As expected, several have responded to Hamilton's little article by pointing out the differences between slavery and homosexuality in the Bible. Rob Renfroe and Thomas Lambrecht, in an article for Good News Magazine, helpfully summarize how many see the difference:
The Bible’s teaching on slavery contains within it the seeds of slavery’s demise. The Old Testament regulations of slavery made the institution more humane than the ways it was practiced in surrounding cultures. In the New Testament, Paul encourages slaves who have the opportunity to become free to take that opportunity (I Corinthians 7:21). Paul also subtly encourages Philemon to free his newly-converted slave Onesimus (Philemon 15-16). Most importantly, the New Testament asserts that in Christ all are equal—there is no slave or free (Galatians 3:28). Paul reminds masters that they are subject to a Master in heaven, who will not regard them more favorably than their slaves (Ephesians 6:8-9). The reason for the apostles’ advice that slaves should serve their masters “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” is to maintain a winsome Christian witness—“so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10, also I Timothy 6:1-2).All these qualifications and tempering of the Christian view of slavery show it to be culturally conditioned, and these qualifications eventually led to the ethical conclusion that slavery is immoral, not in keeping with the timeless will of God. There are no such qualifications or softening of biblical teaching regarding same-sex intimacy. Therefore, it is far less likely that such teaching is culturally conditioned.To summarize the conservative response: With slavery, within the Bible there are many resources for critiquing the institution of slavery. Even though there are commandments that regulate it, there are also deep principles and themes would serve to ultimately undermine the very institution itself. With homosexuality, there are several specific negative commandments in the Bible and nothing that can be found to explicitly critique the heterosexual norm and support any kind of homosexual relationships.
I think this much should be granted and conceded by everyone: It is much easier to critique slavery with the Bible in hand than it is to critique heterosexism with the Bible in hand. Again, the Bible contains many passages that explicitly soften or qualify the institution of slavery, and many passages that implicitly critique the institution as a whole, but when it comes to homosexuality, passages such as these are not to be found.
Some on the progressive side have tried to argue that the Bible does contain some positive endorsements of same-sex relationships. I must say that I do not find the supposed examples of same-sex relationships in the Bible very convincing. I think the suggestion that Ruth and Naomi had a lesbian relationship is absurd, and while I think it is possible that David and Jonathan perhaps had some type of homoerotic relationship, I don't think it really helps the progressive case even if that were true. Just because the Bible reports something doesn't mean it endorses it.
The problem, as I see it, by pointing out that slavery is not analogous to homosexuality because the Bible contains contains a mixed bag when it comes to the former but speaks unanimously against the latter, is that this response assumes that the ongoing revelation of God's truth (or, perhaps more accurately, the ongoing human understanding of the revelation of God's truth) ended once the Bible as we know it was finally and fully formed.
The problem with this is that this isn't how reforms actually happened within the Bible itself. We need to remember that the construction of the Bible took many centuries, and that it was an evolving collection of documents throughout the life of faith for ancient Israel and for the early Christian church. While there is considerable historical debate about the specifics, scholars agree that what we Christians call the "Old Testament" went through a three stage process of a Bible that included first the Torah around 500 B.C. (first 5 books), then the Prophets were added around 200 B.C., and then the Writings became part of the Bible about 100 A.D.
With this in mind, we should take note of the fact that the Bible itself witnesses to reformations of thought that had no precedent in its previously written scriptural literature. So, for example, in the first collection of documents to be considered "scripture" by ancient Jews (the Torah), we are told that the sexually marginalized and socially stigmatized eunuchs are forbidden in the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23:1).
Then, a few hundred years later, the prophet Isaiah attains scriptural status, and he says that eunuchs have a future in God's family after all (Isaiah 56:3-5). Isaiah had to go directly against previous biblical understandings of God's view of eunuchs in order to affirm what he understood God to be revealing to him about the place of eunuchs in God's family.
Remember, at one point when just the Torah was scripture, there was nothing at all in "the Bible" to suggest any qualifications or softening of the biblical teaching about the status of eunuchs, but Isaiah was bold enough to say that the author of Deuteronomy did not have a full and final understanding of God's view of eunuchs. Isaiah made a declaration that went against what the accepted Scriptures said (because, remember, when Isaiah was preaching, he wasn't yet part of the Bible).
So, the Scriptures we have now reveal to us the fact that the people of God can receive fresh understandings of divine truth that go against previous scriptural declarations. When the Bible's formation is understood in its historical context, it becomes clear that critiquing and questioning the Bible is actually a very biblical thing to do. I can imagine conservative folks in Isaiah's day objecting to his proposal by pointing to their Scriptures at that time (the Torah) and saying, "There are no qualifications. There is nothing to suggest that we should soften this restriction. The Bible is clear that these men are not acceptable to the Lord." They would have been right in saying this. It is just that Isaiah would then assert, "I know what Deuteronomy says, but this is what I am convinced the Lord now wants to say to his people!"
When conservatives on this issue approach the Bible, they argue that there is nothing there that explicitly critiques the heterosexual norm. This is true, but not the end of the argument. Liberals on this issue can then point out that from within the Bible itself we have several strands (the eunuch example being just one of them) that witness to transformations of thought without prior biblical legitimation. The way revolutions of thought happen within the Bible is through people who claim a deeper and fresher understanding of God's will that breaks with prior biblical tradition.
Interestingly, the biblical tradition moves forward by people who are willing to challenge prior biblical traditions.
It isn't that conservatives value the Bible and liberals do not. Conservatives and liberals differ on the best way to be faithful to the Bible.
Conservatives tend to be more inclined to think that being rooted in the Bible means agreeing with all of its conclusions.
Liberals tend to be more inclined to think that being rooted in the Bible means entering into and advancing the conversation to be found within the pages of the Bible.
Conservatives tend to want to conserve what they see as a divine monologue.
Liberals tend to want to go forward in what they see as a sacred dialogue.
I realize this is an oversimplified characterization, but I think does get at the deepest impulse of both groups, and it points to the deeper issue underneath many of the Christian arguments over same-sex relationships. Conservatives folks can argue forcefully that the Bible contains nothing explicitly to lead us in the direction of accepting same-sex intimacy. Point granted. But it is a whole other question whether God's Spirit can lead God's people beyond the understanding of sexuality as it is expressed by biblical authors.
Once upon a time, God's Spirit led Isaiah beyond Moses's understanding of eunuchs. In a similar way, could God lead us beyond the apostle Paul's understanding of gay people? Many of us think so, while many of us continue to think that Paul got it right. The point is that this debate will never be settled by biblical exegesis alone. Our view will be heavily influenced by the assumptions that we have about the Bible in the first place.
It cannot be stressed enough that it is not so simple as having a "high" view or a "low" view of Scripture. Many would equate the more conservative divine monologue model of Scripture with a "high" view, and the more liberal sacred dialogue model of Scripture as a "low" view. To label them that way, however, prejudges the issue of which one is actually more faithful to what the Bible is.
Herein lies one of the main reasons that the "gay issue" is so divisive: it reveals our divergent understandings of the Bible itself. In this way, the gay debate and the slavery debate are perfectly analogous. The Civil War was a "theological crisis," as religious historian Mark Noll puts it. It revealed very different understandings of how the Scriptures function as our theological authority. Perhaps, then, the most important connecting point between slavery and homosexuality is that both issues compel Christians to think long and hard about how we think the Bible functions as God's Word for us today.