Was Paul unclear in his teaching on sexuality?

Jul 26, 2019 by

by Ian Paul, Psephizo:

I have been engaging on and off in the debates about sexuality and Christian discipleship since around 1978, when Buzz magazine (which eventually morphed into Christianity magazine) produced a slightly risky exploration of the issues at stake. Since then, I have noticed that the discussion has shifted ground, both in wider society and within the church. In wider society, it is quite surprising that we have ended up with same-sex marriage, since that had not really been the main demand in the recognition of gay rights, but it has afforded gay relationships with a respectability and status that was desired. Within the church in the UK, much of the debate has been whether the writers of the New Testament either encountered the kinds of relationships that we know, whether they understood the psychology of sexuality in the way we now do—and whether their negative assessment of same-sex sexual relationships in the very few references that we have is correct.

But more recently, another response has come to the fore, and it is one I encounter almost every time I speak on this issue. ‘The question of what the texts say is all so complicated—and can we really be sure of what Paul actually meant?’ The reason for this is the explosion of literature (in texts like Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian) which popularise the questioning of what has been a strong consensus that the texts are fairly clear, consistent with one another, and offer a uniformly negative assessment of same-sex sexual activity. Vines’ text is written in an accessible style, and comes with supporting YouTube footage, so has sold well and been very influential—but I find it a very hard read, since there are pretty excruciating and basic errors on just about every page, for anyone who knows about how to read ancient texts. But of course most of Vines’ readers don’t, and Vines himself does not even have a first degree in theology. In relation to the New Testament, he often draws on the work of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality first published in 1980. Boswell’s work did not at the time have much impact on the scholarly consensus of the meaning of the biblical texts, since his methodology was so poor, picking sources that suited his argument and ignoring those that didn’t support his view. But times change, and nearly forty years on much of the church has forgotten some of the basic disciplines of how to make sense of texts.

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