In the second COVID-19 volume from the Stimulus journal, there’s another interesting article on Job and reception history. Nicholas List (postgrad student at Otago and intern at Grace Bible Church in Dunedin) dives into early church writers’ extracanonical interpretations of the book of Job for some insights on how to grapple with suffering in our present moment. I appreciated Nick’s point that reception history is an intimately pastoral endeavour. The “Job the wrestler” that early Christians pondered on is fascinating too. The more I think about all the back-and-forth between Job and his friends, the more it sounds like a couple of wrestlers duking it out in the ring! Some snippets below.
On Job the wrestler:
“Viewed in a different light, there is a sense in which Job’s athletic endurance can be seen as the struggle against the temptation to curse God in the face of tragedy.”
Should we approach our suffering in martial terms? According to early church writers,
“To see Job’s rent garments as both an expression of grief and preparation for combat is one way to faithfully negotiate the tensions of blessing the good Creator while living within a fallen creation.”
Reflecting on early writers’ embellishments on Job hoping for a resurrection:
COVID-19 has no regard for the gods of our society. Like Elihu in the Testament of Job, we may be tempted to mourn for the faded glory of these earthly thrones. Yet the early church reminds us that Job’s hope did not rest in the re-establishment of earthly thrones, but the inauguration of a heavenly one. Job’s hope in the resurrection reminds us that the true God has called us in Christ out of destruction to re-creation.
And an encouragement to look back to look forward:
“By reflecting on the pastoral applications and innovations of Job in the early church, we are better placed to reread scripture ourselves, continuing the deeply biblical practice of meeting the pressing issues of the present with insight from the past.”
I do wonder why these early church writers felt the need to play down the raw honesty of Job’s protests and to reimagine him as God’s defender against Satan (he’s plainly lamenting and protesting to God in the Hebrew text). Nick suggests it’s because these writers wanted to “mitigate the role of divine agency in probation” (i.e. let God off the hook for causing caused Job’s suffering). Job is not easy reading, and our tendency is to want to water it down or skip over it.
1 Is there not hard service for humanity on earth? And [are] their days like a hired one? 2 Like a slave longing for shadow [of nightfall], like a hired hand waits for his wages. 3 Thus I have been made to inherit months of emptiness, and nights of misery are appointed to me. 4 If I lie down and say: “when will I arise?” yet the night stretches on. And I am full of tossing until dawn. 5 My flesh is clothed of worms and lumps of dirt, my skin hardens then flows [from my sores] 6 My days are cursed/as light as a [weaver’s] shuttle, and finish without hope/thread. 7 Remember that my life is like a breath, my eye will not return to see good. 8 It will behold me no more – the eye that sees me, Your eyes [are] upon me, but I [will] no longer be.
Job continues to lament his sufferings. He compares his life to days of slave labour (vv1-2), and nights full of misery (v3-4).
We’re reminded of what Yahweh afflicted Job with in verse 5 – he is clothed with sores that attract worms, dirt, that harden and then break out with pus (see Job 2:7).
There’s some achingly beautiful Hebrew wordplay in verse 6. Job could be saying that his days are “as fleeting as a weaver’s shuttle, and ends for lack of thread” (here’s a video of it zipping along). Or it could read that Job’s days are “as cursed as a shuttle, and ends for lack of hope”. The verb root for to be fleeting and to be cursed is the same (both קלל / qll pointed differently), and the noun תִּקְוָה means “cord, thread, end, hope. What does suffering feel like to Job? Like being caught in the warp and weft of a tapestry of sorrow, shuttling back and forth in vain, hoping for the thread to end.
9 As a cloud breaks up and disappears [lit: completes and goes], thus the one who goes down to Sheol does not come up. 10 He no longer returns to his house, and his place does not recognise him. 11 Furthermore, I myself will not refrain my mouth, I will (or, Let me) speak in anguish of my spirit. I will (or, Let me) lament in the bitterness of my soul. 12 Am I the sea, or a sea monster, that you (sg) set a guard over me? 13 For I say, “my bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint.” 14 Then you dismay me with dreams, and from visions you terrify me. 15 So my soul would choose strangling; death from my bones. 16 I reject [my life], I would not live forever, Refrain from me, for my days are “hevel”.
Job closes his reply to Eliphaz by insisting he be allowed to keep anguishing and lamenting (v11) – it could also be translated “Let me speak… let me lament.”
Job accuses Eliphaz of treating him like a sea monster to be guarded and caged (v12). Ironically, when God finally replies in the closing chapters he will parade monsters before Job to remind him that He rules over creation.
Remember Eliphaz’s righteous-sounding vision in chapter 4? They’re scary and terrifying to Job. Don’t pull that out again, please.
Job basically says in verse 16: “Leave me alone, Eliphaz”, because his days are hevel. I leave it untranslated because it’s the same slippery word the Teacher uses in Ecclesiastes 1:2, and should bring to mind all the various translation possibilities. Are Job’s days now meaningless? Vapour? Vanity? Fleeting? Bubbles? Suffering has a way of making us question the purpose of life, doesn’t it?
17 What is man, that you grow him, and that you set upon him your heart, 18 and visit him [in] mornings, in moments test him? 19 How long will you not gaze [away] from me, [or] leave me alone to swallow my spit? 20 [Say] I have sinned; what would I do to you, watcher of humankind? Why have you set your mark on me? [Why am] I a burden to [you]? 21 And why do you not pardon my transgression, or pass over my iniquity? For now on the earth I will lie down; You will seek me, but I will not be.
There’s echoes of Psalm 8 in the “What is man” questions that close chapter 7. From the description of what the 2nd person does (grows him, sets his heart upon him, watches humankind), I think Job is now addressing Yahweh.
Here is Job’s first halting attempts at questioning God. We will see this grow and expand in his later speeches as he gets bolder and starts to litigate God and appeal for His justice. But for now, Job asks a couple of dark questions, then resigns himself to lying in the ground again.
Verse 21 ends in a similar way to verse 8. Want to know what suffering feels like? It feels like people / God looking for you, but you’re not there.
I decided to respond a bit differently today. Here’s a prayer of lament:
Life seems so hard now in lockdown. The days come and go come and go come and go and I can’t see the end. I’m waiting for the thread to finish. How long Lord?
And life outside my bubble seems bleak, full of fears and anxiety and hopelessness. How long will You let all this pain and sorrow continue? When will You fix all this brokenness?
And people are dying Lord. Thousands and thousands, finishing their days without hope. Their life’s thread cut off by coronavirus, by cancer, by suicide. Please have mercy on them. And on the unreached. And on my family. And my friends. More thread. Please.
As brother Jesus lamented in the Garden of Gethsemane As He felt forsaken and crushed to pardon our sins Father help me lament with my Saviour. Give me fresh eyes to see how Christ is the scarlet thread of hope I can follow in my failures trust in my trials and come and go to.
Father, Pass over my sins let me rest in peace. Amen.”
Using Day 3 of our nationwide lockdown to lock down some rusty Hebrew. A rough translation and thoughts on the way. Some of it will be familiar to friends who have journeyed through Kirk Patston’s classes.
1:13-15 Now there was a day, When his sons and daughters [were] eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house.
And a messenger came to Job, and said:
“The oxen were plowing, and the donkeys were feeding beside them… and Sabeans fell [upon them] and took the servants they struck them by the edge of the sword. And I have escaped — only I, alone — to tell you.”
This section starts the same as verse 6: “Now there was a day…” – the camera’s shifted back from heaven to earth.
The Sabeans literally “fell” – in the same way fire from God will fall from heaven in v16. The narrator emphasises that each , as horrifying as it is, was heaven-sent as previously decreed.
The Hebrew captures stammering speech: “I’ve been delivered… I alone… only me…” – and highlights the severity of the calamity
1:16 [While] this one [was still] speaking, [another] came and said:
“Fire of God fell from the heavens, and it burned the flock and the servants and consumed them. And I escaped — only I, alone — to tell you.”
1:17 While this one was still speaking, another came and said:
“Chaldeans appointed three captains (lit. heads) and they fell upon the camels and took them and the servants they struck with the edge of the sword, and I escaped, only I, alone to tell you.”
The key word in the Hebrew that connects all the calamities is niphal (נפל), “it fell”. They were not just chance accidents, but they fell from heaven. It’s a difficult truth.
The narrator saves the worst news for last…
1:18-19 While this one was still speaking, another came and said:
“Your sons and daughters [were] eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house and it fell upon the servants [actually, Job’s children]. and they died.
And I escaped, only I, alone to tell you.“
“And they died.” The servant can’t bear to say what Job dreads: his ten treasured children have died.
1:20 Then Job arose. And he tore his robes and shaved his head.
And he fell to the earth, and worshipped.
And he said: “Naked I departed from my mother’s womb, And naked will I return there. Yahweh gave and Yahweh took; May Yahweh name be ‘blessed’.”
1:22 In all this, Job did not sin. And he did not give offence to God.
His actions are impeccable – he falls to the ground, he worships.
Yet his own speech verse 21 is ambiguous. Remember how barakh could mean “blessed” or “farewelled”, and how it’s been used as a euphemism for “cursing” God (see previous discussion).
Perhaps that’s why the narrator has to emphasise that Job does not sin or do wrong (v22).
My own reflections:
Suffering often occurs in a relentless cluster. Job barely has time to catch his breath before the next messenger announces disaster. Many of us in NZ have shared this feeling this week – Alert Level 2 introduced on Saturday, Level 3 on Monday, a Level 4 nationwide lockdown by Wednesday night. That’s what it’s feeling like for healthcare workers on the frontline – the next patient arrives, then the next one, then the next one.
We talk about blessings falling from heaven, but how comfortable am I with believing that our sufferings also fall, fall, fall, fall from heaven?
How will I respond when everything is taken away from me – work, study opportunities, freedom to move around? Job falls to the ground and gives a faithful answer (that’s enshrined in Matt Redman’s song) we can follow – “Blessed be the name of the Lord”. Yet the ambiguity of barakh raises the possibility that those who suffer will not always stoically “bless” God. When troubles fall upon me, will I “farewell”, even curse God? Which route will Job take in the chapters to come? That’s the riddle of suffering.
These are unprecedented times for families and churches – none of us have never experienced anything like the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in living memory.
Yet at the close of World War I, as armistice celebrations took place throughout New Zealand, a deadly virus was also on the loose. The 1918 influenza epidemic (dubbed the “Spanish flu”, though its origin is still debated) infected 500 million people worldwide, killed millions, and took 9000 Kiwi lives between October and December that year.
“The arrival of the great epidemic coincided roughly with the arrival of Peace. The cup of rejoicing was dashed rudely from our lips. Auckland was silenced quite by the great fear. Christchurch rejoiced with circumspection, for the evil was not yet in full blast. The other towns managed rather better. But everywhere for the nonce [meanwhile] theatres and churches, and other places where men most do congregate, are shut by authority. A gloom lies on the land, such as has never before been known. Some of us have been reading De Foe’s “Journal of the Plague Year” for a parallel. The death roll was heavy, and includes many well-known people …
Unexampled efforts to meet the need have been made. The organisation of relief in our cities has been wonderful. There can be no doubt that the disease had its origin in the shambles of Europe. Sanitation saved us from the Black Death. It could not save us wholly. Wireless makes the world one by its magic. But there is a magic in Nature that can race man’s crafts. “Like warp, and woof all destinies are woven fast.” …
…The great thing for Christian people is the peaceful heart. There is no better specific. The 91st Psalm talks of the absolute immunity of men who dwell under God’s shadow. The New Testament does not encourage us to expect to escape the human lot. Let us, as followers of Him who evaded nothing, minister fearlessly and gladly for His sake.
– “The Influenza”, NZ Baptist (December 1918), 179.
News from Baptist churches: November 1918
AUCKLAND TABERNACLE: “…As the influenza epidemic has just set in, the congregation was below the average. Since that time we have been holding brief Sunday morning services only; no evening services, and no meetings during the week. The city has been linked up in a great fellowship of suffering. The Pastor has given his whole time for close on three weeks to visiting, and assisting those in need and bereavement, and a large number of volunteer helpers from the Tabernacle have been working under his direction. The Church and Sunday School officers offered the local authorities the School Hall for use as a temporary hospital, if required.”
EPSOM: “…At present all Church work is at a standstill, owing to the epidemic of influenza which prevails, and the S.S. anniversary, which was to be held on November 10th. is postponed indefinitely.”
MT EDEN: “… In compliance with the request of the Public Health Officer, only morning services (conducted by Mr. F. Cade), have been held in the church the last two Sunday mornings.”
NEW PLYMOUTH: “…We have not escaped the influenza epidemic, so on Sunday, November 17th, we held the morning service in the grounds adjoining the Church.”
GONVILLE: “We have held no services or meetings recently on account of the prevailing epidemic… We pray for God’s healing hand on the community, and for His comforting Spirit to those who have suffered the loss of loved ones.”
PETONE: “…For the first time in our Church history no Sunday services were held on November 16th, owing to the serious influenza epidemic. A united service was held in the Recreation Grounds, when the Presbyterian and the Methodist ministers conducted the service.”
RICHMOND: “…Owing to the influenza epidemic, all Church services are being held in the open-air.”
NELSON: “For three Sundays in November the services were held in the grounds opposite the church, the weather, fortunately. being fine and mild, so that the attendance was not interfered with. It was noticed that several passers-by stood and listened, so it has been decided to hold a short open-air meeting prior to the service each Sunday evening, in the hope that some people may thereby be induced to come into the church.”
OXFORD: “During the epidemic we held open-air services in the Church ground, and missed no service. The attendance was very encouraging …” “On November 13th, in common with the other Churches in the district, we held a special Thanksgiving service in the Church [for the end of the war], when in spite of the influenza there was a capital congregation. The service throughout was most hearty, and hymns suitable for the occasion were sung. At the close a collection was taken up in aid of the Armenian Relief Fund.”
SPREYDON: “We have just celebrated the fifty-second anniversary of our Church, with a happy and successful series of gatherings… The severe epidemic that is passing through the country is interfering with all our meetings. We held one service last Sun- day, in the morning, on the lawn.”
GREENDALE: “Unfortunately, influenza had many of us in its grip, while still others were only in the convalescent stage, so that the congregations suffered severely, as regards numbers… We are glad to report that Mr. C. Adams, our Sunday School Superintendent, who has been seriously ill with the prevailing malady, with complications, is making satisfactory progress.”
ASHBURTON: “Services were not held on the last two Sundays in November, or during the weeks, owing to the influenza epidemic, which has taken rather severe toll in our town and district.”
GORE: “All gatherings of Church find Sunday School have for the present been suspended, at the request of the health authorities.”
– “News of the Churches”, NZ Baptist Vol. 35 (Dec 1918), 189-92; NZ Baptist Vol. 36 (Jan 1918), 15.
News from Baptist churches: December 1918 – January 1919
AUCKLAND TABERNACLE: “We were glad to resume our Sunday evening services after the interdict resulting from the epidemic. November was a strange, sad month. We are glad to say that the health of the city is now good, and most of our members and workers are back in their old places. A number of our Tabernacle people gave splendid help as voluntary workers, and one of our Wednesday evening services was given up to a Conference with a view to ascertaining how to continue our ministry to the poor, the sick and the needy of the neighbourhood, so many of whom had been visited during the past weeks. Mr. Kempton [the Pastor] spoke on Sunday morning, December 15th, on “The Church’s New Opportunity”, and the practical points he brought forward will be followed up by the officers [ministry leaders]…”
NEW PLYMOUTH: “In common with all Churches in the Dominion we closed our building during the epidemic. On two of the Sunday mornings we held a service in the grounds adjoining the church, and had real spiritual blessings. Amongst those who gathered with us were members from nearly all the Free Churches. Truly it was the time to wait upon God for His help. The Church re-opened for public worship on Sunday, December 8th […] On Sunday, December 15th, our Pastor was sufficiently recovered to occupy the place where we love to see him […] All our Church organisations are again in full swing, and we trust there will be no more epidemics to stop their activity.”
WANGANUI: “On account of the influenza epidemic, our Church and Sunday School services were suspended for several weeks, open-air services being held on Sunday mornings. Many of our people were laid aside for a time by the sickness, but we are pleased to report that all have recovered. During the epidemic our Pastor laboured untiringly among the sick folk of our town. Our Church services were resumed on December 8th, and it was, indeed, with hearts full of gratitude to God that we again attended His house. Our pastor’s message at the re-opening service was based on the words of the Psalmist, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”
PALMERSTON NORTH: “Sorrow and rejoicing seem to go hand in hand in these strange times. We rejoice that thus far, although we have had much sickness with the influenza epidemic, most of our friends are quite well again. This is indeed worthy of thanksgiving. Our sympathies, however, are with Mrs. J. W. Stedman in the death of her husband…”
VIVIAN ST: “Owing to the influenza epidemic and the restrictions of the Health Department, our Church work has been practically at a standstill during the past month. We have cause for great gratitude to God in that while many of our members have been ill, the lives of all have been spared.”
BROOKLYN – “During the influenza epidemic, a strong local committee was formed, and the suburb divided into four districts, with one of the local clergymen in charge of each. All the Churches are proud of the way their ministers and members united with each other and with men and women of no religious professions, and worked for the common good.Mr. Rollings and his brother ministers visited all day, and far into the night. Mrs. Rollings, when the shortage of doctors was acute, rose from a sick bed, and devoted her medical knowledge and nursing skill to the alleviation of suffering and the saving of life, working with great success until she too fell a victim to the epidemic. (We are pleased to say she is making a good recovery.)”
SYDENHAM: “After having our church closed for three weeks on account of the epidemic, we were very glad to meet again for service on December 8th.”
[HANOVER STREET, DUNEDIN]: “For the past six weeks the most anxious and harried man in the Dominion has been the Rev. R. S. Gray. […] While the “flue” was ravaging in Dunedin, and his church [was] turned into a hospital…”
“News of the Churches”, NZ Baptist Vol. 36 (Jan 1918), 14-15; “A Diplomat”, NZ Baptist Vol. 36 (Jan 1919), 1.
A Place at His Table: A Biblical Exploration of Faith, Sexuality, and the Kingdom of God.
By Joel Hollier.
Genre: Christian living / Social Issues
Size: 232 pages, but didn’t feel dense.
What’s the big idea: A same-sex attracted pastor and fellow bible college graduate, having imbibed in the new wave of academic literature arguing that the Bible does not condemn “faithful, covenanted lesbian and gay relationships”, re-presents their arguments and calls for others to join the increasingly vocal movement of “affirming Christians” across the Western world.
Who I’d recommend it to: Joel addresses people and questions that are very important, and Christian leaders ought to take note of the arguments presented as they filter into church and denominational life. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend his book as a faithful exploration of the Bible’s teaching on faith, sexuality and the kingdom of God (though there are good alternatives – see below for suggestions).
Detailed thoughts: These days, the “I changed my mind” story seems to capture society’s attention, and within Christian circles it’s no different. Whether it’s Josh Harris, Rob Bell or someone else, in our social media-saturated world it’s become common in the Christian scene for a public figure to announce their change in direction before supporters and detractors alike.
Joel Hollier is no celebrity, but he is a mutual friend and fellow Bible College alumni (in Chinese parlance, my 學長). While I don’t yet know Joel personally, I read his book with a common interest and experience in sharing the hope of the risen Jesus with same-sex attracted friends and family – not as objects of scorn, but people to be loved. While space limits a detailed review that his volume deserves (though I trust other more gifted thinkers will share these in due course), I hope the following summary and thoughts serve as a helpful and civil first attempt.
“A Place At His Table” is divided into three uneven sections. Part 1 — largely autobiographical — recounts across four chapters Joel’s journey of growing up as same-sex attracted within the Sydney evangelical church scene. Already, Joel’s prose is warm, engaging, lucid and personal. It was heartwarming to hear of his parents and their gospel-shaped witness, and of studying theology in a space “surrounded by men and women who sharpened me and carried me” – a shared experience. It was heartbreaking to discover that it was during his time at college that he began to question and revisit his theological conclusions about the Bible’s teaching on sexuality – sex as God’s gift to be enjoyed in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. (As an aside, when sexual ethics appears once in class, and Romans 1 gets just an one hour of translation and exegesis time, perhaps we’ve missed the mark).
Part 2 (the bulk of the book) devotes a chapter to each of the six biblical passages usually brought to bear on the issue of same-sex relationships (Genesis 1-2, 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:18-32). I’ll try to explain and comment on each chapter individually with the caveat that there’s much more to say that I can’t for space and time.
Chapter 5 seems dull but is actually the most important chapter of the book as Joel explains his hermeneutic (method of working out what Scripture means). He wants readers to move past “what it says in ink to what it means in my life”, citing commands like Levirate marriage, greeting each other with a kiss and as examples that we already don’t apply all Biblical texts at face value. What Joel (and the authors he rephrases) propose readers do with the passages that plainly proscribe (forbid) certain sexual behaviours is to search for context (e.g. other erotic Ancient writings) that will narrow their applicability for today in place of an underlying “moral principle”. My main objection to utilising the hermeneutic Joel lays out is that by asking readers to make a bee line to an abstracted “moral principle” each time, we risk reducing the moral force of the Bible further than the author intended. While Joel rightly illustrates that some laws require cross-cultural application (e.g. the Levirate marriage system as care for widows), there are nevertheless plenty of biblical laws that communicate, in and of themselves, enduring and transcultural moral principles (the Ten Commandments as a case in point). Readers are also meant to assume the biblical authors have used words and phrases in line with other Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature.
In Chapter 6, Joel argues that Genesis 1-2’s account of Adam and Eve, rather than establishing a normative mandate for monogamous, heterosexual marriage, presents the first “kinship” union, and “there is no indication that subsequent kinship unions must align with their heterosexual nature”. Others (e.g. Todd Wilson, Preston Sprinkle) have critiqued the Genesis 1-2 kinship argument so I won’t rehash them here. But missing from the discussion was whether being “male and female in the image of God” includes our biological differences. The Christian worldview maintains that embedded in each person’s anatomy and personality is a biological complementarity with the opposite sex. If “kinship” is the definitive prerequisite of a one-flesh union, does it not open the door for any relationship that one subjectively feels is deep kinship to be included (e.g. mother and child, three people)? Unlike Joel, I’m still convinced that Genesis 1-2 offers a normative framework of a male-female exclusive relationship (as I believe others like Jesus and Paul do when they cite this passage in the context of husbands and wives – not kin in general).
In Chapter 7, Joel recounts the Genesis 19 narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here I’m with Joel that people are too quick to wield this narrative as a fiery condemnation of homosexual practice. When read with other OT narratives (e.g. Genesis 6:1-4, Judges 19-20), the sexual immorality illustrates the extent of Sodom and Gomorrah’s evil, which is also evidenced by their lack of hospitality for the sojourner, wanton violence and general wickedness (which the rest of the Bible and other early church Fathers delve into). The hermeneutical step Joel then takes though is to only focus on the “driving moral principle” of God taking seriously the treatment of the marginalised. While it’s a biblical principle Christians must do much better with, I’m not convinced that it’s therefore the only sin God has in view when the city is punished. Also, Joel’s argument here (and subsequently) that only non-consensual sexual assault is condemned here and not “loving, monogamous self-giving relationships” is ultimately one from silence (akin to replying to a recipe stating “don’t add sugar” with “but it didn’t say sweetener, did it?”).
Chapter 8 features Joel’s turn at being Old Testament lecturer, as he wrestles with Leviticus 18 and 20 and the surrounding context. His main argument is that where the text reads “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman”, we should read it either as a time-bound cultural worship practice, or patriarchal power-shame act. Again, Joel assumes the biblical author’s choice of case law is motivated by the exploitative practices of surrounding nations, when the text itself says no such thing. He appeals to context to soften the force and severity of what “abomination” means, then brings in a critique against the threefold use of the Law to conclude that “it is a stretch to apply the Levitical laws (Lev 18:22, 20:13) to faithful, mutually-giving, same-sex, monogamous relationships”. Ironically, while correctly summarising Leviticus’s timeless cross-cultural message that Yahweh is a protective, jealous God deeply concerned with the holiness of His people and their distinctiveness from the nations, Joel nevertheless wants readers to capitulate to our culture’s obsession of ascribing one’s personhood and worth to what our sexual desires and practices dictate. While well-intentioned, Joel is ultimately asking us to believe that we should we free to live according to our sexual desires. That, too, is idolatry.
Enter Chapters 9 and 10, and Joel tackles the appearance of same-sex prohibitions in the Apostle Paul’s writings: namely, the vice lists of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, and the opening chapter of Romans. Largely Joel appeals from extra-biblical literature to assert that malakos and arsenokoitai denote abusive sexual activity linked to temple prostitution, and argues that the “unnatural” (para physin) in Romans 1 refers to exploitative practices. Again, he asserts all these terms exclude those in monogamous relationships. There is a fair amount of conjecture that Paul could not have known of a consensual gay relationship (despite Romans 1:27 clearly stating that they burned with passion “for one another” (mutuality and consent implied there!) My objection is that ultimately, Joel’s argument seems to be that first-century Greco-Roman society had no concept of same-sex monogamous marriage; therefore, it’s not forbidden. But there remains no example of God blessing any same-sex practice, whether within Paul’s cultural milieu or ours. Rather, a plain reading of the New Testament sees all Christians — myself included — as sexual sinners, called to submit to God’s good design for each of His image-bearers: fidelity in marriage, celibacy in singleness, for His glory and our joy.
Chapter 12 is largely an apologetic for Joel (and others’) reframing and reinterpretations of Scripture. He argues that homosexuality falls in the same category as slavery and women’s rights. Others (e.g. Keller) have critiqued this kind of attempt at re-categorising same sex relations, but it betrays the assumption that permitting same-sex marriage has become a justice issue. I can understand a secularist to hold this view: I’m saddened that it’s a view increasingly promoted within Christian circles, and betrays our uncritical acceptance of the late-modern narrative that our identity is fundamentally ours to decide and shape (the “this is me” doctrine). At one point, Joel even commits reductio ad Hitlerum and infers that Christians holding a traditional sexual ethic is akin to the Nazis’ (mis)use of Scripture to justify the Holocaust, because both “breed death and perpetuates division”. For pastors and friends who have sympathised and struggled alongside LGBT friends for years, this kind of fallacious rhetoric is unhelpful and deeply concerning.
Part 3 closes with three chapters (13-15) where Joel the activist calls readers to action and walks through next steps. He wants Christians to accept and adopt the “affirming” view of same-sex relationships, to advocate for this position in their churches, and to join the “movement” for change – even including sample letters to parents, pastors, allies etc.
Some other observations I had while reading Joel’s book:
More than once, Joel relegated what I thought were strong counter-arguments to footnotes with summary-form dismissals. In a listicle age, this kind of special pleading can be a dangerous habit, and I’d have preferred all sides be given equal air time / font size.
I was surprised that there was just one mention of interaction with key Greek and Hebrew dictionaries (BDAG, HALOT) – perhaps too nerdy, but perhaps they’re not as conclusive as Joel would like?
This is a book that Christian leaders should expect those they care for will come across at some point. It’s particularly persuasive given that Joel uses the same language and jargon as conservative evangelicals, and cites broadly (Carson et al. all get a mention, though rarely about the arguments directly).
In an age of mea culpas, perhaps it’s too much to hope for a change of change of mind from Joel (though that’s my sincere prayer). Yet perhaps an appeal for a change of heart towards biblical faithfulness is best expressed by Joel himself – as captured in his own words from an earlier piece (which I quote at length):
“…The call for a broader theology of sexuality and celibacy is vital for both the demythologizing and de-idolizing of marriage, and likewise for the reassertion of singleness as a divinely endorsed life. Within this, a strong stance against the sexual essentialism of the modern West must hold forth the distinction of sexuality and personhood, affirming the fundamental identity of the Christian as united with Christ.
With this theology as a firm grounding, the pastor must be prepared to engage with those struggling with same sex attraction from an informed understanding of the presence of loss and its subsequent grieving process. It is only once these are seen in conjunction with the young adult’s identity dissonance that rounded care can be given. And finally, in line with the Biblical understanding of God’s people as both the body of Christ and as a spiritual family, the church must be prepared to engage in intimate friendships with same-sex-attracted young people in new and creative ways.”
Joel Hollier, Will You Walk With Me? MDiv Thesis 2017, 30-31.