As I’ve discussed here before, strict adherence to the letter of the law can produce odd results. By reducing the Bible to a rulebook, we run the risk of either binding ourselves to all sorts of regulations that have no context in real life other than “God said so,” or of resorting to cherry-picking to weed out those commands that we would rather ignore.
Fortunately we have precedents in church history for placing the spirit of the law ahead of the letter of the law, even when doing so appears (on the surface) to place us in violation of what had previously been accepted as a direct command from God. Remarriage following divorce is the most obvious example of this, but there is another that demonstrates this principle even more clearly. The sin of usury was once strongly and universally condemned by the Christian church (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant alike), yet today some Christians aren’t even familiar with the term.
The biblical authors clearly and unambiguously condemn usury (the practice of charging interest on loans) on multiple occasions: Exod. 22:25-27, Lev. 25:35-37, Deut. 23:19-20, Neh. 5:10-11, Psalm 15:5, Prov. 28:8, Isa. 24:1-3, Jer. 15:10, Eze. 18:7-9, Eze. 18:13, Eze. 18:17 and Eze. 22:12 all speak against the practice. Although the New Testament has far less to say on the subject, many theologians have interpreted Luke 6:35 (“lend, expecting nothing in return” – NASB) as a command against usury. With so many references to the practice outside of the Pentateuch, usury cannot be automatically dismissed as a matter of concern only for ancient Israel.
Furthermore, the Bible contains no positive references to usury or those that practice it. Although the idea of collecting interest on a bank deposit is brought up in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-29, Luke 19:11-26), it is at best a neutral statement. Jesus does not condemn the words of his fictional property owner (who is described as a “harsh man”), but neither does he endorse them.
Church leaders and theologians from Augustine and St. John Chrysostom to Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther unanimously and harshly condemned the practice of usury, which remained punishable by excommunication into the early years of the Reformation. The Medieval church did permit Jews to charge interest on loans, since Jews were already regarded by the church as accursed, but no other exceptions were entertained.
So what changed? A few advocates of permitting certain forms of usury rose up from time to time, but they were either ignored or shouted down. Meanwhile, the world was changing. What had worked within the context of a tribal society with an agrarian economy didn’t translate well to the medieval world with its growing cities and rising merchant class. Without the ability to charge interest, there was no incentive to lend money since doing so would result in a net loss to the lender. And with such limited access to loans, only the wealthy could afford the startup costs of new business ventures.
John Calvin was the first theologian to formulate a comprehensive case for lifting the ban on some forms of usury. Among other things, he pointed out the context in which the biblical command was given, namely, helping the poor (Lev. 25:35). The spirit of the Law was not concerned with regulating all forms of commerce, but rather with encouraging compassionate treatment of the poor and prohibiting the wealthy from exploiting the less fortunate for personal gain. It was meant to protect the poor, not to hinder any efforts they might make to rise out of poverty.
In a similar fashion we can uncover the intent of the authors of Leviticus in regard to the command that appears to prohibit all male homosexual conduct. Lev. 18:3 and 20:23 instruct the Israelites not to emulate the behaviors of the surrounding nations, whose religious practices were known to include most of the acts listed in those two chapters.
Within this context we can see why lesbianism was overlooked entirely (it was not practiced in any known temple rituals at the time), and why the command against male-male sex is one of the few Levitical prohibitions not repeated in the book of Deuteronomy (or anywhere else in the Old Testament) unless one counts references to the qadesh, the male “holy ones” who had sex with male patrons as part of certain pagan fertility rituals.
In the New Testament Paul echoes that condemnation of pagan fertility rituals (which were still common in Roman times) when he speaks of the “unnatural” passions that arise out of idolatrous practices in Rom. 1:18-32. Although Paul’s discourse includes an apparent mention of lesbian activity in verse 26, theologians have not always interpreted this verse as a reference to lesbianism. Verse 26 is not at all out of place within the context of the fertility rituals, given that some of those rites involved female priests who dressed up as men to simulate sex with male priests who were dressed as women.
A few scholars have also proposed that the word arsenokoitai, which appears in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 and which Paul apparently coined, was derived from the words used in the Greek translation of Lev. 18:22. If that is the case, then all of the Bible’s references to homosexual behavior (not counting the attempted rape and murder in the Sodom narrative) point specifically to the idolatrous qadesh and those who patronized them.
Equipped with such an understanding, we are freed to examine the issue of committed same-sex relationships from broader biblical principles, as the church has done and continues to do for a variety of issues that were not directly addressed by the authors of the Old and New Testaments – modern commerce, representative government, abortion, biotechnology, and many others. Within such a framework there are numerous principles we can apply to this issue, including marital fidelity, mutual commitment, avoidance of immoral behavior and self-sacrificial love.
Some might object to the comparison of an economic issue (usury) with a matter of sexual morality. Given that the biblical authors spend far more time discussing economic justice than they do addressing sexual ethics, that’s not an unfounded reservation; the modern church has simply reversed the order of importance.
Where the letter of the law demands that our highest devotion be reserved for rules and regulations, the spirit of the law frees us to truly love others by placing people ahead of ideas. As Jesus himself said when confronted by the religious leaders for not adhering to the letter of the law, “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)