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Sexuality and the Gospel: My Response to Nicholas Wolterstorff

A few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff made big news when he delivered a speech at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in favor of same-sex marriage. The speech has evoked mixed reviews. Those who desire to see the church affirm monogamous same-sex sexual relationships are ecstatic to have a philosopher of Wolterstorff’s stature on their side (however cautiously he may have presented his case), while those committed to the biblical conception of marriage as being between a man and a woman are discouraged and, admittedly, somewhat surprised at how little Wolterstoff engaged scholarly exegesis with respect to the relevant texts, not to mention the broader scriptural context of what the Bible says about homosexuality.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that Nick is a friend and mentor to me. I respect him deeply and have learned a tremendous amount from his work on love and justice. I meet regularly with him for coffee and conversation and I have discussed this presentation with him in a charitable and constructive manner. In that sense I am reluctant to write this piece, but I do so out of a sense of obligation as the professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary, appointed by the Christian Reformed Church to offer some measure of theological leadership on moral matters, and because Nick himself has welcomed just this sort of response to his work. All that said, whatever you do, do not read this as an attack on Nicholas Wolterstoff. Read it as an affectionate, yet deeply concerned, response from one of Nick’s own admiring students. There has been no breach of friendship or respect between us, and if anything, this discussion gives us an opportunity to serve the church through respectful, substantive dialogue.

Let me say first of all that I largely agree with the way Wolterstorff framed the issue. That is to say, I think he raises the right questions. 1) Is homosexual practice really a violation of the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself? If so, how and why? 2) If homosexual practice is not a violation of the love command, do we oppose it simply because scripture opposes it? In other words, is this merely an issue of biblical authority, with no why or wherefore to it other than the arbitrary will of God? 3) If we answer yes to these questions, then shouldn’t we revisit scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, understanding it in its proper context, to see if we have interpreted it properly?

In addition to these questions let me stress that I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s argument that we cannot simply fall into proof-texting on this issue. Those who seek to affirm homosexual relationships do so not because they fail to see where scripture seems to fall on the issue, but because they no longer understand its logic or rationale. And that leads them, like Wolterstorff, to wonder whether there might not be some other way to read the texts in question, one which may give rise to an interpretation different from our initial reading, and one whose logic and rationale makes more sense to us. In short, the question is not, What do the texts say when taken out of context?, but, What do the texts say when understood in light of the broader context of scripture and of the gospel?

So for that reason I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s insistence that we respect context. Context. Context. Context.

Hence my disappointment with Wolterstorff’s presentation. He does not, in fact, look at the issue of homosexuality, or scripture’s discussion of it, in its full biblical context. Indeed, Wolterstofff did not even mention foundational scriptural passages on sexuality and marriage such as Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6, or Ephesians 5. Rather, he focused on the seven texts where scripture explicitly mentions homosexuality. And even there, he does not actually interpret those passages in light of their broader context.

For instance, with respect to the all important passage of Romans 1, Wolterstorff zeroed in narrowly on what Paul says about homosexuality in verses 24-27. He entirely ignored the context of those verses, in verses 18-23. And, as I will argue, that makes all the difference in the world.

Wolterstorff presented Paul’s logic in Romans 1 as if Paul was trying to show how evil people are who experience homosexual passions. He then argued that since we know that not all people who experience these passions are evil, Paul must not have been talking about the sort of people who are committed to monogamous homosexual relationships.

But that is to miss Paul’s point entirely, because it is to take it out of context. In a sense, Wolterstoff is guilty of just the sort of proof-texting against which he warned us at the beginning of his presentation. What Paul is actually doing in Romans 1 is showing us how people suppress the truth of God revealed in creation, exchanging that truth for the lie of idolatry. Hence they worship the creature rather than the creator. They are guilty of turning the order of things on their head, and so living a lie.

The result, Paul argues, is that “God gave them over” to sexual impurity (1:24). “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:25). And the shameful sexual passions to which he “gave them over” (1:26) are the “due penalty for their error.” Why are they the “due penalty”? Paul is telling us that there is a logical correspondence between the practice of homosexuality (the practice in which “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”) and the practice of idolatry. In each case a natural or created good is “exchanged” for something objectively disordered.

So in order to understand what Paul is saying about homosexuality, we have to understand what he is saying about idolatry. And in order to understand either of these, we need to understand what he is saying about creation. Romans 1 is shot-through with references, explicit and implicit, to the account of God’s creation of the world, and of male and female human beings in his image, in Genesis 1-2. Paul’s argument is not only that human beings have exchanged the worship of the creator for the worship of the creature, but that they did so despite the fact that “what may be known about God is plain to them … God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (1:19-20).

Homosexuality, in Paul’s view, represents as obvious and intentional an inversion of the created order as is this idolatry. It is so obvious, to Paul, that God designed the bodies of men and women for sexual relationship with one another, that one needs to willfully suppress this truth to imagine that directing sexual passion to one’s own sex is in line with the creation order. Paul’s argument is not that these people’s conduct is so bad because their passions are so disordered. His argument is that their conduct is so obviously out of accord with God’s purposes in creation that it shows them to have been given over to the same sort of willful self-deception that is at the root of idolatry.

To be honest, I think Wolterstorff would agree with the way I have characterized this argument. He has told me that he doesn’t doubt that Paul believed all homosexual relationships are sinful. However, he thinks that Paul didn’t anticipate the issues that arise when homosexually oriented people seek to come together, as Christians, for a healthy monogamous relationship. And so he thinks we are faced with something new, something which Paul hadn’t considered, and hence to which Paul didn’t intend to speak. As evidence for this, Wolterstorff notes that Paul also appealed to “nature” as evidence that men shouldn’t have long hair and women should. Following Calvin, he views this as a conventional truth, one not written in creation itself per se. Similarly, then, he argues, we should not view homosexuality as being a violation of the created order per se (Wolterstorff proposes we view it as a “creational variant”), but as a violation of human convention.

Again, however, this is to wrest the text from its context. It is clear, in context, that Paul views homosexuality as being, objectively considered by any impartial observer, an inversion of the natural, created relationship between the sexes, just as idolatry, objectively considered by any impartial observer, is an inversion of the principle that we should worship the creator rather than creatures.

And this brings us back to Wolterstorff’s comments about the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In my view we are wrong to come to the conclusion, independently of scripture, that homosexuality is not a violation of the love command, and only then to turn to the biblical texts to see if we have misread them. Rather, scripture ought to be our guide in how we reason about the love command in the first place. After all, Wolterstorff would agree that we can’t assume that we know what love is without knowing what true human flourishing is, and we can’t know what true human flourishing is apart from the gospel. It’s his recognition of this point that makes Wolterstorff’s work on justice and love so powerful and helpful in the various books he has written on these topics.

To be sure, we need to wrestle deeply and pastorally with the experiences of our same-sex attracted (and intersex, and gender dysphoric) brothers and sisters. But it is precisely these brothers and sisters, who are not others to us but are us – our very own friends, family members, and members of the body of Christ (including pastors) – who desperately want to wrestle with what the gospel has to say about our sexuality. They long to hear, not what they can be permitted to do if scripture can be read a certain way. Rather, they long to know how the gospel might enable them to flourish sexually as they take up their cross and, in marriage or in celibacy (like Jesus), follow Christ. Indeed, it is precisely from these sisters and brothers that I have learned so much about why the gospel is good news for human sexuality, whether through books by same-sex attracted authors like Wesley Hill and Ed Shaw, or through my own friends and students whose names I cannot mention publicly.

My question, then, is, Why doesn’t Wolterstorff turn to the gospel for guidance on God’s intentions for human sexuality? Why doesn’t he turn to passages like Genesis 1-2 or Ephesians 5 or the myriad of other texts that talk about the meaning of sexuality. For it is these passages that should shape our interpretation of the seven texts on homosexuality, especially Romans 1, and not the other way around. To put it another way, why doesn’t Wolterstorff begin with questions such as, Why did God create human beings to bear his image as male and female? What is God trying to teach human beings through our sexuality? And is there something about what it means to be human that is tied up with the way male and female define one another, are objectively oriented toward one another, and require one another, something essential to human flourishing, and something that is therefore lost in homosexual relationships? Are not these prior questions absolutely crucial if we are to answer our own contemporary questions about homosexuality, love, and justice, from the standpoint of the gospel?

In my view passages like Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, and Ephesians 5 have so much to teach us, and I would be elated to see Wolterstorff and others committed to affirming homosexual relationships wrestle deeply with the logic of these passages. Is it significant that in Genesis 2 the man is considered alone, in a way that is not good, until he is presented with a woman? Is it significant that the text tells us that it is only when the man and woman are presented to one another – in their naked bodies, with all of their patently obvious, objective sexual reciprocity and its potential for their intimate sexual relationship and procreation of children – that they exult in the goodness of what it means to be human? Is it accidental that it is precisely at this point that the text tells us that a man must leave his father and mother and become united with his wife in order that they might become one body (one flesh) with one another (Genesis 2:24)?

Is it accidental that it is precisely this text to which Jesus appeals in Matthew 19 when the Pharisees ask him about their own questions about sexuality (in this case divorce)? Is it accidental that it is to this text that Paul appeals in 1 Corinthians 6 when seeking to demonstrate why sexual immorality (in this case prostitution) is so contrary to their identity in Christ?

In fact, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 twice, once in 1 Corinthians 6 and once in Ephesians 5, not so much as the basis for the prohibition of a particular sexual practice, but as the basis for making a point about the meaning of human sexuality. In both cases, his point is that the “one flesh” union of a husband and wife points to a deeper “one body” union of Christ and his bride, the church. In Ephesians 5 he explicitly declares that the meaning of marriage, established at creation, is not found in marriage itself, but in the union of Christ and his body, the church, as the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity from before creation itself. It is in the very way that a man leaves his father and mother and holds fast to his wife, seeking her flourishing, empowering her for mutual service with him as a “suitable helper (i.e., equal yet complementary partner) that the two become one body, and so a microcosm of God’s purposes for humanity.

What does this tell us? Sex matters. Sex difference has meaning. The body is meant “for the Lord, and the Lord for the body,” Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:13. The relationship between male and female was intended from before creation to tell us something about the relationship between Christ and his church, between God and us. It is inextricably tied up with what it means to be human. That’s why Genesis 1 declares that God made us in his image as male and female. That’s why male and female become one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). And that’s why Paul can say in Romans 1 that homosexuality tells a lie. It takes the meaning of creation, the meaning of human sexuality, and turns it on its head.

I understand that there are many questions we might want to ask at this point, textual, sociological, psychological, experiential, etc. And those are good questions. But at least we must be clear to ourselves about what is at stake. And we must make the gospel, not our own reflections about love or a smattering of texts that happen to mention homosexuality explicitly, our starting point.

Oliver O’Donovan has written that the task of the moral theologian with respect to any given issue is not merely to come down on the right side, but to show what is at stake in the discussion theologically. Passages like Ephesians 5 and Genesis 1-2 suggest that sex, sexuality, and marriage hold meaning that is central both to what it means to be human beings made in the image of God and to the essential meaning of the gospel itself. That’s why sexual immorality is such a big deal throughout scripture. This is not a peripheral issue nor is it a secondary issue over which good Christians might disagree. As a church we must stay united and we must get this issue right.

(To read Wolterstorff’s response click here)

Dr. Matthew Tuininga became Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in 2016. He previously taught at Emory University and Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta, Georgia, and at Sewanee, University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. He preaches regularly and widely in Reformed and Presbyterian churches throughout North America and also speaks on topics revolving around Christian ethics and Christian cultural and political engagement. His first book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in 2017. He has written numerous articles and reviews for academic publications and also writes regularly in popular magazines and online. You can follow his online writings at his website, www.matthewtuininga.wordpress.com. Matt and his wife Elizabeth have been married for 8 years. They have three children.