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Salvaging the Biblical View on Homosexuality: A Challenge to the Exegesis of Adam Phillips

By Jon Horton – BarbWire guest contributor

“The word ‘homosexuality’ didn’t even show up in English translations of the Bible until 1946, so why do we say the Bible condemns it?” – Adam Phillips.

A little over a week ago, we had the privilege of viewing another prime example of just how convoluted certain aspects of emergent theology have become in our post-modern world.

Pastor Adam Phillips of Christ Church in Portland, OR – an open, inclusive faith community – published an article for the Huffington Post in which he challenges Franklin Graham’s recent criticism of the assault on biblical marriage. I first heard about Pastor Phillips when a friend sent me a link to his piece on attending his first Pride parade in late June. It would seem Phillips is just one of the more recent in a long, continuing line of clergy who have inexorably jumped on the #marriage equality bandwagon.

Still, at this point, one might feel compelled to ask: have we not heard enough about this topic yet? Why should all this really matter?

It matters because, as even a casual perusing of his posts will reveal, this type of progressive homily has been acquiring the attention of many – as the thousands of shares and tens of thousands of likes on social media well illustrate. Phillips’ critique of Graham’s position seems imprudent, at best, and it does leave one wondering exactly where the doctrinal grounding is – in many respects. Exclaiming how Graham’s avowal, that the one who created marriage defined it as between a man and a woman, is in fact a “biblically inaccurate” statement – but then failing to substantiate that specific claim – seems indicative of the modus operandi utilized by that most odious of aspiring academics: the monologist. Indeed, most of us are no longer holding our breath for a time when Matthew Vines will actually debate his position in an open forum. And so, we also wish Pastor Phillips would re-read his bible – and Matthew 19 just might be an abundant place to begin:

4 [Jesus] answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” – (NRSV)

What is really going on here?

It is perhaps not difficult to point out that Phillips has structured his presentation in such a way as to suggest, almost from the very beginning, that this debate, at least for him, is not really even one worth having. The sooner Franklin Graham and the rest of those who hold to the – profoundly unquestioned – 2,000 year orthodoxy of Judeo-Christian teaching, in this area, get that through their heads – the sooner “…we can get back to the more important things.” The church needs to “…end the culture wars and fully focus on the war against poverty, racism and injustice in our world.” I completely agree with him there. Phillips offers a reference from Micah 6:8 as another means of supporting this point: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” “And yet,” he claims, “all anyone wants to talk about these days are six bible verses that ‘condemn homosexuality.’” What is wrong with this portrait?

Well for starters, if you are an orthodox Christian, that last statement should have a rather incongruous feel to it. Is Phillips legitimately confused here or just being intentionally misleading? One might already have a sense for much of the would-be speechmaking that commonly follows. Calls to not offend. How the division of the church, over this matter, does not help us to be more like Christ. How we should not judge – always a favorite. Or Phillips’ own assertion how “…we need to accept [it]” and just move on. One need not point out that this type of rhetoric is disconcertingly analogous to how many arguing against Christian views altogether, on sexual ethics, would attempt to gain the advantage in a modern-day exchange. As soon as a victim card is pulled, all logical, biblically grounded critique must immediately cease or you will be labeled as vile, retrograde, bigoted, and so on. We all know the script by now.

So what does scripture have to say?

Pastor Phillips suggests that there are six verses typically used in defense of the “traditional” view on homosexual practice: Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. “Six bullets in the chamber.” I would be inclined to agree with that analogy, if I did not view it as a radical oversimplification of the gravity of the present discussion.

I am reminded of an eloquent presentation N.T. Wright gave for Humanum, regarding the complementarity of man-woman marriage, without ever even raising the question of those aforementioned passages. The coming together of a man and a woman as symbolizing the coming together of Christ and the church seems, at least to me, to be something that too many today have either attempted to subvert – or have simply overlooked altogether.

Perhaps part of the problem here is that our contemporary Western culture is so fixated today on a societal narrative of tolerance, so closely tied up with aspects of secular-humanism and religious-relativism, that we have to, in many areas, fundamentally deny the existence of objective truth in our world. Allowing for more God-ordained institutions to erode, more people to be led astray, and (perhaps most sobering) fewer and fewer of the coming generation to be taught and understand, not simply about what God did in and through Jesus, but also about how that plan of God for salvation is to play out in their very lives. How does the further withdrawal of the currency of Christianity, from within the public sphere, permit for anything other than more human wickedness to fill the void? When truth is lost to relativism, everything starts to collapse. If it is from this point of view, through these spectacles, that some attempt to interpret scripture, it should not be a surprise to anyone that we are having this debate right now.

The “Sodomites” of Genesis 19

and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” – (NRSV)

Phillips cites Genesis 13:13, that “…the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord,” and subsequently asks: what exactly was their sin? A merciless procurement of power and wealth at the expense of the weak and the poor? Well, yes, that would be part of it. He quotes Ezekiel 16:49-50 and Jeremiah 50:40 as evidence of God’s wrath upon them. Even the words of Christ, in Matthew 11:20-24, reproaching the unrepentant cities by saying “…on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” Undoubtedly, all superb examples which inevitably paint the city of Sodom in an exceptionally poor light. And rightfully so. But again, how does any of this obscure the fact that, amidst Sodom’s many sins, there were clear violations of the Levitical code related to aspects of sexual purity?

Phillips suggests that the actual sin of the so-called “Sodomites” was, essentially, a propensity here toward gang rape. He states, “…it has nothing to do with homosexuality,” and then asks, “…why do we continue to think it does?” Would that position not require an a priori assumption that male sodomy, provided it was not in the context of forcible gang rape, was actually looked upon as an acceptable practice within Hebrew culture? Can we have any evidence to suggest that we should, even for one single minute, entertain such a notion? It is almost insulting to have to point out that Phillips omits the passage from Jude 1:7 in this context – illustrating that Sodom had ekporneusasai – indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust (NRSV). As Dr. Robert Gagnon has pointed out, “No first-century Jew could have spoken of porneiai (sexual immoralities) without having in mind the list of forbidden sexual offenses in Leviticus 18 and 20, particularly incest, adultery, same-sex intercourse, and bestiality.”1 This should be the point at which common-sense and humility would be saying: the orthodox view just might be the orthodox view for good reason.


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