The Gospel on Homosexuality: What Paul Thought About Marriage...and Homosexuality

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How would you define the word "clarity"?  When you communicate to someone, what sort of ways do you use to determine whether or not you are being clear?  How about when someone else communicates to you?  When can you tell whether or not they are being clear?

These are important questions, especially when it comes to communication.  Being unclear can mean the difference between getting your point across and not getting your point across....between being understood and not being understood.  It makes all the difference in the world, especially in situations where huge decisions or issues are at stake.  

In my recent series of responses to Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust's CNN Belief Blog on sexuality, I have attempted to point the readers' attention to the various biblical sources which she cites.  For Dr. Knust, all of these texts are open for reinterpretation, which is totally and completely fine.  However, when a fresh study of the texts has been made, one still must apply the issue of perspicuity to one's interpretation.  This is the basic assumption that something is clear, plain or intelligible.  

When we read a biblical text, or really any literature for that matter, one of the first things that usually strikes a reader is the perspicuity of the writer or what is written.  Immediately, within seconds, our minds are able to sort through a vast array of background experiences to determine whether or not we can easily understand what we are reading.  If we cannot, then our brains automatically tell us to read it again, and again until we understand it...or until we give up.  When we give up, we generally do so for one reason: it doesn't seem clear and plain enough to figure out what's being said.

When we come to the Bible we generally do the same thing.  This issue of perspicuity or clarity immediately becomes an issue, for example, when one reads the King James Version of the Bible.  Instantly one is struck that the language is old, which impedes the processing for most readers, which makes it difficult to understand, which makes it the least desirable translation for many.  As a result, many other translations and/or paraphrases have arisen in recent decades to aid the reader with clarity in what is being said by the biblical authors. 

When we do come to a translation we enjoy, and then to the texts that deal with sexuality, these are fairly clear to the average reader of Scripture, regardless of their religious persuasion.  They will read with clarity what the verses actually say, even though they may disagree with the application of it today.  Those are two different issues: the clarity of what was written and whether or not it should be applied today.  But somehow, these get mixed up in many people's minds, so that they are equated.  To be sure, they should be kept separate, if for no other reason than to make sure that we are reading with honesty and integrity toward what the biblical author was saying, when he said it, to whom he said it, and why he said much as we are able, of course.  This is basic to any hermeneutic. 

What I have attempted to address in these series of responses to Dr. Knust's article is that a plain reading of the texts she mentions can offer us plain conclusions with clarity.  In other words, it is quite easy to understand what is being communicated by the biblical author simply by reading what they said, and in the context within which they were written.  So far, Dr. Knust's dealing with the creation account in Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus, Jonathan and David, and Jesus have all been seen to run counter to the clarity of what these texts actually say...when allowed to speak for themselves.

Enter the texts on sexuality by the Apostle Paul.  An initial reading of his writings on the matter seem quite clear, too.  He is quite the perspicual author and teacher...just like Jesus (see the last post on Jesus' views on sexuality and marriage).  Thus, when we come to Paul's teaching on marriage and homosexuality it should be no surprise to find that he agrees with Jesus, and that his views on the matter happen to quite "in line" with the previous texts Dr. Knust raises and which we've tried to handle here.  Like Jesus, Paul too refers back to creation as the original design and intention. Quoting Genesis again, Paul writes in Ephesians 5:31-32,
As the Scriptures say, 'A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.' This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.'

I won't spend any time here unpacking Paul's quotation, but rather just state that whatever Jesus meant in His quotation of it in Matthew 19 is exactly the same as what Paul means in Ephesians 5. What I do want to unpack briefly is Dr. Knust's conclusion that, "Paul’s letters urge followers of Christ to remain celibate and blame all Gentiles in general for their poor sexual standards." Is this true? It certainly wasn't about Jesus' feelings, as we just observed in Matthew 19. Is it true of Paul, however? The central text on this matter is 1 Corinthians 7. Here are the central verses on this topic.
1 Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to abstain from sexual relations. 2 But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his wife's sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband's needs.4 The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won't be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 But I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another. 8 So I say to those who aren't married and to widows—it's better to stay unmarried, just as I am.9 But if they can't control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It's better to marry than to burn with lust. 10 But for those who are married, I have a command that comes not from me, but from the Lord. A wife must not leave her husband. 11 But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else be reconciled to him. And the husband must not leave his wife. 12-13 And if a Christian woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to continue living with her, she must not leave him...Now, I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the Lord. If a Christian man has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to continue living with him, he must not leave her. 17 Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, and remain as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches. 18 For instance, a man who was circumcised before he became a believer should not try to reverse it. And the man who was uncircumcised when he became a believer should not be circumcised now... 20 Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you...23 God paid a high price for you, so don't be enslaved by the world...25 Now regarding your question about the young women who are not yet married. I do not have a command from the Lord for them. But the Lord in his mercy has given me wisdom that can be trusted, and I will share it with you. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think it is best to remain as you are. 27 If you have a wife, do not seek to end the marriage. If you do not have a wife, do not seek to get married. 28 But if you do get married, it is not a sin. And if a young woman gets married, it is not a sin. However, those who get married at this time will have troubles, and I am trying to spare you those problems.
If we take this passage with the same degree of reliability and historicity as we have done with every other text handled so far in this series, seeing it maintains the same clarity the other texts also have, can we say that Paul is discouraging marriage? Does he here "urge all Christians to remain celibate" as Dr. Knust believes? 

To put the answer simply and bluntly, Paul definitely does not discourage marriage. That ought to be plain enough, again from a simple reading of the text. He goes out of his way to affirm this fact in three ways. (1) According to verse 10, if you are already married, stay married and don't divorce (in keeping with Jesus' teaching in Matthew 19). (2) According to verse 9, if you are not married and have trouble controlling your sex drive, then definitely get married. (3) According to verse 28, if you do get married you are not sinning against God.

Three Simple Teachings on Marriage From Paul 

I personally believe that what Paul is trying to say about marriage - in his typical inspired, run-on sentence structures - can be reduced to three simple teachings. 

First, according to verse 23, Christians are not to be enslaved by the world. This means that Christians should not let the world and its culture and advertisements and temptations lure them into becoming a slave to another person, namely a wife or husband. That is why Paul explicitly says, "God paid a high price for you, so don't be enslaved by the world." Previously, in verse 22, Paul says, "you are now a slave of Christ." So the first foundational teaching of Paul on marriage is that one person should never become enslaved by another person (if that's what their potential marriage might turn into) because they are already a slave of Jesus Christ.

Second, according to 26, the "present crisis" refers to the present issues of life that can ultimately cause one to become feel like they are a slave to their spouse. He says in verse 28, "Those who get married at this time will have troubles, and I am trying to spare you those problems." And in verses 32-35 he continues,
"I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord's work and thinking how to please him. But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord...But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible."

His encouragement to remain unmarried - if a person already was when converted, or if a person was perhaps a widow (or widower) - comes in light of the obvious pressures of life that accompany the married couple. There is a job (and sometimes two or more jobs), more bills to pay, more mouths to feed (if they have kids), more issues that accompany marrying into another family, etc. It actually does get quite mind-numbing, as those who've been married for at least five or more years can testify. If that's you, then need I say more? It is almost unbearable at times. And for this reason, Paul encourages people to stay single for the kingdom of God, if at all possible.

The third foundational teaching about marriage from Paul is that it is not a sin to marry if you decide to. He plainly says this in the following verses:
1 Cor. 7:9 "But if they can't control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It's better to marry than to burn with lust."

1 Cor. 7:28 "But if you do get married, it is not a sin."

1 Cor. 7:36 "But if a man thinks that he's treating his fiance improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin.

1 Cor. 7:38 "So the person who marries his fiance does well, and the person who doesn't marry does even better."

It seems pretty obvious here that Paul does not necessarily discourage marriage. He encourages it. But it is also safe to say that he encourages celibacy more than he encourages marriage. And he is also clear multiple times in stating that if a person does get married it is not a sin. On the one hand, you're just fine with God if you get married. On the other hand, you're also really smart if you don't, because that lifestyle will allow you unfettered and undistracted devotion to the kingdom of God.

Conclusions on Using Paul to Support Homosexuality 

For homosexual-marriage advocates using the Scriptures to support the lifestyle, it seems contradictory to use Paul as a pillar of that theology for at least two reasons. 

First, he plainly encourages people who are single to stay that way for the kingdom. If same-sex marriage advocates want to refer to Paul for an argument or two for their position, wouldn't his counsel regarding marriage apply to a homosexual marriage also? I mean, Paul explicitly refers to the pressures of life that accompany any marriage. Would that apply to same-sex marriages too? It's a self-defeating argument, if you are pro-homosexual marriage, to use Paul's counsel on marriage then. 

Second, he plainly emphasizes over and again that marriage is between a man and a woman. That much is pretty clear throughout the text. He never mentions anything about a man marrying a man or a woman marrying a woman. Again, it's one man and one woman for one lifetime. If anything, Paul plainly counters such a lifestyle in Romans 1:26-27.

Based on these two plain teachings of Paul there is simply no room for homosexuality or same-sex marriages to fit within the trajectory of God's original design and intention for marriage and sexuality.

The Redemption of Relationships

The good news of Jesus Christ is that God has come to make everything put everything back the way it was before sin entered the world. If something is wrong, the gospel teaches that it can be made right either right here and now, or eventually in the future in heaven. The point is that everything has already been declared to be reconciled to Christ and as such the kingdom of heaven in the future can connect witht earth and redeem what's in it in heart and soul in the present time. And conversely, whatever is redeemed in here-and-now is simply an application as well as a declaration that it will be all that and so much more when God consummates the kingdom at the end of this age.

This means good news for relationships! They can be redeemed! Everything that is wrong in a relationship can be made right through the blood of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2 teaches us, in short, that anything causing division or hostility between people has been removed by Jesus' death. AND anything in that relationship which exists by virtue of sin can be put back right when sin is forgiven. This applies to ANY kind of relationship: man and wife, friend to friend, parent to child (and vice-versa) employer to employee (and vice-versa), pastor to people (and vice-versa), neighbor to neighbor, teacher to student (and vice-versa), etc. You get the picture.

Our culture has relentlessly advanced on our minds and hearts the notion that any kind of relationship or anything that goes on in a relationship is just fine. Personal choice is touted as the end-all-be-all of this fine democratic land in which we live. Thomas Jefferson's famous statement that God has supposedly given all of us the equal right to pursue life, liberty and happiness has become the dominant theme in the American dream. Most of us inherently know somehow and in some way, even if we can't explain it, that some things are just terribly askew in the kinds of relationships we see paraded on the Jerry Springer show, for example.

But one glimpse at our culture from any perspective - conservative or liberal agenda and anything in between - will immediately reveal that there is something very wrong at work.  In short, relationships are broken and always seem to be malfunctioning.  The never-ending saga of the Middle East peace process reveals this.  Almost any political election reveals this.  The divorce rate reveals it.  Family counseling, child abuse, spousal abuse, date rape, work conflict, drive-by shootings, blog slander, etc. ad nauseum, all show that relationships largely malfunction almost every single day.  Homosexuality seems to be another malfunction in relationships.  Again, just because it seems right or feels good doesn't mean that the relationship is healthy.  If anything, that feeling reveals - if we are honest with ourselves - that it's just the calm before the next storm.

The gospel is good news.  It is good news that Jesus has come to completely and entire dissolve once-and-for-all every ounce and stain of sin that creates any and every malfunction in any and every relationship.  And once that sin is removed in its entirety, the relationship can be set aright, repaired, and/or renewed to the place where God originally intended it.  In this way God, in Jesus Christ, is reconciling the world to Himself, no matter what it is in that is in the world.  And that is a powerful promise to anyone who follows Jesus Christ.  

This is the Jesus Paul preached.  This is the gospel Paul wrote about.  And this is why he brings up homosexuality in the midst of Jesus and His gospel...because Jesus came to make things right.  What is necessary now is to desire a change of mind about the things we love and the current nature of our relationships, where they are plainly and clearly opposite of the biblical texts we've observed.  This is called repentance.  What is also desired is a heart of faith in what God says and what He asks of us.  That is called belief.  Repentance and belief are the things God requires when one suddenly gets a clear view of what's wrong in their lives and/or their relationships.  And when one obeys God in these areas, he will find himself in the family of God, adopted as one of His sons and daughters, and a brother of Jesus Christ.  This is what it means to be "saved." 

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