Mailbag: The Best Progressive Arguments for the Acceptance of Homosexuality and a Traditionalist Response

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, we shared an article, “African Methodism will not bow the knee to US progressivism”, on social media. Charlie commented the following:

So, I would consider myself for this topic to be part of the aforementioned US Progressives. However, this article, while being very pointed, seems to a good job representing the African Church. 

I do have a request though, would it be possible for you guys to release an article on the, honestly, strongest argument presented the conference for the One Church Plan? I feel like they're missing the component of the opposing argument and I would really appropriate the honest response to the US Progressive camp from an evangelical perspective as opposed to an article very caught up in the political side (money, power, etc)

We asked our resident Methodist scholar, Dr. Tom Thomas, to give a reply.

Thank you very much for asking for the best arguments for the acceptance of homosexual practice, marriage and leadership in the church and an evangelical response.  That you are interested in thinking through this difficult issue by examining both the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ encourages me.  Too often today both sides of an issue are not given fair opportunity for rational interaction.  Permit me to make this proviso: our subject is way too long for a piece this short.  Nonetheless, your request is a worthy exercise.  Let us try to drill down to main arguments.  May this piece spur your study of fuller treatments.   

The determinative factor of both the progressives (those advocating acceptance of homosexual practice) and traditionalists (those advocating sexual relations only between one man and one woman in marriage) viewpoints is their take on the shared text:  Holy Scripture.  One’s assumption here is the basis of a continental divide between whether Scriptural commitments on homosexuality run east, or west!  Progressives reassure traditionalists ‘we love the Bible’ and ‘believe in its authority’.  ‘Good’, says the traditionalist, ‘but cannot one also love the United States Constitution and believe in its authority’?  Is not the paramount question whether the Holy Scripture is the God-breathed Word to human authors who unfailingly express what God desires written; or, whether it is a record of humanly, gifted people’s reflections of their experiences of God?  The traditionalist sees Scripture as God’s revelation to his people; the progressive as human revelation of God-experiences.  For the traditionalist the issue is not Scriptures’ authority but its supreme authority.  Is or is not the Bible God’s inspired, infallible word preeminent over every authority? While progressives privilege ‘the totality of human experience’ and subject all texts to it, the traditionalist submits every authority to Scriptural authority.

In assuming this, therefore, the progressives can say the debate over homosexuality is not about words in the Bible but about what the words ‘mean for us today’.    The GC 2019 Delegate newsletter of the pro-acceptance United Methodist group ‘Mainstream UMC’ says the meaning of the Bible’s words change over time.  Much of the Bible is ‘descriptive truth’ which means what was ‘true’ in former times and cultures is not ‘true’ today.   The traditionalist responds the authors’ words mean today just what they meant then, in South Korea or Kansas.  The meanings’ ‘significance’ may vary and continuing research enlightens the contexts, but what God meant to say then God means to say today.

You can see this play out in specific biblical texts (called ‘clobber texts’ because they are overwhelmingly negative regarding homosexuality) invariably at the center of the debate.    Leviticus 18: 22 (also, 20:13) states, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’  Receiving accolades for his recent theological argument for same sex covenantal partnerships, Durham University Professor Robert Song acknowledges with traditionalists that it is difficult to see any other reference here than to homosexual anal intercourse.   However, Professor Song and other progressives typically discount the force of the prohibition.  They are seen privileging contemporary experience over Scriptural authority when they argue such a law as the above was part of an Old Testament Jewish ritual, purity code fulfilled in Christ.  Like ritual, dietary laws (eating pork), they are no longer binding on Christians today.  Traditionalists in a long tradition beginning in the New Testament distinguish between Jewish purity practices which are obsolete for Christians and Old Testament moral prescriptions such as homosexuality which are not.   The New Testament renews and reinforces these moral prescriptions (not ‘descriptions’) in the manner of Jesus who said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

 A second major passage in the homosexual debate is Romans 1: 18-32. Herein the apostle Paul describes how rather than honoring God as God, persons rebelled against Him and exchanged the worship of the Creator for the creation.  This idolatry subverted the creative order God established in Genesis 1.  God constituted the nature of ‘Adam’ (Man, humankind) in His image and likeness, gender-differentiated, opposite-sex pairings, male and female.  Human revolt against God results in a dishonorable disordering of creation plainly demonstrated in males having sexual intercourse with males and females with females. Professor Robert Song basically agrees.  However, Professor Song says, the reason same-sex sex is a sin for Paul is only because it is non-procreative sex.  Procreative sex producing children is the only reason for gender differentiation.  Paul rejects homosexuality on the grounds it prevents offspring.  Professor Song declares Paul’s concern for procreative sex of two opposite genders is now superseded.  Christ’s resurrection has brought in a new, eschatological order, a new age, which reorients male-female procreative sex.  Jesus, speaking of this new age says, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’(Luke 20: 34f).  A new vision of resurrected life makes the old age heterosexual marriage with its procreative sex obsolescent.  Resurrection life envisages a trajectory of life beyond marriage and procreative sex.  Song comments that same-sex covenantal partnerships might have been impossible for Paul and the New Testament.  Are they not now possible for us?

A traditionalist’s response is threefold.  First, the complementarity of gender differentiation of male-female pairing is not limited, as Song says, to the difference in male-female genitalia (responsible for children).  They run as deep as every cell’s sex chromosome pairings, whether xx (female) or xy (male).  The implications of gender differences of anatomy and physiology extend well beyond the necessity of procreation.  Second, Robert Gagnon, acclaimed New Testament scholar who has written exhaustively on homosexuality, notes Paul, in contrast to others of his day, recommended sexual intercourse in marriage not just for procreation but for mutual satisfaction of desire that might otherwise result in promiscuity (1 Corinthians 7: 2-5). Third, when Jesus speaks of those who ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage’, he is speaking not of the ‘in between times’ in which we Christians now live but the end of time when mortal death is no more and ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ have come.  The new creation has not transcended heterosexual, procreative sex!

Progressives submit the possibility of accepting same-sex covenantal partnerships on account of the church changing its mind over the years on such social issues as slavery, women’s issues, and divorce.  Logically speaking, this argument digresses from the moral issue at hand, homosexuality.  Further, every one of these subjects is a distinct issue which must be discussed in its own right.  The Church may be, and has been, at variance and back and forth on certain positions but God’s Word is constant in its meaning.  However, as Robert Gagnon states, where churches have moderated positions you can usually find a New Testament trajectory that has opened a countervailing possibility. Nevertheless, for instance, in regards to slavery, the New Testament never affirms slavery is a good institution.  New Testament scholar Ben Witherington shows Paul takes God’s people where they are but like Philemon, moves them to realize the Gospel’s implications and treat Onesimus as a free brother in Christ.  The early church worked to emancipate slaves but some churches in the nineteenth century did not.

Be that as it may, the Church and its theologians with roots in Old Testament teaching have never wavered, until very recent times, and always regarded the practice of homosexuality a sin. 

Progressives claim Jesus never spoke of homosexuality and the word is not even in the Bible.  They say the issue is not important to the New Testament.  Traditionalists respond Jesus reinstituted the natural, created order of marriage of Genesis as a biological, spiritual and interpersonal union of the complementary pairing of one man and one woman.  Jesus’ statement on marriage excludes the legitimacy of homosexual behavior, or, for that matter, any extra marital sex.  Indeed Jesus condemns porneia (fornication) in Matthew 15: 19 denouncing any sexual intercourse outside of the marriage covenant.  True, the actual word ‘homosexual’ is not used in the Bible (neither is the word ‘trinity’) but a rose by any other name is still a rose.  In another critical passage, 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 Paul says ‘male prostitutes (malokos), sodomites (arsenokoitai)…none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.’   Progressives assert Paul is not here condemning loving, same-sex partnerships but only homosexual prostitution.  This follows what they deem is the problem in Genesis 19 - homosexual, gang rape and not consensual, homosexual acts when the men in the town seek to have sex with the visitors in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Their contention Paul is condemning unloving, brutal homosexual acts centers on Paul’s use of two debated Greek words, malokos and arsenokoitai.  Malokos means ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ and is likely a young male posing effeminately as a woman as the passive partner to attract another male (often for prostitution).  The second word arsenokoitai is literally translated ‘men who take males to bed’ and means active, consensual partners in homosexual intercourse. When one considers Paul’s Jewish, religious culture’s aversion to homosexuality, traditionalists affirm with New Testament scholars and Robert Gagnon these two terms together comprehend every conceivable passive and active type of same-sex intercourse which Scripture altogether condemns. To summarize, Paul in 1 Corinthians 6: 9 and elsewhere with Jesus condemns all forms of sexual intercourse outside the marriage of a man and a woman.

A prominent, persistent narrative of progressive and homosexual proponents is that homosexuals are ‘born that way’.  I have no doubt homosexuals feel this way.  Professor of Medicine Emerita of the University of Kansas Dr. Barbara Lukert states ‘there is consensus among human sexuality researchers and therapists that homosexuality is unchosen and in most cases unchangeable.’  National proponent for homosexual inclusion in the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Tom Berlin states, ‘We believe sexual orientation is a way a person is created by God rather than a sin they commit against God.’  Believing that this is an immutable, human quality like skin color, progressives assert the church is discriminating against and excluding, oppressing, and hurting homosexuals as it has other minorities.  As a traditionalist, I feel their passion about this; yet, I know of no traditionalist pastor who either desires or acts to exclude any member of the LGBTQIA community.  Pastors want any body and every body to be in worship on Sunday!  In fact, most traditionalist pastors have homosexuals in their church.

Nevertheless, truth and falsity are not emotional categories.  Though progressives are highly motivated to land this argument, truth and falsehood deal with what is and is not, regardless of how one feels.  In the 1990’s William Byne and Bruce Parsons of Columbia University reviewed the entire literature on the biology of homosexuality.  Their conclusion: there is no biological or genetic theory for homosexuality which has scientific consensus.  The New Atlantis journal reported in 2016, ‘Some of the most widely held views about sexual orientation, such as the “born that way” hypothesis, simply are not supported by science.’  The American Psychological Association states: there is no scientific consensus on the cause of homosexuality.  Objectively speaking, we cannot claim homosexuality is inherent.  Even if there were some biological connection, as is suggested in alcoholism, the Bible speaks not of one’s proclivity or orientation, but of one’s behavior. The progressive lament that traditionalists by their rejection of homosexual behavior are oppressing and discriminating against homosexuals whom God has created this way is neither scientific nor biblical but emotionally manipulative.

Nevertheless, progressives contend those who disallow homosexual behavior are ‘judging’, condemning and rejecting homosexuals as unacceptable and to be excluded.   Indeed, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but Jesus welcomed and accepted all sinners.  Jesus said, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone...‘do not judge in order you may not be judged’ he said.  Traditionalists agree with progressives Jesus sought out and radically loved marginal persons (including sexual sinners).  Traditionalists are heard to be condemning the practice when they say ‘no’ to homosexual behavior.  Often they are in a position of having to condemn the practice before they are able to show they accept the person.  Our heart is to accept the person though not the practice.  Is not this Jesus’ emphasis?  Like the woman who interrupted his dinner, she had been a notorious sinner, guilty.  She left a cleansed sinner forgiven. Jesus said to her, ‘Go and sin no more’.  At this point progressives and traditionalists part company.  For the reasons recited above, when they say Jesus loves and accepts homosexuals, they mean ‘lock stock and barrel’ – person and behavior.  We love the sinner - but hate the sin.

Indeed, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, ‘Judge not’.  That is, do not be a judgmental person putting dark constructions on ambiguous situations.  Do not pronounce eternal condemnation on anyone.  Nonetheless, Jesus says in Matthew 18: 15 ‘rebuke’ those who sin.  Bring their sin to light.  Point it out so that it may be forgiven.  ‘Open rebuke is better than hidden love’ says Proverbs.  Identifying same-sex sex as sin is not judging.  It is trying to bring to bear grace and mercy. 

Our differences range over Scriptures’ absolute authority, textual interpretations, theology, and even science.  At the end of the day, through such interchanges as this, the clarity of truth will shine like gold in a stream and the fullness of grace will come.




Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

Photo by  Hieu Vu Minh  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

It may surprise those outside of the field of biblical studies that there has been intense debate in recent decades over the meaning of the handful of passages in the Bible which seem to condemn same-sex sexual activity. These passages, sometimes referred to as “clobber” texts, since it is often said they have been used to “clobber” LGBT persons (and they unfortunately have), have maintained a fairly stable interpretive history (at least as far as these things go) in the church until the sexual revolution resulted in their revisitation. It may also be surprising that with several of these passages there are legitimate questions regarding the meanings of words and phrases, as the terminology is not always completely clear, even from the context of the passage. Thus there have been some good reasons for the debate, even though there have also been some overly-creative interpretive approaches attempted as well. Having done a fair amount of reading on the matter (though by no means considering myself an expert on all things related), I remain convinced that the texts do indeed forbid same-sex sexual activity.

Notice I did not say they forbid “homosexuality.” The way that term is used today usually refers to sexual orientation, or to one’s basic sense of attraction. While conversion therapy in its heyday sought to redirect homosexual attractions into heterosexual attractions, most now recognize that the therapy largely did not work, and that orientation is not easily changed.[1] Though some still suggest the possibility of conversion therapy’s success,[2] most within the evangelical community have abandoned it. While I do not think the Bible speaks clearly (if at all) about “sexual orientation,” it does speak (and I think with greater clarity) concerning same-sex sexual activity.

To recognize this distinction is to recognize a difference between our context and the biblical context(s). The Bible was written in places, times, and cultures vastly different from our own. When we come to the text, our goal should be to interpret it, as much as we are able, in its own context rather than ours. This does not remove its relevance for today’s Church, but it does mean we must consider that relevance with a great deal of thought and care. Though I can develop the case only briefly here, I wish to suggest that it is that very ancient context which makes it highly plausible that the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself, would have understood same-sex sexual activity as sinful.

Texts Addressing Same-Sex Sexual Activity

First, and perhaps most famously, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 state:

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22, NASB).

If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them (Lev 20:13).

Leviticus 18 and 20 are both concerned with inappropriate forms of sexual activity. Forbidden here are various forms of incest, adultery, and bestiality. The basis for the condemnation of this behavior is that it is an abomination (Heb: ʿēbâ; Gr: bdelugma). This term, which has been argued is restricted to a cultic/purity usage and thus is not applicable to Christians, refers to something offensive to God which makes a person unclean. Such activity would defile Israel in ways the surrounding nations had been defiled (cf. Lev 18:4ff.). Language of “clean” and “unclean” is less common in the New Testament than the Old, and is indeed transformed in a sense (e.g., Mark 7:19; Acts 10:11-15; 1 Tim 4:1-5), but this in and of itself does not mean the entire passage is no longer applicable (more on that below). The term (ʿēbâ; bdelugma) also carries a similar ethical connotation in Revelation 17:4, where it is connected with “sexual immorality” (more on that notion below as well).

Often what constitutes “sin” in the Old Testament (and the New) is that which disrupts the intended function given by God. We learn in Levicitus that it is not just the individual, but the community and the land itself, which would be corrupted by these forbidden activities. There are communal and ecological consequences for disrupting the divinely established parameters for human flourishing. Just as God is “otherly,” his people must act “otherly,” distinguished from the surrounding societies, as he has set them apart to do (cf. Lev 20:26).

Second, while it is frequently claimed that Jesus is silent on issues concerning same-sex sexuality, there are implicit indications in Jesus’ words which indicate otherwise. Two texts (among a few others) in the Gospels seem to point in a different direction.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Mark 10:6-9, NASB).

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt 19:3-12, NASB).

What makes us think Jesus here is implicitly (NOT explicitly) suggesting same-sex sexual activity, or more broadly, any form of sexual activity outside of a male-female marital relationship (which, for Jesus, would include sexual activity among the illegitimately divorced)[3] is condemned? If we remind ourselves that Jesus was a first century Jew, who grew up within Second Temple Judaism and shared major affinities with Judaism[4], we can see that Jesus shared a common thread with traditional Jewish beliefs about sexual activities. These beliefs, largely derived from Leviticus 18-20, among other places, viewed all forms of incest, adultery, and same-sex sexual activityas causing defilement and out of step with the divinely intended pattern. They were actions which, if not repented of and “put off,” merited consequences, both immediate and eschatological. As Preston Sprinkle has summarized succinctly, “Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations.”[5] Jesus, within the context of first-century Judaism, and only validating male-female marriage (cf. Mark 10:6-9) or celibacy (cf. Matt 19:10-12) as the available options, stood squarely within that Jewish context. There is no hint that Jesus deviated from the traditional, widespread Jewish belief. None.

Much also has been made of the Pauline passages which touch on the subject of same-sex sexual activity (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10). We should remind ourselves, before attending briefly to these texts, that Paul shared this same first century Jewish context with Jesus. If Paul deviated significantly from the standard, traditional Jewish sexual ethics, we would expect to find a great deal of effort and care exerted in order to accomplish that end. What we find instead are numerous affirmations of that ethic.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom 1:26-27, NASB).

Perhaps the most famous Pauline condemnation of same-sex sexual activity comes here in Romans 1. There are, however, a handful of real interpretive issues related to this passage. Some have suggested that 1:18-32 actually sets out the opinion of Paul’s interlocutor, and thus is not even Paul himself speaking.[6] Romans is frequently recognized as a diatribe, where Paul interacts with his interlocutor (whether imagined or real), and so it is possible that he presents his interlocutor’s position here (an ancient rhetorical strategy known as prosopopoeia) at the beginning of the letter and begins his own response in 2:1. We do not have time to chase that rabbit here, but suffice it to say that if that is the case, Romans 1:26-27 loses considerable (i.e., all of its) force as it relates to our question about same-sex sexual activity. Second, there is also the question of what Paul means here by exchanging natural relations with unnatural ones. It has been suggested that Paul has something in mind here other than consensual same-sex sexual activity. If, however, pederasty, oppressive same-sex practices, or cultic sexual practices are in view, Paul has used rather obscure terminology to indicate this when clearer words were available to him. There would be clearer ways to express that idea than the way Paul has done here. That withstanding, legitimate questions persist concerning this particular text and its relation to our topic. In my estimation, other passages in Paul are clearer.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31, NASB).

In terms of a positive example, Paul (who I take to be the voice of Ephesians) uses male-female marriage as a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church and also affirms here the male-female nature of that union. For Paul, like Jesus, there was no consideration given to recognize same-sex unions or to validate same-sex sexual relations.

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:8-10, NASB).

The NASB does not render the key words here as clearly as it could. The terms here are likewise debated. The Greek word for “homosexual” is arsenokoitais. The term here is a compound of two terms found in Leviticus 20:13 and refers to a man who engages in sexual activity with another man. This same term appears also in 1 Corinthians 6, where it is paired with another debated term.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11, NASB)

Here again a certain deficiency plagues the translations chosen by the NASB (I used it here simply because I used it elsewhere). The words for “effeminate” and “homosexuals” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. The terms in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both have been questioned as to whether they refer to same-sex sexual activity in general, or to the practice of pederasty in the ancient world, where older men would engage in sexual activity with boys.  Both BDAG and Louw-Nida (two standard NT lexicons) suggest the terms refer to the passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in a male same-sex sexual encounter. The term arsenokoitai was likely coined by Paul on the basis of Leviticus 20:13, which suggests Paul has in mind here the context of the Law of Moses rather than Greco-Roman practices. Nothing in the context indicates Paul has a more specific, restricted application of the term in mind, and his inclusion of sexually immoral persons (pornoi), idolators, and adulterers, strengthens the possibility that Leviticus is informing his thinking all the more. The other major category mentioned in Leviticus is incest, which Paul has addressed quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it seems quite plausible that Paul is bringing Leviticus 18-20 to bear on the Corinthian congregation in order to set out the proper sexual pattern for followers of Jesus. It seems no small coincidence that Paul also lays out two possibilities in the next chapter (1 Cor 7) for his audience. All forms of sexual immorality (porneia) must be avoided, and the two options set forth are male-female marriage among believers and celibacy. Like Jesus, and like the Jewish world around them, Paul imagines no other alternatives for sexual activity.

This all raises a flag for how the debate often goes concerning how we should understand Leviticus’ application for today. Because Christians often view the Law in negative terms (i.e., it represents unattainable moral perfection) or as something which was discarded (though numerous NT texts indicate otherwise), there is a challenge in understanding how Leviticus might be relevant for a Christian’s sexual behavior. The question of the role of the Law is a complex and sticky one, and I cannot do complete justice to it here. The fact of the matter is that Jews continued to keep the Law. The whole point of the Acts 15 council was to consider what expectations Gentile Jesus-followers should keep and which ones they were exempted from following. Their conclusion is that Gentile Jesus-followers were to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood or meat from animals which had been strangled. In other words, no keeping the feasts, no circumcision, no following Jewish purity rights, etc. (all of which are issues which Paul addresses in his letters, meaning some Jews apparently did not get the news or ignored it). This does not mean the Law did not apply to them, but rather that the Law was not what centrally defined their identity. Jesus did. Throughout Paul’s letters, we find Paul grounding both his instruction and ethical teachings in the Old Testament in general, and the Law specifically. This issue provides a clear example. Paul expected the ethical guidelines concerning sexual behavior to still be binding on Gentile Christians, which meant incest, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions were forbidden. This was true of Jews and was to be true of Gentiles as well. Leviticus 18-20 still applied.

Furthermore, the term porneia, which we have mentioned several times now, was a bit of a “catch all” term for all kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. It, along with its cognate terms, is used 55 times in the NT. It is used in various places in the NT to refer to adultery, prostitution, and incest, yet is also distinguished at times from those categories, indicating again that it could be a bit of an “umbrella” term for inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., that occurring outside of a male-female marriage union). All this should weigh heavily in favor of the fact that both Paul and Jesus very likely viewed all forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions as sinful and forbidden.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who supports same-sex unions, notes,

The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says [i.e., the NT authors condemned same-sex sexual activity]. 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.”[7]

Johnson argues from the movement of God in human experiences, using the analogy of the Spirit-led work of the inclusion of the Gentiles to what we see occurring in same-sex relationships today. He does not see a basis in the NT itself for declaring same-sex sexual activity as good. Rather, he suggests the cultural movement afoot today and the stories of LGBT persons show us that the opinions of the NT writers are no longer valid for our understanding of sexual ethics today.

For those who do not accept the Bible as authoritative, discussing exegetical nuances (see Parts 1 and 2) likely offers little reason to change their view. I would not expect it to, nor would that be my intent. However, for those who do believe in the authority of the Bible for faith and yet would challenge its prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior, I think we must ask, in what sense, then, does the Bible offer any ethical norms? In other words, if cultural movements and individual stories can override the prevailing opinion of Second Temple Jews (the NT’s context), Jesus and Paul (the NT’s central sources of doctrinal information), the earliest “Christians,” and the majority view of the Church throughout its history, in what sense can we find any ethical norms in Scripture or tradition? Is it all fair game and to be redefined as culture changes? Would the same principle apply, for example, to illegitimate divorce, or lying, or stealing, or drunkenness?

A possible retort might be here that what is being argued for (same-sex unions) falls under the hermeneutic of “love,” which Jesus (Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:37-39; Luke 10:27), Paul (Rom 13:8-10 ; Gal 5:14), and James (Jas 2:8-13) all affirm as central to Christian obedience. However, these commands come from a combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love neighbor). The irony here is Jesus, Paul, and James affirm the validity of Leviticus 19 for Christian practice. If their basis for establishing the centrality of love for Christian obedience is rooted in Leviticus 19, would we expect them to then be ignoring Leviticus 18 and 20? Clearly not. If these three chapters informed both their sexual ethics and their commitment to the centrality of love, can we so readily rend them apart? It seems to me this runs roughshod over sound and sensible hermeneutical principles. To claim the centrality of love is to stand upon Jesus, James, and Paul and Moses (cf. Lev 19). Erasing the validity of Leviticus from the foundation of ethical norms likewise erases the foundation for the centrality of love of neighbor which permeates the New Testament. Let’s not throw Moses out with the bathwater.

This does not mean, of course, that the Church, even if it stands on reasonable ground historically and exegetically for holding that same-sex sexual activity, and all sexual activity outside of male-female unions, has handled these matters well. The numerous failings, offenses, and outrages are well-documented. In fact, we have inverted the matter entirely. It appears that both Jesus and Paul value the primacy of celibacy for religious service and offer marriage as a concession. Jesus seems to imply this in Matthew 19:10-12, which we examined above, and Paul states it outright in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 (“Now I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire” (LEB).).

In our efforts to establish the validity of our position on marriage, we have established it as the norm to be attained and ignored completely the value of celibacy, perhaps even reinforcing the misguided idea that the primary function of marriage is sexual pleasure and gratification. Celibacy is to be praised rather than seen as an unfortunate outcome for those unfit for marriage. Celibacy frees followers of Jesus to dedicate their life and relationships to ministry and service. Celibacy does not entail loneliness. It entails a sacrifice, of course, but the Christian life is paradigmatically a life of sacrificial cruciformity. In fact, as Joseph Hellerman has argued,[8] we seem to have gotten Jesus’ (and Paul’s) priorities out of order. For Jesus, the “fictive kinship” offered in the family of God was to be the central place of community and relational nourishment for God’s people. The Church was the family. When Jesus places following him over blood-relation ties, this is what he means. We frequently hear it said that our priorities should be God-family-church, but Hellerman argues Jesus’ priorities were God-church-family. This does not mean the family is to be neglected, and ideally the biological family will overlap with the spiritual family. However, the New Testament suggests, perhaps clearer than we have recognized, that the primary place of relational sustenance was to come from the community of faith. The Church family. We do not offer the church, then, to those who we think should pursue celibacy as the way to follow the teachings of Scripture, as a lesser good. Rather, it is the primary good which we have regrettably made secondary.

The Church for too long has singled out same-sex sexual activity as the ultimate offense. If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity. Perhaps we have found the LGBT “other” an easier target than the offenses of adultery, pornography, and cohabitation which permeate the church in the West today. Whatever the case, this lopsided aggression toward same-sex sexual activity in the larger culture at the expense of ignoring more prevalent issues in the Church must end. This means we should openly acknowledge that the Church has regrettably promoted disrespect, hate, and an unequal measure of condemnation on the LGBT community. Repentance is in order. We can and should maintain our position, but we should maintain it with consistency, taking into account the entire biblical witness and the whole picture of what human flourishing should look like. And we should maintain it with love. We need not separate Leviticus 19 from 18 and 20.

Rather than maintaining a theologically informed and balanced sexual ethic, too often evangelical believers have depended on a “yuck” factor to bolster their negative depictions of homosexuality. Without a more biblical and rigorously honest rationale undergirding their proscription of homosexual practice, there is little wonder that so many Millenials today (even professing Christians among them) have been remarkably resistant to the idea that same-sex sexual activity is a sin.

Our society largely judges “freedom” as the ability to follow one’s every whim and desire. As Christians, we rightly view this as bondage. Unfettered freedom is ultimately destructive. The teachings of Jesus and his apostles and the rich traditions of the Church, like the Law before them, provide parameters for human flourishing. We err when we selectively pursue the parameters which best serve our purposes or are most easily implemented. Full human flourishing requires full submissive obedience to the revelation of God and to the Revealed One.


[1] See Bobby Ross Jr., “No Straight Shot: More Evangelical Therapists Move from Changing Orientation to Embracing Faith Identity for Gays,” Christianity Today, September 14, 2009, accessed June 30, 2015. and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Gay, Christian, and Celibate: The Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate,” On Faith, August 4, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, and “Evangelical Leader Russell Moore Denounces Ex-Gay Therapy,” Religion News Service, October 28, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015,

[2] John Piper, “Same-Sex Attraction and the Inevitability of Change,” Desiring God, September 19, 2012, accessed June 30, 2015.

[3] To flesh this out would take us too far afield of our topic. I bring this up since the New Testament makes concessions for divorce in certain cases (i.e., sexual unfaithfulness). I think theologically a case can also be made for abusive relationships and perhaps other situations. Beyond this, divorce because “it didn’t work out,” or “we grew apart,” or “we fell out of love” is simply not allowed in the New Testament view of marriage. Jesus says this is a hard teaching for a reason.

[4] He does not reject Judaism as a failed religious system as older Lutheran and Bultmannian traditions assumed.

[5] Preston Sprinkle, “The Sin “of” Homosexuality?” Theology in the Raw, April 20, 2015, accessed June 30, 2015.

[6] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528ff.

[7] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” Commonwealth Magazine, June 11, 2007, accessed June 30, 2015,

[8] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill

Dr. A. Chadwick Thornhill is the Chair of Theological Studies and an Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies for Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. Chad completed his PhD in Theology and Apologetics through LBTS with an emphasis in biblical studies. His areas of academic interest include ancient Christianity, apologetics, biblical languages, Second Temple Judaism, New Testament studies, Old Testament studies, and theology. He is the author of a forthcoming title (IVP Academic) on the Jewish background of the apostle Paul’s election texts. Dr. Thornhill lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife Caroline and their two children.

The Humanity of Jesus: A Response to Brandon Ambrosino

"Christ with Thorns" by Carl Heinrich Bloch

"Christ with Thorns" by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Like other evangelicals, I appreciate the candor and forthrightness of Brandon Ambrosino’s article “The Best Christian Argument for Marriage Equality Is That the Bible Got It Wrong” in recognizing the problems with revisionist arguments that the Bible condones or affirms same-sex relationships. He further recognizes the unlikelihood that Jesus as a first-century Jew would have approved of such relationships, but he also argues that Jesus’ commitment to male-female complementarity is not binding on followers of Jesus today, because “Jesus’ knowledge is limited to what was knowable in the first century.”

The Gospels present a Jesus, who even with his human limitations, possesses knowledge that is at least superhuman in some cases and that is clearly supernatural in others.

The purpose of this response is to specifically address whether Ambrosino’s understanding of the limitations of Jesus’ knowledge fits within an orthodox view of the humanity of Jesus, as he has suggested. I am not writing this response as a personal attack on Brandon and felt compelled to respond in part because of some of the less-than-kind responses I saw in social media yesterday. I do not know Brandon personally, but have had some interaction with him as a student at Liberty, and I hope my response reflects a proper sense of grace and humility, in spite of the fact that I strongly disagree with his conclusions concerning the nature of Christ’s humanity. I am far more concerned with the issues raised in the article of how we view Jesus and respond to his teachings and will not be treating the larger issues relating to the biblical teaching on same-sex relationships that are found elsewhere.

Ambrosino is certainly on the right track in asking his readers to reflect on the implications of a human Jesus who learned and processed new information like any other human as he progressed from infancy to adulthood. Luke 2:40 states that Jesus “grew in wisdom” like any other human being. In his book Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, Chris Wright makes the point that Jesus’ reading of the Hebrew Bible informed his understanding as a human of his mission and calling.

It is another thing entirely, however, to then make the argument that Ambrosino does that “Jesus’ knowledge is limited to what was knowable in the first century.” Ambrosino qualifies his own statement when he writes, “Jesus is, in many senses, limited by the first century.” His lack of precision here raises the issue whether he believes Jesus is fully limited to what was knowable in the first century or if he is only “limited in many senses.” If he is arguing the former, his argument is problematic for an orthodox view of Christ. If Jesus as the perfect and unfallen human did not progress in his understanding of the world around him beyond that of his contemporaries, he certainly made poor use of his unfallen intellectual capacities. If Jesus did not progress beyond first-century understandings of a culture living under the noetic effects of the Fall, then it also seems difficult to merely believe that Jesus was just a guy “who was wrong about stuff.” This view of the humanity of Jesus seems to require one to believe that Jesus also held to beliefs, practices, and prejudices that were sinful and evil in the eyes of the Creator.

The Gospels clearly reveal a human Jesus whose knowledge had certain limitations. In the Incarnation, the Son of God surrendered the independent use of his divine attribute of omniscience, and thus he states that “only the Father in heaven knows the hour of his return” at the second coming (Matt 24:34). Nevertheless, the fact that Jesus had limited knowledge concerning the timing of the second coming does not mean that the other information he reveals concerning eschatological events is invalid, and it is wrong to infer from Matt 24:34 that Jesus was “horribly mistaken about the end of the world” or that Jesus’ predictions concerning the end-time events constitute an example of “failed prophecy.” Why would failure to know the exact timing of an event invalidate the entire prophecy?

If Ambrosino is arguing that Jesus was “horribly mistaken” because of the way in which he conflated events from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE with his second coming, then he would have to say the same about virtually all eschatological prophecies found in the Scriptures that combine near and far events in precisely the same manner as Jesus did. The fact that Jesus views Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” as yet future despite its connections to what had happened historically with Antiochus and the Jews in the second-century BCE suggests that he would intend his prophecy of future events to be read in the same way. Or, one could simply argue for a more figurative understanding of the prophecies in Matthew 24, which also would not require one to conclude that Jesus’ prophecies were false or mistaken.

The implications of Ambrosino’s argument that one can hold to an orthodox view of Christ and believe that “Jesus was a guy who got stuff wrong” are far more serious and complex than he reflects in his article.

The Gospels present a different portrait of the human Jesus than the one offered by Ambrosino. They present a Jesus, who even with his human limitations, possesses knowledge that is at least superhuman in some cases and that is clearly supernatural in others. Already at the age of twelve, he has knowledge of the Scriptures that confounds the religious authorities, and he has a deeper understanding of his mission, calling, and unique relationship with God than do his parents. He has knowledge of the thoughts, intentions, and motives of the individuals he interacts with at times that clearly goes beyond psychological insight (cf. Mark 2:8; 10:52; Luke 5:22; John 1:4-49; 2:24-25).

As others have noted, the use of questions, such as “Who touched me?” does not necessarily entail a lack of knowledge (cf. Gen 3:9). Jesus accurately predicts his rejection, the defection of his disciples including Peter’s three denials, his death, resurrection, the destruction of Jerusalem, and his second coming. At the very least, he speaks with the revelatory insight of a true prophet. The clearest indication that Jesus was much more than a product of his first-century environment was how his view of his mission as Israel’s messiah radically conflicted with contemporary expectations. If the Gospel witness is true, then Jesus combined the roles of Davidic messiah, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and Daniel’s heavenly “son of man” in ways that were unique in perspective and novel for his day.

Even viewing Jesus as an inspired prophet creates significant problems for the argument that Jesus’ affirmation of “male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement” or his likely agreement “with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin” is merely the product of being first-century Jewish male. As Robert Gagnon has already noted:

Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus' position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator's will for the twoness of the sexual bond.

If Jesus as God’s supremely-anointed spokesman simply defaulted to a first-century Jewish understanding when teaching on something as vitally important as the marriage relationship, then it raises serious questions about his credibility as both prophet and son of God. Ambrosino himself acknowledges that Jesus challenged current Jewish thinking regarding lust, adultery, and divorce, but perhaps Jesus simply did not go far enough in jettisoning his first-century worldview.

Should we view his teaching on adultery as antiquated because it was based on the belief that the woman was the property of her husband or should we abandon insistence on the duality of the marriage relationship because it was based upon the literalistic reading of the story of Adam and Eve that prevailed in Jesus’ day? What other issues related to Christian life and practice that the teaching of Jesus bears on should be subjected to the same type of scrutiny? If Jesus’ practice of casting out demons was merely the product of a pre-modern understanding of physical and mental illness, does it invalidate the gospel message that Jesus came to destroy the power of Satan and evil? To what extent do antiquated Jewish views of blood sacrifice and atonement influence Jesus’ understanding of his death as a “ransom for many”? These questions are not easily answered, but the implications of Ambrosino’s argument that one can hold to an orthodox view of Christ and believe that “Jesus was a guy who got stuff wrong” are far more serious and complex than he reflects in his article.

A significant piece of Ambrosino’s argument is that he equates Jesus’ teaching on male-female complementarity in marriage with his affirmation of Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which is problematic for several reasons. He engages in a bit of “chronological snobbery” in thinking that the non-or post-Mosaic materials in the Torah that are so evident to us courtesy of critical biblical scholarship would not have at least raised questions for even a first-century thinking individual like Jesus who was not simply constrained by tradition in his beliefs. If Jesus could quote Deuteronomy three times when under the duress of temptation from Satan in the wilderness, he might have at least pondered once or twice how Moses could speak of Israel having a king (Gen 36:31) or why Moses wrote the account of his own death in Deuteronomy 34. If I can figure it out and Brandon can figure it out, then I expect that Jesus was intelligent enough to do the same.

The larger issue is that what Jesus means by attributing the law to Moses is a complex issue. As Ambrosino acknowledges, Jesus’ references “to the Torah with the shorthand ‘Moses’ is hardly proof-positive that Jesus was wrong about the books' provenance (many scholars refer to the books metonymically).” Was Jesus merely using a form of citation or was he accommodating himself to current Jewish belief? Was Jesus saying that Moses wrote every word and verse in the Torah, or was he attributing Mosaic authority to the whole of the Torah? Ambrosino is correct to argue that a literalistic reading of the words of Jesus as proof that Moses wrote every word of the Torah is wrong, but incorrect inferences from the words of Jesus do not mean that Jesus himself was wrong. Even with prophetic updating, revision, or expansion of an original core of Mosaic material (or a core of material originally attributed to Moses), there is nothing untruthful or misguided in Jesus attributing the law to Moses. Ambrosino’s argument that this proves Jesus “got stuff wrong” goes beyond what is really here.

Finally, Ambrosino’s argument that Jesus’ incorrect attribution of the law to Moses because of first-century Jewish beliefs makes it likely Jesus was also wrong in affirming Jewish beliefs in male-female complementarity as normative for marriage fails because it compares apples and oranges. Ambrosino’s argument rests upon the same rather simplistic understanding of what is meant by “inerrancy” as the literalists he seeks to refute. Even if conceding the possibility or likelihood that Jesus believed that Moses wrote all of the Torah, the attribution of authorship is simply not the same kind of truth claim as the normative teaching of Jesus on marriage. In their 2013 work, The Lost World of Scripture, John Walton and Brent Sandy have advanced the discussion of biblical inerrancy by distinguishing between “locution” and “illocution” in biblical texts:

The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical questions, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief). (p. 41)

Further, Walton and Sandy argue that doctrinal affirmations of inspiration and inerrancy attach to the illocution of the text and what is intended by the communicative act rather than requiring the truthfulness of every locution in the text. Whether the mustard seed really is the smallest seed is irrelevant to the truthfulness of the illocution concerning the kingdom of God conveyed by Jesus’ words about the mustard seed. Similarly, the locution of attributing authorship to Moses could be a culturally-bound perspective, but the illocution of ascribing prophetic and divine authority to the Torah is truthful and inspired.

Whether one agrees with every aspect of this view of inerrancy or not or whether one believes that a human Jesus could have believed that something was untrue or not, this explanation helps in part to demonstrate the problem with Ambrosino’s argument. One cannot simply equate an attribution of authorship in one text with normative teaching on marriage in another text. In both cases, the illocution of what Jesus proclaims (prophetic authority of the Torah and male-female complementarity in marriage) is truthful and authoritative for followers of Jesus. One can choose to believe that Jesus was wrong in one or both cases, but one cannot reject the teaching of Jesus in either instance within the boundaries of orthodoxy as easily or comfortably as Ambrosino suggests.


Image: Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gary Yates

Gary Yates is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia where he has taught since 2003.  Prior to that he taught at Cedarville University in Ohio and pastored churches in Kansas and Virginia.  He has a Th.M. and Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary.  His teaching interests are the Old Testament Prophets, the Psalms, Biblical Hebrew, and Biblical Theology.  He is the co-author of The Essentials of the Old Testament (B&H, 2012) and The Message of the Twelve (B&H, forthcoming) and has written journal articles and chapters for other works.  Gary continues to be involved in teaching and preaching in the local church.  He and his wife Marilyn have three children.

Pornography: A Dangerous Deception

Photo by  Aaron Burden  on  Unsplash

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


On April 26, the Wall Street Journal Business section offered a new prophecy: Robot Sex! Sex Therapist Laura Berman predicts that technology will enable cheap but fulfilling robotic sex, conception of children without physical touching, and chemical drugs to allow for the experience of more pleasure.

While on the one hand I am surprised the Wall Street Journal would print onanistic meanderings fit only for the trashiest of sci-fi novels, I think this article illustrates the dangerous deception of pornography and its ability to sever us from our own humanity. Pornography could be condemned on many grounds, but I want to consider the possibility that porn poses a subtle danger, causing us to value pleasure over love, solitude over community, and the present over a lifetime.

St. Augustine argued in his City of God that the quest for human happiness has everything to do with rightly ordered love. When we situate the love of God in its proper place, followed by love of neighbor and other subordinate categories, we find the best opportunity for human flourishing. When we displace our loves, perhaps elevating lust over relationships, Augustine argues that we will find our lives filled with dissatisfaction.

This understanding of life as a constant evaluation, or searching the heart for what it should value to the proper extent, goes against our 21st century eroticized culture. Media—including film, television, and music stars—upholds a certain vision of the good life consisting of ever-more exotic sexual experiences producing happiness. Pornography—by which I mean the print, internet, and video aspects displaying sexuality through a mediated form intended to stimulate lust—falls under a certain teleology of sexuality with devastating consequences.

With the advent of the birth control pill, it became possible to sever sexuality from children. Certain strands of Christianity, primarily Catholic, immediately objected to this severing, claiming that the purpose of sexual intercourse was the production of children. Most low-church denominations, such as Baptist and Methodist, either dodged the moral questions raised by birth control or formulated a different argument: the purpose of sex is pleasure between spouses. Married couples can then make the decision about whether or not to have children. American culture at large accepted the pill with excitement, rushing onward to the Sexual Revolution. For many people, concerns about the purpose of sex paled in comparison to the pleasure of consequence-free intercourse.

If the purpose of sex is pleasure alone, then pornography is an acceptable route to that goal, as it provides pleasurable mental and physical stimulation. Berman’s sex-bots are merely the next logical extension of this pursuit. If, however, the purpose of sex is something different, then it merits further consideration. Sexual intercourse brings together two human beings—male and female—and permits them to mingle, creating the opportunity for new life. This is a profoundly human moment, where two separate consciousnesses, two souls, mix physically and, in their unity, could produce another human soul. If this is the purpose of sexuality, then pornography becomes far more dangerous.

The ancient Greeks had a concept of sin drawn from an archery metaphor. Hamartia, translated as sin, originally described an archer who missed the target. He aimed at a bird, and hit the tree. If the goal of sexual intercourse is the mingling of two persons, then pornography causes one individual to miss the mark. In gazing at the sex act through a mediated lens, whether paper, ink, or a screen, the impulse that should move an isolated individual to form a micro-community causes him to dwell in solitude. The dangerous part, however, is that the deeper into a pornographic habit one goes, the further he is from the target of human community.

Pornography exacts a price; it changes the way a viewer sees the other sex, and it ingrains a habit of self-gratification within the heart. Where sexual intercourse calls for serving the partner in love, pornography produces the illusion that selfish viewing gives greater joy than actual intercourse. To maintain the illusion, the viewer continues in search of ever deeper, more depraved depictions of sexuality. Perhaps the saddest result comes when one who has spent years viewing pornography comes to the bed with a lover and expects sex to be what he has seen and imagined. Sex can be fantastic, but a real sexual relationship takes time, effort, love, commitment, and service. These capacities have been stripped from the pornography viewer’s expectations of sexuality.

Here then is the subtle lie of pornography. It promises satisfaction, but strips one’s ability to appreciate the real thing. It upholds a cheap pleasure as the highest good, removing one’s ability to recognize that children and a loving marriage are infinitely more valuable than orgasm alone.

It reminds me of the Prodigal Son. In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable of a son who has it all, but takes his inheritance and parties it away in the city. After experiencing his epiphany in a pigsty, the most morally reprehensible place for a good Jewish boy, he poignantly recognizes his need for repentance. The danger of pornography is that it trains the one in the pigsty to mistake it for a grand mansion with capacious and ever expanding rooms. Uncovering the deception involves retraining the heart and the eyes to appreciate real love, and place that love in the proper order.

Stories of men and women who have reached the other side of a pornography addiction abound. One of the most well-written of these accounts comes from Erica Garza who tells her story in “Tales of a Female Sex Addict.” By the end of her article, Garza finds hope. Her story reveals the depths of pornographic depravity, but also the existence of the human soul.

As humans, we exist as body and soul. Sexuality is a point where our dual-nature combines in a mixture of desire and expression. The desire for intimacy and relationship reveals humans as more than just physical creatures. If we were only bodily creatures, then physical satisfaction of our physical longings would be sufficient. Pornography feeds this desire. Without the spiritual component of human relationship, however, we create a raging monster of lust within ourselves. Rooting sexuality within marriage, aimed at the teleology of children, satisfies our creational design as body-soul, mortal-eternal beings.

Sexual expression has always been an area of problematization, worthy of contemplation; this is an important question to get right. At stake is our ability to love other human beings, to see in them an image of the Creator worthy of love, sacrifice, respect, and honor.

The hope of joy in this life rides on recognizing pornography not as a harmless habit, something all guys will do, but as a deadly deception which retrains the heart to be nothing but an engine of lust. We are more than bodies with pleasure centers. We are embodied creatures with eternal souls, “designed to live in community,” to quote Aristotle. We live in a deceptive age, in which pornography is held out with the promise of joy but leaves us holding the ashes of our hope.


Image: "Unmasked" by JD Hancock. CC License. 

Biblical Ethics and Moral Order in Creation

"Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection" By Alexander Ivanov.

"Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection" By Alexander Ivanov.


With the constant press of present troubles, it is easy to forget the simple truth that our contemporary cultural concerns are not all there is. As we look for somewhere to anchor our ethics, it is easier to pursue fashionable schemes than to look for simple explanations in ancient books. It is easier, but often less helpful.

Oliver O’Donovan’s ethics, founded on the biblical storyline, are some of the most helpful for moving readers outside of their cultural context. Though his reasoning is nuanced, the basic principles of his ethics are simple. Ethics is founded on the objective reality in the created order. This order was distorted when Adam chose to sin. The resurrection of Christ began the process of renewal that will eventually restore all of creation to its objective, undistorted goodness.

We live in the time between the beginning of the restoration and the complete renewal of all things. As Christians, we stand with one foot in the fallen world and the other foot poised to step over the threshold into complete renewal. We have certain hope in the coming restoration, but equal certainty of the sinfulness of the world.

Ethics must continually seek to identify the order and coherence with which the world was created. This reveals the reality of the Creator and uncovers the way we should live within creation. Since the created order has been distorted by sin, special revelation––i.e., Scripture––is necessary to point us toward an undistorted moral order.

One of the most dangerous and popular fallacies, or logical errors, is the “naturalistic fallacy.” By definition, the naturalistic fallacy is improper reasoning from the way things are to the way things ought to be. For example, if most teenagers smoke, then it is morally acceptable for teenagers to smoke.

Using the example of smoking, which has been demonized by our culture, this fallacy seems unrealistic. However, if the example is shifted to pre-marital sex, its explanatory power is better revealed. According to the naturalistic fallacy, if many people engage in pre-marital sex, then it must be morally acceptable to engage in pre-marital sex. A logical corollary to this is that those who oppose engaging in pre-marital sex are either sexually repressive or even morally evil for opposing something that has been determined to be morally acceptable.

These conclusions stand in contrast to the traditional Christian perspective, as revealed through Scripture, that sex is designed to occur within marriage. However, this sort of faulty reasoning is common in contemporary ethical debates on issues well beyond sexuality. It is also trapped in a vision of ethics that assumes that morality is determined by social acceptance, rather than an objective standard. In other words, societal norms can be based on a statistical evaluation of present practice, without considering the true nature of the common good.

O’Donovan’s pursuit of an objective moral order that reflects the unchanging character of God frees us from the tyranny of contemporary trends and provides a way of arguing against the naturalistic fallacy. Although it does not rely on proof texts, it is profoundly biblical as it explains why Scripture is an absolute necessity for ethics and shows how Scripture should be applied to ethics.

For example, if an unchanging God created all things in a particular manner that was morally good, then it stands to reason there is a specific way of living that is consistent with that original ordering. That way of living would be an objective, moral good.

However, the status of the created order as morally good leads to a question as to why things are out of line with that moral good. The answer lies in the pages of Scripture, as Genesis 3 informs us that Adam chose to defy God’s command by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This set in motion the disordering of the created order. Humans became sinners and creation itself was put out of line with its original moral goodness.

Thankfully, God didn’t simply leave creation in its distorted state, but he set in motion his plan to restore it all. The resurrection of Christ punctuates that plan, as an exclamation point that points toward the complete restoration of the moral goodness of the created order. The resurrection event reveals the future renewal, but it also exposes the reality of the present disordering. No mere human action could restore the creation to its original moral goodness, it required the death of God himself in Jesus Christ.

In other words, Christ’s death, burial and resurrection are key events in ethics because they explode the myth that things are the way they ought to be. Instead, the radical distortion of creation set in motion by Adam’s sin needed a second Adam, who lived without sin, to set it right. However, to know this, we must have it revealed to us in Scripture.

All of this is freeing as we engage in moral reasoning. Instead of determining what laws should be passed based on current trends in popular opinion, we are freed to look for patterns that promote the common good and are as consistent as possible with the original, objective ordering of creation. While others may reject our proposals and indict us for not applying their reasoning, we can humbly pursue actions that best reflect the restoration of the created order that will come at Christ’s return.

The biblical pattern, built upon the objectivity of the created order and the resurrection of Christ, enables a Christian to seek a timeless ethics, rather than one driven by the winds of contemporary culture concerns.


The Faustian Bargain of Fifty Shades of Gray

Editor's Note:  A longer version of this piece was originally published at The Federalist.

In the wake of Valentine’s Day 2015 and the unveiling of the much-anticipated theatrical release of Fifty Shade of Grey, I tried to pin down the appeal. It can’t be the prose—that seems to be one element at which all critics cringe. Nor can it be the level of explicit pornography. As the New Yorker’s review claimed, more graphic nudity can be found in a lecture on the Renaissance. Why then did this R-rated movie just pull in nearly $100 million on its opening weekend? In contemplating an answer, I began to consider the German novel Faust. Written by Johann Goethe in the late nineteenth century, Faust posits a bored academic who makes a bargain with devil. In so doing, Faust follows Mephistopheles (the devil) on a stream of adventures ultimately leading to tragedy. By understanding the Faust story, I think we can recognize the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Illustration by  Harry Clarke  for Goethe's   Faust

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust

In his interpretation of the Faust myth, Goethe changes the legend from a bored academic who makes a deal with the devil to a wager about the nature of the world. Goethe’s Faust concludes there is no cause of happiness in the world, and nothing beyond it. He is the epitome of dissatisfaction, and not even the Devil can show him lasting happiness. Mephistopheles as the modern image of the Adversary is more than happy to take this wager; after all, Faust’s wager serves Mephistopheles’ bet with God that Faust will choose the Devil’s path. This divine wager introduces the play, and serves as the primary point of the story: will Faust fall completely into the devil’s grasp, or regain his humanity by turning to God? The remainder of the play/novel/poem consists of a whirlwind of experiences, cycles of speed and experience swirling Faust ever downward into his own depravity, with naught but the love of Gretchen crying, “Heinrich, Heinrich!” as she ascends to heaven to provide any hope of redemption by the end of part one.

Mephistopheles is a clever devil. Gone are the old ways where the demonic fiend might get his prey addicted to drink, or harlots, or greed. No, Mephistopheles plays a closer game by showing Faust purity (in the form of Gretchen), and then leading him to corrupt the purity. Faust misses the actual hope of happiness in his quest for corruption. Faust is consumed with lust for Gretchen, and consummates his desire, leading to tragic consequences. In his quest for Gretchen, however, Faust discovers the one transcendent quality in his world: love. He cannot achieve that love, however, without abandoning his existential quest for proving the dissatisfaction of the world. In constantly seeking the hurly-burly of Walprugis Night, Faust fails to grasp the good in the world and instead condemns Gretchen to prison while he grinds against a naked witch in the Brocken.

Faust provides a helpful metaphor in light of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. After three poorly written erotic novels and a now-released film, the New York Times, Washington Post, Independent, and the Guardian carried articles the week before the premier about the upcoming movie and tie-in erotic toys. Why is this such an event? This film is garnering quick attention for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the entrance of BDSM into mainstream cinema. Secondly, however, it represents the temptation and titillation of a Faustian sexuality with all the incumbent promises of true happiness and empty fulfillment.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a recent re-articulation of the Marquis De Sade’s vision of sexuality: dominance and submission, power and punishment, pain and satisfaction stewed together producing the best experience for both participants. This vision of sexuality is exciting, and ultimately tragic. Just as Faust missed true happiness in the mundane, in a life wedded to Gretchen in the world, so Fifty Shades of Grey misses the right place of true sexuality: marriage. Men, women, and sexuality are all made in such a way that when sexual intimacy is embraced outside the confines of marriage, such as when Faust rushes into the orgy with Mephistopheles by his side, humanity is gradually eroded. Fifty Shades of Grey provides a stimulating pornographic vision of excitement while actually delivering a dehumanizing love of slavery enshrined in the closest physical human connections.

In the confines of marriage, sexuality becomes a raging force used constructively. Within a lifelong commitment between spouses, sexual intimacy serves a higher calling and produces true joy. Gretchen offered this life to Faust: the life of confinement, restraint, and true joy. Faust instead chose to allow Mephistopheles to “carry him away” into the never-ending rush of constant experience. Faced with a Faustian sexuality at the movies in coming weeks, the ticket-purchasing audience will be faced with a choice: is Fifty Shades of Grey be a celebration of real love between two humans who are called to serve, honor, submit to, and respect one another? Or is this film a call to step onto Mephistopheles’ cloak and be whisked away to a false pleasure creating a deceptive experience leading to tragedy?