Monthly Archives: November 2016

How Christianity Transformed Sexual Morality in the Ancient World

The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.

For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right….

Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.

The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.

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Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere’” (47).

When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God.  And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.

Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.

Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).

Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.

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Two Kingdoms and Two Ages: Why Calvin’s Political Theology Remains Relevant

In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.

In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).

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Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.

Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

Is There A Way Forward for Christians Divided by Election 2016?

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)

That’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to a church riven with ethnic, cultural, economic, and, yes, political divisions. That’s what it meant for a church to practice the truth that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

The voting patterns of Christians in Tuesday’s elections reveal that this practice did not guide Christian political engagement in 2016. The best predictor of how a Christian voted was not his or her theological beliefs or denominational membership. It was his or her ethnicity. Black and Latino Christians voted for Clinton by massive margins, though not as much as they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And white Christians voted for Trump in even stronger numbers than they did for McCain or Romney in years past.

But the biggest indictment of the state of the church following election 2016 is not that the church voted differently based on ethnicity. Indeed, if you are a black Christian who voted for Trump (and I know some who did), or if you are a white Christian who voted for Clinton (and I know some who did), you have no basis for pride, as if by going against your ethnic group you somehow fulfilled your responsibility of bearing your neighbor’s burden.

No, the bigger indictment of the church is the way in which we have castigated and even demonized one another across the political aisle, the way in which we have turned away from one another in anger and in bitterness, the way in which we have refused to do the hard work of understanding one another’s political concerns and so seeking to bear one another’s burdens.

Are you an evangelical Republican who cannot fathom why African American and Latino Christians fear a Trump administration? Then you have a lot of work to do. Are you an evangelical Democrat who cannot understand why poor and middle class white voters feel alienated in twenty-first century America without attributing that alienation to racism or bigotry? Then you have a lot of work to do.

Let me put it this way. If you cannot understand why your fellow Christian voted for the opposite candidate, if you cannot sympathize with his or her vote – even if you strongly disagree with it – you have not loved him or her in the way that Christ has loved you. Jesus was able to pray from the cross for those who tortured and murdered him, “Father, forgive they, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). There was sympathy in that statement. Jesus had the capacity to sympathize with his enemies, even in their demonic act of crucifying the Son of God, because he grasped that given what they knew and believed, they thought they were doing the right thing. And he loved them enough to forgive them for that, and even to take the burden of their sin on himself as he died for them on the cross.

Many Christians are feeling bitterness and anger today. Some are relieved that a person they saw as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was not elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who wants to expand abortion rights and fund abortion with federal taxpayer dollars. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a woman?

Others are fearful that a person they view as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who is explicitly racist and misogynist and seems manifestly unfit to govern. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a man?

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These divisions run deep. We cannot move on in the church as if none of this ever happened. Many Christians are wondering how they can remain united in love and Christian friendship with those whose political choices seem so patently offensive.

Let’s be clear about one thing. Big issues were at stake in this election. The disagreements that divide Christians are serious. They are not trivialities that we can lightly set aside. We cannot simply dismiss political concerns as if they have nothing to do with the life of the church.

And yet, Christians who voted for Trump did not do so by and large because they are racists and misogynists. Likewise Christians who voted for Clinton did not do so by and large because they support abortion. Christians who voted either way did so because they felt that only that candidate understood their deepest fears and anxieties. They did so because they were fearful that the other candidate did not have their deepest concerns at heart. Most Christians voted the way they did because they trusted that one candidate had their backs and the other candidate didn’t.

Few Christians took the time to understand how their own brothers and sisters could see things so differently. Few of us practiced the gospel sufficiently to take the time to listen and learn. Few of us were willing to set aside our own fears and anxieties so as to genuinely carry each other’s burdens.

As Jon Foreman wrote in the Huffington Post before the election:

Fear gives birth to fear. Hatred gives birth to hatred. Violence gives birth to violence. “Love is the final fight.” I sing these words every night. They were inspired by a hero of mine named Dr. John M Perkins, a man who refuses to respond to hatred with hatred. A man who understands that the fight for freedom is larger than just one story. It’s a small, fearful mind that refuses to hear any narrative other than their own.

But love ends that cycle. Love chooses to allow someone else into your story. Love listens to a stranger’s story, and allows that story to mix and dance with your own. Dr. Perkins chose to show love knowing he might receive nothing in return. It’s a dangerous, costly response to hatred and violence. But love alone can end that cycle of hatred, violence, and retaliation. Our stories are different, you and I. And we will disagree. But love chooses to listen. Chooses to care. Chooses to acknowledge that your story has the same weight and value as my own.

Can we do this as Christians? We didn’t do it leading into the election. Can we do it under the presidency of Donald Trump? Will Republican evangelicals who see their sisters and brothers – their political opponents – wounded and beaten on the other side of the road and cross over to take up their need as their own, in the spirit of the good Samaritan? Will they stand with them in solidarity, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Will Democratic evangelicals who feel beaten and betrayed accept such an effort at reconciliation and love in a spirit of gospel hope? Will they stand in solidarity with their evangelical opponents, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Do we have the humility to recognize that our own political judgments might not reflect the whole picture, that they might even be wrong?

Many see in times such as this only cause for discouragement and despair. Those whose hope is rooted in the gospel rather than in princes (Psalm 146) must instead see opportunity. Never has it been so clear how much we, as Christians – not to mention our neighbors – need the gospel. Never has it been so painfully evident how little we are practicing the gospel across ethnic, economic, and cultural boundaries.

But therein lies the opportunity. The opportunity to repent and recover the gospel with a degree of faithfulness and clarity we have not known up to this point. The opportunity to exemplify before a deeply divided country a determination not only to be reconciled in the gospel but to practice the gospel in our political engagement. The opportunity to demonstrate in our politics that we will only support policies that genuinely serve the needs and concerns of all of God’s children, white or black, rich or poor, male or female, Democrat or Republican.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Can Christian Political Engagement Be Christian in Election 2016?

Christians – like the rest of the country – are deeply divided heading into tomorrow’s election. While African American and Latino Protestants feel an existential threat from Donald Trump and his supporters, many white evangelicals fear that if Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party win tomorrow the pro-life cause – not to mention the cause of religious liberty – will suffer irreparable damage. And of course, religious voters are motivated to vote for or against these candidates for many other reasons as well.

If Christians are so divided, is there any sense in which Christian political engagement can be Christian in Election 2016?

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Last week I had the privilege of speaking on Christian political engagement in a multicultural context with Ekemeni Uwan at Calvin College. Ekemeni is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia who speaks and writes regularly on matters ranging from racial injustice and police brutality to Christian cultural-political engagement.

Together we wrestled with the choices facing Christians in 2016. We focused particularly on why different Christians are approaching this election differently, and on how the political barriers that divide Christians might be overcome through the gospel.

You can listen to the audio here. Ekemeni speaks first. I begin at about the 21 minute mark. Q&A begins after that.

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