As will be seen in a future post, I have been spending quite a bit of time wrestling with the ways in which Paul defines the Christian community over against the Jewish and pagan communities.
As I have tried to wrestle with Paul’s letters on their own terms (while trying to be aware of my own biases), it seems that Paul defines the pagan communities by three badges in particular: idolatry/self-exaltation, covetousness/seeking one’s desires over the needs of others, and sexual immorality. Furthermore, for Paul these three badges are all signs of people who have lost their true humanness. Just as the pagan nations are depicted as beasts (cf. esp. Dan 7), Paul argues that those who worship idols and those who chose to try and exalt themselves to the status of God (following the trajectory established by Adam) actually end up becoming like the animals. These things are badges of those who have ceased to be fully human and belong to the community of those who are “in Adam.”
Now what I find particularly interesting about this, is the way in which this radically subverts contemporary efforts to base ethics upon the “natural” world around us. It is common today to point to an example from the way in which animals behave and then conclude that it is “only natural” for us to behave in a similar way.
This is especially true in relation to sexual ethics (which is not surprising, given that sexual behaviour is one of the badges around which this discussion revolves). Some time ago it became popular to use examples of animal promiscuity in order to justify human acts of promiscuity (“it’s just not natural to have one partner”), and recently it has become popular to cite examples of homosexuality within the animal kingdom in order to support human acts of homosexuality (“it must be natural”).* The thing is, if Paul were to encounter any of these arguments, he would say that we’ve got it all wrong. Appealing to the animal kingdom for moral guidance is, according to Paul, a symptom of the problem, not a part of the solution.
Just as we cannot use the excuse “hey, I’m only human” to justify ongoing sin — for those who are truly human, those who belong to the community that is “in Christ” have been liberated from the power of sin — we cannot appeal to that which is “only natural” in order to justify any behaviour (sexual or otherwise). We must look to other areas for guidance in these things.
*Note that I am not, therefore, arguing against gay marriages, or against homosexuality or whatever. I have wrestled long and hard with that topic and I have no desire, in this post, to argue against those things. Rather, I am simply arguing that one should not look for support for those things based upon examples within the animal kingdom. Rather, one should look for supports in the proper places. Stated another way, you could say that my concern, in this post is not to question the ends but to question the means.