walter wink on homosexuality & the bible (part 3): conclusions
This post is the third part of a series on Walter Wink’s views on homosexuality and the Bible. It is advisable to read Part 1 on the Old Testament and Part 2 on the New Testament before continuing below.
The very notion of a “sex ethic” reflects the materialism and splitness of modern life, in which we increasingly define our identity sexually. Sexuality cannot be separated off from the rest of life. No sex act is “ethical” in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God. What we have are simply sexual mores, which change, sometimes with startling rapidity, creating bewildering dilemmas. Just within one lifetime we have witnessed the shift from the ideal of preserving one’s virginity until marriage, to couples living together for several years before getting married. The response of many Christians is merely to long for the hypocrisies of an earlier era.
– Walter Wink
In this final offering on Walter Wink’s views set out in his article Homosexuality and the Bible, I will attempt to gather up the loose ends that have escaped the net spread out in the previous two posts of this series.
For Wink there is nothing more and nothing less at stake in this debate than the way we read Scripture. His view seems to be that literalistic readings will not do, given that the Bible is culturally bound (it was inspired by God through culturally-bound humans), and that our readings/interpretations are necessarily selective and culturally bound:
The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit.
Wink’s logical conclusion is that because some sexual standards seem to change throughout the history of the Bible, the constant cannot be a law of sexuality, but rather a command to love:
The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.
In this way sex acts cannot be said to be ethical in and of themselves; the ethics of sexuality can only be stated in reference to “the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God.”
This does not mean there should not be standards, says Wink, for they are indeed necessary. Such standards, however, are too often used by those in positions of power to control people rather than to help them flourish as human beings. That is to say that rules and mores are used negatively (what one ought not to do) rather than positively (what is good for one to do).* For this reason we must critique the sexual mores of our cultures against the love ethic exemplified by Jesus, lest such rules be wielded for domination.
Using this uncomplicated ethic Wink implies that a Christian can affirm homosexuality whilst denying non-consented sex acts; any act that is exploitative, dominating, irresponsible, non-mutual or uncaring is necessarily unloving. Such an ethic of love excludes sexual exploitation of children, domination of women, and bestiality. For Wink, Augustine’s phrase sums things up – “Love God, and do as you please.”
Our task is not to create sexual rules (which people do not often follow), but to apply Jesus’ love ethic to a culture’s sexual mores. This means that not everything goes, since all is critiqued by Jesus’ love commandment:
We might address younger teens, not with laws and commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming, and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.
Christian morality is not simply about what we cannot or should not do; it is about expressing the integrity of our relationship to God. It is an attempt to live consistently as those whom God created us to be. This, for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, means in negative terms rejecting any sexual standard or act that violates their own integrity and that of others, and in positive terms seeking to live according to Jesus’ love ethic.
It is when love and not law is the approach that Wink believes things change:
Now the question is not “What is permitted?” but rather “What does it mean to love my homosexual neighbor?” Approached from the point of view of faith rather than works, the question ceases to be “What constitutes a breach of divine law in the sexual realm?” and becomes instead “What constitutes integrity before the God revealed in the cosmic lover, Jesus Christ?” Approached from the point of view of the Spirit rather than the letter, the question ceases to be “What does Scripture command?” and becomes “What is the Word that the Spirit speaks to the churches now, in the light of Scripture, tradition, theology, and, yes, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?” We can’t continue to build ethics on the basis of bad science.
Wink goes on to raise the issue presented in two pieces of Scripture, namely Luke 12:57 and 1 Corinthians 6:3. The verses seem to place the onus onto Christians to judge what is right for themselves. In Paul’s case Wink believes that his desire for Christians to decide ethics for themselves stems from a desire to avoid his ethical advice becoming a new law written on tablets of stone:
[Paul] is himself trying to “judge for himself what is right.” If now new evidence is in on the phenomenon of homosexuality, are we not obligated–no, free–to re-evaluate the whole issue in the light of all the available data and decide what is right, under God, for ourselves? Is this not the radical freedom for obedience in which the gospel establishes us?
150 years ago the Bible seemed to be on the side of slaveholders, sanctioning slavery and nowhere explicitly attacking it as unjust. Did we not overturn such things, thus implying doubt as to whether the Bible was correct on this issue? Wink asks why we do not do the same in regard to homosexuality.
The overturning of slavery was not achieved by combating literalistic readings with other literalistic readings. Instead it was accomplished by way of a much deeper understanding of the meaning of Scripture in which Israel articulates its experience of the Exodus and the prophets, and in which Jesus’ identification with prostitutes, tax collectors, the diseased, disabled, outcast and the poor is the supreme moment of God’s story. This story teaches us that:
…God sides with the powerless. God liberates the oppressed. God suffers with the suffering and groans toward the reconciliation of all things. In the light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospel’s imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.
The Bible thus critiques all forms of domination, a critique that can be turned against the Bible itself thus allowing the Bible to correct its own misreadings. “We are freed from bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. It is restored to its proper place as witness to the Word of God. And that word is a Person, not a book.” Going on he says:
With the interpretive grid provided by a critique of domination, we are able to filter out the sexism, patriarchalism, violence, and homophobia that are very much a part of the Bible, thus liberating it to reveal to us in fresh ways the inbreaking, in our time, of God’s domination-free order.
Wink concludes by acknowledging that his case is probably not air-tight. He is convinced of only three things:
1) The rightness of what he says in his essay (in tension with his own limitations);
2) That many will find weaknesses in his essay, and;
3) That the Bible gives us no unequivocal guidance on the issue of homosexuality.
Wink exhorts Christians to ask themselves how they know they are interpreting the Bible correctly, and to “lower the decibels by 95 percent and quietly present our beliefs, knowing full well that we might be wrong.” Even if we disagree on the issue of homosexuality, we must understand that the debate has not been concluded, and that our primary command is to love one another; this seems to be Wink’s most desperate plea.
Walter Wink offers us a highly challenging perspective on a highly controversial issue. Whatever we believe about homosexuality, Christians must do serious business with the hermeneutical issues that Wink raises. It is not enough to simply say his view of Scripture is wrong (as some have), or that he is unfaithful to the Bible (a foolish claim in light of Wink’s statements about the primacy of the Bible in Christian living).
It is certainly not acceptable to divert the issues raised by writing Wink off in a personal way, as one commenter did on my Facebook page by implying Wink was somehow satanic. Wink’s whole ethic is based around Christ’s command to love and we would do well to listen to this exhortation. Paul’s words ring true – “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
Walter Wink calls us to nothing less than a deep, committed and often painful struggle with the complexities of the Bible, culture and ethics. When we turn the Bible into laws do we not do precisely what Paul exhorted us not to? When we make the Bible the last word on all things do we not try to bereave God his ability to be Sovereign and free? When we stare blindly into the Bible through our culture do we not swindle the Bible of its meaning? When we attend to ethics as rigid mores do we not hijack the freedom we have in Christ for true obedience and flourishing?
Or perhaps more simply, what if we are wrong? This extends both ways, though we cannot come to biblical truth through cheap and lazy exegesis, or stubborn dogmatism.
* Similarly, this is how many Christians view the concept of holiness, though in my view this does not bring out the fullness of the concept.
Posted on July 13, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Culture & Art, Hermeneutics, Sexuality & Gender and tagged 1 Corinthians 13, Abomination, Gay, Hermeneutics, Homosexuality, Interpretation, Lesbian, Love, Walter Wink. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.