In the Dark all Cats are Black—A Review Essay (Part Seven)

In the previous six essays I traced Karen Keen’s construction of the principle of biblical interpretation she uses in her argument for the biblical acceptability of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships. Today I will present my critique of Keen’s hermeneutical principle.

Keen’s Method of Interpretation Restated

According to Keen’s principle of interpretation…

(1) Promoting the universal principles of justice, kindness, and love, and minimizing human suffering is the divine purpose of the Bible’s moral instructions. The well-being of individuals and the community is the point. Our highest loyalty must be given to the divine purpose of promoting justice and love.

(2) When the Bible commands or prohibits specific moral behaviors, these instructions must be viewed as conditional applications of justice and love to specific circumstances. When circumstances change, therefore, the specific applications of those unchanging principles must also change. What the biblical authors thought was just, good, loving, kind, and compassionate in their circumstances we may judge not to be just, good, loving, kind, and compassionate in our circumstances.

(3) Hence we are free and even obligated to exercise our reason to determine whether a biblical command applies to our setting in the same way it applied to its original situation. If applying a rule as written to our setting would cause suffering, injustice, indignity, or any other form of harm, we must reformulate it in a way that avoids these negative consequences.

Six Critical Observations

1. Keen’s interpretive method exemplifies a fallacy studied in every basic logic course: that which proves too much proves nothing. Keen knows that the specific biblical teaching against same-sex intercourse is subject to revision because every biblical teaching on specific behaviors is subject to revision. Only because the general principle covers every case can she presume without argument that it also applies to same-sex relationships. To be true to the divine intent, contends Keen, we must deliberate about how a specific command measures up to the divine purpose of the Bible’s moral teaching. I see two major problems with this conclusion. First, if we can find even one specific command that can also serve as a universal moral principle, she would need to revise her method. She could no longer assume but would need to argue that the general principle, though not applying in every case, applies in the case of same-sex relationships. Second, if Keen’s principle of interpretation applies to every specific biblical moral rule, every one of those rules becomes subject to review and revision in view of our understanding of what is good and just. Adopting Keen’s hermeneutical method, then, would open a Pandora’s Box of other behaviors that could in a stretch be justified by these principles. It would create a night in which all cats are black.

2. Keen’s method conflicts with another truth: a half-truth is still an untruth. Keen is correct that the Bible recognizes the difference between general moral principles and specific cases of their application. She is also correct that the Bible teaches that God gave his commands for our good. Those are easy cases to make. But Keen’s argument makes a much stronger claim. For the argument to work, (a) she must demonstrate that only general principles, never specific commands, are universally binding. She does not demonstrate this; instead she lets us jump to this conclusion. Moreover, (b) Keen’s argument depends not only on the biblical teaching that God’s commands are for our good but on our ability to know in what ways they are good for us and how God’s general moral principles may be applied today in ways that produce outcomes that are good for us. She leaves out of consideration the possibility that God’s specific commands are good for us in ways that we cannot presently grasp.

3. Does the Bible really support Keen’s view of interpretation? Every reader of the Bible knows that there is great emphasis in the Bible on trust and obedience to divine commands even when we do not perceive their wisdom. Even when obedience produces suffering and death! The Bible praises unquestioning obedience as a virtuous quality and it never approves of questioning the wisdom and goodness of the law (Psalm 119). Were Adam and Eve correct to question God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? The fruit looked good to them, and what’s wrong with knowledge (Gen 2:17)? The angel of the Lord communicated God’s approval of Abraham’s faith and obedience to the divine command to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen 22:1-19). Or, listen to words from Deuteronomy 4:

“Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live…Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations….So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 4:1-32).

On what grounds may we assume that we have the wisdom and perspective to judge every biblical rule by our understanding of what is good and loving? Keen fails to make the case that her proposed method of interpretation expresses the Bible’s view of specific commands.

4. General principles alone cannot guide us in specific situations. How do the principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love, apart from specific commands and a tradition of examples, doctrine, and narratives, give us concrete guidance in particular situations? What is just? How do I love my neighbor? What are compassion and mercy? Every observer of modern culture knows that many of our contemporaries, having cut themselves loose from the biblical tradition, use these words as empty vessels into which to pour their own wishes, desires, and preferences. Consider how the word “love” is used today. Do you love someone when you affirm their desires and feelings, when you care only for their subjective sense of well-being? Or, does loving someone mean to will and seek the best for them? From where, then, do we learn what is good, better, and best for human beings…in the short term, medium term, and eternally? Taking up the Christian life involves learning the true nature of love, justice, mercy, compassion, and all other virtues from the Bible’s commands, narratives, doctrines, and examples. We cannot do this if we claim the right to sit in judgment over every specific command in view of empty general principles.

5. I am not convinced that Keen has sufficiently differentiated her interpretative principle from the liberal progressive principle of interpretation, something she has obligated herself to do by claiming to be an evangelical writing for evangelicals. Simply to say, as Keen does, that evangelicals hold these universal principles binding because God commanded them does not differentiate Keen’s approach from progressive/liberal theology. Liberal theologians make the same affirmation. Liberals might be more radical than Keen in their application of this hermeneutical principle but their principles are identical. In their radicalism, liberals can claim with some justification that they are being more consistent than Keen is with her starting point.

6. Keen fails to consider how much “love” needs to be enlightened by knowledge. Consider again the following assertion, which I quoted in a previous post:

“When the virtue of selfless love fills a person’s heart, all actions that flow from that are pure and are pleasing to God.”

After thinking about this statement, I happened to read Philippians 1:9-11, which says,

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Notice that love must be informed about what is best. Thus informed, it can produce lives that are “pure and blameless.” Good motives are not enough. For it is possible to do bad things for the best of motives, and it is possible to do good things for the worst of motives. Paul urges us, instead, to do the best things for the best of motives. Desire to do good things must be enlightened by knowledge of what is truly good.

Conclusion

In these criticisms, I have not attempted to demonstrate that Keen’s interpretative principle is altogether false. I readily admit that it contains elements of truth, which accounts for its power to persuade some people. Nor do I offer an alternative hermeneutic strategy to explain the Bible’s moral teaching. As a minimum result, the six criticisms above show that Keen has not demonstrated that her method of interpretation will bear the weight she places on it. Specifically, she has not shown that the distinction between universal and contextual, or virtue and deed, or general purpose and contextual application, or principle and embodiment applies to every specific biblical command in a way that justifies revising and restating it in view of its supposed underlying divine purpose. Therefore, she has not yet demonstrated that her hermeneutic method applies to the biblical prohibition of same-sex intercourse. She will have to make this case independently. Does she succeed? I will address this question in my review of the final three chapters of the book.

Next Time: A review of chapter 6, “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People.”

Did Jesus Really Interpret the Bible Like This? A Review Essay (Part Six)

This post continues my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. Today we focus on chapter 5, “What is Ethical? Interpreting the Bible Like Jesus.” In this chapter, Keen puts the finishing touches on her theory of biblical interpretation. She devotes the rest of the book to its application.

How Does the Bible Teach Morality?

Virtue Matters

In addressing the question of how the Bible teaches morality Keen mentions commands, examples, symbolic worlds, and virtues. Virtue seems to be Keen’s all-encompassing category. “Virtues,” she explains, “are about who a person is, whereas rules address what a person does.” Biblical virtues are culturally transcendent whereas laws and rules are culturally relative. Loving God and your neighbor are always right. In commenting on Jesus’s statement, “But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41), Keen draws the following principle:

Jesus indicates that if we act out of virtue, the outcome is always the will of God…When the virtue of selfless love fills a person’s heart, all actions that flow from that are pure and are pleasing to God.

Applying the above principle to same-sex relationships, Keen argues,

If sin is defined as something that violates the fruit of the Spirit, how are loving, monogamous same-sex relationships sinful? These partnerships are fully capable of exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. If Jesus says that all the law can be summed up in love, then don’t these relationships meet this requirement?

Interpretation within the Bible

Keen finds the argument from virtue “compelling” but realizes that some in her target audience may need more convincing. To provide that extra push she attempts to demonstrate that the biblical authors themselves employ the very interpretive strategy she has been advocating. She examines three instances of such internal rereading of the Bible: Deuteronomy 15:12-18 covers the same situation as does Exodus 21:2-11 but softens the law, making it more humane. The gospel of Matthew (19:9) makes an exception to Jesus’s strict teaching on divorce as recorded in Mark 10:11-12, and Paul adds another ground for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. In reply to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus and his disciples were breaking the Sabbath law by stripping grain from the heads of wheat and eating it, Jesus cites David’s breaking the law by eating the holy bread of the sanctuary because of his hunger (Mark 2: 23-28; Matt 12:3-4). Jesus concludes, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Keen infers from Jesus’s teaching on the Sabbath that “God’s ordinances are always on behalf of people and not for the arbitrary appeasement of God’s sensibilities.” If the author of Deuteronomy, Jesus, and Paul were correct to read the Bible this way, surely we are permitted to do so. Hence we are not only free but are obligated to apply biblical laws “with attention to human need and suffering.”

Helpful Distinction or Universal Principle?

In this chapter, Keen continues to build her case begun in the previous chapter for the clear distinction between the Bible’s specific instructions, which are culturally relative, and the universal moral principles that those instructions attempt to embody. This time she appeals to the category of virtue. Virtues are habitual attitudes that guide moral behavior in specific circumstances. Biblical virtues are universal principles that apply everywhere and always. In contrast, the moral quality of behaviors depends on how well they embody the universal virtues in specific contexts. Keen offers Jesus’s teaching about the purpose of the Sabbath and Matthew’s and Paul’s adaptation of Jesus’s teaching on divorce as biblical examples of the distinction between universal principles and their contextual application.

Undoubtedly, Jesus and Paul did distinguish between principle and application and between virtue and act. No one I know denies this distinction. But Keen’s case depends on transforming the admitted distinction into a dichotomy and incorporating it into an interpretative framework that allows no exceptions. For admitting the possibility of exceptions would weaken Keen’s case for the biblical legitimacy of same-sex relationships because it would plunge her into endless debates about which specific biblical instructions are transcultural and which are not. She would need to develop interpretative criteria for deciding this question also. The process of interpretation would never end.

But applying her no-exceptions interpretative method consistently would create even worse difficulties for her case. We could accept no biblical command at face value. The Christian ethicist would be required to explain how each and every biblical rule can be justified on the basis of general principles. Objections, alternative interpretations, disputes, and accusations of rationalization or callousness are sure to multiply.

Next: I will devote the next essay to criticism of the interpretative method Keen developed in chapters 4 and 5.

What Does it Mean to “Interpret” the Bible?—A Review Essay (Part Five)

Today’s post continues my analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. I will summarize and examine chapter 4, which along with chapter 5, gets at the heart of Keen’s interpretative strategy. Since these two chapters combine to form one argument, I will delay my critique of chapter 4 until I have summarized and analyzed chapter 5.

The Target Audience (Again)

As you think about Keen’s argument and my critiques, keep in mind her target audience and the constraints this focus places on her reasoning and my responses. She speaks to evangelicals, to people who wish to remain loyal to the principle of biblical authority. They will not accept the progressive view of the Bible’s moral teaching, which dismisses it as primitive, uninformed, and of mere human origin. Though Keen rehearses progressives’ arguments and obviously accepts some of their conclusions, she labors to distance herself from their liberal theological presuppositions. Hence to achieve her purpose of steering clear of both extremes—progressive and traditional—Keen must develop a hermeneutical strategy (interpretation) that both affirms biblical authority and demonstrates that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable. She devotes chapters 4 and 5 to this task, and I am devoting the next two essays to summarizing, clarifying, and critiquing the method she develops in these chapters.

A Theory of Interpretation

The title of chapter 4 gives us a feel for what is to come: “Fifty Shekels for Rape: Making Sense of Old Testament Laws.” In this chapter Keen compares two Old Testament case laws found in Exodus 21:22-25 and 28-30 to similar cases found in law codes of other ancient near eastern peoples. In Keen’s view the similarity of Old Testament laws to those of non-Israelite nations demonstrates that they share a common cultural milieu. Progressives take this commonality to prove that such laws are wholly irrelevant to our time, and traditionalists ignore the challenge this discovery poses to their proof text method of biblical interpretation. Keen proposes a theory of interpretation that takes seriously the cultural relativity of biblical laws while preserving their divine authority. She distinguishes between the culturally conditioned laws and the underlying purposes of those laws. We may view the underlying principles as inspired, divine commands while viewing specific instructions as culturally conditioned applications. It is a mistake, Keen argues, to focus on what the laws instruct the Israelites to do rather than on why the laws were given and the goals at which they aim. In a section on the “enduring meaning of Old Testament laws,” Keen makes the following assertions:

“Inspiration resides not necessarily in the particularities, but in the overarching reason for the laws—namely a good and just society.”

“Sin is generally defined by what harms others.”

“Thus, whether and how we apply a particularity from scriptural mandates depends on the underlying intent of the law and its relationship to fostering a good and just world.”

“What both progressives and traditionalists typically overlook is the deliberative process that we must undertake to rightly interpret and apply biblical laws today.”

The chapter concludes with two questions that prepare the reader for the next phase of the argument:

“What is the overarching intent of the Bible’s sexual laws? Are there alternative ways to fulfill that intent more fully that take into consideration the predicament of gay and lesbian people?”

Analytic Observation

1. In constructing her hermeneutic method, Keen argues that the specific behaviors that biblical laws enjoin or forbid are culturally conditioned applications of such universal and divinely inspired principles as justice, peace, mercy, and love. We are obligated to respect those universal principles everywhere and always, but we are not bound by any previous attempt to embody those principles in specific mandates. According to this interpretative strategy, we are obligated to honor the Bible’s specific rules forbidding same-sex relationships only if we can be convinced that those rules embody the universal principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love in our contemporary situation. Her success in convincing evangelicals of the biblical permissibility of loving, same-sex relationships depends on demonstrating the universal validity and workability of her hermeneutical principle. Does her method of interpretation help us grasp the unchanging divine meaning of the scriptures as she claims or does it give us license to find our own values and meanings underneath the words of scripture? This question poses one of the two or three most decisive issues the reader must decide in assessing the book’s thesis.

Preliminary Questions

1. But has Keen made a convincing case that we can separate specific biblical rules from the principles they embody as discretely as she presumes?

2. Do we agree that Keen’s list of universal principles is exhaustive, that is, is it impossible that a specific rule could do double duty as a universal principle? For example, consider this rule: “Never betray an innocent friend to death.”

3. Does limiting inspiration and divine commands to general principles while attributing all application to culturally conditioned human judgment do justice the Bible as a whole, especially from an evangelical perspective?

4. Has Keen made a sufficient case that these so-called universal principles are not merely abstractions that give no specific guidance in real-life situations but depend for their content on subjective or cultural factors? For example, does “Always love” mean “Never participate in any act that makes another person feel unhappy?” And even if we take it to mean, “Always seek the best for everyone,” within what moral framework do we determine what is best?

5. If the only inspired moral guidance in the Bible is that articulated in the universal principles listed by Keen and those principles lie behind the law codes of every nation—ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, India, and China—what sense does it make to claim divine inspiration for their presence in the Bible? Will evangelicals be satisfied with such a theory of inspiration? It seems more like a theory of natural law written on every heart than the special revelation that evangelicals treasure.

To be Continued…

Two Views of Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships—A Review (Part Four)

In the fourth installment of my review of Karen Keen’s book on scripture and same-sex relationships, I will take up chapter three, “Key Arguments in Today’s Debate on Same-sex Relationships.”

The Clash of the Titans

Keen constructs this chapter as a debate between traditionalists and progressives about the biblical view of same-sex relationships. It focuses specifically on the question of the significance of “gender and anatomical complementarity” for the issue. In previous chapters Keen concluded that traditionalists and progressives agree that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships for a variety of reasons–idolatry, coercion, and exploitation. But they disagree on the crucial issue of whether or not the Bible forbids same-sex relationships because of their lack of “gender and anatomical complementarity” and requires such complementarity for legitimate marriage. The debate turns on the interpretation of six texts: Genesis 1-3; Matthew 19:1-6; Mark 10:1-9; Romans 1; Ephesians 5:22-32; and Revelation 19:7-9.

Keen sets out the traditionalist argument against same-sex relationships in four theses and the progressive case in five theses:

Traditionalist Arguments

The Bible teaches that “gender and anatomical complementarity” is an essential feature of legitimate marriage because…  

  1. “Heterosexual marriage is a creation ordinance, and therefore not culturally relative” (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Matt 19:4-6).
  2. “Marriage is ordered toward procreation, but procreation is not required to validate marriage” (Gen. 1:28).
  3. “Same-sex desire is the result of the fall” (Romans 1; Genesis 3).
  4. “Heterosexual marriage is a living icon or a symbol of the union of Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:25; 29-32; Revelation. 19:7-9)

Traditionalist arguments appeal in a straightforward way to the texts they quote: The Bible obviously prohibits same-sex intercourse and commends marriage as a God-sanctioned covenant, which it never contemplates as anything other than a union of male and female.

Therefore…

The Bible teaches that “gender and anatomical complementarity” is an essential feature of legitimate marriage.

Progressive Counter Arguments

The Bible does not teach that “gender and anatomical complementarity” is an essential feature of legitimate marriage because…  

  1. “Covenant fidelity, not sexual differentiation, is the foundation of biblical marriage.”
  2. “Procreation is minimized in the New Testament.”
  3. “Paul’s use of “unnatural” (para physin) in Romans 1 must be understood in his historical context.”
  4. “Romans 1 does not describe most gay and lesbian people.”
  5. “Same-sex relationships can symbolize the union between Christ and the church.”

The cumulative force of the progressive theses is mostly negative. They propose exceptions and alternative explanations to the traditional interpretations, thereby creating doubt about traditionalists’ exclusive claims. Newly formed doubt and alternative explanations wedge open the possibility that “gender and anatomical complementarity” may not be an essential feature of legitimate marriage. At this point affirming same-sex relationships as biblically legitimate is a mere possibility. It needs further support to increase its credibility. Keen offers that support in succeeding chapters.

Analysis

1. This chapter operates on two levels. Our attention is drawn first to the debate between traditionalists and progressives. Although Keen denies that she fits in either camp, she nevertheless uses a progressive voice—rather than her own—to represent the viewpoint she accepts. Why? Throughout the chapter Keen’s invisible hand is at work using this debate for her own purposes. But it is not until the next chapter that she tells us that the debate between traditionalists and progressives ends in a “stalemate.” This conclusion opens space for Keen to make her own contribution, which she does in the rest of the book.

2. There may be, however, another reason Keen uses the progressive voice to critique the traditionalist argument. Or, if not a “reason,” an effect. Most Christian defenses of same-sex relationships have been articulated by progressives. Their rejection of biblical authority, embrace of historical relativism, and adherence to theological liberalism gives them greater freedom to question even the plain meaning of the Bible and look for alternative interpretations. Keen does not wish to be associated with this aspect of progressivism. However, she uses the imaginative work of progressives to put these alternative interpretations into our minds. It is an open question, however, whether you can justify the conclusions progressives reach without accepting the whole progressive package. Keen will argue that you can do so.

3. Keen devotes nearly three times as much space to progressive arguments as to traditionalist arguments. Perhaps this lack of balance makes sense because the traditionalist case is rather simple whereas the progressive case is more complicated. The traditionalist needs only point to biblical texts, which clearly condemn same-sex intercourse and commend marriage between male and female. What more needs to be said? Progressives, however, must argue against the grain of the plain meaning of the text. Each of the five progressive theses listed above attempts to defeat the traditional reading of the biblical proof texts for the traditional theses. The effect of the five progressive arguments is to create doubt and stimulate us to imagine alternative interpretations. But I don’t think I am being uncharitable to surmise that Keen gives much more space to progressive arguments because she agrees with them and wants to persuade us of their strength while maintaining her distance from progressivism’s offensive features—offensive, that is, to conservative, Bible-believing Christians.

Critical Comments

I will make my critical comments brief. I don’t want to go into detail in a critique of the chapter’s progressive arguments because Keen has not yet tied herself to them or explained just where she agrees or disagrees with them. I do not want to risk attributing to her something she has not affirmed. In any case, my critique of progressivism would begin at a more fundamental level than the interpretation of the six texts discussed in this chapter.

1. Keen uses the term “heterosexual marriage” to designate the traditionalist understanding of biblical marriage. Usually Keen resists using anachronistic terms that attribute a modern idea to an ancient author. She violates that rule here. Traditionalists would not (or should not) accept this term as descriptive of what they believe. In the Bible marriage means just one thing. It needs no qualifier. To add the adjective “heterosexual” begs the essential question, and thoughtful traditionalists will not overlook this fallacy.

2. Keen has not yet clearly differentiated herself from what she calls “progressive” Christian theology. Hence the reader is kept in the dark about her theological stance and is forced to guess what she is up to. Her thesis is that you do not need to reject biblical authority or your evangelical faith to accept same-sex relationships as biblically legitimate. But her use of insights generated on progressive premises and developed using progressive methods evoke some suspicion about her sincerity in claiming to support an evangelical view of biblical authority.

Next: Keen introduces and applies her own interpretative method to help us to “make sense of Old Testament law.”

Does the Bible Really Say That? — Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships—A Review (Part Three)

Today we continue with part three of my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships, focusing on chapter two:

“Same-Sex Relations in Ancient Jewish and Christian Thought.”

Where We Stand

Each chapter in Keen’s book contributes something important to her argument, and chapter two is no exception. To grasp precisely what this chapter adds let’s keep in mind her conclusion, which I stated in part one of this review:

Because loving, committed same-sex relationships embody justice, goodness, and human flourishing, do not cause harm to the people in the relationship or the human community, and unwanted celibacy causes great harm and unhappiness to gay and lesbian people, faithful deliberation and application must conclude that the Bible allows and even blesses covenanted same-sex relationships.

Reading between the Lines and in the Margins

As is obvious from its title, chapter two surveys ancient Jewish and Christian views on same-sex relationships. Keen documents the universally negative view of same-sex relationships in the Old and New Testaments and in such Jewish writers as Philo and Josephus. Although she delays detailed examination of the biblical texts that refer to same-sex intercourse, she briefly mentions two Old Testament texts (Lev 18:22 and 20:13) and three New Testament texts (1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10; and Rom 1:18-32). She admits that these texts condemn same-sex relationships. Progressives, traditionalists, and Keen agree on this point. But this consensus does not settle the hermeneutical issue, that is, how to interpret and apply these texts. For even traditionalists admit that there are many biblical commands—for example, about modest dress, gender specific clothing, not eating blood—that we are free to set aside because they address circumstances that no longer exist or the reasons they were originally given are culture-bound and not universal.

According to Keen, to decide whether or not the biblical prohibitions against same-sex relationships are universally binding we must ask what kind of same-sex relationships the biblical authors had in mind and why they condemned them. In her survey of biblical texts she discusses five discernable reasons why the Bible may condemn same-sex relationships:

1. “Violation of gender norms”

2. “Lack of procreative potential”

3. “Participation in pagan practice”

4. “Participation in common or religious prostitution”

5. “Unrestrained or excessive lust”

Concerning the question of what kind of same-sex relationships the biblical authors had in mind when issuing their condemnations, Keen relies on the “progressive” argument that the biblical authors denounce practices that involved “exploitation and misogynistic gender norms” rather than loving, covenanted same-sex relationships. Hence we should not without due hermeneutical reflection apply these texts to practices not in view when originally written. I find it interesting that Keen does not say whether or not she agrees with this “progressive” argument, even though it becomes apparent in succeeding chapters that it plays a vital role in her argument. She is very careful here and elsewhere to protect her evangelical credentials from being tainted by association with progressivism, Christian or secular. Maintaining rapport with her target audience depends on it.

Analysis of Keen’s Argument

As we discovered in our close reading and in-depth analysis of chapter one, this chapter is also more than mere description. It makes an argument and sets an agenda for the book’s further argument. In her description of ancient views of same-sex relationships she grants the fact of the Bible’s condemnation of same-sex intercourse, and ironically this admission is the beginning gambit of her argument for their legitimacy:

1. By granting the Bible’s prohibition of same-sex intercourse without conceding her overall case, she neutralizes one of the traditionalist’s best arguments, that is, the seemingly obvious assumption that the Bible’s repeated condemnation of same-sex intercourse applies to any form of such intercourse. Why people engage in same-sex intercourse is completely irrelevant. For the traditionalist, the absence of concern about the motivations for same-sex relationships within the Bible speaks volumes about how it views them. Anyone arguing otherwise bears a huge burden of proof.

2. In a second astute move, Keen asserts without argument—you hardly notice what she is doing—that the reasons (or intentions or motives) for a biblical author’s condemnation of same-sex intercourse determine the legitimacy and scope of the prohibition. Hence if we become convinced that the reasons for the condemnation were misinformed, based on shifting cultural norms, prejudiced, or arising from ignorance, we may reject or correct them.

3. As a corollary to #2, Keen implies that it is possible to form an exhaustive list of all the reasons (or intentions and motives) for a biblical prohibition. If none of these reasons can be convincingly shown to be applicable to all same-sex relationships, then the universal scope of such commands is placed in grave doubt. Notice how in this move Keen shifts the burden of proof from those who affirm some types of same-sex relationships as permissible to those who deny all of them. Something that had been obvious—that the Bible condemns same-sex intercourse—now becomes problematic. Unless the traditionalist can prove the universality of the (often unspoken) reasons behind the command, the traditionalist stands defeated and the possibility of biblically approved same-sex relationships becomes plausible.

4. By establishing the necessity of discovering the underlying reasons for the Bible’s prohibitions against same-sex relationships in order to determine their present-day scope and specific application, Keen has opened the possibility of excluding loving, covenantal same-sex relationships from these biblical prohibitions. If the underlying reasons for the biblical condemnations have to do with the presence of coercion and abuse rather than with the biological sex of the participants, a case can be made that these texts do not condemn loving same-sex relationships.

Brief Critical Remarks

Regarding #1: Keen’s gambit may not be as effective as it seemed at first. Her admission that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships may seem like a bold lateral move to throw the traditionalist off balance. But traditionalists could call Keen’s bluff and press their argument by insisting that they will not allow a hermeneutical strategy based on speculation and silence to undermine the plain meaning of the text. That would be a very unevangelical thing to do!

Regarding #2 and #3: Does a divine command’s legitimacy depend on our ability to discover a rationale for it that makes sense to us? Keen keeps reminding us that she is an evangelical, believes as do all evangelicals in biblical inspiration, and that she seeks God’s will in these texts. Also, she wishes to present arguments that evangelicals can accept without giving up their evangelical faith. As an evangelical, should not Keen acknowledge the possibility or even likelihood that God possesses reasons for his commands that are hidden from us? Why should God need a reason for his commands—one that makes sense to us anyway?

Regarding #4: Keen adopts an interpretative strategy that allows her to dismiss a specific biblical command—no same-sex intercourse—because it does not embody the ethical principle that the interpreter thinks it should have embodied. If followed consistently, this strategy would sweep away all biblical wisdom and instruction embodied in the law and even in the teaching and life of Jesus and his apostles in favor of our own sense of what it means to be a loving, just, and faithful person. (Isn’t this the essence of progressive strategy?) After all, where do we learn what a Christian understanding of love, justice, and faithfulness is but in the specific commands and examples in the Bible?

Next Time: I will examine chapter 3, “Key Arguments in Today’s Debate on Same-sex Relationships”

Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships—A Review (Part Two)

Today I will continue my analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. In this essay I will describe and analyze the argument of Chapter 1, which bears the title:

“The Church’s Response to the Gay and Lesbian Community: A Brief History.”

Summary: Gay People Are Human Too

The first sentence of Chapter 1 captures the message the chapter in one word: “When it comes to same-sex relationships, there is one thing we cannot forget: people.” Gays and lesbians are real people. Keen’s goal in this chapter is to expose the ways the church has dehumanized gay people and advance the process of re-humanizing them in the mind of the church. According to Keen, the church’s lack of understanding of gay people clouds its ability to form accurate and just judgments about the Christian legitimacy of same-sex relationships. Correcting the caricatures and demystifying the “ghost stories” about gay people are the first steps toward reading the Bible with an open mind.

Premodern Attitudes

John Chrysostom (347-407) called same-sex intercourse a “monstrous insanity.” Martin Luther argued that same-sex desire derived from the perverting influence of the devil. Matthew Henry asserts that such desires are divine punishments consequent on a prior abandonment of God. Keen could have expanded this section indefinitely, but these few examples serve to represent the church’s dominant premodern attitude. Keen also documents some pre-modern medical explanations for same-sex desire but points out that they usually picture gay people as mentally ill or suffering from disease.

Five Options within Conservative Churches

Keen next surveys five stages or stances that have characterized conservative churches over the past sixty years. Although Keen views these differing approaches as ordered chronologically she also recognizes that they exist simultaneously at the present time. I will simply list them in order in Keen’s own words:

1. “Gay [Christian] people should stay in the closet.”

2. “Gay [Christian] people are perverts and criminals.”

3. “Gay [Christian] people are hapless victims who need healing.”

4. “Gay [Christian] people are admirable saints called to a celibate life.”

5. “Gay [Christian] people are ________.”

Under heading five Keen attempts to picture the landscape at the time of her writing. She describes four group stances: celibate gays, ex-gays, same-sex attracted evangelicals who deny the reality of same-sex “orientations,” and gay affirming evangelicals. Although she writes about these four stances in a descriptive style, she clearly favors the “affirming” position. The thesis of her book, after all, is that evangelical churches can and should adopt the “affirming” position as biblically and doctrinally sound.

Analysis

It might seem that this chapter (“A Brief History”) simply sets the stage for the book’s argument by documenting the history of the subject and surveying contemporary options without making an argument. However, I want to suggest several ways in which the chapter argues against the traditional view and for the affirming view.

1. Keen’s description of how premodern authors spoke about gay people makes a subtle argument. Keen clearly expects the contemporary reader to cringe upon hearing gay people described with such terms. Figures of the past who expressed disgust and hatred toward groups with whom contemporary society has become sympathetic lose credibility with modern audiences; they are made toxic by being labeled racists, sexist, or homophobic. Given contemporary society’s sympathies, rational and biblical arguments critical of gay people fall on deaf ears because of suspicion that they are rationalizations for irrational animus.

2. Rehearsing traditionalists’ dubious arguments and implausible speculations about the origins of same-sex desire leaves the impression that the conclusions traditionalists draw about biblical morality must also be false or at least doubtful.

3. Keen urges us to cease thinking of issues in abstraction from people. Gay people are individuals with feelings, experiences, and stories. In doing this she not only draws on society’s sympathy for gay people (See #1 above), but prepares readers to accept the self-reported experience of gay people as proof of three important assertions within her argument: (1) people do not choose to become gay, (2) they cannot change their orientation, and (3) maintaining a life of celibacy is very difficult, painful, and lonely.

The Perils of Critique

Before I offer any critique I need to address a huge obstacle that makes effective criticism of this book almost impossible: Karen Keen’s book—and others like it—is autobiography as well as argument. It concerns personal identity, feelings, and experience as well as thought, history, and biblical exegesis and interpretation. It is almost impossible for most audiences to separate these two dimensions. The overarching narrative—sometimes unspoken but always implicit—is a compelling story of oppression, suffering, agony, and suicide on the one hand and courage, determination, and endurance on the other. And indeed the persuasive power of the book lies in its brilliant combination of autobiography and rational argument. Since the two aspects are woven together in a seamless argument, any critique of the rational aspects of the argument will be taken as a critique of the personal aspects, as a poisonous attack on the person making the argument. Telling other people what they feel, dismissing their sense of identity, or denying their self-reported experiences appears to most contemporary people as arrogant, judgmental, and profoundly insensitive.

What is the sincere critic to do? Some critics rush blindly into this rhetorical trap and say the stupidest things. Needless to say, no matter how clever their arguments, they lose the audience the minute they open their mouths! Others see the trap, realize that their situation is rhetorically untenable, and decide not to say anything. Their cowardly silence allows weak and fallacious arguments to take cover under a strong narrative. Lack of objection will be taken as acquiescence.

I do not wish to be a coward or a fool. For…

Timorous silence is duty neglected.

Incautious speech is duty betrayed.

I hope to avoid both.

Critique

It is too early to develop an extensive critique of the argument contained in this chapter because in the following chapters she expands the three arguments I have outlined. Additionally, the book constitutes one big argument and needs to be assessed as a whole. However, I will venture some preliminary observations on these three arguments.

Regarding #1: This argument relies on the rhetorical advantage gay people have acquired over the past few decades. For a variety of reasons, including the HIV/AIDS crisis of the late twentieth century, a sympathetic media, and decisions by the Supreme Court there has developed a social consensus that gay people have been innocent victims of prejudice and violence. This consensus narrative places an unwarrantedly heavy burden of proof on those who argue the traditional thesis from the Bible. For there is no logical connection between the cringe worthy way in which traditionalists of the past spoke about same-sex activity and the truth of their conclusions about biblical teaching on this subject.

Regarding #2: Discovering that many arguments offered to support a thesis are weak or less than demonstrative does not prove that the thesis is false. For sure, rehearsing a litany of the weakest arguments in support of a conclusion tends to create doubt in the listener. However, the mere possibility of doubt does not justify rejecting the thesis in favor of its negation.

Regarding #3: Indeed gay people are people. And I agree that we ought to speak and act toward them as human beings worthy of respect. However, this is true of every person we meet. There is no connection between remembering that an individual is a person worthy of respect and affirming everything they feel and do as morally upright or accepting their self-described experience as evidence for the “affirming” thesis.

Next Time: We will examine Keen’s survey of what the Bible says about same-sex relationships.

An Analytical and Critical Review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (Part One).

Today’s essay is the fourteenth installment in my series on the contemporary moral crisis. I have decided that the best way to address “the elephant in the room” or should I say “the elephant in the church house” (same-sex relationships) is by reviewing a book that argues for the Christian legitimacy of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships. I have chosen to do a multipart analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2018). Why this subject, and why this book?

Why this Subject and Why Now?

Until recently the subject of same-sex relationships and related issues of gender—indeed the whole list of LGBTQ+ identities—has been for evangelical and other conservative Christians a matter of the “culture wars.” Bible-believing Christians, evangelicals, and other conservative believers were united in defending traditional views of sex and marriage against liberal (or “progressive”) Christians and secular progressives. Conservatives viewed liberal Christians’ openness to same-sex relationships as a by-product of their prior rejection of the Bible as the definitive authority for doctrine and morals. Secular progressives, of course, do not acknowledge the Bible as an authority for anything. They appeal to a completely different source of moral guidance: science, culture, and personal experience.

However, within the past five years a significant number of pastors, professors, authors, and church members who claim to be evangelical, bible-believing, and orthodox have spoken out in favor of the church accepting same-sex relationships on the same or a similar basis as that on which it accepts traditional marriage. I am not speaking here only of something far away and limited to books by authors I do not know. I am speaking also about pastors, professors, and church members I know personally. I do not see how any church or parachurch institution can avoid this internal discussion for much longer. We are past the point of “the calm before the storm.” The storm is upon us. And it will not end until it exhausts its energy.

Why this Book?

Why Karen Keen’s book? Though clearly an intelligent and well-educated person—among other degrees, she holds Master of Theology from Duke Divinity School and has done work toward a PhD in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at Marquette University—Keen is not an elite biblical scholar, historian, or theologian. She is the founder and director of the Redwood Center for Spiritual Care & Education. Her book is short and written in a popular style. Why not, instead, review the most scholarly and detailed book advocating the thesis I want to examine? My reasons are simple: Books written in an academic style make arguments based on knowledge of ancient languages and cultures. They construct elaborate arguments from secular and church history and from psychology, sociology, and biology. Because the average person cannot assess the soundness of such elite arguments they are tempted to trust whichever expert that makes the case for the conclusion they prefer on quite different grounds.

I consider the brevity and popular style of the book to be an advantage in speaking to the audience I want to reach. In fact, Keen and I are writing to the same audience, Christian believers who view the Bible as the final authority for faith, religious practice, and morals. She argues in a clear and simple way that can be understood and evaluated by lay Christians based on their knowledge of English translations of the Bible, common sense principles of interpretation, and moral reasoning open to all. And yet, Keen has read widely in elite biblical, historical, and theological works, incorporating this information into her book. Hence I am confident that by analyzing and critiquing her work—though it is simple and popular—I am also evaluating the most persuasive arguments of elite scholars.

Keen’s Essential Argument

During the course of this series I will unfold the book’s full argument step by step with its supporting evidence and rebuttals of opposing arguments. But its core argument can be stated in a short series of assertions followed by a conclusion. Assertions one through three are principles of biblical interpretation, assertions four and five are derived from the experience of gay and lesbian people, and the conclusion follows from the combination of assertions one through five.

1. The Bible’s positive moral teachings, including the creation mandates concerning male and female in Genesis 1 and 2, provide a vision of justice, goodness, and peace, and they are intended to promote a just, good, and flourishing world. (Interpretive Principle)

2. The Bible’s moral prohibitions and limitations, including its rules for sexual behavior, are intended to forbid things that cause harm to human beings, human community, and the rest of creation and to prevent heartache and destruction from disrupting human flourishing. (Interpretive Principle)

3. To interpret and apply the Bible’s positive and negative moral teachings in keeping with their intended purposes we must deliberate about whether or not applying a specific biblical rule to a particular situation prevents harm and promotes justice, goodness, and human flourishing. Interpretations and applications that cause harm and inhibit human flourishing must be rejected. (Interpretive Principle)

4. Gay and lesbian people do not choose to be gay or lesbian, and the overwhelming majority cannot change their orientation. (Derived from Experience)

5. A large majority of gay and lesbian people do not have the gift of celibacy and find such a state lonely and deeply painful. (Derived from Experience)

Therefore:

6. Because loving, committed same-sex relationships embody justice, goodness, and human flourishing (#1), do not cause harm to the people in the relationship or the human community (#2), and unwanted celibacy causes great harm and unhappiness to gay and lesbian people (#4 and #5), faithful deliberation and application (#3) must conclude that the Bible allows and even blesses covenanted same-sex relationships.

Looking ahead, I ask readers to be patient. My semester has begun and the work load at school is heavy. I cannot post as often as I have during my summer break. It may take a while to work through the book. Because I consider this topic highly important to the future of the church I plan to move slowly and methodically through Keen’s argument, considering carefully every significant factual claim, logical move, and conclusion. Also I intend to describe her argument fairly, acknowledging its strengths even as I point out its weaknesses. Nothing is gained by misrepresentation, dramatization, or appeal to prejudice. I wish to write in a way that were Karen Keen to read my review she would acknowledge that I have represented her arguments accurately and (at least) tried to evaluate them fairly.

The Creator’s Plan for Safe Sex (Moral Crisis #13)

A Logic Lesson

To define a word, clarify a concept, or articulate a moral principle we must grasp both what it is and what it isn’t, what it includes and what it excludes. Stating what something isn’t without saying what it is gives us no precise idea of what we are talking about. If I tell you, “It’s not a mouse! It’s not a chair! It’s not a star or a glove or a tree” etc., I have not helped you at all to know what it is. However if I tell you what something is, I’ve implicitly let you know what it is not. If I let you know that I am thinking of a coffee cup, you also know that I am not thinking of a horse, a blade of grass, or my best friend in grade school. I don’t have to list all the things of which I am not thinking. You would never dream of complaining that because I did not list my laptop among the things about which I am not thinking, that I left you in the dark on that issue!

Now let’s apply this logic to the question of the biblical understanding of the place and limits on sexual activity. If your approach to this question consists only of discovering and listing every type of sexual activity forbidden in the Bible, you will never get a clear understanding of sexual morality in the Bible. It’s unreasonable to assume that all excluded behaviors must be named—and perhaps described and differentiated—any more than you should expect that I name everything that is not a coffee cup for you to get a clear idea of what I am thinking! It is unreasonable to argue that because a particular sexual behavior or relationship is not listed in a list of forbidden things, that it is therefore permitted.

The Purpose, Place, and Function of Sex

What, then, according the Bible is the purpose of sex? What is its proper place and function? If we get a clear idea of right use of sex, we won’t have to deliberate over an extensive and ever-growing list of misuses of sex. Let me remind you that this question will make no sense to those outside my target audience, those I described earlier in series as thinking about their identities in psychologized, sexualized, and politicized categories. Those who fit this description acknowledge no overarching moral order to which they should conform. So, for them sex has no objective purpose or place or proper function. Purpose, identity, and meaning derive from the inner self and vary from individual to individual.

But for confessing Christians, who take the Bible seriously, the question of the proper place and function and true purpose of sex makes perfect sense. For God is the creator, sustainer, providential guide, and savior of the human person, body and soul. Our true identity is found in Christ. We know there is a meaningful moral order to which we are obligated to submit. What, then, is the proper place and function and true purpose of sex?

In the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament authors,* the proper place and function and true purpose of sex is realized only within life-long, loving marriage, between one man and one woman. All sexual liaisons outside marriage are by definition are forbidden. You don’t have to list these non-conforming sexual acts or agonize in efforts to prove them wrong or justify them as permitted. I will address these futile efforts in upcoming essays. Now I want to remind you of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teaching on marriage.

Jesus deals with marriage on a few occasions. I will quote from his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-9:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The subject here is divorce. And Jesus makes it clear that divorce is an evil, an evil that Moses tolerated but that he does not. No no-fault divorce here! Hard hearts, unloving and stubborn, are not allowed. In Jesus’s teaching divorce comes under the same condemnation as adultery. Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24, rooting marriage in the creative purpose of God. But Jesus adds an assertion and a command not found in Genesis: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt 19:6; also in Mark 10:9). Marriage is not merely a human agreement made for human purposes. The involvement of God makes it part of a sacred order, and no one has the right to dissolve it.

Paul also deals with marriage in several places, but I will limit myself to Ephesians 5:28-33:

28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

In this passage Paul also quotes Genesis 2:24. And he also sees marriage as integrated into the sacred order. He calls it a “profound mystery.” The union between husband and wife spoken of in Genesis images the spiritual union between the risen Christ and his people, who are his body. And for those in Christ, it also participates in that mystery. For this reason the union between husband and wife should be a union of self-sacrificial love.

In Hebrews 13:4, we find a short but clear affirmation that marriage is the proper place for sexual intimacy and a severe condemnation of its violation:

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

Conclusion

Knowing the clear biblical teaching that life-long, loving marriage between one man and one woman is the proper place for sexual intimacy to achieve its created and redemptive purpose answers a thousand questions about what is forbidden without agonizing, cynical, or sophistical debates.

*Note: We are speaking in these essays of “Christian” sexual ethics, and Christian sexual ethics cannot be derived from Old Testament texts unless they are filtered through the teaching of Jesus and those whom he taught. This is very clear in the text in Matthew 19, which I quoted above. Jesus abrogates Moses’ teaching on divorce and reasserts the creation ideal.

Flesh and Spirit: Contemporary Moral Crisis (Part 12)

In the previous essay I explained why the rest of the series on the contemporary moral crisis will be directed to “people who claim to be Christian and understand that the Bible, especially the New Testament, is the final authority for determining what it means to believe and live as a Christian.” Clearly from what I have said in previous essays readers already know that I think the central issues in the moral crisis facing Christians are being generated by the sexual and gender revolutions. In my view, these revolutions challenge the very heart of the Christian faith and way of life. They are not merely external to the Christian community but threaten to divide and diminish the community itself. At this point in the series these concerns may seem to some overblown. I hope to convince you that I am not exaggerating.

Mind and Body

I anticipate that one of the first objections I will receive is that I seem to be reducing Christian morality to rules and regulations about sex. What about injustice, violence, greed, racism, and other sins? Are these not as important, if not more so, than how one uses their sexuality? Before I can answer these questions in an intelligent way I need to place sexual desire and action within its larger anthropological and ethical context.

Ancient ethical systems such as those of Aristotle and the Stoics viewed the challenge of living a moral life as the struggle of reason to dominate the irrational passions (the animal nature). The passions of lust, fear, anger, greed, envy, etc., unless controlled by reason, drive us to engage in such self-destructive things as adultery, theft, and murder. Reason, if it attains to wisdom, can cool the passions and habituate them toward good ends.

Spirit and Flesh

The New Testament also makes a distinction between the irrational passions and the rational principle. Of the many examples we could explore let’s examine Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5:16-21:

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Instead of speaking of reason as the principle of moral guidance and passion as the irrational principle, Paul speaks of Spirit and flesh. Despite the differences, there is a great deal of similarity between the two anthropologies. By “Spirit” Paul means the divine Spirit, the power and presence of God received through faith in Christ. But there is no reason to think that the Spirit works in a way that bypasses the human mind (See Romans 8:5-6). As the irrational counterpart to the Spirit, Paul uses the word “flesh.” Paul’s use of this word cannot be understood without considering its Old Testament background. In the Old Testament “flesh” connotes human weakness and mortality. It is often contrasted to God’s powerful, life-giving Spirit. Paul takes up this Old Testament idea of the weakness of the entire human being in contrast to God and adds to it an element of resistance and rebellion.

Hence the realm of the irrational and rebellious passions—which Paul calls the flesh—when it acts unconstrained by the Spirit produces “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” Notice how the acts that arise from sexual desire are listed along with other types of acts that arise from other irrational and self-destructive passions. What they all have in common is their irrationality, destructiveness, and hostility toward the Spirit.

According to the New Testament, then, desire for sexual pleasure, like desire for money, comfort, power, food, and honor, must be enlightened and governed by a mind controlled by the Spirit (Romans 8:5-6). Even our sexually permissive culture recognizes the need for exercising some self-control in matters of sex. Everyone with even a modicum of wisdom recognizes that sexual passion mixed with other such forces as pride, anger, deception, ignorance, and drunkenness becomes a very destructive force. No rational person would argue that sexual passion should be given free reign unconstrained by respect for the dignity and freedom of other people. Indeed, every rational person understands that passions of whatever kind must be guided and controlled by reason.

Hence the real issue in the ethics of sex does not center on the question, “Must there be limits on sexual activity or not?” The question is, rather, “What are the limits on sexual activity?” And once we get clear on this issue, we begin to realize that the answer to this question depends on answering many other questions and finally on developing a comprehensive anthropological and moral framework. Where do we look for wisdom to guide us in developing a moral outlook that enables us to set limits in a coherent way? For Christians, that source is the Bible, especially the New Testament.

Next Time: What limits does the Bible place on sexual activity and why?

Pearls, Pigs, and Target Audiences

Just as the first rule of knowledge is “know thyself” and the first rule of war is “know your enemy,” the first rule of communication is “know your audience.”

Jesus instructs his disciples about this rule in unforgettable way:

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Jesus in Matthew 7:6, NIV UK).

In effective communication the speaker needs to know how much the audience knows about the subject and whether they are likely to be sympathetic or hostile to your message. It is helpful to know what they love, hate, and fear. If possible, it is good to find out what experiences, values, and beliefs you share. However when you publish a book, article, or a blog post there is no way of knowing who might read it. You cannot know your audience. What’s an author to do? The two strategies I know are to write about subjects of wide interest and draw on widely held values and beliefs in making your case or to let the reader know at the beginning the identity of your target audience and what you assume you share with that audience. This information serves as fair warning to the reader of what to expect, and it protects the author in advance from objections based on alien presuppositions.

As I move into a new phase of my series on the contemporary moral crisis I must narrow my focus to an audience with whom I share the presuppositions that will enable me to make the argument I want to make. If you do not believe in God, I am not writing to you. If you do not believe that there is a moral law but instead think that right and wrong are decided by human preferences, these essays won’t make sense to you. If you don’t think of yourself as a Christian and don’t care what Jesus and his apostles taught, you will be very frustrated reading my arguments. If you think you can be a Christian without taking the Bible seriously as a moral guide, we will not be traveling the same road.

I can speak to all of these audiences, and I do quite often. But not all at the same time. If you are an atheist, we can’t move on to other theological or moral topics until we talk about that. If you don’t believe in a moral law, or you don’t pretend to be a Christian, or you don’t care what the Bible says, we are not ready to talk about the Christian view of sex and marriage. If you think you can be a Christian on your own terms without reference to the New Testament, you are very confused. We need to get clear on that before we can talk further.

The audience to whom I am writing for the rest of this series is composed exclusively of people who claim to be Christian and understand that the Bible, especially the New Testament, is the final authority for determining what it means to believe and live as a Christian. Within this audience I want to address two sub-groups. First there are those who hold tightly to the traditional Christian morality of sex and marriage but feel discouraged and beleaguered by the surrounding pagan culture and by the compromises of some people who claim dubiously to be Christians. I do not want traditionalists to change their views. But I want to present them with an even greater body of evidence and more effective arguments to explain and defend their views. The second sub-group are those Christians who have begun to waver in their faith because of the incessant drumbeat of the secular progressive culture and—for lack of a better term—“liberal Christians” who argue that being a Christian and believing the Bible are consistent with the secular view of sex and gender. I want to help this second group to see through the—I am not going to mince my words here—the sophistry and deception of these fake Christian teachers.