Evangelical theologian Preston Sprinkle, who, like me, supports the church’s traditional stance against homosexual practice, is hosting a debate on his blog between himself and a gay-affirming Christian ethicist named Jeff Cook. There have been a few exchanges so far.
Cook’s argument, which you can read about here and here, is that the New Testament promotes a virtue-based ethic rather than a rule-based ethic for Christian living. We are not righteous, he says, because we follow rules—even God’s rules—apart from a corresponding change of heart. (I don’t disagree so far.) To make his case, Cook cites Jesus’ frequent denunciations of the Pharisees, for example. They followed all the rules, yet they were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”
But here’s where it gets tricky: Following rules is good inasmuch as those rules promote virtuous living. If there’s no virtue at stake in following a rule (as he understands what counts as virtue) then Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament would say that we don’t need to follow it.
From Cook’s perspective, a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship is virtuous, therefore when Paul condemns homosexual practice, he must be talking about something other than that kind of relationship. And so, like many gay-affirming Christians, he interprets Paul’s words against homosexual practice to be about exploitative, non-consensual, and/or pederastic relationships.
There’s much to disagree with here. The most important question, as usual in these debates, pertains to one’s view of the authority of scripture. It strikes me as arrogant to say, as Cook seems to, that God’s Word—properly exegeted and interpreted—has to make perfect sense to our finite and fallible minds before we’re willing to obey it. In other words, if we believe that scripture tells us that homosexual practice, per se, is sinful, then why isn’t that enough for us?
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying, “God said it, I believe it, end of discussion.” On the contrary, I’m saying that we need to have the discussion first—to make sure that we have properly understood what God is telling us through his Word. But once we’ve done that—bringing our best thinking to bear and availing ourselves of the wisdom of the saints who’ve gone before us—then, as a matter of integrity, we ought be prepared to obey it, trusting that God is telling us the truth in the Bible that he gave us.
An open mind isn’t meant to remain open forever! As Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Be that as it may, in the comments section of Cook’s second post, I wrote the following, taking his argument at face value. Feel free to tell me where my logic fails:
Notice in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul confronts the issue of incest head-on. In doing so, he’s looking back to the sex “rules” of Leviticus 18 and 20. For all we know, this man and his stepmother were committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship (the man’s father was obviously dead). What harm would this man and his stepmother be causing anyone? He’s not related to this woman by blood. His father is out of the picture.
As Dr. Cook says, “because virtue and divine commands go hand in hand, there must be a virtue-focused reason,” in this case, for Paul’s objecting to this seemingly “borderline” incestuous relationship.
What possible virtue would this relationship be violating? In other words, what is the basis of Paul’s objection, other than that he believes that incestuous relationships, per se, are sinful—that they are, indeed, as contrary to God’s intentions for sexual behavior as homosexual practice?
I can’t imagine a virtue-based objection in this case. Can Dr. Cook?
Yet by Dr. Cook’s logic, unless there were such an objection, Paul ought to say that the “rule” against incest no longer applies in this case—so long as the couple were behaving virtuously. Instead, Paul tells the church to remove the man from their fellowship in hopes that he’ll come to his senses and be saved! Paul’s language couldn’t be stronger.
Dr. Cook is also confident, along with so many other gay-affirming Christians, that Paul is really talking about exploitative, non-consensual, pederastic, or idolatrous same-sex relationships, not committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. Granted, this would be a hard case to make, given that these kinds of relationships did exist and were well-known in the cosmopolitan circles in which Paul traveled.
Nevertheless, Dr. Cook’s words fail to appreciate that Paul also condemns lesbian sex in the same breath as male homosexual sex. Based on what I’ve read, lesbian sex in antiquity was not known to be exploitative, non-consensual, or pederastic.
Again, why does Paul fail to see any virtue in these relationships?