walter wink on homosexuality & the bible (part 3): conclusions

This post is the third part of a series on Walter Wink’s views on homosexuality and the Bible. It is advisable to read Part 1 on the Old Testament and Part 2 on the New Testament before continuing below.

The very notion of a “sex ethic” reflects the materialism and splitness of modern life, in which we increasingly define our identity sexually. Sexuality cannot be separated off from the rest of life. No sex act is “ethical” in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God. What we have are simply sexual mores, which change, sometimes with startling rapidity, creating bewildering dilemmas. Just within one lifetime we have witnessed the shift from the ideal of preserving one’s virginity until marriage, to couples living together for several years before getting married. The response of many Christians is merely to long for the hypocrisies of an earlier era.
– Walter Wink

In this final offering on Walter Wink’s views set out in his article Homosexuality and the Bible, I will attempt to gather up the loose ends that have escaped the net spread out in the previous two posts of this series.

For Wink there is nothing more and nothing less at stake in this debate than the way we read Scripture. His view seems to be that literalistic readings will not do, given that the Bible is culturally bound (it was inspired by God through culturally-bound humans), and that our readings/interpretations are necessarily selective and culturally bound:

The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit.

Wink’s logical conclusion is that because some sexual standards seem to change throughout the history of the Bible, the constant cannot be a law of sexuality, but rather a command to love:

The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.

In this way sex acts cannot be said to be ethical in and of themselves; the ethics of sexuality can only be stated in reference to “the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God.”

This does not mean there should not be standards, says Wink, for they are indeed necessary. Such standards, however, are too often used by those in positions of power to control people rather than to help them flourish as human beings. That is to say that rules and mores are used negatively (what one ought not to do) rather than positively (what is good for one to do).* For this reason we must critique the sexual mores of our cultures against the love ethic exemplified by Jesus, lest such rules be wielded for domination.

Using this uncomplicated ethic Wink implies that a Christian can affirm homosexuality whilst denying non-consented sex acts; any act that is exploitative, dominating, irresponsible, non-mutual or uncaring is necessarily unloving. Such an ethic of love excludes sexual exploitation of children, domination of women, and bestiality. For Wink, Augustine’s phrase sums things up – “Love God, and do as you please.”

Our task is not to create sexual rules (which people do not often follow), but to apply Jesus’ love ethic to a culture’s sexual mores. This means that not everything goes, since all is critiqued by Jesus’ love commandment:

We might address younger teens, not with laws and commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming, and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.

Christian morality is not simply about what we cannot or should not do; it is about expressing the integrity of our relationship to God. It is an attempt to live consistently as those whom God created us to be. This, for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, means in negative terms rejecting any sexual standard or act that violates their own integrity and that of others, and in positive terms seeking to live according to Jesus’ love ethic.

It is when love and not law is the approach that Wink believes things change:

Now the question is not “What is permitted?” but rather “What does it mean to love my homosexual neighbor?” Approached from the point of view of faith rather than works, the question ceases to be “What constitutes a breach of divine law in the sexual realm?” and becomes instead “What constitutes integrity before the God revealed in the cosmic lover, Jesus Christ?” Approached from the point of view of the Spirit rather than the letter, the question ceases to be “What does Scripture command?” and becomes “What is the Word that the Spirit speaks to the churches now, in the light of Scripture, tradition, theology, and, yes, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?” We can’t continue to build ethics on the basis of bad science.

Wink goes on to raise the issue presented in two pieces of Scripture, namely Luke 12:57 and 1 Corinthians 6:3. The verses seem to place the onus onto Christians to judge what is right for themselves. In Paul’s case Wink believes that his desire for Christians to decide ethics for themselves stems from a desire to avoid his ethical advice becoming a new law written on tablets of stone:

[Paul] is himself trying to “judge for himself what is right.” If now new evidence is in on the phenomenon of homosexuality, are we not obligated–no, free–to re-evaluate the whole issue in the light of all the available data and decide what is right, under God, for ourselves? Is this not the radical freedom for obedience in which the gospel establishes us?

150 years ago the Bible seemed to be on the side of slaveholders, sanctioning slavery and nowhere explicitly attacking it as unjust. Did we not overturn such things, thus implying doubt as to whether the Bible was correct on this issue? Wink asks why we do not do the same in regard to homosexuality.

The overturning of slavery was not achieved by combating literalistic readings with other literalistic readings. Instead it was accomplished by way of a much deeper understanding of the meaning of Scripture in which Israel articulates its experience of the Exodus and the prophets, and in which Jesus’ identification with prostitutes, tax collectors, the diseased, disabled, outcast and the poor is the supreme moment of God’s story. This story teaches us that:

…God sides with the powerless. God liberates the oppressed. God suffers with the suffering and groans toward the reconciliation of all things. In the light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospel’s imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.

The Bible thus critiques all forms of domination, a critique that can be turned against the Bible itself thus allowing the Bible to correct its own misreadings. “We are freed from bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. It is restored to its proper place as witness to the Word of God. And that word is a Person, not a book.” Going on he says:

With the interpretive grid provided by a critique of domination, we are able to filter out the sexism, patriarchalism, violence, and homophobia that are very much a part of the Bible, thus liberating it to reveal to us in fresh ways the inbreaking, in our time, of God’s domination-free order.

Wink concludes by acknowledging that his case is probably not air-tight. He is convinced of only three things:

1) The rightness of what he says in his essay (in tension with his own limitations);
2) That many will find weaknesses in his essay, and;
3) That the Bible gives us no unequivocal guidance on the issue of homosexuality.

Wink exhorts Christians to ask themselves how they know they are interpreting the Bible correctly, and to “lower the decibels by 95 percent and quietly present our beliefs, knowing full well that we might be wrong.” Even if we disagree on the issue of homosexuality, we must understand that the debate has not been concluded, and that our primary command is to love one another; this seems to be Wink’s most desperate plea.

Walter Wink offers us a highly challenging perspective on a highly controversial issue. Whatever we believe about homosexuality, Christians must do serious business with the hermeneutical issues that Wink raises. It is not enough to simply say his view of Scripture is wrong (as some have), or that he is unfaithful to the Bible (a foolish claim in light of Wink’s statements about the primacy of the Bible in Christian living).

It is certainly not acceptable to divert the issues raised by writing Wink off in a personal way, as one commenter did on my Facebook page by implying Wink was somehow satanic. Wink’s whole ethic is based around Christ’s command to love and we would do well to listen to this exhortation. Paul’s words ring true – “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

Walter Wink calls us to nothing less than a deep, committed and often painful struggle with the complexities of the Bible, culture and ethics. When we turn the Bible into laws do we not do precisely what Paul exhorted us not to? When we make the Bible the last word on all things do we not try to bereave God his ability to be Sovereign and free? When we stare blindly into the Bible through our culture do we not swindle the Bible of its meaning? When we attend to ethics as rigid mores do we not hijack the freedom we have in Christ for true obedience and flourishing?

Or perhaps more simply, what if we are wrong? This extends both ways, though we cannot come to biblical truth through cheap and lazy exegesis, or stubborn dogmatism.


* Similarly, this is how many Christians view the concept of holiness, though in my view this does not bring out the fullness of the concept.

Posted on July 13, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Culture & Art, Hermeneutics, Sexuality & Gender and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I am probably taking this verse way out of it’s original context and intention, but it does seem appropriate: Titus 3:9 – But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. When all is said and done and the academics have argued and debated all the ins and outs of biblical interpretation and redefined Christian morals according to today’s values, WHAT will change? Will the academics suddenly be filled with God’s Love and begin to convert the masses with the “real” message of God that has remained hidden from the world for millenia? I seriously doubt it. One of the few scriptures that I take literally is ‘ Love the Lord thy God, with all thy might, and all thy strength, and love thy neighbour as you love yourself. If we fail to do this, all else is pointless.

    • You have a point Macca. But I am also aware that for homosexuals this issue is extremely important, and they have been treated horribly by far too many Christians. Perhaps one of the central problems causing this treatment is how people read the Bible – there clearly needs to be discussion about it.

      I agree that love needs to be central. But people are trained to read sections of the Bible in a way that compels them to exclude people. In some way this is not their fault, but the fault of their teachers. This is no mere foolish dispute as mentioned in Titus 3; it is a dispute that makes a real difference to real people. I don’t believe that because we have argued about an issue for so long means we should just stop; perhaps we simply need to think about it differently. On this issue we need to get past the two options that are typically presented – 1) God hates gays, or; 2) Love the sinner, hate the sin. Both are, in my view, toxic.

      We need a third way.


  2. I enjoyed your 3 part series Matt. Its a controversial subject and one that I have written on a few times myself. I would have liked to see more of your own thoughts on this subject as your posting is a little ambiguous as to your own conclusions and methodology for reading the Scriptures.

    • Hi Craig,

      Thanks for your compliment. Indeed, there may be a time later on where I outline my own methodology and reading of the Bible on this issue. Perhaps now is not the time.


  3. I think that the Bible’s love ethic can be put into practice by using the no-harm test. You ask “Does the activity cause harm or not?” This test is based on Romans 13:9-10, summarised as “If you love (act for the welfare of) your neighbor, including not harming your neighbor, you then fulfill (meet all the requirements of) the Old Testament commandments”.

    Your neighbor is any person you come into contact with. In a sexual relations context, your neighbor means the person you are having sex with and any third party, e.g. the partner of that person. Of course, as well as not harming your neighbor, you should not harm yourself.

    This test can be used to decide whether any activity is good or bad, including sex between men, sex between women, adultery, and slavery.

    • Hi Colin,

      Thanks for your comment. I think you are on to something there. I assume you would say that consent is a significant part of the equation, since harm can obviously come in the form of mental and emotional harm in addition to physical.

      Thanks also for your website, I found it to be quite courageous.

      I hope we hear from you again on this blog.



  4. I stand chastised and corrected, I somehow surmised that the subject matter was degrading into an argument on semantics.

    I completely agree with you that no person regardless of their race, colour or personal beliefs should be excluded. Who did Jesus minister to first? Those that ‘society’ had excluded and repelled, and Jesus was condemned for that.
    There should be an eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not discriminate
    Jesus demonstrated unconditional love to the outcasts of society, be they lepers, tax collectors or prostitutes.

    On reflection my statement of love the sinner, hate the sin seems rather pious and shallow. For by hating the sin (men having sex with men) we give rise to ingrained homophobic teachings, be they from our parents, mates or pastor. Therefore making it impossible for us to unconditionally love the homosexual due to previous exclusive dogma. So by opening this topic for more discussion is commendable and I thank you for your insight.

    Is the third option that you allude to as illusive to you as it is to me?



  1. Pingback: walter wink on homosexuality & the bible (part 2): new testament « life.remixed

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