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McKnight Outlines Ancient & Pauline Views of Sexuality, Offers a Way Forward— An Excerpt from "A Fellowship of Differents"
By "it," I mean helping regular churchgoers engage Jesus and his world, and equipping pastors to take popular theology to the people in their pews.
His latest book firmly targets ecclesiology and its impact on the Christian life. In A Fellowship of Differents, McKnight’s thesis is simple, yet eye-opening for anyone in vocational ministry:
Church life shapes the Christian life.
One of the more important chapters brings clarity to the biblical text and a cohesive response to a conversation romping through the American church: human sexuality.
We’ve provided an excerpt of this crucial, cogent chapter to help you better understand the Roman, Jewish, and Pauline views of sexual sin, and remember that “Sexual redemption, holiness, and purity are part of the ongoing church life both then (and today).” (128)
The Roman Context
Studies of the sexual lives of Roman (or Greek) men reveal a typical pat- tern: males had “procreational” sex with their wives, with whom they shared a home, children, and a family life, and had “recreational” sex with others. This was normal sexuality for a Roman male, and to a lesser degree for Roman females. Yes, that’s right. This was the norm. Those recreational others included young boys (pederasty), prostitutes (the percentage of prostitutes in Roman cities staggers the mind), and slaves. It is a sad fact of Roman history that when a female slave is mentioned, as she is in the New Testament several times, there is the likelihood that she was used for sexual gratification. Sex outside marriage was not a moral issue for most in the Roman Empire...
Romans believed in uninhibited sexual exploration, married or not. Sexual relations for males, then, occurred at two levels: at home with one’s wife, who was expected to be faithful, and in the public realm with others. At the center of sexual relations among the Romans and Greek was dominance, for in penetrating another one exercised dominance and status over the other person. (That theme of domination, to be sure, was occasionally countered by descriptions of admirably vulnerable, mutual, and intimate relations of a man with his wife and a wife with her husband.)
In their sexual recreations, some husbands participated in sex with women while some of these husbands also engaged in same-sex relations on the side. Paul is describing this sort of relationship in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which reads “men who have sex with men” (NIV), but the explanatory footnote clarifies that the words “refer to the passive and active participants.” Less discreetly, these words describe Roman husbands who have heterosexual relations with a wife, but who recreationally may prefer males — either penetrating them or being penetrated by them. When we ask, “Who were those who engaged in same-sex relations in Paul’s day?” we are then to think mostly of married males engaging in same-sex relations recreationally. Since committed same-sex relations were known in the Roman world, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 could be describing faithful same-sex couples, but this is less likely than a Roman husband’s recreational sex with other men...
The Jewish Tradition
Paul grew up in the Roman Empire, in Tarsus, where he would have observed typical Roman male sexuality on a daily basis, where murals and frescoes depicted Romans’ sexual lives, where he would have encountered the common presence of prostitutes and slaves, and where he would have no doubt also heard about same-sex relations and pederasty. But Paul’s Bible, our Old Testament, established the norm and the law for the Torah observant Jew, and Paul was observant. That norm was sexual fidelity — husband and wife, and husband and wife alone. That was the biblical ideal, though the Bible has more than its share of descriptions of broken sexuality. Israelite sexuality, for example, involved polygamous relationships among the leading elites. There are all sorts of explanations for polygamy, concubines, and sexual infidelities such as David’s — and who needs to be reminded of old randy Solomon? The fact remains that the Bible’s core ideal is sexual fidelity between husband and wife.
So, running from the front to the back of the Old Testament is the prohibition to engage in sexual relations outside or before heterosexual marriage, which means the Torah was against same-sex relations. Whether one looks to the attempted violent rapes at Sodom in Genesis 19:1–14, to the debauched sexual violence of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19:22 – 30, or to the laws of Israel that prohibited homosexual relations as an “abomination” that is seen among the pagans (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), the biblical tradition established sexuality for the husband-wife relation alone. Any other form of sexual relation was “out of order.” So Jesus, but especially Paul, grew up in a sexually charged Roman culture with a sexually countercultural way of life. Yet Paul’s mission was to mix it up with the Gentile culture, and he knew his mission would create all sorts of challenges.
Not surprisingly, when Paul began to establish house churches across the Roman Empire, his Jewish sexuality tradition and the Roman sexuality practices came into immediate conflict. As a Torah-observant Jew Paul no doubt believed Roman recreational sexuality defiled humans and flaunted the will of God; he also knew the same was possible among Jewish citizens, and he knew it was unfortunately a part of his churches. But in spite of these realities, Paul was a pastor seeing both conversions and holiness. In speaking into such churches, here are some of the most famous words about sexuality ever uttered by Paul:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
Once we understand the context of the Roman male’s sexual practices, we are encouraged to interpret Paul’s list here of sins12 not so much as a list of who is in and who is out but more as a list of the “notorious sins of notorious sinners” Paul saw in every city in the Roman Empire...
Paul’s basic teaching was countercultural in two regards. First, what these Gentile Christians did in the past should be in the past; second, sexual relations for his churches were designed by God for a man and his wife, a wife and her husband. Remember what we read in the previous chapter from Ephesians: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3). Paul called the folks in his churches to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). So the apostle to the Gentiles makes it clear — and this is radical in his day — that one has only two options: celibacy or faithfulness to one’s spouse. What may be most important for us to hear is that fidelity was almost certainly more of a challenge to the typical Roman male than celibacy...
That bigger picture is that 1 Corinthians 5 aims at all instances of sexual immorality, while 1 Corinthians 6 gives a concrete example, including same-sex relations. While it is possible Paul has faithful same-sex relations in mind (and we’ll say more about that below), he is more likely speaking about the far more pervasive recreational same-sex relations. Paul’s holiness mission, then, is to rescue notorious Roman sinners from the sinful life of the Roman world and to establish them in a life of sexual holiness among God’s new people, the church...
Importantly, Paul says in Romans 1 that same-sex relations are “unnatural” because they are against the divinely created order (compare Romans 1:26 – 27 and Genesis 1:26 – 27). In Romans 1 Paul evokes or quotes from Genesis 1 a number of times: notice the terms “creation of the world” (1:20) and “images” (1:23) and “created things rather than the Creator” (1:25). By speaking of “unnatural” or “natural,” Paul refers to God’s created order, including anatomical design: thus, men are designed by God for women as women are designed by God for men, and males fit with females as females with males. Paul’s language here about what is “natural” is as wide as it can get: he sees all same-sex sexual relations as outside the divine, created order and inconsistent with life “in Christ."...
Finding a Church-Shaped Script
Some call the passages in the Bible I mentioned above the clobber passages, and in some ways they are right. If all we do is say, “The Bible says ‘No!’ ” we have only part, the smaller part, of a message...
If we are called to love one another, we are called to be “with” gays and lesbians (this means physical presence over time), and we are called to be “for” in the sense that these folks will know they are loved, and we are summoned to walk with gays and lesbians toward the kingdom of God and toward sexual holiness. Love does not mean “I will love you if you do what I want,” or “We will accept you in our church if you live our way.” That’s not love; that’s coercion. But neither does love mean toleration: you do what you want and I’ll leave you alone, and I’ll do what I want and you leave me alone. Love is a rugged commitment to someone, which involves presence, advocacy, and a companionship over time as we walk toward the kingdom of God — which means growing in holiness, love, and righteousness together.
There’s much to be said about our own redemption in a church-shaped script, and I turn here to someone who knows better than I do. Nick Roen, someone who has known only the experience of an exclusive same-sex attraction (SSA), exhorts our wonderful fellowship of differents to offer a holistic script...
Nick contends this script involves a new self-identity: gays and lesbians are in the church, and they are not “them” but “us.” As he puts it, “We belong in the Body just as much as any other sinner who trusts Jesus. The church must be a place where those wrestling with SSA feel welcome, included, and safe to work out our salvation in the Lord.” He also urges us to develop a script that takes singleness seriously, and I find this to be one of the most important observations he makes. The church’s basic “script” is for the married. Singleness, however, cannot be reduced to a stage people pass through; it too can be a calling. Perhaps more important, and this is true in my own experience in churches, it can also be a stage of lonely longing for the one who wants to be married.
Finally, Nick Roen calls us to a script that permits — and this is where the theme of this book comes to the fore — depth in community. In other words, he is calling us to a fellowship of differents—and one of those “differents” is those experiencing same-sex attraction...
Holiness, yes. What the Bible teaches, yes. Redemption as a process, yes. But all in a community marked by the transparency of a loving commitment to one another and pursuing holiness together in a way we all flee sexual temptations. (pgs. 128–135)
A Fellowship of Differents
By Scot McKnight
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