The Bible, Sex, And Ideological Fundamentalism
A DIALOGUE WITH JACQUES ELLUL
JACQUES ELLUL AND SEXUAL "ETHICS": A CRITIQUE
Rev. Dr. Thomas Hanks
Queer Theology for 14 Sexual Minorities - Controversial Sexual Areas
1. Marriage Ideology and Divorced Persons
|1. Marriage Ideology and Divorced Persons
"The gospel, far from confirming the morality of the world, overturns it and contradicts it" (Ellul
"Christianity is an anti-morality....What might be called Christian ethics is the opposite to everything
which constitutes morality in the general sense of the word" (Ellul 1964/69:85).
"Ethics ought (to) supply the lack on the part of Christians of the initiative and willingness to strike
out on new paths....The Christian life should be a constant renewal, a creation of abundant novelties
expressing the richness of the Holy Spirit....Experience teaches us that the most serious Christians
lack imagination" (Ellul 1964/69:253).
Although Ellul says some fierce things in the areas of marriage and divorce, with the exception of his
brief treatment on polygamy, he really fails to do much in terms of a Christian and Biblical ideological
critique of the modern institution of marriage. The urgency for such a critique was well-illustrated for
me when I tried to give a Sunday School lesson in an American Methodist (not Fundamentalist)
church on the assigned text of the book of Ruth. I asked the class to outline the fundamental
elements in modern Christian marriage, which we listed on the blackboard: a pastor/priest officiating;
in a church; with wedding vows and a ring, etc. I then asked the class how many of these elements
were present in the Biblical example of marriage in the book of Ruth. One faithful class member
responded immediately: "all of them!" There was dead silence for a few seconds. Then another
member admitted more perceptively: "None of them."
We then proceeded to observe how, despite the lack any mention of marriage vows in Ruth's
Levirate marriage to Boaz, the Sunday School lesson guide seized upon Ruth's promise to Naomi
and turned the whole Biblical emphasis on same-sex intimacy and fidelity into a lesson on modern
heterosexual marriage (complete with picture of church). Any possible Word of God for sexual
minorities (such as Lesbians) was drowned out in the lesson plan by the ideological tyranny of
heterosexism and idolatrous cult to the nuclear family. Any possible Biblical sensitizing of
homophobic churches was also systematically and brutally eliminated by the lesson plan and church
wedding photos. In the Bibles and Bible lessons in traditional churches ("liberal" as well as
"Fundamentalist") sexual minorities cannot be permitted to exist, much less find approval or hear
Jesus' Good News.
Obviously the same approach could be taken to a New Testament passage like the wedding at Cana
(John 2:1-12), where the secular character of the feast (without church, clergy, vows, ring) is
obvious. The scramble of countless churches to reverse Jesus' miracle and change the wine back
into water (or grape juice fit for serving in Fellowship Hall wedding receptions) is one of the the many
ironies of heterosexist ideology. Ideological Fundamentalists who want to go "Back to the Bible" for
teaching on sex and marriage might well begin by prohibiting marriages in the church, elminating the
role of clergy, vows, rings, etc. This would lead to considerable reduction of clergy income in some
cases, but perhaps allow some preachers time to really "take the Bible seriously." Were the wedding
at Cana not so constantly misused to bolster current marriage ideology, preachers might have time
to note the contrast between the lifestyle of Jesus and his (mainly wifeless) disciples (John 2:12).
The heterosexist ideological notion that wedding vows represent the most absolute of ethical
absolutes is one of the clearest indications that no one is taking the Bible seriously in this area. Not
a word in the Bible can be cited to support the notion that vows were ever part of Biblical marriage
practices. The two texts commonly cited to demonstrate the concept of marriage as a covenant (Mal.
2:14; Prov. 2:17) were shown more than 25 years ago not to support that notion (Milgrom
1976:133-134; Greenberg 1983:278; cf. Ezk.16:8).
Unquestionably the most devastating Christian historical ideological critique of heterosexism in this
area is being made by Yale historian John Boswell, who is Roman Catholic. After his first book
(1980), tracing the shocking historical parallels in Western culture between anti-semitism and
homophobia, Boswell received a letter pointing him to long-neglected documents in ancient Christian
liturgical manuals. Then almost a decade of research led him to monastery libraries in many
countries. He has now uncovered almost 100 examples of Christian liturgical blessings for same-sex
unions, beginning as far back as the 5th century and still observed in performance by
anthropologists in the 20th century (Montaigne discovered on a trip to Rome in 1580 that the Church
of St. John--appropriately!--was performing marriages of male couples; Greenberg 1988:305).
Heterosexual marriage, of course, was a secular phenomena in greco-roman society, and did not
come under church control in Christendom until the later Middle Ages. What Bowell's most recent
studies thus show is that the Christian church was commonly blessing same-sex unions 500 years
before it got involved in the heterosexual marriage business!
Boswell's detailed setting forth of the historical liturgical evidence will appear shortly in his book What
God Has Joined Together: Same-sex Unions in the Christian Tradition. A preliminary sketch has
been available since 1982 in his Hardy Memorial Lecture, Rediscovering Gay History; much fuller
documentation is summarized in his Video presentation available from Dignity. Greenberg's attempt
to write off some of this evidence (especially in cases where monastic vows of sexual abstinence had
been taken) as only solemnizing "spiritual friendship" with no sexual dimension (1988:306) cannot
explain the type, and context of the evidence Boswell has now accumulated (1988:1-20; see
especially p. 11 and note 12.
The diversity of Biblical teaching regarding divorce has long been recognized even in scholarly
conservative reference works (Verhey in Bromiley 1979-88 I:974-978). It is difficult to harmonize
Deuteronomy's placid permission (24:1-4) with the prophet Malachi's fiery prohibition (2:13-16, "I
hate divorce"; Smith 1984:3118-325) and Ezra's and Nehemia's demands for divorce of foreign
wives (Ezra 9:2; 10:1-44; Neh. 10:31; 13:23-30; Williams 1985:159-162). In the New Testament
traditional systematic harmonizations run into similar difficulties.
According to Mark 10:1-12 (ca. 69/70 A.D.) Jesus flatly prohibits all divorce. Divorce is understood in
the Hebrew sense of dismissing or sending away, and the context makes clear that what is involved
is an abuse of patriarcal power (= oppression) that was common in the Gentile world (10:32-45) and
manifest in the common male Jewish custom of dismissing wives for trivial reasons. In the historical
and literary context of Mark's gospel it is clear that Jesus speaks firmly against divorce not from any
neoplatonic sex-negative philosophy, but to protect defenseless women from the common cruel
The oppressed, dismissed spouse is not denied the right to remarry in Mark's version. However, in a
structural change revolutionary for Jewish culture, the wife is granted the same rights to initiate
divorce as the husband (with the same responsibilities). Adultery is radically redefined not as being a
mere property offense against an outsider, but against the offended spouse ("against her" Mark
10:12; recall David's adultery with Bathsheba, not viewed as an offense against his existing
polygamous family, but against Uriah, Bathsheba's husband). Countryman concludes: "The
prohibition of divorce and redefinition of adultery, while they may appear from a modern perspective
to protect the family, were actually undermining it in its ancient form" (1988:176). However, while
Mark does not literally preserve Jesus demand to abandon wife for Kingdom priorities (Luke 14:26,
from Q), Peter (perhaps Mark's source) makes clear that the disciples had done precisely that when
they responded to Jesus' call (Mark 10:28-31; probably only Peter was actually married; cf.1:29-31;
1 Cor. 9:5 and above Excursus on "one flesh").
The only other element in Mark's gospel commonly misinterpreted to support sex-negative ideologies
is the vice list in 7:20-23, where porneiai (NIV "sexual immorality") stands first. However, this
interpretation leaves unanswered the question why porneiai should be separated from "adulteries"
that stands 4th in the list. In Matthew's version, porneiai is moved to follow "adulteries" (15:19) and
the whole list reduced and ordered to follow the 10 Commandments. Hence the literal sexual
interpretation of porneiai as "sexual immoralities" has support in Matthew's reediting, but probably in
the sense of "harlotries" (as in 5:32 and 19:9; Countryman 1988:175). However, as Countryman
points out, porneiai in Mark 7:21 is best understood in its common metaphorical sense (18x in
Revelation) as idolatry (1988:85-86). In both versions of the vice list, all the individual items are
presented as examples of oppression and injustice ("evils," Greek kakoi and "iniquities," Greek
ponera; see Hanks 1986a).
Mark may at first sight appear to offer a "minimum ethic" but this is to misinterpret the
nonphilosophical categories with which he works. His demand for heroic, watchful discipleship (a
taking up of Jesus' cross and willingness to suffer martyrdom in time of war and persecution) really
represents the highest kind of demand (Verhey 1984:78-80). However, in the sexual area nothing
supports the cruel sex-negative tradition dominant throughout church history. The concern is rather
the liberation of women from patriarchal oppression as a manifestation of fundamental Biblical
continuities of freedom, justice and love.
Luke, even less than Mark, provides any basis for traditional sex-negative ideology. Mark's long
treatment of divorce (10:1-12; expanded in Mat. 19:1-12 and 5:27-32) is reduced in Luke to a single
verse! (16:18; attributed to Q by some, which would involve a slight modification of comments above
on Q; see Kloppenborg 1987:113, 174 note 11). Despite Luke's general exaltation of women,
divorce and adulterous remarriage remain male prerogatives in Luke 16:18. However, while a
woman's right to initiate divorce is not recognized in Luke, he shares Mark's concern to protect
defenseless women from the common cruel and arbitrary male procedure.
Luke does not include the vice list of Mark 7 and Matthew 15, and the Gospel's only use of pornos
occurs in the elder brother's charge that the Prodigal Son had devoured the family inheritance with
pagan prostitutes (15:29)--hardly a basis for traditional sex-negative ideology. In Acts (15:20,29;
21:25) Luke gives us 3 uses of porneiai but remarkably interpreted in context as concerned with
matters of Jewish conscience and cultic purity (Countryman 1988:71-79). Luke's overwhelming
emphasis on economic sins (Hanks 1986a; 1992), inclusion of sex-positive perspectives from Q, and
almost total neglect of sexual sins, stands in stark contrast with the sex-negative fixations of
ideological Fundamentalism (Luke 18:20 refers to adultery in the selection from the 10
commandments for the rich young ruler).
In Matthew (19:3-12; cf. 5:31-32) the woman loses the liberating prerogative granted to her in Mark,
but divorce is permitted on the grounds of porneia (sexual immorality of some sort; probably
"harlotry," Countryman 175). Evangelical commentator Robert Gundry (1982:90) explains: "The
exceptive phrase is not present in the other synoptics or reflected elsewhere in the New Testament.
It comes from Matthew, not from Jesus, as an editorial insertion to conform Jesus' words to God's
Word in the Old Testament." Concerning 19:1-12 Gundry (1982:383) explains: "Matthew portrays
the single life of Christian men who have not remarried after divorcing their immoral wives as an act
of discipleship. His purpose is to urge full acceptance of such men in the Christian brotherhood (cf.
Deut. 23:2; Isa. 56:3-5)."
Thus in Matthew, Jesus' concern to defend women from oppressive divorce practices is even
extended to include the sexual minorities represented by 3 types of "eunuchs" (incapable of sexual
reproduction; see Eunuchs, III. 14 below). And despite the probable references to "harlotry" as a
legitimate ground for divorce (19:9; 5:32), he goes out of his way to include harlots and adulterers in
Jesus' geneology (Hanks 1986b) and represents Jesus as declaring that harlots along with tax
collectors would enter God's Kingdom before the self-righteous political-religious leaders (21:31-32;
see below on Prostitution, III. 3). Matthew's introduction of a flexibility principle in divorce cases,
shocking expressions approving prostitutes, and unique concern for the sexual minorities
represented by three classes of eunuchs makes clear his perceptive understanding and fidelity to
Jesus' positive attitudes and teaching in the sexual area (see Eunuchs, III.14 below; on Mt. 5:32, see
Voyeurs, III. 9 below; Countryman 1988:169-179).
In 1 Cor. 7:10-16 we find the famous "pauline privilege" (v. 15) that permits a believer abandoned by
an unbeliever to remarry. Rather than impose an artificial forced harmonization on New Testament
divorce data (as in John Murray's work, Divorce, in 1953), it is better to recognize the diversity of
teachings, representing theologically creative responses to different historical contexts (Verhey
1984). Such creative theological responses served as paradigms for the church in subsequent ages,
as knowledge continually increases (Dan. 12:4). Human experience and psychological studies
uncover a growing number of grounds where separation or divorce prove to be the way less harm is
done to all involved. Taking the Bible seriously involves responding to such advances in human
understanding with creativity in the face of the new knowledge and with fidelity to fundamental
Biblical concerns (freedom, justice, faith, hope, love).
Both Old and New Testaments thus discovered grounds that sometimes made divorce the preferable
or necessary alternative. Throughout history synagogue and church have continued to uncover
additional grounds: sexual abuse of children, violence to spouse and children (often related to
alcoholism and drugs), homosexuality, and a variety of psychological profiles (such as narcissism)
which make intimate relations impossible or unbearable. Like the Old Testament provision for
Levirate "marriage," Jesus's prohibition of divorce (even in its strictest Markan expression) should
not be understood as intended to devise a torture chamber for a suffering spouse; rather it was an
attempt to protect women (especially) from the cruel economic deprivation that resulted from being
divorced (literally "sent away" in the Hebrew). Traditional Catholicism and ideological
Fundamentalism cannot claim Biblical support for their cruel rigidies in this area; rather they
demonstrate that they do not really take the Bible seriously (in all its wonderful diversity, reflecting
theological creativity in distinct historical contexts; Countryman 1988:151-152; 173-176).
Theologians are often critical of Margaret Mead's proposals to involve the church in a more positive,
supporting ministry for separating or divorcing couples (Ellul 1984:300-301). However Bishop John
Spong recently picked up on the need for the church to play a more positive role in this area
(1988:188-195). When I read media reports about Spong's proposed "liturgical service for the
recognition of the end of a marriage," I admit it sounded pretty weird. Months later when I finally was
able to read the chapter I wept. I suspect most Christians who have passed through the fire and
deep waters of abandonment, separation or divorce would do the same.
However, even Bishop Spong's liturgy may contain too much traditional Anglican "miserable sinner"
theology to be of maximum help and edification. A separation or divorce may not always represent a
"failure" in a relationship. In many instances the end of a relationship may point to incredible feats of
discipline and perserverance in self-sacrificial love that should be admired and celebrated, not held
up to scorn. Modern psychology makes clear that personalities can be just as "incompatible" as
blood types, and no one discovered to be allergic to penicillin should be awarded gold stars for
Christian virtue for self-destructing by taking a drug proved to be harmful.
Hence, separation or divorce should provide no basis for creating an underclass of 2d class citizens
in the church, or for disqualifying for Christian ministry. Paul himself make clear that those who have
suffered a particular trial may well be precisely those who are best capacitated to bring to sufferers
the particular comfort needed (2 Cor. 1:4). In a culture where nearly half the marriages end in
divorce, divorced ministers who can bring special comfort and instill courage to others passing
through such trials may be just as essential and useful as those exemplifying "successful" family
relations. God's word to an emotionally troubled Paul (who himself may have been abandoned by a
wife, as evangelical scholars often argue), was "my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor.
12:9). Not retaining, but renouncing family ties, is a prerequisite for authentic discipleship and
effective Christian ministry in many texts (Lk. 14:26; Mt. 19:12; Gundry 1982:383).
If Jesus intended his teaching against divorce to serve as a club to bash people in a weakened,
often emotionally and economically desperate state, then the church does well to heap scorn on
Spong's suggestions and continue present policies. But if Jesus' teaching actually was intended to
protect and strengthen oppressed women from expressions of patriarchal tyranny, the church will do
well to pay careful attention to Spong's proposed liturgy. True, the New Testament gives us no
example of such a liturgy for divorcing persons--but it doesn't provide any basis for a marriage
liturgy either! Was Jesus in the busines of proping up "institutions" that easily become cruel and
oppressive? Or when he "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38) did it involve rather helping the kind
of people who stand most in need of help?
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