The Seedbed Blog

Slaves, Women and Homosexuals

Are we getting the Bible wrong on homosexuality?

Over the past few decades, some Christians have begun to compare the legitimization of homosexuality and the legalization of same sex marriage with earlier struggles in our society over slavery or the status and role of women in the church and society. One of the more recent examples of this argument can be found in an article published in the Washington Post by Adam Hamilton, the well known and influential senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.

The underlying assumption is that just as people used the Bible to resist the abolition of slavery in the 19th century or the advent of women’s rights in the 20th century, so we are on “the wrong side of history” if we do not, likewise, realize the same thing is happening with respect to the way the Bible is being interpreted as relates to homosexuality. After all, the argument goes, opposition to homosexuality and same sex marriage is passing away, and before too many more years we will all be shocked – and even embarrassed – that we opposed it. Whatever biblical affirmations one may find concerning slavery or prohibitions concerning women or homosexual behavior are therefore (it is argued) culturally bound and should be set aside for a more enlightened and inclusive view. However, I am not convinced these three categories are as comparable as the argument implies. Certainly, we would all agree this is one argument we cannot afford to get wrong, and therefore deserves greater scrutiny.

Sound Biblical Analysis + Respectful Dialogue

Before proceeding, I want to acknowledge that this is an exceedingly complex issue and one best processed in respectful dialogue. I want to avoid careless approaches to homosexuality which serve to depersonalize it as a mere “issue.” For purposes of this short post, I want to specifically address the argument at hand concerning the comparison of the biblical treatment of homosexual behavior with the way the Bible treats the institution of slavery and the role and status of women. My intention in writing is to resource the body of Christ to think clearly, biblically and charitably about this most controversial subject.

Like all new proposals, this one must be approached through a careful study of Scripture. One such study has been the detailed case laid out by William Webb in his book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. He has compellingly demonstrated the exegetical problems when easy comparisons are made between slaves, women and homosexuals in the Bible. The redemptive trajectory of the Bible on behalf of women and slaves is quite powerful. No such case can be made for homosexual behavior. An ad hominem argument against those who support the traditional views of human sexuality and marriage as “unloving” does not take the place of a carefully reasoned argument from Scripture. The case to legitimize homosexual behavior by comparing it with the biblical treatment of slavery and the status of women must be painstakingly demonstrated. To simply state that the correlation is there does not make it so.

The Bible on Slavery

Let’s take slavery as an example. The Old Testament begins a long, redemptive process which ultimately overturns the institution of slavery. It begins with establishing a Sabbath day rest for slaves (Ex. 23:12), release of slaves in the seventh year (Lev. 25:39-43), provision for slaves upon release (Deut. 15:12-18) and capital punishment for slave traders (Deut. 24:7). This redemptive movement culminates in the New Testament where Paul pleads with Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and relate to him on the basis of Christian brotherhood. While some claim the household codes in Paul’s epistles affirm slavery, the reality is that these household codes actually served to protect slaves from human cruelty. The clear trajectory of Scripture is moving away from the practices of slavery and toward freedom.

The Bible on Women

A similar case can be made for the role and status of women in church and society. In the ancient world women had few rights, were frequently exploited and were regarded as property or part of the spoils of war. In cases of adultery, women were penalized more severely than men, and in cases of infertility, it was assumed to be the “problem” of the female. However, in the midst of such a world, the Scriptures begin a process of liberation and cultural transformation. Certain women, like Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla and Junias (Judges 4; 2 Kings 22:14-20; Acts 18:26; Romans 16:7) are lifted up to important positions of leadership. Women are permitted to inherit property (Num. 27:5-8; 31:1-9), purchase land (Prov. 31:16), have their rights protected (Deut. 21:15-17), and engage in public commerce (Prov. 31:24). By the New Testament, Jesus has female disciples (Matt. 27:55, 56; Luke 8:1-3); he protects and defends a woman from capital punishment (John 8:1-11) and grants dignity to many women throughout his ministry by engaging in serious conversations about major matters (John 4:1-30; Matthew 15:21-28; Luke 10:38-42). Despite the prevailing notion in the first century that a woman’s testimony was not to be trusted, they were, in fact, the very first to witness and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:1-11). Women are not to be regarded as mere property or as sexual objects, but rather as persons of sacred worth, created in the image of God. (Lev. 19:29; 21:9; Deut. 23:17, 18; I Cor. 6:15-20).

The Bible and Homosexuality

However – and this is the crucial point – no such redemptive movement occurs around the issue of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior, along with a whole range of other sexual sins, is consistently condemned in the Bible. Take time to read Genesis 19:1-11 and Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 and Judges 19:11-24 and Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:8-10 and Jude 7. There is no movement toward relaxing the biblical prohibition against homosexual behavior. In fact, these texts push hard in the other direction. The assumed analogy between slavery, women and homosexual conduct is simply not there. In both covenants, homosexual behavior is regarded as sin. Just to be clear, these texts are referring to homosexual behavior, not homosexual persons, who like all people, are the objects of God’s grace and love.

We can expect for this argument from analogy to become louder and louder in the days to come. On the surface it seems so plausible. As a result, we must be prepared to enter dialogue with gentleness and humility while respectfully taking this argument to task with sound biblical analysis.

The Scriptures embrace a vision of sexuality which refuses to relinquish the unitive and reproductive vision of human sexuality and marriage. We will likely have to exercise great patience and courage, and be willing to wait many decades before this struggle can be resolved. We hear quite a bit of talk about being on the “right side of history.” However, for a Christian, the “right side” of history is often not revealed for centuries.

The Call to Faithfulness

Finally, we must also realize that our calling is not to “win” the argument, but rather to remain faithful to the Word of God and true to God’s character through the empowering love of the Holy Spirit.

Timothy Tennent

Timothy Tennent

Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.
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  • Brosteve55

    Good post! Thanks.

  • former UM..

    We know what the Bible says, but you and the UMC are on the wrong side of history.. :(

  • former UM..

    for a Christian, the “right side” of history is often not revealed for centuries. we cannot wait centuries or even decades or even years to right this wrong..

  • Mary Crowson

    THANK YOU for being consistent and following the scriptures unequivocally and unapologetically. Yes, history will bear this argument out but comparing homosexuality to slavery or women’s rights—for this woman—is nothing but heresy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wesley.putnam Wesley Putnam

    Well said.

  • Mark

    The entire book of Philemon can be interpreted as an argument against slavery. No, it is not at all clear that the Bible condones slavery. It is quite clear that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. Let’s stop the disingenuous mental gymnastics on this issue. If you disagree with Scripture then have the honesty to say so. Dr. Tennent, you are correct.

  • dawnrichardson

    Great approach, Dr. Tennent! Thanks!

  • Katydid221

    So you are stating the authors were divinely led to write what they were interpreting God and as Jesus (God made flesh) have absolutely written this perfectly and correctly. Please review the differences in “Jobs and Laws” and realize homosexuality is well clarified. It is not incompatible with Christian theology. What of divorce, adultery, and fornication.destroys the sanctity of marriage and yet is accepted as a “normal” drive or temptation that requires self control. What makes this a “normal” temptation. Until a person can define abnormal without using the term normal an argument doesn’t really exist.

  • Guest

    Good
    old Dr. Tennent! Such factual errors and illogic comprising Hamilton’s
    attacks on Scripture are easily shown. Consider also his “chronological
    snobbery” (as C. S. Lewis put it) in saying Scripture knew nothing of
    so-called modern homosexuality but condemns only, e.g., child abuse.
    Thus Hamilton is revealed by the following info from Prof. Tom Wight to be either an
    ignorant bigot or a liar. Hamilton relies on the lie that Wright skewers
    here:
    “But
    one thing I DO know as an ancient historian is that there is nothing in
    contemporary understanding and experience of homosexual condition and
    behaviour that was unknown in the first century. The idea that, in the
    first century, it was all about masters having odd relationships with
    slaves or older men with younger men –– yeah, sure, that happened. But
    read Plato’s Symposium; they have permanent, faithful, stable male-male
    partnerships, lifelong stuff––Achilles and Patroclus in Homer––all sorts
    of things. Paul in Corinth will not have been unaware––in a world where
    private life only is for the very rich and the very aristocratic,
    everyone else does what they do pretty much in public––Paul will have
    known the full range of stuff. So that the idea that, ‘Oh, well, in the
    first century they didn’t know; we now, with our scientific
    knowledge’––that’s a little bit of Enlightenment arrogance again
    actually. ‘We now know that there is this thing called homosexual
    condition,’ whatever, that is simply to frame the debate; that is not to
    settle it” (“N.T. Wright on Debate about Homosexuality 4” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YpQHGPGejKs).

  • http://www.facebook.com/SantiagoSideros James Mace

    Good old Dr. Tennent! Such factual errors and illogic comprising Hamilton’s attacks on Scripture are easily shown. Consider also his “chronological snobbery” (as C. S. Lewis put it) in saying Scripture knew nothing of so-called modern homosexuality but condemns only, e.g., child abuse. Thus Hamilton is revealed by the info from Tom Wight to be either an ignorant bigot or a liar. Hamilton relies on the lie that Wright skewers here:
    “But one thing I DO know as an ancient historian is that there is nothing in contemporary understanding and experience of homosexual condition and behaviour that was unknown in the first century. The idea that, in the first century, it was all about masters having odd relationships with slaves or older men with younger men –– yeah, sure, that happened. But read Plato’s Symposium; they have permanent, faithful, stable male-male partnerships, lifelong stuff––Achilles and Patroclus in Homer––all sorts of things. Paul in Corinth will not have been unaware––in a world where private life only is for the very rich and the very aristocratic, everyone else does what they do pretty much in public––Paul will have known the full range of stuff. So that the idea that, ‘Oh, well, in the first century they didn’t know; we now, with our scientific knowledge’––that’s a little bit of Enlightenment arrogance again actually. ‘We now know that there is this thing called homosexual condition,’ whatever, that is simply to frame the debate; that is not to settle it” (“N.T. Wright on Debate about Homosexuality 4” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YpQHGPGejKs).

  • Matt

    We are not called to win, I love it. We are called to obedience regardless of the world’s response or the lack thereof.

  • Rich

    Thanks for this well written and thought out address. The “genius” of the homosexual agenda is in partnering their view with the civil rights movement. Sexual acts often have moral consequences. It was not “immoral” to be a person of color or of the female gender. It was immoral how minorities were treated. Being a female or a person of color is not immoral. Someone who practices immoral behaviors however is a moral issue, not a civil rights issue. Should we persecute homosexuals? Of course not, just as we should not persecute a person of color or gender! To take away any “religious” argument, it has always been science that has called homosexuality “unnatural” or “abnormal” in the sense that the definition of “Bios” incorporated metabolism, movement, growth and reproduction. Homosexual couples cannot naturally reproduce, hence the term of “unnatural”. The only way we are on the “wrong side of history” is if we hate any individual for their sin rather than being heartbroken no matter what the sin – including my own. Sin is not something to be celebrated. It is something to be wrestled with.

    • writerJerome

      There were hundreds of thousands of Christians who declared they were no longer gay in the evangelical ex-gay ministries, but after 40 years of making such claims, the leaders of the largest and oldest ex-gay ministries around the free world admitted that nobody changed from homosexual to heterosexual. That’s why ex-gay ministries are shutting faster than a screen door in a hurricane. The ex-gay scam is dead. And something the prejudiced never think about is the damage they do the straight spouse of the gay person.

  • Bob

    Dr. Tennent seems to have mischaracterized part of Hamilton’s argument. It is not that the Bible upholds slavery–Dr. Tennent is right that it doesn’t –but that, in spite of the larger theme of redemption, pro-slavery preachers deliberately or naively misinterpreted the Bible to support slavery and willfully ignored the passages that implicitly or explicitly expressed the larger theme of a movement beyond slavery. So the issue is not the Biblical text itself, but a skewed reading of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalogan Chris Logan

    I actually have a question: have you read “Torn” yet? I haven’t, but have been following Rachel Evans’ blog on the subject and find his arguments along the same lines as you describe. But like another commenter mentioned, the nature of the debate (a la Tom Wright, excellent video link btw) seems the first problem, and the way Rachel describes the book, it sounds to me like he nails that on the head – to start the conversation, even if we disagree with his conclusions.

    The question is, have read the book, and what did you think?

  • mintap

    Isn’t the “Progress Myth” a faulty way of framing history? It relies heavily on the “Historian’s Fallacy.” What doesn’t fit a simplified progression of history from evil to good is left out of the story, and the past has to always be the bad guys and the future the good guys, i.e., history is written by the winners. The purpose of this tactic is political, to support whatever ‘progress’ is currently being attempted. The current goal is said to be inevitable and supporting it gives the activist a feeling of being a part of the grand story. They can consider themselves heroes of historical progress.

    It seems that it would be better to frame history in terms of a power struggle with Moral Nature. Something in human nature drives humanity towards immorality. In someways a society aligns more with certain aspects of Moral Nature, but in other ways societal norms are driven by those who want power over Moral Nature, and this is often framed as the more moral approach.

    Slave-traders wanted power over the moral principle that all humans have intrinsic value. Liberty was denied, and they considered the economic potential as beneficial to society and a way forward towards true Progress.

    Misogynists wanted a similar power. They considered a lower status of woman as beneficial to society and a way to true Progress.

    (We could add racists, eugenicists, any of the boogiemen of history. They were all in some way the Progressives of their day; all wanting to Progress beyond Moral Nature.)

    Today those that want power over Moral Nature are of the same mindset. Progressives want to disassociate marriage from its organic nature, devalue children, and normalize immoral sexuality. Just like the Progressives of the past it is still all about a desire for power over Moral Nature, and the goals are framed as being more moral and the way forward towards true Progress.

    As a thought experiment, consider if abortion goes the way of slavery. Will historians of the future draw a line of progress to include the pro-life movement as the Progressive good guys and neglect the currently “Progressive” pro-choice fight against it? Like how today we neglect the Progressive historical fight for slavery. Slavery was considered the way forward. It took Conserving ancient principles to stop such Progress.

    I think it is important to reclaim a more accurate view of history and dismantle the false framing that Progressives are the good guys. Not to be confusing, but isn’t it that Conservatives provide better Progress for future Progressives to then claim?

    • writerJerome

      Pure spin, pretending up is down and black is white. From the very founding of the United States, religious conservatives used bible verses to justify slavery and to oppose abolitionists who sought equality via civil laws.

      • mintap

        Just like how people used Bible verses to justify slavery, people use Bible verses to justify homosexuality and same-sex marriage today.

        • writerJerome

          Liberal Christians launched the abolition movement, opposition to segregation, support of women’s rights and voting rights and opposition to miscegeny laws. And the liberal Christians have won every time, just as they will this time with ending the last legal prejudice. Marriage equality is good for everyone in society, supporting the institution of marriage and honesty instead of the closet (an inherent lie). But it is not the 1% of marriages involving same-sex couples that are the main reason why 90% of children today are not raised in loving households with the same two parents their entire lives. Heterosexuals: look at the big plank in your own eye before you assume you can remove the tiny speck you think you see in your LGBT brothers and sisters eyes.
          99% of heterosexuals are having sex before marriage. Record numbers are opting out of marriage forever. Nearly 1 in 2 marriages end in divorce, with evangelicals having higher rates of divorce and remarriage than society at large, higher than gays, higher than atheists. And with 3 of 4 heterosexual marriages experiencing adultery at least once, it’s time to work on that heterosexual lifestyle of yours.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/TylerMcCarthy Ty McCarthy

    Yes we have used the Bible to do harm. The problem with how we use it to treat LGBT people is that we still don’t open the discussion in our churches. We don’t do the cultural, historical, literature exegetics we do with the other topics, because when we do, we find that our belief in a rule against homosexuality, is actually not homosexuality as we see it today.

    If we take those 6 passages at face value, we are saying to people, myself included, what’s the point of even trying to be Christian. And we hold up those 6 verses and forget the 1000s more that command us to love one another.

    The evangelical church needs to say sorry, start the process of asking for forgiveness from people they have besmirched and subjagated for far too long.

    • Dmkmiki

      Amen, Ty! We need to show the love of Christ to all! Quit judging and accusing when we as “sinners saved by grace” have a log in our own eye!

      • writerJerome

        I found a video online that in only 5 minutes covers both sides of this thoughtfully… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmp6lLct-fQ

        • Patrick

          Pure baloney. Rationalization and not Sound Biblical principle

          • writerJerome

            In other words, you did not watch the whole thing. It actually does as good a job as anyone could do in such a short time on covering the bible’s verses on this topic so colored by those looking through the lens of old prejudices.

          • Patrick

            Actually I watched it from beginning to end.
            It’s the same as his other videos. He took the verses and rationalized his deviant behavior.
            “Lens of old prejudices” is simply code for our view is correct your out of touch because you believe it’s still sin.

          • writerJerome

            I would hope and expect you would not say the same of racial prejudice. So, I guess you don’t realize 9 of 10 conservative Christians in the US “knew” it was a sin to wed someone of African descent, based on bible verses (curse of Ham). But once interracial marriage laws were struck down, more and more people stopped calling interracial marriage a sin. Partly, this was because they got to know actual interracial couples. Nobody who understands the issue before us now considers “homosexuality” a sin because both the evangelical ex-gay leaders and the medical associations have been explaining sexual orientation is not a choice. As soon as we have marriage equality in all 50 states, evangelicals will more and more frequently become gay-affirming. We see the trend developing. 8 of 10 evangelicals under 30 say LGBT people can make good parents. Nearly half support marriage equality. More and more young people see your views on gays and marriage equality the way we see our grandparents’ generation’s views on race and interracial marriage.

          • Patrick

            The comparison between racial equality and gay rights is a red herring used to cause an emotional response. In addition, it matters not what the millenials or any others think. 10 years or 100 years from now homosexual behavior will still be sin and punished by God. It’s still a choice and still sin.

    • http://daryldensford.com/ Daryl Densford

      The author emphasizes the separation of the “issue” from the indivudual and maintains “homosexual persons, … like all people, are the objects of God’s grace and love.” Christians who don’t love their fellow humans -homosexual or not- are guilty, but to continue to say Christians don’t love because of their opposition to gay marriage and contention that homosexual relations are un-biblical is just a smoke screen or destraction from the issue.

      Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on only 6 verses to affirm traditional views of marriage and sexuality, it is woven throughout Scripture. Claiming there are only six is another distraction from the truth.

  • Greg Crofford

    In a few paragraphs, Dr. Tennent, you have gotten to the heart of a knotty problem. I fear, however, that unless such an argument can be reduced to a short phrase, it will not punch through the noise in our A.D.D., sound-bite world. I would encourage you, sir, to think what that catchy phrase might be.

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  • willjake

    I hardly think that Paul’s asking Philemon to consider freeing Onesimus so that he can continue to work with Paul in spreading the gospel constitutes a “trajectory toward freedom.” This is simply overstating the case, in my opinion. There is no real argument to be made in asserting that the Bible condemns slavery or that it, over time, moves toward ridding the world of slavery. The Bible accepts slavery as an institution, and while it has certain protections in place for slaves, the idea that the Bible does more than that seems to me to be quite a stretch.

    As for women in the scripture, one can certainly make an argument for a progressive view of women and their place in society and church until you get to some of the later epistles and their views that, for the most part, reverse much of the progressive stance of Jesus and some of the other apostles.

    I just don’t find Dr. Tennant’s arguments here to be convincing, especially as far as slavery goes. To me, at least, this remains a valid area of comparison for those seeking full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church.

  • writerJerome

    The funny thing is that religious conservatives used bible verses to oppose every civil rights advance since the abolition of slavery, but once the liberals win, they write a new version of events (as this article clearly does) and make the case now for what was the liberal version at the time the issue was hotly contested. And so it shall be when the last legal prejudice falls.

    • mintap

      The vast majority of the names in abolitionism are the conservative religious people. William Wilberforce, John Brown, etc. It was widely said that “Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism.”

      The Progressives that valued unhindered economic development at the expense of the human natural right to liberty, lead the way in using slaves for the plantations of the South, and dismissing the religious principle that all men are created equal in the image of God.

      Today we have Progressives that value unhindered sexual expression/normalization at the expense of the human natural right to the family arrangement we all enter this world through. They dismiss the religious principle that God created man and woman in his own image.

      In these social issues it is always a battle of those who align more closely with Moral Nature vs. those who align more with their subjective desire for power over Moral Nature.