The Biblical Problem of the Prostitute


I used to believe that Christians could affirm monogamous same-sex relationships without rethinking our other theological commitments. It is possible, but now I question whether it’s such a desirable goal. That is to say, are we merely interested in bringing one more group into the circle of respectability? Or does Jesus want us to identify with others who are marginalized as our families once were, and settle for nothing less than a radical theology that includes everyone?

When Moses presents the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in chapter 5 of Deuteronomy, they’re in an interesting position: rescued, victorious, but still homeless, with a lot of wandering to do before they reach the promised land. Without a nation-state, barely a unified people, they’re entirely dependent on God for their identity. And here we’re given a hint that that identity is supposed to transcend barriers of class, status, tribe, even species.  Consider Moses’ explanation for observing the Sabbath (emphasis mine):

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:12-15, NIV)

We can’t truly understand what it means to be created, chosen, and saved by God, unless we see God’s other creatures as essentially like ourselves. The proper response to a blessing is to extend it to others, not to remain indifferent to the ways we benefit at their expense.

The above thoughts were prompted by hearing a gay-affirming evangelical pastor’s analysis of two of the Biblical “clobber passages”, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. This scholar made a plausible case that the obscure Greek words variously translated as “sodomite”, “effeminate”, “pervert”, and “homosexual” should be read narrowly to describe male prostitutes, pimps, and johns, not all sexually active gay men.

But wait…that doesn’t make the text more fair. To the contrary, it just kicks the condemnation down the road to an even more persecuted group.

The vast majority of prostituted children and adults are victims of sexual slavery, either literally, through human trafficking, or effectively, because there are no social resources to help them kick their addictions and escape from abusive men. (If you need convincing, see the extensive research at the Polaris Project, Our Voices Matter, and NoPornNorthampton.)

As the pastor in my discussion noted, the male prostitutes in St. Paul’s time would have been mainly pre-teen or young teenage boys, probably 14 or 15 at the oldest, servicing much older men. We don’t immediately notice the unfairness of including these sexually abused children in the Epistles’ condemnation lists because, even in our “liberated” culture, the stigma of being prostituted still attaches primarily to the prostitute, the most visible and most powerless member of the triad, while the pimps and johns remain in the shadows.

In the quest for mainstream religious and social acceptance, it’s tempting to divide the MSM community into “good” and “bad” gays. But what have we purchased here? In order for Bill and Bob to get married in First Baptist Church of Wherever, we’re scapegoating men and boys who never had the freedom to live our ideally chaste, monogamous life. Any sexual ethic that ignores class privilege–one of Jesus’ favorite targets–doesn’t seem very gospel-centered to me.

Looked at closely, the condemnation lists in Corinthians and Timothy, like much of the Old Testament holiness code, appear morally incoherent to us. Ancient writers didn’t draw the same distinctions between ritual impurity and personal culpability that we now regard as essential to compassion and fairness. Under a purity-based system, a raped woman would be considered “ruined”, compounding the assault on her dignity, whereas contemporary ethicists would insist that the shame attaches to the sinner, not the sinned-against. It’s a shift away from formalism and toward respect for the sacredness of each person, something else that Jesus cared about a lot.

Too much of queer theology comes down to fudging the facts or quibbling over Greek vocabulary in order to preserve the Biblical writers’ viewpoints intact at all costs. Like the Supreme Court searching for the right-sounding precedent to give a veneer of objectivity to political decisions, we pretend we’re not changing the tradition when we are.

Give it up.

We have a bold opportunity here to question our stifling reverence for a cultural moment that has passed. When we don’t allow ourselves to grow beyond whatever moral philosophy was current 2,000 years ago, we’re turning the Bible into a limit on our ability to follow the golden rule: Love your neighbor as yourself.

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