I’ve heard it said more than once “If Paul had taught in our day he wouldn’t have opposed homosexuality!” Maybe you have heard this claim or others like it as well. But, the question is, is there any truth to these kind of claims that argue the Bible wouldn’t say the same kind of things if it had been written today?
The problem with claims such as these (which are often made by both Christians and non-Christians) is that they assume cultural relativism is true. In other words, people who hold this view would say that when Paul wrote:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
He did so as a product of his culture in that day which was not accepting of homosexuality. However, since today’s culture is ever so much more enlightened, we know that homosexuality is normal and okay. Therefore if Paul were alive today to write his letters of instruction he would be tolerant of homosexuality.
But is this really true? Does the current whim of culture really dictate what is morally permissible? To even argue that the majority of our culture sees homosexuality as “normal” I think is still a stretch, but the normalizing of homosexuality has certainly made major headway in our country over the past few decades. Regardless of how the present culture views homosexuality, is that the determining factor of morality? Even more, is that the determining factor as to what the Scriptures teach or ought to teach today?
Consider with me the logic of this argument.
Premise 1: Whatever the culture presently accepts as moral, is moral.
Premise 2: Our culture accepts homosexuality as morally permissble.
Conclusion: Homosexuality is presently morally permissible.
Now let’s think this through for a moment. If Premise 1 and Premise 2 (Here forward shortened as “P1″ and “P2″) are true, then it is necessary that the conclusion is also true. This 3 point argument in philosophy is called a syllogism, it has a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion. If P1 and P2 relate to one another properly and the conclusion follows from the premises then the form of the argument is “valid.” If an argument is valid then it’s conclusion is true if, and only if, both of P1 and P2 are factually true.
Here is one example of an invalid syllogism:
P1: Penguins are black and white.
P2: Some old T.V. shows are black and white.
C: Some penguins are old T.V. shows.
The reason that this syllogism is invalid is not because P1 and P2 are factually untrue. We do know that penguins (at least certain kinds) are black and white and we know that some old T.V. shows are black and white. The issue is what do Penguins and old T.V. shows have in common which make the conclusion warranted? P1 and P2 are factually true, but they do not properly correspond in a way that warrants the conclusion that is produced.
Now, back to our argument about morality being culturally relative. I will restate the argument and then deal with the issue.
P1: Whatever the culture presently accepts as moral, is moral.
P2: Our culture accepts homosexuality as morally permissible.
C: Homosexuality is presently morally permissible.
I would argue that the form of this argument is indeed “valid” because P1 and P2 are properly related to one another in such a way that if they are factually true then the conclusion “C”, which does follow from the premises, is necessarily true. So, in order to defeat this argument, what I want to do is show why P1 is false. I also think one could make a good case for why P2 should be considered false, but it will not be necessary to defeat both premises in order to show that this syllogism, although valid in form, is necessarily false.
If P1 is true then the only thing that is necessary for something to be moral is widespread cultural acceptance. What seems unclear is what the standard of widespread acceptance is? One can only assume that we must argue for a certain percentage of acceptance in order to conclude that a culture “accepts” something as moral. What is the necessary percentage of people needed to qualify a certain issue as “moral?” Is it 100%? Surely not. No culture has 100% agreement about every moral issue. Perhaps it is simply a majority that is needed? That seems fair, we shall go with that.
Of course a majority is simply 51% percent (or even 50.1% versus 49.9%) but let’s just say “a majority” is what is needed to qualify an issue as moral or immoral. Furthermore, let’s say that the majority of Americans (which is where P2 comes in and is arguable) hold that homosexuality is morally permissible. Under this line of thinking, culture has made homosexuality moral because the majority of people feel that it is.
Question 1: What if the population was so divided on this issue that the majority constantly fluxed back and forth between seeing homosexuality as morally permissible vs. morally reprehensible? Would cultural relativist think that we ought to praise homosexuality one day and deplore it the next?
Question 2: What if the vast majority of Americans actually believed that homosexuality is wrong? Should it then be seen as reprehensible?
Question 3: What if our country sees homosexuality as morally permissible but in Mexico the vast majority of people believe homosexuals should be hunted down and burned? If we are basing moral principles upon nothing more than cultural whims, can we judge the people of Mexico for their practices which have been deemed as moral?
Question 4: If we hold the view that morality is decided on the basis of culture, are we willing to admit that in the first century in the culture which Paul wrote, that homosexuality was indeed immoral at the time?
Questions like these seem to raise some real difficulties when it comes to cultural relativism. We can express these problems in other scenarios that have actually played out in history as well. For instance:
If cultural relativism is true, and the majority of Germans in the 1930’s and 1940’s believed that Jewish people were sub-human and ought to be destroyed, should we as Americans (from a different culture) force the Germans to accept our morality?
In Great Britain’s history slavery was an established and widely accepted practice. William Wilberforce, who fought to see slavery abolished in England (and who eventually won), was in the minority opinion to begin with. Over time Wilberforce was able to sway the majority of people into believing that slavery was immoral and that it ought to be abolished. Was Wilberforce immoral because he rejected the majority view on an issue of morality? Should such “moral reformers” be condemned? Was slavery truly morally permissible as long as the majority believed it to be so?
It would seem obvious at this point to most thinking people that morality is not merely a consensus issue. The majority vote doesn’t always equal what is morally right. When injustice drones on and the crowds follow along agreeably, it takes courageous people to do what is morally right when it is unpopular to do so.
In fact it seems that even if everyone were in favor of killing Jews because of their faith, or enslaving black people because of their skin color, that it would still be morally and objectively wrong! So then, what a society deems as “moral” or “immoral” doesn’t make it so. There must be a standard outside of human society and government that determines morality, because to ground morality in humanity is to say that there is no final morality.
So I therefore I argue that P1: “Whatever the culture presently accepts as moral, is moral” is demonstrably false.
So then, when the Bible condemns homosexuality as immoral and, dare I say it, “sin,” it does not do so on the basis of the lack of cultural acceptance. In fact one might ask why Paul had to condemn it if it was not fairly prevalent. Truth be told, homosexuality was seen as acceptable in the Greek culture of the New Testament world. So when Paul and other biblical writers spoke against homosexuality they spoke a counter-cultural message even in their day.
The ground for rejecting homosexuality in the Bible was not cultural consensus, rather, the ground was God and his revealed plan for human beings. God intended sex for a heterosexual relationship within the confines of the marriage covenant. One man and one woman joined together for mutual encouragement, love, support, sexual pleasure, and procreation until death parts them. This was meant to be a means of glorifying God as the marriage relationship functioned properly. Any detraction from that original plan, whether it be homosexuality or heterosexual sex outside of marriage, is a rejection of God’s will and is therefore sin and immorality.
The Bible certainly addressed issues related to the culture of the day in which it was written, but the basis for its precepts is not grounded in that culture, rather, it was grounded in the revealed will of God. The created order that God set up was the basis for normative human sexuality when Paul wrote and it still is today.