by Rollin G. Grams and S. Donald Fortson, III
The church faces a critical moment over the issue of homosexuality. This crisis extends beyond what the church should say on the topic; it includes a crisis of authority regarding the place of Scripture and the church’s witness in theology and ethics. In some communities of faith, the crisis is international and, to a great degree, a matter of church politics—but how long will a declining Western, liberal clericalism be able to dominate the growing, vibrant Christian faith of the non-Western world? In other communions the issue is a purely Western discussion of the relationship between church and culture: Will Scripture and church tradition continue to define orthodoxy, or will modern and postmodern approaches lead to the normalization of homosexuality?
We live in a time when what believers have long regarded as truth about sexuality, marriage, and biblical authority is under cross-examination. We have, as it were, returned to Eden, where the serpent posed two challenges to God’s Word: (1) Did God really say . . . ? and (2) Is what God said only his attempt to keep you under his commands without allowing you freedom to determine right and wrong for yourselves? The first challenge questions what God actually said, whereas the second questions God’s authority over liberated individuals.
The church in the West has, for several decades, been listening to a voice asking if what we have long thought about sexual ethics is really true and suggesting it is time for us to grow up, to be liberated from oppressive commands, to exercise our own authority, and to walk the last mile in a glorious march of freedom that has included such milestones as the liberation of slaves, women, and ethnic minorities. Is it not time, we are asked, to cast off the shackles of past sexual mores and embrace a new sexuality that accepts, among other things, same-sex relations—even marriage?
This book is our call back to reality. We issue that call by saying what God has said in his Word and by presenting what the church has affirmed throughout its history. For some people this argument has already become passé, for they agree that the Scripture calls homosexuality a sin and that the church has consistently affirmed this up until the last decades. They do not care, however, for they will not subject themselves to scriptural authority or church tradition. In our view they have given up Christian dialogue altogether and are speaking outside the church and against the church in their appeals to their own experiences and reasoning, their twisting of Scripture, and their ignoring of Christian tradition. These have fallen to the second challenge suggested by Eden’s serpent, that our own understanding of right and wrong should supersede God’s directives.
Others, however, have succumbed to the serpent’s first challenge: “Did God really say . . . ?” They doubt whether Scripture actually condemns homosexual acts. Moreover, many—particularly Protestants—have forgotten that the church’s teaching should be part of any theological discussion. This book, we hope, will help those mesmerized by this challenge, those wondering whether God really said what Scripture and the church claim. Our answer to the serpent is, “Yes, God really did say that,” and, “No, we will not challenge God’s authority.” As Paul says about those succumbing to this challenge, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom 1:21).
Every theological discussion has several layers, what we might call tasks of theology. We suggest four:
- Interpretation of authoritative texts
- Synthesis of authoritative texts
- Formation of convictions
- Practice of convictions
In the present work our focus is largely on the first two tasks. We are interested in the interpretation of the Bible first and foremost, and this involves understanding (1) what the Bible says about homosexuality (so-called “in-the-text” interpretation); (2) how to understand what the Bible says about homosexuality in the historical and cultural contexts in which the biblical books were written (“behind-the-text” interpretation); and (3) how those texts have been interpreted by Christians (“in-front-of-the-text” interpretation). All this relates to the last two tasks of theology, the formation and practice of our convictions—particularly if we believe Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice and if we value the church’s statements and practice of Christian faith in the past 2,000 years.
Having spent the past few years identifying and interpreting relevant texts for a Christian dialogue on homosexuality and having listened to debates in society and the church on this issue for many years, we believe the textual focus we offer is essential. Too often people assume biblical texts do not speak to the issue directly, adequately, or in sufficient volume. Too often the teaching of the church throughout the centuries has been ignored by Protestants who forgot that it is, after all, relevant, or by persons who suggest that the church has been too compromised on other issues—notably, slavery and the status of women—to speak with authority. Too often in our Western context one’s own experience, relationships, and reasoning dictate theological convictions and moral behavior over against Scripture and the teaching of the church. A study of texts—canonical texts and historical texts of the church—provides the necessary prescription against heresy.
Thus, our work refocuses the debate over homosexuality on the real issue. The issue is not, after all, whether the Bible addresses homosexual practice: it does. It is not whether diverse interpretations on this issue have existed in the history of the church: they have not. The issue is, rather, what is authoritative for the church in the formation of its convictions and in its practices. On the issue of homosexual practice, no person or church or group should say that biblical texts mean something other than what the church has said all along because, as we shall demonstrate, both Scripture and the church have clearly and consistently said the same thing.
The issue comes down to this: the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the church’s teaching. That is where we wish to leave the matter, for that is the point at which some in the church in the West are dividing from the rest of the church universal, from the teaching of the church in other centuries, and from what must indeed be considered the teaching of all Christians.
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