Sex, Texts, and Context — Reading Scripture Together

My last post about the problems of seeing Scripture as a repository of propositional truth about God evoked questions that asked for examples, and one area of interest seems to be faithful sexual practice. My comments and opinions are my own, and they relate only to sexual practice among people who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ whose faith is informed by teachings derived from the Bible. I don’t have much to say about how to live (apart from basic advice like “Don’t hurt others or yourself”) to those who are not interested in being followers of Jesus Christ, because discerning legitimate ethics is based on committing to follow Jesus as Lord, not vice versa. I am also not interested in exploring questions like whether or not same-sex marriage is legitimate, largely because I don’t derive my cues about what is morally acceptable from looking at what is legal. There may be overlap between what is legal and what is moral, but they are not the same thing.

The topic of sexual practice is thorny among Christians, but it does highlight the need to read biblical texts in context, and to discern carefully the similarities and differences between the contexts of biblical readers and those of the texts themselves. I believe that biblical teachings given to ancient recipients of biblical revelation continue to be applicable because there continues to be continuity between the context of the original recipients and the readers of the text today. There is no current form of sexual expression that was not known among the original ancient readers of Scripture. We may have more nuanced conceptual language about sexual orientation and self-perception, but that is a different matter.

It is true that much has changed in terms of cultural, psychological, and other factors, so faithful marital practice will look different in various contexts today from how it looked in ancient Palestine. I’m sure it is true that people’s motivation for entering relationships, marital or otherwise, are varied, and different from what motivated people in ancient times. But may of the motivations — companionship, mutual love, and having children, to name a few — are common. And, in terms of what we are led to believe based on what we read in Scripture about what God’s design for marital relationships and sexual practice are, I do not believe that any cultural, psychological, or other factor has legitimately overturned the force of what biblical texts describe as the faithful pattern for biblical marriage and faithful sexual expression. Simply put, we do not have cause to reconstruct marriage or sexual practice from the pattern that God’s people are taught in the Bible to follow. For that reason, I do not see a warrant to deviate from a traditional understanding of biblical exhortations about sexual ethics. This will not, however, incline me to stop loving my LGBTQ+ friends, and those who advocate for them.

It is impossible to try to read and discern the teaching of biblical texts objectively, without bringing one’s prior assumptions and biases into the process. And it is a fallacy that the texts will overcome our interpretive depravity simply through the force of some sort of self-evident clarity. That is why Christians need the wisdom of the community, discerning together, to help one another overcome the prejudices and blindnesses that individual bring to the interpretive process. That is why Christians need to be in conversation with members of the LGBTQ+ community, because in a misguided desire to safeguard what they have believed to be truth, some Christians have caused needless pain and harm to others. But again, we do not listen to stories to hear truth. We listen to them so that we can help one another understand truth. There is a difference. Does this mean that I am committing only to a superficial conversation, having prejudged the outcome? I hope not. I am open to hearing, learning, growing, and changing — all in response to God’s call. But every participant should come into a conversation with the expectation that they could possibly be wrong and in need of correction. That is the nature of dialogue among Christians.

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