Jesus was no “prophet of tolerance”

February 17, 2014
Gagnon 5

Robert Gagnon

I’m in the middle of Robert A. J. Gagnon’s academic book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Gagnon is a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His book, published by Abingdon in 2001, is often regarded as the most formidable biblical case against acceptance of homosexual practice. If my fellow Methodists who oppose our church’s traditional doctrine want to make a biblical argument for changing it, they will have to wrestle at some point with Gagnon’s arguments.

Gagnon rightly perceives that Christians on the other side of the issue are eager to enlist Jesus for their cause. (In the United Methodist Church, they enlist both Jesus and John Wesley—which is odd, given that Wesley explicitly opposed homosexual behavior.) They interpret Jesus’ silence on the subject as tacit endorsement: “The collective body of Jesus tradition includes no statement to the effect that same-sex intercourse is good or bad. Some combine this silence on the subject with Jesus’ embrace of sinners and emphasis on love and conclude that Jesus would not have criticized responsible and loving expressions of homosexual and lesbian conduct. At the very least, they allege, we cannot say with any reasonable degree of certitude that Jesus opposed such relationships in principle.”[1]

Unsurprisingly, Gagnon interprets Jesus’ “silence” differently. Since homosexual behavior was condemned in the strongest possible terms in first-century Judaism (and Gagnon has already laid out the Old Testament’s opposition to homosexual practice, which was confirmed as well in extrabiblical ancient Jewish writing), “it is very unlikely that Jesus would have adopted a fundamentally different stance toward same-sex intercourse, particularly given Jesus’ general approach to the Mosaic law.”[2] In other words, Jesus tended to amplify rather than diminish the demands of the law. Think of the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…”

Moreover, we can infer from Jesus’ sexual ethics what he believed about homosexual behavior. When Jesus affirmed marriage as (exclusively) a lifelong union of man and woman in Mark 10:1-12, Jesus

shows no awareness, much less acceptance, of any other pattern—even though no Jew in antiquity could have been oblivious to homosexual relationships among many Gentiles. There was no need for him to comment on whether homosexual unions should be permitted and, if so, whether his stance on divorce and remarriage should apply to them too. The creation texts authorized only one type of sexual union. It would have been a foregone conclusion for him that homoerotic relationships and human-animal unions, both proscribed in Leviticus, were unacceptable. The whole point of Jesus’ stance in Mark 10:1-12 is not to broaden the Torah’s openness to alternative forms of sexuality but rather to narrow or constrain the Torah’s sexual ethic to disallow any sexual union other than a monogamous, lifelong marriage to a person of the opposite sex.[3]

Gagnon emphasizes Jesus’ uncompromising position on marriage and divorce, adultery, and lust (see Matthew 5:27-30) as evidence that

Jesus took sexual sin very seriously—in some respects more seriously than the prevailing culture in first-century Palestine. He regarded all sexual activity (thoughts and deeds) outside of lifelong marriage to one person of the opposite sex as capable of jeopardizing one’s entrance into the kingdom of God. In relationship to our own cultural context, Jesus’ views on sex represent on the whole a staunchly conservative position. Those who find in the Gospels a Jesus who is a prophet of tolerance, who forgives and accepts all (except, perhaps, the intolerant), regardless of behavioral change, have distorted the historical reality.[4]

Gagnon addresses the three stories in the Gospels that account for the “widespread conclusion that Jesus did not think sexual misconduct was a big deal”: the woman “who was a sinner in the city” who bathed Jesus’ feet with tears and anointed them (Luke 7:36-50); the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11); and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).

Regarding the woman of Luke 7:36-50, “It is inconceivable that this woman abounding in love for God and intensely grateful for forgiveness, will now continue in whatever activity earned her the notoriety of being a sinner. Luke, who more than any other New Testament author stresses repentance, certainly could not be illustrating that repentance and transformation are non-essential features of the Christian life.”[5]

Regarding the woman caught in adultery, we have misinterpreted Jesus’ words—”Neither do I condemn you”—in a strictly figurative way: that we have no right to think negatively of the woman’s actions—and besides, we’re all sinners, too.

“Casting the first stone” then takes on a whole new meaning. It no longer means a literal stone but rather any critical stance toward a person who commits adultery and remains unrepentant. Such interpretations hopelessly distort the sense of the story. Condemn here means to “execute the sentence of stoning,” and stoning refers to real stones, capital punishment, not a moral judgment about adultery… [Jesus’] parting words to her, “from now on sin no more” (8:11), demonstrate two crucial points: (1) Jesus and the Pharisees agree fully on the evaluation of adultery as sin; and (2) Jesus expects this act of incredible mercy, this making alive again of a woman who for all intents and purposes was as good as dead (as with the prodigal son), to deter the woman from ever committing adultery again.[6]

As for the woman at the well, her repentance and transformation in response to the gospel is evident in her subsequent actions.

In sum, the stories about Jesus’ encounters with women who were considered sexual sinners do not support the conclusion that Jesus was soft on sexual sin. He did allow these women to come into close contact with him. He did not fear the stigma attached to associating with such people. He advocated mercy as a means of stimulating repentance and devotion to God rather than support the death penalty. He understood that those who were forgiven the most would stand a good chance of loving the Forgiver the most… Jesus forgave sexual sins, like all other sins, in the expectation of transformed behavior. They were to go and sin no more.[7]

In case we miss this point about “going and sinning no more,” Gagnon discusses another class of sinner whose treatment by Jesus parallels his treatment of sexual sinners: tax collectors. “Few today who would argue that sexual purity was a low-priority issue for Jesus based on Jesus’ free association with sexual sinners, would also argue that Jesus was soft on issues of economic exploitation based on his free association with economic sinners.”[8]

If Gagnon is right that we can infer from Christ’s sexual ethics that he also opposed homosexual behavior—never mind St. Paul, never mind the Old Testament—would that be enough to change anyone’s mind?

Are there Christians who support changing church doctrine regarding homosexuality who would do so even if they believed—suspected? feared?—that Jesus himself opposed homosexual behavior during his earthly ministry?

That strikes me as a painfully uncomfortable amount of cognitive dissonance!

One critic in the comments section of a recent blog post accused me of being a hypocrite on the issue of homosexuality: If I’m a hardliner about homosexuality, why am I not also a hardliner about divorce and remarriage?

I guess I don’t understand why you call for homosexuals to be celibate but you don’t seem opposed to divorced people (who may have divorced for reasons other than adultery) remarrying (and assumedly having sex)… By your own logic you are allowing remarried divorced people to live in their sin if you don’t speak out against what they are doing.

Have I been inconsistent on this issue? As recently as last September, in a sermon on marriage, I said the following:

Today’s sermon is about, yes, love and marriage. In so many words, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that you can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Last week’s scripture touched on that theme. But Jesus goes a step further in this week’s scripture to say that not only are they inseparable, they are also permanent. Or at least they ought to be.

Obviously, when we consider the divorce rate, even among Christians, it’s clear that we are failing to take Jesus’ tough, uncompromising words as seriously as we should. There’s no way to read these words of Jesus and come to some conclusion other than divorce, in most cases, is wrong. It’s a sin.

I’m not sure I can be more explicit than that!

As for remarried people “living in sin,” I’ve never heard any Christian thinker construe “repentance” in that case to mean divorcing again. Repentance would mean acknowledging your wrongdoing, making restitution as much as possible to your ex and your children, doing everything in your power to make your current marriage work, and not divorcing again.

All sexual sin—whether related to divorce and remarriage, or adultery, or homosexual behavior, or lust—is forgivable sin on the condition that we repent. As I said in my September sermon,

We are all sinners. Church is a sinner’s club to which everyone is invited. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. And even if we haven’t sinned in one particular way, we have sinned in so many other ways. When it comes to sin, none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand. O.K.? The good news is that there’s always, always, always forgiveness for us sinners who repent, and our gracious God always gives us an opportunity to start again. If you hear me say nothing else, please hear me say that. Remember God’s grace!

1. Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 186.

2. Ibid., 187.

3. Ibid., 194.

4. Ibid., 209.

5. Ibid., 215.

6. Ibid., 216.

7. Ibid., 217.

8. Ibid., 217-8.

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