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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Biblical narrative, missional context, and same-sex sexual relations all in the same breath

This may be getting much too speculative for most people’s taste, but I’ll have a go….

It’s basically another attempt to talk about biblical narrative, missional context, and same-sex sexual relations all in the same breath, with an overblown chart thrown in for good measure.

The bit that I’m especially interested in is point 4 on the chart. What does the church in the West represent or stand for or embody ethically in relation to the secular-humanist matrix in which it is situated? I will argue, tentatively, that the church should be a benchmark not of ideals that belonged to the biblical period (though these ideals are not forgotten) but of secular humanism’s own best ethical standards.

I’ll start with the observation that most narrative models for biblical interpretation make no attempt to register history except at the point of transition between Israel and the church.

This is not a narrative reading of the Bible. It is a back-translation of a systematic theology into a barely dramatised conceptual sequence. It’s dogmatics rewritten as a bed-time story.

Consider, for example, this short article by the Japanese New Testament scholar Kaz Yamazaki-Ransom on Jesus Creed. The progression from four-part to five-part to six-part to seven-part reconstructions of the “grand narrative of the Bible” merely adds incremental—and largely gratuitous—development to the thoroughly abstract presentation of the biblical storyline. So we end up with Yamazaki-Ransom’s seven stage model: 1) Creation; 2) Origin of Evil; 3) People of God (Israel); 4) Jesus; 5) Renewed People of God; 6) Defeat of Evil; and 7) Renewed Creation.

This is not a narrative reading of the Bible. It is a back-translation of a systematic theology into a barely dramatised conceptual sequence. It’s dogmatics rewritten as a bed-time story. It may be “grand”, but it overlooks all the messy detail and context of scripture and leaves us with no way of talking meaningfully about the historical phenomenon that bears most heavily on the life and mission of the church today—the rise of modernity.

Off the map

In his book The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions Keith Sewell complains:

In the wake of Constantine, Eusebius, and Theodosius, the true meaning of the good news concerning the kingdom of God was lost sight of as the Christian religion became reduced to its institutional ecclesiastical expression. (196)

I agree with the analysis—the church lost sight of the kingdom of God. But I don’t see it as a bad thing. I don’t see it as the disastrous departure from the authentic gospel that it now appears from our post-Enlightenment perspective. On the contrary, in historical terms, I think Christendom has to be viewed as the fulfilment of the good news about the coming rule of YHWH—the God of Israel and creator of heaven and earth—over the former pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world.

From the exilic period onwards the central hope was that YHWH would judge the pagan empires and vindicate his people. This expectation is most vividly expressed in Daniel 7, which is why the vision of one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven was so important for Jesus and the apostles. The early Christians looked forward to the day when Jesus would be revealed to the nations and would be confessed as Lord across the empire.

But this means that the rise of modernity effectively marked the beginning of a new and unanticipated era as far as the biblical narrative is concerned. We are off the map. We don’t have scriptures for modernity, post-modernity, and whatever comes after that.

This doesn’t mean that the Bible is of no further use to us. Not at all. It tells us where we come from and why. It gives us the Trinitarian parameters (God the creator, lordship of Jesus, indwelling of the Spirit) for a people “chosen” to serve the living God. But the sort of narrative-historical reading that I argue for suggests that the church in the modern era has a much more productive role to play in the narration of its own existence.

A prophetic-apocalyptic narrative for the modern church

It seems to me that same-sex relations provide a good test case or marker for an attempt to generate what we might call a prophetic-apocalyptic narrative for the modern church—one that both maintains continuity with the biblical perspective and gives due weight to the novelty of the historical crisis that the church faces.

So here’s the chart (click for a larger version), with some explanation below….

1. Same-sex sexual activity is a serious issue in the Old Testament because it is one of the things that will get Israel vomited out of the land—in the same way that the Canaanites were vomited out of the land (Lev. 18:24-28). This storyline ends with the exile and the period of domination by pagan empires.

2. In the New Testament period same-sex sexual activity is a leading characteristic of an idolatrous culture that is subject to the wrath of God and is one of the things that will disqualify people from inheriting the kingdom of God (Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9). Wrath against the idolatrous Greek and the inheritance of the reign of God coincide in the conversion of the empire.

3. If we are willing to extend the prophetic-apocalyptic mode of storytelling into the post-biblical period, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that the collapse of the dominant western Christian worldview constituted the judgment of God on a complacent, unthinking and inhumane religious system. The attitude of the church towards homosexual people might be counted as an example of that.

4. We now have to ask how the story might be unfolding in the modern era. Western society is energetically and chaotically constructing a new post-Christian, secular-humanist reality, and the church is having a hard time working out where it fits in.

This is where things get really speculative, but stay with me….

The biblical prophetic-apocalyptic mode of storytelling seems quite alien to modern thought, but I venture to suggest that we need to find a way to speak credibly both about judgment on global secular humanism as a supreme instance of anti-theistic, Babel-like hubris and about the existence of the church as a benchmark (by grace) by which the modern world will be judged.

I won’t develop the point here, but I think that a critical issue in Romans 1-3 is the failure of the synagogues to provide a benchmark of righteousness by which the idolatrous Greek-Roman world would be judged (see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom).

So what does this have to do with same-sex relations?

Well, I wonder whether in this scary, off-the-map, prophetic-apocalyptic context we need to make a distinction—and maintain a tension—between fundamental creational ideals and contingent historical ideals.

The creational ideal, let us suppose, is that sexual intimacy is confined to lifelong heterosexual marriage. But I suggest that modern secular humanism will be judged—if we can use that sort of language at all—not according to absolute creational ideals but according to secular humanism’s own best standards. The church must then provide a benchmark of these best standards.

That obviously needs a lot of explaining and qualifying and so on. But the basic point is that the church in the West is so immersed in our secular culture that the most we can hope to achieve in ethical terms is a better way of being modern, a better way of being secular humanist.

We are still identified by the biblical narrative, which begins and ends with an act of divine creation, and we may find all sorts of ways of signalling and enacting that identity. But if in the narrative context of modernity same-sex attraction is the new “natural”, perhaps (I’m being very cautious here) the church should be able to model faithful same-sex monogamy as a best standard by which—in some fashion, in the long run, whatever—our culture will be judged.

Image of The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Wipf & Stock Pub (2010), Paperback, 188 pages, $24.00

Comments

I don’t see how your last paragraph follows. The creational standard was the one Jesus urged on his contemporaries when they questioned him about divorce, even saying that Mosaic regulations on divorce were in essence a way of dealing with the reality of hard hearts. I don’t see how we can today appeal to anything less than the creational standard either. Perhaps one could say that monogamous homosexual “marriage” may be recognized as a concession to hard hearts, but that will never be good enough for the LGBT lobby. They are after full legitimacy and public honor. That is not something the church can ever be in a position to give.

It makes no sense to speak of the church modeling a faithful “new normal” when that “new normal” is at its root contrary to creational principles. Where would be the stopping point? What becomes the actual standard by which we could measure faithfulness?

In the New Testament era, the pagan world’s “own best standards” had all kinds of things to say about sex, marriage, slavery, etc, that the NT authors do not seem prepared to make any concession to whatsoever.

Thanks, Daniel. You may be right, but first let me try to push the line of thought a bit further.

Jesus addressed Jews in the first century. He told them that the union of man and woman in marriage as one flesh was not to be taken lightly. I am not proposing that we should abandon that principle. I think that the church ought to be able to demonstrate to the world that lifelong monogamy between husband and wife is foundational for social flourishing.

I agree that the begrudging toleration of monogamous same-sex marriage would not be acceptable to the LGBT community.

I presume that eventually LGBT people will get “full legitimacy and public honor” in society at large—or at least as much as any other minority gets. Some of those people, married or unmarried, will want to come to church.

The big question is whether I am right to suggest that modernity constitutes such a fundamental departure from the biblical worldview that we are having to deal in effect with a different reality. To take a different example, no one now holds to a biblical cosmology, but the controversy around this issue has been immense. Here in Europe few Christians hold to a biblical cosmogony—we have all demythologised Genesis 1-3. The modern world is very different to the ancient world. Note Pete Enns’ Article 7:

WE AFFIRM that the binaries of Genesis 1 (which includes animals restricted to living on land, in the sea, or in the air) reflect—by the will and wisdom of God—ancient, ideal conceptions of cosmic order.

WE DENY that the binaries of Genesis 1 “teach” that amphibians, mammals that fly, live in the ocean, or lay eggs, or any other creatures of God’s creation that do not fit the Genesis 1 binary, are outside of God’s wise design.

There may be good reasons for taking the conservative course, but 1) the church has already abandoned a whole range of positions from seven day creation to geocentrism to patriarchy—so what is so special about same-sex relations that we dig our heels in over this one? and 2) we may find that the sectarian position prevents us from acting as a credible priesthood for the world.

Would the inclusion of same-sex monogamy on the same terms as heterosexual monogamy really be “contrary to creational principles”? The creational principle, as I see it at least, is that the lifelong union of man and woman is the basis for procreation, kinship and society. Same-sex monogamy would not disrupt that process. The secular-humanist assumption, at least, is that same-sex marriage will contribute to the stability of society. Perhaps the jury is out on that one. But in the long run, there is every likelihood that same-sex family life will be a pervasive and entirely normal part of western societies. Is the church really going to be able to hold out against that degree of normalisation?

That said, the prophetic-apocalyptic proposal is a way to hold the “world” accountable. Perhaps it would require accommodating same-sex marriage—I see this in many ways as a narrative equivalent to Stephen Holmes’ argument for “pastoral accommodation”. But it would also give a platform for highlighting abuse, faithlessness, egocentrism, and so on, across the field of human sexuality. In biblical-narrative terms, this seems to failure to think prophetically is (arguably) far more serious than the inclusion of a handful of committed same-sex married couples.

With regard to your final paragraph, my view is that Paul tolerated or accommodated both the subordination of women and slavery. He did not teach families to practice egalitarian marriage or liberate their slaves, but he set a much high standard, in Christ, for patriarchy and for slave owning.

I’m really not convinced we should be about the business of trying to create or extend the narrative to accommodate our times. It seems anything we declare is simply speculation since I see no reason to believe people with supernatural prophetic abilities exist today.

Would a continuing story give God’s people a greater sense of purpose? Probably, but I’m not sure purpose built on this kind of speculation is terribly healthy.

A few thoughts…

It’s interesting that you highlight the accommodation. In many ways I’m more nervous about the emphasis on “judgment”. This is where I feel the issue with “speculation” lies.

The narrative is being extended whether we like it or not. Historical change is happening, and the church has already been led a long way beyond the purview of the Bible, for better or for worse—see my response to Daniel. I am arguing for making that implicit narration explicit and continuous with the biblical narrative.

I’m not thinking so much about “people with supernatural prophetic abilities”. I would speak more in terms of prophetic communities. It seems to me that a key function of the people of God is to speak on behalf of the God whom it serves. The evidence of scripture suggests that the people of God cannot do this without a sense of coherent narrative. Part of the reason why prophecy is such a debased and distrusted “gift” today is that, like pretty much everything else, it has been reduced to the dimensions of individual preference. What we need is a rollicking good story about the church and modernity.

How the church responds to the normalisation of sake-sex relations, etc., was put forward as a test case. It may be a poor test case.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with your test case. What I have a problem with is your proposal that people or communities should attempt to speak on God’s behalf.

I realize people have been speaking on God’s behalf forever, but I also think a ton of problems have been created by people speaking on God’s behalf down through history.

Perhaps all you mean is someone saying, “If God were to speak to us today about x, I think he would say y.” It doesn’t bother me a bit when people express opinions in this way, but I don’t place much stock in them.

Where I tune out is when people say, “God is telling us…” or “If God addressed this 21st-century extra-biblical issue, he would say…”

As long as a large swath of the church continues to view scripture as inspired in a way that reveals the mind of God unlike any other documents before or since, prophetic utterances meant to address modern issues in new ways will be viewed as a Progressive or Liberal thing.

I’m writing as an American, but do Europeans hold such a low view of scripture that they would accept new scriptures?

Do not the Scriptures demonstrate repeatedly that God raised up men and women to accomplish his purposes at specific times and places? Why would it be any different today. How else are we to imagine that he might work and speak? You are right, I think, that ‘a large swath of the church continues to view scripture as inspired in a way that reveals the mind of God unlike any other documents before or since.’ Perhaps this way of thinking is in part, influenced by the Reformation and more recently the Modernist-Fundamental debates of the last century in an effort to established a fixed authority we can trust. But I fail to see how this current, perhaps American conservative, framework of limiting God’s speech to a thing of the past helps in the present. I agree with Andrew that we are well beyond the horizons of the New Testament and are in great need of men and women who know well both the past and the present. In the American context, such speech may be tentative in America where we are highly skeptical of any true reality, but perhaps not so Latin America or Africa. Check out ‘The Unexpected Christian Century’ by Scott Sunquist. I was encouraged by what I read.

Jason, in the Bible it’s all very magical: People knew God’s will on different topics because they used a Urim and Thummim, received angel visitors, or had visions. We live in a different world. When it comes to Bible interpretation, I’m much more interested in what Andrew Perriman has to say than in what a Christian miracle man like Benny Hinn has to say.

But when it comes to charting a course for the Church in the present, I fail to see how any individual is more qualified than any other individual to speak on God’s behalf. I think Andrew may be right when he says the writers of scripture didn’t see beyond Christendom, but we don’t see beyond today!

I think the best the Church can do is live at peace with all people (as far as it depends on us) and try to love all people unconditionally. My fear is that anything further could easily tarnish the Church’s reputation and by extension, God’s reputation.

That last paragraph in my comment above should say “further tarnish…”

Agreed. Probably why we are both reading Andrew’s blog.

In reading this blog, listening to a Sunday morning sermon, engaging other Christians, listening to my co-workers speak of LGBT matters, I am seeking wisdom. I desire to know how to live well in the present. I do think some are more qualified to speak within the Christian community by virtue of study, of prayer, of a good reputation-example. I do think that God gives wisdom, but wisdom seems to come in the quest for understanding driven by the fear of God/love of God.

The question I am asking is, ‘What time to do we live in?’ and then ‘What does it mean to walk by faith in this time?’

Jason, I get what you’re saying, but as much as ambiguity and uncertainty can frustrate me, I think I prefer that over the security that comes from trusting someone who claims to speak on God’s behalf.

I have a lot of respect for scholars like Andrew, Larry Hurtado, Paula Fredriksen, etc., but I respect them for their ability to interpret ancient texts. Their ability (or anyone’s ability) to speak prophetically in the present in a way that is considered authoritative and worthy of notice is contingent on two things:
1. What God is recorded to have done in the past, he will do in the future.
2. We have the ability to extrapolate God’s will for his people in new situations and contexts. (And here I’m not referring to general ethics such as “do good,” “love others,” “forgive others,” “live at peace with others,” etc.)

*I’m a cessationist, so I believe it’s unlikely God operates in the world today outside of the natural means he built into the system. So while I think God is always at work–in the sense that the systems he established continue to produce his desired outcomes–I think any claims to special revelation are dangerous. Maybe this is why I lack the optimism the two of you have in this area.

I should also mention I’m an ISTP. I don’t place much stock in emotions; I need to see evidence. I suspect my personality has quite a bit to do with my beliefs. :)

Thanks for the challenge to think along prophetic-apocalyptic lines in our present context. I am most interested in anything written from the perspective of our collective witness as the people of God in our present historical circumstance.

Also, Eve Tushnet’s book ‘Gay and Catholic’ may be of interest to you. She has an appendix, ‘Making the Church a Place of Welcome for Same-sex attracted Christians.’

I disagree. The modern conflict between Islam and secular humanism, and their common hatred of the Church, is simply a global version of the events of the first century. Islam (like the unbelieving Jews in the book of Romans) and secularism (like the unbelieving Gentiles) are the two faces of a schizoid rebellion against the Gospel of Christ in the testimony of His Church. I believe the events of the first century show us how this will pan out: http://bit.ly/1INqEUt
And here’s a rundown on geopolitics since then: Brexit and the Binding of Satan http://bit.ly/2aNSjI9