On October 13 Nicholas Wolterstorff offered his voice in favor of same-sex marriage in a speech he delivered at the invitation of All One Body, a Grand Rapids, Mich., based organization that promotes participation in all dimensions of church life by all persons who confess Jesus as Lord, including members of the LGBT community. Wolterstorff emphasized that he was not speaking as an authority or expert on the subject. Indeed, he has recently clarified that, should the CRC maintain traditional Christian teaching on homosexual practice, he will abide by that decision.
Nick is a mentor and good friend to me. I respect him deeply and have learned a tremendous amount from his work. That said, I come at the issue a little bit differently. Human sexuality is currently my primary area of research, and I am a member of the CRC’s study committee charged with articulating a biblical theology of human sexuality.
At the heart of Wolterstorff’s speech was his confession that, based on experience, he no longer believes committed, same-sex relationships violate the biblical command to love one's neighbor as oneself. It is this experience that prompted him to reconsider Scripture’s teaching on homosexuality.
It’s worth emphasizing how much Wolterstorff and I agree. Wolterstorff agrees that the Mosaic law condemns homosexual relationships in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:23. He also agrees that several New Testament passages, specifically Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, could legitimately be interpreted as condemning the practice of homosexuality.
However, Wolterstorff believes that Christians are no longer bound by all of the stipulations of the Mosaic law, and he believes that none of these New Testament passages are sufficiently clear to require the church’s rejection of committed same-sex relationships.
I laud Wolterstorff for his humility and honesty with respect to this matter. In a spirit of friendship, I wish to offer three of my own reflections in response. (I have written a fuller response to Wolterstorff here.)
First, we should reflect carefully about how to understand the relevance of the sexual code in the Mosaic law. Just because homosexual practice is condemned in the Mosaic law doesn’t mean it is immoral. A primary theme of the New Testament is that Christians are not under the law. That’s why we don’t submit to its sacrificial system, its penal code, its prohibitions against tattoos, or its rules concerning a woman’s menstrual cycle.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean the Mosaic law has no moral relevance for Christians anymore. We continue to submit to its prohibitions of incest, bestiality, and adultery, all of which are found in the very same passage as the prohibition of homosexual practice. Indeed, the prohibition of homosexual practice appears in the very same part of the law as the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18).
So how do we determine what parts of the law remain morally binding on Christians? We follow the guidance of the New Testament. The Jerusalem Council famously declared that while the Gentiles are not bound to keep the whole Mosaic law, they are obligated to observe its teachings regarding sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). And Paul combines the very words used to describe homosexual practice in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:23 (arsenos . . . koiten) to condemn the practice in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (arsenokoitai). It would be hard to imagine stronger evidence that the Mosaic law’s condemnation of homosexual relationships remains binding for Christians.
Second, we should interpret Paul’s comments about homosexual practice in Romans 1:24-27 within their full context. Paul’s purpose in Romans 1:24-27 is to show that homosexuality betrays the same sort of objective distortion of creation as does idolatry. How do we know this? The key to understanding Paul’s argument is his repeated use of the word “exchange.”
Paul observes that just as people foolishly “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23), so God gave them over to “sexual impurity” (1:24). Because they “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (1:25), God gave them over to “shameful lusts,” and they “exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (1:26).
Here Paul offers a clear, direct, and objective correspondence between idolatry and homosexuality. It is the exchange of natural (i.e., created) sexual relationships (i.e., relationships between persons with complementary sexuality) for unnatural sexual relationships that makes homosexuality like idolatry, and thus makes homosexuality what Paul calls the “due penalty” for the error of idolatry (1:27).
Unless we pay attention to the context of Paul’s comments on homosexuality we miss all of this, making us more likely to misuse the text in dangerous ways. Romans 1 confirms what Genesis 1-2 strongly implies: that sexual intercourse only tells the truth about who we are as human beings when it is the expression of sexual complementarity within marriage.
This is why the word “sex” historically has two meanings in English: it can either refer to one’s gender [i.e. whether one is male or female] or to intercourse between a man and a woman. The very concept of sex presupposes sex difference: the binary relationship between male and female. The meaning of the concept “man” presupposes the existence of “woman,” and vice versa. Sexual intercourse requires intercourse between these two. Without male and female, it isn’t really sex.
Third, we should interpret all of these passages in the context of the Bible’s fuller teaching about the meaning of human sexuality. After all, what is at stake here is the purpose of God’s creation of human beings in his image as “male and female” (Gen. 1:26-27). Why did God design human beings to image him by exercising dominion through sexual complementarity? Why did God say, not just that the man needed someone like him, but that he needed someone different from him, as is clearly communicated by the Hebrew word our translations usually convey as “suitable” helper in Genesis 2:18? And why does Genesis 2 devote so much attention to sex (i.e. sexual complementarity)? It’s because sex is full of meaning for what it means to be human.
The New Testament confirms for us with powerful consistency that sex matters. It matters because it is fraught with gospel meaning. The body is meant "for the Lord, and the Lord for the body," Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:13. What we do with our bodies sexually either tells the truth about who we are as human beings or it tells a lie. That’s why Paul tells Christians to “flee sexual immorality” (6:18) just as they are to “flee idolatry” (10:14). That’s why he emphasizes that those who do not repent of sexual immorality, including homosexual practice, cannot enter the kingdom of God (6:9-10).
What truth is revealed through sexuality? The truth that human beings were created to devote themselves to unconditional, intimate communion with one who is like, and yet different from themselves: God (and with one another in God). Thus Paul follows numerous Old Testament examples in explaining that the marriage between a man and a woman is a mysterious image of the love between Jesus and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Thus he explains that just as a man and a woman become “one flesh” as they hold fast to one another in marriage, so human beings are called to be united as “one body” as they hold fast to Christ (1 Cor. 6:15-17). Thus he intimates that the relationship between a man and a woman teaches us something about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity (11:3).
None of this suggests that our sexuality only has meaning within the context of marriage. After all, both Paul and Jesus lived celibate lives. Paul even encourages women and men to remain single so as to serve the kingdom more faithfully (1 Cor. 7). For we express our sexuality as female and as male either in marriage or in celibacy. Either way, through our sexuality, through our experience of what it means to be human as male and as female, we learn what it means to bear the image of our trinitarian God. And this is as true for those of us who are same-sex attracted as it is for anyone else.
All this is very mysterious, I admit it. It is hard to put into words and gives rise to innumerable questions, many of them unanswerable. But that does not make it any less true. Paul himself told us that it is a “profound mystery” (Eph. 5:32), one inextricably tied up with the mystery of God’s love for human beings from before the creation of the world (1:3-10).
And so we must be humble as we submit ourselves to the gospel and to the Spirit’s leading in these matters. Because sex isn’t “just sex.” It’s about the gospel. Every time we perform a sexual act or abstain from a sexual act we are communicating something: either a truth or a lie about what it means to be created in God’s image. And Christians are called, whether through marriage or through celibacy, to express through our sexuality what it means to be united together in the intimate communion of the God who is love.