Tag Archives: Douglas J. Moo

Is Marriage Indissoluble? A Look at Two Passages from “Rabbi” Paul

What do we mean when we say that marriage is indissoluble? More importantly, is this an accurate way to express the biblical witness about marriage? I will not answer that second question in this post (does that make my title clickbait?), but I do want to examine two passages from Paul that appear to answer it very clearly.

When people assert that marriage is indissoluble, they generally mean that nothing except death can end a marriage union. Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 are two passages cited most often as evidence for this assertion.

These parallel passages certainly do offer vital biblical evidence that must shape our understandings about divorce and remarriage. I have come to believe, however, that sometimes our thinking and speaking about these passages is not as careful as it should be. In our haste to cite these passages as being “clear,” we may not read them with the diligence that the Scriptures deserve.

Let me start by suggesting that neither passage quite says that only death can end a marriage union. Neither passage says that there is a “marriage bond” that holds every marriage together till death, or that the one-flesh marriage union is a sort of glue that cannot be broken by man. Rather, both passages say something slightly but significantly different. Here is the shorter passage:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 7:39-40)

What does “bound” mean? What sort of reality is implied by words such as “bound” and “free”? If we had only this passage and not the near parallel in Romans 7, we might be able to conclude that the passage is talking about some “marriage bond” or one-flesh union that is indissoluble—some mysterious ontological oneness that is impossible to separate.

But the language of “bound” and “free” is a hint that these passages are talking about different realities. The longer passage makes this clearer:

Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3)

How is a married woman bound to her husband? “By law,” Paul says. To understand these passages well, we must remember that we are dealing not with metaphysical realities but with legal codes—with law.

By what means does law bind someone? Here it is instructive to look at how δέω, the Greek word translated “bound” in both Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, is used elsewhere in the New Testament. Here are a few typical examples: A colt was “bound” most likely with a rope (Matt. 21:2), Peter was “bound” with two chains (Acts 12:6), a woman was “bound” by Satan with sickness (Luke 13:16), and Paul declared that the word of God was not “bound” or prevented by persecution from spreading (2 Tim. 2:9). A wife, however, is not supposed to be bound to a man by a rope, a chain, sickness, or political oppression.

The closest NT parallel to how δέω is used in our two passages is probably found in Jesus’ words in both Matthew 16 and 18:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 18:18)

In these passages, “bind” and “loose” are terms “used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and is not permitted.”1 The way the law binds someone, then, is by declaring what is and is not permitted.

The words for “bind” and “loose” in these Matthew passages are the same words that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7:27: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” He then repeats the same word “bound” a couple paragraphs later in one of our key passages: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.” (1 Cor. 7:39).

Paul, bound, teaching in Rome. Is this the way a wife is “bound” to her husband? (Image from Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org.)

Paul, trained under the Rabbi Gamaliel, is using the language of rabbis.2 He is not declaring a spiritual or scientific law that describes an unchangeable reality. Rather, he is “declaring what is and is not permitted” under the law, probably referring to the law of Moses.3 Legal rulings are not made against things that are impossible to do. To the contrary, any law, even a divine one, can be broken.

The law typically describes what could but shouldn’t happen and then says what will happen or should happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. (Read that fast three times in a row!) It is important not to confuse these different dynamics.

The language of “binding” in 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7 indicates, first of all, that something could but shouldn’t happen. Paul says that the law does not permit a wife to leave her husband while he is alive. The fact that this law was necessary implies that it is indeed possible for a husband or wife to separate from their spouse. It is possible for them to violate the law that binds them together.

This does not mean, of course, that as soon as a law is broken it has no say over the person who broke it. The Romans passage says one thing that certainly will happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. Paul says that if a woman breaks the law that binds her to her husband, then “she is called an adulteress” (Rom. 7:3). Who calls her an adulteress? Paul does not explicitly say, but the implication is that it is the law, first of all, who calls such a woman an adulteress. Since her husband is still alive, the law’s requirement that she be faithful to him is still binding on her. This law, still in effect even though broken, labels her an adulteress. This will happen. Humans are free to disregard the law binding husband and wife, but they will also suffer the legal consequences if they do so.

What about the phrase “as long as he is alive” (Rom. 7:2; cf. 1 Cor. 7:39)? This phrase does not address the question of whether or not it is possible for humans to end a marriage. Rather, it describes how long “the law is binding on a person” who is married (Rom. 7:1). At any point before death, a married person can break the law that binds them to their spouse, violating the union that was supposed to last until death. At that point, the law says what will happen: They will stand guilty of adultery.

How should a person guilty of adultery be held accountable? What does the law say should happen next? In neither passage does Paul answer this question. Neither passage says what should be done if a marriage is broken prematurely by sexual unfaithfulness.

We know from Leviticus—“for I,” like Paul, “am speaking to those who know the law” (Rom. 7:1)—that the law of Moses did not simply say, “It is impossible for a woman to separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “A woman must not separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “If a woman unites with a man besides her husband she will be called an adulteress.” No, the law had more to say than what Paul records in either of our passages.

This is what the law of Moses originally taught about adultery: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). Under this law, what should happen after adultery was death, which ended the marriage union and left the violated marriage partner alive and free to remarry. In addition, as Moo reminds us, this same law of Moses also recognized situations when a husband was permitted to divorce his wife and remarry:

Any body of law that Paul may be citing—Roman or OT (cf. Deut. 25:1-4 [sic; should be Deut. 24:1-4])—allows for remarriage on grounds other than the death of the spouse. His readers, who “know the law” (v. 1), would certainly recognize this possibility without it in any way spoiling the effectiveness of Paul’s analogy.4

It is probably significant that in both of these passages Paul refers to how a wife is bound to her husband until he dies. Under the law of Moses (unlike Roman law), a wife, unlike her husband, had no right to initiate divorce. For a husband, his marriage could end not only through the natural death of his wife but also in at least two other ways: 1) his wife could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) he could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1). In this sense, under the law of Moses a woman was “bound to her husband as long as he lives” in a way that her husband was not bound to her.

Yet, even for the woman, the law of Moses recognized at least two ways that her marriage could end apart from the natural death of her husband: 1) her husband could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) her husband could divorce her for some offense less than adultery (Deut. 24:1), leaving her free to remarry. The latter scenario, at least, is an exception to Paul’s statement about what the law required for a wife.

Is Paul misrepresenting the law? It is better, I suggest, to conclude that Paul accurately summarizes what the law under normal circumstances required of a wife, without meaning to deny any exceptions implied by specific case laws dealing with special circumstances.5

For Jews in Jesus’ day, legal divorce had largely replaced the death penalty in cases of adultery. It was understood that it was divorce that should happen next after adultery.6 It was also understood that divorce ended the marriage, so that the woman no longer had a husband and the man no longer had a wife. Therefore, in such a situation, the law cited by Paul that bound a wife to her husband was understood to no longer apply, for she was no longer “a wife” (1 Cor. 7:39) or “married woman” (Rom. 7:2). Rather—as had been the case under the Law of Moses after the death penalty—the wronged marriage partner was free to legally remarry.

(There was a severe gender inequity in how this was applied. Men generally were not liable to be charged with adultery, since polygamy was still legal under Jewish law. Thus, it was women who were divorced when suspected of adultery, but men were not. After a divorce adulteresses, like their former husbands, were free to remarry. But there was a stigma in marrying an adulteress and, as a reasonable precaution, adulteresses were not permitted to marry their lovers.7)

Christians today, even more truly than the Jews of Jesus’ day, are no longer bound by law to carry out capital punishment for adultery. We are under Christ’s new covenant. Jesus warned that the provision for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24 was given because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people (Matt. 19:8), so it is unlikely that he thought this exception still applies under the new covenant—certainly not in the broad way that it was interpreted by many in Jesus’ day.8 But, leaving that question aside, we still have the other “unnatural” way that a woman could find herself released from the law that bound her to her husband: By her husband committing adultery.

What should happen next after a husband or wife commits adultery in our time? Again, neither of the passages we are discussing here answers our question.

In Corinthians 7:39-40 Paul had no reason to answer our question because the main reason that he cites this law about marriage, apparently, is to show that it is lawful for widows to remarry. Since he is discussing widows, the question of adultery is irrelevant. In Romans 7:1-3 Paul had no reason to answer our question because he is introducing the law of marriage primarily to make a similar point, one relevant to his theological argument: just as death ends a marriage and frees one to remarry, so Christians have died to the law so that they can be married to Christ. Again, his focus is on the fact that the law is not binding on a married couple after one of them dies. He is not concerned to detail exactly how the law was binding on a husband or wife whose marriage had been damaged by adultery. He does mention an adulterous wife in passing here (the language may imply she had remarried), but he says nothing about what should happen next.

What should happen to the adulteress? What should the wronged husband do? What were either of them permitted or required to do? Again, neither passage answers such questions.

If you are waiting for me to answer those questions in this post, I will (once again) leave you disappointed. Those are crucial questions, but my purpose here is different. My goal is to invite us think more diligently about these two passages, for they are often cited as being among the most “clear” New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage. I agree that these passages are indeed very clear on what should not happen. But I am proposing here that they say little about what should happen if the law that binds wife and husband together has been violated.

If I were to paraphrase the main point of what Paul is saying in both Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, it might look like this:

The law requires that a woman remain faithful to her husband as long as he lives; after that, she is allowed to remarry any Christian man she wishes. If she unites with another man while her husband is still alive, the law declares that she is an adulterer, but it doesn’t say that about a woman who remarries after her husband is dead.

I have often heard that these two passages from Paul are “clearer” than the exception clauses of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 regarding the topics of divorce and remarriage. For the reasons described above, I am not sure this is so.

Specifically, I don’t think these passages are clearer than Jesus’ sayings are regarding the question of whether divorce is permitted in the case of adultery. Unlike Jesus’ exception clauses, these passages from Paul don’t even mention the topic of divorce. (Read them again if that statement surprises you.)

Since they don’t even mention divorce, how can they be clearer than Jesus’ sayings on the topic? How can we use them to cancel out his words?

Before I close, however, let me underscore two things that are indeed clear in both these Pauline passages.

First, God’s intent is that our marriages last for life. This was clear in the law of Moses not only from its prescriptive laws, but also from the creation account that Moses recorded. This is also a consistent message from Christ and the witness of the NT.

Second, God still holds humans accountable today when marriages end before death. Whether or not marriage itself is truly indissoluble (“incapable of being undone”9) may be a question that these specific passages do not answer. But there is no question that married people are bound together by a divine law that is indissoluble (“perpetually binding or obligatory”10). Almost every marriage that ends before death does so because one of the spouses has sinned by breaking God’s law11, and anyone who breaks God’s law should fear being held accountable by him.

Now may that same good God, the God who redeems law-breakers, teach us from the whole biblical witness—not just a couple of the “clearest” passages—how to respond faithfully when unfaithfulness is found in our marriages.

It is a weighty thing to teach on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The cost of broken marriages has been tremendous and is growing.  Many people are confused and looking for true and loving counsel. Sincere Christians have long disagreed on minor and major points of interpretation and practice. My own understanding is still incomplete. For these latter reasons, this topic is even more difficult for me to handle than the series on homosexuality I shared last fall, where my biggest challenge was to present my understandings courageously, compassionately, and clearly.

On the other hand, it is a blessing to be able to ponder this topic at a time when I have no burning personal need to do so, besides a long-standing desire for better understanding of God’s word and will. It is a joy to know he is able to give us whatever understanding we need!

I have been intentionally seeking resources from a variety of perspectives so that my preferences and assumptions have a chance to be tested. My personal preference is usually to consider “small” exegetical questions one at a time (though in context, of course), rather than trying immediately to answer the big theological or practical questions. Hence my last two posts, one on the term “one flesh” and this on two short parallel passages.

I have also been puzzling over Jesus’ use of “one flesh” in Matthew 19 and his central statement there: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). I hope to be able to share more here if God entrusts me with more understanding. If not, I won’t!

Meanwhile, you can help in two ways: 1) Pray God will guide me, both in my thinking and in knowing when to write and when to wait. 2) If you read anything here that is contrary to Scripture, please show me from Scripture where I am wrong. I am eager to be increasingly true to Christ and the Scriptures.

Also, if you have a favorite resource that you think is exceptionally helpful for understanding the biblical witness on divorce and remarriage, you are most welcome to mention it, though I cannot commit in advance to giving it the time it may deserve.

Thank you for reading, and please share your insights in the comments below!

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  1. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 626. Luz agrees: “The primary meaning is ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ with a halakic decision of the rabbis, that is, the interpretation of the law.” See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, ed. H. Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 365.
  2. Gamaliel was influenced by the famous rabbi Hillel—the one who argued for “any cause” divorce as discussed in Matthew 19, as opposed by Shammai who argued for narrower grounds for divorce. McRay suggests that Paul seems to have been influenced by the Hillel point of view in how he felt free to make legal adjustments for new situations “which the law did not envision,” such as dealing with mixed marriages (1 Cor. 7:12). See John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 45.
  3. Most commentators agree that this is the law Paul is referring to, and it makes best sense to me.
  4. Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 438, n. 649.
  5. Paul’s approach matches some marriage contracts from near his time. These sometimes stated that a marriage was for life, while nevertheless assuming the possibility of divorce and remarriage. Here, for example, is a translation from a Greek marriage contract from Egypt in 92 BC: “And it shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in any other wife but Apollonia, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while Apollonia lives.” Notice how “while Apollonia lives” matches Paul’s language in Romans 7:2: “while he lives.” (David Instone-Brewer, “1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman Marriage and Divorce Papyri,” Tyndale Bulletin, 2001, https://www.tyndalearchive.com/Brewer/MarriagePapyri/1Cor_7a.htm Accessed May 28, 2020.)
  6. Roman law required this for its citizens, too; a husband who refused to divorce his adulterous wife was to be punished.
  7. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 121-23.
  8. Jesus’ exception clause was likely an allusion to the Shammaite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But he offered an authoritative rewording of the text that narrowed it to allow divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality, not merely shameful behavior. The way Jesus expressed his exception suggests that he narrowed the exception originally permitted in Deuteronomy 24:1 and thereby disagreed not only with the “liberal” Hillelites but also, to a lesser degree, with the “conservative” Shammaites.
  9. Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” abridgement of first definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble
  10. Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” third definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble
  11. I say “almost” because some people have been tragically separated from their spouses by events such as war, with no way to know if they are still alive. By far the majority of marriages that end before death do so because one or both of the spouses have been unfaithful to their spouses.

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Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (1 of 6)

I have never discussed homosexuality on this blog.1 I’ve decided it’s time to change this. So, after some reading and conversations to prepare, I’ve drafted a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

  1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
  2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
  3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
  4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
  5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
  6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

Since this is a difficult topic, please bear with me as I share a long preamble in this post. It doesn’t really matter what I believe; what matters is what Jesus believes. Yet perhaps if I explain myself a little first, I can clear the ground for discussing what really matters. However, if you want to jump ahead to my condensed answer to the blog title, go here.

There are many reasons not to write about homosexuality. The topic is a linguistic and political minefield, full of labels and terminology that are constantly evolving in meaning and “correctness.” It’s intrinsically complex, involving questions such as causation (nature vs. nurture, etc.), public policy, and church discipleship. And it’s a sure way to win some enemies—while also winning friends whose responses you can’t always fully endorse.

I’ve also heard it suggested that this is a topic best left for private conversations—face-to-face interactions with people whose trust you have already earned through friendship. I agree that those kinds of interactions offer possibilities that mere blogging does not.

My greatest fear in sharing this series is that my “medicine,” though urgently needed by some readers, will prove to be a painful “overdose” for others—readers who are already convinced of the truth of what I share, and who need help knowing how to live with these truths. If that describes you, please forgive me for not being able to give personalized “medical care” according to each reader’s need. I hope you can still sense love in my words.

Why I Am Writing

Despite these reservations, I’ve noticed something that has convinced me it is time to write. I’ve noticed that many who are promoting homosexual behaviors do not have a similar reluctance about expressing their views in public. I’m noticing that both social media and traditional media are filled with statements justifying and celebrating homosexuality. The closet has long been abandoned for the megaphone. In fact, most North Americans probably hear far more public comments promoting homosexual behaviors than questioning them. I know I do.

When one hears a new idea often enough, it often becomes easy to believe, especially if it is simply and winsomely defended while opposing views are ignored or caricatured. As the years pass, I’m seeing more and more friends and acquaintances abandon what they once believed about homosexuality. Some are now practicing homosexuals. Others are celebrating their choices.

For many people today, contrary to the experience of most people throughout most of history, it now appears much more logical and loving to approve of homosexual relationships than to disapprove of them. In our culture, at least temporarily, the arguments in favor of homosexuality appear to be winning the day.

I know a few blog posts are unlikely to make much difference, and I feel poorly equipped for the task. But “somebody needs to do it,” so I’ll try.

An image I found online. I added the “Really?” What would Jesus do? The original image implied Jesus would affirm homosexuality. My addition calls that into question.

What I Am Writing About

To keep my job easier, I’ll narrow my focus. Narrowing my focus is essential unless I want to write a book, but it also brings dangers. Having a narrow focus means I’ll pass over many crucial pastoral questions that deserve clear and compassionate thought:

  • “I think I’m gay. What should I do about it?”
  • “My friend is LGBTQ+. How should I relate to them?”
  • Is “gay Christian” a helpful label? What about the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual”? (I am using the former in this blog series as a catch-all term to describe all forms of LGBTQ+ behavior, not because I unquestioningly accept the paradigm, but in order to avoid verbal mouthfuls.)
  • How can we support those who experience persistent desires they did not choose, and which they have repeatedly and unsuccessfully asked God to remove?
  • Is it possible to change one’s sexual orientation, or good to try?
  • How, if at all, should Christians try to shape social policy about sexuality and gender identity?
  • How can we love someone well while disagreeing with them about something as fundamental as sexual morality?
  • And many more…

I will also fail to meaningfully discuss several crucial questions of Bible interpretation, such as:

  • How should Christians interpret and apply the Old Testament, including its commands against homosexuality?
  • What did Paul mean by the specific words he used in the passages where he mentions same-sex behavior?

Please hear me: By skipping such questions, I do not at all mean to imply that they are unimportant. Rather, I mean to focus my energy where I feel best equipped to contribute. (For one helpful post addressing some pastoral questions, with links to more resources, read “The Powerful Witness of Same-Sex Attracted Christians” by Emily Hallock.)

My goal in these blog posts is to examine a single question, one that is more foundational than most listed above: Was Jesus okay with homosexuality?

I am intentionally phrasing the question in past tense, because I intend to focus on historical evidence, considering what Jesus of Nazareth—the person who lived in the first century, rather than the Jesus of today—actually believed. I am not making this distinction because I believe that those are two different Jesuses. However, I want us to push past our fuzzy feelings about Jesus today to consider actual historical evidence.

It is easy to say “I think Jesus believes X” if we pull him and one or two of his sayings (or his silence) out of his first century context into our own. But if we consider his actual historical context our possibilities are more constrained.

In considering Jesus’ historical context, I will use both the Bible and other ancient writings, treating them essentially alike as historical documents. (The Bible is more than a collection of historical documents, but it is certainly not less.) I will address some theological questions along the way and especially in my final post, “Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?” But my goal is to focus on historical evidence and, where I make theological deductions and pastoral applications, to keep them tied closely to that historical evidence.

Who I Am Writing for and
What I Hope to Accomplish

I am aiming for a specific audience as I write. As my blog purpose statement says, “This website exists to build up the Church of Jesus Christ by helping her listen carefully to the Scriptures.” This means I am writing primarily to people who identify as Christians. For such readers, I am aiming to shore up your biblical beliefs about homosexuality or, if you have already lost them, to invite you to reconsider the evidence. I also have my children in mind, hoping they will read this or similar material someday. Other readers are welcome to listen in, but please realize I will not be trying to answer your questions.

Please hear me: I am certainly not writing to attack my homosexual friends. You probably did not choose your desires any more than I chose mine. I’ve heard too many stories of people becoming aware of homosexual desires from childhood to believe that all such desire can be explained by personal choice or by external factors such as abuse. I ache for the many who desperately long to escape homosexual desires, but with no success. I ache for those who turn to the church for compassion and support but find only rejection and ridicule.

Please hear me also in this: I do not believe that the mere experience of homosexual desire makes us guilty before God. I say that even though I believe that such desires are disordered or, to use a more ancient term, “contrary to nature” and God’s initial good creation design. I believe we all live in a broken world and that we experience its brokenness in unpredictable and seemingly unfair ways. Some of us are disordered in other ways, leaving us more prone to things such as anger, anxiety, depression, or experiencing deception. I do not believe we are guilty merely for possessing such tendencies any more than I am guilty for having been born with a susceptibility to the shoulder injury I experienced. Rather, we are accountable for whether we feed and act on our disordered desires, or whether we submit them to God.

And even then, whatever your own life choices, one of my life mantras applies to you as surely as to me: “We all need more love than we deserve.” I desire to offer you dignity and love, even (especially) when we disagree. After all, disagreement, too, is a form of love, for “only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.”2

When my title asks “Was Jesus okay with homosexuality?” I am primarily asking about behaviors, not desires. I do believe Jesus held beliefs about homosexual desire similar to what I sketched above—that the experience of mere desire (weakness/hunger/temptation)3 is neither intrinsically sinful nor something to be celebrated as being in line with God’s original good creation design. Yet I also believe that God places people with many varied weaknesses in Christ’s church and intends to use such realities for good. My title, therefore, refers primarily to the question of whether Jesus affirmed homosexual behaviors.

My main goal in writing these posts is to convince readers that agreeing with the historical Jesus and affirming homosexual behavior are not compatible.

I believe it is intellectually inconsistent and also disastrous to the church of Jesus to try to combine the two. If you want to affirm homosexual behavior and yet remain “Christian,” then the onus is on you to do some theological footwork to explain why you can believe differently than the historical Jesus and still remain “Christian.” Most Christians by far disagree with you, and so do most secular gay scholars. I think you need to choose between the two, and I sincerely hope you choose Jesus.

Enough about me. Now that I’ve told you where I’m going, let’s jump right in.

A Summary of What I Plan to Say

Here is the sort of argument we sometimes hear from those seeking to undermine Christian opposition to homosexual behavior. It is simple, and it is attractive:

  1. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, much less spoke against it.
  2. He said love is the greatest commandment.
  3. He befriended social outcasts, including those who were called “sinners” by the religious elites.
  4. Therefore, he was (and is) okay with loving homosexual relationships.

The first three points are, on face value, all true. But what do they mean? Does 4 logically flow from 1, 2, and 3?

These three points need to be read in light of their historical and literary contexts or else they will be misunderstood. All three, or at least the first two, are true only with asterisks. And even if we accept them at face value, point 4 is not proven by points 1, 2, and 3.

Here is a summary of my response to such thinking:

  1. All known Jewish teachers for about 2000 years who addressed homosexual behavior agreed that it is very sinful, so Jesus had no more reason to address the topic than to address a topic like bestiality. If he, as a Jewish rabbi, had disagreed with this consensus, he would have been immediately rejected. His silence on the topic would have been assumed to be agreement—and should be assumed so by us, unless there is very strong evidence to the contrary.
  2. Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” was a quote from the Old Testament book that also contains its strongest teachings against homosexual activity. Ancient Jews and Christians saw no conflict between promoting love and opposing homosexual behavior. Jesus taught that loving God is the “most important” commandment and that loving your neighbor is “second” to loving God. Thus loving your neighbor, according to Jesus, involves treating your neighbor in a way that pleases God. Jesus’ teachings on love do not indicate he was okay with homosexual activity.
  3. Though Jesus was a friend of sinners, he called them to repent. He also affirmed and even strengthened core Jewish sexual ethics. He spoke against sexual immorality using language that was normally understood by ancient Jews to include homosexual behavior, and his followers spoke explicitly against homosexual activity.
  4. Therefore, no churches anywhere until a few in the past few decades have ever taught that Jesus was (and is) okay with homosexual relationships.

My responses are not as pithy and memorable as the arguments they oppose. Truth involves complexity. But I have tried to summarize these key points briefly, since short arguments are more easily remembered and remembered arguments are more convincing.

Really, it is startling to even have to make these arguments. The historical evidence about what Jesus believed about homosexuality is so overwhelming that it wasn’t seriously questioned by any church denomination until the early 1970s—about the time I was born.

But if my responses here are too brief for you, fear not. I plan to discuss these points and more in the next blog posts, providing historical evidence for my claims.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading. Please comment if you wish, but thank you for understanding that I have limited time for follow-up discussions. I am already investing most of the time I have available in writing these blog posts. Have a blessed week!

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  1. I mentioned the topic briefly twice in book reviews.
  2. Roman Catholic Church, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” accessed August 4, 2019, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19861001_homosexual-persons_en.html. Here is the context for that statement: “We wish to make it clear that departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve.” I am not Roman Catholic, so would want to replace the allusions to the Roman Catholic Church with references to Jesus’ church and the Scriptures. Apart from this, I agree with this statements.
  3. I realize I am lumping together here some dynamics that some prefer to distinguish for theological or psychological reasons. Such distinctions may be valid, but here I am simply trying to reflect the thought of James 1:14-15: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” I am in general agreement with Moo’s commentary on this passage, though he did not write with homosexual desires explicitly in mind and though his commentary does not answer all my questions: “Temptation, James has said, involves the innate desire toward evil as it is enticed by the superficial attractiveness of sin. If a person should welcome rather than resist that temptation, desire conceives; and if not turned away immediately, it produces sin. James implies that temptation, in and of itself, is not sinful. Only when desire ‘conceives’—is allowed to produce offspring—does sin come into being. The point is an important one, for some extremely sensitive Christians may feel that the fact of their continuing to experience temptation demonstrates that they are out of fellowship with the Lord. To be sure, as one develops more and more of a Christian ‘mind,’ the frequency and power of temptation should grow less. But temptation will be a part of our experience, as it was the experience of the Lord himself (Heb. 2:18), throughout our time on earth. Christian maturity is not indicated by the infrequency of temptation but by the infrequency of succumbing to temptation.” Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 76.

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God “Was Able”? Or “Is Able”?

In this post I’m doing a dangerous thing—questioning grammatical details in English Bible translations when I am only a second-year Greek student. So please take this post with a grain of salt. If you are a Greek scholar and you see I am missing something, please let me know and I’ll happily correct this post. Meanwhile, since blogs are good for thinking out loud, here goes!

[Edit: I’ve received responses from a couple people who know Greek better than I do, including my Greek teacher, Joseph Neill. Here is part of what he wrote:

Could it be translated as “God is able”? Yes, but the grammar does not require it; in fact, it leans the other way I think. But based on God’s nature and the greater context (4:23 especially), it is right for us to understand from this passage that not only was God able, but God is able. (Context might lean this way.) So, if this is what Paul had in mind (God is able), I think he would have said exactly what he did say. But then again, if he did not have all this in mind (but rather God was able) he would have still said it exactly how he did say it. =)

Later: I would need to study and think more about it to be sure I got it right, especially the part that suggested Paul  could mean either was or is (in English thought) and he would have worded it the same either way. I would like to find examples that conclusively prove this hunch of mine.

See this comment below for his full response, as well as similar thoughts in comments from Marlin Sommers.]

Today I continued reading through Romans in Greek for the first time. Near the end of chapter four, I noticed something interesting:

ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι. (Rom. 4:21)

A hyper-literal translation might read something like this:

What [he] has promised, able [he] is also to do.

Here is the same clause in some popular English translations:

What he had promised, he was able also to perform. (KJV)

What He had promised He was also able to perform. (NKJV)

What God had promised, He was able also to perform. (NASB)

What God had promised, he was also able to do. (CSB)

What God promised he was also able to do. (NET)

God was able to do what he had promised. (ESV)

God had power to do what he had promised. (NIV)

Do you see the difference? The Greek uses a present-tense verb (“is” ἐστιν), but these English translations use past-tense verbs (“was” or “had”). The Greek seems to say “he is able also to do,” while the English translations say “he was able also to do.”

Why might these English translations do this?

Here’s one possible explanation: Some Greek writers frequently insert “present tense” verbs into narratives of past events. But they do this without intending to imply that the action is happening presently. This is sometimes called the “historical present.” In other words, the Greek “present tense” does not neatly match English present tense verb usage, sometimes being used instead for other rhetorical purposes. (Hence my scare quotes around “present tense” above.)

You can see this in a translation such as the NASB, which marks these verbs with an asterisk. Here’s a random example from Mark:

As they *approached Jerusalem… He *sent two of his disciples, and *said to them… (Mark 1:1-2)

Is the same thing happening here in Romans 4:21? I doubt it. This use of the Greek “present tense” is usually found in narratives—in stories. This passage is not a story but rather a discussion about a story. Steven Runge, who discusses the “historical present” in depth in his recent book Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, does not appear to include even one example of the “historical present” from any of Paul’s letters. Almost all of his examples come from the Gospel narratives.

Another possible explanation for the English translations here is that they switch from present to past in order to match the other half of the clause: “what he had promised.” But there, too, the Greek seems to carry more of a present tense: “what he has promised.”

(The weeds: The Greek verb here, ἐπήγγελται, is a perfect tense-form. The perfect tense-form is often understood as describing a present state that is the result of a past action. Though it was dying out in the Greek Koine of the NT era, there was also a pluperfect tense-form that is basically a past version of the perfect tense-form: “had promised” instead of “has promised.”)

In summary, it seems to this second-year Greek student that neither half of the clause clearly carries a past tense sense. The first half (probably) depicts a present state (“what he has promised”) and the second half (more clearly) asserts a present reality (“he is able also to do”).

This brings me to my third and best working explanation: The English translations above do not follow the Greek as closely as they could. Interestingly, I am not alone in my assessment. There are a few English translations that agree with me, some old, some recent:

What He hath promised He is able also to do (YLT “Young’s Literal Translation)

Whatever things God hath promised, he is mighty also to do. (Wycliffe)

What he has promised he is able also to do. (Darby)

What God has promised, He also is able to do. (TLV “Tree of Life Version”)

God is able to do whatever he promises. (NLT)

Similarly, though I haven’t found any commentaries that directly address this translation question, several appear to indirectly affirm my conclusions. First, a comment from Moo:

It is Abraham’s conviction that God is fully able to do whatever he promised that enabled his faith to overcome the obstacle of the tangible and visible “facts.”1

And, better, a direct translation by Schreiner, followed by commentary:

Abraham grew strong in faith “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he had promised” (πληροφορηθεὶς ὅτι ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι…)… He surely has the power to accomplish what he has promised.2

[Edit: In his 2018 revision of this commentary, Schreiner interprets Romans 4:21 as even more clearly expressing the timeless nature of God’s ability. His translation now reads: “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he promised” (instead of “had promised”).  And his comment now reads: “He surely has the power to accomplish what he promises” (instead of “has promised”). See page 246.]

In sum, I give Darby top marks for following the Greek most closely: “What he has promised he is able also to do.” And I give the NLT top marks for best expressing the timeless truth that Abraham grasped: “God is able to do whatever he promises.”

Whether or not I am right in the above, this I do know is true: My own faith, like Abraham’s, will be strengthened only if I am confident that God is able—past, present, future, always able—to do everything he has promised.

This timeless nature of God’s power is expressed clearly even in English translations several verses earlier in Romans 4: “The God who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17 CSB).

John Toews puts it this way:

More is said about God than about Abraham’s faith. The character of the God “faithed” determines the character of the faith exercised. The point of the text is that the fulfillment of the promise is based on the power of God. Even more important than Abraham’s faith is God’s faithfulness.3

What a mighty God we serve!

Greek scholar or not, share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading.

  1. Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 286. Emphasis added.
  2. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 238-39. Emphasis added.
  3. John E. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004), 123.

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