I think it was N.T. Wright—or maybe C.S. Lewis—who said that “back in his day,” you used to pretty well know whether an argument was won or lost.
If those days ever existed, I miss them. In “my day,” by contrast, one argument is apparently as good as any other. Nothing is ever settled.
If arguments were ever settled, then surely I wouldn’t keep reading and hearing the worst argument for overturning the unanimous verdict of two-millenia’s worth of Christian thinking about homosexual practice: Jesus didn’t say anything about it, therefore Jesus didn’t have a problem with two men or two women having sex with one another—at least within the context of a covenantal, monogamous, lifelong relationship.
I read this argument again a few days ago, in this blog post by a fellow United Methodist pastor named Paul Purdue (whom I don’t know), after at least two of my North Georgia clergy colleagues linked to the post or commented on it approvingly.
Why does Jesus fail to mention the most hotly contested theological issue of our age? What will now guide our understanding of homosexuality? Can an issue Jesus fails to address be considered essential to Christian faith? Can we “think and let think”, because Jesus does not address homosexuality? Does homosexuality “strike at the root of Christianity”? (Wesley’s sermon Catholic Spirit) Will we Methodists separate over an issue not found in the Gospels?
Why does Jesus fail to mention the most hotly contested theological issue of our age?
First, let’s concede that we can’t know whether Jesus said anything about homosexual practice. The gospels have no record of it. But if you argue from silence—on any issue—the argument can often go either way (which is why arguments from silence are fraught with difficulty). Jesus “silence” on this topic is a case in point.
I apologize if you heard this recently, but as I said in a my recent sermon on the subject:
Why would Jesus say anything about homosexual practice? In what context would it make sense?
Homosexual practice was already illegal in first-century Judaism. It was universally condemned and rarely practiced. In fact, the Jews’ attitude toward homosexual practice was as countercultural in their day as the church’s traditional stance is countercultural in ours. If Jesus spoke out against it, he would be wasting his breath! “Why are you telling us this, Jesus? We already know this!” It made perfect sense for Paul to talk about it because he’ speaking to a Greco-Roman culture that mostly approves of homosexual practice.
Besides, notice what Jesus did speak out against? Divorce, which was widely practiced by Jews of his day. Lust, which was widely practiced by Jews in his day. Personal vengeance, which was widely practiced by Jews in his day.
When Jesus disagreed with the status quo of his day, he spoke out against it. Yet he didn’t speak out against the status quo of his day regarding homosexual practice, which was condemned in the strongest terms possible in the Old Testament, as every first-century Jew already understood!
But when we look at what Jesus does say about sex in general, he rules out any kind of sexual activity that doesn’t involve a man and woman in a lifelong, monogamous marriage!
Why do I say that? Because of what Jesus says about divorce in Mark 10: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” That’s from Genesis 1, and those words emphasize the physical differences between the sexes. Then Jesus says, quoting Genesis 2, which we just looked at, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and”—this should sound familiar—“‘the two shall become one flesh.’” Which, as we just discussed, only happens through a union of man and woman. And then he goes on to say, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”
So Jesus affirms the same thing Paul affirms—that sex is for two different, or complementary, kinds of human beings coming together, and only through this coming together is a real bond formed.
Besides, in Matthew 15:19-20a, Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” The words “sexual immorality” are a translation of the Greek word porneia, which would have included any sexual activity outside of the bounds of marriage (except adultery in this case, since that sin rates a mention of its own). What sexually immoral behaviors would he be referring to besides adultery? Would any first-century Jew not think that Jesus had in mind the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20, which included homosexual practice? If Jesus wasn’t alluding to these prohibitions, then he risked confusing or, worse, misleading his audience.
If Jesus wanted to make an exception for same-sex sexual behavior, then why didn’t he say so?
But that’s another argument from silence, isn’t it?
But suppose Jesus had said something directly about it? Would many of my colleagues say, “O.K., Jesus said that homosexual behavior is a sin, so that settles it”? I have my doubts.
Why wouldn’t they say the same thing they say about the apostle Paul’s words? “He wasn’t referring to homosexual practice as we understand it today. He was referring to pederasty, or temple prostitution, or sex with slaves, or non-consensual sex.”
Regardless, the larger issue concerning Jesus’ “silence” is that Jesus wasn’t silent on homosexual practice—not if we understand that he is the Second Person of the Trinity, and that the Third Person of the Trinity, the very Spirit of Christ himself, inspired and guided the apostle Paul, within 20 years of Christ’s death and resurrection, to write the words he wrote about homosexual behavior in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1.
Can’t we trust that Jesus himself is speaking to us through Paul’s teaching in scripture?
My colleague, Rev. Purdue, obviously can’t. Which is why he asks the next two questions:
What will now guide our understanding of homosexuality? Can an issue Jesus fails to address be considered essential to Christian faith?
The first question reflects a classic red-letter hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. All of scripture may be inspired, but not quite as inspired as the red-letter words of Jesus found in the gospels. Needless to say, I am not a “red-letter Christian.”
As to the second question, Jesus doesn’t address many things that we all take for granted are immoral—like bestiality, incest, polygamy, and polyamory, for instance. Yet, surely we wouldn’t throw up our hands and say that it’s not essential that we avoid practicing these things?
Can we “think and let think”, because Jesus does not address homosexuality?
Did Paul “think and let think” when it came to the church member who was in an incestuous relationship in 1 Corinthians 5? Hardly! As he writes in vv. 2-5:
Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
The sin that Paul identifies, and his response to it, couldn’t be more relevant for this discussion about homosexual practice. Jesus doesn’t address incest in the gospels. The prohibition against incest is found in the exact same context in Leviticus as the prohibition against homosexual practice. Would it not be arbitrarily “picking and choosing” (as the argument from the “affirming” side often accuses us of doing) to obey one prohibition and not another?
Regardless, even though Jesus doesn’t address incest, Paul is not interested in “thinking and letting think.”
I’ve only just scratched the surface of Purdue’s blog post. I’ll address his other arguments later.
But even if you are on the “gay-affirming” side of this issue, can you please concede that you’re not making your case by appealing to Jesus’ silence on the subject?