Sex and the Bible: A Soliloquy

I recently wrote a few words on why I do not consider the Bible to be an authority on sexual orientation. However, after reading Al Mohler’s piece out today, “What the Bible Really Says About Sex – Really,” in which he criticizes Michael Coogan and Jennifer Wright Knust for being “liberals” and for not honestly interpreting the Bible in their respective recent books on sex and the Bible I decided I should spend a bit more time explaining my position.

Marriage

With many states passing civil union laws allowing gay couples to receive some of the benefits of heterosexual married couples and other states legalizing gay marriage there is a large and often very heated debate of marriage. Many conservative Christians claim to have sole understanding of marriage and what it should be. The argument usually hearkens back to “biblical marriage.” That is, I have heard more conservative Christians than I can count say that “the biblical definition of marriage is between one man and one woman.” The truth of the matter, though, is that there is no consistent “biblical definition of marriage.” Many forms of marriage are evidenced in the Bible ranging from Levirate marriages, to the interesting cases of goels, to polygamy. The most common form of marriage that is spoken of in the Bible is polygamy, which is when one person is married to multiple people, in the case of the Bible this is always one man married to multiple women. To be clear, this is not spoken negatively of in the Bible, either. It is simple spoken of. It was their way of life and their was nothing evil or sinful about it.

Further, many point to the story of Adam and Eve as evidence for a “biblical definition of marriage.” There are numerous problems with this, not the least of which is the simple fact that the text nowhere speaks of Adam and Eve being “married.” To be sure, in the story they had sex and had children, but there is no marriage ceremony, there is no “institution of marriage.”

I am not surprised that so many conservative Christians overlook what the text actually says when it comes to marriage, but I am disappointed. The truth of the matter is that many American conservative Christians have equated a legal status granted by the state with a religious ceremony and think that their interpretation of the religious ceremony should hold sway over everyone in this country regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. This is not only a lack of respect for those who do not think like them, but also a grave lack of understanding of the world of the ancient Israelites coupled with copious amounts of special pleading and revisionist history to accompany their arguments.

Sex

In many ancient religions sex was celebrated. It was seen as a way to commune with the divine. This is a view that I rather appreciate, for there is no other action that so intertwines one with another physically and emotionally. Sex is actually a beautiful picture of communing with God if we can take the stigmas away from it. Nevertheless, sex has long been demonized by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Conservative Christianity has recently tried to change the long-espoused view of all things sexual as sinful by pushing the line that sex is actually a beautiful thing …  so long as it only happens between a husband and wife. The Bible is stated as the authority for this view as well, but when I read the Bible I see many rules regarding sex (hello, Leviticus), but if we dismiss 99% of the Bible’s rules, which we do (mmmm….pepperoni pizza), then why do we insist that certain ones still be followed. What right do we have to pick and choose which ancient Israelite rules we think are worth maintaining? Further, the Bible does speak of adultery (sex with someone you’re not married to even though you are married) and fornication (most likely “sex outside of marriage”) as being sins, why do we uphold its perspective on these two acts, but dismiss it when it comes to our dietary habits, worship practices, etc.

Simply put, I think it is quite disingenuous to disregard the rules we don’t like or think are outmoded all the while promoting the ones that happen to line up with our particular worldview. Moreover, the Bible simply does not speak of many issues of sexuality yet many conservative Christians think they still have the right to define what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Homosexuality

I have written about this before, but I will try to be more straightforward here than I may have been before. I am full aware of the statements about same-sex situations in Leviticus and Romans. However, I maintain that the social structure of the Bible simply did not know of what we now understand to be one’s sexual orientation. That is, while some men would have sex with younger men (boys?) they were not understood to be gay or homosexual. That is, they were understood to be straight men that were having sex with men. That was fully acceptable in many cultures, but was not in others (see Romans 1). Before I say “we know that most people do not choose to be gay” I will say a few words about the “it’s not natural argument.”

The most common argument I have heard against homosexuality is that it is not “natural.” This, though, is patently incorrect. We know now from numerous studies and extensive research that homosexuality – along with bisexuality and nonreproductive sexuality – are much more common among animals than many have been willing to accept. Animal species with significant rates of homosexuality include black swans, penguins, vultures, pigeons, amazon dolphins, elephants, giraffes, lions, sheep, lizards, fruit flies, etc. The fact of the matter is that the appeal to nature is not just flawed, it is completely false. The only other understanding of the “it isn’t natural” argument, then, is that it goes against what that specific person considers natural and, well, that is simply an opinion and would be a more honest one if he/she simply stated it that way.

So, now that we can agree that homosexuality is, in fact, “natural,” we can speak to homosexual humans. As you can imagine, a lot of research has been done on this issue and the majority of studies are finding that most homosexual people are in fact predisposed toward a certain sexuality (be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or somewhere in between). To be fair, studies have also shown that one’s environment can have an influence on their sexuality, but that even in these cases one’s sexuality is set by the time they go through puberty. That is, whether they were born that way or their environment influenced them or both, they did not choose to be gay.

Further, the way I usually try to help heterosexuals see the legitimacy of this argument is by asking them when they chose to be straight. Invariably, they tell me that they never chose to be straight, they were born that way. Welcome to the life of a homosexual. They, too, never chose to be gay, they simply are. Thus, since I fully believe that homosexuality is natural, I cannot accept any view that argues that homosexuals are inherently sinful (or more sinful, depending on your understanding of sin) people and that they cannot, for that reason alone, be a part of the people of God. I fully reject that view. Everyone, in my opinion, can be a part of the family of God. Moreover, I do not understand homosexuality to be a sin. How could simply being who you were born to be be wrong and sinful? Some will argue that they think people are born gay, but that it is still wrong, it is just a product of The Fall. I also reject that perspective for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the fact that my theology does not adhere to an Augustinian view of the sinfulness of humanity. Simply put, I do not believe in The Fall and I do think that people are inherently good, not inherently sinful. An etiology in Genesis that contains a talking serpent tricking Eve into eating a forbidden fruit is certainly not enough to sway my view here.

Conclusion

I do believe that the Bible was inspired, but only insofar as I believe people today are also inspired. That is, we can be affected and influenced by divine inspiration, but that does not remover our humanity from the process. The authors of the Bible were most often the “winners” writing their version of history and supporting their social and cultural norms. This is not unique to ancient Israel by any means and it does not lessen the impact that the text has on me. In fact, my reading of the text is much more meaningful when I better understand the Sitz im Leben (essentially historical context) of the text. Reading the Bible and other ancient texts opens windows to beautiful worlds. We are able to see how people understood the divine and their relationship with the divine. My relationship with the divine does not always look like their relationships did and I, for one, appreciate that. The Bible is, among other things, a collection of peoples’ understandings of God. It is not a book written by God, no matter what Al Mohler tells you. As a biblical scholar and as a Christian, I have a responsibility to be honest with the text and honest about the text. It was written by humans, but as I said, this does not mean it is meaningless and unimportant.

Further, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are doing more than simply elevating one specific culture in a specific time and place (or a revisionist understanding of that culture), but that we are actually seeking out God. So, while the Bible is an authority in my life, it does not have sole authority. I do not accept its stance on slavery, genocide, treatment of women, etc. and I would argue that most of you don’t either. Why, then, are we so scared to continue working to understand God for ourselves as opposed to simply accepting what someone or something else tells us? Moreover, when we do speak of the Bible’s position on a certain issue, we have the responsibility of doing so with honesty and integrity. Arguing that there is a “biblical definition of marriage” and arguing that that definition magically lines up with your particular view is a flat out lie.

So, feel free to call me a liberal or someone who sees the Bible as “as a human book conditioned and warped by human frailty and fallibility.” Maybe you’ll even ask me, as I’ve been asked before, “How can you call yourself a Christian?” Your reaction to me is not important. What is important to me is that I live a life of integrity and love. Nothing else matters.

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9 thoughts on “Sex and the Bible: A Soliloquy

  1. I really like your post…thanks for taking the time to articulate your perspectives on this. I think a big reason it’s difficult for individual Christians to honestly consider these perspectives is because the religious systems in which they have been formed do not allow for such perspectives to be raised. Our theological imaginations are simply underdeveloped. (In fact many might consider the term “theological imagination” to be an oxymoron.) I’m not meaning to play the we’re-more-enlightened-than-they-are card. I simply think a lot of really good people are swimming in a certain pond but are unaware they are wet.

    Having grown up in an extremely fundamentalist Christian pond, anything contrary entering into my environment was scary…literally scary. What I thought to be solid, settled, black & white issues became vulnerable. “What would happen if the foundation was compromised?” However, the more I’ve opened my theological imagination, the bigger my God (read my understanding of God) has become. I’ve really found Peter Rollins’ idea of “hypernymity” (i.e. far too much information to comprehend…like a light shining in our eyes and blinding us—as opposed to anonymity or far too little information) to be incredibly helpful. Rather than the “full knowledge” my fundamentalist past provided, I now move through my life with much humility as to my ability to comprehend God and my response to the divine.

    Ultimately, the best way forward in my opinion is through relationships and community. Until these issues move beyond abstract pronouncements and become living breathing human beings with whom we share meals and beers and conversation and sickness and life, we’re doomed to swim in the same stagnant water. Thanks for bringing some fresh water to this discussion. (sorry for the long comment)

  2. I’m glad to see more and more people putting their views out there, especially exposing westernized christianity as baseless in many areas. I told Ms. Knust this already personally, and received a warm response, and I hope more people show support for scholars who show what’s really in there and what is really just a fabrication of “truth.”

  3. A post that contains so many Biblical errors cannot be called “great” or receive congratulations. Please know that I am only trying to correct Mr. Whitley’s errors and not bashing the homosexual lifestyle or the “norms” of our culture’s sexual tendencies.
    First of all, I wold like to challenge Mr. Whitley’s thoughts on marriage:

    Further, many point to the story of Adam and Eve as evidence for a “biblical definition of marriage.” There are numerous problems with this, not the least of which is the simple fact that the text nowhere speaks of Adam and Eve being “married.” To be sure, in the story they had sex and had children, but there is no marriage ceremony, there is no “institution of marriage.”

    If one is to read Genesis chapters two and three even at a surface level, one can see that a “union” (wedding) has taken place. God refers to the male and female as “man” and “woman” until Genesis 2: 23 when He suddenly refers to Eve as Adam’s “wife.” And then in Gen. 3:16 Adam is referred to as “husband.” This is AFTER God had brought them together into a union before the Fall.

    Concerning the authors thoughts on sex, Mr. Whitley assumes that ALL sex is to be celebrated and that it is a way to commune better with God. He is partly correct. Sex was created by God. God loves sex and wants his creation to experience the pleasures, passion, and communion that sex brings; as long as it is according to His design. Time and time again we read in Scripture how the Israelites followed their own hearts and deisres and participated in the pagan worship services of their enemeies. God had no choice but to hand them over to their lusts and they suffered greatly through slavery, oppression, diesease, and eventually death. God’s ideal was husband and wife and Israel chose to disobey. They ended up paying for their choices greatly. God tells us the same thing today: One man, one woman. We can look around and see that we too are paying a great price for the choices we have made.
    Again, scripture is very clear on homosexuality and that this a choice by an individial to sin and disobey God’s Word. Why, for decades in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, did the homosexual community continually refer to their homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” only to change their use of words and remove “lifestyle” from their vocabulary?
    While others may continue to trust in themselves (fallen humanity), their minds or other things. I will continue to believe that God’s Word is God’s Word and that it is not only inspired, infallible, and sufficient; it is also capable of ordering my life to His glory.

    1. 1. I agree with Sola Scriptura – the motto, the truth, and the poster 😉

      2. Further, a heterosexual, lifelong, monogamous relationship is absolutely God’s design for marriage according to Scripture. I really do not see how you’ve missed that in your journey through His word (or the poetic writing of a bunch of dead guys with absolutely no authoritative or prescriptive value, as you apparently believe). ANY sexual activity outside that covenant is immorality – that is a consistent scriptural theme and truth. Jesus even addressed it (Matthew 19, for example). It’s vitally important; this covenant mirrors His relationship with His people Israel (read Hosea) and His Church (His bride). Please show how/where/when God condones anything else.

      3. WHAT research proves that homosexuals are genetically predisposed? Whether or not there’s research to back up the validity of your claims, my view as a Reformed, probably “fundamentalist” Christian might surprise you: it probably is true. In fact, ALL of nature is genetically predisposed to corruption, sin, death, and disease. It’s called the fall, the curse of sin upon the natural and spiritual order.* That does not mean it’s morally neutral. Is it alright for wives to eat their husbands (spiders) or fathers to eat their firstborn (lions)?

      4. I agree with you that the church has been very terrible about vilifying homosexuality above other sins. The fact is – the Gospel is – we ALL are sinful by nature and are hopeless in our own death-earning depravity without the grace of Jesus Christ. Speaking personally, I think it’s important to address the issue because it brings so much deceit, confusion, and death. The statistics are NOT good for homosexuals. Science proves Scripture in this instance (AIDS, other STDS, life expectancy, infections, incontinence, hemorrhaging, Hepatitis, higher likelihood to: abuse alcohol and drugs, have tens of sex partners, suffer from psychological disorders, attempt or commit suicide, engage in prostitution, etc.).

      *5. This is a biggie. If you don’t believe in the fall, how do you believe in salvation, justification, sanctification, Christ’s propitiation, or grace to boot? That’s not rhetorical; I’d really love to see your response, because I don’t understand how the Bible is of any value to someone who thinks people are inherently good. Also, if you don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God and authoritative, what is the bloody point? How do you pick and choose what you want to follow? Why? Don’t you think that further hinders its credibility? Are you really using integrity when you do that?
      What’s baffling to me is that you’ve basically said you don’t care WHAT the Bible plainly says – you can write off what you don’t like as irrelevant to our culture. Did I misunderstand you?

      “What is important to me is that I live a life of integrity and love. Nothing else matters.”
      Our lives are about God’s glory. Sir, you CAN NOT live a life of integrity nor love – or fulfill your purpose as a worshiper – by your own effort because your flesh is enslaved to sin. Only Jesus Christ can conform us and redeem us to His likeness. Even Paul admitted the same condition. What are your responses to Romans 7?

      6. This is a more general, unrelated question. Are your “liberal” theological views shared by the church with which you minister? If not, how do they treat you? I’m really just curious about that. With no implication intended either way, I would simply assume that a Baptist church would be a little taken aback by your teaching.

      Thanks for any consideration and discussion.

      1. Sidenote: I’m not attacking you, but I also did not take time to “water down” or sugar coat my rebuttals or questions because I trust that you are not one to easily get your feelings hurt. So: no insults or offense were intended, but I realize my tone may be a bit passionate.

  4. Wonderful essay. Your views of the Bible closely mirror my own. I have heard conservative Christians accuse others of being “cafeteria Christians” who pick and choose what they want to believe, but that’s exactly what they do. As an acquaintance of mine once pointed out, Christian conservatism is actually a political movement that uses religion as its ideological base. The really sad thing is that they’ve taken the term “Christian” and re-defined it to refer to only their specific group, and many in the pubic and the media seem to buy this definition.

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