Goodness and purity: thinking about ethical and cultic (religious) codes.

hebrew bible

The various debates about Christianity and homosexuality rumble on. Most (all?) of the congregation at the important Glasgow church St. George’s Tron have left the Church of Scotland leading to a bitter dispute over property and money. This dispute has rippled out across the Kirk with people taking sides according to their alignment on the core presenting issue.

I am thankful to be a denominational and national distance from this manifestation of the Church’s difficulties with adapting to a changing moral and cultural landscape. Moral stances (opposition to homosexuality, rejection of divorce and abortion) that were unproblematic two generations ago now divide the Church from the society within which it is placed and divide the Church.

This division is a real issue within my denomination, too, though. We are the most “liberal” of the mainstream denominations on sexuality (with only the Quakers and the Unitarians to our “left” among the Christian descended bodies. A substantial minority dissented from our decision at our most recent General Assembly to permit registration of churches as locations for civil partnership ceremonies. This minority, on the whole, also rejects our enabling of the ordination and induction of openly and actively homosexual ministers where churches so decide.

Some at least of this minority would like to act as the Tron has acted and withdraw from a denomination they regard as having fatally departed from Christian orthodoxy. On the whole they will say if asked that the issue they perceive as grave enough to split the Church is not the ethical one concerning sexual behaviour but the theological one of the authority of the Bible.

Homosexual acts, they say, are clearly and unambiguously condemned in the legal codes of the Old Testament and this condemnation is repeated and reaffirmed in the Pauline epistles in the New Testament. Affirmation of the acceptability of such acts is thus, in this view, to deny the authority of Scripture, to say that we can pick and choose which parts of the Bible we will recognise according to some criterion we impose on it. This flies in the face of Reformed doctrine on Biblical authority as recognised and affirmed in the Basis of Union of the URC. Those of us who accept and agree with the decisions on ordination and on civil partnerships have abandoned the core of Reformed Christianity.

There are various lines of response, some of which I find highly unsatisfactory. One very common approach is to a) trump all else with “God is love” and b) resort to a “right to marriage”. These usually go together and are both extremely harmful, it seems to me.

My own response is rather different, and itself has problems, as I’m increasingly aware. My inclination is, in general, to be very cautious in viewing any ethical rule as definitive of Christian discipleship. This has at its root my own rather particular route into Christianity, about which I’ve written elsewhere. I came to faith via despair of the possibility of ethics, following Kierkegaard’s path from the “sphere” of the ethical to that of the religious as an atheist student of philosophy.

For me faith has always been an alternative to ethics rather than a foundation or expression of it. It is this that makes me so committed to the Lutheran approach to ethics that I learned from Kierkegaard, that no human action has any ultimate merit other than through grace in faith. This goes with the strongly eschatological strain in Luther’s thought and sets him somewhat apart from the Reformed/Calvinist tradition.

My reading is that Calvin’s closer association with civil power and less immediate sense of the end of all things made him less inclined to draw a sharp distinction between a Christian and a worldly ethic.This distinction is so strongly present in Luther that he can be seen to reinstate a “natural law” approach that sees the ethics of this world as a common possession of the Christian and the non-Christian and to regard Christian ethics as defined by the extreme and uncompromising teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, a standard that is impossible to match and which throws us back on grace.

Where does that leave the ethical teaching of the epistles, which is much more concerned with intra-mundane matters and in particular sex and marriage? My own reading of this is decisively shaped by 1 Cor 8 in which Paul discusses the religious scruples of those who won’t eat meat sacrificed to idols on the ground that this involves them in worship of false gods. Paul says that they are wrong (since the idols concerned are nothing then sacrifice to them is nothing and there is no reason not to eat the meat). He also warns those who understand this and are inclined to eat that they should not do so. For those who haven’t understood why it is OK to eat to eat would be sinful, Paul says. This means that even those who have understood shouldn’t eat in case it leads these others astray.

The response of those who believe that the prohibition of same-sex activity can just be to say “Paul never says its OK and his reasons don’t really matter” but they can give more sophisticated theological reasons. One is that marriage is holy (using the Genesis account as a basis) and I’ve written elsewhere about why I think this is a misleading argument and won’t dwell on it here.

The other, and I think stronger, argument is to distinguish between cultic and ethical rules. This distinction says that the New Testament puts aside those rules simply intended to distinguish the people of Israel as God’s chosen people (dietary rules and circumcision) and leaves in place the ethical rules which in principle apply to everybody. I actually accept this argument, I think, which leaves the problem of how one distinguishes one set of rules from the other.

I want to suggest that one way of making this distinction is along the natural law line. That is to say that the common ethical inheritance of humankind is accessible to all using their natural faculties. Ethics is not, on this argument, part of revealed truth but is instead part of natural reason. There is no special Christian ethic. The sexual codes in the Old Testament are part of the cult (the special religion) of Israel and hence do not apply in the New Testament. I would thus read Paul’s affirmation of them as an example of the cultic rules applying temporarily, like not eating sacrificial meat.

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6 comments
  1. Anne Shearer said:

    What about Romans 1 where Paul says that such acts are a result of our replacing worship of the Creator with worship of the created? They are definitely grouped with sins that professing Christians would want to repent of. The trouble is that we have made sex a right or a goal in itself rather than a means to an end of glorifying God in marriage, as it says in Romans 1.

    • There isn’t anything in Romans about glorifying God in marriage. My reading of Paul is that he thinks of marriage as a compromise position. It’s better to be celibate in anticipation of the sexless resurrection body but marriage (like avoiding sacrificial meat) may be called for in present circumstances. Marriage itself is thus a pre-eschatological temporary expedient.

  2. Anne Shearer said:

    I agree with your last point. But he certainly talks about sexual relationships which do not glorify God . And as he talks in Ephesians about marriage being a picture of Christ and the church, I can’t see how one could claim he was indifferent to what kind of marriage Christians went in for. Marriage , I understand, starts with creation as Jesus quoted in Mark 10 :5.

    • I’m sure you’re right that the nature of our sexual relationships is not a matter of indifference. I’m also sure you’re right that our being two sexes is important and definitive of human being and, for that matter, that the place of sexual difference and sexual life in the reproduction of the species is a matter of the highest importance.

      What I want to establish is:
      a) that the “holiness” of marriage is a relative matter, subject to the caveat that it is part of the fallen and not necessarily the restored creation
      b) that the range of possibility where it comes to acceptable human relationships is wider than is sometimes suggested (the prevalence of polygamy and concubinage in the Old Testament being evidence for development and change, for example)
      c) that, therefore, there is no single revealed pattern for sexual life in the Bible

      I also want to argue that ethical,life in general is not a matter of a fixed revelation of a set of rules. Rather (following the natural law/revealed law divide I’m adapting from Luther) the way in which we negotiate our paths in the fallen world requires us to use our God-given faculties and to take note of how others do so,

      I’m personally rather sceptical about the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex partnerships but also of the view that marriage is, more than anything else, a legal matter, so that it is what the state says it is. If this redefinition takes place we’ll have to adapt, even if we think it’s a stage along the way to the dissolution of marriage (a process already well under way – I’ve written more extensively about this aspect of the discussion here https://loveswork.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/what-has-redefined-marriage-to-do-with-the-church/)

  3. Elliot Vernon said:

    Like you, I tend to see marriage as essentially a legal category which has more to do, ultimately, with property rights than love, ethics or glorifying God (although marriage can encompass all those things as well) – after all, marriage is not an essential condition to a loving relationship, reproduction or, indeed, an ethical relationship. With that in mind, I see that if the civil magistrate chooses to confer the same process for acquiring such rights on homosexuals then a Romans 13 argument comes into play for Christians – who are Christians qua Christians to object to such a command of ‘the powers that be’? The only option is submission. The difference, I think, is what happens within a church – if one accepts that Paul’s pastoral epistles or remarks are settling a regulative principle (if not, why are they in the canon?), then I can see that one might have difficulties with having fellowship with homosexuals. One must also have difficulties with allowing the ordination of women (and not just as bishops) and many other things that Paul is clear on.

    As you say, the obvious get out here is 1 Cor 8 – and I think you are totally right on this point.

    However, that brings me to a question – once one deploys 1 Cor 8 in that way – how does one avoid the type of antinomianism that says ‘to the pure all things are pure’ as a cover for (to use a good old puritan word) iniquity?

    • I think you’re right to point to this danger, Elliot, but there are at least two good lines of defense, it seems to me:
      1) 1 Cor 8 needs to be read in context with 1 Cor 10 especially verse 23 -24’“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others’. Paul is fairly clear that even though there is no “objective” prohibition on eating the sacrificed meat to do so is harmful because of the belief of some that it is so. Extrapolating from this one can (I do) draw the conclusion that one should conform to the prevailing ethical norms where not to do so harms the gospel (all things to all people, as Paul also says in 1 Cor)
      2) As an extension and justification of this I appeal to Luther’s reinstatement of natural law. Underlying the “two kingdoms” teaching on the role of the civil authority is an eschatological distinction between the Christian ethic taught in the sermon on the mount and the everyday secular ethic of a reasonable accommodation with our fallen state. This is not a “revealed” ethic but one we work out together with our non-Christian brothers and sisters until the coming of the kingdom allows us to live fully under the direct rule of God.

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