NEW ORLEANS (BP)—Does the Bible present a clear message on sexual ethics? Or does the text send mixed messages on the subject?
Speakers at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary addressed the matter recently. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., said the Bible upholds only two options when it comes to sex: monogamous heterosexual marriage or celibacy in singleness.
But New Testament scholar Jennifer Wright Knust of Boston University, also speaking at the seminary’s Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum Feb. 15, said the biblical message on sex is not clear at all. She assessed the Bible’s treatment of sex as “complicated and contradictory.” Knust promotes a sexual ethic she considers “biblically-informed,” but ultimately it is developed within the context of a modern Christian community.
The Greer-Heard Forum, established in 2005 through a gift from Bill and Carolyn Heard, prepares seminary students, ministers and everyday Christians to think critically and engage secular society with biblical truth. The conference brings together scholars from opposing views to discuss an important issue in a civil manner.
This year’s forum, “The Bible & Sex,” addressed a topic which is at the center of heated political battles in the United States and is a key point of contention in debates among mainline Protestants. Determining what the Bible teaches on sex has far-reaching implications.
Both keynote presenters—Witherington, a conservative Wesleyan, and Knust, an ordained American Baptist minister—acknowledged that young people often receive mixed messages about sex during their formative years.
“Sex is dirty. Save it for the one you really love,” Witherington said, retelling the inadequate teaching he received growing up. “That is what you call a mixed message.”
Witherington argued that sex is wholesome and good and honors God within the boundaries that God intended. For him, the Bible does not send mixed messages on sex. Knust, too, has come to see sex as one of God’s good gifts, but she views boundaries, like the one Witherington promotes, as human constructs rather than timeless moral directives from God.
Much of the discussion centered on an evaluation of Knust’s 2011 book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, in which she asserted that the Bible’s teachings on sexuality are ambiguous, and thus it is difficult to derive a clear sexual ethic from Scripture.
Knust opened the forum with a presentation of her views on the Bible’s message on sex, challenging what she considers a dangerous form of biblical interpretation. Conservative interpreters, she said, are using the Bible to deny people—namely homosexuals—a share of the world’s good.
She claimed the only way for conservative scholars to find a universal, timeless sexual ethic in the Bible is to engage in “proof texting.” This practice of using select verses to prove one’s point makes Scripture “a carving knife to slice human communities into those who are deserving and those who are not,” Knust said.
Knust reviewed a litany of ways the Bible has been misused over the years. Her examples included colonialism in Africa and the Americas, European scientific racism of the 1930s and ’40s, and the justification of slavery. Knust argued that those who conclude the Bible speaks against homosexuality are doing the same thing.
“The Bible cannot be expected to offer a single or consistent message about anything, including sex, even if some of us do regard this collection as divinely inspired as I do,” Knust said. “Find a passage that appears to teach one thing, and I can find a passage that appears to teach something else.”
Knust said the back and forth of proof texting always ends in a draw. She suggested that the church abandon its desire for clear-cut, definitive teachings about sex from which rules are extracted and applied.
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