Homosexuality and the Bible by Walter Wink

I have always loved Walter Wink’s approach to controversial issues and his perspective on the world. He was my big excitement for our Amidst the Powers conference this past year. This post did not let me down. What a brilliant explanation and argument. It seems holistic and true to the honest struggle that many of us are feeling. It is also full of proofs and reasons to help add to the academic conversation that surrounds these issues. Here are a few quotes or you can read the full article here. He gives reason after reason after example after example of different sexual preferences and mores throughout our Bible. Please however don’t read these quotes and judge the article, read these quotes in context of the full article.

Update: Andrew Fulford, a friend of mine from Tyndale, has a great response to Walter Wink’s article in the comments section of this post, you can read that here.

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.

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.”

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.

In a little-remembered statement, Jesus said, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:57 NRSV). Such sovereign freedom strikes terror in the hearts of many Christians; they would rather be under law and be told what is right. Yet Paul himself echoes Jesus’ sentiment when he says, “Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!” (1 Cor. 6:3 RSV). The last thing Paul would want is for people to respond to his ethical advice as a new law engraved on tablets of stone. He is himself trying to “judge for himself what is right.” If now new evidence is in on the phenomenon of homosexuality, are we not obligated–no, free–to re-evaluate the whole issue in the light of all the available data and decide what is right, under God, for ourselves? Is this not the radical freedom for obedience in which the gospel establishes us?

Seriously, read this post.

6 thoughts on “Homosexuality and the Bible by Walter Wink”

  1. I’m somewhat torn in regards to this Walter Wink’s approach to this issue. I agree with comments like ‘Christian morality is not an iron chastity belt for repressing urges, but a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God.’ But I think straight away interpreting passages like Luke 12:57 and 1 Cor. 6:3 (though I really really REALLY hate to use this cliche phrase), could be the start down the slippery slope of pluralism. In Luke, Jesus is talking about believers who go to the court an make a fine legal mess out of petty disputes, so Jesus says they should decide for themselves what is right in regards to these issues. Not throw out every moral fibre in the Scriptures out the window, and say ‘hey, whatever works for you.’ if you’re going to apply this to sexuality you should apply it to everything. Is it ok to worship another god under his way of thinking? Let me say at this point I am neither arguing for nor against the (for lack of better wording) pro- or anti-homosexual sides of this debate, I am just thinking that maybe Wink’s approach to this specific issue is a little flawed. In 1 Cor. 6:3 Paul is talking about legal disputes between church members and states that they should stop all these suits that are detrimental to the church body, and settle it like brothers. i fear that these passages have been taken way out of the context that the writers placed them. Not to say that Wink’s approach to these issues doesn’t have merit, it is certainly honest and raises some good questions. Also, backtracking to my comment about moral fibre in the Bible, you cannot deny that the Bible speaks clearly against certain things, including ‘sexual immorality’ whatever you define that as. So though one may define sexual immorality differently than someone else, one cannot deny the presence of some moral fibre in regards to that issue, and we cannot simply shove that off and say ‘meh, whatever works.’ i think we should work through these issues by truly studying scripture, in context, and simply pray for discernment. That’s what I think right now at least.

  2. by any mention of the word ‘you’ in that post, I did not mean you Nathan haha, Just…in general I guess.

  3. Hey Jordan, thanks for the comment. Here is how I look at it.

    While Wink might have used a few passages that didn’t work, I still think there is more that he could have done to explain this position. Like in Acts 15, when together, the apostles made a decision based on what seemed good to them and the Holy Spirit.

    I see Wink basically pointing out example after example of how we don’t to what the Bible says, and then unless we are willing to go back on ALL those things, than it doesn’t really make sense to not make room for the homosexual argument.

    I think though what it will come down to is how you and/or i view scripture. I think the way Wink went through so much trouble to give example after example, giving us context shows me that he is honestly working through the issues. I don’t think he is trying to shove it off to whatever works but is trying to pose new questions, like when he says

    Approached from the point of view of love rather than that of law, the issue is at once transformed. Now the question is not “What is permitted?” but rather “What does it mean to love my homosexual neighbor?” Approached from the point of view of faith rather than works, the question ceases to be “What constitutes a breach of divine law in the sexual realm?” and becomes instead “What constitutes integrity before the God revealed in the cosmic lover, Jesus Christ?” Approached from the point of view of the Spirit rather than the letter, the question ceases to be “What does Scripture command?” and becomes “What is the Word that the Spirit speaks to the churches now, in the light of Scripture, tradition, theology, and, yes, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?” We can’t continue to build ethics on the basis of bad science.

    What if, a slippery slope, right on the edge, to pluralism is where the Spirit is leading us? Cause I feel that what grace does, is it flirts with all the dangerous realities of sin that the church hates and tries to build a fence around so we won’t get caught but then then spirit keeps drawing us back in closer and more riskier.
    what do you think?

  4. Interesting points of view, Nathan. Personally, I agree with some of what Wink has to say in this article, specifically what you quoted in your comment. Definitely, a lot of the commonly held beliefs Christians have must be re-evaluated, in light of love and the times, not law and tradition. I say this out of what I believe to be what scripture says for us to do, not out of a desire to downplay the words that God has given us. In fact just the opposite, however not as a book of rules, but a book of love, that shows us how to love. God definitely tells us to do and refrain from certain things in the Bible ,and that is inescapable. Perhaps the Church IS being called to pluralism in the sense that no group of people will be ostracised, and everyone will be loved and accepted, and maybe that is exactly what should happen. I dont think the chirch should be pluralistic in the sense that a theology of whatever works should be accepted…as there is undoubtedly one truth way and life. however, i believe room must be made for people to question and figure things out for themselves. In regards to your statement about Grace, its very interesting…maybe grace is there not to keep us from hell but to better allow us to minister and love?

  5. Nathan,

    Below is my response to Wink. At times I was a bit blunt, but that was mostly because I was trying to be as brief as possible. It does not reflect upon you.

    As I said in your other thread, you can have the last word for now, as I should be working! (You should probably have the last word anyway, since this is your blog…)



    Putting these texts to the side

    Winks reading of these passages have been challenged on various levels (Craig Carter has dealt with the Genesis one recently, and Robert Gagnon, a fairly widely recognized authority on this issue among conservatives, has dealt with all of them. Im not primarily interested in refuting Wink at this point, so I have no right to say Ive proven him wrong on those texts, but Im just saying I dont agree with his reading of them.)

    Hence the spilling of semen for any nonprocreative purpose–in coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation–was considered tantamount to abortion or murder.

    This is a misreading of Genesis, firstly. Onans sin was not simply spilling his seed, but using Tamar for sexual purposes but not allowing her to have child, which was the only reason he was permitted to have sex with her. Certainly something has gone wrong with the argument, too, when something never mentioned in the Bible (masturbation) is read as being equivalent to murder (which merits the death penalty). Given the widespread nature of that practice among men in history, dont you think Moses would have mentioned that 90% of adult males would have to be executed? 

    Whatever the rationale for their formulation, however, the texts leave no room for maneuvering. Persons committing homosexual acts are to be executed. This is the unambiguous command of Scripture. The meaning is clear: anyone who wishes to base his or her beliefs on the witness of the Old Testament must be completely consistent and demand the death penalty for everyone who performs homosexual acts.

    Well, as I mention below, this is not true for those who believe in Jesus. Jesus ushered in a new era of salvation history, and that means changes to the law that was intended to be temporary. Given Pauls application of death penalty laws (I mention this below), I think the main application of these laws today is to the church, as standards for what we should excommunicate for (with some modifications, especially to the Sabbath command, since the Sabbath laws are connected with the Old Covenant system in particular). Peter Leithart has a good post on this (http://www.leithart.com/archives/000562.php), and Vern Poythress deals extensively with it in his book, The Shadow of Christ in the Laws of Moses, http://www.frame-poythress.org/Poythress_books/Shadow/bl13c.html#4.

    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.

    This is an important concession. Wink is disagreeing with homosex-advocates who say the Bible does not address modern homosexuality. In Winks view, Pauls worldview implies all homosexual acts are sinful (thus there would be no moral significance, in Pauls mind, to claiming someone had a homosexual orientation, which is basically a matter of desire (and I dont mean this in a crass sense; its not just a desire for a purely physical act, but it is a matter of desire, as the term orientation makes clear); this does not change the moral status of the act for Paul). This further means that the NT does not think the prohibition on homosexual activity in the OT was part of what was temporary in the Old Covenant; it thinks that that prohibition carries on into the New Covenant.

    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).

    Here Wink is admitting it is possibly wrong to argue homosexuality is predetermined. Of course, if it is wrong to argue that way, this eliminates a possible reason to excuse the behaviour as morally permissible. And one can hardly appeal to custom as exculpatory for all action: just because someone was raised some way does not make it morally alright to do whatever they were raised to do. It doesnt mean it is wrong, either. But Wink has conceded one major argument in recent history for the morality of homosexual activity is possibly mistaken.

    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.

    Wink is assuming Paul is simply arguing from observation. I think far more likely is that Paul is appealing to the creation order here (NT Wright points out in his Romans commentary allusions to Genesis 1-3 all through Romans, and they are prevalent in the immediate context of Pauls comments on homosexual activity, in Romans 1).

    1. Old Testament law strictly forbids sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24), and anyone in violation was to be “extirpated” or “cut off from their people” (kareth, Lev. 18:29, a term referring to execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or to flogging or expulsion; Lev. 15:24 omits this penalty).

    Menstruation is symbol of death (uncleanness); knowing this, any Israelite who deliberately engaged in this was apparently taken as high-handedly sinning against God. This command is tied up with the symbolism of the temple system, and so comes to an end in its current form when the temple system does.

    2. The punishment for adultery was death by stoning for both the man and the woman (Deut. 22:22), but here adultery is defined by the marital status of the woman. In the Old Testament, a man could not commit adultery against his own wife; he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife.
    This is a half-truth. Legally speaking he is correct, but morally speaking he is not; there are several places in the OT that seem to teach a man morally speaking ought to be monogamous.

    3. Nudity, the characteristic of paradise, was regarded in Judaism as reprehensible (2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa. 20:2-4; 47:3).

    See comments on 7.

    4. Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced in the Old Testament. Neither is ever condemned by the New Testament (with the questionable exceptions of 1 Tim. 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6). Jesus’ teaching about marital union in Mark 10:6-8 is no exception, since he quotes Gen. 2:24 as his authority (the man and the woman will become “one flesh”), and this text was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy.

    See above, 2. Jesus also quotes a version of Genesis 2 which included a gloss that was ideologically charged: it says and the two shall become one, and this text was used by those who argued against polygamy in his day. (This post has a lot of good data on this issue: http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2006/09/polygamy-is-condemned-by-scripture.html)

    5. A form of polygamy was the levirate marriage. When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with each of his brothers in turn until she bore him a male heir. Jesus mentions this custom without criticism (Mark 12:18-27 par.).

    Theres a good argument to be made that the obligation of the levirate seems to only be to unmarried brothers, so I dont think Wink is right here. Regarding Jesus authority, see my comments at the end.

    6. The Old Testament nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults, as long as the woman’s economic value (bride price) is not compromised, that is to say, as long as she is not a virgin. There are poems in the Song of Songs that eulogize a love affair between two unmarried persons, though commentators have often conspired to cover up the fact with heavy layers of allegorical interpretation.

    This is complicated, but the simple answer is: the OT sees sexuality as something to be expressed in the context of a lifelong commitment (Genesis 2 says this, according to Jesus). The Song of Songs is about people who are betrothed, not unmarried people, but even if it was it is not condoning the acts described outside the context of marriage. It is inherently future-looking.

    7. The Bible virtually lacks terms for the sexual organs, being content with such euphemisms as “foot” or “thigh” for the genitals, and using other euphemisms to describe coitus, such as “he knew her.” Today most of us regard such language as “puritanical” and contrary to a proper regard for the goodness of creation. In short, we don’t follow Biblical practice.

    Firstly, most people today still speak euphemistically about sex in public company. When they dont, they are seen as vulgar and obscene. Secondly, this is a revealing comment: basically Winks argument appears to be that because modern culture doesnt do something, we shouldnt do it.

    8. Semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them unclean (Lev. 15:16-24). Intercourse rendered one unclean until sundown; menstruation rendered the woman unclean for seven days.

    Menstruation and semen were emissions from the flesh that symbolized death. The Law was functioning pedagogically here: it was teaching Israel that they were guilty and (therefore) dead, cut off from God, and that death was not compatible with the God of the living.

    9. Social regulations regarding adultery, incest, rape and prostitution are, in the Old Testament, determined largely by considerations of the males’ property rights over women. Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of the unmarried and the property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). A man was not guilty of sin for visiting a prostitute, though the prostitute herself was regarded as a sinner. Paul must appeal to reason in attacking prostitution (1 Cor. 6:12-20); he cannot lump it in the category of adultery (vs. 9).

    See answer to 6. The Bible never, ever, condones prostitution. It explicitly prohibits bringing the wages of a prostitute into the temple. There is some evidence that prostitution on the part of those with no source of support was not treated harshly, because they were vulnerable (as opposed to cases where there was no reason for it except promiscuity: when the girl/woman had a father/husband to provide for her).

    10. Jews were supposed to practice endogamy–that is, marriage within the twelve tribes of Israel.

    The Jews were prohibited from marrying people of other religions, not people of other races (Moses is a perfect example of a faithful Jew doing the latter). This command carries over explicitly in the NT (1 Cor. 7).

    11. The law of Moses allowed for divorce (Deut. 24:1-4); Jesus categorically forbids it (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 19:9 softens his severity). Yet many Christians, in clear violation of a command of Jesus, have been divorced.

    Jesus teaching on divorce is highly disputed among scholars. Most evangelicals (though not all) do not see Jesus as absolutely prohibiting divorce, and Wink raises one of the reasons why: Jesus in Matthew seems to give an exception to his categorical prohibition. (See the work of David Instone-Brewer and Craig Keener, some of which is accessible online, if you want to see examples of evangelicals who disagree with a strict reading of Jesus intent in his prohibition of divorce).

    12. Others argue that since God made men and women for each other in order to be fruitful and multiply, homosexuals reject God’s intent in creation. But this would mean that childless couples, single persons, priests and nuns would be in violation of God’s intention in their creation. In 1 Cor. 7:7 Paul goes so far as to call marriage a “charisma,” or divine gift, to which not everyone is called. He preferred that people remain as he was–unmarried. In an age of overpopulation, perhaps a gay orientation is especially sound ecologically!

    Wink provides the answer to his own dilemma: the NT allows for an alternative to heterosexual marriage: celibacy. Barren couples are not seen (even in the OT) as being responsible for their childlessness, but rather are seen with pity (cf. the Genesis narratives with the wives of the Patriarchs, or Hannah in 1 Samuel).

    13. In many other ways we have developed different norms from those explicitly laid down by the Bible.

    This is like 7: Winks argument seems to be, since modern culture says we ought not to do what the Bible says, we ought not to do what the Bible says. What does this imply about the authority of culture? There are lots of parts of modern culture that I know for a fact you do not agree with, so obviously you dont agree with this kind of categorical argument, right?

    14. The Old and New Testaments both regarded slavery as normal and nowhere categorically condemned it. Part of that heritage was the use of female slaves, concubines and captives as sexual toys, breeding machines, or involuntary wives by their male owners, which 2 Sam. 5:13, Judges 19-21 and Num. 31:18 permitted

    This is misleading. Ive posted on this issue before (http://civitatedei.wordpress.com/2008/03/29/slavery/), and many people have written on it: the Bible absolutely condemns forced slavery. Kidnapping was a capital offense in the OT, and is explicitly repeated as something gravely evil in the NT. One of the main reasons slavery was accepted is for reasons we accept welfare today: it was a source of social security. And even then there were severe restrictions on it (every seven years slaves go free, abuse of slaves allows them to go free, slaves who flee their masters are allowed to go free, etc.). Wink is also mistaken about concubines: they were legally wives, though they had lesser rights when it came to their children inheriting. They were not sex slaves. (I think Glenn Millers online article on the Bible and slavery is helpful here, too: http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qnoslave.html)
    These cases are relevant to our attitude toward the authority of Scripture. They are not cultic prohibitions from the Holiness Code that are clearly superseded in Christianity, such as rules about eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of two different materials. They are rules concerning sexual behavior, and they fall among the moral commandments of Scripture. 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? 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.
    Is everyone being arbitrary, though? If evangelicals (or conservatives of other varieties) argue that for reasons intrinsic to the Bible that certain laws were never meant to last forever, into the era of the New Covenant, they are not arbitrary for then not requiring they be obeyed in their Old Covenant form. This is exactly the argument that conservatives use, and its even evident in the NT itself (Paul argues for the temporary nature of the Law in its original form from the Law itself).
    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.

    Wink has a pretty poor reading of those passages, I think. Hes building on a liberalized generalisation of a Lutheran reading of Paul, which has more recently been called into question by the New Perspective on Paul. But even apart from this recent development, most traditions (e.g. Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc.) at least in their sophisticated forms, have realized Pauls arguments do not mean that we are not under any kind of moral law anymore. As Wright pointed out in that article I mentioned, what Paul is talking about is primarily those features of the law that marked out Jew from Gentiles. Those were the things that the New Covenant community was no longer bound to, since they were inherently temporary laws.

    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.

    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.

    This raises one of the most fundamental questions: how do we know what loving behaviour is? As we discussed in the comments in your other post, Paul seems to regard as sin anything which corrupts the image of God in people. Now, if, as Wink admits, Paul thought that homosexual activity was contrary to the image of God in people, then it would not be unloving of him to regard homosexual activity as wrong. The real question is: was Paul right about homosexual activity defacing the image of God?

    I think this is the most fundamental question precisely because no one thinks that being loving always means agreeing with whatever people want to do. Being loving does not mean never correcting one another, it does not mean always being nice. Being loving is wanting what is truly the best for people, what is Gods will for them. Thus, I dont think Winks argument is ultimately going to be persuasive to anyone who doesnt already agree with his premise about homosexual activity, and thus unhelpful for reaching the goal of church unity.

    The way out, however, is not to deny the sexism in Scripture, but to develop an interpretive theory that judges even Scripture in the light of the revelation in Jesus. What Jesus gives us is a critique of domination in all its forms, a critique that can be turned on the Bible itself. The Bible thus contains the principles of its own correction. We are freed from bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. It is restored to its proper place as witness to the Word of God. And that word is a Person, not a book.

    This is perhaps the most central point at issue, I think. What is the revelation of Jesus, and how does that relate to Scripture?

    In my humble opinion here, I think that this should be the area of focus. If as Christians we take Jesus, the historical Jesus of Nazareth, as God in the flesh, and so equal in authority with God himself, our first priority ought to be asking what Jesus thought of everything we have to deal with. And in terms of this debate, since it is so centered on the meaning and authority of the scriptures, I think we ought to ask first what Jesus thought about the Bible. As well, we should ask what Jesus taught about sexuality and about ethics in general.

    I think if someone gets to the point where they are appealing to an experience of Jesus (or perhaps the leading of the Spirit) to contradict what the historical Jesus said, we are coming close to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, or at least failing to recognize that the Spirits witness is focused on Jesus. Either way, I think when the debate comes down to private spiritual experiences, there is probably no hope for church unity, since theres no way to discuss such things publicly. So hopefully it should be sufficient for the purposes of the church to find out what the historical Jesus thought, and engage in the debate from that starting point.

    What do you think?

    (As a P.S., it is interesting to me that Wink would appeal to Jesus as the criterion for judging Scripture, but then also say that he disagrees with (his reading of) Jesus teaching about levirate marriage. Which Jesus is he talking about when he appeals to the revelation of Jesus?)

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