Monday, 5 March 2012

The Bible and Sexual Mores

Like many Liberals I am disgusted by the pontificating of Cardinal O'Brien; yet as a wooly-liberal he would perhaps dismiss my theology as  'cherry picking'. I find myself doubly under attack by him: he attacks single parent families and homosexuals. My father died when I was four and I was brought up by my mother, grandmama, grandfather and various aunts. I think I turned out OK. However, the lack of a male 'father figure' contends the Cardinal is what made me turn out homo/bi sexual. Oh really? Well how come my brother is straight?  As to marriage always being between one man and one woman.....has he actually read the Old Testament which condones polygamy, levite marriage, marriage between slaves...etc.?

When it comes to sexual mores, it is a fact that most Christians disagree with the Bible more than they agree with it.Most Christians would generally agree with the Bible in condeming
Intercourse with animals.

However, we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bibles discourages or condemns the following behaviours:
Intercourse during menstruation
Exogamy (marriage with non-Israelites)
Naming sexual organs
Birth control
Regarding bodily fluids as  'unclean' (OK maybe relevant given HIV/Aids)

Likewise the Bible permits the following which we condemn or have discontinued:
Underage or arranged marriage
Levirate Marriage
Sex with Slaves (and the keeping of Slaves!)
Treatment of Women as Property

And, whilst the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it! In short, of the sexual mores listed here, we agree with only four (4) and disagree with sixteen (16)! So why do some Christians appeal to the Bible to condemn same-sex relationships when they are likely to disagree with the Bible on sexual ethics more than they agree with it? It is because they too, like the 'wooly-liberals' cherry pick the pieces of the scripture that appeal most to them and represents the curernt 'bogey-man' and fear of modern society. 200 years ago Napoleon I was the 'bogey man' of the world, and some Evangelicals interpretted him as 'the beast'in the Revelation of St John; 150 years ago it was his nephew, Napoleon III and the Pope who were 'the beast' and the Crimean War (1853-1856)  the 'War of the End Times'. So too was the American Civil War (1861-1864).

IF we insist in placing ourselves under the Old Testament laws, as St Paul reminds us, we are obliged to keep every commandment, not just the anti-gay ones (Galations 5:3)! Thus, circumcision, not eating pork or prawns, not cutting the hair on the temples, no tattoos and not wearing mixed-fabric clothes are the order of the day, but most of the Christians who condemn homosexuality based on the Old Testament would probably deny that the other Old Testament Laws apply to them. Sadly, it's all or nothing says St Paul. But, if we believe Jesus came to bring an end to the Law (Romans 10:4) then we live in a new life of the Spirit (Romans 7:6), then all these sexual mores come under the authority of the Spirit. We cannot even take, therefore, the pronouncements of Paul on sexuality, as a new Law. Christians reserve the right to chose for themselves and observe sexual mores, though seldom admit to doing so. The crux of the matter for this Free Christian at least, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. It exhibits a variety of sexual mores, many of which have changed and evolved over several thousand years. Many of the practices the Bible condemns we allow, and many it allows, we prohibit. The Bible only knows a love ethic. The notion of the Bible having a 'sex-ethic' tells us more about modern consumer society, about modern society seaking answers and an anchor in a time of upheaval and economic trouble. The more troubled society gets,the more uncertain the future, the more  the past looks attractive and the more attractive solid, unquestioning/able answers become. Furthermore, sex and sexuality are an in-built part of us. Sex and sexuality is part of who we are and we cannot separate them from our daily lives. Whilst we need rules and mores to give shape and pattern to our daily lives, these self same rules and norms tend to be pressed into service of the powers that be, into the service of crowd control and domination: nothing is more controlling of a person than the denying of the full expression of the self through sexuality and sex. We must critique the sexual mores of the Bible and of our own days not by the Law but by the Love Ethic of the man Jesus: Such a love is non-exploitative, it does not dominate; it is reponsible, mutual, caring and above all, loving. Christian morality is not a cast-iron chastity belt. The issues over same-sex marriage should not be 'What does the Bible say', 'What is permitted?' but rather 'what does it mean to love my gay neighbour?' Approached from the point of view of the Spirit it becomes no longer an issuse of 'what does the Bible command' but 'What is scripture trying to say in the light of the Spirit, Biblical criticism, tradtion, science and pyschology?' We cannot continue to build ethics or preach ideas based on bad science.

Where the Bible mentions same-sex acts it clearly condemns it. I accept that. But then I also accept that the Bible is a product of a differant society to my own, written over the course of centuries, appealing to differant and changing situations and circumstances from ones I know. The Bible also condones slavery, yet in 1806 the Slave Trade was declared illegal in the British Empire. The Bible appeared to be clealry on the slave-owners side and the abolitionists were hard-pressed to fight back using Biblical statements. Yet most Christians today would condemn the Bible or deny the Bible over slavery.

Jesus said to his followers, 'Love one another' and told them to 'judge for themselves' (Luke 12: 57); and St Paul echoes this sentiment (1 Corinthians 6:3). Thus we are to judge for ourselves what is right. Thus we are obligated to judge for ourselves on the matter of homosexuality in the light of new evidence, of all the available data on the issue. We are thus freed from the sin of Bibliotary - the worship of the Bible -and it is restored to its proper place as a witness to God and the life, teaching and example of Jesus Christ rather than a moral text book against which everyone is judged. If we believe that the Word became flesh we believe God was revealed in and as ant though a human being, just like us. The Word was not revealed as words!

What is clear, utterly clear, is that we are commanded by Jesus to love one another. Love not just those whom we know and love, but those whom we meet on the street, the stranger on the bus and our gay and lesbian sisters and borthers: all those 'beyond the pale'. Reach out, and like Jesus, touch the untouchables with love.


  1. Good post, but does not quite go far enough for my taste. Jesus was just a man and just as fallible as the rest of us. He got it wrong sometimes, and was not as tolerant as he might have been. For example, he had to be reminded by the Samaritan woman at the well that the Samaritans were worthy of God's love.

    You are quite right that we can and should pick and choose from the Bible according to our conscience, but we should do the same with Jesus as well.

    I like James Martineau's Christology: “The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine”. So the "Word" is made flesh in everyone.

    If Jesus said something that was good and right and true, it was good and right and true because it was good and right and true, not because he said it.

  2. "Where the Bible mentions same-sex relationships and acts it clearly condemns it".
    The Bible does not actually condemn same-sex relationships as such. And of course there is much more to any relationship than sexual acts. There is love, companionship, friendship, intimacy just to name a few, none of which are forbidden by scripture and certainly not by reason. The bible does of course forbid certain homosexual acts but as you say these can be viewed as the products of a particular time and society, or even if one does holds that these acts are forbidden by God, applicable for all time, there is still much room to value and celebrate a marriage between members of the same sex. The cardinal's arguments are profoundly flawed, and your post has wonderfully shown by just how much. And I agree with you Yewtree, Jesus being human was as fallible as the rest of us. It is this that makes his example one that can truly inspire.

  3. Jesus was a person of his time and place; he was nominaly Jewish and for his day he was a radical theologian. He was also, however, quite pragmatic: whilst using examples of Romans in his parables suggests 'reaching out' to the enemy/accross barriers (perceived or real) it also says to his followers 'hey guys,the Romans are people too!'.

    Yes the Bible is a product of thousands of years, thousands of years of people struggling with God: we have to remember, however, that not everything in the Bible is Christlike and not everything Christlike is in the Bible! Look at all the wars against non-Jewish religions in the Old Testament.

    Whilst I admire Martineau greatly I personally place Jesus somewhere between "just a man" and "God". A divinely inspired prophet who through his close personal relationship with God shows us how to live our lives and to attain that oneness he shared with God. Somewting which Jesus said we could all achieve. To me he is the Great Examplar: someone to follow by example and teaching.

    I really think Liberals need to engage with the Bible more, engage with the issues and deal with the Conservatives and Evangelicals in their own language. Simply saying "we dont believe that" is washing our hands of the question. We need to appeal to the Bible for our pro-homosexual stance and also demolish the "but the Bible says" arguments using Biblical criticism, history, biology, pyschology etc. However, that will have no effect on those who see the Bible as being the 'literal word of God' (God made Words as it were). You'll never convince them part of me wonders why bother engaging? It's an argument that cannot be won. Sad, but true.

  4. I used some of the points you raise when discussing a Unitarian video on youtube. He condemned the poster...condemned me...and started to engage. I asked if he cut then hair on his reply...same went for the other questions. He then stated that since we wouldn't agree it wasn't worth debating. It seems that debate isn't actually about discussion, it's about being comfortsable where you are, stating your case and expecting acceptance.

    We don't seem to have discussed the point that what is in the bible may be wrong, fable, edited, true, or misguided. For my thinking, if the examples you take from it are positive and lead to an increase of love the truth of it doesn't matter.

  5. Amen Stephen! I think the only way the Church can become more relevant is to reform Christian morality not based on 'tradition' but instead tied to the re-discovery of scripture as a bookand the unvarnished, 1st century fallible human Jesus we find there. It is ironic that someone who was so against the establishment has been placed upon a pedestal and become the most establishment 'person'or 'authority' in existance. Would Jesus have wanted that? The increasingly hysterical calls from Conservatives and Evangelicals is precisely because they are losing sway, they are losing battles for hearts and minds. Their arguments are flimsy and are based not on spiritual ideas or aims but on ver secular concerns: control over chaos, fear of the unknown or the other, majority rule and the idealisation of the family unit, the festishisation of the family perhaps, a family ideal we have but which Jesus neither lived nor idealised. We cannot expect the Love Ethic and intentions of Jesus to convert people quickly, especially since he has had absolutely no effect in areas where he was explicitly forthright and simply could not be misinterpreted: greed, violence, use of power and love of enemies. Let's admit it. For 2,000 the Church has missed the mark of Jesus Love Ethic. As Jesus put it 'you strain out gnats and swallow camels' (Matt. 23: 24). As a general rule, insitutional religion tends to treat people as very simple, and therefore the Law must be very complex to protect them in every situation. Jesus, however, is exactly the opposite. All he told his followers to do was to Love God, Love themselves and Love one another. Jesus treats people as very complex- differant in religion, lifestyle, virtue... - and keeps the law very simple in order to bring them to God (Matt. 22: 35-40). Religion isnt about social control. Religion as Jesus put it was made to serve man, not man serve religion (parable of the sower), but how often have we forgotten this? What we are left with is faith. Faith in the teaching of the man Jesus and faith in the Divine Spirit which pervades all creation, a cosmos which is about diversity and communion.