The Conversation Continues

Recently, I received a comment from a reader who wished to challenge me on some preliminary thoughts I offered on the subject of how I came to my position on homosexuality.  I am including "Mark's" letter and my response to him.  I have not identified "Mark."  If he wishes to do so, I will make space for him on my blog to offer yet another response.  The reason I am offering this is to continue the conversation about what it means to interpret scripture--especially as it relates to the issue of homosexuality.  I have not edited "Mark's" comments in any way.  They have also been published in the comment section of "What is the What?"  You may read that post to get a full sense of what "Mark" is responding to.

"Mark's" Comments

Dr. Penwell, you seem to be conflating the punishment with the crime. I think everyone agrees that today we don’t believe in stoning those who commit adultery, however most of us still believe adultery is wrong. in John 8 Jesus gives us a new model for how to deal with a person who is living in adultery and it specifically rejects stoning. Yet as Jesus sends the woman away, he says in verse 11, “Go and sin no more.” He hasn’t ceased to call adultery sin….he has just ushered in an era of grace under which we now live until the eschaton. The same thing seems to apply to homosexuality as far as I can tell. In no place in the Bible is the prohibition against homosexuality overturned, but I think John 8 gives us an excellent blueprint for how to respond to it. I think Jesus’ very kind words to the woman caught in adultery would still apply to all of us who are caught in any sin….”Go and sin no more.” Furthermore, I don’t merely read that as a commandment to me…i read it as a promise. Because of what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection, I am now able to step into a relationship whereby I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to “Go and sin no more.”

I think when you conflate the punishment with the crime, it makes for very cute rhetoric, but seems to misunderstand the text rather severely. I am not suggesting for a second that this is yours (or anyone else’s) goal, just being descriptive of what I see in those fallacies.

As for dietary laws and all other Kosher laws, I believe Acts 10 deals with them rather nicely. While the dietary laws were in place under the Old Covenant, Jesus gives Peter a vision that in effect wipes out those laws freeing us to eat all the shrimp we want! (; ) )

Going back to the issue of homosexuality, I would encourage you to read Leviticus 18…one of the most explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible, and notice where homosexuality is found. It is right between child sacrifice and bestiality. Expanding our pericope a bit further we find that most of us (whether followers of Christ or not) would agree with just about every moral law written in that chapter with the possible exception of having sex during a woman’s period. The rest of them read quite comfortably as acts that we would not condone. e.g.

1. don’t have sex with your step mom (or mom) 2. don’t have sex with your step sister (or sister) 3. don’t have sex with your child or daughter-in-law 4. don’t have sex with your Aunt 5. etc

You will search in vain for a controversial law in that chapter of sexual prohibitions apart from having sex during a woman’s period or homosexuality. Why do you think that is? I appreciate your blog and would love your thoughts on this. Thanks!

My Response


First, thank you for doing such a careful reading of my post.  I appreciate your thoughtfulness, as well as your generous spirit.

I do want to challenge you on a few things, though.  Any conflation of sin and the punishment for sin that I would defend now has as its purpose to call into question a particular hermeneutical strategy, which goes roughly something like this:

The bible is a sacred text inspired by God, and its clear commands should therefore be taken seriously as commands that are universally binding, which is to say, good for all times and all places.

This is certainly a defensible interpretative method, and one that claims a wide number of backers.  It must answer a few questions of its own, however, before it gains the status of the hermeneutical high ground.  First, what scripture “clearly” commands is never as innocent an assertion as those who would offer it tend to imply.  To suggest that “my” reading of a text is the “clear” meaning implies that those who differ are either ignorant or self-consciously sneaky.  This is a meta-critique of the tack you seem to take.

Second, and more specifically, you must first answer why it is that the commands of God should be broken down into (at least) two categories—punishment and crime—the latter of which is universally applicable, while the former is merely contextual.  The postmodern in me wants to ask, “Says who?”  Offering Jesus’ handling of a particular case from a disputed passage as evidence of God’s foreclosing of a particular kind of punishment engages in the same practice of drawing inferences that you seem to think bad when I do it.  Your point is an arguable one (and clever) . . . but it is only that; it is by no means the “clear” meaning of the text.  It is, as you say, “cute rhetoric.”

Although your point may be that Jesus sets out in John 8 to overturn antiquated laws, it is by no mean obvious that that is, in fact, Jesus’ point.  In other words, you’re thrown back on an interpretation of a text to which you bring a host of interpretative assumptions—which, of course, was my point in the first place.  In other words, that’s how scripture always gets interpreted.  That doesn’t mean that “anything goes” when it comes to scriptural interpretation.  What it does mean is that scriptural interpretation is a contextual and communal practice requiring lengthy conversation to discern the meaning of a text—as well as the humility to say, “We’ve long thought such and such is the case, when, as it turns out, that does not seem to be the case at all.”   The question is not whether we do that (your parsing of sin/punishment is evidence that we can’t get beyond doing it), but rather how will we make an ancient document speak to a contemporary world it couldn’t envision.

Moreover, you never make clear how it is that I “severely misunderstand the text.”  If the text says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them,” and you say that the first part is universally valid while the second part is time-bound and need not be bothered about anymore, it is you who must offer more convincing proof as to how you split that particular hermeneutical hair—beyond extrapolation.   For that is what you provide: an inference concerning the obviation of capital punishment for sex crimes from a text whose primary purpose seems to be dealing not first with punishment but with the self-righteous attitudes that set one person over another.  And if you take your inference to be true in some universal sense, then you must provide an explanation as to why it is that your inferences occupy the privileged position of universal norm, while other textual inferences made by “severe misunderstanders” like me are invalid.

Acts 10 and the argument on the rescindment of kosher dietary laws by reference to Peter’s vision—c.f., the previous two paragraphs.

Let us turn now to Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with males as with a woman; it is an abomination.”  You rightly point out that this verse is wedged into a list of other uncontroversial sexual proscriptions.  That is to say, 18:22 follows a long list of injunctions against incest--which no one would seriously defend.  And although you never go on to explain by what interpretative mechanism it is that one of the verses (i.e., “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness” Lev. 18:19) is no longer binding, you do draw attention to it.  I think we ought not to leave it quite so quickly.  Why does this particular verse escape universal condemnation?  By what authority does this passage no longer claim normative status in your view?

As to the seemingly straightforward condemnation evident in Leviticus 18:22 against males lying with males “as with a woman,” I would draw your attention to the previous verse about sacrificing children to Molech in 18:21.  This shift is significant, signaling that we have moved to concerns about the worship of other gods.  Leviticus 18:22, read in context, may very well center on the ritual sexual practices of fertility religions that bespoke allegiance to other gods.  If true, what is at issue is the enduring problem Israel faced with respect to the worship of foreign gods manifest in particular kinds of cultic practices.

Whatever the case, I’m not willing to cede the point that the sexual arrangements that are at issue in 18:22 between two males approximate the loving commitments between two people of the same gender for which I am arguing in our contemporary world.  What is at stake in the “clobber passages” that are used to argue against homosexuality seem to have less to do with the anatomy of the beloved than with whether one person exercises power over another by sexual means.  In other words, I am arguing that Christians have a greater investment in promoting just and loving relationships built on mutuality than to ensure that everyone has the appropriate sexual equipment before being accepted as partners.