Archives For Paul

 

Christians talk a lot about being “filled with the Spirit,” but what does that actually mean? And how is it accomplished?

Paul’s command to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 is intriguing. The form of the verb “filled” that Paul uses is what’s called a present passive imperative. Without getting nerdy, that means it’s a command that we are to obey in the present tense (present + imperative). But the odd thing is that it’s in the passive voice. We are commanded to “be filled.” Are you seeing the significance? Paul is commanding us to be doing something that must be done to us.

This raises an important question: How do I receive something that is outside of my control? If it’s the Spirit who fills me, then why is Paul directing that command to me?

I find this deeply mysterious and often frustrating. It’s easier if there’s a procedure I can follow, something I can simply do to fulfill this command. But it seems more mysterious than this—a realization that should not surprise us when we are discussing the workings of the Spirit.

James K. A. Smith is often helpful with this sort of thing. In the following quotation, Smith is exploring French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of how a person “falls” asleep. Smith suggests that this account might help us in thinking about being filled with the Spirit:

“I cannot ‘choose’ to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. ‘I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there’ (PP 189)[1]. I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed—but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. ‘I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep “comes,” settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be” (PP 189–90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls ‘habitations of the Spirit’ precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?”[2]

Bed

Smith is suggesting that our embodied practices (“liturgies” is Smith’s broad term for these practices, whether they be “sacred” or “secular”) might prepare us to receive the Spirit’s filling. We ourselves are not doing the filling—that is the Spirit’s work. But by engaging in specific embodied practices—the eating and drinking of communion, the posture of our knees on the floor in prayer, the raising of our hands in worship, the use of our vocal cords in praying, singing, or reading Scripture—we are training our bodies, and thus our whole selves, to be receptive to the Spirit’s filling. The power of our bodies and of embodied practices (liturgies, broadly conceived) is the subject of Smith’s book (and an important earlier book), and he convincingly argues that human beings do not primarily consist of the thoughts in our heads, but of the desires—the love—that fills our being and is directed at objects around us.

Imagining the KingdomCould it be that just as sleep “settles on the imitation of itself which I have been offering to it,” so our obedience to practices like singing to one another, giving thanks verbally, and performing acts of mutual submission actually make us receptive to the Spirit’s filling in our lives? These activities are listed, after all, along with the command to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5.

We could try so hard to be filled with the Spirit, and in a certain sense we should. Be the sleep analogy helps me to step into the mystery a bit. As Smith says, “Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.”

Smith’s analogy does not lessen the mystery of being filled with the Spirit for me. I still can’t say that I know precisely what to do. But I find the analogy helpful, and I find myself motivated to actively welcome the Spirit, to engage in those postures that make me receptive to the gift.


 

[1] Smith uses the abbreviation “PP” to refer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).

[2] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) 65.

Having read several reviews of Vines’ book over the last 24 hours, let me begin my critique on a different note. I don’t assume that Vines is reading his view into the text. Last time I checked, I’m not God and I don’t have direct access to his interpretive motivations. What I do have access to are his vines 1actual biblical and historical arguments, and it is these that I will discuss in these blogs.

I also want to set aside the whole “overturning centuries of tradition” critique. Yes, church tradition is non-affirming of gay and lesbian relationships. It was also non-affirming of a heliocentric solar system until Galileo dared to go against centuries of well-established tradition. I’m unashamedly Protestant; I believe that the God-breathed text can (and sometimes does) overturn tradition. While the tradition argument should be considered and weighed, it’s a bit of a red herring. Vines knows that he’s going against tradition. But 80-90% of his book shows why he believes that the authoritative Bible challenges this tradition. Such a proposal is bold, if not risky. But it’s not inherently wrong—if you’re Protestant.

So again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It’s not that I don’t like pudding, or that I think Vines is a bad cook. But the pudding he’s served up is missing some key ingredients.

A major thread throughout his book is that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world” (pg. 104; cf. chapter 2), and this is a serious and necessary claim. Think about it. Paul’s language in Romans 1 could be taken to refer to straight people having gay sex—they exchanged the natural function of the male/female. And if Paul didn’t know what we know now, that some people are simply born gay, then perhaps he wouldn’t have said what he did. Or, put differently, since same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world (the cornerstone of his argument), then Paul could not have such people in mind. Paul was only condemning straight people who got bored with heterosexual sex and ventured into new, same-sex territory to satisfy their hyper-lustful urges.

My initial thought is: does it matter? If we were able to bring Paul up to speed with all of our psychological wisdom, would his argument in Romans 1 look different? Or, isn’t it a bit bold to think that we in 2014 have arrived in our understanding of sexual orientation? In 400 years or 800 years, will people look back on our silly and backwoods scientific views, just as some look back on Paul’s (seemingly) patriarchal views? The ever-changing fields of psychology and social science are suspicious starting points for moral arguments.

But let’s grant Vines’ assumption. Let’s say that our modern understanding of sexual orientation is as polished as we think it is and therefore a valid starting point to read the New Testament. Houston, we still have a problem: Ancient concepts of same-sex orientation did exist in Paul’s world.

I’m not sure if Vines ignored or simply did not come across the piles and piles of historical evidence that works against his thesis. Only God knows. In any case, if you’re genuinely interested in this discussion, you need to know that the ancients did in fact have beliefs about what we now know as “same-sex orientation.”

Aristotle for instance said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth. 1148b). In other words, some people are born with same-sex desires. Some ancients even speculated about certain biological defects that cause some men to desire other men. One writer explains that males who desire to be penetrated are born with a physiological vines 3defect where semen is abnormally secreted into the anus and sparks a desire for friction (Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata 4.26; cf. 879a36-880a5; 879b28-30). Soranus, the Greek physician from Ephesus, also believed that same-sex desire is shaped more by nature rather than nurture, but locates the source of the desire in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis 4:131, 132, 134).

We can certainly write off such speculations as unscientific, barbaric, and downright wrong. And we should. But the veracity of such claims about orientation is irrelevant. What matters is that ancient writers were making such claims about orientation. It is clear that at least some of Paul’s contemporaries believed that same-sex desires were biological.

Some writers were not as specific—or creative—as the medical texts cited above about such orientation, yet they still seemed to believe in a form of what we would call homosexual orientation. Phaedrus, who wrote his Fable around the time of Paul, presents a mythological account about why some people desire sex with the same gender. He says that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitalia to women and women genitalia to men. In other words, some women are trapped in men’s bodies and some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). The account, of course, is mythical and humorous, but nonetheless reflects ancient assumptions that desire for same sex intercourse is inherent. Less mythical is Lucian’s report of a woman named Megilla who says: “I was born as a woman like the rest of you, but my mind, desire, and everything else in me are that of a man” (Dialogue of the Courtesans 5:4). Today, we would say that Megilla was a lesbian—or transgendered—even if such categories were not available to the ancients.

Bernadette Brooten—an affirming scholar, by the way—has gathered evidence from ancient astrological texts, which suggested that sexual orientation was determined by the arrangement of the stars. One text says: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men” (Matheseos libri viii 7.25.1). Dorotheos wrote her astrological poem, Carmen Astrologicum, right around the time Paul was sending his letter to the Roman church. In it, she says that if the sun and moon are at a particular location when women are born, they “will be a Lesbian, desirous of women, and if the native is a male, he will be desirous of males” (2.7.6). After looking at many more examples, Brooten concludes: “Contrary to the view that the idea of sexual orientation did not develop until the nineteenth century, the astrological sources demonstrate the existence in the Roman world of the concept of a lifelong erotic orientation.”

I could list many more examples of ancient concepts of sexual orientation, but suffice it to say: Vines’ claim that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world,” which is crucial to his entire argument, ignores a wealth of historical evidence to the contrary. Maybe Paul did not have any concept of sexual orientation, or maybe he did. In any case, we cannot appeal to the absence of such a view in his cultural environment and then project it upon Paul as Vines does. When Paul therefore says that “men…gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (Rom 1:27), he is not revealing ignorance about sexual orientation.

There’s no reason—no good historical reason—to believe that Paul was unaware of same-sex orientation.

After two weeks of listening to testimonies and putting flesh on the “issue,” we dove back into the text last Tuesday night in week 8 of our Homosexuality class. As I warned my students, this week was going to involve some nitty gritty, in-depth, bust-out-your-lexicon interpretive questions.

After finding our classroom (you had to have been there…), we spent the first half of class finishing our discussion of Romans 1. Last week, we summed up the logic of Paul’s argument, and this week, we answered all of the “what about this” and “what about that” sort of pushbacks to the traditional view. Isn’t Romans 1 just about idolatry? Or lust? Or seven-vices-by-jim-fetter-40124360158heterosexuals having homosexual sex? Or isn’t Paul just talking about pederasty (sex with boys), or prostitution, or other forms of non-consensual, exploitative sex? If he is, then Romans 1 would be irrelevant for gay men and women seeking a consensual, monogamous, no-sex-until-marriage sort of relationship.

But after looking at the historical situation, literary context, rhetorical context, and the meaning of the phrase para physin (“against nature”) in light of its Greco-Roman and Jewish context (yes, it was a tedious first hour of class!), we concluded that Paul’s words do indeed apply to all forms of homosexual sex—not just the bad ones. But I’ve already written a bunch of blogs, perhaps too many, on Romans 1, so I’ll sum up the second hour of class.

I haven’t actually blogged about Paul’s references to same-gender sex elsewhere in his letters. So this part of the class was new territory for me. On two other occasions, Paul mentions some form of same-sex eroticism, but there’s a massive debate about what he’s talking about. Here are the passages:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality (malakoi and arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

“the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (arsenokoitai), enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10)

In these passages, Paul mentions some sort of homosexual activity in a long-list of vices, and the words he uses—malakoi and arsenokoitai—have been subject to much debate. Hence Daniel Helminiak’s evaluation that “There is no real certainty about what these texts mean…Nobody knows for certain what these words mean, so to use them to condemn homosexuals is really dishonest and unfair” (Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 107).

I appreciate Helminiak’s interpretive honesty, but I’m afraid that his conclusion is terribly overstated. The Greek word malakoi (and its Latin equivalent) was widely used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to effeminate men. The word doesn’t describe guys who were artistic and bad at sports, but men who crossed gender boundaries in significant ways. Malakoi were men who dressed like women, acted like women, talked like women, shaved their body hair like women, and—not always but most of the time—were known for having sex with other men, just like women. Not everyone who was malakoi (lit. “soft”) received sex from other men, but many did. And since the word is listed after sexual immorality and adultery, and before arsenokoitai (a sexual term as we’ll see), it’s almost certain that Paul had in mind not just men with a limp wrists who couldn’t throw a football, but precisely men who received sex from other men. Or, as the note in the ESV correctly states: “the passive partner in homosexual sex.” Such usage was common in Paul’s Greco-Roman world.

This interpretation is confirmed by the meaning of arsenokoitai. Now, to be fair, arsenokoitai never occurs in all of the ancient Greek literature prior to 1 Corinthians 6. Paul creates this word, but not ex nihilio. That is, he coins this term by smashing two Greek words together: arsen (male) and koite (bed), or “one who lies with another male.” Where does Paul find his inspiration for such a word? Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the two passages in his Bible that mention and condemn consensual homosexual sex.

The Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 reads:

kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos.

Even if you don’t know Greek, you can tell that the two words arsenos (“male”) and koiten (“lying”) look a lot like the one word arsenokoitai used in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1. That’s because Paul’s word is created out of Leviticus’ two words. In fact, the Hebrew original (mishkab zakur) of Greedy1Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 was widely used in Rabbinic literature to refer to male-male homosexual sex (b. Sanh. 54a; ib Sabb. 17b; b. Sukkah 29a; y. Ber 9.50.13c) and its likely that Paul—a Hebrew of Hebrews—is forging a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase. Most importantly, Paul is creating a term about homosexual sex from a passage (Leviticus 18 and 20) that prohibits consensual, same-gender sex.

The fact that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 references “the law” and also uses the term arsenokoitai, derived from Leviticus 18 and 20, suggests quite strongly that Paul is thinking of Leviticus 18 and 20 when he mentions homosexual sex in his list of vices.

Sure, there’s work to be done here. But after the words are studied, it seems clear that malakoi and arsenokoitai refer to the passive and active partners in homosexual sex. I don’t think Paul’s audience would have been terribly shocked or thrown off by Paul’s words. Paul is simply assuming the view held unanimously in Hellenistic Judaism that same-gender sexual relations are against the Creator’s will.

But—and here’s what it gets dicey—so is greed. So is heterosexual immorality (porn?). So is stealing (burning the latest Coldplay album and giving it to your friend). So is slander (Facebook comments?). Whatever we say about homosexual relations, we must also say about all the other sins mentioned in Paul’s list of vices.

Consistency. It’s a tough and often unpracticed virtue.

Oh. My. Goodness. Bill Henson rocks!

Last week’s class was divided into two parts. First, a testimony and challenge from Bill Henson, who Skyped in from Massachusetts. And second, an introduction to what Romans 1 has to say about Homosexuality. Clearly, the first half was the best.

Bill Henson

Bill Henson

Bill Henson is the founder and leader of a ministry called Lead Them Home, which is an outreach to people who are LGBTQ and to those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Bill himself identified and lived as a gay man for a number of years before he found Jesus and fell in love with the gospel. I met Bill through a mutual friend, Lesli, who also Skyped in to our class a few weeks ago. I haven’t met Lesli or Bill in person, but I can say quite confidently—and on behalf of our class—that they have both reshaped how we should think about homosexuality and the church.

Bill is theologically conservative; that is, he does not believe that same-sex marriage is within God’s will. However, he has a heart the size of Texas for the gay community and has a very nuanced and compassionate approach to reaching the gay and lesbian people. His over-sized compassion probably stems from his many years in seeking identity and value in his own homosexuality. Now, he believes that Jesus, rather than his sexuality, should define and determine his value as human being.

Bill articulated with uncanny precision the need for Christians to unconditionally love people who are LGBTQ. No, this doesn’t mean that the church should affirm same-sex relations. Again, Bill is theologically conservative. But he doesn’t let the Bible—or a wrong interpretation of the Bible—prevent him from extending grace to undeserving people. We are all lost and in need of grace. Making such grace inaccessible, or creating a bunch of Pharisaic hoops for people to jump through to enjoy such grace, is neither gracious nor Christian.

“What the evangelical church needs to do,” says Bill, “is not change its theology but change its posture.” And “unless we change our posture, our theology will suffer.” A theology that believes that God died for undeserving enemies and extends scandalous compassion to sinners must—if it wants to be consistent—love others without footnotes and caveats. Again, such love does not demand affirmation of behavior, but neither does such love require prerequisites for relationship. If Jesus could befriend ancient gang-bangers, terrorists, and porn stars (Matthew 9), then His followers can certainly saturate the LGBTQ community with counterintuitive love and compassion.

Bill is also a huge fan of not reducing our view of LGBTQ people to issues surrounding sexuality. People are much more than whom they desire sexually, and Christians bill henson 2diminish the beauty and creativity of other humans by reducing them to a particular sex act. (I feel a passing reference to Phil Robertson coming on…but I refrain.) Gay and Lesbians desire relationship—like the rest of us. They desire love and value—like the rest of us. They desire acceptance, forgiveness, laughter, and joy—stuff that I have been given as a sheer act of grace by my Creator. A Creator who demands that I pass on such blessings to others.

There were too many truthful nuggets Skyped in last Tuesday night. If you desire to learn more, I’d highly encourage you to check out Bill’s ministry at blog.leadthemhome.com.

As far as Romans 1 goes, we took a look at the logic of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 (esp. vv. 26-27) and his use of the Greek phrase para physin, or “contrary to nature” (or “unnatural”). Everyone acknowledges that his phrase virtually makes or breaks one’s view of what Paul is talking about here in Romans. Is Paul talking about “nature” in the sense of “against cultural norms” (as he does in 1 Corinthians 11:14), or does Paul mean “against the design and moral will of the Creator?”

After looking at several Jewish and Stoic writers, along with Paul’s allusions to Genesis 1-2 in Romans 1, we concluded that he does indeed refer to the design and moral will of the Creator, not just to what is socially abnormal (like wearing a tank-top in Saudi Arabia, which is socially unacceptable but not intrinsically evil).

Now, many of you may be a bit lost. If you haven’t engaged in the raging discussion about the meaning of “natural” and “unnatural” in Romans 1, then theses distinctions may seem unclear. So, I’ll circle back around—both in this blog and in class next week—to make sure we all understand the interpretive options available to us. And as I said in class, while I believe that Romans 1 considers all forms of homosexual acts as sin, I would be the first one to acknowledge that there are some serious exegetical arguments to the contrary. Not everyone who disagrees with my traditional view of Romans 1 is tossing biblical authority to the wind. Again, traditionalists need to stop  quoting Romans 1 and start interacting with the contextual, historical, and exegetical complexities of this complicated passage if we are going to demand that people without the gift of celibacy remain single the rest of their lives, or pull our funds from particular Christian-based humanitarian organizations.

LettersAs we come now to the New Testament letters (Romans–Jude), we are stepping into familiar territory for most Christians. These letters are theologically rich, and we often find them speaking directly into our lives. But there are some important aspects of these letters that we need to consider as we seek to understand them.

Perhaps the most significant factor to keep in mind is that all of these New Testament letters are situational (commentators call them “occasional”). They’re all grounded in real life situations. They address real needs, real problems, real questions. When we read these letters, we’re literally reading someone else’s mail. Perhaps that sounds a bit deflating for those who feel the letters speaking directly to them. But consider this: All of the theology in these letters is practical theology. It’s applied theology.

When we read 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul gives us some profound theology. In one instance, he explains that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit (6:19). That’s deep theology! It ought to be written about in theology textbooks and preached in sermons. But we also need to realize that Paul spoke that truth for a practical reason. The situation that led Paul to record that theological truth was the sexual immorality of the Corinthian church. They seemed to think they could be sexually promiscuous because they weren’t harming their souls: only “the body” was involved. But Paul responds by saying, “Are you kidding me? Your body matters! It’s the temple of the Spirit! Plus you don’t even own your body; it now belongs to God.”

The situational nature of these letters should always lead us to ask not just what theology is presented, but also why that particular doctrine is presented in that particular letter.

One welcome aspect of the letters is that they tend to speak directly. Whereas poetry and wisdom literature often communicates in imagery and figures of speech, the letters are filled with commands and direct teaching. The letters still use metaphors and rhetorical devices, but in general their tone is more explanatory than poetic. For most modern readers, that makes them a bit easier to follow.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at a few tips for reading the letters:

 

1. Try to reconstruct the original situation.

We’re only getting one side of a conversation when we read the letters. But in order to fully understand what’s being said, we want to grasp the original situation as well as we can. What kind of relationship does the author seem to have with his readers? What types of sins seem to characterize that church? How is the author encouraged by his readers? Does the doctrinal teaching seem to be directed toward a particular form of false teaching? Looking for answers to these types of questions will help us understand what the letter means.

 

2. Trace the flow of thought.

Always remember that these are more than collections of verses. The authors wrote these letters to make points, to present arguments, to challenge their readers over the course of the letter. So try to trace the way the argument unfolds. When you find a practical exhortation, ask if the author is grounding that exhortation in some theological truth he presented earlier. You don’t understand an individual verse until you understand how it fits within the overall flow of the letter.

 

3. Ask how the original readers would have understood the message of the letter.

Before you can determine how the letter speaks to you today, you have to ask how the letter spoke to the original audience. Always try to put yourself in their sandals. How would Paul’s rebukes have felt to you if you were a member of the church in Corinth? How would Paul’s encouragement have given you hope if you were a member of the church in Thessalonica? What cultural factors would have shaped their understanding of a particular teaching, such as Paul explaining how to relate to meat that has been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8?

 

4. Explore the theology in the letter.

What does the letter teach us about God? What does it teach us about humanity, or sin, or salvation, or the end times? We always have to keep in mind that these doctrines were presented in practical situations, but they still have much to teach us about theology.

 

5. Ask how the letter should be practically applied today.

We’re never done reading the Bible until we respond to its truth appropriately. (Even then we’re not done.) So once we’ve tried to understand how the original audience would have understood the letter, we need to ask what implications it holds for how we live our lives today. Sometimes this is easy to figure out (though not necessarily easy to follow through on), like when Paul tells us to rejoice always. Other times it can be difficult and even controversial to figure out how the letters apply today (think of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 or speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14). But the point is, we need to examine these letters carefully and apply them appropriately.