Jesus and Paul on the Hermeneutics of Sexuality: Slaves, Women & Homosexuals

The last book I want to consider on this question is William J. Webb’s influential Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Webb’s book is dedicated to finding a hermeneutic that will determine whether an issue is culturally bound.

For example, all Christians agree that slavery is wrong, even though the New Testament does not clearly condemn it. Well, if slavery can be wrong despite the absence of a condemnation, could homosexuality be permissible despite the absence of approval?

How do we tell?

I’ve already offered by own analysis and the analysis of Justin Lee, who advocates for the permissibility of homosexuality. Webb’s approach is quite different from either of ours, and he’s proven very influential among evangelicals, especially on the question of women.

Webb’s analysis is overwhelmingly detailed and, in places, quite complex. But the gist of his theory is simple enough — and powerful. He says we should inquire of the text to determine the direction of the redemptive arrow. In other words, in what direction are God and the Spirit taking us as we read through the Bible’s narrative?

For example, we find in the Law of Moses very explicit approval of slavery, but several key limitations imposing humanitarian restrictions. In fact, Jews are prohibited from taking other Jews as slaves (Lev. 25:39), but they are allowed to make slaves out of other nationalities (Lev. 25:44).

However, in the New Testament, Paul calls the slave Philemon his “beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16). And he denies that there could be any distinctions between slave and free in the church —

(Col 3:11 ESV)  11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

(Col 4:1 ESV)  Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.

The New Testament writers never go so far as to free slaves, but they certainly are taking God’s people in that direction. The trend is clearly in the direction away from slavery.

Webb offers a host of supportive arguments, but this is the gist of his hermeneutic.

As to women, he notes that New Testament treats women much better than the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, there are occasional hints that women are not inferior — such as Debra the prophetess, judge, and leader. But on the whole, the Old Testament is a man’s world.

This is still true in the New Testament, but not nearly to the same extent. Jesus goes out of his way to elevate women, as we discussed in the recent posts on John’s Gospel. All Christian women receive the Spirit, not just the occasional prophetess. Many Christian women prophesy on behalf of God.

Women are encouraged to study and to learn by Jesus and by Paul. Women are shown teaching men, in the case of Priscilla. Lydia, a woman — an unmarried business woman at that — was the first European convert.

Hence, Webb concludes that the redemptive direction of God’s engagement with humanity is toward greater equality of women with men.

As to homosexuality, however, the author sees that the New Testament is just as strict as is the Old Testament. In fact, at times, the New Testament is arguably stricter, in that Jesus specifically says either be married and faithful or else live like a eunuch — that is, single and chaste. Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 7.

Moreover, the New Testament adds to the arguments for chastity the Christian’s duties to his body as the temple of the Holy Spirit and as part of the bride of Christ.

Thus, Webb sees that redemptive arrow as flat, that is, not pointing in the direction of change.

Notice that in the case of slaves and women, it’s easy to find passages that point toward a redemptive change —

(Gal 3:28 ESV) 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

However, there is no comparable “neither straight nor gay.” There is nothing that looks forward to greater sexual liberty for homosexual men and women.

In short, although advocates for gay marriage often use our treatment of slavery and women’s rights as examples of how biblical interpretation should not be limited to the literal words on the page, they ignore the larger picture. In the case of women and slaves, it’s not at all hard to see God pointing us toward a holier possibility.

But in the case of homosexuality, the texts are very different. There is no redemptive arrow pointing us toward greater sexual liberty. Indeed, a fair reading of the text is that gospel toughens the standards but also promises us the Spirit to help us live the lives we’re called to live.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus toughens the sexual ethics of the Law of Moses. Both Jesus and Paul point us toward monogamy and away from the Old Testament’s polygamy. Jesus and Paul both grant the right to be single and chaste — for the sake of the Kingdom.

Suddenly, God’s sexual morality become a way of living out the gospel. Sexual ethics are for Christians because of their special relationship with God and possession of the Spirit.

In short, Webb puts his finger on a potent way of looking at the scriptures, and he explains in great detail why slaves and women are very different from homosexuals.

I should conclude by saying that I prefer my approach to the doctrine of women and the doctrine of homosexuality — that is, painstaking, detailed analysis of each text in the culture within which it was written read within the totality of the scriptural narrative. (You really have to read Webb’s book to understand how different we are.) And Webb and I disagree on how to read some of the texts.

And yet we wind up at the same place despite taking very different approaches to hermeneutics. And that says something.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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