Crying Out To Heaven For Vengeance: Catholic Reflections on Scripture, Sodom, and Justice

Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.” – Genesis 18:20-21 (RSVC)

Sodom and the City of God

Introduction: Principles and Consistency

One of the defining moments in my Catholic education was the realization that Church teaching on sexual ethics formed a sort of “seamless garment”, unified by an internal logic that accounts for every sexual prohibition – from contraception, to masturbation, to homosexuality – in a fairly intuitive manner. For when analyzing sexual activity itself from a Catholic “natural law” perspective, if the procreative dimension can be eliminated as optional and a barrier can legitimately be placed between the man and the woman, then the body of each person is related to the other as little better than any other physical body. At that point, it hardly seems to make a significant difference if the man derives sexual pleasure from a woman, or his own hand, or an inanimate object, or even the bodies of multiple other people. Provided that all persons involved freely consent, the objective difference between any two non-procreative actions becomes so thin as to render them nearly morally equivalent. Sever the link to procreation at the start, and all of the philosophical “natural law” objections to traditionally forbidden sexual activities slowly (but inevitably, and logically) collapse, with nothing but personal preference and consent to hold it back.

Thus, I came to value the Catholic approach to sexual ethics as something built on an airtight logic, according to which it would be impossible for the Church to abandon its condemnation of contraception or homosexual activity without (inevitably, and logically) surrendering everything it has always taught about the necessary procreative dimension of sexual activity.[1] As an ethic that is not the least bit arbitrary in its details, but rather is seamlessly tied together through and through, we can see that the whole thing must stand or fall together. Reject the argument that sexual activity has any fundamental or indispensable and natural link to procreation – as our culture has done at least since the sexual revolution – and the inexorable result (apart from appeals to Scripture) is a radical new path toward embracing the conclusion that everything can be permitted. The only remaining moral condition is that there must be genuine consent from all involved, such that no individual is harmed, exploited, or otherwise violated against their will. This much, at least, is still observed by our culture as an intuitive moral principle.

To the traditionally minded Catholic, however, an awkward tension quickly presents itself. On the one hand, the moral difference between homosexual and contraceptive and masturbatory actions seems to be very thin: for all such actions are considered illicit, intrinsically and gravely disordered, on account of the same fundamental rationale. And yet, homosexual actions are frequently identified as something far worse than the others: for the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of only four sins described in Scripture as “crying out to heaven for vengeance”. In this essay I will explore the foundation of that tension, and attempt to articulate an interpretive lens that can offer a principled resolution.

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The Greatest Commandment

Jesus and Pharisees Cropped

James Tissot, “The Pharisees Question Jesus,” from the Brooklyn Museum collection. Purchased by Public Subscription.

In both the book of Romans and the book of Galatians, Paul offers some insight into the role of the Law in the life of a Christian. For example, in Romans he says,

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, ESV)

Similarly, in Galatians, he says,

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14, ESV).

In the context of sexual ethics, these verses have long been used to argue for a revisionist view recognizing same-sex marriage as legitimate. The idea is that if we can’t see any way that affirming same-sex marriage is an affront to love of one’s neighbor, it must not be wrong. Much of the conservative response has been to try to show how same-sex marriage fails to love one’s neighbor. Continue reading

A Note on Eve Tushnet and Theology of the Body

Eve Tushnet recently wrote a post titled, “Catholic People’s Histories, Gay People’s Futures.” In a brief aside, she said that the Theology of the Body “is so beautiful and so unaccommodating to me, though that’s a very provisional assessment since I’ve only read the addresses once.”

A prominent Catholic writer and academic shared her post on Facebook, and another Catholic writer commented, “Her love for God and the Church is edifying and a sign of hope, as it should be. Same with her love of beauty and fine art. But her comment about ToB is telling—Anthropology remains the obstacle. Reality can be ‘unaccommodating’ to one who has other commitments.”

stations-of-the-cross-460271_1280-1024x511

Of course, Eve is free to clarify her meaning however she likes. (I would note that reading the Theology of the Body—even only once—is more than most Catholics have done; Eve is not criticizing out of complete ignorance here.) As someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Theology of the Body, I would like to make a couple of points.

To begin with, in the context of Eve’s article, it makes no sense to suppose that the accommodation she wants is support for same-sex marriage, or any similar revision of the Church’s moral teaching. As her first sentence proclaims, the article is about “orthodox gay people, seeking to live in obedience to the Church.” So what might Eve mean when she says that Theology of the body is “unaccommodating” to her? Continue reading

Who actually cares whether Jesus said anything about gay relationships?

In discussions on the Bible and gay relationships, a common refrain is that Jesus never said anything about the subject, so it must not have been a priority for him. There are a variety of sound conservative responses, such as pointing to the belief that all Scripture is inspired by God, not just the direct words of Jesus.

In this piece, however, I’m going to focus on a different problem with this argument: those who make it often reject the direct teaching of Jesus on sexual ethics anyway. We do have an authoritative condemnation of remarriage after divorce in most circumstances. For example, see Matthew 19:3-9.

Image result for The Bible's Yes to Same-SEx Marriage

A book making the argument discussed here

When someone points out that we don’t have a direct record of Jesus condemning gay sex, does that person accept Jesus’s teaching about divorce and remarriage? In many (if not most) cases, the answer to this question is “no.” If the person isn’t willing to accept the teaching of Jesus on other similar matters, then the point about gay sex is just a smokescreen.

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Peace, Peace? Further Thoughts on Staying Put

Wes recently wrote a reflection about the Church Clarity website, and what it might mean for someone who differs from a church’s stated beliefs on sexuality to “stay put” as it were, in spite of serious disagreement.

I want to say right away how much I love and appreciate Wes and his writing. He, perhaps more than anyone, has given me a profound vision of committed friendship and helped me to see a path for positive flourishing in the midst of my same-sex attractions. I am deeply thankful to God for his grace to me through Wes.

Furthermore, regarding Wes’s post, I share much of his concern that we not too easily abandon ship in our commitment to a local church, denomination, or broad Christian tradition based on any and every disagreement we might encounter. When it comes to issues not primary to salvation and the heart of the gospel, membership vows should mean a great deal in our decision making. I also recognize that Wes is coming from a context where his broad church tradition is in the midst of significant change in understanding sexual ethics. I am very sympathetic to the tension he must feel as one who affirms the traditional biblical view of marriage and same-sex sexual activity within the Episcopal Church.

However, one of the unique features of Spiritual Friendship is that all of the contributors do not agree on everything. As I read Wes’s post, I must confess that I was not persuaded by his argument. Part of the reason for this likely flows from exegetical differences, as well as the different ecclesial structures in which we are living. Additionally, my reservations flow from the pastoral perspective from which I write. After all, I am a pastor in a local church, so the question of whether to stay or go takes on a particular flavor for me. In other words, I am not asking the question, “Should I as an individual believer commit to stay at a church with whom I am in serious disagreement?” Instead, the question for me becomes, “There are people at our church who regularly attend, seek to become members, be baptized, take communion, and flourish as Christians. In light of these disagreements on sexuality, how can my fellow pastors and I effectively shepherd our church as a whole AND the individual believers of whom our local body is comprised?”

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Reflections on Reformation Day

As most of my readers will be aware, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a Church in Wittenberg, Germany on this day, five hundred years ago.

95 Theses

No informed Catholic should deny that there were very serious problems in the Church in the time leading up to the Reformation. To see this, we need only read what Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or any of the other Counter-Reformation saints had to say about the abuses they saw and the opposition they faced when they tried to correct them. We could also look at the reforms of the Council of Trent, or the biographies of Renaissance Popes for examples of corruption within the Church.

On the other hand, no serious Protestant should deny that the Reformation led to a fracturing of the Church and a proliferation of conflicting theologies that none of the original Reformers would agree with. I don’t think many Protestants would want to defend the purity of Henry VIII’s motives in breaking the Church of England away from Rome. And Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli soon found themselves divided against each other almost as much as against Rome.

Also, everyone hated the Anabaptists.

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The Benedict Option and the Nashville Statement

Over the weekend, I wrote a long email to Rod Dreher in response to some things he had said about the Nashville Statement. This morning, he published it on his blog, along with some responses of his own. Although I don’t agree with everything he said in response, I will think through what he has to say before responding in more depth. In the meantime, I share my letter and encourage you to check out his responses. At the end of this post, I’ve also included several important points from online discussion of the letter, from Rod Dreher, Justin Taylor, Matthew Schmitz, Denny Burk, and Dan Mattson. I am grateful for the thoughtful discussion I have seen in response to the letter. 

The Benedict Option

Dear Rod,

I’m writing in reply to your response to criticisms of the Nashville Statement. Although some of your other responses, like the email from Chris Roberts and the piece on the cost of the divorce culture, addressed some of my concerns, I think it would be helpful to explain my worries about your response in more depth.

In the first place, I was surprised by this post because, when I read The Benedict Option, I was particularly impressed with your analysis of the sexual revolution in Chapter 9. You spelled out the ways that it has not only corrupted the surrounding culture, but has also penetrated into the church, undermining many Christians’ faith. Like Russell Moore’s 2014 keynote on “Slow Motion Sexual Revolutionaries,” you spoke prophetically of the ways that Christians have been co-opted by the sexual revolution. You made clear that we need to recover a distinctly Christian way of thinking about sexuality and living in sexual purity. Your whole book is about how we need to stand apart from the anti-Christian ethos of modern culture, and do better at building community practices that enable us pass on the faith, catechize, and keep us from turning into moralistic therapeutic Deists.

But there are two ways of distancing ourselves from the ethos of the broader culture.

The first—which I understood you to be advocating in The Benedict Option—is a repentance which recognizes that we have been drawn away from God and into worldly ways of thinking. We need the purification that can only come through asceticism, and so we seek the encouragement and accountability of other Christians to be faithful and to pass on the faith.

The second, however, is to become a self-righteous clique, whose members don’t call each other out, but instead focus on blaming all their problems on those outside the clique, whether other Christians who fall short by the clique’s standards, or non-Christians.

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A Response to Rosaria Butterfield

Many of our readers are likely familiar with Rosaria Butterfield, who has a powerful testimony being converted to Christianity while being a professor specializing in queer studies. Although I’ve had certain disagreements and frustrations with her, she had always struck me as a compassionate, honest, and fair person.

Rosaria Butterfield

For this reason, I was surprised when I recently happened upon this video of Rosaria Butterfield talking to a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church. Starting around the 53 minute mark, she made slanderous statements about several groups near and dear to me—the PCA, Reformed University Fellowship, and Spiritual Friendship. I was surprised by the degree to which she misrepresented these groups, because I was expecting better from her.

For example, at one point Butterfield stated,

Especially today, and I know I’m speaking in a PCA church, so I understand the stakes of this, but especially today, the PCA is smitten in a stupid way, and I’m using a hard word, very stupid way, and to their shame, to the gay Christian movement, both A and B.

She also added, “RUF, I’m talking to you here.”

“A and B” refer to the “sides” of the debate on gay relationships and Christianity. This terminology was originally developed at Bridges Across the Divide and later popularized at the Gay Christian Network. Side A is the belief that the sex of the people in a sexual relationship has no bearing on the morality of the relationship, while side B (the view espoused by the writers on Spiritual Friendship) is the belief that the only appropriate context for sex is marriage between a man and a woman. Rosaria’s claim here is that both sides, including in particular the revisionist “side A,” are well-represented within PCA and RUF leadership. This is an extraordinary claim. The doctrinal statements that PCA and RUF pastors and elders uphold take the “side B” view, as Butterfield herself does.

I am fairly familiar with how the PCA is approaching sexuality. Over the past few years, I’ve been a member in good standing of two PCA churches in fairly liberal college towns (Chapel Hill, NC and Madison, WI). I’ve been close with a pastor at each church, and paid some attention to denominational politics. I’ve had a number of friends studying at Covenant Seminary. In all these settings I’ve had numerous discussions regarding sexuality.

And while I never participated at RUF as a student (having gone to a Christian university for my undergraduate work), I’ve known quite a few students and alumni from the group. Several of my friends have gone on to do RUF internships or to go on staff with RUF. And the work of RUF matters to me, to the point that RUF is second only to my local church in terms of how much money I’ve given.

My experience further solidifies my belief that Butterfield’s claim is patently false. I see no evidence that leadership of RUF and the PCA are embracing a “side A” perspective at all. Perhaps Butterfield is just talking about laypeople in the pews or students who attend RUF events, rather than leadership? But it’s not fair to the PCA or to RUF to blame them for the culture in which they’re trying to do faithful Christian ministry. Unless Butterfield can provide substantial evidence to back up her claim, her statements about RUF and the PCA amount to slander.

She also made some harsh and unfair criticism of Spiritual Friendship:

Or hey, I could go “side B” with Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship gang, where I would learn that my sexual desires for women were actually sanctifiable and redeemable, making me a better friend to one and all, but for the sake of Christian tradition, I should not act on them. Well, if you haven’t figured out by now, I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks. So let me tell you right here, that telling someone like me that I am to deny deep desires because of Christian tradition is simply absurd. Christian tradition is no match for the lust of the flesh.

I think that sexual strugglers need gay Christianity and all of its attending liberal sellouts, including the side B version, like fish need bicycles, to refresh an old feminist slogan. Gay Christianity, touted as the third way for those churches and colleges, is a poor and pitiful option to give someone like me. And while some people see a world of difference between between acting on unholy desires and simply cherishing them in your heart, our Lord would say otherwise. If anger is murder and lust is adultery, then the differences that separate the factions of gay Christianity, the differences between Matthew Vines and Wes Hill, take place on a razor’s edge, not a chasm.

This represents a very serious misunderstanding of what Spiritual Friendship promotes and teaches. Spiritual Friendship has always defended the orthodox Christian teaching on sexual ethics (see here, here, here, here, and here, for a few examples).

Now I do want to acknowledge that much of Butterfield’s view is probably from this post by Wesley Hill. At least Ron Belgau and I have long had certain concerns about this and some of Wes’s other writing. Primarily, we thought it was too ripe for misinterpretation and needed more explicit theological development. We also realized it could come across to our critics as viewing temptation or sin too positively, or could encourage sloppy thinking that would actually cause some of our readers to view temptation or sin too positively. Ron has pushed back against this some and attempted to provide a more rigorous reflection on some of the issues in Wes’s “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post.

To be honest, our readers really need a much fuller explanation of what we’re trying to say than can feasibly be done in this blog post. And we need to figure out within Spiritual Friendship to what degree there is agreement among the contributors. Ron and I have started discussing how to do a longer series of posts to discuss some of the questions at hand, but will want to take some time to develop it carefully. But in immediate response to this video, I want to clarify what we are not saying.

I want to be clear: we are not saying that as long as you’re not having sex, you’re fine. None of us would say that viewing pornography or entertaining lustful fantasies, for example, are morally acceptable, even if those are sins that some of us (like many other Christians) struggle with. We take seriously Jesus’s teaching that lust is adultery.

Additionally, we are not saying that desires to have sex with someone of the same sex are sanctifiable or something to be “cherished.” Wesley Hill was trying to describe aspects of his experience other than the desire for sex, and as I said, the point really demands a more rigorous explanation than he has yet provided.

Another strange notion in Butterfield’s presentation of our view is that we just pursue celibacy “because of tradition.” This isn’t really how we would describe it. We try to avoid gay sex because we believe it’s what God wants of us. The reason I haven’t pursued a sexual relationship with a male isn’t just because I want to respect tradition. It’s because I love Jesus. I believe that pursuing that kind of relationship, as with any other sin, would hurt my relationship with Christ. As a Protestant, the value of tradition for me is that it helps me understand what God has taught in Scripture. But Scripture is my ultimate authority, because it’s where I believe God has infallibly spoken.

And to deal with the sin in my own life, what I need is the Gospel, discipleship, and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s certainly not just a matter of me doing the right thing in my own power because I trust tradition. We’re pitting the Gospel, discipleship, and the Holy Spirit, rather than tradition, against the lust of the flesh. I’m baffled why Rosaria Butterfield seems to think we claim otherwise.

I hope that Rosaria Butterfield, and anyone else who has seen the video, can come to a better understanding of where the PCA, RUF, and Spiritual Friendship stand. And I think Rosaria Butterfield owes these groups an apology for slandering them.

Gay Students at Christian Colleges: What’s Our Vision for Their Flourishing?

In January, I spoke to a room full of Christian college presidents for the annual gathering of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The topic they set for me was how to talk about a Christian theology of marriage with real compassion for students wrestling through questions of sexual identity. The CCCU has now transcribed my remarks, and you can read them here.

An excerpt:

I want to suggest to you that one of the most important things you can do on your campuses is cast a vision of what a hopeful future could look like for your students who are same-sex attracted. For so many of us, when we think about living out our lives in the evangelical church as gay—and as celibate, probably, for most of us—the future looks blank. We can’t picture what it would look like because we don’t have models of how this goes. I’ve spent all my life in the church, and I have rarely seen people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are talking openly about what it looks like to embrace a vocation of celibacy.

I remember recently talking to a Roman Catholic friend of mine who grew up in the church. He said, “From the time I was 4 years old, it was a huge question in my mind as to whether God might call me to be celibate”—because God might call him to be a priest. As soon as I heard him say that, I thought, “Our childhoods were so profoundly different because it never occurred to me that God might call me to be celibate. It never occurred to me to contemplate the single life.” I always simply assumed I’d go to college and meet my spouse like my parents did and live a Christian life by having kids and being part of a family values church. That was the future; that was the path. It never occurred to me that God might have in mind a vocation of celibacy. I apparently never read 1 Corinthians 7.

But this is the challenge for you, to cast a vision—and it doesn’t have to be one vision; I think there are 100 different models that this could take for your students—but to cast a vision [for your students]: “This is what a hopeful future looks like for you. If you’re same-sex attracted, and you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t experienced one iota of change in your same-sex attraction, and you’re wanting to give your life to God in celibacy, that does not have to equal loneliness. That does not have to equal isolation. … There’s a life for you. There’s a future for you that doesn’t simply look like alienation from your fellow believers in the church who seem to be so fixated on the nuclear family.” … What I am praying for you is that you will find yourself thinking of your same-sex attracted students not as a liability on your campus, but as people you’re in solidarity with.

You can read the rest here.

Why Do We Think the Bible is Against Same-Sex Marriage?

I’ve just returned from Calgary, Alberta where Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN), and I had a public dialogue on All Things Gay and Christian for the Anglican Church of Canada diocese there. It’s not the first time he and I have done something like this, but we both agreed that this one seemed to touch on all the major issues—debates over biblical interpretation, the church’s need for repentance for its treatment of LGBTQ persons, the need to celebrate singleness, to name just a few—in a way we felt was particularly effective. And it helps that Justin such a gracious and generous friend.

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