One of the crucial aspects of the debate over Resolution #1 is whether or not "homosexual behavior" is a sin according to the Bible. One side claims that the Bible gives clear testimony that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful. The other side counters with an interpretation of the relevant passages that questions whether such passages, taken in their socio-cultural context, gives a clear statement on the matter for us today, in our socio-cultural context.
I would like to offer a slightly different angle on this debate. Consider the following question: if the New Testament gives clear witness to the nature of sin, what might we consider the chief of sins, i.e., the Sin we can be most clear about? And I propose that a reasonable and supportable answer to this question might be: the Chief Sin -- the one that literally killed Jesus, the one for which the Lamb of God came to "take away the Sin of the world" -- is the sin of human beings setting themselves up as the judge of other people's sins. Jesus was himself judged by human beings as sinful and then executed. God raised Jesus from the dead as a judgment on our judging. But let us take a closer look in the New Testament to see how prominent a theme God's judgment on our judging truly is.
We can begin, in fact, with one of the passages most highly touted by those who would judge "homosexual behavior" clearly as a sin: Romans 1 and following. And it is the and following part of this passage which is most important here. We must promise to get to the and following portion. (See also "My Core Convictions," a section in Part II on the "wrath of God" in Romans, and Part IV.4.4, "The place of gay and lesbian persons in the church.")
St. Paul begins his argument in Romans at 1:18 by raising the issue of God's wrath that "is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness." But it turns out to be a wrath that expresses itself not in active punishment, as we most often seem to imagine it, but rather in simply turning human beings over to the consequences of their own wrongful actions.
Where does St. Paul begin in addressing such wrongful actions? It is important to get this right. I believe the answer begins with verses 22-23:
Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.In other words, our wrongful actions begin with idolatry. We think we are wise. We think we know who God is. We think we know what God knows. But we don't. We are merely fools for thinking so, as foolish as worshiping graven images.
God hands us over to our idolatry. Three times over the next five verses St. Paul uses the word paradidomai to describe our being handed over to the consequences of our sinful idolatry. Paradidomai is the same word that the Synoptic Gospels use to describe Jesus as being "handed over" to sinful human beings. (3) It is the word used to describe Jesus coming under our judgment. Why this is important will become more clear in a moment.
Among the terrible consequences of God handing us over to our idolatry, St. Paul names women exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural (v. 26) and then (v. 27):
in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.Before we take these words from St. Paul as clear words about the sinfulness of "homosexual behavior," however, we need to consider two things. First, we need to remember the context of idolatry. Paul begins by describing idolatry as the foolishness of thinking ourselves wise. But instead of moving directly to more subtle examples of our wisdom deceiving us into thinking ourselves to know God, Paul turns first to the most base, obvious examples that will be sure to catch the attention of his Jewish audience in the Roman church: namely, people worshiping images resembling people or animals. And what follows continues in the same vein of obviousness. One of the most disgusting aspects of the idol-worshiping cults to Paul's Jewish brothers and sisters was the sexual "foreplay" that led up to the climax of the rituals of blood-sacrifice. Women and men were made to undertake unnatural acts of intercourse, absolutely hideous to a Jewish Christian. I would suggest that what Paul is talking about here is not anything close to what we are trying to discuss within our contemporary discussion about the blessing of faithful, monogamous gay relationships.
In fact, I would propose that Paul's strategy was intentionally meant to get his Jewish brothers and sisters riled up with obviously lurid examples of idolatry. Why? Because in making the point about "Claiming to be wise, they became fools," Paul begins with the most obvious forms of idolatry in order to catch his brothers and sisters in the more subtle, more-difficult-to-see, form of idolatry.
The second thing we need to consider in understanding St. Paul's supposed condemnations of all "homosexual behavior" as sinful (I would not debate the fact that Paul believed cultic sexuality to be sinful) is the "and following" part of this passage that we promised to get to. For the very next words from St. Paul are these:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, "We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth." (Romans 2:1-2)Doing the very same things?! How can St. Paul say that? What does he mean? Surely not that members of the Roman church were partaking in cultic sex acts. No, he obviously means idolatry. When we judge others, we are undertaking the most subtle form of idolatry. It is the form of idolatry that most easily remains hidden from us. Members of the Roman church may not have been worshiping graven images or partaking in cultic sexuality (though perhaps some of the Gentile members had formerly done so and were looked down-upon by their Jewish brothers and sisters), but they were just as surely being idolaters when they partook in judging other people's sins of idolatry. Why? St. Paul says it plainly: they are saying to themselves that they know what God's judgment is. They think that they know what God knows, so "Claiming to be wise, they became fools" -- just as surely as any garden-variety idolater.
No, what we tend to remain blind to is how this latter brand of idolatry led not only to Christ's death on the cross, his handing himself over to the consequences of our judgmentalism, but also, and more importantly, to a revelation of God's righteousness. We can't presume to know how God judges us. That's idolatry. But God is Love and will show us the divine righteousness through that very same cross of Jesus Christ. There, we will find God's righteousness displayed in loving mercy and forgiveness, not in the kind of wrathful punishment that we human beings undertook in putting Jesus under our condemnation. God judges our judging in favor of God's own justice built around unconditional forgiveness and grace. Isn't this the point of Romans 1-3, the climax of which we read every year on Reformation Sunday?(4)
And we don't have just St. Paul's word to take on this matter. St. John is no less clear, I think. The pivotal story in John's Gospel, besides the Passion itself, is the one that follows after the Gospel lesson in John 8 that we read every Reformation Sunday about the truth that can set us free. John 9 (5) is precisely a story about our blindness to this form of idolatry of judging other people's sins. It begins with an encounter of Jesus and his disciples with a man born blind. The first reaction on the part of the disciples is what's at issue here: they want to judge the man's sin. Was it he or his parents who sinned that he should be blind from birth? Neither, says Jesus. Rather, it's an occasion to reveal the ongoing glory of the work of God's creation. The work of Creation isn't finished yet, and Jesus could help it along by using the same soil as God his Father (Gen. 2:7) in making mud to heal this man's eyes, even though it was the Sabbath.
The Pharisees take up where the disciples leave off: they are bound and determined to judge this man's sin. By story's end they finally make their pronouncement and expel him (John 9:34). What's more, they turn to Jesus, too: the one who would work on a sinful person on the Sabbath must also be a sinful person. The chapter ends with this poignant exchange in which Jesus makes clear the nature of his judgment:
Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."John 9 is a story of irony. The one born blind whom others want to judge as sinful is the one whose eyes are opened to Jesus as the one who can heal us from the Sin of judging others; while those who persist in that Sin of judging are the ones who show themselves blind to the Sin of the world which Jesus came to take away. James Alison calls this "the subversion from within of sin," and explains:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?"
Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." (John 9:39-41)
The one who was blind came to understand who God is, how he works, how his creative vivaciousness continues desiring the good and the growth and the life of the person. And the blind man is purely receptive: he does nothing to earn or win his sight. He just grows in the midst of the mechanism of expulsion, holding firm to a basic sense of justice: one doesn't call evil someone who has done me good, nor does one enter into solidarity with those who want to call him evil. That's all. The expellers, for their part, grow, also, but in security and conviction of their righteousness, goodness and unity, in the degree to which the mechanism of expulsion operates through them. The result is sin turned on its head. Sin ceases to be some defect which apparently excludes someone from the group of the righteous, and comes to be participation in the mechanism of expulsion.(6)Earlier in John's Gospel Jesus has said a number of curious things about judgment and judging. In 3:17 he says that he did not come to judge the world but to save it. This is not a contradiction to the judgment of which Jesus speaks in 9:39 in the sense that Jesus' judgment is so far from our conventional forms of judging. His judgment will consist in revealing to us the deadly consequences of our judging -- precisely through our human judging of him. Elsewhere in John's Gospel, he even goes so far as to say that God and himself judge no one: "The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22). And in 8:15-16, Jesus perhaps sums up the entire matter before us, when he says,
You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.What is he saying in this seeming paradox of a non-judging judgment? Precisely, what we have been trying to say: God's judgment is on our judging. God has given it to the Son to judge our judging by letting himself be judged by us and executed. But that judgment is not seen to be the Son's act alone in the fact that in the Resurrection God has issued a counter-verdict to the one that killed the Son. God has also revealed the Godself to be one not of the same kind of deadly judmentalism which we undertake, but rather a righteousness that shows itself in the life-giving power of loving forgiveness. Essentially, we judge ourselves in judging Jesus. God, in the Cross of Jesus Christ, reveals an entirely different judgment in the power of forgiveness.
We can perhaps best sum up John's view about judging by understanding his mysterious name for the Holy Spirit: Paraclete. Greek scholars tell us that the best rendering of Paraclete would be a title akin to the Lawyer for the Accused, or the Defense Attorney. (7) Why would John use this title for the Holy Spirit? Doesn't it make sense when one considers John's view of the judgment on our judging? We play games of accusing people such that their lives are diminished, or even snuffed out. God's Holy Spirit defends those whom we accuse and is about the life-giving power of forgiveness. Listen to Jesus' revealing last words about the Paraclete in John's Gospel:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. (John 16:7-11; my emphasis)This sums up beautifully everything we have been talking about. We are flat out wrong about Sin because we think we can act in God's place as judges of other people's sin. We have faith in ourselves, not in God. We don't believe in Jesus as the one who truly came to show us how to live lives of trusting in God without taking matters of judgment into our own hands. And we not only take God's place, but we are also completely wrong about how God does or doesn't judge people. As St. Paul also concluded (Rom. 3:21-28), this means we are wrong about God's righteousness. We can only truly know about God's righteousness in Jesus' act of going to the Father, i.e., his handing himself over to our powers of judgment on the Cross. Obviously, this reveals how wrong we are about judgment. The rulers of this world judge themselves by judging Jesus. Our human games of playing judge are judged.
We might end here. But, just in case we are not yet convinced about this clear and consistent picture from the New Testament, let us conclude with clear words about judgement from the synoptic gospels:
[Jesus said,] "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye. (Matt. 7:1-5; par. Luke 6:37, 41-42)And so the synoptic gospels are also very clear in painting the picture of the Passion as a judgment on the Sin of our judging others. In the telling of Jesus' life and Passion, which sins are most clearly responsible for putting Jesus up on the Cross? Jesus was himself accused of hanging around with those we most often label as sinners. It wasn't those kinds of sin that killed him. No, it clearly was the Sin of judging that we are talking about which put him there. He was condemned and executed by the same people who judged him to eat and have fellowship with sinners. (8)
Does this mean that we can never make any judgments about sin outside of the Sin of judging others? I think it means we have to proceed very carefully. The Gospel's subversion of sin and judgment leaves us in a meta-ethical position that does make it much more difficult, I think, to proceed into ethics in our usual human ways that lead to scapegoating.
St. Paul faced this issue when the Gospel virtually took the Law away from him as he had previously practiced. Our Lord had confronted him on the road to Damascus with the consequences of how he had practiced the Law: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" With the Law as he had known it taken away, it must have felt at times like standing at a precipice of lawlessness. That's why he had to keep asking himself in Romans: "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom. 3:31). The problem was finding a substantive answer to what the Law might mean when the Sin of judging others is taken away. In Romans, I don't think he ever begins to back up his answer of "By no means!" until chapters 12-13, especially when he specifically says that "love is the fulfilling of the law" (13:10; cf. Gal. 5:6,14). As did our Lord Jesus, St. Paul reduces the Law down to one: Love. But then what exactly does it mean to form an ethics around the single Law of love? I'm not sure we have as yet ever really come up with a suitable answer to that one. Instead, we find plenty of ways of lapsing back into the old forms of the Law, of ethics, which judge others and lead to the kind of sacred violence with which Christ confronted Paul on the road to Damascus.
I know I can't give us the definitive answer, either, but I'll offer a couple preliminary comments. When it comes to the matter of judging other people's sins, I think that love as fulfillment of the law means that we must trust God's love to be in the process of writing the law upon our hearts (which brings us to the third of the Reformation Sunday texts, Jer. 31:31-34!). Jesus fulfills the law by repairing our relationship with God so that God's loving will can be written upon our hearts. In other words, we will, each of us, begin to judge for ourselves what right behavior might mean for us in our individual situations.
First and foremost I think this means that I need to trust the experience of my GLBT brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with their sin as seriously as me. If they tell me that their experience is such that they were created with their sexual orientation, on what basis do I distrust them? Scripture? I think that most mainline Christians have at least come to the realization that none of the usual verses and passages in Scripture (e.g., Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:26-27) speak of a sexual orientation. It seems reeasonable to me, then, that the law of love in Christ asks us to trust our brothers and sisters own sense of createdness.
Can I presume to judge the quality of what I see being written on my fellow Christian's heart? I think being judge of my own heart, and God's love being written on it, is task enough. I can share my own struggles in the life of sanctification with my brother or sister in Christ. I can share as a brother who still struggles with my own sinfulness. But I think there is a definite line that is crossed if I try to become the judge of his or her heart.
Are there any standards we might set? Yes, but if we begin with trusting our GLBT friends sense of createdness, then we need to begin on an equal footing there at the point of our shared createdness. We can all, for example, understand a passage like Rom. 1:26-27 to be speaking of human sexuality caught up in idolatry without singling out a certain sexual orientation. (Remember that Paul has in mind ritualized forms of sex acts as part of his rhetorical strategy to prod the majority into recognizing their own idolatry of judging others.) We see signs of sexual idolatry all around us through the ads our spam blockers block and the explosiuon of pornography on the Internet. Sex sells in our modern marketplace. We can find broad consensus on this, I believe, and speak out. But the sexual idolatry is no more or less heterosexual than homosexual. And the biblical remedy against all idolatries is the same: living in covenant love. Seeing and struggling against the same forces of sexual idolatry, our GLBT brothers and sisters in Christ are asking for that same remedy to be recognized and allowed them.
Thus far, the ELCA has not been able to reach consensus with regards to matters of sex. It has not officially set standards in many of these areas, such as in regards to the ordination of GLBT pastoral candidates who are in monogamous relationships, yet we are proceeding on expelling some in the absence of official standards. We don't yet have an ethics of sex, but we continue to scapegoat in matters of sex. I believe that we can be sure about the sin of such expulsion.
The bottom line is that, while I don't think that stopping ourselves from judging others completely takes away the possibility of Christian ethics, I also don't think we've done a good job yet in the first two thousand years of Christian history. Perhaps it's a bit like the issue of holding to complete nonviolence. We kept giving up on it too quickly until a Hindu man named Gandhi came along and showed us some real possibilities. I think we need to try harder and find ways.
Above all, we need to be very careful about making claims about other people's sin, especially baptized brothers and sisters who are serious about a life of sanctification. Is the homosexual lifestyle of two gay people living in a faithful relationship sinful according to the Bible? My honest assessment, listening to my GLBT friends in Christ, is, "No." The Bible doesn't talk about sexual orientation, and its references to sexual behaviors must now be seen in the context of more modern understandings -- just like many of the behaviors forbidden in Scripture that are seen in a different light today. And I am most clear about the Gospel context of subverting from within our understanding of sin by Jesus the Lamb of God coming to take away the Sin of the world, namely, the Sin of judging others which puts him on the Cross. I can share as a fellow sinner my own struggles with sin, and we might even be able to set some standards jointly for ourselves. But I believe that the Sin which the Lamb of God came to free us from is the Sin of judging another's sin. Tragically, this is the Sin which has slaughtered lambs since the foundations of our human worlds. I pray that we avoid adding to the slaughter this weekend in our assembly as Christ's flock, sinners of his own redeeming.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.
Racine, WI -- May 30, 2001
(with some minor updates August 2007)
Link to Paul Nuechterlein's Homepage
"Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary"
1. "Resolution #1" refers to the first resolution addressed at the 2000 assembly of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA. The controversy within our synod around the blessing of same-sex relationships was an early instance of the controversy that now faces the entire ELCA. For up-to-date information, see the ELCA webpage "Journey Together Faithfully," which was created since "the 2001 Churchwide Assembly has mandated that this church engage in a study on homosexuality and a study on sexuality."
2. "Sin" is singular in John 1:29: "The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, 'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'" The Greek original ten hamartian is in the singular, "the sin."
3. See, for example, Mark's Passion predictions out of Jesus' own mouth in Mark 9:31 and 10:33 (and parallels). Paradidomai is used extensively during the synoptic Passion narratives: 15 times in Matthew 26-27, 10 times in Mark 14-15, and 6 times in Luke 22-23.
4. On Romans 1, see also the fine essay by James Alison, "'But the Bible says...'? A Catholic reading of Romans 1," in his book Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in [New York: Continuum, 2006], and on the Internet.
5. See James Alison's brilliant essay on John 9, "The Man Blind from Birth and the Subversion of Sin: Some Questions about Fundamental Morals" (Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Vol. 4, Spring 1997, pp. 26-46; it also appears as chapter 1 in his book Faith Beyond Resentment, Crossroad, 2001).
7. See the work of René Girard on the Paraclete, e.g., The Scapegoat (Johns Hopkins Press, 1986), pp. 207ff., and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Orbis Books, 2001), pp. 189ff. See also my webpage, "The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John."
8. Is this what St. Paul means by the radical statement in 2 Cor. 5:21: "For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God"?