Posts Tagged ‘Christopher J. H. Wright’

On Leviticus and the classic “shellfish” argument

July 22, 2013

Opponents of the United Methodist Church’s traditional stance on homosexuality frequently resort to the following argument, as summarized by Christopher Wright in this helpful sidebar from Christianity Today.

The law in Leviticus prohibiting sexual intercourse between men (18:22) comes in the same book that contains laws prohibiting foods that Israelites were to consider unclean (chapter 11). We eat shellfish today without any moral problems, so why should we treat this sex law as morally binding? Haven’t we outgrown all of that Levitical law anyway? Christians who insist on the sexual laws of the Bible are being inconsistent in not keeping all the other laws too. So goes one line of argument in modern debates about homosexuality.

About this, Wright says we should say three things:

First, as I note in “Learning to Love Leviticus,” we no longer keep the food laws because the separation they symbolized (between Israelites and Gentiles in the Old Testament) is no longer relevant in Christ. But the ethical principles embodied in Old Testament laws on sexual relations (positive and negative) remain constant and are reaffirmed by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.

In other words, contrary to what United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton asserts in this sermon, the church doesn’t arbitrarily “pick and choose” which verses reflect “God’s timeless will” and which verses we can throw in the dustbin of cultural context. We would only be picking and choosing if our hermeneutical (interpretive) principles ignored context and said every command of scripture is equally binding for all time. Maybe there are some fundamentalist Christians out there who believe this—although I’ve never met one—but the capital-C Church (not to mention Jesus himself) never did.

If we have principled and logical reasons for believing, for instance, that some commands in Leviticus are binding today and others aren’t, then it’s not picking and choosing. Hamilton knows this as well as anyone. I wish he wouldn’t play dumb. Rachel Held Evans also played dumb about this in her recent book The Year of Biblical Womanhood, which drove me crazy, but I don’t expect as much from her.

We are picking and choosing, however, if, in spite of our principles, we disregard the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality mostly because we don’t like it. I’m not sure I like it, either, but that’s hardly the point.

For more on this “picking-and-choosing” argument, see Glenn Peoples’s post here.

Continuing with Wright:

Second, the argument would reduce the Bible to absurdity. The Ten Commandments come in the same book that commanded Israel not to climb the mountain. If we are told that we cannot with consistency disapprove of same-sex activity unless we also stop eating shellfish, then we should not condemn theft and murder unless we also ban mountaineering.

Even more, do the people who employ the classic “shellfish” argument not know that the second part of the Great Commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) is also found in Leviticus? Why bother with that one if we also eat shellfish? “Yes, but Jesus reaffirmed that commandment so we know that’s still binding. He didn’t say anything about homosexuality.” This is the classic argument from silence, which is a terrible argument for a number of reasons, the most powerful of which is that homosexual behavior was illegal in first-century Judaism (which put Judaism at odds with surrounding pagan culture, by the way).

It would have been helpful, if our Lord believed that the status quo concerning homosexuality were wrong, that he would have said so. He spoke against Judaism’s status quo concerning divorce, after all. “Yes, but maybe he did and the Evangelists failed to record it.” Yes, well, maybe he said a lot of things. As you can see, this is a swirling black hole of an argument.

Besides, here’s the larger point, according to Wright:

Third, and most important, the biblical discussion of homosexual behaviour begins not in Leviticus, as if the whole argument depends on how we interpret a single Old Testament law. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he would not let the argument get stuck around the interpretation of the law. Instead he took the issue back to Genesis. That is where we find the foundational biblical teaching about God’s purpose in creating human sexual complementarity—and it is very rich. It reflects God—male and female together being made in God’s image—and it provides the necessary togetherness and equality in the task of procreating and ruling the earth. This God-given complementarity is so important that God explains how it is to be joyfully celebrated and exercised—the union of marriage that is heterosexual, monogamous, nonincestuous, socially visible and affirmed, physical, and permanent (Gen. 2:24, endorsed by Jesus).

I love when smart people repeat arguments I’ve made. In my post about Hamilton’s sermon, I commented on his using Genesis 1 as a basis for overturning the Church’s traditional stance against women in ordained ministry. I affirm what I said then—although I would add that Jesus himself endorses Genesis 2:24 in his teaching on divorce in Matthew 19. Why don’t Jesus’ clear words about marriage’s being between a man and woman have more weight in our debate about gay marriage?

Regarding ordination of women, he says that it took the church about 1,900 years to “live up to the words” of Genesis 1, which helps us to see that men and women were created equal. He sees something universal in those words. And through these clear words, we should interpret more disputed passages of scripture. I don’t disagree. But why stop there? In Genesis 2, we also have God’s creating male and female for one another. Why isn’t that also universal—that marriage and sexual relationships are, specifically, for a man and woman together? Outside of marriage, celibacy is the rule, whether you’re gay or straight. This has been the teaching of the universal church for 2,000 years.