Sunday, June 06, 2010

Lazy Sunday Reading: Sex and Sin

Today's passages come from Fred of Slacktivist fame. It's not a classic... yet. But it'd be a shame if some version of this weren't:

A few times a week I get an e-mail or a drive-by comment from someone very upset that I'm defending or advocating for a position they regard as contrary to the Bible. This happens often. Regularly. Constantly.

Yet as often as it happens, none of my accusers has ever been angry that I seem to be "glibly dismissive" of the clear biblical teaching of Luke 3:11. No one has ever suggested on the basis of this Bible verse that I am a fraudulent sham and an enemy of the true faith. Nor have they ever suggested that my failure to heed and revere it's clear instruction constitutes an attack against the sacred "authority of the scriptures."

And that's odd, because I would seem to be vulnerable on this point.

"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none," the Bible says in Luke 3:11. And I have a lot more than just two coats. I have a closet full of coats, jackets, suits, shirts, dress pants, jeans, sweaters and nearly a dozen different pairs of shoes. My wardrobe would seem to be a sinful extravagance that's biblically indefensible...

It's not just bug-eating John [the Baptist] who gives us this teaching. Variations of his statement can be found throughout the entire Bible, in the law and the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles. This is a unified, unambiguous, relentlessly repeated commandment not just of John but of Moses, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter ... of everybody, really.

We're not talking about just a handful of scattered verses -- not just a few obscure texts plucked from the lists of Leviticus and one or two Pauline tangents. This is a major, dominant theme of the entire Bible: Whoever has more than they need must give to whoever has less than they need.

And yet as I said, despite regularly receiving angry condemnations for the ways in which I supposedly deny "the authority of the scriptures," I have never even once been challenged on the matter of my personal superfluity or my advertising and enticement urging others to acquire.

None of my interlocutors has ever accused me of flippantly disregarding Luke 3, or Matthew 6, or Amos, or 2 Corinthians 8 -- even though my lifestyle is clearly and wholly incompatible with what those texts have to say. I have never received a single question from these Guardians of Biblical Truth as to how I manage to reconcile my lifestyle with the vast multitude of scripture passages condemning it as sin. My supposedly conservative inquisitors have never challenged me on this point or accused me of promoting a "liberal" approach to the Bible that hand-waves away the clear mandates taught in the more than 2,000 verses dealing with wealth, possessions and the poor.

Instead, they're mainly just upset about the Gay Thing.

That's odd. Because the Bible doesn't actually have a whole lot to say about homosexuality. The sum total of all it says on that subject is just a tiny fraction of what the Bible has to say about sex in general and even all that put together is, at most, a minor sub-theme.

Think of it this way: Picture a seesaw. Take all of the passages you can find in the Bible that might possibly be construed as condemning homosexuality and gently place them on one seat of the seesaw. Now take all of the passages and parables and sermons and stories in the Bible that deal with wealth, possessions and the poor and drop them onto the other seat.

That seesaw just became a catapult, launching that little collection of verses on homosexuality high into the air.

The popular emphasis on biblical teaching on homosexuality distorts and inverts the emphasis of the text itself. When my e-mail accusers cite the Bible, or when it is cited by the loudest of the evangelical advocacy groups, they're almost always talking about sex, usually gay sex, and almost never talking about wealth, possessions or the poor. They've allowed the tiny fraction of the minor sub-theme to eclipse the importance of the major theme discussed throughout the text itself. That's backwards. That's contrary to what the actual book says...

The Bible is not a book about homosexuality and it will not allow itself to be treated as a book about homosexuality. Nor is the Bible a book about sex. But the Bible is, in fact, very much a book about wealth, possessions and the poor. That is not the central theme, but it is a massively important theme that pervades every portion of the book. If you don't agree with that then I don't know what it is that you've been reading, but it surely wasn't a Bible.

Did that work? That last sentence was deliberately confrontational and accusatory -- did it make you angry? Because I want you to get angry. I want you to become so angry that you won't rest until you prove me wrong.

So please do that. Prove me wrong. Go for it. Take all that anger and angrily go back to your Bible. Open it at random or start at the beginning and channel all that anger into a determined search to prove that wealth, possessions and the poor is not a major theme of the entire book and that the Bible does not contain anything like 2,000 verses on the subject. Get angry and don't stop until you've proved, conclusively, that this isn't an overwhelming, obsessive theme in the Bible...

Why do [my accusers] insist on the strictest and harshest application of rules governing other people's genitals while blithely refusing to apply any rules governing their stuff? (Including, for example, the rule that says there's really no such thing as "their" stuff.)

This inconsistency creates the unpleasant suspicion that they are simply people who happen to enjoy having lots of stuff but who don't happen to enjoy gay sex and who have, therefore, conveniently decided to read the Bible in such a way that it blesses the former and damns the latter. There's a strong aroma here of the old speck-and-beam hypocrisy. That sort of self-serving manipulation of the text seems irreconcilable with their insistence that they are acting as the guardians of "the authority of the scriptures."...

Show me an American willing to abstain from luxury and indulgence and that person earns my attention. Show me a straight person expecting to be commended for abstaining from gay sex and that person earns only my pity. (That's not an achievement, that's a tautology.)

The Bible is not a Rulebook for Other People. If you're going to insist on treating it as a rulebook, then you're going to have to pay attention to the rules that apply to you as well as to the rules that apply to others. I'd suggest starting with this rule: Don't treat the Bible as a rulebook.


  1. I agree VERY much with the reality that Scripture has a ton to say about the poor, possessions, and poverty. And yes, American Christianity isn't too up on discussing those passages. I would also agree that homosexuality in particular has become a hobby horse for the religious right, a fact that (among other things) really does underscore their lack of biblical scholarship.

    However, there's a spin to this post that I find unhelpful. I don't think it is a good idea to somehow set homosexuality (and sexuality, period) in Scripture over against the wealth/poverty verses. "Only a whole Bible makes a whole Christian." And sexuality is a huge topic in Scripture. Often confusing, perhaps, but certainly very much in evidence. Homosexuality has to be contextualized within that biblical picture of sexuality overall, and when it is, the result is likely too conservative for many liberals, even as the verses on poverty and the poor and possessions are for many (if not all) conservatives.

    A radical reliance upon the Word to sharpen and correct our own perceptions is needed. Few of us allow the Word to speak to us, especially in the very areas we most struggle (and fail) in. This hard truth is indicative of how much we need all of God's Word, not just the parts we individually agree with. And we also need one another's readings of that Word in order to balance our own blind spots re interpreting it correctly.

    Perhaps this all seems obvious. I don't know... but as a politically left of center Evangelical who nonetheless does believe Scripture disallows homosexual practice, I find fellow believers on both sides of the political see-saw unwilling to submit to the whole counsel of God... I myself often fail in that regard.

    Blessings, and thank you for the thoughtful post.

  2. I'm commenting!

    I would say that maybe people feel free to condemn homosexuality and sexual immorality in general because they feel that they are in complete compliance with "biblical" standards in this area while biblical standards of wealth and generosity they'd rather ignore because of the implications. But I can't help thinking about Ted Haggard and the like. Why do the loudest condemners turn out to be promiscuous homesexuals? I don't know. I don't have much insight there.

    But I also thought it was interesting to say that the Bible is more about wealth, poverty and possessions than it is about sexuality, or that sexuality is a mute point (I don't know if you said it that strongly). But I don't think the two are so exclusive from each other. A la Mat 22:36, I would say the Bible is mostly about relationships, our relationship with God, and our relationship with others. In that sense, what we do with our wealth in relationship to others and what we do with our sexuality in relation to others are both important biblical topics.

    But of course, it is so culturally acceptable in the secular and Christian community to be materialist and self-serving, greedy, hoarding wealth. Or do they call it stewarding wealth? Sometimes I'll read something in the Bible about wealth and realize it doesn't seem like something I'm following. But to change would look so radically different from everyone around me, Christians included, that it's tempting to think that I must just be reading it wrong. Or that it must mean something different in the original cultural context. And you're right, it seems like half the Bible strikes me that way. I too have a closet full of coats.

  3. thanks, guys. i think (and i think the bible thinks) that sex is important. and that would include homosexual sex, etc. but the point the author (fred clark of slacktivist) was arguing is that conservative christianity tends to blow it way out of proportion in relation to issues of wealth and poverty. not to say that the first isn't important but that the latter is only brought up as a point of abstraction. consider, for example, men's ministries. it's almost exclusively about two things: sex and leadership. never about how we use our money except for under the auspices of 'stewardship' - either intentionally vague or solely about not running into debt (important, but its more self-focused than the Bible's teachings on wealth).

    there's much more i'd like to say on this, but the tot is anxious to go somewhere now, and all i can really do is recommend, strongly, Lauren Winner's book Real Sex and talk about sex in terms of The Body.

  4. Would the objective be to increase a Biblical grasp of the issues of materialism, poverty and wealth, or to diminish a Biblical grasp of the issues of sexuality?

    The best plan would be to see both issues with Biblical clarity.


Be kind. Rewind.