The Curious Silence of the Christian Left

Concerning ‘gay marriage’ one of the things which seems most sorely lacking among the people of the left is any sort of attempt to base their views of support in Scripture historically-critically exegeted.

Now to be sure there have been some faltering attempts but none of them have been what anyone could call ‘persuasive’.  Sure, Leviticus isn’t taken in full seriousness among Christians today and we do in fact ignore lots of the laws in that book.  But when you arrive at Romans it’s another story altogether.  1 Corinthians 6 also is fairly self disclosing.

Bits and pieces of other texts are removed from their contexts by the ‘left leaners’.  But these snippets really are nothing more than slogans but sloganeering can hardly be called exegesis.  Of late, for instance, Acts 10:28 has become beloved as it suggests that no one should be called common or unclean.  Fair enough- no one should be called common or unclean- but that isn’t the same thing as saying no act should be called sin.

Decontextualized texts aren’t any sort of foundation upon which to build an ethical position.

I’ve read a lot of papers, essays, and discussions about Christian support of gay marriage but I have yet to see a single one base its views on a text properly exegeted (and by properly, I mean using the tools of historical criticism).  Shouldn’t, even for liberal left leaning Christian folk, actions and behaviors rest upon a biblical foundation?  They’re quick to cite the Bible when it talks about love (and justifiably) but why be so silent when it speaks so clearly on the topic of sexual behavior?

That silence isn’t just curious, it’s bizarre.

[When it comes to what the agnostics and atheists and Buddhists and all the rest think about the subject, I, frankly, just don’t care.  Their views aren’t my concern and really aren’t all that interesting.  My interest is with the Christians asserting the propriety of both gay sexual activity and gay marriage.  Where’s the exegetical reason?]

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28 thoughts on “The Curious Silence of the Christian Left

  1. Tim Bulkeley 28 Mar 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Jim, never mind “left” and “right”, on sexuality it seems to me the Christian churches have totally failed to work out and express how our understandings work as sexual ethics today. The old neat order has broken down around us, and on issues like divorce we have largely (especially in the Evangelical and Free-Church end of the spectrum) accepted society’s redefinitions. In such a context no wonder few of us have anything useful to offer except “homosexuality is a sin”. We desperately need theologies of sex and of family that are clear, Christian and work in the 21C. But we don’t have them, or don’t articulate them in ways others can understand and respect.

    And frankly the histrionic campaigning on this issue is mere shouting louder to cover up this absence.


    • Jim 28 Mar 2013 at 1:27 pm

      i agree and would add that our neglect of ‘marriage’ and all that it implies has only contributed to the present situation.


  2. James F. McGrath 29 Mar 2013 at 1:29 pm

    There is a sense in which you are right, Jim. We on the left have seen how a focus on exegesis rather than overarching principles has led to the defense of slavery, the forbidding of ordination to women, and much else that we think with hindsight is contrary to the core principles of our faith. And so we focus on principles, and are happy to follow them even to the extent of disregarding or rejecting specific texts’ views on a matter. We believe that in doing so, we are doing what Paul did, when he overturned the very clear teaching of Genesis that one had to be circumcised in order to be part of the covenant with Abraham, based on what he considered to be more fundamental teachings of Scripture.


  3. Jim 29 Mar 2013 at 1:32 pm

    you still arent offering any substantive exegesis. you’re just talking around the issue and trying to deflect. Why not do some exegesis of specific texts?


    • James F. McGrath 30 Mar 2013 at 1:48 pm

      I have offered exegetical treatments of Romans 1. But the point is that, just as exegesis of the Household Codes supported slavery and principles like the Golden Rule undermined it, the same I find to be true in relation to this matter today.


  4. Frank 30 Mar 2013 at 12:03 pm

    No one is offering anything substantive because it doesn’t exist.


    • Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 1:21 pm

      indeed it doesn’t. supporters of same sex marriage don’t have an exegetical leg to stand on and it’s just that simple. which is why, i suspect, they avoid exegesis and instead prefer broad, wide ranging, imprecise special pleadings.


  5. asiabible 30 Mar 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Jim, how is this situation different from slavery? There the exegesis of single passages cannot do more than limit the cruelty of the institution, you have to look at the big picture to get beyond that. I am not (yet) a supporter of “marriage equality” but I am also not (yet) convinced that the opponents have made a good theological case. I do not think that “exegesis” can do that in either direction any more than it could for slavery, or for the question of what sort of clothing is appropriate for Christians today.


    • Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 1:32 pm

      slavery is always brought up and compared to homosexual rights. you’re going to have to explain how they are the same thing- and then you’re going to have to exegete romans 1 in such a way that you do it justice and still come out in support of homosexuality.


      • James F. McGrath 30 Mar 2013 at 1:46 pm

        That is precisely the sort of approach that the defenders of slavery took to the Household Codes. They complained that their opponents did not do proper exegesis of those texts but instead appealed to broad principles.

        The issue is not that slavery and homosexuality are the same as topics. The issue is that the conservative approach to Scripture is the same in both cases.


  6. Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 1:51 pm

    with all due, etc. – coming out with a reading of the text which contradicts the plain sense of the text isn’t what i can term, in good conscience, ‘exegesis’


    • James F. McGrath 30 Mar 2013 at 1:54 pm

      How is recognizing that the speaker in Romans 1 (1) sounds like stereotypical Jewish polemic found in Wisdom of Solomon rather than like Paul, and (2) addressed and condemned as someone other than Paul – “you, O man, whoever you might be” – not constitute exegesis?


  7. Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 1:57 pm

    because it’s ‘recognizing’ something that isn’t there. that paul sounds like wis. of sol. isn’t at all surprising. that paul sounded differently on different occasions isn’t surprising either. no one, anywhere, at any time, is univocal and flat.


  8. Tim Bulkeley 30 Mar 2013 at 2:47 pm

    Jim, I’m not as much of an NT exegete as you, but isn’t the mention in Rom 1 part of a list of things that are a punishment. It seems a funny passage to base a doctrine of sex on?


    • Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 2:50 pm

      it isn’t a list of ‘things that are a punishment’ (not sure what that means). it’s a descriptive section listing vices punishable by God. paul is laying the groundwork for 1) the lost-ness of everyone and 2) their concomitant need of salvation.


      • James F. McGrath 30 Mar 2013 at 2:53 pm

        No, it clearly says that, as punishment for their refusal to acknowledge God, God gave them over to shameful practices as punishment.


        • Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 2:56 pm

          so their practices are sinful and they are to be punished for their refusal to acknowledge god. now we’re on the same page. how can behavior which is sinful- and consequently a manifestation of a rejection of god, be appropriate for the people of god?


  9. Tim Bulkeley 30 Mar 2013 at 2:58 pm

    διο παρεδωκεν αυτους ο θεος ?


    • James F. McGrath 30 Mar 2013 at 3:36 pm

      Did I ever try to defend idolatry? Or are we not in fact on the same page?


      • Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 3:38 pm

        everything paul lists is a manifestation of idolatry. that’s his point. all that stuff is a replacing of god with some-thing. whether it be worship of beasts or ‘men working with men what is not proper’. it all = idol worship for paul.


        • James F. McGrath 30 Mar 2013 at 3:43 pm

          The text seems clearly to depict the idolatry as resulting in God giving them over as punishment to acts which were shameful. And we know when and why ancient people viewed them as shameful: because men were thought to be naturally active and women naturally passive, and for the superior male to take on the role of the inferior female in intercourse was therefore considered shameful.

          Inasmuch as we do not share the assumptions about gender that rendered the relationships shameful then, why on Earth would we insist on preserving the shame?


          • Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 4:47 pm

            the supposition that it is merely about power and submission is fairly frequently offered by defenders of homosexual behavior. but it is unpersuasive for one simple reason: it doesn’t work in practice.

            the implication is ‘men shouldn’t take on the passive role and be like women. if they do, it’s shameful’. but in fact women are often the aggressors sexually. just as men are. so the claim that it’s a ‘shameful’ thing to be ‘ subjected’ to another sounds good on paper but isn’t the way couples act.


            • James F. McGrath 30 Mar 2013 at 5:23 pm

              I am talking about ancient assumptions and context. I thought you said you were interested in doing exegesis, not generalities. Have you changed your mind?


              • Jim 30 Mar 2013 at 5:38 pm

                i do sometimes change my mind, but at present i’m not. you discussed shame and i illustrated the point that your point was moot. you still aren’t doing exegesis. you still have yet to deal with the text of romans in any specific way.


  10. Deane 31 Mar 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Well then, you obviously haven’t read The Love of David and Jonathan: Ideology, Text, Reception, by James E. Harding.


    • Jim 31 Mar 2013 at 2:33 pm

      indeed i have. he reads more into the text than it can bear. he turns innocent and non sexual texts into something quite other.


      • Deane 1 Apr 2013 at 12:15 am

        Actually, the point of the book is rather different – that the modern interpretation of biblical texts as having something to do with homosexuality is tied up with the modern defining of homosexuality itself. He’s not providing an interpretation of the texts, but showing why some modern interpreters have taken it this way.


  11. Jim 1 Apr 2013 at 6:31 am

    you’re right- he’s not providing an interpretation of the text. he’s reading into it. this, by the way, is the chief weakness of the reception history method. it isn’t about the text, it’s about, about the text. which is nothing but eisegesis.


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