Ben Witherington, a world-class New Testament scholar from Asbury Theological Seminary recently interacted with some statements from emerging church leader Rob Bell. Witherington is very irenic in tone. While not always agreeing with Witherington I have appreaciated much of his work. His critique of Bell is spot-on. Here is a portion of Dr. Witherington's response to Bell's statements on sexual ethics:
"The second problem area is ethics, which became very apparent tonight when Rob Bell was asked about homosexuality. His answers was evasive in part, and disturbing in other parts, and clearly unBiblical in other parts and in this he sounds like some other leaders in the Emergent Church movement. Some specifics should be mentioned.
"First of all, Rob made the blanket statement that you have no moral authority to speak on this issue unless you have gay friends and understand their struggle. While I am all for having pastoral empathy with people and their struggles, on that showing, Paul should never have spoken on this issue at all. This comment by Rob is simply an unhelpful way of silencing important voices in a divisive conversation, and its not helpful. Indeed it goes against the whole M.O. of Rob himself, which is to honor other people's views and beliefs and questions.
"Secondly, Rob then makes an argument from silence which is in fact misleading. The argument is this--- "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality". This is not quite true. Jesus took all sorts of sexual sin very seriously, even adultery of the heart, as Rob admits, and so it is no surprise then that we find Jesus telling his disciples in Mt. 19 that they have only two legitimate options: 1) marital fidelity (with marriage being defined as a relationship between one man and one woman joined together by God which leads to a one flesh union), or 2) being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom.
"The term 'eunuch' here whether taken literally (as in a castrated person who is incapable of normal sexual intercourse), or simply morally (as in a person who never engages in sexual intercourse, remaining celibate in singleness, though he or she is capable of such an act), makes very evident that for single persons, any single persons, celibacy in singleness is the standard Jesus holds up for the unmarried.
"Nor, in view of the way Jesus talks about marriage in the context with the discussion of the original Genesis story about the creation order-- the creation of woman for man (and their interdependency), could one ever imagine Jesus redefining marriage to include same-sex sexual partners. Jesus is not silent on such matters at all-- fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness are his standards, and indeed they are standards by which Jesus himself lived when we are thinking about the celibacy in singleness issue. He is likely talking about himself when he speaks of persons who have chosen to be eunuchs for the Kingdom. Chastity was considered a great virtue in that honor and shame culture.
"Rob then raises the issue of hypocrisy. Of course he is right that all sexual sin should be taken equally seriously, and in view of the abysmal record of heterosexual Evangelical Christians when it comes to issues of marital faithfulness he is right that one should not single out homosexual sin for special attention and ignore the seriousness of heterosexual sin. True enough-- but the proper response to such a situation is be an equal opportunity critiquer of all such sexual sin, while honestly admitting one's own failures and shortcomings.
"Rob then raises the point that the Bible says nothing about sexual orientation. This is true, but irrelevant. It says plenty about sexual behavior, including same sex sexual activity between consenting adults in Romans 1, 1 Cor. 6 and Gal. 5, to mention three texts. It is simply not true that the Bible is just opposed to pederasty or male prostitution, though certainly both of those forms of same-sex sexual expression are prohibited. The terms used in 1 Cor. 6 refer to males who play the role of 'malakoi' or the soft or effeminate role, and those that play the aggressive more male role called 'arsenokoites'-- which literal means a male who copulates with another male (and the word certainly does not imply copulation only with under aged males). On all of this Rob really needs to read Rob Gagnon's definitive work The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon).
"Of course it is true that we all are sinners who fall short of the glory of God, so there is no basis for finger pointing on such issues, and everyone must in all humility deal with their own sins rather than focusing on other people's sins. A Christian approach must be that everyone is welcome to come to Christ and come into the church as they are without pre-conditions. But no one is welcome to stay as they are--- no one. They all must change, repent of their sins as needed, and strive to live in newness of life whether gay or straight."