NEW ORLEANS – Does the Bible present a clear message on sexual ethics? Or does the text send mixed messages on the subject?
Speakers at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary addressed the matter recently. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., said the Bible upholds only two options when it comes to sex: monogamous heterosexual marriage or celibacy in singleness.
But New Testament scholar Jennifer Wright Knust of Boston University, also speaking at the seminary’s Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum Feb. 15, said the biblical message on sex is not clear at all. She assessed the Bible’s treatment of sex as “complicated and contradictory.” Knust promotes a sexual ethic she considers “biblically-informed,” but ultimately it is developed within the context of a modern Christian community.
The Greer-Heard Forum, established in 2005 through a gift from Bill and Carolyn Heard, prepares seminary students, ministers and everyday Christians to think critically and engage secular society with biblical truth. The conference brings together scholars from opposing views to discuss an important issue in a civil manner.
This year’s forum, “The Bible & Sex,” addressed a topic which is at the center of heated political battles in the United States and is a key point of contention in debates among mainline Protestants. Determining what the Bible teaches on sex has far-reaching implications.
Both keynote presenters – Witherington, a conservative Wesleyan, and Knust, an ordained American Baptist minister – acknowledged that young people often receive mixed messages about sex during their formative years.
“Sex is dirty. Save it for the one you really love,” Witherington said, retelling the inadequate teaching he received growing up. “That is what you call a mixed message.”
Witherington argued that sex is wholesome and good and honors God within the boundaries that God intended. For him, the Bible does not send mixed messages on sex. Knust, too, has come to see sex as one of God’s good gifts, but she views boundaries, like the one Witherington promotes, as human constructs rather than timeless moral directives from God.
Much of the discussion centered on an evaluation of Knust’s 2011 book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, in which she asserted that the Bible’s teachings on sexuality are ambiguous, and thus it is difficult to derive a clear sexual ethic from scripture.
Jennifer Wright Knust
Knust opened the forum with a presentation of her views on the Bible’s message on sex, challenging what she considers a dangerous form of biblical interpretation. Conservative interpreters, she said, are using the Bible to deny people – namely homosexuals – a share of the world’s good.
She claimed the only way for conservative scholars to find a universal, timeless sexual ethic in the Bible is to engage in “proof texting.” This practice of using select verses to prove one’s point makes Scripture “a carving knife to slice human communities into those who are deserving and those who are not,” Knust said.
Knust reviewed a litany of ways the Bible has been misused over the years. Her examples included colonialism in Africa and the Americas, European scientific racism of the 1930s and ‘40s, and the justification of slavery. Knust argued that those who conclude the Bible speaks against homosexuality are doing the same thing.
“The Bible cannot be expected to offer a single or consistent message about anything, including sex, even if some of us do regard this collection as divinely inspired as I do,” Knust said. “Find a passage that appears to teach one thing, and I can find a passage that appears to teach something else.”
Knust said the back and forth of proof texting always ends in a draw. She suggested that the church abandon its desire for clear-cut, definitive teachings about sex from which rules are extracted and applied.
“As I see it, the claim that the Bible presents a single, objective, changeless and universal set of moral teachings reduces the complexity of the biblical witness to a series of slogans and possibly self-serving announcements, while simultaneously obviating our own responsibilities as moral actors who are called to respond to the concrete neighbor before and with us,” Knust said.
Knust argued that Christian interpreters do have a responsibility to the Bible and to God, but the responsibility does not stop there. Interpreters also have a responsibility to the people of the modern world – their neighbors. A biblical sexual ethic should give consideration to all of these responsibilities, Knust said.
“Let me be clear, I do think we can learn moral principles from and with the Christian Scriptures,” she said. “That’s how I’ve always learned them. But I do not think it is scripture alone that teaches [moral principles] to us.”
Knust urged Christians to be cautious with the pronouncements they make about actions they deem sinful. She suggested that love should be a guiding principle in interpretation. Modern interpreters should take into account the “humanness” of the modern readers and offer interpretations that bring the widest blessing.
Ben Witherington III
In his opening presentation, Witherington offered a thorough critique of Knust’s methods in her book Unprotected Texts. He argued that Knust presented narrative Old Testament texts and narrative poems like the Song of Songs as representative of that culture’s prevailing views on sex. The descriptive texts are often incorrectly interpreted as prescriptive by Knust in her book, Witherington said.
Witherington, for example, pointed to Knust’s treatment of Judah’s visit with a prostitute in Genesis 38. Knust seemed to take this descriptive passage of one man’s sinful act as a normative attitude of the Hebrew culture regarding prostitution, Witherington said.
“The Bible is replete with examples of patriarchs or prophets or priests or kings or even apostles behaving badly,” Witherington said. “The fact that the narrative is honest and presents people to us, warts, wrinkles and all, is one of the great things about the Bible. But at the same time we have such stories of misbehavior, we have clear statements condemning prostitution and bad behavior.”
Using Old Testament examples alone to build a sexual ethic is problematic for Christians, Witherington said. And this is especially true for Old Testament narratives. He suggested that Christians start instead with Jesus’ teachings when developing a sexual ethic.
Witherington used polygamy to make his point. The Old Testament, he said, does not condone or condemn polygamy, but Jesus makes clear statements about marriage and sex in His teachings. His teaching clearly prohibited polygamy, Witherington said.
“It’s pretty clear that heterosexual monogamy or celibacy in singleness are the only two options,” Witherington said. “Furthermore, Jesus goes on to explain that this was God’s original creation order design for humankind. Christians are held to a higher ethical standard in various ways than some of the Old Testament examples might suggest the patriarchs followed. To whom more is given, more is required.”
Witherington also took exception to the way Knust handled the household codes found in Colossians 3 and 4 and in Ephesians 5 and 6. In Unprotected Texts, he said, Knust implies that these passages teach patriarchy and condone slavery.
According to Witherington, Paul was addressing pre-existing conditions in families who had become Christian. He argued the passages seek to limit, not license, patriarchy and slavery. Paul showed his true feelings about slavery in the letter to Philemon, Witherington said. In that letter, Paul encouraged Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother in Christ rather than a slave.
“If we do our homework and our contextual work on Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon and 1 Corinthians, we will discover a trajectory of change in a situation that was pre-existing in households that Paul had to deal with,” he said. “[Paul is] dealing with people where they are, not where he would like them to be.”
Witherington concluded, “At the end of the day, despite all of Professor Knust’s protests, yes, there is a consistent sexual ethic to be found in the Bible and more particularly for Christians in the New Testament. Jesus and Paul gave us two options: celibacy in singleness and fidelity in heterosexual marriage, with marriage clearly defined as God joining together one man and one woman in holy matrimony.
“Both the call to celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage are good and holy callings,” he said. “Each has its strengths and difficulties. Both require a grace gift from God to pursue and live in.”
The Greer-Heard conference continued Feb. 16 with presentations by Dale Martin of Yale University, Michael F. Bird of Crossway College, Stephen D. Moore of Drew University, and Sandra Richter of Wesley Biblical Seminary. Witherington and Knust offered responses to each of the second-day presentations and the event ended with concluding comments from the keynote presenters.
For more about the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, visit www.greerheard.com. To order audio recording of this event or previous Greer-Heard forums, call (504) 282-4455, ext. 3245, or email [email protected].
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)
Photo by Boyd Guy
Jennifer Wright Knust, left, and Ben Witherington III dialogue during the ninth annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, “The Bible & Sex,” at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.