Biblical Morality/Part 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Walter Martin, and John Shelby Spong; ©2004
In this excerpt from the “Spong/Martin Debate on Sexual Ethics” the participants lay the groundwork for examining the biblical definition of morality and the passages dealing with God’s declarations regarding homosexuality.

Biblical Morality—Part 1

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome! Tonight, my guests are Episcopal Bishop John Spong, who is representing the “new morality,” calling for sexual ethics which fall outside what is believed to be the traditional moral norm; and then Dr. Walter Martin, who is representing historic orthodox Christianity and traditional Christian ethics.

We want to get down to our topic concerning homosexuality and premarital sex, but I think, fellows, that it would be very helpful for our audience if you would define the words we’re going to use, first of all, such as “morality” and “immorality,” so we all know what we’re talking about. When Christians speak of morality, historically they have referred to biblically-defined morality. When Christians have referred to immorality, they have referred to biblically-defined immorality.

Now, I’m going to give you a little thesis here, and I would like you to tell me if you agree or disagree. I would like you to tell me if biblically-defined morality condemns fornication, adultery and homosexually as sinful, and if these negative prohibitions of sexual practices in Scripture make sense only in light of the positive teachings in Genesis 1 and 2 that the only sexual activity blessed and ordained by God is the sexual union between husband and wife in the holy bonds of matrimony.

Now, that’s the thesis. And that’s what most Christians understand. And I’d like [you] to tell me if we use the words “morality” and “immorality,” are we talking about that or something else? Bishop Spong, why don’t you start us.

Bishop John Spong: All right, I’ll be glad to at least try. To talk about biblical morality is a far more complex subject than I think you’ve just introduced. For example, in both the Old Testa­ment and the New Testament, the institution of slavery is affirmed. I do not believe that slavery is moral. And yet Paul suggests that slavery is an institution that simply needs to be…how shall we say, “tightened a bit.” The slaves should be obedient to their masters; the masters should be kind to their slaves.

Ankerberg: And you know we can disagree on that and still be buddies.

Spong: Okay. But anyway, there is an implication in Scripture that slavery is an institution which can be affirmed within the Christian tradition. But let me go to one that I think is a little more controversial than that one, because I think we would find general agreement there. I think the Bible in many parts treats women as less than human—rising out of a patriarchal culture and a patriarchal value system—and to me, the evidence for that is overwhelming. And it is in such things as the Ten Commandments themselves.

When I was a child growing up in the South and committing to memory the Ten Command­ments in my church, I was told that the 10th Commandment says “you shall not covet”—and that’s a good commandment to know and learn—but when you read the text in Exodus 20, what that commandment says is “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” I think that’s a good com­mandment. I think you ought to obey that one, too.

But the interesting thing is that nowhere in that commandment is there a suggestion that you ought not to covet your neighbor’s husband. Just wives. Just coveting wives is prohibited. And I began to wonder why that was. And the more I wondered, the more I got into an understanding of all the Torah.

And I realized that when the Torah was given to the Jewish people, it was given only to the males, because only the males were considered human enough to be part of the covenant community, so that women were not there. There was no reason to inhibit the coveting of hus­bands because you were talking with an all male audience, and women were defined as less than human. Because that commandment really says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or his wife, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Ankerberg: Okay. So the reason you don’t want to go with traditional biblical morality is because you see such concepts as slavery taking you away from a commitment of reading the other commandments literally. Is that correct?

Spong: What I’d like to say is that I don’t want to be simplistic about biblical morality.

Ankerberg: And those that do are simplistic?

Spong: Yes. I would say that the morality of the Bible is, that we shall act toward one another in such a way as to affirm the reality that every human being is created in God’s image.

Ankerberg: What verse is that?

Spong: Well, I would say that’s not in the verse, but I’ll find that in a….

Ankerberg: So it’s not biblical morality.

Spong: Well, let’s wait a minute, John. Let’s don’t be “cute”!

Ankerberg: I didn’t want to be cute, I really wanted to know where you were coming from.

Spong: Let me say that when you read the first creation story, you find that God looked out upon all that God had made and “behold it was very good.”

Ankerberg: And that’s part of your J.E.P.D. theory…

Spong: Well, that’s correct. When you read our Lord’s words over and over again, you will find that He reaches out to all. When you read the Pentecost story, you will find that community is created when people can communicate across all of the barriers, including the barrier of language, and bring all people. When you read Saint Paul, you read Saint Paul saying, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” There is an inclusive quality in Holy Scripture that informs my understanding of biblical morality.

Ankerberg: All right, Dr. Martin, what do you mean by morality?

Dr. Walter Martin: I would affirm the thesis that what has been revealed to us, not something that “evolved,” which the Bishop believes as a result of the religion of the Israelites, but what God Himself did reveal. I believe this is the criterion, and I think also in the New Testament what Christ said and what the Apostles taught is the standard for morality.

Ankerberg: All right. Let’s get down to homosexuality. I want to get to this topic here, be­cause, Bishop Spong, you have said that the Church “Should bless and affirm publicly the union forged in love by two persons of the same gender.”

You’ve said, “The negativity toward blessing gay and lesbian unions will die and be one more embarrassing relic in the museum of cultural and ecclesiastical prejudices. I look forward to that day. I hope I contribute to its early arrival.”

What we need to do is take a look at the Scriptures. And the reason I’m going to do this is because, Bishop Spong, in your book, and, Dr. Martin, in your book, you have both said, “People need to go to the Scripture,” although you’ve come out with different points of view.

And, Bishop Spong, you have said that if people that are Christians would go to these texts that are traditionally used to show that it is wrong, that they will get a different idea and so I would like to do that. And, Dr. Martin, why don’t you summarize for us, and then, Bishop Spong, you can speak to the thought.

Let’s start with number one in the Bible there concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. Dr. Martin?

Martin: Well, the biblical position on Sodom and Gomorrah, and the position in context as far as the Jews were concerned, was that what took place was the judgment of God upon a very wicked city—not just wicked in terms of sexual immorality, but also in the fact that it cared noth­ing for the poor, that it abused the blessings which had been given to it.

But the basic idea of Sodom’s judgment—and that’s why the term itself in the Jewish dictio­naries, the Jewish commentaries, the Rabbinical commentaries, the Targums, all of this mate­rial, always sets it in the context of the Sodomites. So when you talk about homosexuality, you’re talking about Sodomites, identifying them as actually holding positions which were abnor­mal and contrary to nature, as the Jews understood it, as they understood God to have revealed it. And this is carried through also into the New Testament.

In fact, it specifically says that what they were doing was wicked and vile and detestable, and therefore it is involving very specifically sexual transgression at this particular point. Also, when the mob came outside of Lot’s house, they were specific in saying, “Bring them out to us [the two angels] that we may have sexual relations with them.” There’s no challenge about the fact that it was sexual relations. Now, this wasn’t gang rape. This wasn’t male prostitution. This was a projection of the nature of Sodom, which was not interested in young girls or in normal sex but primarily in, I should say, homosexuality activities.

Ankerberg: Bishop Spong, you’ve taken some exception to the traditional stance. Would you tell us what that is?

Spong: Yes. First of all, I’d like to say that when you talk about homosexuality, it is probably the most controversial subject, the one about which we have the deepest prejudice, the one that is the hardest to hear. So I would urge the audience to at least be sensitive to the fact that we’re describing human beings who are homosexual persons. And, as I say, it is very difficult to talk about this.

Ankerberg: I think we ought to go one step further and say that, as far as Christianity has held through history is that whether a person sins homosexually or heterosexually or steals or robs, they are still made in the image of God and they are full human beings.

Spong: That’s correct.

Ankerberg: We might believe they’re fallen, they’re sinful and Christ can change them, but I agree with you. Roll on.

Spong: Yes. But I think it’s important that we at least set that kind of sensitivity when Chris­tians begin to talk about some human beings. I’m not here to defend the present scientific estimates, but I’ll at least state them. I have no way of documenting them, but the present scientific estimates in this country are that up to 10 percent of our population is gay or lesbian at all times. Now, if that is true—and I’m not, as I say, here to defend that—but if that is true, we need to keep in mind that that means one out of every ten people that we meet is homosexual.

It means that homosexual gay and lesbian people are our own brothers and sisters, our own children, our own aunts and uncles. That these are not evil people out somewhere but they are people that all of us know and love whether we know that they are gay or lesbian people or not. So with that background, it is important, I think, that we be very, very sensitive.

Ankerberg: Okay. How do you reckon that in with your thinking on Sodom and Gomorrah?

Spong: Well, let’s go to Sodom and Gomorrah. First of all, I’d say that if all of the men of the village of Sodom are outside demanding that two males be brought out so that they might be sexually abused, that that does constitute gang rape. I mean, all the men of the city?

Secondly, among those “all the men of the city” are the two young men who are engaged to be married to Lot’s two daughters. I think that that’s rather interesting that they would be wanting to go in both directions.

But the final and most important thing about the Sodom and Gomorrah story—and there are a number of really interesting nuances about it—see, the two angels came down to Sodom because God wants to know whether or not Sodom is evil. I think that’s a very interesting concept of God. He doesn’t seem to know and so He has to send messengers literally down on the earth.

Then Lot gives them the hospitality of his home. In the ancient world you need to understand that hospitality meant the difference between life and death. Also, you need to understand that the way people could violate strangers—show their power over strangers, humiliate strangers— the favorite way of doing that in the ancient world was to force the male strangers (because women didn’t wander from village to village in that era) force the male strangers to take the role of women in the sex act. That is, by doing homosexual activities on these men, they were in fact insulting women.

But the most important thing to me is, Lot’s behavior. He was spared. He was therefore accounted among the righteous. And what did Lot do? Lot went to his door and he said to this mob from the village of Sodom, he said, “You’re being evil.” And I agree. They were being evil. And he said, “I have given these two angels, these two messengers, visitors, the hospitality and protection of my home. I beg you not to do this. But,” he then goes on to say, “I will placate you in your anger because I have two virgin daughters and I will send them out to you and you can do with them what you will.”

My brothers and sisters, I have three daughters. That is not righteous behavior.

Ankerberg: I agree.

Spong: I cannot understand why that story is quoted as a way to condemn anything. I can condemn a lot of things from that story.

Ankerberg: But when the Bible talks about, “Judas went out and hanged himself” and it gives that description, it’s not teaching we ought to all go and do the same.

Spong: That’s correct.

Ankerberg: And I’m not sure that because it describes an accurate statement that Lot made that therefore it is teaching that we ought to all gang rape women instead of men.

Spong: Yes, but I want you to know that Lot was accounted righteous, and that behavior is part of Lot.

Ankerberg: In what context in Peter do you find that?

Spong: In Peter?

Ankerberg: Yes.

Spong: I don’t understand why your reference to Peter.

Ankerberg: Well, where is that reference found that he is a righteous man?

Spong: Well, it’s in the whole story of Genesis…

Ankerberg: Yes, and it’s also in the New Testament.

Spong: …and the whole purpose of those visitors to go down there was to see whether or not there were ten righteous people who could be spared. And the only ones that were judged righteous and spared were Lot, his wife, his two daughters.

Ankerberg: Yes. Do you see any definition of “righteous” that would fit that context that you’re saying?

Spong: I do not regard Lot’s behavior in that instance as righteous behavior.

Ankerberg: No, and I don’t either. But there are some things about Lot that are righteous that he would be thought to be righteous and could be called that. For example, David is called “a man after God’s own heart”—right?

Spong: Yes.

Ankerberg: Now, he murders, commits adultery, and he’s still called a man after God’s own heart. Why? Because the overall tenor of his life was that. And, that’s the way I think that he’s referred to in Scripture. Not that everything that Lot does is perfect, and not, absolutely not, the fact of when he’s offering his daughters, is this something that we ought to emulate or that he is righteous because he does it.

Spong: But, John, I do not believe that you call off a gang of males who want to sexually abuse two males by the offering of your daughters to that gang of males.

Ankerberg: I agree.

Spong: I think you ought to deal with the negativity of that whole behavior.

Ankerberg: I agree that that is absolutely wrong, but it still doesn’t get away from the fact that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is homosexuality.

Spong: Well, I would say that Dr. Martin is correct in that the Hebrew verb which he trans­lated…

Ankerberg: Yadah.

Spong: …that Hebrew verb literally means “to know.” Ankerberg: Yes.

Spong: And it does carry the connotation. But let me say that I do not disagree that homo­sexuality is condemned in Scripture. I do not disagree with that.

Ankerberg: Yes, you’ve said that before.

Spong: I think that is obvious. It’s in Leviticus; it’s in the Sodom and Gomorrah story; it’s in the Pauline corpus at least, and probably some other places.

The issue in my mind is not that. The issue is whether or not the people who lived at the time of the Bible and who wrote about homosexuality understood the scientific meaning of homo­sexuality. You see, we also used to condemn left-handed people.

Ankerberg: Not in the Bible.

Spong: Not in the Bible, but we surely did in the life of the Church. We thought that was evil.

Ankerberg: Yes, those are two different things, though, aren’t they? Dr. Martin, we’ve only got 30 seconds. We’ve only got one of the Scriptures on the board. How do you see…where are we going? You’ve heard where Bishop Spong is going, and we’re going to continue this, be­cause we’re just getting into it. Give us a summary of where you’re going and maybe a re­sponse to what he just said.

Martin: I think we’ve been going around in circles. We’ve passed the one important thing: How did the Jews interpret sodomy? How did the Jews—who are the authors of the Old Testa­ment— interpret these passages, and what did it mean? The Encyclopedia Judaica, I have probably 20 reference sources here, all say exactly the same thing. If the Jews don’t know their own historical background and their own revelation, then certainly Bishop Spong doesn’t know it. And nobody else knows it 3,000 years later. The Jews all say, “wicked, vile, detestable, abomi­nation” and that what they were doing was contrary to what God ordained in creation in Genesis Chapter 1. That’s where we ought to go. What did God ordain in creation? Was it normal, or was it not?

Ankerberg: We’re just starting to scratch the surface, and next time we will get into this a little bit further so I hope that you’ll join us.

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