Abominations and the Father’s Kingdom

In prior posts concerning Motion 30 and the events that have led to it, I have suggested that parties on both sides have been guilty of failing to take seriously enough our obligation to preserve unity in the body of Christ and to deal patiently and lovingly with those in the Church whom we believe to be in error on this or that matter. Although in different words, I have charged that many people on both sides have been dismissive of the other party’s position and have been trying to win a debate instead of trying to win each other’s heart to a deeper commitment to Christ.

Now, I want to take up a related topic where I think emotion rather than rational exegesis may often prevent fruitful, soul-engaging discussion happening. That topic is the meaning of the word “abomination”– a word that looms large in any Christian discussion that touches on the area of homosexuality. I believe that there is only one meaning that can be ascribed to that word that fits all the contexts in which our God uses it in Scripture. Any deed that by its nature fights strongly against the development or presence among us of God’s kingdom is abomination.

When many Christians think of homosexual activity, they focus on its physical aspects and feel revulsion. Therefore, when they read in Leviticus 18:22 “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” they take that as meaning that God feels the same sick churning of stomach as they do at the thought of the physical act. The Lord, however, applies the exact same word to a number of other human deeds, and while the anthropomorphic “churning of stomach” interpretation might suit some of those contexts (e.g., human sacrifice and bestiality – Deuteronomy 12:31; Leviticus 18:23), there are others where it does not.

Graven images of so-called gods are an abomination to the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:16), but what do you feel if you travel overseas and go into a temple and see some of those abominations? Do you feel revulsion akin to your revulsion at the thought of homosexuality? I doubt it – I think what you feel in this case is more likely to be a deep sadness at the darkness and oppression that the idol represents, and anger at those who perpetuate the wrong.

A false balance is abomination to the Lord,” but do you feel revulsion in your gut when you hear of a crooked businessman? Probably not – perhaps an emotion that is in the neighbourhood of righteous anger. And – if so – ask yourself why you are angry? What is the state of affairs that is stirring you so?

Heterosexual adultery, too, is an abomination (Leviticus 18:20 & 26), but does your stomach churn in revulsion when you think of its physical aspect? Again, I doubt it. Your emotion is more likely akin to what you feel about idol worship or crookedness in business. Your heart is indeed agreeing with God, but the agreement is not based on visceral feeling; it is the agreement of a heart that has been shown by the Holy Spirit how good the kingdom of God is and is therefore grief-stricken at any state of affairs that damages it.

Therefore, as we reflect on the trend in secular society around us to normalise homosexual relationships, we must excise the “gut-reaction” definition of abomination from the debate and use instead a definition that is true to all the contexts in which our God uses the word. I fear that many who oppose change in the Church’s stance regarding same-gender relationships do so because the idea offends their sense of sexual aesthetics, not because “abomination” means the same to them as to God. Abomination, however, is anything that is radically contrary to the coming and presence among us of the beauty and peace and safety of God’s kingdom. Any abomination tears the heart of God because of the damage it does, and if our heart has learned from the Holy Spirit, that is how we will feel about abominations, too, for the exact same reason. Visceral reaction will have nothing to do with it.

Please (!) re-read the previous paragraph carefully and note that I have not said that conservatives are wrong for opposing any change in the Church’s stance; only that many oppose change for the wrong reason. Their error on that point then makes it impossible for them to interact with love and concern with those on the other side of the controversy.

Digression: There are two distinct sets of Hebrew words that have both been translated into English as “abomination. The one that is used in all the scriptures cited so far is to`evah. It is a strong word. As I have argued above, it points to states of affairs that are fundamentally damaging to God’s kingdom. However, there is a second set of words that are weaker in their implication. They are the cognate words shiqquts, shaqats, and sheqets, which I will refer to collectively by the abbreviation sqts. They imply something that is an “abomination” because it is contrary to the rules of the religious cult.

With only one exception, it is words from this latter family that are used in connection with unclean foods. (The exception is Deuteronomy 14:3, where to`evah is used. I believe the exception can be explained and does not undermine the case I am making, but I will not overload this post by including the explanation here). God had the power to command the Hebrews to view certain foods as an sqts abomination, and the Son of God equally had the authority to repeal that command. He could do so because you can eat shellfish without your action launching any kind of attack on the kingdom of God, but Jesus would never have said that it’s no longer an abomination for a shopkeeper to use crooked weights and measures; such behaviour is inherently anti-kingdom.

The Law of Liberty

We learn from the Scriptures that God set up and blessed the pattern of heterosexual relationship between man and woman (Genesis 2). Further, the general doctrine that God is creator of all teaches us that all those erogenous zones that make sex so enjoyable are his design and doing. And passages such as Proverbs 5:19 and the Song of Solomon 4 and 5 show us that God encourages couples to take sensual delight in the beauty of each other’s body. Nevertheless, God lays down laws for such relationships. In God’s design, a marriage is to be between just one man and one woman – “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and if adultery does occur, the act is an abomination.

If we consider these laws in the light of the petition “thy kingdom come,” it is easy to see their function. They enable a man to be sure that the children that his partner bears are indeed his own, motivating him to protect them and provide for them and to protect their mother and provide for her, too, while she is less able to fend for herself because of pregnancy and child-rearing. It keeps all three parties – husband, wife and child – surrounded by kingdom-like sanctuary. Because this is a fallen, imperfect world, God tolerates some exceptions to the core pattern – for example, divorce and polygamy – but adultery is always, ever “abomination.” Divorce and polygamy are undesirable but can be permitted, but adultery mounts such a savage attack on the sanctuary and also on marriage as a type of Christ’s relationship to the Church, that God permits no exception.

The same kind of analysis can be made in respect of all the other commandments of the Decalogue. Idolatry, murder, theft and false witness are all destructive of the kingdom, and all are abominations.

“These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”   (Proverbs 6:16-19)

The apostle James speaks of God’s Word as “the law of liberty”. His laws – whether written in ink in the Bible or written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit – liberate us and those around us into the blessed estate of His kingdom. Every abomination is a would-be destroyer of that liberty, our own and others’. I believe that if our discussion uses this kind of definition of “abomination”, there will be at least an outside chance that the parties will meaningfully hear each other.

The Bible Is More Than a ‘Mystery’

Andrew Wilson’s review in Christianity Today of Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, endorses seven important hermeneutic points that Enns makes:

“The Bible is, and functions like, an ancient book (chapter 1). God lets his children tell the story, and what they mean isn’t always what we assume it means (chapter 2). The Old Testament narrates different stories in different ways, with specific circumstances in mind (chapter 3), and it offers different perspectives on all sorts of things, including the nature of God (chapter 4). Jesus didn’t read his Bible in the same way we often do (chapter 5). Paul read the whole Bible afresh, in light of Jesus (chapter 6). And we need to let the Bible be the Bible, rather than what we want it to be (chapter 7).”

Wilson comments that evangelicals have often missed these points. My own view is that the best conservative scholars already incorporate these insights into their hermeneutic, but at the more journeyman level, yes, indeed – much Bible study is done and many doctrinal opinions are dogmatically formed in ignorance of those seven factors.

I even more emphatically agree with other points that Wilson goes on to make, however, in the penultimate paragraph of his review:

“…it is never clear what it actually means for the Bible to be the Word of God. How might the Scriptures call us to repent, to die to ourselves, to change, or to do anything other than listen to a spiritual conversation? …. There is no account of how doctrine should be formed, no discussion of what biblical authority really looks like, no real engagement with the teachings of the church (which has often read the Bible rather differently…), and no examples of biblical ethics beyond what The New York Times would freely endorse.”

Wilson is critiquing Enns, specifically. As I have not yet read Enns’ book, I cannot affirm those criticisms of him personally, hence some of the ellipses in the above quote. However, that kind of criticism is part of what I had in mind when I wrote as follows in a response to someone who made a comment on my Motion 30 Playing Field: post

“…it seems to me that they [Christians who have a “progressive” attitude toward the Word of God but aspire to be true  to the historic Christian faith] apply a different meta-hermeneutic to the question of how the word should be discerned and applied in each succeeding generation of the Church. I don’t think they have succeeded in enunciating their meta-hermeneutic clearly enough for anyone but themselves to understand it, but nor do I think they are operating from deliberately humanistic presuppositions.”

It seems to me that there needs to be a wider understanding among evangelical Bible students of the seven points that Wilson endorses in Enns, but the progressive camp also desperately needs to listen to input from conservatives, to prevent flights of fancy replacing the hearing of the Word of God.

I therefore ask again the question that closed my Motion 30 post. Assuming that a two-integrities solution is found and staves off schism, “The great ecumenical councils of the early Church – Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon – defended the faith against errors that in various ways would have silenced God and/or stripped Christ of his eternity. The Church Fathers assumed and used the Word of God in their deliberations, but they did not give us a creed or a synodical letter that summarises what they believed the orthodox doctrine of the Word should be. Can the ACANZP work now to produce a unified statement regarding the word of God – a statement that is scrupulously careful not to destroy the ramparts that those early councils raised, and that will allow us to hear the Word of God together once again?”