Scanning Church history makes one thing clear: the status of women and slaves has changed dramatically—thankfully! Christians today no longer consider either one as property to be used as one pleases. In fact, such treatment is an outrage to the biblically minded.
Then why do many Christians still stand against same-sex marriage? If their view of Old Testament scripture regarding the status of women and slaves has been so revolutionized, why are we still fighting over the expression of same-sex love? Will we end up, as many assert, on the wrong side of history?
Last month we considered the “mud wrestling” of United Methodists and the effect this has on our teens. One key argument of those contending for gay marriage is that we no longer hold to some of the bizarre Old Testament laws regarding women and slaves. Couldn’t God now be shaking up our understanding of the laws prohibiting same-sex intimacy?
In his lengthy work Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, William Webb does some thorough spade work in this regard. As most Bible scholars will tell you, context is the key to discerning what portions of the law are still relevant. And so we seek to know which laws were bound to that specific time and culture, and which ones were transcultural. To bring clarity to this matter, Webb repeatedly refers to the “redemptive movement” of the scriptures.
There is “redemptive movement” within the scriptures regarding slaves and women. This becomes apparent when the scriptures are mirrored with the pagan cultures of the day.
For example, as one traces the development of the issue of slavery, the Old Testament laws which seem to condone slavery actually served to control its practice. They were starkly different from pagan practices and moved redemptively toward slavery’s abolition.
The Pentateuch had laws, for example, which controlled the severity of punishment of slaves, and provided for Sabbath observance and days off for festivals. In the case of Hebrew slaves, it provided for their release every seven years. Also, in the year of Jubilee, Hebrew slaves were sent off with provisions, no less. This was unheard of in those days.
The New Testament takes it even further. Paul writes of slavery, but he urges masters to treat slaves with kindness, even pleading with Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother in Christ by setting him free.
Old Testament laws and New Testament admonitions provided a clearly redemptive movement away from the harsh and inhumane practices of that day.[i]
In similar fashion, as one follows the development of the role and value of women in scripture, one finds a growing contrast with surrounding cultures of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus limited the grounds for divorce to adultery, which was unheard of among non-Israelites. And while Paul’s instructions to wives and husbands seem today the height of patriarchy, his directives to husbands were a radical departure from the abusive norms of ancient times. The redemptive movement of scripture was always in the direction of elevating the value and status of women.[ii]
But when it comes to sexual boundaries there is no similar “redemptive movement”. If anything, the laws become more restrictive.[iii]
Jesus, as we well know, made looking at a woman for the purpose of lusting as errant as actually hopping in the sack with her. Thus, even our thoughts and motives are under the scrutiny of God, not simply our crossing of sacred lines.
The letters of Paul affirmed the sexual boundaries of the Old Testament, including homosexual practice. Convincing evidence is his use of the Greek term arsenokoitais—a very unique word. There is only one other place that particular Greek word appears in ancient literature prior to Paul—the Greek translation of Leviticus 18 & 20, referring to homosexual practice. This makes it very clear Paul believed the sexual laws of Leviticus still apply today, including those regarding same-sex intercourse.[iv]
Anglican theologian N. T. Wright has described this similarly in his book Scripture and the Authority of God. Using theater as a metaphor, Wright describes the Bible as a five act play, with each act carrying on the story of God’s mission: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church. The relationship of one act with the others and how each contributes to the unfolding narrative all figure into how we interpret certain portions of the text.
When we look at the sweep of scripture from prelude to curtain call, we see the oppression of women and subjugation of slaves receding further and further to the backstage of brokenness. But the moral laws regarding sexual behavior continue very much near the footlights. And that is where sexual boundaries, regardless of our attractions, will remain until the Bridegroom fulfills all longings at center stage.
The trajectory of God’s redemptive work has led to an increase in the value of all people. All are of equal value at the foot of the cross. But his design for sexual practices has not changed. Staying within that trajectory will keep us on the right side of history. Count on it!
(Much of this content can be found in Mark’s book: Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church, Seedbed Publications, 2016.)
[i]Webb, William J. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis.(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001) pp. 74-75.
[ii]Webb pp. 77-79.
[iii]Webb p. 250.
[iv]Hays, Richard. Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate.Jeffrey S. Siker ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) p. 7.