403. an open, honest admission (part 3): sex and scripture

[PREFACE]

Sigh. You know, I really did intend to wrap this series with this post, but here’s the thing about my writing process. I may have a clear idea in my own head about what I want to say, but when it comes to putting what’s in my brain into words, sometimes it takes far more words than I thought it would. All that to say, it may take a few more posts to fully lay out my ideas regarding how the church talks about sex outside of marriage.

And yeah, I’m altering the name of the series. Explanation in the postscript.

[END PREFACE]

Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer
Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer

So here it is, my explanation as to why, as a Christian who goes to church regularly, takes the Bible seriously,1 and does his best to live a live pleasing to God,2 I don’t have a problem with having sex with someone outside of marriage (henceforth referred to as being a “sex-positive” Christian).

In my previous post, I made the point that the church has never clearly defined what they’re referring to when they talk about “sex.” So let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t have a problem with engaging in the full range of sexual intimacy that I and another person consensually agree to, up to and including penis in vagina intercourse.3 At the same time, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about who I have sex with and when in the course of a relationship that takes place — it certainly does and I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.

As for how I justify this stance, let’s start by looking at scripture. The passage that comes closest to specifically prohibiting sex outside of marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-7:2. This bit begins with Paul talking about why it’s not cool for Christians to be having sex with prostitutes

The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (NRSV)

Notice that word “fornication?”4 That’s a translation of the Greek word pornea,5 and fornication is typically understood to mean sex with someone you’re not married to.

[SIDEBAR]

Fornication — sex with someone you’re not married to — is generally thought to be distinct from adultery (moicheuo) — sex with someone else’s spouse.6 The Bible talks a lot about adultery, but next to nothing about fornication, and there’s a good reason for this. In the time of the Bible (and for most of history, really) women typically got married in their early teens (and the men whom they were married to7 might be similar in age or up to a decade older). And marriage was the cultural norm of the biblical world — everyone was expected to get/be married. In other words, there really weren’t very many unmarried people around who would have been able to have sex before they were married. Thus the ubiquity of adultery (rather than fornication) language in the Bible.8

[END SIDEBAR]

Photo by: Johan Karlborg
Photo by: Johan Karlborg
So from 6:13b-20, it’s clear that Paul is referring to having sex with a prostitute when he uses the word that gets translated “fornicate.” But when Christian pastors/teachers talk about sex before marriage, they usually look at 1 Corinthians 7:1-2:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (NRSV)

See that word pair, “sexual immorality?” In the Greek, it’s the exact same word that got translated as “fornication” at the end of 1 Corinthians 6 (pornea). So it’s possible that Paul is still referring to sex with prostitutes in 7:2, and not sex before marriage. However, things aren’t that clear cut. Paul begins chapter 7 with the phrase, “Now considering the matters about which you wrote…” suggesting that Paul is making a break from his previous train of thought and is now talking about something new. So it might be the case that Paul is indeed talking about prohibiting sex before (or outside of) marriage.

But.

But we can’t be sure. And even if someone can make a strong case for the idea that Paul is no longer talking about sex with prostitutes here, it’s not at all clear what specifically Paul is referring to. Paul is obviously addressing something the church in Corinth wrote him about in a previous letter regarding sex, but we don’t know what that letter said — what specific question Paul was answering. That bit of information is lost to history so (barring the miraculous discovery of that lost letter) we can never know for sure.

One of the core principles regarding Christian teaching is the idea that you don’t base Christian doctrine on ambiguous scriptural passages. And I think it’s evident that this passage in 1 Corinthians is clearly ambiguous. There very well may have been a bunch of people in the Corinthian church having sex before marriage, and that might be what Paul was addressing here, but the inescapable reality is that we don’t/can’t know for sure. And if that’s the case, then the church shouldn’t be preaching the no sex before/outside marriage as definitively as it does. Rather, they should be honest about and and acknowledge this ambiguity.9

Photo by: Heather Kaiser
Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer
The bottom line is, the Bible has nothing specific or definitive to say about sex before marriage, at least not as we think of it today (and this bit of nuance desperately needs to be unpacked, but that will have to wait for the next post). The Bible does specifically prohibit sex with prostitutes and sex with someone else’s wife/husband, but has nothing specific to say about sex outside of marriage as it’s practiced today.

[POSTSCRIPT]

In this post, I talked about scriptural translation/interpretation. In my next post, I’ll talk about the radical (understatement) cultural/historical shifts that have taken place in the past two or three centuries regarding how we think about relationships and marriage today compared to just about any other time in recorded (Western) history.

As for why I’m changing the name of the series from “a qualified coming out” to “an open, honest admission,” it’s because equating my disclosure as a sex-positive Christian to that of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer is frankly offensive. So I’m not going to do it and I apologize to anyone who was hurt by my irresponsible co-opting of the phrase.

[FOOTNOTES]

  1. MDiv from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. ↩︎
  2. Instead of listing all of these qualifiers, I wish I could simply refer to myself as a Christian, but I’ve had (more than) enough interaction with people who disagree with stances I take to know the first thing they go after is how seriously I take my faith. ↩︎
  3. As a cis-gender, heterosexual male. ↩︎
  4. Also translated “sexual immorality” (NIV and others). ↩︎
  5. And it’s not at all clear that the most accurate translation of the word pornea is fornication. See Malina, Bruce J. “Does porneia mean fornication.” Novum Testamentum 14, no. 1 (January 1972): 10-17. ↩︎
  6. Well, to be more accurate, biblical adultery is commonly understood as sex with someone who’s not you’re wife. Let’s not forget that the cultural context of the Bible is unwaveringly patriarchal — wives were more property than autonomous person. ↩︎
  7. And the phrasing here is very intentional. Marriage was something that was done to women, far more so than something that they entered into by choice. And let’s not forget that for most of history, marriages were arranged by parents or the community, not by the persons getting married. ↩︎
  8. Of course there are other reasons — patriarchy and the importance of paternity — but there’s not enough room to lay all of that out in the scope of this post. ↩︎
  9. As a preview, my proposal is that instead of teaching dogma, the church should be equipping people to discern what God is saying to them through scripture. More on this in a future post. ↩︎
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395. language is fuzzy (part 6) – how do we read the Bible?

LanguageIs1
I ended my last post with these questions:

If the church has been wrong about its interpretation of the Bible before and may be wrong today then how do we read this thing we call the Bible? How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?

And here’s where I hope that all the groundwork I’ve laid in the this series will pay off.
FuzzyScripture

Photo by: Demi-Brooke

 

How do we read this thing we call the Bible?

The church has been wrong before about how it interpreted the Bible. The story of the astronomical move from geocentrism to heliocentrism is just one example of this.1 But this isn’t the only disconnect in church history. Around the time of the Civil War, there were many churches (and not just in America) using scripture to support the institution of slavery. And, there’s a contemporary analog to this – the church today is wrestling with how to reconcile scripture with the issue of marriage equality.

In light of all of this, what are we supposed to do with this thing we call the Bible? How do we read it when its been misread before and when people continue to disagree over how it should be interpreted today?
RubinVase
Well in part 3 of this series, I talked about the vase/face illusion. I wrote that people can disagree over whether they believe the face or the vase is more prominent in the picture, but no one is going to take seriously the idea that it’s a picture of a rainbow. And how do we know it’s not a picture of a rainbow? Because in the grand community of our collective humanity, no one is going to say that with any seriousness. And it’s that communal aspect that I think is especially relevant to this discussion about how we read scripture.

So how do we read this the Bible in a time of differing interpretations?

We read and interpret scripture in community because it’s only in community that we can have any hope of coming to understand what it means for us today.2

And I believe that we should strive to read scripture in as wide a community as we can find, and that doesn’t just mean reading with liberals/conservatives in the American church today, it also means reading with the global Christian community.3 But for Christians, the interpretive community also includes paying attention to how scripture has been interpreted by readers of the past. NT Wright puts it this way:

Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our responsibility in the Communion of Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the final say or making them an “alternative source,” independent of scripture itself.4

And in when one reads the text in such a diverse community, differing interpretations are inevitable. But that’s not a bad thing because it’s my firm belief that the “true”5 meaning of the Bible emerges most clearly, not in any particular interpretation of it, but somewhere in the midst of divergent interpretations. In other words, in any biblical text or issue in dispute, it’s not that interpretation A or interpretation B is the one true interpretation. Rather, the “true” interpretation is more likely somewhere between the two.6 And if this is the case, then the goal of discussing varying interpretations of the Bible is not to sway the other person to one side or the other, rather, the goal is for interpreter A to try to understand how interpreter B came to their interpretation and vice versa.
Torah

Photo by: atrphoto

 
It’s important to note that understanding does not mean agreement. It’s entirely possible for person A to understand how person B came to their interpretation while still disagreeing with them. But the process of discussion and understanding is still important because without understanding the other, disagreeing over interpretations can (and often does) devolve in to pointless shouting matches.

And here’s another important aspect of this process: person A tries their best to understand how person B arrived at their interpretation in order to question their own interpretation, not the other’s. In other words, I believe the primary goal of discussing differing biblical interpretations is not to prove another person’s wrong, rather, it’s to check one’s own interpretation. At the end of the day, person A might still disagree with person B (and vice versa) but when done well, each person will leave the discussion with their own position slightly changed and/or bolstered and thus, both people leave the exchange blessed by the other.

But what if we can’t pin down biblical interpretation down to one side or another, then that brings us to the second question:

How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?

And I’ll get to that question in my next post. Stay tuned!


1 This disconnect between science and scripture continues to play out today in the creationism/Intelligent Design/evolution debate.

2 N.T. Wright calls the church “the scripture-reading community.” N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 116.

3 I am really looking forward to diving into Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’brien!

4 N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 118.

5 The topic of truth is well beyond the scope of this blog series, but is another important topic of discussion. If you’re interested in how we hold truth in today’s postmodern, global context, I’d recommend Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age by J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh.

6 That’s not to say that both interpretations are closer to the truth to the same degree. It may well be the case that one side or the other is closer to the “truth,” but there can still be elements of the truth on the other side.