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Scripture as a norm of moral deliberation and its application to homosexuality.

How do we use Scripture as a norm of moral deliberation in the church? First, we recognize that Scripture is not our ultimate norm or standard of decision. Rather, our basic norm is Christ. The textbook used for systematic theology courses in many of our ELCA seminaries, Christian Dogmatics, states that "the ultimate authority in matters of faith and life must be the Word of God made flesh." It also says, "The ultimate authority of Christian theology is not the biblical canon as such, but the gospel of Jesus Christ to which the Scriptures bear witness." (1) Lutherans base this principle on the fact that Luther discovered in the Bible a standard by which the parts of the Bible could be judged. That standard was whether they presented Christ. So Luther derived the authority of Scripture from its gospel content.

Because of this, the constitution of the ELCA states first in its confession of faith that "This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe" (2.02). Only later does it say, "This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life" (2.03). Christ and his gospel are the primary standard in deciding the faith and morals of our church. The Scriptures are secondary.

Practically, what this means is that when we look at a moral question we ask first how our faith in Christ affects our decision and only secondly at what the Bible says about it. We use the Bible from its Christ center and not as a series of isolated texts. The core of our moral decisions is how they reflect the love that we have learned to know in Christ. We recall that Jesus said that the greatest commandments are "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31). And Paul said, "love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:10).

Second, when we use the Scriptures as a norm of moral deliberation, we need to examine them carefully and use them accordingly. One thing we learn from the Scriptures is that the Holy Spirit has inspired them. It is important that we find the meaning of that truth from the Bible itself rather than reading our own meaning into it. The passage that speaks most directly about inspiration is 2 Tim 3:16. This is what it says in its context: "from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." In other words, the purpose of God's inspiration is that we may know about salvation through Jesus, Christian teaching, and moral behavior. The center of inspiration is Jesus, and that center is supported by the Bible's doctrines and moral instructions. The truth of Scripture consists in these central things.

So the Bible teaches us a great deal about how to live morally, in line with the central command to love others. It tells us to make God the center of our lives, to be honest in our words and actions, and to respect parents and others in authority. It warns us against stealing, gossiping, and murder. It urges us to treat the poor justly and seek peace. We could easily go on and mention many other moral values that we learn from Scripture. The majority of what the Bible says about morality is useful and supports our Christian faith.

The second thing we learn from a careful examination of the Scriptures is that when the Holy Spirit inspired the writers, the Spirit did not control and dominate their thinking and writing in a way that made them less than human. Their words are fully human words as well as the word of God. So what the writers say fits the time in which they lived. Some of their ideas were derived from the society in which they lived and from other nations around them. So we must read the Bible in the light of its historical setting and be careful that we do not read our modern ideas into the text. Christian Dogmatics says, "biblical texts can only be interpreted out of their historical contexts." It is our task "to make an intelligible transmission of meaning from the biblical text to the completely new situation here and now." (2) Part of this process of interpretation is distinguishing the inspired teaching of God in all parts of the Scriptures from the human elements that have come from its environment.

For example, while talking about creation, Psalm 74 says to God, "you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan" (vv. 13-14). We know what the psalmist is talking about because archaeologists have recovered ancient texts that deal with the same image. In the Babylonian creation story their great god Marduk fights the sea dragon Tiamat. When Marduk kills her, he cuts her body in half from head to tail. Then he uses one half of her body to create a solid sky and the other half to form the flat earth below. In Canaanite material the dragon's name is essentially the same as Leviathan. So the psalmist has gotten his idea of God killing the dragon Leviathan from Israel's Canaanite background. Today we affirm the teaching of this passage that God is the creator but reject its picture received from Israel's Canaanite setting of God killing a dragon. In other texts the Bible itself opposes such a view of creation. One purpose of Genesis 1 may be to contradict the Babylonian creation story. Unlike the Babylonian story, which sees the dragon as uncreated and existing from the beginning, Genesis 1 says "God created the great sea monsters" on the fifth day of creation (v. 21). The dragon story comes from Israel's environment and is not part of the truth revealed in Scripture, but the fact that God is the Creator is part of that truth.

Moral teachings change

There also are moral teachings in the Scriptures that are outdated, somewhat like the dragon story, and can be left behind. In the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:4 says "You shall not make for yourself a graven image." Lutherans do not even mention this verse when we list the commandments. But the Jewish community probably rightly says that this is the original second commandment. Because we have left this one out, we have to divide what was originally one commandment against coveting into two commandments, the ninth and tenth, in order to get ten. We have not retained the commandment against making graven images because it is no longer relevant. Originally it helped Israel to prevent the worship of idols. Making no statues at all was a safeguard against worshipping them. This is no longer a temptation for us, and so we leave behind this outdated moral teaching.

Another of the commandments that we do not retain is what Lutherans call the Third Commandment, "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy" (Exod 20:8). We claim that we are using this commandment when we employ it as a command to attend church on Sunday. But the original commandment is about Saturday, not Sunday, and it is not about worship. This was a command to not work on Saturday. The reason that we do not keep this commandment is that Jesus freed us from it. He healed on the Sabbath and allowed his disciples to pick grain on that day and then said, "the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath" (Mark 2:28). So we do not follow one of the commandments because another passage in Scripture opposes it. We see going to church on Sunday as a moral responsibility not because of the Third Commandment but because New Testament texts urge us to gather for worship (e.g., Heb 10:25).

There are other passages in the Bible that come from the surrounding world and that we do not follow because they go against our sense of what is Christian. For example, Deut 20:16 commands, "as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive." Likewise, 1 Sam 15:3 portrays God as ordering, "utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." These commands were part of Israel's moral code. They were part of the institution in Israel known as holy war. At the end of a battle against certain enemies, Israel was to kill everything living of the enemy, including women, children, and animals. Biblical scholars do not believe that God commanded this. In spite of rationalizations that people may invent to excuse the murder of infants and animals here, this command is morally wrong. It goes against all that we know of the God revealed in Jesus.

Again, archaeology helps us to understand where Israel got this idea. One of Israel's immediate neighbors was the Moabites. We have recovered one of their monuments, which we call the Moabite Stone. That stone contains an inscription showing that the Moabites also killed everything living of their enemies. Israel did not receive this command from God but from the society in which they lived. It is one of the human words in Scripture that the gospel teaches us to reject.

Likewise, Exodus 21 commands "you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (vv. 23-24). These are penalties that the Israelite law demands when a person has caused an injury. They probably originally had a good purpose. They kept people from taking more revenge than an offense called for. You could knock out only one tooth for a lost tooth, not two. Nevertheless, this law was stern and vengeful. Israel received this idea also from their neighbors. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi called for an eye for an eye long before the Israelite law did. This time Jesus himself tells us how to regard this law. He said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matt 5:38-39). Jesus overturns this law that Israel received from its neighbors and tells us that the gospel calls for the opposite behavior.


Not only the Old Testament but also the New Testament contains passages that come from the world around and that we do not follow because they seem to us today to be less than Christian. Col 3:22 is typical of several New Testament texts: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything." Like the world of its day, the early church accepted slavery as a normal institution. So several passages in the New Testament told slaves to be obedient to their masters. Because of a growth in moral understanding in this area, we today consider slavery to be an evil and consider telling slaves to be obedient morally objectionable. The New Testament itself seems to agree when it says "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). In this text Paul sees the implications of the gospel for issues like slavery. He sees that it does not conform to what we know of Christ. Passages that advise slaves to obey their masters come out of the world of their day and seek to maintain order in society. But they are morally inferior, and we rightly set them aside.

I believe that the same can be said of texts like Col 3:18, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord." The issue is the same as with slavery. In the world of that day, it was considered right that husbands should dominate their wives. So the New Testament writer thought that his advice was appropriate. However, it conflicts with the statement just quoted, "there is no longer male and female;... all of you are one in Christ Jesus." This statement from Paul catches the implications of the gospel for marriage. The advice for wives to be subject to husbands does not. Seeing that we are not male and female in Christ agrees with the equality that should exist in marriage. So today most people see husbands and wives as equal, and they show moral sensitivity in doing so.

There are also actions allowed in Scripture about which Christians have had moral doubts. They have wondered whether such actions are compatible with the gospel. Examples are capital punishment and war. There are numerous crimes for which the Old Testament penalty was capital punishment, including deeds like murder but also such less serious actions as working on the Sabbath and cursing one's father or mother. Society in general no longer considers it plausible to kill people for such offenses. And many wonder whether capital punishment should be prescribed for any crime. Some Christians see it as contradictory to the loving spirit of the gospel.

People generally see war as horribly destructive and an unhappy choice. The Christian position has never been that a nation is free to wage any war it chooses. Historically the church taught that wars could be fought but only for a just cause. The church saw wars as an unfortunate alternative but as something that sometimes had to be done for good reasons. However, there also have been Christian pacifists throughout church history who have felt that waging war was so much against the spirit of Christ that they could not approve of it for any reason. While Christians have never been able to agree on the issues of capital punishment and war, for our purposes they are good examples of actions approved in the Bible that some committed Christians have seen as incompatible with the gospel.

There are also ethical teachings in the Scripture that are general norms for our behavior but for which the Bible itself shows that there are exceptions. For example, Rom 13:1 says "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." So, most of the time it is our responsibility to obey the laws of the government. However, Christians have regularly pointed out that there are limits to our obedience. They have pointed to passages like Acts 5:29, "We must obey God rather than any human authority." If the government goes against our Christian beliefs or ethical obligations we must oppose the demands of the government. An obvious example was Germans living under the Nazi regime. Dedicated Christians in Germany, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, worked for the overthrow of their government. They saw opposition to their government as the right moral choice for Christians.

Another general rule for which Scripture gives exceptions is divorce. Mark and Luke quote Jesus giving a teaching on divorce that contains no exceptions. Mark's version reads, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (10:11-12). Mainline biblical scholars generally agree that Jesus' original saying was similar to this. And Jesus' teaching is a good common rule. If at all possible it is best that people not divorce. However, already in New Testament times some Christians saw that this command could not always be followed. So, when Matthew quoted Jesus' teaching, Matthew added an exception to it. In his gospel the saying reads, "anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (5:32). Now, there is one reason why divorce may be acceptable--unchastity. Paul adds another exception to Jesus' rule. In a context where he is talking about divorce, Paul says, "if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound" (1 Cor 7:15). So now there is a second reason that divorce can be all right--desertion. Experience has shown that there are other valid causes for divorce. So, while Jesus' rule stands as our general guide, we pastorally evaluate every case to see whether divorce is the better alternative.

In some cases there is no direct biblical teaching, and our only guide is the spirit of the gospel. They include ancient issues such as abortion and modern situations that have arisen because of discoveries in science that have made in vitro fertilization and cloning possible. They also include issues where Christians generally changed their minds. When life insurance first appeared, many Christians considered it immoral to buy it. Their reasoning was that buying insurance showed a lack of faith in God to provide for them. Eventually most Christians saw no problem with life insurance. Also, early in the twentieth century, most Christians saw the use of artificial means of birth control as sinful. By the middle of that century, most Protestants had the opposite position. By the end of the century many Protestants saw the use of birth control as a more moral decision than the nonuse of it because of the problem of world overpopulation.

Scripture and homosexuality

Let us now look at a few of the biblical texts that have been used in the discussion of homosexuality. It is important that we remember what we have learned from the study of these other scriptural passages on ethical issues as we do so. It is not sufficient to merely quote texts on the subject as though doing so immediately solved the question. We must recall that while Scripture is one norm in dealing with the issue, the gospel is our primary norm. It is also important that we examine the biblical passages with the same amount of study and careful thought that we gave to the texts on other issues.

It has been said that the sin of homosexuality caused God to destroy the city of Sodom. According to this story in Genesis 19, two messengers from God came to Sodom and agreed to spend the night in Lot's house. In the evening the men of Sodom surrounded the house and insisted that Lot send out the two messengers so that the men could "know" them. Lot then offered to give them his daughters instead of the messengers. The men of the city would not agree with this substitution and tried to break into the house. Then the messengers made them blind.

There are several problems with maintaining that homosexuality is the sin in this story. First of all, it is important to understand what a true homosexual is. A homosexual person is one who is exclusively or primarily sexually attracted to members of the same sex (sexual orientation). This is not something that he or she chooses but something in the very nature of the homosexual person that makes this person this way. Are we supposed to believe that every male in Sodom had a homosexual orientation? The text says, "the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house" (v. 4). The majority of these men are not pictured as homosexuals but as heterosexuals trying to engage in sodomy with males. In addition, this was not a sexual relationship to which the messengers consented but an attempt at gang rape.

Beyond that, it is not at all clear that this is Scripture's reason for God's destruction of Sodom. Other sins were involved in the story of the city's destruction. One was inhospitality. That was a major concern in the ancient Near East. If a person accepted a guest into his home, the host was completely responsible for the safety of the guest. The host even had to be willing to give his life to protect the guest. The Sodom story makes clear that hospitality is a concern of this account. It says, "When Lot saw the messengers, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, 'Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant's house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.' They said, 'No; we will spend the night in the square.' But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house" (vv. 1-3). Lot insists that the messengers accept his hospitality even when they are reluctant. Not only Lot but the men of Sodom had a responsibility to show hospitality to those who were guests in their city. But the men of Sodom violated that responsibility.

Beyond that, Ezekiel mentions other sins for which Sodom was wiped out. In 16:49 he says, "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." Therefore, Sodom's sins were pride and neglect of the poor. There were many sins to which the destruction of Sodom was attributed. Homosexual behavior by consenting adults was not one of them.

Deuteronomy 23:17 is frequently mentioned in discussions of homosexuality. It reads, "None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute." This passage must be understood in light of its historical context. Temple prostitutes were part of the worship of the people from which Israel emerged, the Canaanites. In Canaanite belief the god Baal caused rain. He left his mountain home north of Israel and rode on the clouds over that land. As he did so, he had sex with a goddess who was identified with the earth. He fertilized the earth with his rain, and therefore the earth brought forth its crops. Humans could get Baal to send rain by motivating him to have sexual relations by having sex themselves. So Canaanite men had intercourse with temple prostitutes, both female and male, as a religious act. Deuteronomy forbids temple prostitution. The major problem is hardly that some of the prostitutes were men. The major problem is that the prostitutes of both sexes were part of the worship of the false god Baal.

It is in that context that we need to understand the statements in Leviticus about homosexual behavior. For example, 20:13 says "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them." Bishop John Beem claims that in Leviticus 18-20 are universal laws that apply to us and that the chapters before and after them contain ceremonial laws that apply only to ancient Israel. (3) The text itself disagrees with him. In 18:3, one of the chapters he considers universal law, we read, "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you." So chapter 18 is directed against Canaanite practices, and the statement in verse 22 against homosexual behavior is against one of those practices. There is a strong possibility that Leviticus speaks against this behavior because it is part of Canaanite worship. It is artificial to try to divide the book into universal law and ceremonial law. 18:3 places all of these chapters in the context of combatting Canaanite behavior.

Also, how can we single out the passages about homosexual behavior in these chapters and ignore the verses around them? 19:19 says, "you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials." We break this commandment if we put both green beans and squash in our garden or if we wear clothes made of both cotton and polyester. 19:27 states, "You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard." Every man who shaves or trims his beard breaks that one. And only four verses after the passage we quoted about homosexual actions, Leviticus says, "All who curse father or mother shall be put to death" (20:9). We would have a lot of dead children if we followed that command. We take none of these as universal laws that apply to us, so there is no good reason why we should take the statement about homosexual behavior that way. In addition, both that command and the one about cursing parents attach the death penalty to these acts. Assigning a punishment to a deed is a part of civil law, not moral law. So these are obviously civil laws for Israel, but Israel's civil law is not ours.

Finally, we will look at one of the New Testament texts commonly brought up in dealing with homosexuality, 1 Cor 6:9-10: "Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers--none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." It is not certain that the words translated "male prostitutes" and "sodomites" here refer to homosexuals. But even on the chance that they do, it is important to look at the other people mentioned in the list. Greedy people who want more than they need will not enter the kingdom. Those who drink too much will not enter the kingdom. Revilers, people who tell harmful gossip, will not enter the kingdom. According to this list, most of us would not get into the kingdom. It is true that without Christ none of us would. But in Christ we have forgiveness for all of these sins when we repent of them and believe in him.

What are we to say about the biblical passages used against homosexuals? Some of them, like the Sodom story, are irrelevant to the issue. Some of them, like the Deuteronomy and Leviticus texts, are dealing with an issue that ancient Israel faced but that we do not face. They are not universal law and do not speak to us. Other texts, especially in the New Testament, may or may not be speaking about homosexuality. Whether they are or are not, they may no longer be relevant to us. As Bishop Herbert Chilstrom has stated, experience is teaching us that homosexuals are not what people once thought they were. They are not persons who choose this lifestyle but who are this way because of causes beyond their control. (4) It is possible that any biblical texts that speak against homosexuals are based on prejudices that came out of the society of that day, prejudices that have endured until the present.

These prejudices are unfair to homosexuals. They may be as untrue as the Leviathan story in the Bible. Then they should be left behind as much as that dragon even if they are in the Bible. These prejudices may be as unacceptable as the biblical commands to slaughter enemy children and animals and to take an eye for an eye. The gospel priority in Scripture may be teaching us to accept homosexuals as they are. The Holy Spirit may be trying to tell us that practicing homosexuals are as much God's children as we are.

The Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA decided in two successive annual assemblies (2000, 2001) that congregations of the synod that chose to do so could authorize their pastors to bless same-sex unions. The original form of this article was a presentation to a forum of the synod on April 29, 2001, in preparation for the second vote.

1. Carl Braaten, "First Locus, Prolegomena to Christian Dogmatics," Christian Dogmatics, ed. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), I:75, 61.

2. Braaten, "First Locus," 77.

3. Beem made this statement in an oral presentation to a forum of the Greater Milwaukee Synod on homosexuality on February 18, 2001.

4. Chilstrom said this in an oral presentation to a forum of the Greater Milwaukee Synod on homosexuality on February 18, 2001.

Bruce V. Malchow

Sacred Heart School of Theology

Hales Corners, Wisconsin
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Author:Malchow, Bruce V.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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