Progressives claim traditionalists cite Paul and Leviticus only because they can’t cite Jesus. Is that criticism fair?
As American and Western culture changed, traditional views of sex and Christian morality were challenged. Some denominations held the line while others changed with the times.
With the United Methodist Church currently splitting over this very issue, now seems the perfect time to revisit the question.
Activists on both sides would claim the TRUE reading of scripture supports them.
One of the Left’s favorite arguments is a variant of the same argument from silence they use to support Abortion — show me where JESUS ever said anything about that particular sin. But how valid is that argument?
The inference of their statement, of course, is that Jesus and Paul are in conflict and since Jesus is the Son of God, and Paul isn’t…well, Jesus beats Paul.
There are passages in Paul’s letters to the churches of Rome and Corinth, and to Timothy that specifically condemn homosexual sex as an immoral practice. (Romans 1; I Corinthians 6; 1 Timothy 1) A layman’s English breakdown of the Greek words used can be found here.
Those wanting to change with the culture and be accepting of what were (not long ago) called ‘alternative lifestyles’ couched their arguments as a defense of ‘love’ with an aim to be ‘inclusionary’.
How did they get around the verses condemning sexual sin? By moving the goalposts and claiming we have been misinterpreting them all along.
Instead of Male-Female marriage relationships being normative and foundational, the emotional bond became normative and foundational. Read this way, they would claim that moral imperatives were not directed against improper relationships between people of like gender, but other sexual practices outside of anything they would describe as ‘loving relationships’. (In fact, a person with those views down on defining ANY sexual practice as objectively sinful is not always easy.)
Jesus, they might argue, is all-loving, all-forgiving and infinitely inclusive. He was a friend of tax collectors and prostitutes, don’ forget!
They would describe Paul, by comparison, is an uptight rule-keeping stick-in-the-mud who expects others to conform to his private morality. Alternatively, they would say that Paul was giving rules that pertained to his location and generation that should not be understood as morally binding beyond that local context.
Even leaving aside the Divinely-Inspired aspect of his word, there are a few problems with that view.
Here are just three, to start us off.
1) Both Jesus and Paul Preached a message of Repentance
Both Jesus and Paul preached a message grounded in love and repentance.
Any audience hearing the authentic gospel was never given a message of condemnation. They were offered a message of hope, grace, restoration, and forgiveness. Central to that message is a renunciation of the sins that fractured our relationship with God in the first place.
Paul saw his own sin — having been an active persecutor of Christ and his church — as an especially horrific sin. And yet, even he could be forgiven.
If a man responsible for the ow much more would the God he serves show grace to the more ‘mundane’ sins of his contemporaries who had never persecuted the church?
Note, even in the letter to Corinth, after addressing that list of sins, Paul states an obvious fact — ‘such were some of you, but…’:
And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. — I Cor 6:11
When a call to repentance was given, it was to call them to a better life, and it is a new way of life with which their previous way of living (whether that sin was lust, or pride, or greed or whatever other sin was being challenged) was entirely incompatible.
A message of repentance from sin was never a club to beat sinners with, but an invitation into something better.
2) Jesus and Paul addressed different audiences
If there is any difference between the content taught by Paul and Jesus, much of it can be explained by their target audiences.
Jesus was mostly preaching to an explicitly Jewish audience, well-familiar with Moses and the Prophets, with the nature of God himself, with the moral expectations of a people called to be holy, and how the proper relationship between God and man was supposed to look.
Since archeological digs can differentiate between Jewish and non-Jewish historical settlements by the presence or absence of pig bones in their trash, it’s pretty clear that Jews and their neighbors lived their lives by starkly different moral codes… right down to dietary practice. Why wouldn’t those distinctions also be mirrored in differences in attitudes toward sex?
Some expectations of Jewish morality could already be taken for granted and Jesus would not have to explain them further. His emphasis was instructing his followers about something much deeper than the superficial rule-keeping to which moralizing religious people can so easily default.
On the other hand, Paul — who we are often reminded was ‘called to be an apostle to the gentiles’ — had to go all the way back to square one, including that we shouldn’t think of God as a figure fashioned out of stone or wood or metal.
If Paul’s audiences didn’t even know the difference between God and an idol, should it surprise us that that would need more specific direction on God’s moral imperatives than a Jewish audience that already takes some for granted would? Not at all.
Therefore, the silence of Jesus cannot be taken as proof of disagreement.
3) Jesus and Paul BOTH gladly kicked the hornets’ nest on normative sexual sins.
There is a lot of focus on Paul teaching about sexual do’s and don’ts. But people forget that Jesus meddled in people’s sex lives, too.
You know that heartwarming story of the woman at the well? She was the village bicycle. She answered ‘I have no husband’. Jesus corrected her: She had had five husbands, but the one she NOW had was not her husband. Was that a difficult truth for her to hear? Of course it was. But it also changed her life.
‘Sweet Jesus’ was the opposite of ‘Politically correct’. He sometimes told some hard truths. But it was always paired with the offer of welcome for anyone willing to choose God over their sins.
Progressives can argue as much as they like that Jesus never specifically mentioned anything about two dudes (or two chicks) knocking boots, but that doesn’t mean he was silent about sex.
They had something like ‘no-fault divorce’ back in the day, and Jesus saw it as destructive. So he challenged the social norms of the day.
‘You have heard it said’ … he began. Pro-tip: Any time you see those words in the gospels, Jesus is about to BBQ a sacred cow.
He went after divorce by going straight back to the Garden of Eden.
Moses PERMITTED divorce in the law, but it was given as a concession ‘because of the hardness of their heart’, not as the ideal. “In the beginning, it was not so.’
That would be every bit as controversial a sermon then as it would be today. And the exact same authoritative verse he appealed to condemn the problem of serial marriage and divorce (Adam and Eve) could just as easily be used to define marriage in a narrow way that would be upsetting to the progressives of today.
Even when Jesus offered unusual grace to sinners, it was never to merely approve of their sin. He would tell them ‘go and sin no more’.
He never LOWERED the bar for holiness, he made it higher. The sin he called out doesn’t stop at illicit sex… he went further and named the lust behind it is as sinful.
After all, he DID come to save us from our sins, not to make us more comfortable in them.
Is there anything in scripture that can bridge the words of Jesus and Paul? Sure there is.
We can look to the apostle John writing the words given to him by none other than Jesus himself in the book of Revelation (in a passage that is not directed to any single specific location or culture):
5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
6 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. 7 He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. 8 But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Jesus seems to think the way we live our lives today matters, and has a direct connection to the future we will have ‘in the hereafter’.
The message Jesus preached is obviously not ‘just’ about sexual purity. But it by no means excludes it, either.
Anyone claiming that Paul was out of step with Jesus on Biblical sexual norms will have to make a stonger case than ‘Jesus didn’t say…’
Strictly speaking… not only was Jesus directly quoted in Revelation but since Paul’s writings were affirmed by the apostle Peter as ‘scripture’, they are in fact, the ‘Word of God’.
Word of God… where have we seen that phrase before?