Several years ago, Tim Costello, “the most public face of Christian social justice in the country”,1 neatly summed up the way in which social justice advocates view themselves and their opposites. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, he claimed, in all seriousness, that Kevin Rudd and (then Prime Minister) John Howard “represent the strands within the Christian tradition that promote private piety around family values, and social piety around justice and compassion—a self-help faith that says ‘Bless me Lord’, or a social reform faith that says ‘Bless the poor through me’.”2
Setting aside the fact that this claim is a caricature of the position of socially conservative Christians, it accurately illustrates the way that socially progressive Christians divide life into two opposing categories—“personal morality”, which is trivial and selfish, versus “social justice”, which is vital and selfless.
One of the issues that leftwing Christians lump in the personal morality category is homosexuality. It peeves them to think that anyone could take the traditional biblical view of homosexuality seriously enough to vote for or against a political party on the basis of it. Indeed, Costello is plainly incensed that “it has been this focus on hot-button issues such as abortion, homosexuality … that has allowed the right to define the relationship between religion and politics.”2
Costello feels that the right has no right to view homosexuality as being that important. He claims:
It is striking that the textbook for Christian faith, the Bible, has some 3000 verses urging us to care for the poor and marginalised, and only a handful of verses on two of the topics that the religious right trumpets as its main values criteria: homosexuality and the family.2
Costello is by no means alone in putting forward such claims. Kevin Rudd expresses similar sentiments:
I see very little evidence that this pre-occupation with sexual morality [supposedly on the part of conservative Christian voters] is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels. For example, there is no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth expressly preaching against homosexuality. In contrast, there is considerable evidence of the Nazarene preaching against poverty and the indifference of the rich.3
Not surprisingly, the American social justice guru, Jim Wallis, advances similar arguments (and is, in fact, the likely source of Costello’s and Rudd’s arguments):
The Right is comfortable with the language of religion, values, God talk. … But then they narrow everything down to one or two issues: abortion and gay marriage. …
Jesus didn’t speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question. Most of them are very contextual. There are thousands of verses on poverty. I don’t hear a lot of that conversation.4
The logic of these three social justice champions seems to be that conservative Christians should not make an issue of homosexuality because (1) there are not many verses in the Bible about it, (2) Jesus never spoke about it and (3) it is merely a matter of personal, not social, importance. I wish to address these points in turn.
The number of verses on homosexuality
Social justice advocates make much of the small number of direct references to homosexuality in the Bible. They contrast an alleged several thousand verses on poverty against an alleged one dozen verses on homosexuality in the hope that the huge discrepancy in numbers will convince us that poverty is hugely important, but homosexuality is hugely unimportant.
As social justice advocates put such weight on the number of verses in the Bible that supposedly deal with the subject of poverty, it is reasonable to pause for a moment to examine their estimate. A search through the Bible for the words “poor” and “poverty” yields less than 200 occurrences. A search for the companion words “rich” and “riches” yields just 160 occurrences. Similarly, thematic (as distinct from single word) searches in Naves Topical Concordance reveal hundreds, not thousands, of verses dealing with the theme of poverty and the poor.
However, for the sake of argument, let us grant social justice enthusiasts their exaggerated claim of 3,000 verses on poverty.* With so many verses at their disposal, surely they can find quite a few that support their proposals for the solution to poverty. In fact, however, they cannot find even one verse to verify their viewpoint. Instead of practising personal charity, they press for tax-funded welfare. What Bible verses support that? Instead of reaching into their own pockets to give to the poor, they urge the government to reach into their neighbours’ pockets. What Bible verses support that? Instead of advocating the production of wealth, they advocate the redistribution of wealth. What Bible verses support that? Instead of encouraging effort and enterprise they encourage covetousness and envy. What Bible verses support that? Instead of cultivating individual accountability, they cultivate collective guilt. What Bible verses support that? Instead of encouraging a sense of gratitude in the poor for assistance, they encourage a sense of entitlement. What Bible verses support that? Instead of honouring those who honestly create and cultivate wealth, they misrepresent them as class enemies and exploiters of the poor. What Bible verses support that?
The more verses there are on poverty, the more devastating it is for the advocates of social justice. For they cannot find a single verse that will support their proposed solutions to the problem of poverty. And worse, they disregard or deny most, if not all, of the solutions that the Bible puts forward. They ignore or deplore the Bible’s insistence that poverty must be addressed primarily through the cultivation of personal responsibility, hard work, diligent saving, virtuous living, private ownership, limited government and practical compassion. It is primarily conservative Christians who accept and advance these biblical solutions.
Many verses on a given subject do not necessarily validate one’s viewpoint on that subject. It is not the number of verses that matters but the message of those verses. And the message of scripture concerning poverty and the poor is not the message of the social justice movement.
About the only thing socialist Christians get right concerning the Bible and the poor is the very thing that evangelical and conservative Christians have long understood—namely, that the Bible teaches that the poor are to be esteemed and helped. After that, they get almost everything wrong: their notions about the causes of and solutions to poverty are at best flawed and at worst fiendish.
Wallis, Rudd and Costello would have us believe that, in contrast to the thousands of verses on poverty, there are “only a handful”, “about 12”, verses in the Bible on homosexuality.** Assuming this to be true, what of it? Frequency is not necessarily a measure of importance. Must a truth be repeated numerous times before it can be accepted as true? And must a truth be of minor importance if it is not frequently repeated? Some profoundly important truths of the Christian Faith are presented in scripture only a few times. For example, the need to be “born again” is fundamental to biblical Christianity, but the actual expression occurs in the Bible only four times (John 3: 3, 7 and 1 Peter 1:3, 23). Similarly, the high priesthood of Christ is deeply significant, but express teaching on it is confined to several chapters in the book of Hebrews.
As with the importance of the new birth and the high priesthood of Christ, the seriousness of homosexuality is not determined by the number of verses on the topic, but by the plain and unified statement that those verses make.
Social justice advocates can confuse us when they declare that the Bible contains very few verses on homosexuality and “most of them are very contextual”. However, our confusion quickly falls away when we read the verses themselves. Consider just four of the Bible’s statements on homosexuality:
- Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
- Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them” (20:13).
- Romans 1:26-27: “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals … will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Do we need more verses to get the message? These are statements that are hard to misunderstand and harder still to misrepresent. In the light of such blunt statements, how can advocates of social justice maintain that the Bible is ambiguous on homosexuality and doesn’t take it very seriously? They can only convince us of the soundness of their position if they can convince us to read the biblical passages through their ideological glasses.
Just as social justice advocates are wrong in their view that the Bible treats homosexuality lightly, so they are wrong in their claim that homosexuality barely rates a mention in the Bible. Few verses deal with the subject directly, perhaps; but many deal with it indirectly.
The only approval given for sexual intimacy in the Bible is for intimacy between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship. This necessarily implies disapproval for any other sexual behaviour in any other context. Even if the Bible did not expressly tell us that fornication, adultery, bestiality, prostitution and homosexuality are forbidden, we would know these forms of sexual expression are wrong because they fall outside what the Bible declares to be right and good in sexual matters. Based on the biblical endorsement of heterosexual marriage, we could reasonably deduce that homosexual behaviour is doubly wrong; for it transgresses both the male-female nature of sex and the husband-wife context for it. Every affirmation of marriage in the Bible implies a corresponding repudiation of homosexuality. So then, the dozen explicit rejections of homosexuality in the Bible are supported by hundreds of implicit rejections.
What Jesus said on homosexuality
Bearing these things in mind, we discover that social justice advocates are quite wrong when they claim that Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality.
By inference, at least, Jesus had a great deal to say on the subject. For example, he cites and comments on Genesis 2:24 in the following terms:
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 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’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:4-6)
Here Jesus expressly teaches that sex is for marriage; that marriage is for a man and a woman; and that human beings were made male and female especially so that they could pair off and become “one flesh” through sexual union in marriage. Jesus makes it perfectly plain that sex is not for a man with a man or a woman with a woman but for a man with a woman—and this has been so “from the beginning” and will be so to the end.
Also, Jesus spoke about homo-sexuality—along with all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage—when, for example, he taught that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19, my emphasis; cf Mark 7:21). The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” is porneia and means, according to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, “illicit sexual intercourse—adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.” Jesus did not expressly name homosexuality, but he did expressly cover it.
It is worth noting that Jesus includes adultery and sexual immorality alongside murder and theft, thereby indicating that sexual offences are serious offences indeed. So much for the dismissal of sexual morality as a trivial issue! It is also worth noting that Jesus teaches that evil flows from within a person. Christian socialists get it wrong when they blame social institutions for human wrongdoing. It is not, in the first instance, our institutions that need changing, but our innermost natures!
The claim that “Jesus didn’t speak at all about homosexuality” betrays a stupendous ignorance of his connection with both the Old and the New Testament scriptures. Take the Old Testament first.
Jesus knew and revered the Old Testament scriptures. He often quoted them, prefacing his quotation with “have you not read” and “as the Scripture has said”. He declared, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).Again he said, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:17). He knew the Law and he endorsed it. He endorsed it in its entirety, which means that he endorsed its teaching on homosexuality.
Indeed, how could Jesus not know of the Old Testament teaching on homo-sexuality? And how could he not approve of it? For after all, the Old Testament prophets wrote as “the Spirit of Christ in them” inspired them to write (1 Peter 1:10-12). In that sense, the Old Testament scriptures are his teachings.
Jesus’ reverence for the Old Testament scriptures is in marked contrast to the irreverence of many social justice advocates. Of course, they delight to cite an Old Testament verse when they feel it supports their agenda. But they are quick to dismiss passages that do not fit their perspectives and purposes.
Consider, for example, how Tim Costello, in a television program broadcast to the whole nation, endeavoured to belittle the Old Testament scriptures in order to dismiss its teaching on homosexuality. The host of 2 Shot, John Safran, asked him, “Christians and other religions believe that homosexuality is a transgression so like how do you resolve that? What’s your interpretation of Leviticus 20:13 which … is all about … how man should not lie down with another man as he lies down with a woman and he will surely die and there’ll be blood on them. It’s quite violent.” Disgracefully, Costello responded, “Yes very and indeed the Hebrew scriptures Leviticus talk about capital punishment for children too. They talk about those with crushed testicles or being lame not being allowed into the temple. There’s all sorts …” As he said this, John Safran, interjected, “Yeah but proving that there’s other things in the bible that may also equally be violent and ridiculous [doesn’t] somehow even up things and make Leviticus 20:13 less harsh.” Costello discredited the Old Testament generally in an effort to discredit its teaching on homosexuality specifically. Safran perfectly understood both the nature of his argument and the falsity of it: claiming that the Bible says violent and ridiculous things about A and B does not prove that the Bible does not mean what it says about C. Caught out, Costello tried to justify himself: “No, no but what it does say is that we actually as a Christian have to read those texts through the eyes of Jesus. …”5
Oh that Costello and his fellow travellers would read the Old Testament texts through Jesus’ eyes! Then they would humbly and respectfully acknowledge that every text is plain and truthful in its meaning, because “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), and consequently “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4). Indeed, they would confidently insist that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Unlike the advocates of social justice, Jesus was never embarrassed by the teachings of the Old Testament: he never derided those teachings to gain popularity; he never denied them to accommodate the world; and he never distorted them to wheedle his way out of difficulty. He viewed the Old Testament scriptures, in whole and in part, as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and so should we.
Jesus is (in a sense) even more closely connected with the New Testament scriptures than with the Old, for he personally appointed and instructed the writers of those scriptures. He commissioned his closest disciples, “whom he also named apostles” (Mark 3:14), to “make disciples of all nations”, a task that would involve “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). To enable them to do this, he promised to give them “another Helper”, who “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:16-17, 26). He further assured them that this Helper, “the Spirit of truth”, “will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak … he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). Indeed, he promised that the Spirit would represent him to the disciples and they in turn would be equipped to represent him to the world: “when the Helper comes … he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).
Jesus himself constantly taught the apostles for a period of three years. When he left them he imparted the Spirit of truth to them to help them accurately remember what he had taught them. The Spirit not only reminded them of Jesus’ teaching but also guided them as they recorded that teaching in the New Testament scriptures. Further-more, Jesus continued to teach the apostles through the Spirit, who guided them to an understanding of Jesus’ mind on any new matters they might encounter.
Although the apostle Paul did not have the benefit of learning from Jesus during his earthly ministry, he was nonetheless taught directly by Jesus after his conversion (Galatians 1:11-12). And he was, like the other apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit when he wrote to the churches. Indeed, the apostle Peter expressly calls Paul’s letters “Scriptures” and cautions against distorting them. Given the way that they try to misrepresent Paul’s teaching on homosexuality, social justice advocates would do well to heed Peter’s warning: “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
In short, Jesus commissioned the apostles to speak on his behalf. Hence what they wrote in the New Testament is exactly what he wanted to be written. When Paul wrote against homosexuality in Romans 1:18-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 he spoke with the authority and approval of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
And Paul spoke as Moses spoke. The notion (implicit in Costello’s “through the eyes of Jesus” comment) that the Old and New Testaments contradict each other—that the Old Testament is barbarously harsh and is corrected by a humane gentleness in the New—is utterly wrong. The two Testaments speak with one accord on all things. The only change between the Old and New Testaments regarding homo-sexuality concerns the matter of capital punishment. Christians generally conclude that the New Testament sets aside the death penalty for homosexuals. The reason for this conclusion is twofold. Firstly, Jesus waived the death penalty for the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11): by implication, then, he suspended capital punishment for other sexual sins, too. Secondly, while the New Testament forcefully repeats the Old Testament’s condemnation of homosexuality as grossly sinful, it does not repeat the Old Testament’s pronouncement of capital punishment for that sin.
But to return to and finish with Jim Wallis and co’s insistence that Jesus didn’t speak at all about homosexuality: For argument’s sake, let us allow this claim to be true. Although it is contrary to Christianity, let us suppose that the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles did not speak for Jesus on the matter of homosexuality; and, although it is contrary to sanity, let us also suppose that Jesus did not include homosexuality in his definition of sexual immorality. Even so, social justice advocates have no grounds to interpret his silence as indifference to, or approval of, homo-sexuality. It does not logically follow to say that he must have been unconcerned about it because he did not speak about it or that he must have approved of it because he did not condemn it. If we shift issues for a moment we can readily see the perversity of such reasoning.
Jesus did not condemn child sexual abuse, either. In fact, whether by his own mouth or by the mouths of his apostles, he never said a single word about it. Should we interpret his silence to mean that he is indifferent to the practise of paedophilia? Going further, should we interpret his lack of express condemnation to mean that he actually approves of paedophilia? Absurd and blasphemous! Jesus did not expressly name and condemn paedophilia (or rape, bestiality and incest, for that matter) because it is covered by his negative teaching on sexual immorality and by his positive teaching on heterosexual marriage. Jesus did not need to expressly name and condemn homosexuality for the same reason: his condemnation of it is covered by his general teaching on human sexuality.
Jesus’ affirmation of what is right in sexual matters inevitably defines what is wrong in sexual matters. Furthermore, his express condemnation of “sexual immorality” includes a condemnation of homo-sexuality. More significantly still, his endorsement of all the teaching of the prophets and apostles includes an endorsement of their united assessment of the moral nature of homosexuality. All this hardly supports the social justice claim that Jesus had nothing to say about men having sex with men and a women having sex with women.
God willing, in the next issue of Life News I will deal with the notion that homosexuality is merely a matter of personal, not social, importance.
1. Tim Costello, interviewed by Peter Thompson, Talking Heads, ABC TV, 15 June 2009 – http://www.abc.net.au/tv/talkingheads/txt/s2593114.htm
2. Tim Costello, “Room for religion as moral compass”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 January 2007 – http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/room-for-religion-as-moral-compass/2007/01/05/1167777276564.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1
3. Kevin Rudd, “Faith and Politics”, The Monthly, October 2006 – http://www.themonthly.com.au/tm/?q=node/300
4. Jim Wallis, “God’s Politics: An Interview with Jim Wallis”, Michal Lumsden (interviewer), MotherJones.com, 10 March 2005. Available at: http://motherjones.com/politics/2005/03/gods-politics-interview-jim-wallis
5. John Safran interviewing Tim Costello on the television program 2 Shot, Episode 11, 9 May 2000, Australian Broadcasting Commission. Transcript available: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/2shot/transcripts/ep11trans.pdf