(Most of this post is taken from a letter I once wrote to a friend.)
It has been a little over a year now since the United States Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage across the entire United States. And I think it is interesting to see where the church in America is right now in relation to where it was just before then. I don’t hear many folks these days talking about how gay marriage will destroy the foundations of society, since… you know… it hasn’t.
Instead the language seems to have shifted some. More often today I hear from my more conservative friends how just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it is therefore morally right. (For those of you who don’t live in a green state, there was a lot of that rhetoric thrown around when marijuana was legalized too.) And that is true. I completely agree with that notion, though I may disagree with the social-political point it is often employed to make.
Like it or not, when it came to the issue of same-sex marriage, that is one culture war that Christians have definitively and definitely lost. In my humble opinion, it is a culture war that we really had no business fighting in the first place.
So where does that leave us. Well, for many evangelicals, they are left begrudgingly accepting the newfound norm of same-sex marriages while still insisting, albeit less vocally, that homosexuality, or at least homosexual behavior, is sinful and therefore damnable.
I found the argument tends to go like this…
The Syllogism of Same-Sex Sin
Premise 1: All sin is abhorrent and damnable to God
Premise 2: Homosexuality is sin
Conclusion: Therefore, homosexuality is abhorrent and damnable to God
The above syllogism seems to be an accurate and concise formulation of the traditionalist approach to homosexuality. Of course, some may substitute “homosexuality” with “acts of homosexuality” (including things like marrying someone of the same gender), but the general idea here is the same. As with all syllogisms, if both premises are true and the logic between them is true, then the conclusion must necessarily be true.
Well, the logic between these two premises does seem sound, so what’s a progressive Christian to do? Most progressive Christians that I know attempt to attack Premise 2. They try to show that while an all-holy God may not tolerate sin, homosexuality is not sin, it is just another expression of God-given human sexuality, no more or less sinful than heterosexuality. One of the major arguments is that the sort of homosexuality condemned in the Bible is not the same thing as the committed, monogamous same-sex marriages we see to day. Another argument is that homosexuality serves some evolutionary advantage and does no inherent harm, therefore, if only by sheer utilitarian value, it must be a good thing and thus not sin.
While I find such arguments important and useful for nuancing our understanding of the Bible’s take on homosexuality, I don’t think that they are flawless or completely overturn Premise 2. Rather, where the above syllogism falls short is in Premise 1, which I believe is profoundly untrue.
Biblical Formulations of Sin
I have often found the idea of sin to be poorly understood, both among conservatives and progressives. Many progressives and postmoderns are eager to reject the sin-labels that traditional perspectives have placed on a number of things, and rightfully so (e.g., alcohol, gambling, rock’n’roll); however, speaking out from the crowd, I would confess we often don’t have much of a system for labeling anything as sin. Most progressives would say (contrary to staunch traditionalists) that a few beers with some friends is not a sin, but patriarchy is. Unfortunately, if you asked them what framework they use to make such a claim, they can seldom provide a very coherent answer. What is lacking is not goodhearted conviction, or perhaps even an accurate intuition of what qualifies as sin, but rather a thoroughgoing hamartiology (a theology of sin).
To begin with, the Old Testament does not have a comprehensive understanding of sin, meaning that there is no central term or concept for sin there. The biblical authors instead employed a variety of linguistic expressions to get at the idea indirectly, which serve to emphasize different facets of sin. Hence, throughout the Old Testament we read about iniquity, guilt and punishment for it (Gen 4:13; 15:16; Exod 28:43; 2 Sam 16:12; 2 Kgs 7:9; 1 Chron 21:8; Ps 51:7), transgression (Gen 31:36; 50:17; Ps 19:14; Prov 10:12, 19; Amos 1:3), rebellion (Zeph 3:11), offense (Gen 26:10; Num 5:7), wrong-doing and guiltiness (Lev 5:24; 22:16; Ezra 10:10), wickedness (1 Sam 24:14; Micah 6:10), abomination (Lev 18:22-29; Dt 17:1, 4; 1 Kgs 11:5-7), and uncleanliness (Lev 5:2-3; 7:19-21; 11:1-8, 24-38), to name a very small sampling. As the Hebrew scholar Gottfried Quell wrote, “It is obvious that among the many words to be considered [in the Old Testament] none was exclusively devoted to religious and theological use and therefore none constitutes an exact equivalent to the English ‘sin.’”1
One of the useful advantages that the New Testament has over the Old is its use of the Greek language and categories, and the precision that comes with that. In the New Testament we have the all-encompassing term hamartia (sin), from whence we get hamartiology. In brief, the word means simply “to miss” or “to not hit.” This can be used either concretely, as in an archer missing his mark, or abstractly, as in “intellectual shortcoming” (see Thucydides, Hist. 1.33.3). The beauty of the Greek hamartia is that it provides us with a denotative locus for the much broader biblical concept of sin. In other words, if we are ever in question as to whether or not something technically qualifies as sin, we can simply ask, “Does it miss the mark?” In a theological sense, “does it miss the mark of God’s will, intention, design, character, etc.?”
Based on this New Testament formulation of sin, many would argue (and perhaps accurately so) that homosexuality technically falls within the definition of sin. Progressive as I might be, I see no way around this. Given what we know from biology, psychology, human anatomy, sociology, and even Scripture, if God does have an uniform and ideal will for human sexuality, it would certainly appear to be heterosexual monogamy. As intellectually honest people, I don’t think we should engage in mental gymnastics to try to deny this. And while this may at first brush feel like a victory for traditionalists, it is my conviction that an even fuller understanding of biblical hamartiology actually supports the more affirming perspective!
A More Developed Theology of Sin
You see, what is often assumed (but seldom mentioned) is the notion of Premise 1, that any and all sin is utterly detestable to God. It is often said, “God cannot look upon sin,” and hence cometh (in my humble opinion) all sorts of abysmal theology. However, this is taken from Habakkuk 1:13 where, in the popular New International Version, the prophet writes, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” However, a more accurate rendering of the text is found in the New American Standard Bible:
Your eyes are too pure to approve evil,
And You can not look on wickedness with favor.
The central point is God’s disapproval of sin, not His inability to view it. In fact, immediately after this we find:
Why do You look with favor
On those who deal treacherously?
Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up
Those more righteous than they?
It would seem that in fact God does look on treachery and wickedness.
While the Bible is rife with numerous passages that can be ripped from their context to support a puritanistic understanding of God’s thoughts toward that which misses the mark, a more comprehensive assessment reveals something noticeably different. Rather than ignoring context for the sake of prooftexting, we ought to be cognizant of the overarching motifs of Scripture on this point.
For the sake of brevity, one example will have to suffice. Revisiting the Old Testament book of Leviticus, we find a peculiar set of items labeled unclean – menstruation (Lev 15:19-28), ejaculation (15:1-15), orgasm during intercourse (15:18), and childbirth (12:1-8). And, lest we divorce biblical uncleanliness entirely from the notion of sin, priests are to make two sacrifices for a woman’s menstruation, one for a burnt offering
and the other for a sin offering, making “atonement on her behalf before the Lord because of her impure discharge” (15:30).2 But how on earth could the people of Israel have avoided these things. Women have no control over their menstruation, least of all in the ancient Near East. A man can’t help if he has a wet dream. Sex is part of what makes marriage good. And isn’t childbirth supposed to be one of the greatest of God’s gifts? Later we read that touching dead bodies makes one unclean (Num 19:11-16), also requiring a burnt offering for sin (19:17). But unless we want to allow the bodies to pile up, sooner or later someone has to touch them.
The lesson to be learned here is not that God hates sin with the fire of a thousand suns, and is eager to punish any and all who miss the mark. Rather, God in His vast wisdom and knowledge understands that human life is inundated with messiness and imperfection. There’s simply no avoiding some of the unclean parts of life. Adoptions are not ideal, and so qualify as missing the mark. And yet, do we not praise those who adopt orphans? Pumping chemicals into our bodies is clearly missing the mark of God’s ideal intentions for human health. And yet multitudes will pay large sums of money to endure chemotherapy in service to a greater good, namely life itself. In an imperfect world, imperfections are part and parcel to the human experience.
In the New Testament, we find this theme not only continued, but strengthened. Here God incarnate not only sees the fallen state of humanity, he puts on flesh and enters into it! Our Lord and Savior did not merely acknowledge human imperfections and grant his followers a means of dealing with them, but he attended the drunken dinner parties, associating himself with sinful people and fostered relationships with them (cf. Mt 11:19). In the person of Jesus Christ, we find God not distancing Himself from sinfulness and uncleanliness, but rather entering into it and redeeming it. In his most definitive act as Messiah, the Nazarene enters into solidarity with sinful humanity and is made to be sin itself (2 Cor 5:21). Whatever else this might mean, it certainly cannot mean that God is too pure to even look upon sin.
Implications of a Comprehensive Hamartiology
As a point of application, I think that a thoroughgoing hamartiology requires us to re-examine traditional understandings of a number of issues, homosexuality included. If God is in the business of eradicating and distancing Himself from that which misses the mark, then we might be somewhat justified (or at least forgiven) for thinking that we as the church ought to distance ourselves from homosexuality, or else eradicate it (e.g., Exodus International). However, if God is in the business of entering into solidarity with those who miss the mark, bringing redemption through (and not merely in spite of) their uncleanliness, then the church ought to be actively entering into solidarity with the LGB+ community and finding ways to allow redemptive value to flourish through (and not in spite of) their sexual orientation. This does not mean, of course, that we merely throw open the floodgates of all mark-missing, come what may. But it does mean that we should be innovative with how we engage the world. Certainly God may intervene, changing a gay or lesbian into a heterosexual (as so many of them pray daily), but that would be truly miraculous and (by definition) not the norm. Instead, the church’s modus operandi should be to help gays and lesbians learn how to foster gay and lesbian relationships that are redemptive (much as we should for imperfect heterosexual relationships). After all, God did not require that Jacob divorce all but one of his wives/ concubines; rather, God redemptively used Jacob’s relations with these women to bring about the nation of Israel, and subsequently our Lord and Messiah.
In summation, the Bible does not regard sin with the same shallow single-mindedness that Christians today are so apt to do. Life is messy and unclean. There is hardly a nook or cranny of our world that doesn’t miss the mark of perfection in some way. Our job isn’t to run from it or eliminate it. Our job is to bring redemption and love through it.
Hopefully this helps as you wrestle through this topic. Thanks for reading!
1: Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 269.
2: The Hebrew word used here is chatta'ah, which is fairly close to hamartia in emphasizing shortcoming or mark-missing. In religious terms, chatta'ah can be as severe as sinning against the holy and is closely associated with guiltiness (Lev 5:16).