sexual sins

Thank you for your provocative and helpful comments on my previous post (“three questions”) concerning homosexual practice.  I learned from you that churches and religious organizations are legally allowed to discriminate against practicing homosexuals and that no, there is no solid ground for a gay-friendly redefinition of marriage.

I didn’t think I needed to say this, but for the record, I stand with the Bible against every form of sexual sin, including premarital, extramarital, and enthusiastically marital sex.  So while I am not condoning any of this—except the enthusiastic part—the topic of this post is not about that (though I can’t stop you from bringing it up).

Adam’s question in the thread about celibacy in the Old Testament raises an interesting question.  My initial response is that God tolerated rather than accepted polygamy among the patriarchs.  But I can imagine Adam raising the next logical question, “In that case, why can’t we tolerate homosexual marriage?”

Which brings me to today’s question:  which do you think God thinks is worse, polygamy or gay marriage? I’ll put Randy down for “War!”, but for the rest of you who actually try to stay on point, I’d be interested in hearing your line of reasoning.

Note #1:  It’s clear that our society thinks that polygamy is more perverse, while African cultures would uniformly say that it’s gay marriage.  Why do these cultures differ, and do one or both differ from God’s perspective?

Note #2:  Don’t tell me that all sins are the same.  I agree that is true on one level (all sin is rebellion against God), but it’s obvious that some sins are more perverse than others.  Ask yourself if you’d rather have your neighbor curse at you or shoot you, and you’ll know what I mean.

Note #3:  To those of you who think that my question is too negative—“which do you think is worse?”—feel free to switch it and tell me which sin you think is better.


Add yours →

  1. thanks for the shout out mike!

    to stay specifically on target, polygamy is a greater grievance in our current context in North America. it’s about selfishness for oneself. gay marriage is about two people committing to one another as best friends for life.

    more interesting thought: you bring up that God tolerated polygamy. in other words, it was accepted by God at that time. so, indirectly you’r suggesting that God’s rules for mankind have changed over time. thanks for that point today.

  2. This is really a “no-win” question because we are being asked to choose a sin and no matter how we answer someone will be tempted to come in and call us liberal heretics! So I’m assuming this is a hypothetical zone where our answers will not be set in stone or used against us at a future date…

    That being said, sometimes the best answer “it depends.” Let me give a couple of instances:

    1. In Africa, which you mentioned, there can be serious consequences to the woman if the husband becomes a Christian and tries to widdle his harem down to one. So in that context, perhaps they should remain polygamous for the benefit of the women. This is similar to the US in that if there is an unbiblical marriage before conversion, we wouldn’t ask them to divorce after conversion.

    2. In many parts of the world, having a loving but not-ideal family is better than no family. I remember serving in Jamaica and visiting a hospital. Because of the financial situation in Jamaica there are few mental hospitals or places that can deal with severe physical handicaps. So these children were stuck in a room in a typical hospital, often sitting in a crib, underdeveloped and underloved. It was disturbing to see. Wouldn’t it be better for these children to be in a loving homosexual or polygamous home rather than rot away in a crib? The key to that sentence is “loving.” At least the children would be loved and given an opportunity to thrive. So in this instance, for the sake of loving others, both homosexual marriage and polygamous marriage are better than other alternatives.

    But in the end, if we think through the history of redemption, God at times tolerates polygamy but never seems to tolerate homosexuality. So it seems that you could make a better biblical case for polygamy.

    If asked in a court of law, I will deny all of the above thoughts and statements.

  3. Mike:

    Interesting question and points. As Brian points out, God has never seemed to tolerate homosexuality like he has tolerated a number of other sins. I think this is because polygamy, while clearly in violation of God’s plan of one man and one woman for life, is more of a misuse of God’s gift and not a true perversion of it. Homosexuality is a perversion. As has been pointed out in the previous discussion thread, the union of a man and a woman is an image of the Trinity (and also Christ and the Church – the two analogies are not mutually exclusive), which, I believe, is why God finds sexual perversion so offensive. By perverting sex we are perverting God’s image. Polygamy may be a distortion of God’s image, but there is still the union between male and female. Where is the image in a homosexual union? Since homosexuality negates the image of God, it is the more serious sin.

    I also see significance in your note #1. In our society, marriage is no longer about having children and perpetuating the family, but about “felt needs” and personal happiness/fulfillment/whatever. In many underdeveloped countries, marriage is still primarily about producing children to carry forward the family name and possessions as well as the traditions and culture of the community. Polygamy helps acheive these goals, which is why it is not as disdained in these cultures. However, homosexuality leaves no possibility to create offspring (without the assistance of advanced medical technology), which is contrary to the interests of the community. I find it interesting that marriages based on “felt needs” actual diminish the importance of children in the family and emphasize the fleeting happiness of the adults. (Perhaps, then, homosexuality is also based in selfishness.) In this sense, polygamy is more in line with God’s initial purpose for marriage (be fruitful and multiple) whereas homosexuality stands in direct conflict with it.

  4. With the understanding that there is no such thing as safe sin, the words “abomination”, “vile” and “against nature” seem pretty strong.

  5. Dr. Wittmer,

    An interesting question indeed! I am going to venture that homosexuality is seen as worse by God, and I am going to do so for reasons none of the previous comments have explicitly mentioned. It seems to me this is the teaching of Scripture. I am, nevertheless, open to having my understanding challenged from Scripture, so if someone can shed further light (in agreement or disagreement) it would be greatly appreciated!

    1. In Romans 1, particularly in the three “God gave them over” statements of 1:24-32, the second of these is focused on homosexuality. I argue for homosexuality as worse from this based on the understanding that here in this letter, Paul is not yet trying to cover the spectrum of all sin, but highlighting the most lamentable effects of humanity’s suppression of the knowledge of God. The full scope of the effect of the suppression of the knowledge of God doesn’t come until the third “God gave them over.” Thus, the first “God gave them over” illustrates the greatest perversion of the highest manifestation of intimacy in the God-human relationship that ought to have existed since creation; namely worship. The second “God gave them over” then illustrates the greatest perversion of the highest manifestation of intimacy in the human-human relationship that ought to have existed since creation; namely sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Then the third “God gave them over” highlights the noetic effects of sin that effect every dimension of human behavior, including but not limited to the list given in 1:29-31.

    2. It is interesting to note that, as far as I can tell, the vice lists of the New Testament never mention polygamy, but do mention homosexuality. (see 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10)

    3. The best New Testament reference I can recall addressing polygamy is not in the moral vice lists, but in the qualification for an elder. I readily grant that the interpretation of this passage is highly debatable, but in my humble opinion the phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2, “husband of one wife,” is in fact noting that an elder is not to be a polygamist. This might strike us in the west as a bit odd, but considering the prevalence of polygamy in the ancient world, it seems to make perfect sense that Paul would want to address this, not only for moral reasons, but for socioeconomic ones.

    4. Not to neglect the Old Testament, I would draw attention to Leviticus 18 and 20, in which everything from adultery to bestiality is addressed, including homosexuality (particularly in chapter 20), but polygamy, as best as I can tell, is not mentioned.

    Are there texts I am overlooking? Are there reasons that we should elevate above Scripture? Would someone more versed in the relationship of Natural Law to Scripture care to expound on this?

    Thanks for the question Dr. Wittmer. I look forward to hearing you on the White Horse Inn this week!


  6. Randy:

    “Tolerated” does not equal “accepted,” and tolerating something does not mean the rules have changed, but in fact means that the rules haven’t changed (otherwise it wouldn’t be “tolerated”).

  7. Pardon me but how is that God tolerates what he commands? Polygamist situations such are possible in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 is a provision for the Levirate marriage of the kinsman-redeemer. The brother of a woman’s deceased husband was to take her as a wife to impregnate her so the family name could continue as well as the widowed woman’s future would be provided for (presumably from the children born to her). This does not say the man must be single who takes on his brother’s wife. Moreover, it’s a provision for the woman, who in a culture that had little or no means of material provision sans a husband, to continue being supplied her basic needs via a family.

  8. I see that Justin has already mentioned this in brief, but I remember something from one of Jeff Halsted’s sermons about the Leviticus texts – homosexuality is condemned because the two parties involved are too similar (much like incest), and with regard to bestiality, the two parties are too different.

    When talking to someone who is pro-homosexual, I usually ask them if they would be fine with someone who slept with their sister, and if they respond negatively, I mention the text and tell them that the Bible groups the two together (i.e., homosexuality and incest). Why one, but not the other?

    Only once has someone said that they have no problem with homosexuality, incest, or bestiality, and while I made it clear that we disagreed, I told them that at least they were consistent! It totally blew me away, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised in light of Romans 1:18ff.

  9. What about the concept of “natural relations” in Romans 1:26-27? In those two verses homosexual relations, both of the male and female variety, are contrasted with “natural relations” (ESV translation). As misplaced and wrong as I beleive polygamy is, the relations in the polygamist situation met the narrow definition of “natural relations” as used in these verses.

    On a “not so related to the point” note: If a homosexual relationship is given the legal status of marriage, then by what argument do you continue to outlaw polygamy? ..Or prohibit underage marriage to children? I hesitate to invoke a “slippery slope” argument, but those questions need to be asked….


  10. Perhaps the heart of this question asked by Dr. Wittmer still needs to come back to God tolerating polygamy. While it can be argued that God tolerated polygamy, the family tree of Jesus is ripe with sexual scandal that wasn’t God glorifying. Need we look at Abraham or David? Yet the Yahweh story lives in the midst of this sexual sin.

    Ironically, Davids’ hands were too filled with blood to build the temple, and yet his genes are connected to the coming of Christ. I point this out to suggest the seeming inconsistencies categorizing sins difficult and perhaps not really possible.

    As humans and follower of Jesus, we desire to categorize sins. What if there is value for such categorization from a fallen human perspective but not from a God perspective?

    From our perspective, murder is more serious than other sins. If murder is allowed like divorce, the world would be more chaotic. From God’s perspective, I wonder if the four kids left with a messed up lives from divorced parents isn’t at least as equally grievous?

    God seems to tolerate pretty much all sins, and yet we as followers of Jesus seem to have great difficulty in 2009 tolerating one specific kind of sin over and above all others. In fact, a significant part of the American church seems consumed by it. Do we wonder if an unbelieving world finds this odd?

  11. Randy,
    I don’t even bother to read your tortured, sophomoric non-sequitors anymore. They never add anything to the thrice holy “conversation” you emergents revere so highly because they always refuse to deal with the matter at hand. You redirect and redirect again like a clumsy salesman, all the while operating under the laughable notion that you are intellectually equipped to challenge, debate, and debunk a celebrated, published, nationally known PhD in his own field of systematic and historical theology. I say this only because, if most everyone feels the same way (which I susect is the case), it may not be worth your time to keep posting in this space.

  12. I really cannot understand how anyone who positions himself as the authority over the Word of God and subsequently tiptoes around sin, can consider himself caring of others and a follower of Jesus. There are many who will experience the treasures that they have stored up in this life – the outpouring of God’s wrath for eternity. Hell is a real place, and people need repentance from their sins. That is what Jesus is about!

  13. Randy said: “God seems to tolerate pretty much all sins…”

    I don’t know what “bible” you are reading. The Bible I read, the one containing the 66 books recognized from ancient times by the whole church. (Catholic and Prostetant alike) clearly teaches that God does NOT tolerate ANY sin. It is the lack of tolerence on God’s part towards sin that made a Saviour nessecary; which makes the Gospel nessecary (I Corinthians 15). The love of God never over rides God’s intolerence for any and all sin. That’s what the Gospel is; God expressing His love, yet in a way that that maintains and affirms His intolerence of all sin. It only takes one sin to go to hell. (See Epistle of James 2:10.)

    God’s providential dealing with us and our sins while we are yet alive in this world is one thing. How He will deal with those sins in the day of judgement is another. Sin will be dealt with; either at the cross of Christ, or before the judgement seat of God in that last day. Of course if you don’t beleive sin is “sin”, you can delude yourself that you are off the hook and all is OK…

    There is a lot about Biblical Christianity that an unbeleiving world finds “odd”. That’s nothing new. On Mars Hill unbeliving Greeks scoffed at the idea of a ressurection from the dead…. We’re not here to make the “odd” “not odd” for an unbeleiving world. We are here to bear witness to what God has said in time and space; ie-history in His objective word. If your post-modern mind rebels at the use of the word “objective”, that is nothing more then an example of your post-modern rebellion against the God who created you. Modernity rebelled against that God too. What you have done in your embrace of Post-modern episimology applied to Christianity and Scripture is to fail to bear witness against the baals of post-modernity in the same way the old liberalism failed to bear witness against the baals of modernity. To embrace the epistimology of either modernity or post-modernity is a failure of Biblical witness and a compromising with the baals of the age. For me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

    Modernity has its sophistry against which we righlty protest. Post-modernity has just as much sophistry as modernity. The failure of the emergent movement is the failure to protest that sophistry too. In that failure is the failure of the emergent movement to bear authentic Christian witness, and in some cases to put ones self outside of the Christian religion all together.

    Kyrie Eleison!

  14. Rev. — I’m plenty capable. Thanks.

    Yooper – Jesus said he was here to proclaim the kingdom of God.

    Bill N. — Yahweh tolerates your sins. Yes or no? We have all fallen short of the glory of God. Yet, God still loves you. So, ultimately, God does tolerate our sins.

    And really Bill? Your’e telling me that you know factually that my emerging church friends fail to bear witness to the gospel message?

    How about we go for lunch this week and you can tell me that the fruits of my wife’s life are not real nor genuine nor honoring to God. Where do you want to have lunch?

    Grace & Peace in the name of Jesus Christ.

  15. Randy,

    Why do you continue to look at others (without knowledge of them) and immediately comment of your good deeds and your perception of that which is lacking in others? It comes across as very prideful.

  16. Randy,

    I really can’t understand how you miss the Jesus of the Bible who proclaims new life found in Him alone, to be born again, to go and sin no more. There is no more hope in your message than a government program.

  17. Mike:

    My wife was wondering, based on your previous statements about adoption and Brian’s points about kids needing a loving home, how do you feel about gay couples (or singles, for that matter) adopting children? Do you think this is permissible or not? If it is permissible, is it something that we should actively encourage? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, if you are willing to share with the rest of the class.

  18. I’m plenty capable. Thanks.

    But you’re not even capable of putting together a subject and verb to form a sentence, or of correctly selling simple words. If you don’t mind continually embarrassing yourself, though, have at it.

  19. Yeah, I’ve got the irony that I just misspelled “spelling.” But the difference is that I know it and that it’s the exception, not the rule.

  20. While it may be true that God chose to “tolerate” polygamy in the OT, I would not be willing to speak for God and claim that he somehow tolerates homosexuality now in a similar way . Scripture seems very clear in its view of homosexuality. It is sin. Not only is it sin, but it is condemned in the strongest language when it is discussed. We would be wise to communicate the same view that has been revealed to us instead of fabricating our own.

  21. Grace is not about tolerating sin. Grace is about God’s patience and forbearance with me in His not willing that I perish, but come to repentance. My sin is still dealt with either at the cross or at the judgement seat.

    If there is a extended Emergent critique(sp) of post-modernity, please tell me where it is.

  22. Z: If I may be so bold…that was a little harsh against Randy. We may disagree with a lot of what he says, but God has called us to be loving and encouraging even in our admonishment (and even to frustrating Christians and non-Christians).

    Bill N: There isn’t much of an extended critique of PM in Emergent, however, this is where Belcher’s Deep Church is helpful. He believes that conservatives and Emergents treat PM differently: Conservatives view it as a continuation and exaggeration of the woes of modernity (hyper-modernity if you will) and, therefore, something wholly negative. The Emergents view PM as a thorough break from modernity and its woes and, therefore, is something positive. In essence, because the two camps have different views they talk past one another on the issue of modernity and PM. I think that is a helpful insight that explains why conservatives always critique PM and Emergents never do!

  23. Brian,

    Some emergent folks would suggest that PM is a positive as you suggest. Others will simply state it as our current condition; so it’s neither positive nor negative but, it just is…

    So, we’re left with this reality that the church is no longer the center of our social structures, and it has been marginalized. Most emergent friends would consider Hauerwas & Willimon’s “Resident Aliens” an accurate picture of our context and the response of the church. The books is nearly two decades old, but the situation in terms of the place of the church has only become more marginalized since it was written.

    The question for followers of Jesus becomes: How do we tell the biblical narrative so that it has wings to fly in the midst of our culture? People are longing for an alternative story to the story presented by post-modernity, and the biblical story is a story that still has wings.

    Yet, we need to creatively and imaginatively tell this story. Telling this story as propositional postulates isn’t a compelling story to most people in America outside of the church. On the other hand, telling the story as a story of God with his people, God with my great-grandparents and grandparents, a story of faithfulness in the midst of the Great Depression, a story of faithful marriages lasting long lifetimes in the midst of broken marriages, the stories of sacrifice to help neighbors, is a compelling narrative that takes nothing away from God nor the biblical text.

    The difficulty becomes convincing Jesus followers that the story doesn’t hinge around infant baptism, believers baptism, slavery, divorce, women in leadership, nor gay marriage issues. The story always hinges around God’s covenant faithfulness and our responses to God’s faithfulness.

    When we invite people into God’s ongoing narrative, the story is dynamic and faithful to the biblical text. When we revert to our systems of belief, we are left with prepositional truths that endure, but we are also without a dynamic story that desperately needs to be told and lived in our current context.

  24. Mike,
    I’m not sure which of the sins you presented is worse… or better. But I am seriously intrigued (unduly disturbed?) by your assertion that the Bible stands against “enthusiastically marital” sex. Maybe I missed a joke. I’m ashamed to say a few of yours zipped by me during the classes I enjoyed with you.

    Nevertheless, please clarify. (I could be in deep trouble!)

  25. John:

    It was a joke. But don’t worry, if you’re still the same guy you were in seminary, this is one sin that you aren’t in danger of committing! 🙂

  26. Fair enough (I think?).
    John Sloan

  27. Brian: If you think I was “too harsh” try reading the way Paul addressed dangerous errors and the people who propogated them. Or the way John did in his first epistle.

  28. Z: I understand where you are coming from and I think you and I probably agree theologically. However, I think as I read Paul and John they argue on theological grounds and the potential danger that poor theology can cause themselves and the communities with whom they are associated. I don’t recall attacks on silly things such as grammar that are clearly condescending. I’ve never said anything against your theological critique because, as I’ve said, we are pretty much on the same page. However your recent post was a little pity and personal. Paul and John both had a lot to say about loving others…

  29. Paul also had something to say about his opponents castrating themselves. I think you might benefit form an afternoon of Mark Driscoll sermons on an iPod while punching a heavy bag.

  30. Thanks Z but I’ll pass. That would certainly help me become more of a man but I guess I’m content to remain a wuss who believes that Jesus and Paul actually meant it when they talked about loving others by being forgiving, gentle, patient, kind, etc. It’s not as quick-witted or funny to live that way, but I’ll take the risk (which is kind of manly, isn’t it?).

    Plus, I own a Zune!!

    See you on another string!

  31. Hey, I’ve got some good (or bad) news for you! Your last comment there is just as quick-witted/judgmental/non-gentle/full-of-sarcasm as anything I’ve written on this page. Funny how that tends to happen… Self-righteousness about not being self-righteous and rather harshly judging others for supposedly harshly judging are the kinds of things that might cause the space/time continuum to unravel if we’re not careful.

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