“You keep talking about what the Apostle Paul writes about homosexuality. What did Paul know about same-sex relations? We’ve learned so much since New Testament times about the complexities of sexuality!”
Good point. And I acknowledged the fact to the person who raised it as an objection to my views. I don’t believe that everything we need to know about sex is right there on the pages of the Bible. Freud had a lot of stuff right, and I don’t consider it a waste of time to read Kinsey, or Masters and Johnson, or even The Joy of Sex.
When I say that the Bible is my supreme authority on the subject of sex, I don’t mean that it is our only source of truth on the subject. To use the framework of “the Wesleyan quadrilateral,” in addition to the Bible we need to take seriously what we can learn from tradition, experience, and reason (including scientific investigation). But those four sources are not equally authoritative. While the other three can provide important information and insights, when it is clear what the Bible is actually teaching us on a given subject, the Bible trumps the other sources.
So, yes, we know more about sex in general, and about same-sex relations in particular, than the Apostle Paul did. It would be foolish to ignore what we can learn, for example, from what people tell us about the experience of same-sex attractions, and what scientific investigation can tell us about the complexities of sexuality. We need all of the genetic, psychological, cultural, social, and theological insights we can gather on this supremely important dimension of our humanity.
But again, the Bible trumps. But how does it trump? In what ways does this ancient text still speak authoritatively to a subject like sexuality?
Here’s a parallel to the sexuality topic. I firmly believe we know more than Moses did about stealing. The Decalogue makes its case against stealing in a simple and straightforward prohibition: “Thou shalt not steal.” No nuances there. No footnotes about extenuating circumstances. Just: “Don’t steal. It’s wrong.”
I had friend in the sixth grade who was a compulsive shoplifter. I discovered this when he got caught. A policeman came to school one day and my friend was called out of class. The policeman drove him home and told his parents about the fact that a shopkeeper had observed their son stealing candy and other small items on a regular basis. Later, when my friend told me about what had been happening, he wept: “I feel like I can’t help it. I know it is wrong. I don’t even want a lot of the stuff I steal. It’s like a sick game that I play.”
My friend spent a number of sessions talking to his pastor about it. From all appearances, he changed his ways. He seemed to have gotten some helpful insights into what led him to do what he had been doing.
I don’t know whether that pastor understood what the word “kleptomania” stands for, but my guess is that he had some grasp of the complexities that were at work in my friend’s pattern of behavior. In that sense, I am pretty sure the pastor knew more than Moses did about stealing, about what drives people who take things that do not belong to them. But whatever the degree of his sophistication on the subject, he still—I am confident—saw himself in full agreement with this unnuanced prohibition: “Thou shalt not steal.”
Here is my point. When it comes to the basics, what is right and what is wrong, the Bible trumps. It is our authoritative guide on ethical issues. Where the complexities come in is on the pastoral level. Some people steal because of a mysterious compulsion. Others steal because their children are hungry. Still others steal because they are caught up in an intricate economic system of exchanges. It’s always wrong. But in some cases we show mercy. In others we counsel. In others we send folks to jail.
Conservative Christians have often done a terrible job in dealing with the complexities and nuances of human sexuality. We have a lot to learn about empathy, compassion, healing, and restoration on such matters. We ought to take advantage of the fact that much knowledge and insight has been made available to us since the days of Moses and Paul. But there are some very basic guidelines, made available to them by the Spirit of God, that we ignore at our peril.