Walter Wink: “Homosexuality and the Bible”

Distinguished theologian Walter Wink is a professor emeritus of Biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. His books include The Powers That Be, a discussion of Christian nonviolence and social justice. (Unfortunately, he also thinks Jesus was only human, but then, so is Walter.) In this article from the Soulforce website, he offers a provocative critique of the Biblical case against homosexuality (boldface emphases are mine):

Paul’s unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behavior in Rom. 1:26-27 must be the centerpiece of any discussion.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and 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.

No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up” or “exchanging” their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them.

In other words, Paul really thought that those whose behavior he condemned were “straight,” and that they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul believed that everyone was straight. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world. There are people that are genuinely homosexual by nature (whether genetically or as a result of upbringing no one really knows, and it is irrelevant). For such a person it would be acting contrary to nature to have sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex.

Likewise, the relationships Paul describes are heavy with lust; they are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple. That was something Paul simply could not envision. Some people assume today that venereal disease and AIDS are divine punishment for homosexual behavior; we know it as a risk involved in promiscuity of every stripe, homosexual and heterosexual. In fact, the vast majority of people with AIDS the world around are heterosexuals. We can scarcely label AIDS a divine punishment, since nonpromiscuous lesbians are at almost no risk.

And Paul believes that homosexual behavior is contrary to nature, whereas we have learned that it is manifested by a wide variety of species, especially (but not solely) under the pressure of overpopulation. It would appear then to be a quite natural mechanism for preserving species. We cannot, of course, decide human ethical conduct solely on the basis of animal behavior or the human sciences, but Paul here is arguing from nature, as he himself says, and new knowledge of what is “natural” is therefore relevant to the case….

Clearly we regard certain rules, especially in the Old Testament, as no longer binding. Other things we regard as binding, including legislation in the Old Testament that is not mentioned at all in the New. What is our principle of selection here?

For example, virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting: incest, rape, adultery, and intercourse with animals. But we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bible condemned the following behaviors which we generally allow: intercourse during menstruation, celibacy, exogamy (marriage with non-Jews), naming sexual organs, nudity (under certain conditions), masturbation (some Christians still condemn this), birth control (some Christians still forbid this).

And the Bible regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which most of us do not. Likewise, the Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn: prostitution, polygamy, levirate marriage, sex with slaves, concubinage, treatment of women as property, and very early marriage (for the girl, age 11-13).

And while the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it. In short, of the sexual mores mentioned here, we only agree with the Bible on four of them, and disagree with it on sixteen!

Surely no one today would recommend reviving the levirate marriage. So why do we appeal to proof texts in Scripture in the case of homosexuality alone, when we feel perfectly free to disagree with Scripture regarding most other sexual practices? Obviously many of our choices in these matters are arbitrary. Mormon polygamy was outlawed in this country, despite the constitutional protection of freedom of religion, because it violated the sensibilities of the dominant Christian culture. Yet no explicit biblical prohibition against polygamy exists.

If we insist on placing ourselves under the old law, as Paul reminds us, we are obligated to keep every commandment of the law (Gal. 5:3). But if Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), if we have been discharged from the law to serve, not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6), then all of these biblical sexual mores come under the authority of the Spirit. We cannot then take even what Paul himself says as a new Law. Christians reserve the right to pick and choose which sexual mores they will observe, though they seldom admit to doing just that. And this is as true of evangelicals and fundamentalists as it is of liberals and mainliners.

The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.

The very notion of a “sex ethic” reflects the materialism and splitness of modern life, in which we increasingly define our identity sexually. Sexuality cannot be separated off from the rest of life. No sex act is “ethical” in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God. What we have are simply sexual mores, which change, sometimes with startling rapidity, creating bewildering dilemmas. Just within one lifetime we have witnessed the shift from the ideal of preserving one’s virginity until marriage, to couples living together for several years before getting married. The response of many Christians is merely to long for the hypocrisies of an earlier era.

I agree that rules and norms are necessary; that is what sexual mores are. But rules and norms also tend to be impressed into the service of the Domination System, and to serve as a form of crowd control rather than to enhance the fullness of human potential. So we must critique the sexual mores of any given time and clime by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Defining such a love ethic is not complicated. It is non-exploitative (hence no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel), it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving. Augustine already dealt with this in his inspired phrase, “Love God, and do as you please.”

Our moral task, then, is to apply Jesus’ love ethic to whatever sexual mores are prevalent in a given culture. This doesn’t mean everything goes. It means that everything is to be critiqued by Jesus’ love commandment. We might address younger teens, not with laws and commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming, and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.

Christian morality, after all, is not a iron chastity belt for repressing urges, but a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God. It is the attempt to discover a manner of living that is consistent with who God created us to be. For those of same-sex orientation, as for heterosexuals, being moral means rejecting sexual mores that violate their own integrity and that of others, and attempting to discover what it would mean to live by the love ethic of Jesus.

Read the whole article here.

12 comments on “Walter Wink: “Homosexuality and the Bible”

  1. Leah Gregg says:

    Hey Jendi it was great to meet you. Rob, my Rector is going to talk about the whole Gay issue this Sunday at all three services (I should be there at 10;30 and 6) so you might want to check it out. I could really see you enjoying it. I saw your poem on SImone Weil – i actually wrote my senior thesis on her in College. I look forward to talking with you about her sometime.

  2. anonymous says:

    The problem with this is, there is a Biblical sex ethic: outside of marriage it is abominable, and it does condemn homosexuality. Just because it is an impulse doees not make it “natural.” When an animal, or even a person, does something against their nature, even if it was genetically ingrained in them, it is a “mutation” or a “defect.” So many years after the Fall, it is no wonder that the human genetic code has become so destructive. While a person’s impulse or natural inclination may be towards members of the same sex, this is not “natural” but a defection from what was natural. People are leaving what is right for what they want or feel, which is anti-God’s purpose. Plus, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, not just for sexual sin, but specifically mentioning homosexuality; now the bible says God is never-changing. If He cursed it then, and blessed it now, then He is inconsistent, and not a God of truth. Plus, if Paul was wrong, and God fashioned the Bible, why wouldn’t He have made sure it wasn’t put in there? The bible claims to tell the whole truth. If part of it is mistaken, then all of it is suspect. Btw, I am one of those “born with the impulse” people, not a naturally straight person, so don’t think I don’t know what I’m talking about.

  3. Jendi Reiter says:

    For a response to your interpretation of the Bible, see my comment under “The Gospel According to GQ”.

    If homosexuality is a mutation or defect, that still leaves open the question of how society should handle people with this “defect”. St. Paul said, “It is better to marry than to burn.” Given that attempts to cure homosexuality have been almost entirely a failure, and the Bible recognizes that the majority of people do not have a vocation for celibacy, even those Christians who believe homosexuality is inferior to heterosexuality should support civil marriage rights for same-sex couples, as the “least worst” option compared to promiscuity and family instability–just as we support wheelchair ramps and other accommodations for the disabled! (This does not mean their churches have to perform such rites, of course.) A version of this argument was made by Rodney Clapp in Tortured Wonders, his book on the Incarnation. Clapp is the editorial director of Brazos Press, a conservative Christian publishing house.

  4. Amanda says:

    Just because there is a lot of homosexuals doesnt make homosexuality right. Just like a lot of people are promiscuis, but it doesnt make it right. We shouldnt make a law to support sexual immorality so we can “be fair”. Gays have all the rights they need. God created marriage for a man and a woman. Its not that hard to understand what the bible says about homosexual acts. 1 Corinthans 6:9-10, Romans 1:26-27, and 2 thessolonians 3:14 in case you didnt know where said it.

  5. Jendi Reiter says:

    Consider that homosexuality is the ONLY ritual-purity prohibition that modern Christians treat as still in force. Every other command, such as refraining from promiscuity or drunkenness or slander, can be justified on practical ethical grounds. These activities are bad for you and for society. There is no evidence that monogamous, long-term gay relationships are harmful to anyone, and a lot of evidence that they promote the well-being of the two people as well as their children and their community. Clearly, either St. Paul was talking about a very different kind of same-sex interaction, or you are going to have to stop eating shrimp and wearing polyester.

    With respect to civil rights, gays do not have “all the rights they need”. We straight people don’t have any business deciding what rights others “need”. Face up to your own privileges here. One of Jesus’ main concerns was abuse of power–privileged people taking away the protections of a minority. Whether or not you personally think homosexuality is a sin, this country has separation of church and state. Since there is no legitimate public policy reason to treat gays differently from other people, they shouldn’t have to risk losing their jobs, their children, or their homes because some people don’t approve of their sexual orientation.

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