Last year, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA appointed a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage. The committee was given two years to study how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed tradition and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community.

This adult education course tries to do something similar over an eight-week period for St. Andrew Presbyterian in Iowa City. Throughout this discussion, we hope to hear from class participants’ personal experiences and questions concerning sexuality and the Presbyterian faith.

For questions or comments, contact Jeff Charis-Carlson at

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jeff's Response to N.T. Wright’s “Community and Koinonia”

As someone who already has identified himself on the “open and affirming”/”more light” end of this long theological spectrum, I want to point out those passages in N.T. Wright’s “Communion and Koinonia” that give me pause — passages to which I have no ready answers and against which I have no easy arguments.

I want our class to read and discuss this lengthy essay because it passionately and rationally rejects many of the biblical interpretations offered in “For the Bible Tells Me So” — especially when it comes to contextualizing and understanding what the New Testament writers’ words could have meant in a first-century Jewish environment. (The essay says nothing about Sodom and Gomorrah and the Holiness Code.) And on a personal level, I think anyone who would like to see St. Andrew become more fully accepting of its gay and lesbian members needs to wrestle with Wright’s reading of Romans 1.

First, let me say that I respect N.T. Wright as a scholar and as a bishop in the Anglican fellowship. I’ve read several of his books — those geared for a more popular than scholarly audience — and found him to be reasonable, engaging and worthy of rereading and close analysis. Thus I become nervous about my own understanding of the faith whenever I disagree with Wright. That doesn’t mean I trust his biblical understanding completely, but I’ve always found him to be a good marker for when I’m, in his words, em-bracing “the best of contemporary scholarship while refusing some of the follies into which it some-times falls” (8).

I’m likewise very interested in what Wright has to say about how first-century Christians decided for themselves “what counts as compromise, what is perfectly acceptable, what must be resisted at all costs and what you may get away with for a while but should expect to tidy up sooner or later” (1).

While other scholars find inconsistency in Paul’s calls for tolerance and boundaries, Wright reads Paul as being passionately and consistently concerned with overturning any cultural markers that reinforce ethnic identity to the detriment of Christian unity. That list primarily includes issues of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance.

As Wright explains, “If you want to know why Paul insisted on tolerating some differences of opinion and practice within the people of God, and on not tolerating others, the answer is that the ones that were to be tolerated were the ones that carried the connotations of ethnic boundary lines, and the ones that were not to be tolerated were the ones that marked the difference between genuine, living, renewed humanity and false, corruptible, destructive humanity” (5).

Wright does not think Paul is preaching a gospel that overturns past sexual prohibitions. His analysis and commentaries suggest that Paul clearly understands genitally expressed, same-sex relationships as being evidence of “false, corruptible, destructive humanity” (5). Wright doesn’t think Paul is saying that everyone with homosexual inclinations has consciously chosen such a mindset but that “in a world where men and women have refused to honour God this is the kind of thing you will find” (12).

After all, if Paul had viewed those sexual prohibitions as merely expressions of ethnic behavior — or as elements of the old covenant that Christians have been freed from through the New Covenant — then Paul would have been accepting of the man in the Corinthian church who was in a relationship with his father’s wife (no incestuous blood connection, only cultural prohibitions). Instead, he told the church to put the man out of the fellowship (6).

Wright’s essay also suggests that our discussion of sexuality in general cannot be limited to those few passages that deal explicitly with same-sex relations. He writes, “When Paul writes a long chapter on the resurrection of the body (chapter 15), this is not simply because he has been working through a long list of topics and has now decided to deal with this one. It is because the resurrection of the body has been basic to his understanding throughout, not least his understanding of ethics, not least his view of sexual ethics” (7). And Wright claims that Paul would have viewed the “moral relativism” in which the Western church is engaged as “dehumanizing and degrading” (8), and he would have viewed homosexual behavior as being outside the “genuine humanness” against which all people will be measured on Judgment Day.

And all that’s before Wright turns explicitly to the question of how the church — read American church — deals with homosexuality in our current moment of transition from “modernism” (the legacy of the enlightenment) to “post-modernism” (the realization that, rather than benefiting the rest of humanity, the heirs of enlightenment have imposed a world in which someone always benefits personally, financially or sexually).

I think Wright’s harshest statement comes when he says: “We have become tolerant of everything except intolerance, about which we ourselves are extremely intolerant. If someone thinks through an issue and, irrespective of his or her feelings on the subject, reaches a considered judgement that doing X is right and doing Y is wrong, they no sooner come out and say so than someone else will accuse them of phobia. If someone says stealing is wrong, we expect someone else to say, ‘You only say that because you’re kleptophobic’” (8).

Indeed, Wright would view all the careful theological analysis offered in “For the Bible Tells Me So” as merely a privileging of Experience (personal feeling) over the time-tested standards of Reasons, Scripture and Tradition (8).

But in that statement, Wright also issues a warning to his American readers — who he thinks have an overly simplistic understanding of global issues of social justice. He warns American progressives not to assume that those in the international community who stand against them on “instincts for holiness” (14) will disagree with them on issues of economic justice. Likewise, he advises American progressives to not assume they can appeal to an international community through the language of minority and victim-hood when it comes to issues of sexual morality.

Indeed, while homosexuality used to be described as the “English vice,” Wright implies it is now an extension of American imperialism.

“Part of that imperial arrogance in our own day, I believe, is the insistence that we, the empire, the West, America, or wherever, are in a position to tell the societies that we are already exploiting in a thousand different ways that they should alter their deep-rooted moralities to accommodate our newly invented ones. There is something worryingly imperial about the practice itself and about the insistence on everybody else endorsing it. It is often said that the poor want justice while the rich want peace. We now have a situation where two-thirds of the world wants debt relief and one-third wants sex. That is, I think, a tell-tale sign that something is wrong at a deep structural level.”

It's a harsh critique, but one that can't be easily dismissed.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for sending in your comment. Because this is a moderated forum, it will need to be reviewed before going live. We'll try to get it on the site as quickly as possible.