July 16, 2009

N.T. Wright on Homosexuality

N.T. Wright recently published a response to the Anglican-Episcopal split at Times Online.

Here is an excerpt:
That wider tradition always was counter-cultural as well as counter-intuitive. Our supposedly selfish genes crave a variety of sexual possibilities. But Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation).
Paganism ancient and modern has always found this ethic, and this belief, ridiculous and incredible. But the biblical witness is scarcely confined, as the shrill leader in yesterday’s Times suggests, to a few verses in St Paul. Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.
The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favour of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question. Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means “treating everybody the same way”, but “treating people appropriately”, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant “the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire”.
Such a novel usage would also raise the further question of identity. It is a very recent innovation to consider sexual preferences as a marker of “identity” parallel to, say, being male or female, English or African, rich or poor. Within the “gay community” much postmodern reflection has turned away from “identity” as a modernist fiction. We simply “construct” ourselves from day to day.
We must insist, too, on the distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other — a distinction regularly obscured by references to “homosexual clergy” and so on. We all have all kinds of deep-rooted inclinations and desires. The question is, what shall we do with them? One of the great Prayer Book collects asks God that we may “love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise”. That is always tough, for all of us. Much easier to ask God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. But much less like the challenge of the Gospel.
Read the rest here. What do you think?

Check more post about N.T. Wright here.


  1. Spot on. Wright's statement does an excellent job of sweeping away a murky cloud of rhetoric and succinctly highlighting and addressing the core fundamental issues.

  2. Bishop Wright says:

    "Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy".

    Very well, notice however that the gospels record no evidence of Jesus doing the hard work of actually arguing for this position. What was the basis for his assertion? Jesus appears to have been in the habit of making bald assertions and responding to critics with aphorisms. Those who grapple with moral issues have a responsibility to to better than that.

  3. I have allowed two anonymous comments on this post...both seeming to represent dissenting opinions. If you want to post additional comments, please leave a name that way we know who we are discussing with.

  4. I'm actually quite an admirer of Bishop Wright's writings, but on this one topic I'm consistently disappointed with the style of argument he brings to bear. On the side arguing for gay rights, we have people making cogent arguments that homosexuality is a natural and harmless variation in human sexuality, one that harms no one. People in favor of gay rights point out that homosexuality is found in many, many species besides our own, so those who cry "Unnatural!" clearly don't have a leg to stand on. Those who would acknowledge that it's natural but then lump it in with other "natural" urges that are destructive and immoral never seem to bother to spell out what it is, exactly, about gay relationships that is destructive and immoral. It's the same here. Bishop Wright says that Jesus's listeners two thousand years ago would've assumed that what he meant by immorality included gay sex; can we jump from there to assuming that that *was* what Jesus meant? The argument seems quite thin.

    Those who would try to keep gay people from having relationships, forming families headed by same-sex couples, etc. are essentially making an extraordinary claim -- the claim that gayness is so bad that gay people's relationships should be broken up, outlawed or at least heavily stigmatized, and life made as difficult for their families as possible -- that isn't backed up by extraordinary evidence. It would be one thing if those who are against gay equality took the time to really, seriously study all the information available -- everything from religious tradition to psychology to sociology etc. -- and were making well-informed arguments that there's some reason that a society with both homosexual and heterosexual couples isn't as good as a society that's heterosexual only. Then at least we'd have something to discuss. But they aren't making those arguments, and Bishop Wright isn't making that argument here. It's perfectly rational for a person to argue that prejudice against gays was a Middle Eastern hangup that found its way into the Hebrew Scripture, and that Jesus Christ would actually *not* have rubber-stamped it; He might just as well have taken it as an example of exclusion of people for no good reason other than overzealous application of ill-thought-out purity codes -- the kind of exclusion he was surely speaking against when he reached out to those who were marginalized in His society. To simply claim that it's obvious that a God who wants a covenantal relationship with us also wants us to make life difficult for gay people, or not to celebrate their relationships, or not to fully include them in society, or that He wants gay people themselves to refrain from experiencing love and relationships with one another -- it's a huge leap. A strong claim like that needs to be carefully argued, and it simply isn't. I'm sorry, but on this point, I think Christian thinkers need to think it through more deeply.

  5. To Karen
    Bishop Wright was speaking about gays and lesbians being ineligible for ordination reading the full post above. Regarding Jesus comment about sexual immorality,we must not be simplistic about the standard of holiness He calls us to embrace as His disciples(for He was without sin).And yes the Jewish audience of His time must have understood that sexual immorality covered homosexual sex living in a time circumscribed by naked pagan influences and culture.For the ordained ministers called out from amongst the congregation, all forms of sexual immorality including gay sex(your words) is a never acceptable.The world may celebrate homosexuals and give them rights and privileges but as christians we should ascribe to the standard of the kingdom of God which is supreme and above this world.

  6. Joshua,

    Thanks for commenting.

  7. Joshua,
    I would like to ask what makes Karen's critique of Wright's take on Jesus on sexual immorality simplistic? Also, you may appeal to scripture to say "this is why I believe homosexuality to be immoral", but neither you, nor scripture, nor N. T. Wright explain WHY homosexuality is immoral. If the reason why it is immoral is simply because God said so, then we must accept that God makes his law only for the sake of our obedience. If, however, God makes his law as a sign of his love, then blindly following that law without regard for its reason defeats its relational, and thus covenantal purpose. What is the point of denouncing homosexuality, or excluding homosexuals from ordination, if you fail to do so as a sign of God's love?

  8. Brava Karen!

    For once, someone of faith who actually resides deeply in the spirit of thought. As a gay man, I know all too well the rejection that comes with those supposedly speaking for God. Karen has a keen eye to understand that my being gay is just as unique as my also having blonde hair ~ and that it's just as divinely a part of my creation. What strikes me as sad is that time and time again those who would "follow" Jesus simply follow a bunch of words attributed to him thousands of years ago by trying to apply those words to our advanced culture. What so many miss is the Jesus mind set. It's the way of seeing others in the light of love. Bishop Wright is doing the same thing to the homosexual community that so many others did against other minorities in the church's history. Whether "allowing" women to serve or "freeing" the slaves, the gate keepers always seem to need a clear enemy, those not allowed past, for their own worth and sacrifice to mean anything. Homosexuals are a displeasure to God, it says so here and here and here! Poppycock! To me it's more about condemning what you do not understand as being "alien" to God because you (as the Obedient Christian) understand everything about God.

  9. Thanks for all the conversation. Maybe some questions I would like to see answered is: Who has the ultimate right to name what is moral and immoral? If we don't agree with that being's understanding of morality...does it really matter what I think? Because it is their responsibility to name what is moral and immoral.

    Karen points out Jesus' concern for the marginalized of society, and He certainly loved those who were outcast and rejected by the religious elite. But did that mean he celebrated their previous lifestyle?

    I like what Israfel pointed out about gate keepers needing a clear enemy...but does saying that something is wrong or sinful necessitate that it is being done out of hate or is making that person and enemy? I agree that it is mostly done that way, but does it necessitate it making them an enemy?

    Is it possible to believe that a person is completely sinful in their action and still love and care for them, remain close friends, and just agree to disagree? Why does thinking that a person's lifestyle is sinful and stating so mean that there cannot be a respectful relationship between the two people?

    What frustrates me more than a person thinking a particular lifestyle or action is sinful is when that belief has to separate or make a friendship "impossible." Or causes either side to treat the other as inhuman or subhuman. If we are truly called to love as God loves...then we the person we most hate, dislike, or resist being around is the enemy we are called to love, bless, and pray for.

    Just some of my thoughts as I read the comments.

    1. Thanks, Eric. I recently experienced a couple decide to decline to open their place further for hospitality to me - I was going there once a month for a few days to write - because I have mentioned that a same-sex attracted person was part of our small Christian family community. In exploring my views I admitted to shifting away from the position I previously held - much like NT Wright expresses - to one more open to God's best for a person being to build relationships in accord with their life long felt same-sex attraction rather than to live life denying that to themselves, single and unattached.
      So I am out. I am no longer welcome in their home. They are not treating me as subhuman and they have appreciated and have benefitted from my company - I am a therapist. However, their Christian and political alliances would be compromised by any association with me.
      By a more generous response to the same-sex attracted I am not pariah, or so it seems.

  10. Anonymous comments will not be posted.

  11. My perspective is tempered by what the eminent evangelical theologian, Dr. Lewis Smedes had to say on this subject in 2002, the last year of his life. Dr Smedes taught Christian Ethics at Fuller Seminary for 25 years, 1970 - 1995. His students and colleagues all speak of him with deep respect. Please take the time to hear what he has to say in this ~30 long Google video:


    Do not permit yourself to be dissuaded because it was produced by Soulforce and is introduced by Dr. Mel White. For those who are so troubled there is a DVD version available ($10 + $5 s/h), introduced by Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, if that makes you more comfortable:


    I apologize for coming to this blog so tardily.

    John Baum, PhD