wesley often said, and to run to Jesus to find everlasting comfort in the living God. This is love!

So the question is what are the just requirements of the covenant with regards to sexual behavior? In other words, what does the Bible say? For there is no better place to go to find the terms of the covenant than to prayerfully go to the Bible, lest we find ourselves following our own deceitful hearts and eyes away from a covenant relationship with God (See Num 15:39; Jer 17:9; 1 John 2:15-17).

According to Jesus’ own reading of the Bible (Matt 19:1-12) all forms of sexual activity outside of the lifelong covenant marriage between one man and one woman are outside of God’s original design for marriage, which is evident in the structures of creation itself, not least in the complimentary sexual anatomy of male and female (see Gen 1-2 & Rom 1). Sex is good, but it is a good thing that can be corrupted and abused. The ultimate end or goal of sex is the glory of God in the ongoing work of creation brought about through procreation, bearing and rearing children. The pleasure derived from it is a means to that end, not only for childbearing, but also to create a strong and stable loving bond between a man and a woman as the foundation of a thriving family. Marriage also provides for lifelong companionship that allows for the fulfillment of natural sexual desires that is in harmony with God’s design and intent for sex whether children result or not (see 1 Cor 7:1-9). When pleasure becomes an end in itself rather than a means, God’s design is upended and everyone suffers, especially children.

In a fallen world God did allow for a measure of sex outside of his original intent for Israel. For instance, the Law of Moses allowed for divorce for more or less ambiguous reasons, but when Jesus came he announced that allowance had reached its expiration date and would no longer be allowed under the New Covenant except for cases like adultery. Jesus made his case for lifelong marital unions by pointing to God’s original intent and design in creation and under the New Covenant calls his followers to live into that ideal as far as is possible (see Mark 10 & Matt 19). For Jesus boredom is certainly never a good reason for divorce. Jesus’ teaching on divorce and marriage also had direct implications for polygamy which God had also tolerated under the Old Covenant. Polygamy came to be unacceptable for Christians altogether. Monogamy became the absolute rule, a trajectory undoubtedly set by Jesus himself, and reiterated by Paul as early as his first letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 7:1-16).

That being said, there were other forms of sexual activity that were strictly forbidden for God’s people because they are more degrading and corrupt than others. Leviticus 18 delineates these things that included adultery, incest, homosexual sex-acts, and bestiality. Revealing their universal sinfulness, God renounced the Egyptians and judged the Canaanites for these practices, and sternly warned Israel not to follow them. God says these practices, along with the child sacrifice that seems to be part and parcel of such unbridled sexual practices, defile not only the people who practice them, but also the land itself, which because of these practices becomes metaphorically sick.

People under the Old Covenant were strictly forbidden from engaging in any of these things, and also warned that the land too would become sick and vomit them out if they practiced them. For those under the New Covenant there is not a looser sexual ethic; there’s an even tighter one, as a cursory reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount makes clear, as well as his teaching on marriage and divorce mentioned above (Mark 10; Matt 19). Moreover, when you consider the fact that Jesus spoke of sexual immoralities in the plural that proceed from an evil heart, which, along with other sins, defile a person (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21), there’s no reason to believe that the plurality of sexual immoralities that he spoke of would bear no relationship with the degrading sexual practices outlined in Leviticus. There is no indication anywhere from the witness of any of the other writings of the New Testament that Christians should expect more license with regards to sexual behavior. The standard that Jesus set forth presents a tremendous challenge for all kinds of sexual sinners whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, or anything in between. In fact, in our hyper-sexualized culture the thought of this may easily lead one to despair and to wonder, who then may be saved? From a human point of view it is a definite impossibility, but with God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, all things are possible! (Matt 19:26).

Specifically with regards to homosexual acts the prohibition in the Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (ESV) and 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them,” are absolute. As far as the Bible is concerned there is no way to have a justified same-sex sexual relationship. The writings of the New Testament are even clearer in that not only is sex between men explicitly condemned, but also sex between women (which would have been implicitly understood to be off limits in the Old Testament); both of which are condemned for being “contrary to nature” (i.e. contrary to God’s original design, see Romans 1). While the penalty according to the civil laws for Israel under the Old Covenant no longer apply; yet the moral prohibition remains under the New Covenant. While also condemning all sexual immorality in general, 1 Corinthians 6:9-12, echoing Leviticus with regards to homosexuality, makes it unmistakably clear that same-sex sexual activity, along with the various others sins listed there, if not repented of, will exclude one from the kingdom of God. In other words, all unrepentant sexual sinners will be excluded from the New Covenant community in the New Heaven and Earth (see Rev 21:1-8).

To be a part of the New Covenant community we need to repent, which means to turn away from sin and turn to Jesus, trusting him with our life by receiving the forgiveness that he provides as our Savior, and following him by the power of His Spirit as our Lord. Along the narrow way (Matt 7:13-14) we will struggle, stumble, and sometimes fall; nevertheless, we will not fail to reach our goal if we keep looking to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2 KJV).

The trajectory of church history, undoubtedly set by Jesus himself, only confirms the witness of the New Testament. Strict monogamy within holy matrimony quickly became the norm for the Church. This is the relationship that most beautifully reflects the faithful covenant relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21-32). Sexual pleasure is a means to a greater end, which is covenant loyalty, namely love. The object of love shouldn’t be the pleasure derived from the beloved, but the beloved himself or herself. Marriage should reflect that God Himself is the ultimate object of our love. Christian celibacy makes this even more vivid. Celibacy reflects the sexless nature of the world to come (see Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35), further confirming that sex is a means to a greater end not an end in itself. The Bible is telling us that sex is not of ultimate importance, which, as is evident from our own culture, is all too easy to forget. As Christians we are called to sexual holiness to model for the world the beauty and the goodness of covenant love and faithfulness. When we depart from this God-ordained design, we open the door to the destructive forces of chaos that destroy individuals, marriages and families, hurt children, and destabilize society. God’s design is not meant to be a kill-joy. It is meant to be a blessing where marriages are built on covenant faithfulness rather than fleeting notions of romance and sexual excitement; where children are received as a blessing rather than a burden and faithfully nurtured by their mothers and fathers together, as far as is possible.

As admitted by “progressive” scholars such as Dan O. Via (see book “Two Views” by Via and Robert Gagnon), up until the 1960’s the gist of what I described above was universally accepted to be the teaching of the Bible without exception. Then once the “sexual revolution” ignited a brush fire of sexual licentiousness that spread quickly through society, novel interpretations of the Bible began to spring up suggesting that perhaps the Bible never really condemned all forms of homosexual behavior after all. Since then many have suggested that people have simply misinterpreted the Bible for thousands of years. Arguments were made that maybe there was room in the church for strictly monogamous homosexual relationships. Many variations of this argument still abound.

Nevertheless, from what I have read and heard these revisionist arguments are all extremely dubious at best. What many people don’t realize is that not only are these revisionist arguments rejected by conservatives scholars such as Richards Hays, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Michael Brown, and Robert Gagnon; these arguments are also dismissed by prominent liberal/progressive scholars such as Dan O. Via, Luke Timothy Johnson, Old Testament expert Walter Brueggemann, theologian Phyllis Tickle, and William Loader, who is an expert on ancients Jewish and Christian attitudes about sex.  All of the latter are supportive of the LGBTQ+ agenda.

In a lecture I saw on video Phyllis Tickle basically said it is a fool’s game to try to prove that the Bible would condone same-sex relationships of any variety. As does Dan O. Via, Walter Brueggemann also acknowledges that the Leviticus texts condemn all forms of same-sex activity, consensual or otherwise; but Brueggemann believes that the revelation of God in Christ serves as a “corrective” to those texts. Similarly, I have heard Tex Sample, an ordained United Methodist elder and seminary professor, argue something similar at a weekend retreat on rural ministry. Sample’s argument concerned the Apostle Paul. He said that Jesus serves as a corrective to Paul because although Paul condemns homosexuality, Jesus never mentioned it, which Sample obviously, and mistakenly, interprets as tacit approval on Jesus’ part. Luke Timothy Johnson, a prominent New Testament scholar at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, also acknowledges that the Bible condemns all forms of homosexual behavior, but he, like Via, believes experience proves the Bible to be wrong. Johnson puts it this way:

The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to …[1]

 

While each of these scholars might differ in some finer nuances of their arguments, as all scholars do, the underlying thread among them is that the Bible does indeed condemn all forms of homosexual activity. Some of them, however, do attempt to somehow pit Jesus against the texts that condemn same-sex acts in some way, but unconvincingly so when you consider the more conservative trajectory of Jesus’ own sexual ethic as mentioned above. Robert Gagnon (see “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and hermeneutics & other articles at robgagnon.net) has also shown that prominent liberal secular experts on homosexuality in the ancient world, who themselves approve of homosexuality, also admit that the Bible does indeed condemn any form of same-sex sexual activity.

Take, for instance, two of them in their own words in light of common claims among revisionists that the writers of the Bible would only have had exploitative and abusive forms of homosexuality in mind when they condemned it, or the claims that had they known about “sexual orientation” like we do they would have approved of committed same-sex sexual relationships.

Paul could have believed that tribades [the active female partners in a female homosexual], the ancient kinaidoi [the passive male partner in a male homosexual bond], and other sexually unorthodox persons were born that way and yet still condemn them as unnatural and shameful. . . . I see Paul as condemning all forms of homoeroticism as the unnatural acts of people who had turned away from God.” (p. 446 in “Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism” by Bernadette Brooten, professor at Brandeis , herself lesbian)

According to [one] interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at ‘bona fide’ homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew[*] or early Christian. (p. 114 in “Homosexuality and Civilization” by historian Louis Crompton who was also homosexual)

(The above quotes are given as cited by in an article by Robert A.J. Gagnon) [2]

I would also add that “the any other Jew” referenced by Crompton would also include Jesus of Nazareth; there is no biblical or historical reason to assume otherwise. The fact that Jesus didn’t mention it specifically apart from the general mention of sexual immoralities, at least as far as the record of the four Gospels is concerned, no more means that Jesus actually approved of homosexuality any more than he would have approved of incest or bestiality, neither of which did he mention either.

Thomas Hubbard, an expert in Homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, acknowledges that there was some idea of sexual orientation similar to our own in the early Imperial age of Rome.[3] The obvious reason that Paul would not have been swayed by the “born that way” argument is because of his own born that way argument that he derived from scripture regarding sin in general. Paul knew that we are all born sinners who love to sin in multifarious ways because of a corrupt nature. Jesus also knew quite clearly that sin flows from corrupt human hearts (Matt 15:17-19). We all have a bent (unchosen desires) toward sin that manifests itself in different ways in different people. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have been fooled by the false dichotomy between unchosen desire and deliberate action. There are a plethora of unchosen desires we all have that we should not act because it would be contrary to what is right.

The bottom line is this, there is really no good reason to believe that people just misinterpreted the Bible for thousands of years until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s finally opened our eyes. The Bible (Old and New Testaments) does not have one positive thing to say about same-sex sexual relations in any form, consensual, monogamous, or otherwise. There’s no good reason to believe that Jesus’ supposed silence on the subject means that he actually approved of it. As mentioned above, Jesus spoke of a plurality of sexual immorality as evil that comes from the human heart; same-sex sexual activity would have been understood to be included in that. There’s also no good reason to believe that the apostle Paul just misunderstood that Jesus really approved of committed same-sex sexual relationships. Sexual holiness was a central teaching for the apostle Paul, as even a cursory reading of his letters would indicate (consider the fact that sexual immorality tops most of his vice lists – see 1 Cor 6:9-12; Gal 5:19-25; Eph 5:1-12).

Moreover, Luke in the book of Acts makes it clear too that Paul preached, taught, and ministered by the Spirit of the Lord himself. One should also note that Paul also frequently warns that sexual immorality, and various other sins, embraced and not repented of would cause one to remain outside the kingdom of God. This is because such a person would be outside the New Covenant community, not because of lack of having done enough to earn membership, but because of lack of genuine faith in Jesus. Jesus promises not only to forgive us; he also promises to transform us from the inside out. To opt for forgiveness without transformation would really be to forfeit both; and both are gifts of his grace. Jesus calls us to this kind of sexual holiness. This is a central part, not the only part, but a central part of his covenant. I can also confidently say that Jesus himself provided the initial and ongoing forgiveness that we need to be a part of it by his shed blood on the cross; and he provides us new birth, lifelong transformation, and a willing heart to live a life striving to please God by the power of his Spirit (See John 3 & Rom 8). Living by his Spirit we will supernaturally bear the corresponding fruit, beginning with love (see Gal 5:22-26). And Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV; see also v. 23).

Doubtless, there will still be some who will mock what I have said here. They will throw out myriad and myriad of reasons for why what I have stated here is wrong and unloving.  Some, though, even in the face of the witness of serious and extraordinarily skilled conservative and liberal scholars, will cling to the revisionist arguments. Some may just be naïve, others may know full well what the Bible actually says and still use revisionist arguments to deceive. The liberal scholars that I mentioned above agree that the Bible really does condemn all same-sex sexual behavior; they simply have the courage to say that they just think the Bible got this wrong. Many of the revisionists that I have spoken with, read, or heard also eventually reveal all of their cards. They almost always, when pressed, end up talking about how we don’t obey the Bible with regards to other things like eating shrimp, which was a dietary restriction for Israel under the Old Covenant. This argument seems to be a staple in the diet of those who want to dismiss what the Bible has to say about sex. But this fails to account for some of the distinctions between the Old and New Covenants in terms of the differences between the ceremonial, ritual, and civil laws for the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant and the ongoing significance of the universal moral law under the New Covenant. These distinctions are referenced in the Articles of Religion for the United Methodist Church (see Article VI).

But some will bring up other, admittedly difficult but not insurmountable, issues regarding the justice of God with regards to some Old Testament passages. They will do this all to the effect of trying to render the text of Scripture as untrustworthy and unreliable, that it is gray at best (see Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, then compare to Bill Arnold’s response “Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray”). They will insist that the Bible is not clear; but the science on homosexuality and their personal experience is, when the direct opposite is actually the case. Still others, while also doing much of the above, will insist that the topic is not all that important, and certainly not a “central” issue. They will imply that it should be treated as an indifferent matter where people on both sides can simply just agree to disagree. These same folks, the self-styled moderates, who are almost always for full LGBTQ+ inclusion, will say that it is important that we believe the creeds regarding the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the resurrection, not what we think about sex. In other words, it seems to me, they are saying that it is in fact alright to honor God with our lips but not with our hearts, at least as far as sex is concerned.

After all of this undermining of the integrity and reliability of the written word of God, what are we left with if we buy what they are selling? It seems to me all we are left with is doing what is right in our own eyes and following our own hearts. But I don’t think that is really loving people or following Jesus.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”         Ephesians 5:1-14 (ESV)

 

 

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience,” 6/11/2007, Commonweal, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0. Accessed 7/7/2018.

[2] Robert A.J. Gagnon, “How Bad is Homosexual Practice According to Scripture and Does Scripture’s Indictment Apply to Committed Homosexual Unions?,” January 2007, accessed July 30, 2018, http://www.robgagnon.net/HowBadIsHomosexualPractice.htm.

[3] Gagnon, ““How Bad is Homosexual Practice According to Scripture and Does Scripture’s Indictment Apply to Committed Homosexual Unions?”

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