Susan Russell and Unserious approaches to the gay question

The question of homosexuality and Christianity is one that has been opened up and looks like it will not be closed any time soon. This is a serious question; it has to do with how we read scripture, the nature of man, the nature of marriage and sex, and the nature of righteousness and sin. Unfortunately many people do not approach this subject with the seriousness it deserves, and rather turn to emotional, political, or personal arguments rather than serious theological thought, a clear example of this is an article written by Susan Russell, an Episcopalian Pastor. Of course this is a short popular article, a “top 10” FAQ, but even so, she is positing serious theological questions, and giving answers, and one must be accountable for the answers one gives.

I’m not going to go over each of the FAQ answers, although they all have problems with them, rather I’ll just focus on two of them. Here is the first one:

What did Jesus say about gay people? Jesus said the same thing about gay people that he said about all people: God loves you beyond your wildest imagining and calls you to walk in love with God and with each other. He also said a whole lot about welcoming the stranger, embracing the outcast, ministering to the marginalized and loving – not judging – your neighbor.

Here’s the problem with that answer, Jesus also didn’t say anything specifically about war, but he did talk about violence, he talked about the national tensions of the time, he talked about what it means to be a neighbor and so on, so from these we can deduce clear principles to apply to a topic such as warfare. A Christian approach to warfare cannot be arbitrary, there are clear principles that Jesus outlines that we must follow, the same with sexuality.

When it comes to sexuality and romantic relationships, Jesus definitely has an opinion, look at Matthew 19:1-9. In this scripture he defines what the foundation of marriage is:

He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Male and female, ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ. Notice that the reason they become one flesh has to do with their difference in gender, their created gender. Had the sex of the 2 members of a marriage not been important there is no way Jesus would have included the created genders in his explanation of the reason for marriage. Does this count as Jesus talking about homosexuality? No more and no less than his telling peter to put away his sword, or to turn the other cheek, or to love your neighbour (including the Samaritan) counts as Jesus talking about warfare. What Jesus said and what he meant, and the principles he asserted are what matter, not only the literal specific words he said.

As far as God’s love, yes Jesus did say that God loves you, but the story did not stop there. Let’s take one of the most cited scripture regarding God’s love for us, John 3:16, but let’s read the whole thing.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

You cannot read vrs. 16 without reading 17 to 20, Jesus was sent into the world as light, whereas those who are judged because of their evil deeds preferred darkness. So the love of God does not mean that there is no judgement of evil or of sin, of course there is. We can also read further about Jesus’ opinion of love as described by John, in John 15:

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

Love, or being in the love of Christ, is not just accepting who we think we are, or who we want to be, it also includes keeping his commandments. This is repeated by John in his first letter, in 1 John 5:

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.

The word used for commandments is ἐντολὰς, which is also used the word Jesus uses for the commandments in the Mosaic Code. The word implies a moral code, and it would definitely include adhering to Jesus definition of what marriage is.

If you want to say that to be a Christian is to love, because Jesus commanded us to love, then you have to love in the way Jesus commanded us, and you have to take the love commandment the way Jesus intended it to be taken, along with his other teachings. We also remember that Jesus upheld the Mosaic Law, and all that included, now if you want to say “Christians don’t need to keep the law” and you point to Pauline literature for that, well then we have to also take what Paul said specifically on homosexuality wouldn’t we?

Here’s another example from Susan’s article:

Does the Bible really condemn homosexuality? The short answer is no, it does not. The handful of passages in the Old and New Testaments that talk about God condemning specific sexual acts have nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with contexts such as cultic prostitution or gang rape. To put it another way, using the Bible as a handbook on human sexuality makes as much sense in the 21st century as using it as a handbook on astronomy did in the 16th. The church got it wrong when it misused the Bible to condemn Galileo and it gets it wrong when it misuses the Bible to condemn LGBT people.

Yes, there is nothing condemning specific orientation, but the bible still describes homosexual acts as sins. Everything in the bible has a context, every condemnation of violence, exploitation of the poor, hatred and so on has a specific context. Does that mean that the principles don’t apply to today? Of course they apply. That being said let’s examine a specific text, just one, 1 Corinthians 6:9,10:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (μαλακοὶ), sodomites (ἀρσενοκοῖται),

This is from the NRSV which translates arsenokoitai as “sodomites” which I don’t think is a good way of rendering the word since it gives the impression it had something to do with Sodom in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (which was primarily destroyed for its bad treatment of the poor according to Ezekiel), which it, in fact, has nothing to do with.

The word is a combination of Aresen which means “man” and Koitai meaning “bed” usually with a sexual connotation. The word isn’t found much anywhere that I know of except for in the LXX in Leviticus 20:13, I’ll cite it in the Greek.

καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός, βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι· θανατούσθωσαν, ἔνοχοί εἰσιν.

So that’s probably where Paul was getting the word ἀρσενοκοῖται from. What did Paul mean when he used that term? Did he mean cultic prostitution? Well he already used the term Malekoi, which could be read to mean a temple prostitute, he also mentioned idolatry and fornication, so what did he mean by ἀρσενοκοῖται if not men having sex with men?

He took the word directly from the LXX, from a passage that explicitly condemns men having sex with men as if with a woman, from a passage where this is listed among sexual sins, and not among idolatrous acts. What else could Paul have meant? Had Paul meant to condemn cultic prostitution he would have said so, he didn’t, he used a word referring to men having sex with men.

Susan Russell then says:

“using the Bible as a handbook on human sexuality makes as much sense in the 21st century as using it as a handbook on astronomy did in the 16th. The church got it wrong when it misused the Bible to condemn Galileo and it gets it wrong when it misuses the Bible to condemn LGBT people.”

Now here we have a completely ridiculous statement. People who created cosmologies using the bible text were wrong not because the text is outdated, but because they were misreading the text, they were not interpreting the text the way it was written to be interpreted. When people read certain passages in the bible as if they are to be read as a scientific theory, they are simply reading the passage in the wrong context. This fact has been known for centuries, by simply studying the genre of the various books in the bible. However when it comes to sexual morality, if you want to argue that we have been reading the passage wrong, or with the wrong context, you have to actually make an argument for it. You can’ just say “oh it’s outdated, just like the cosmological statements in the bible” because the cosmological statements are not outdated, they are just not to be taken literally as scientific theories. If you don’t think Paul was being literal in 1 Corinthians 6:9,10 then you have to make an argument for it. If you think Paul was condemning something other than homosexual acts you have to make an argument for it.

What Susan Russel is arguing is that because some scriptures were misread as science (when were not, in fact, written to be read as science) in the past, that means that we can throw out whatever we want when it comes to morality, it simply does not follow.

If, however, Susan Russel is saying that the bible is outdated for our morality, then I don’t know where she gets off condemning anyone based on biblical principles, such as love, acceptance, universal equality and so on? On what basis can she condemn haters and bigots, if not on the basis of the word of God revealed through scripture? If she is saying that some parts of the bible are outdated, then how are you going to pick and choose? Who are you to pick and choose? Who are you to pick and choose over and above anyone else, let’s say a racist who wants to ignore Paul’s clear anti-racism?

If you say that biblical sexual ethics are outdated, they what answer would you give a racist you then says Paul’s anti-racist ethics are also outdated, and only for that specific time and place?

To be honest, I don’t think Susan Russel really cares about what the scriptures really say about sexuality, I think she, and many other “liberal” Christians, care more about the ruling ideology of the self, individual autonomy, and self-pleasing. They cling to the true statement that God loves us unconditionally, but they ignore the fact that God’s love would lead us to transform ourselves and follow his standards, and the former is meaningless without the latter.

Susan Russell and Unserious approaches to the gay question

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