Reflecting Culture, not Changing Attitude

Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream quotes from an interesting press release from Changing Attitude, a pressure group which is “working for gay and lesbian affirmation within the Anglican Communion”, and of which the Bishop of Chelmsford is a patron. The press release, written by Davis Mac-Iyalla, director of Changing Attitude Nigeria, is interesting for its argument that full acceptance of homosexuality in the life of the church is analogous to the abolition of slavery.

Now in my post yesterday A further implication of Christianity being cross-cultural I noted (quoting an older post) that

slavery is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context, but this does not imply that it is normative for Christians.

In other words, it is right for Christians to support the abolition of slavery because the acceptance of slavery in the Bible was a culturally relative matter. This argument is in practice accepted by almost all Christians today, although it was highly controversial in the 19th century. Many evangelicals, including myself, apply the same argument to biblical passages which appear to teach that church leaders must be male, but this remains a controversial issue.

But does the same argument apply to homosexuality, as Mac-Iyalla seems to claim? Where should the line be drawn between what is culturally relative and what are the fundamental and unchangeable principles of the Christian faith?

Well, I ended my last post by writing that it is only by the guidance of the Holy Spirit that Christians can draw this line. It would I am sure be helpful in the current controversies in the Anglican Communion and elsewhere for those on both sides (and for myself) to listen more to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and follow this rather than their own preconceived or culturally conditioned understandings, or their own emotional reactions. Nevertheless, in a case like this it is important that the exegetical and theological issues be explored properly, using a scholarly rather than a fundamentalist approach to the Bible.

Mac-Iyalla effectively accuses his leading opponent Archbishop Peter Akinola of taking this fundamentalist approach, “an overly-simplistic interpretation of scripture”. This is contrasted with Changing Attitude’s own claim to have “well-researched arguments” and the approach of bishops who disagree with Akinola, who are said to be

genuinely seeking biblical truth through prayer, listening to the experiences of those who the church currently condemns, and close re-examination of scripture in the original languages.

I cannot comment on how fair this is to Akinola and other leaders on his side of the argument. But I can argue against Mac-Iyalla’s claim that the scholarly approach to the Bible necessarily supports his position.

Of course my own arguments have to presuppose some common ground, that both sides accept that the matter is to be decided according to “biblical truth”. If Mac-Iyalla were to deny this, the only argument I could use against him would be that he has abandoned historic Christianity and the position of the church for complete cultural relativism. But Mac-Iyalla does not take this position; rather, he claims that “biblical truth” is on his side.

The essence of Mac-Iyalla’s argument seems to be that

historically, the powers of the church itself distorted the truth of the gospel from its original meaning and both interpreted and translated it to oppress gay people and women instead of including us as equals.

Is this claim tenable? Well, the only way that it can be upheld is to argue that the biblical passages, or at least those in the New Testament, which appear to condemn homosexual activity have in fact been misinterpreted and “distorted”. At this point his argument is in fact quite different from the argument that Christians should not support slavery. No one, as far as I know, disputes that passages like Ephesians 6:5-9 and Philemon 8-14 uphold slavery as an institution. The argument now accepted by almost all Christians is that these passages should be understood as culturally relative.

So we are left with two possible arguments for Mac-Iyalla to rely on. But neither of them is at all convincing.

On the exegetical issue, the primary biblical passages of relevance are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. I looked at some of these arguments a few months ago in a post at Better Bibles Blog, see also the long comment thread on this. I consider that there is sufficient uncertainty about the meaning of arsenokoites and malakos that it is not safe to rely on these words in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 for condemnation of homosexual behaviour, rather than more generally of sexual immorality.

However, Romans 1:26-27 does seem to me to be an explicit and undeniable condemnation of homosexual activity between men and between women. I am aware of attempts, such as this one apparently by Ann Nyland, to argue for other interpretations of these verses, such as that they refer to “angels having sex with humans, as well as committing other crimes”. But I don’t see how this can explain “men (arsenes) … were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with other men” (part of Romans 1:27, TNIV).

Of course at this point Mac-Iyalla may prefer to shift to his second argument, accepting that these verses do indeed refer to homosexual activity but claiming that this is a culturally relative matter. He argues that in this way condemnation of homosexuality is equivalent to endorsement of slavery. Presumably he would understand the point of similarity to be, in my words, that the former, like the latter, “is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context”.

But can such a claim be substantiated? I think not. It is by no means true that all in the cultural context condemned homosexual activity. Indeed the whole point of Romans 1:26-27 in context is that this activity was widespread and culturally acceptable. True, Paul was not making a new point in condemning it but following the Old Testament, continuing what was probably a long standing Jewish criticism of Hellenistic culture. Nevertheless his condemnation is explicit, and is clearly directed at the cultural norms shared, at least until their recent conversion, by his audience in early imperial Rome, according to which certain forms of homosexual activity were considered acceptable.

So, if we apply Fee’s criterion

The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position.

then we must note that there were many options in this cultural situation, and so the position is unlikely to be culturally relative. It is this criterion which distinguishes the homosexuality issue from the slavery one. Indeed, this is also Fee’s understanding, for he continues immediately after these words with:

Thus, for example, homosexuality was both affirmed and condemned by writers in antiquity, yet the New Testament takes a singular position against it. On the other hand, attitudes toward slavery as a system or toward the status and role of women were basically singular; no one denounced slavery as an evil, and women were held to be basically inferior to men (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, second edition, p.74 of my copy).

So, Fee’s position is that the biblical prohibition of homosexuality is not culturally relative. He clarifies this in more detail a little later:

The question of homosexuality, however, is considerably different [from that of women’s role in the church]. In this case the guidelines stand against its being culturally relative. The whole Bible has a consistent witness against homosexual activity as being morally wrong.

In recent years some people have argued that the homosexuality that the New Testament speaks against is that in which people abuse others and that private monogamous homosexuality between consenting adults is a different matter. They argue that on exegetical grounds it cannot be proved that such homosexuality is forbidden. It is also argued that culturally these are twentieth-century options not available in the first century. Therefore, they would argue that some of our guidelines (e.g., 5, 6) open the possibility that the New Testament prohibitions against homosexuality are also culturally relative, and they would further argue that some of the guidelines are not true or are irrelevant.

The problem with this argument, however, is that it does not hold up exegetically or historically. The homosexuality Paul had in view in Romans 1:24-28 is clearly not of the “abusive” type; it is homosexuality of choice between men and women. Furthermore, Paul’s word homosexual in 1 Corinthians 6:9 literally means genital homosexuality between males. Since the Bible as a whole witnesses against homosexuality, and invariably includes it in moral contexts, and since it simply has not been proved that the options for homosexuality differ today from those of the first century, there seem to be no valid grounds for seeing it as a culturally relative matter (pp.75-76 of the same book).

I must, therefore, conclude with Fee that Mac-Iyalla’s arguments, both the exegetical one and the cultural relativity one, fail. And so, according to the scholarly approach to the Bible, Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 should be understood as normative for Christians in all times and cultures.

Now I can only agree with the final paragraph of the Changing Attitude press release:

Changing Attitude Nigeria calls on all committed Anglicans, including primates and bishops, to prayerfully seek ways to resolve the present dispute in the Anglican Communion, recognising that we are all striving to achieve the same objective – to understand God’s will and how to apply it in Christian faith.

But we must also recognise that the issue in the Anglican Communion is not in fact primarily about homosexuality. Rather, as I quoted a few days ago from a Global South communiqué,

What is at stake is the very nature of Anglicanism – not just about sexuality but also about the nature of Christ, the truth of the Gospel and the authority of the Bible. We reject the religion of accommodation and cultural conformity that offers neither transforming power nor eternal hope.

It seems to me that those who are seeking to overthrow the historic rejection by the church of homosexual activity are seeking “accommodation and cultural conformity” rather than “transforming power [and] eternal hope”. This is my fundamental reason for standing firm against them.

32 thoughts on “Reflecting Culture, not Changing Attitude

  1. Akinola supports laws in his own country that make it a criminal offence – with a jail sentence – for gay people to speak on gay issues, to gather in public, and to undergo civil partnerships.

    Given Akinola’s defacto overlooking of African polygamy and his draconian approach to gay people, I think his views are most certainly culturally biased. There is a world of difference between the way Fee and Akinola ‘do theology’.

    I am not, of course, in a position to be judge and jury of the facts, but Changing Attitude UK has claimed in the past that Akinola was trying to have Mac-Iyalla ‘silenced’ (let the reader understand). Just because Akinola and Fee come to the same conclusion, doesn’t meant that the way they are doing theology is comparable.

  2. I’d like to correct

    but Changing Attitude UK has claimed in the past that Akinola was trying to have Mac-Iyalla ’silenced’

    to read

    ‘Changing Attitude UK has claimed in the past that the Nigerian Anglican Church was trying to have Mac-Iyalla silenced.’

  3. Pam, thanks for your comments. My post was intended to examine how Mac-Iyalla and Changing Attitude do theology. I don’t know enough about how Akinola does theology to comment about it. Indeed I wrote

    I cannot comment on how fair this is to Akinola and other leaders on his side of the argument.

    But then show me anyone whose views are not culturally biased. Certainly not Jefferts Schori and her supporters.

  4. I don’t believe that there is such an animal a pure, objective biblical truth known without any cultural bias. For anyone. This is why I’m not a theological conservative.

    If someone supports the imprisonment of gay people – not even for gay acts but simply for associating with other gay people – I would really need to know how they support such a conclusion in the light of the Gospel.

    It seems to me that the conclusion that it’s OK to imprison gay people for nothing more than being gay does at least hint to me that how they do theology is radically different from anything I read in the Gospels.

  5. Peter – you wrote: Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 should be understood as normative for Christians in all times and cultures.

    No – without question, this is a rhetorical error in the reading of Romans. The condemnation is means to silence all judges who impose their normative prejudice on times and cultures. (see e.g. my brief comment here and related structural analysis.)

  6. Peter, this post is full of big ideas and I appreciate you writing it. The homosexuality/slavery argument in “How to read the bible…” has always made my head hurt. But it is an excellent test case for how we do exegesis and hermeneutics in the 21st century.

    While I agree with your point about listening to the Holy Spirit, ultimately I don’t think it will help us here. Anyone can claim “God told me…”

    Maybe this post will set off a blogstorm on the topic which could stretch all of us.

    I believe that homosexual behavior is sexually immoral. But I also think my “Victorian” upbringing can confuse my thinking on the topic. Ultimately, I think we need a more systematic Christian apologetic for homosexuality.

  7. Pingback: Refining A 21st Century Christian Apologetic About Homosexuality « Lingamish

  8. “Ultimately, I think we need a more systematic Christian apologetic for homosexuality”

    Even more importantly I think we need a systematic Christian theology of sexuality! Rather than focusing on all the “thou must nots”, it makes sense to first hammer out and made known a biblical theology of human sexuality. Something pulpits are not known for preaching…

  9. Pam, I don’t support imprisoning gay people and disagree with those who do. My post is not about Akinola but about Mac-Iyalla.

    Bob, I assume your response is the one here, with the link here. You make what may well be an interesting point, but I don’t think I understand it clearly. If it is simply that Paul’s main point in this passage is not to condemn homosexual activity, then I can only agree. But it is at least clear that he viewed this activity as sinful. Yes, in 2:1 Paul uses this passage as “a moral trap for those who judge others”, but there is nothing in the context to suggest that it is only that. Perhaps you might like to explain this better and send me a link.

    Lingamish and Alastair, I agree with you both, except that we are disagreeing about terminology. I dislike Alastair’s terminology “systematic Christian theology” for reasons explained here, but what you both want to do is not what I rejected there.

  10. Peter, thanks for a great post on a very tough and sensitive topic of homosexuality. It was very well expressed here. To constantly argue about what is culturally relative in a sea of arguments about what is biblical truth in the context of scholarly an exegetically correct almost seems like we’re going around in endless circles. Sometimes, I’d just like to throw in the towel but I know that we cannot because this is a struggle we must continue in.

    Our society has such a tough time discerning what and how scripture should be interpreted as biblical truth. I have found that conservative voices in the Anglican and Lutheran churches in North America have been silenced. Accusations are flying high. Our voice still must be heard, otherwise, voices that speak biblical truth may no longer have a real voice.

  11. Peter – thanks – I see all my comments eventually made it through. You do well not to be swamped in this difficult question.

    I appreciate your distancing the issues of women, slavery, and same-sex intimacy from each other. Why not include the Jew-Gentile circumcision issue too and see what the first century did with this serious division. It is not that the issues are the same, but that the principle of growth in Christ by the Spirit is critical. A Law from Leviticus cannot be applied here anymore than a poor reading of Corinthians can force women to cover their heads. God is not a God of force but of fierce jealousy. Have those who condemn the sexuality of others confirmed their own sexuality to the death of Christ? Are they circumcised in his circumcision? When they are, then they will be in a position to judge others. Not that we don’t need judgment – and we receive it, but that God who made sexuality and birthed us in the Spirit by his own seed knows well what we are. See psalm 38 where the psalmist teaches us about all his or her foolish desires and tells us that God knows them. Then do it – don’t just think about it. Be chaste by the death of Jesus. If one who is gay says to me – I have done this, I have given my life to God by the death of Jesus, and God has matured me in my desire – but he did not make me heterosexual shall I say he is lying?

  12. Peter,

    I think there are five areas relating to Roman 1:26-27 which cause problems for trying to take it as morally normative for us.

    1. Rhetorical structure. Bob has already brought up one way of reading this part of Romans which sees Paul as condemning a person who judges homosexuals rather than homosexuals themselves. There are a few other ways of reconstructing the intended rhetorical structure of this passage which are detrimental to your reading. For example, Paul uses “speech in character” a lot. What if, as Douglas Campbell argues in The Quest For Paul’s Gospel, this section of Romans is in fact not Paul speaking but a character representing a strand of Judaism that Paul disagrees with? The strong parallels between this section of Romans and sections of Wisdom of Solomon I think point to the possibility that these words could well be meant to be a quote or parody of a Jew who thinks they are better than gentiles. It is not clear to me that Paul is speaking in this passage, and if he is it is not clear to me that he firmly means what he literally says rather than it being rhetoric designed to trap a person who judges others.

    2. The concept of self-mastery, honour, and dishonor was very important in the world of Paul’s time and formed the basics for a lot of their behavior and thinking. These are cultural concepts which our culture doesn’t use. These terms are repeated over and over again throughout Romans 1:18-32. The point being made is not that these are morally wrong as we understand morality, but that these acts are shameful as they understood shame. In their view acting like a woman or taking the role of a woman in any way was shameful. Such honour-shame societies usually apply the same ideas to roles in sexual acts and distinguish active (manly) and passive (womanly) roles and draw conclusions based on the role a person takes within a sexual act. Thus participation is a homosexual act is considered shameful if it causes a womanly role to be taken, but it is not considered immoral. (See Stowers’ Rereading Romans for further detail on this)

    3. There seems to have been very strong associations between idol worship and homosexual activity. I believe that in at least some cults, homosexual rituals occurred in the context of worship. For this reason such acts draw criticism from Jews. Such a context is very culturally distinct from questions regarding the permissibility of modern homosexuality.

    4. The actual behavior referred to by the words here is not beyond doubt. I understand many church fathers understood the Greek here to be a reference to certain types of sexual positions considered deviant in the ancient world but now widely used, rather than to homosexual behavior.

    5. The ancient concepts of what is “natural” need careful exploration. Ancient ethics focused often on what is “natural”, and this term appears in this passage. Some Christians mistakenly read this as meaning there is a ‘natural’ form of sexual activity in the sense of ‘God-given at creation’. But that’s not at all what the word “natural” would have meant to a Greek in a context like this, and it actually refers to custom and normal practice in the sense of ‘what comes naturally to me’.

  13. Thank you, Peter, for a very well-written post.

    I disagree with Lingamish and agree with you about the need for the input of the Holy Spirit. Of course he is right that an appeal to the witness of the Holy Spirit is not exactly a slam-dunk argument, but by making it, it points people to the need to see this as a question of spiritual discernment.

    On a case by case basis in a pastoral context, listening and understanding as well as witnessing to what I think to be true are important. In practice, that means that if I am counseling an asyntonic homosexual (the old terminology for someone who has a homosexual orientation but wishes he/she did not), I affirm their goal to be rid of it while making them aware that sanctification, for all of us, will not be completed until the day we die. If am counseling a syntonic homosexual (one who affirms as positive the same-sex orientation they have), I try to explore the reasons why that orientation is a component of who they are, and how it relates to everything else that they are, and I uphold the position of the church I serve in (the United Methodist Church), which affirms the sacred worth of everyone but does not condone sexual partnerships between people of the same sex.

    Am I wrong because I don’t threaten people with hell except insofar as they fail to “to do this unto the least of these my brethren”? Possibly. But there is so much hell on earth already, it usually seems beside the point.

  14. Bob asked:

    Have those who condemn the sexuality of others confirmed their own sexuality to the death of Christ? Are they circumcised in his circumcision? When they are, then they will be in a position to judge others.

    Good question, Bob. I can’t speak for others. I know I seek to do this, also that I am imperfect in doing so. I would not be the first to cast a stone at any gay church leader. But I note that while Jesus did not stone the woman caught in adultery he did affirm that adultery is sin. And I believe he would have said the same about homosexual activity, as Paul certainly did.

    The psalmist of Psalm 38 recognised that his desires had led him into sin, which he confessed and wanted to God’s help to move beyond. Yes, God knows our foolish desires, and he also wants to move us beyond them to serve him. Christians for centuries have learned to control their sexual passions, many to complete celibacy for God’s service and most to a single marriage partner of the opposite sex for life. Why are those who say that “God … did not make me heterosexual” not prepared to do the same, at least if they aspire to positions of church leadership?

    Note by the way that I am not relying on the Leviticus passages because of the known difficulty of applying such Old Testament passages to modern morality.

  15. Andrew, thank you for your thought-provoking arguments. I will not attempt to answer them fully here. But I will answer briefly:

    1. Romans 1:16-17 is clearly Paul speaking. There is nothing at 1:18, or anywhere in 1:18-32, to suggest that there is a change of rhetorical character here. 1:32 is a key part of Paul’s overall argument in Romans, that all have sinned deliberately and deserve death. 2:1-3:20 is parenthetical about the law, and then 3:23 takes up 1:32 and weaves into Paul’s teaching about justification by faith. Although we cannot be sure of the precise referents in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, this is clearly Paul’s own voice, and it coheres well with Romans 1:18-32. So I don’t think there is any proper basis for arguing that 1:26-27 is not Paul’s own position.

    2. 1:18-32 is not just about honour and shame. It also includes words like “godlessness”, “wickedness” and “evil”, and on the other side “righteous”. It is clear in 1:32 that the people of 1:29-31 are not just acting shamefully but will be judged as immoral. And it seems clear to me that 1:29-31 should be taken as a summary and broadening of 1:21-27.

    3. There is no mention in the New Testament of links between homosexuality and idolatry. Paul condemns homosexual activity in 1:26-27 without linking it to idolatry. This argument is irrelevant.

    4. Do you have any references or details of this suggestion? But surely the first part of 1:27 is entirely generic about male homosexual eroticism, and cannot be limited to specific practices.

    5. My argument does not depend on the word “natural”, which I realise is difficult from my studies of 1 Corinthians 11:14. I rely more on words like “error” and “penalty” in Romans 1:27 which clearly imply a moral judgment, as well as the way in which this passage is introduced in 1:18 (“ungodliness and wickedness”) and summed up in 1:32 (“God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death”).

  16. John, thank you. I entirely agree with your approach.

    I just wish the leaders of my own Anglican Communion would take the same approach of gently and lovingly upholding its own official position, which is similar to that of yours. If particular parts of that Communion cannot accept that position, they should recognise that they are the ones who have shifted, stop persecuting those who do uphold the official position, and if necessary accept that they cannot remain as full members of the Communion.

  17. Peter:

    1. The facts that: (a) Romans 1:18-32 is a paraphrase of a piece of Jewish literature. (b) That this is a unified piece and a monologue (c) there is an abrupt change of voice in Rom 2:1 and the character here appears to be Paul speaking to someone ‘who call yourself a Jew’. (d) This Jew then (continues?) to dialogue with Paul in chapter 3.
    Together these lead me to conclude that in Rom 1:18-32, a Jew is speaking.

    If I didn’t come to that conclusion, I would accept Stanley Stowers’ / Bob MacDonald’s view that Paul is engaging in a fairly standard rhetorical practice of laying a trap for the ‘pretentious person’ who judges others.

    1:32 is a key part of Paul’s overall argument in Romans, that all have sinned deliberately and deserve death.
    I don’t agree that this is Paul’s argument. As plenty of scholars have pointed out, if this really is Paul’s argument then he fails fairly abysmally at proving it. As other scholars have pointed out, this may well not be Paul’s argument. He is not trying to prove that every individual who ever lived is a sinner, but rather that no nation (specifically Jews) are free from sin. And the primary point of proving this is not to show that everyone needs Christ, but rather to show equality between Jews and Gentiles before God – which is the main point of Romans.

    2. But basically the entire reason why people in the ancient world didn’t like homosexuality was their honor-shame views, and I don’t think you’re taking this sufficiently into account. An example is the first century Jew Philo, who goes on a long rant how homosexuality is terrible because it doesn’t promote men to be good strong men acting in macho manly ways since it causes a man to take a subordinate womanly role. His logic is humorous today, but that reasoning got taken very seriously in the ancient world. Whereas the arguments used today to condemn such relationships weren’t used in the ancient world.

    3. The parallel passage from Wisdom of Solomon links homosexuality with a idolatory. Equally the passage in Romans 1 draws a link between a failure to honor God and homosexual activity.

    4. IIRC you’re right here and that the church fathers took the second part of the verse about females to refer to (what they deemed) ‘abnormal’ male-female relations, rather than homosexual female relationships. I’ll check my notes and get back to you if that’s not right.

  18. Thanks again, Andrew. I can see something in your point 1, but it does seem to depend on the congregation in Rome instantly recognising these verses, when read out, as a paraphrase of a work which they might or might not be familiar with – and then realising that Paul was not actually affirming this work but using it to set up a straw man. I am not convinced.

  19. Paul’s letter was being read / performed by a person sent by him with the letter. The dialogues in the letter would have been performed in such a way as to make the speakers distinctive. While we today find it hard to be sure where the dialogues start and end and who is speaking because all we’ve got is the written version, the original audience in Rome would definitely not have had any such problem. The congregation need not have been familiar with the work itself being paraphrased (though I think it’s more likely than not that they would have been), but rather they needed to be familiar with the gist of the opinion expressed – which, given it seems to have been a fairly common Jewish view, they surely would have been.

  20. Paul’s letter was being read / performed by a person sent by him with the letter.

    This is an interesting hypothesis, Andrew, which if true would have some very profound exegetical consequences. But unless you have any real evidence for it I don’t think you should use “definitely” with regard to a supposed consequence of it.

  21. Your questioning here of this surprised me since all the scholars I’ve read have simply taken it for granted. Um, how to prove it? Well on the one hand, I doubt there was a postal service so Paul would have had to send his letter with someone he trusted to deliver it. Scholars I have read generally assumed that the person delivering the letter would have been Phobe. I’m assuming that they get this from Rom 16:1-2.

  22. Well, Andrew, what I meant to question was not so much that someone carried the letter and very likely read it out, but that that person carried additional information about the meaning of the letter, not included in its text, which is critical to proper understanding of that text. Don’t you think that Paul, as a skilled writer, would have found a way to signal his meaning adequately within the text, without having to rely on someone to read it out loud with exactly the right intonation etc to make it clear that the letter in fact means something quite different to what it appears to mean from the text alone?

  23. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » A Solid Rock Ledge on the Slippery Slope

  24. Pingback: Theological reflections on Changing Attitude from Peter Kirk

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