Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“As Bad As We Get” first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Touchstone.
As Bad As We Get
A. J. Conyers on Homosexuality as a Sign of Ultimate Corruption
Apologists for the “gay community” who attempt to harmonize their sexual agenda with Christianity take comfort in the rarity of explicit prohibitions of homosexual acts and declare them unrepresentative of the biblical teaching. (But then, one would be hard-pressed to find such prohibitions of fraud, prostitution, child abuse, slave trading, sexual harassment, price fixing, lynching, racial discrimination, and any number of acts for which no one needs to find express prohibition in the Bible to be convinced that Scripture is against them.)
In this debate, one side maintains that homosexual behavior is not compatible with biblical teaching, while the other side holds that it is in harmony with—indeed approval is demanded by—the theme of love and inclusiveness in the New Testament. The latter sometimes claim to side with Jesus against Paul, since Jesus at least does not mention homosexuality while Paul does. But there they have a problem, for Paul makes the case for inclusiveness most explicitly, and Jesus spoke explicitly about what would happen to those who taught against the law. They want to embrace Paul’s teachings on inclusiveness while rejecting his other teachings, and take heart from what the Gospels neglect to mention while ignoring what they do.
The Biblical Pattern
Given these arguments, what is more needed than finding a consistent teaching in Scripture and then applying it to what has become a crucial modern moral issue—and one, furthermore, that strikes at the core of modern human self-understanding? Or are we left with the answer of the Episcopal theologian recently interviewed on MSNBC, who flatly refused to be questioned about Scripture’s teaching, so “subtle and complicated,” she claimed, were the issues?
The answer, I think, can be found not only in what Scripture says about homosexuality but also in the way it uses homosexuality. The biblical condemnation of homosexual acts is not a violation of its real teaching of love and inclusiveness, but in part a sign of what sin is and does, and how it so disorders and corrupts human desire that we do not want the created nature through which God will bring us true love and true inclusivity.
I will illustrate this from the Pentateuch (Genesis 18 and 19), the Deuteronomic history (Judges 17ff.), and the Pauline epistles (Romans 1). In the Old Testament especially, but also in the New, homosexuality is treated like most moral issues, within the story of humanity, a nation, and a regenerate community, all of which have an essentially moral vocation: a vocation to be holy, righteous, and reconciled with God, nature, and each other.
The problem depicted in each of the three passages is not only that men are so depraved that they have left behind the natural desire for women, but also that the social situation is now irredeemable without drastic intervention and judgment. Homosexuality is a sign that the social situation has gotten that bad. To this end, the writers typically use it as a means of illustrating the anti-naturalism of sin: the vaporous sexual imagination that rejects the natural relation to the other (the other sex) and instead seeks union with the same (as a nearer reflection of the self).
The result is even at first glance obvious: an unfruitful relation that begets nothing and denies the power of sex in relation to one truly other than the self, and thus destroys the community itself. Scripture never sees created nature as antagonistic to God’s purposes, but as the context in which those purposes—including human happiness—are to be pursued. Scripture opposes the actions that deny nature, and thus deny true human happiness: when the human imagination refuses to accept the limits (and the benefits) of nature, but seeks to overcome nature to satisfy its fallen fantasies.
We can see this in each of the passages I have listed. Each: (1) uses homosexuality to illustrate the degree to which a community, or mankind itself, has declined in evil and disorder; (2) describes homosexuality as not only the object of judgment but also the very form of the judgment; (3) sees it as a rejection of nature; and (4) understands it as a violation against community.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19) draws the reader into a consideration of the possibility that human evil might become so intractable that it overreaches even the mercy of God. The story is not about homosexuality by itself, but about the fact of human evil and its perilous end, as shown in the picture of a disorder deeply woven into the community’s life. Abraham’s bargaining with the divine messengers makes clear that if there are fifty, or forty-five, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or ten who are righteous, the Lord will not destroy the city—the length of the passage serving to underline the willingness of God to bring judgment only in the most extreme case of the community’s depravity.
The two angels who proceed to Sodom are offered hospitality by Lot. “But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both the young and the old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.’” Lot, highlighting the indelible character of their perversity, says to them: “I beg you, my brethren, do not act so wickedly. Behold I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
The ancient Near-Eastern obligation of a host to his guest, of course, plays a part in this. And though we are naturally shocked by the offer of Lot’s virgin daughters to the crowd of men, this device is a common one when the biblical writer is giving an account of the depth of wickedness to which a community might descend. The point is that these men are so depraved that they do not want the women.
No King in Israel
We find a similar episode in the Deuteronomic account (Judges 17ff.), which depicts Israel’s downwardly spiraling society. The story is punctuated with the words: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” It tells of a deeply disordered society, one that had reached such depths that the people of Israel are represented as asking “Tell us, how was this wickedness [which included the brutal murder of a concubine by a sexually wanton crowd of men] brought to pass?”
At the climax of the story, a Levite arrives with his concubine and his male servant at a place near Jerusalem, which was at this time still occupied by the Jebusites. They decline to lodge with the Jebusites, who were foreigners, but travel farther so as to stay with their own countrymen in Gibeah. This point is significant, because the story goes on to show that the Israelites had become worse than the foreign Jebusites. An old man takes in the trio. Then, “As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, base fellows, beset the house round about, beating on the door; and they said to the old man, the master of the house, ‘Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.’”
This passage mirrors the story of Sodom, suggesting a literary convention that depicts the depth of evil in a society by the stubborn presence of homosexual desire. Its stubbornness is underlined in a slightly different fashion in the balance of this passage, but it is clearly devised so that it stresses the pathology of corporate sin that is so entrenched that it becomes inescapable. These lines follow:
In this story, the city is not destroyed as is the case for Sodom, but the concubine is thrown out of the house, abused and murdered by the crowd of men. So once again, deep disorder, the rebellion of sin, is disclosed by the presence of homosexual practice, and comes to fruition in violence. In both passages there is no extensive discussion of the depravity of a society. In each case, one is informed of the depth of depravity by reference to the presence of homosexual aggressiveness.
Paul does little more than draw upon this Old Testament imagery when he unfolds the nature of sin in Romans 1. He is using homosexual practice, which in his mind is self-evidently corrupt, in order to explain and condemn the sin that corrupts all of humanity. As in the passages from Genesis and Judges, homosexuality serves to illustrate the human predicament and the deadliness of the unredeemed human imagination. It is the stock biblical illustration of social corruption en extremis.
Thus, he explains that sin is rooted in self-deception, and becomes its own judgment as “God gives them up” to their self-destructive practices. That sin and judgment are one and the same is proven, according to Paul, by the extremes to which the human imagination leads to “dishonorable passions”: “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Thus, not only is sin forgetful of the fact that it is God who is the author of nature, but the logic of sin is that it first draws a person to worship nature, and then to turn against it in violence and vanity.
The Misuse of Judgment
Reflecting our modern flight from moral judgment, the exegete is likely to fall into one of two errors in assessing the place of homosexuality in Scripture: to avoid judgment or to apply it only to others. A common error for modern society is the assumption that making moral distinctions between right and wrong is itself reprehensible. It is true that it is dangerous, and gives rise to the opposite exegetical error: the view that when Paul speaks of homosexual practice, he is speaking of someone else.
Yet New Testament teachings against judgment are not a warning against judgment as such, but against judgment that does not begin with the self. “First take the log out of your own eye,” Jesus teaches, “and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Paul is not trying to show that homosexuality, acted out, is an especially heinous sin, but that all sin is like homosexuality. Thus, we are called not to examine the sins of others so much as to examine our own.
That being the case, it is well to remind ourselves that while all of us sin, each of us is more inclined to sin in one way rather than another. One person is more tempted by greed and theft, another by lust and adultery, and yet another by anger and murder. It should be no surprise, nor should it make any difference, if it is ever proven that genetics burdens some of us with an inclination toward homosexuality, since we are all similarly burdened (whatever the source) with our individual inclinations to lust, anger, greed, envy, sloth, and the whole list—any one of which is capable of bringing us to Hell.
For that reason alone, the Christian response to those burdened with the temptation of homosexuality is always one of compassion for the sinner and repentance for our own sins: compassion because we are equally burdened (if in a different way), and repentance because the rise of homosexuality among us is a sign that sin has corrupted the whole of society and each of us with it. •
A. J. Conyers (d. 2004) was Professor of Theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, and the author of several books, including The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Spence, 2001).
“As Bad As We Get” first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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