The Unspoken Parts of the Bible

February 13, 2004 | 12 comments
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I just read an interesting exchange in the letters column of the March 2004 Atlantic Monthly, between several pro-gay Christians and Philip Jenkins. Jenkins had earlier wrote that western Christians accepting homo-sexuality not only hurt conversion in the Global South but also betrayed the doctrines of the faith.

So the letters came in pointing out that the New Testament only condemns homosexual acts twice, neither time by Christ, and that Christ taught a message of tolerance and acceptance. Jenkins responded that Christ taught a message of tolerance, acceptance, and repentance from sin.

Then it gets interesting.

Jenkins writes:

Laurence Wolf [a letter writer] observes that Jesus says very little about sexual matters, which might concievably mean that he regarded rules of sexual conduct as trivial or insignificant. Much more likely, though, is that Jesus simply shared the sexual values of Judaism in his time, and felt no need to reassert doctrines and beliefs that were self-evident. Supporting this latter view, stringent moral and sexual orthodoxy–indeed, puritanism–pervades the earliest Christian documents . . . .

Jenkins has the better of the argument, methinks. Before I adopt this method of scriptural interpretation, however, I thought I’d ask whether or not I’m letting myself in for any pitfalls.

12 Responses to The Unspoken Parts of the Bible

  1. meg on February 13, 2004 at 12:53 am

    No – a good reinforcement of that train of thought would be the book of John. Things often aren’t mentioned (as in M, M and L) because he was writing to members of the Church. Jesus wasn’t here to establish anything “new,” simply to fulfill that which had already been spoken of. Make sense? I love that comment, “and felt no need to reassert doctrines and beliefs that were self-evident.” Awesome.

  2. Geoff Matthews on February 13, 2004 at 1:26 am

    Silence doesn’t connote acceptance or condemnation. If someone insists that the Bible is unclear on something, then that’s a great argument for modern-day revelation.
    However, this line of reasoning is far more valid (silence suggests acceptance of the status quo) than the opposing view (silence suggests rejection of status quo).

  3. Julie in Austin on February 13, 2004 at 1:29 am

    Slavery, infanticide, and abortion were (at least somewhat) common in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus doesn’t explicitly mention any of these practices when speaking with Gentiles. Do you conclude that he accepted these practices?

    (Of course I am being silly, but I do think that arguing from silence is dangerous as a general rule.)

  4. Clark Goble on February 13, 2004 at 3:23 am

    Jesus didn’t really speak to the Gentiles much, did he?

    Anyway, I’d say the argument from silence would be more applicable if someone had explicitly asked him about it. I’d assume as a good Jew though he’d feel that slaves ought to be freed in accord with the Law of Moses.

    One must also recognize that Jesus saw the “real world” of Caesar around him and had to work within that. It is hard to say what his notions of a Utopia would be from the relative paucity of statements made by him.

    I’d suggest that one ought to assume that Jesus was part of the religious culture of his time which was rather careful about sexuality. i.e. we probably ought to recognize Jesus as a religious Jew and not make him into a pious pagan.

  5. Brent on February 13, 2004 at 10:09 am

    Some of this misses the point about what else Christ did–he established a continuing succession of leadership. He called apostles and directed them from heaven. Is it rational to suggest that anything which we cannot attribute as coming directly from Jesus’ mouth is not doctrine? That is absurd. Never mind that he was the lawgiver in the Old Testament. He did tell the woman taken in adultery to go and sin no more. Further, in the sermon on the mount, he warned that it was sin even to look upon another with lust. Those who wish to argue that homosexuality is not a sin from a religious perspective are out of their minds. They wrest the scriptures and distort Christ’s role as Savior.

    I really find it interesting that people here at this cite, and other church members with whom I have discussed this issue, are willing to cast aside morality so easily. We see people calling good evil and evil good, and for what–homosexuality? What gives? What happened to love and tolerance for sinners, but also hating sin? Christ’s message was that all of us could rise above ourselves, we could take his cross upon us and be perfected in him. Why are some of us now telling a group of people inclined toward one particular sin (or group of sins) never mind, Christ really isn’t all that powerful–he can’t help you? That’s not the gospel message.

  6. Kaimi on February 13, 2004 at 11:07 am

    Julie,

    I agree, it’s very deceptive to take his silence on this issue as acceptance.

    And I might add wife-beating to your list. I’m not an historian, but I suspect that many of these phenomena were probably accepted by the Jews at the time.

  7. Brent on February 13, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    “It’s very deceptive to take his silence on this issue as acceptance.”

    Which issue do you refer to? If you mean homosexuality, are you serious?

  8. Jim F. on February 14, 2004 at 10:33 pm

    Brent, on what basis do you come to the conclusion that people at this site, as well as other Church members, “are willing to cast morality aside so easily”? I don’t see any of the comments made in this discussion that seem to be a rejection of morality.

    Some have argued that Jesus’s silence on sexual matters is evidence that he held views similar to those of other Jews of his time. Others have pointed out that the argument from silence is a weak argument. Whatever you think of those arguments (I think that the first is stronger and that it isn’t only an argument from silence, given what we know about the time period), neither of them casts morality aside.

  9. Brent on February 15, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    Jim, my comment about casting morality aside may have been less directed to this particluar comment thread and more toward various other comments made in other comment threads here. Several seem to take a view of sexual morality that is questionable based gospel teachings. For instance, there was a debate awhile back about whether the church’s strict teaching against premarital sex actually harmed married couples (i.e. whether it actually might be a better policy to allow sex before marriage), and there have be multiple debates about whether banning same-sex marriage is a worthwhile endeavor or not, some taking a position contrary to the position of the Church, a position President Hinckley has said is based on morality.

    Also I was simply disagreeing with to the extent anyone was now contending that it is possible that Christ’s apparent silence on sexual matters during his ministry somehow indicated that (a) such matters were/are of no real import or (b) evidence that he would condone sex outside of marriage. In light of the substantive discussion prompting Adam’s question about scriptural interpretation, I, perhaps wrongly, interpreted opposition to the “silence means Christ accepted Jewish teachings of sexual purity” point of view as giving legitimacy to the claims of those who suggest that homosexuality or other extramartial sexual activities are not sinful because not expressly condemned by Christ himself. I pointed out a couple of instances where Christ did speak against sexual immorality. I also pointed out that Paul’s teachings cannot be divorced from the specific teachings of Christ for Paul spoke as a representative of Christ.

    I don’t think everyone, and definitely not a majority of the commentators here “are willing to cast aside morality so easily”, however, some commentators do have a view on some of these matters that, in my opinion, is more “of the world” rather than “in the world.”

  10. Jim F. on February 15, 2004 at 7:50 pm

    Brent, I suppose that I’ve understood most of the posts on the threads you speak of as people discussing hypotheticals rather than arguing for a position. Lawyers (and philosophers) tend to do that, but the hypotheticals are intended as a way of exploring a position and understanding it, not as a way of taking a position. So, though I certainly don’t know about the motivations of each person posting at this site, I don’t think many of them are willing to cast aside morality as the Church officially understands it. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  11. Brent on February 15, 2004 at 10:22 pm

    Jim, perhaps saying “cast aside morality” is to strong. However, I have been somewhat surprised by some of the “hypotheticals” and what to me appear to be, at the very least, arguments posited in contra church positions. Exploring positions is fine, but I don’t fully understand the hesitation on the part of some to stand squarely with the prophet against same-sex marriage or against abortion. It seems inconsistent to me to say “I believe such things are immoral” and follow that by “I just don’t believe we should have laws regulating such immorality.” If these moral truths are important, and if failing to follow such moral truths affects society, then we ought to vigorously champion such moral truths, not make arguments for the opponents of such truths.

  12. Chris Goble on February 16, 2004 at 2:49 am

    I wonder if part of the struggle is trying to find how much of our personal beliefs should be applied to others. I think the relativity that is usually being explored is often not as much personal ambiguity as it is an effort to try and see how that relativity applies to others, especially those who don’t hold our views. I guess one of the biggest changes I have seen in myself over the years is not so much a liberalizing of my personal standards, but rather a liberalizing of how I judge others. I have also noticed a tendency to judge things more in terms of becoming rather than only point time actions. Perhaps that means I am not as active as I could be in standing up for important values. However, it also means it may be easier to see the morals from which others are interpreting the world. The more I do this, the more similarities I find in many values. Ironically enough, I am also starting to find that it is easier to pick out those things that are truly incongruent, not only in foreign values, but also in my spiritual life. I guess things depend more on what you are trying to do than anything else.

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