One approach to Biblical interpretation involves trajectories. As we look at the entire biblical text, what threads run from beginning to end and how do these themes develop over time? How do we see God’s people move ever closer to God’s intention as the story of the Bible unfolds?
With the issue of slavery, for example, we find the people of God coming on the stage of history in a world in which slavery is universally practiced. The people of God themselves practice slavery at first, but then fall into slavery in Egypt. God liberates them from bondage, changing their perception on slavery forever. The revealed law permits slavery (especially of non-Israelites), but limits it and controls it. Nevertheless, the people of God continue to exploit their neighbor’s poverty and force the weak e them into slavery. The prophets denounce this, and God allows his people once to fall into bondage once again. And then once again, he liberates them. In the New Testament, we find Jesus proclaiming release to the captives with the words of the prophets. Christians adopt the word ‘slave’ for themselves and Paul teaches masters to treat slaves as brothers. Paul proclaims, in fact, that there is neither slave nor free in Christ. The arc of this trajectory, it is observed, ends naturally in the elimination of slavery altogether.
Applying that same principle of interpretation to sexual ethics, however, reveals something quite different. If the Bible’s arc with regard to ‘slavery’ leads to ever greater freedom, the ‘sexual ethic’ arc leads to ever greater self-control and restraint.
The people of God come on the scene in a world filled with sexual license. The stories of pagan gods were filled with tales of sexual activities of every kind, including homosexual conduct, incest and bestiality. Cultic prostitution – both heterosexual and homosexual – characterized much of the religious practice. Polygamy, concubinage, non-marital coitus (both hetero and homosexual) and all sorts of libertine sexual practices were widely accepted. Sexual domination of the weak by the strong was common. While the patriarchal stories reveal that some of these activities went unquestioned in the earliest period of Judeo-Christian history, the coming of the law restricted these sexual practices among God’s covenant people. Not everyone followed, the law, of course. And the law did not take its narrowing of acceptable sexual conduct as far as later Jews and Christians would take it. The law, for example, did not explicitly prohibit polygamy. We continue to find it and concubinage in the monarchical period. The law also prescribed the rather odd institution of levirate marriage and permitted divorce if accompanied by a legal release from the marital bond. The prophet Hosea took an unfaithful wife and remained faithful to her nonetheless. This act served as a prophetic image of God’s faithfulness, but it also portrayed a marital commitment that even adultery could not break. The intertestamental period witnessed a move toward exclusive, heterosexual monogamy as the standard for God’s people, in stark contrast to the Hellenistic world in which prostitution and extramarital homosexual relationships were common. Jesus tightened the requirement of sexual fidelity even more. He severely restricted (or prohibited, depending on which gospel text you read) divorce and condemned even impure thoughts. The so-called “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15 imposed stricter sexual purity on non-Jews as a condition for the union of Jews and Gentiles in the church. Paul upheld that standard, affirmed marital sexuality and strongly objected whenever Christians leaned back toward pagan sexual practices. Celibacy or heterosexual monogamy became the explicit standard for church leaders, who set the example for the remainder of the church. The arc of this trajectory ends most naturally with a rather narrow standard for sexual conduct in the covenant community, one rooted in God’s intention for creation and affirmed by Jesus: one man, one woman, sexually faithful to each other, united for a lifetime.