Article Sep 22, 2014

Biblical sexual ethics, the gospel and the Southern Baptist Convention's response to erring churches

It is difficult to overstate just how strongly public opinion is moving against the long held Christian teaching that male and female were made exclusively for one another--that a “one flesh union” of a man and woman is the singular intent and expression for God’s purpose in making us sexual beings designed for marriage.

After the mainstreaming of homosexuality and the changing attitudes of everyday Americans, it was inevitable that attempts would be made by voices coming from within the church to accommodate Christian teaching to the spirit of the age. The act of making Christianity palatable to culture isn’t unique to our times.

Tragically, in February 2014, Pastor Danny Cortez of New Heart Community Church was personally and publicly erred by expressing his support for homosexuality and same-sex relationships. Cortez admits that his newfound views are at odds with official Southern Baptist Convention teaching. Since his announcement, New Heart Community voted on May 18, 2014, to become a “Third Way Church”—a church that agrees to disagree amongst its members as to the morality of homosexuality and to retain Cortez as its pastor. On June 8, 2014, an amicable church separation occurred between members that accepted its pastor’s change of mind and between members that could not accept these teachings. New Heart Community Church continues to identify itself as a church in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Cortez has since reaffirmed his commitments to revisionist hermeneutics by partnering with Matthew Vines' Reformation Project as a keynote speaker at an upcoming conference in November. Vines gained recognition in early 2014 for publishing God and the Gay Christian, a volume and now a non-profit organization dedicated to recasting biblical teaching on human sexuality. Indeed, Cortez’s arguments are immediately recognizable to those familiar with Vines’ work.

Last week, it was reported by Baptist Press that the California Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee voted to expel New Heart Community Church from fellowship with the Southern Baptist Convention. Because of New Heart’s regrettable departure from biblical teaching, it was right for the California Southern Baptist Convention to act in this manner.

Without question, Cortez and New Heart Community Church are in flagrant violation of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 which states regarding sexuality and family:

  • “In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.”
  • “Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God's unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.”

Cortez and New Heart Community Church are also in violation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s constitution. According to Article 3, Section 1, a church ceases to be in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention when a church acts to “affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”

Let us be clear: Cortez’s arguments will be repeated by others. His interpretations and the actions swirling around him will become precedent for future pastors and churches looking to somehow escape the difficult and controversial topic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

In response, it is necessary for the Southern Baptist Convention to be proactive in creating its own precedent to lovingly and biblically respond to churches that violate official Southern Baptist teaching. False teaching threatens to lead astray not just Southern Baptist churches, but all churches that confess allegiance to Jesus Christ. This is not a matter of fidelity just to the Southern Baptist Convention. A response to such error is a matter of fidelity to the demands of the gospel and to the clear commands of Holy Scripture.

Cortez makes arguments that are gaining in popularity, despite their foreignness to Scripture and deviation from long-held understandings of God’s purpose for sexuality. For the sake of helping Christians and churches think through challenges and responses that come with culture’s embrace of homosexuality, we want to review a few of the arguments that individuals like Danny Cortez use with increasing frequency and examine them against Scriptural exegesis. Since this essay is designed to be an introduction, we neither intend nor desire to offer a full and exhaustive response to every argument in use.

1. Argument: The use of “bearing fruit” in Matthew 7:15-20 is evidence that whatever produces a good outcome is therefore acceptable. Love, commitment, and intimacy for same-sex couples produces positive results in their lives. And since the Bible promotes or affirms whatever produces good fruit, same-sex relationships must be considered wholesome, moral, and praiseworthy.

ResponseThis argument simply assumes that the relevant biblical texts cannot mean anything negative about homosexuality. In an ironic twist, it is based on an assumption about Matthew 7:15-16—a text warning about false teachers, “You will know them by their fruits.” Because opposing homosexuality harms homosexuals (a bad fruit), the traditional texts must be reinterpreted in a way that is no longer harmful to gay people.

Not only is this approach a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7,[1] it is also an uncritical use of an ethical theory called consequentialism. Consequentialism bases moral judgments on the consequences that accrue to human actions. No human action is inherently good or evil in this theory, only its consequences. Thus one must not pronounce judgment on human actions, only on the consequences that flow from those actions. The problem with this theory is that it elevates our evaluation of consequences above Scripture as the standard for evaluating what is right and wrong. Also, consequentialism provides no objective definition of what defines a good or a bad consequence. A good consequence for one person may be a bad consequence for another.[2]

This argument alleges a variety of negative consequences that flow from calling homosexuality a sin. We must, therefore, modify/reinterpret the Bible so that people no longer feel badly about its sexual ethic. That is why Cortez and others have no problem sweeping away the 2,000-year old consensus of the Christian church. That consensus understanding of scripture causes some people to feel badly, so it must be done away with. I agree with Richard Hays’ comments on this approach to ethical reasoning: “How strikingly indifferent is the New Testament… to consequentialist ethical reasoning. The New Testament teaches us to approach ethical issues not by asking ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but rather by asking ‘What is the will of God?’”[3]

Matthew 7:15-16 does have a warning for us—to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. In this instance, Cortez’s argument conceals the wolf of consequentialism in the clothing of Matthew 7. In doing so, it manipulates readers so that they feel they are doing the right thing when they suppress the message of key texts: Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Ephesians 5:21-33. Readers would do well not to be taken in by the ruse.

2. Argument: According to Cortez, Paul is using Romans 1 and temple prostitution as a vivid and graphic display of humanity’s wickedness and fallenness. Paul does not have in mind loving, committed same-sex relationships.

Response: The key verses to consider are Romans 1:26-27, which read this way:

For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. (Rom. 1:26-27 NASB)

One interpretation of this text says that Paul only aims to speak against excessive lust, not against committed same-sex relationships. The problem with this interpretation is that it has little basis in the text. These two verses express God’s judgment on the sin of idolatry. There are some people who exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship idols (Rom. 1:25). God’s judgment on idolaters is to “hand them over” to “degrading passions.” In other words, God’s judgment upon human sinfulness is to abandon people to desires that do not honor Him. For some people, that means that they are given over to same-sex desires and behavior. Such desires and behavior are “degrading,” “unnatural,” “indecent,” and “error.” In short, same-sex desire and behavior are sinful (Rom. 1:25-26).

Paul is not singling out excessive lust for censure. Paul explicitly indicates that all same-sex desire and behavior is sinful and wrong. We know that because he describes it as “unnatural.” For Paul, both women and men who abandon the “natural function” of sexuality to engage in same-sex acts are committing sin. Revisionist interpreters say that “natural” refers to one’s sexual orientation and that this verse only condemns people who participate in same-sex activity who have a heterosexual orientation. On that view, it’s not a sin to engage in homosexual behavior if one does so “naturally”—that is, if one behaves in accordance with their own homosexual orientation.

But that’s not what Paul is talking about, is it? For Paul, “natural” is not defined by one’s personal orientation (whatever that may be) but by God’s intention and design in creation. For Paul, what is “natural” is defined by what we see in the Garden of Eden before the fall: one man and one woman in a covenantal heterosexual union. Any other kind of union is “unnatural” and sinful in Paul’s way of thinking. In this way, this text rules out all same-sex desire and behavior, not just that which is based on lust. 

3. Argument: There’s simply too much historical and cultural distance to know with accuracy whether Paul was speaking in universal terms about homosexuality. The brutality, misogyny, and sexual abuse seen in antiquity is a different world than what we know of modern same-sex relationships. It is difficult to talk about homosexuality today because it meant something entirely different in antiquity.

ResponseThere is not too much historical and cultural distance to understand what Paul means in the text. We have thirteen extant letters from Paul. We know the animating concerns of his theological outlook. We know of his concern for sexual purity among Gentile Christians (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:3ff). We also know that Paul sometimes adopted the sexual ethic of the Old Testament as a basis for new covenant norms (1 Cor. 5). Paul is not being innovative or new in his approach to homosexuality. He is alluding to and sometimes even quoting the Old Testament to show that all sexual activity should be kept within the covenant of marriage. Any activity outside of the covenant of marriage is sinful—either heterosexual or homosexual. This is no great mystery but has been the clear consensus of the entire 2,000-year history of the Christian Church. For all the differences that exist among Christians, this is not one of them. Sexual activity is only to be enjoyed between one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage.

It is not at all clear that ancient homosexuality is somehow qualitatively different than what we face in 2014. Romans 1 teaches that some people have sexual desires for persons of the same sex. That is exactly what we have today. We cannot relativize this teaching by a facile dismissal of the Bible’s relevance to the modern world. To do this would establish a dangerous hermeneutical precedent that would relativize the entire moral witness of Scripture. Are we to conclude that the Bible’s prohibition on adultery is nullified now that we live in more humane conditions? Are we to conclude that the Bible’s condemnation on incest is null and void because ours is a kinder and gentler cultural moment? Of course not. We understand the Bible’s teaching to be timeless and authoritative no matter the time or culture.

4. Argument: The New Testament rendering of “homosexual” is a novelty. The words used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are innovations and not associated with today’s understanding of sexual orientation. Further, there’s little use of it in antiquity. The evolution of the word gives us sufficient reason to cast doubt about the reliability of our translations. 

Response: The term often translated as “homosexuality” is arsenokoitēs, and it appears in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. There is a second term—malakos—that also appears in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and it means something like “soft.”

Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakos], nor homosexuals [arsenokoitēs], 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9-10)

Law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers 10 and immoral men and homosexuals [arsenokoitēs] and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, (1 Tim. 1:9-10)

Taken together, these texts render an unambiguous judgment on these two terms. They are both sinful. Yet pastor Cortez argues that the terms do not refer to homosexuality in general but to excessive lust and pederasty (same-sex relations between a man and a boy). According to Cortez, therefore, Paul may oppose exploitative same-sex relationships but not committed same-sex relationships.

Cortez has again adopted a revisionist interpretation that fails on a number of levels. It may very well be true that Paul’s Greco-Roman context was dominated by the practice of pederasty. It is an illogical reduction, however, to shoehorn Paul’s use of these two terms into that narrow frame. Paul is not drawing on his Greco-Roman context in his use of these terms. In fact, the term arsenokoitēs appears nowhere else in Greek literature until Paul coins the term here. There were other words for homosexual behavior, but Paul did not choose them. Rather he coined a term that derives from the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13: arsenos koitēn. In other words, Paul’s sexual ethic is based entirely on his Jewish tradition whose scriptures were unambiguously opposed to all forms of homosexual behavior, not just exploitative ones. As commentators Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner put it, “Paul opposed homosexual behavior on the basis of creation theology and because it is marked as a vice in the Torah and was stressed as a vice by Jews. Paul’s opposition to all homosexual behavior…seems to derive from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which represent absolute bans.”

Time and again, Paul quotes from the Jewish scriptures as the basis for his views. This is certainly the case in 1 Corinthians and especially in this particular section, which is freighted with material on sexual ethics. In chapter 5, Paul appeals to Leviticus 18 in his comments on an incestuous relationship. Later in chapter 6, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 to admonish men in the congregation who were visiting prostitutes. Likewise, in this text, Paul is alluding again to Leviticus to establish the sinfulness of homosexuality. The wider context of 1 Corinthians and its intertextual connections to the Old Testament make this clear. Paul uses the terms malakos and arsenokoitēs to refer to the active and passive partners in a homosexual encounter. Like Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Paul identifies both halves of a homosexual coupling as sinful. Paul prohibits all forms of sexual relationships between same-sex couples.


It is a key assumption in arguments like those above that the writers of the New Testament lacked a modern comprehension of individuals with a same-sex orientation. But this approach to interpretation defies how the Scripture understands itself and distorts any credible doctrine of inspiration. If the Church—a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim: 3:15)—has been wrong on homosexuality, what else has she been wrong on?

There are questions of historical and eternal consequence that these arguments require us to address. The clarity and purposes for which God created us as sexual beings aren’t ancillary to the gospel. They are, rather, endemic to the gospel. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, sexuality served as a means of marking out God’s community amidst the world. In a very real way, if you want to see what God’s reign and rule looks like, you do so by observing the sexual patterns that order those within church. When we thwart God’s purposes for sexuality, we obscure His reign, and we bear false witness to the gospel (1 Cor. 6: 9-20). 

One last word is warranted. The gospel never confronts us with the false alternatives of love and truth, or as Russell Moore described it “affirmation or alienation.” Those that would discard the biblical witness on sexuality often frame their newfound viewpoint around the obligation to either lovingly affirm their same-sex attracted friend or to persist with a biblical interpretation that they perceive harms their same-sex attracted friend or relative, whether inside or outside the church. For many, this debate is framed as a choice between either Scriptural faithfulness or love of neighbor. The gospel doesn’t pit love versus faithfulness; truth versus grace. Love, of course, is the supreme command of God. We are called to love and serve God, while also loving and serving our neighbor.

The Scriptures never place love and faithfulness in opposition to one another. They co-exist with one another, since truth begets love and love begets truth. Where our same-sex attracted neighbors have experienced hardship, alienation, and bitterness from Christians, we must insist that it is Christians that have failed to obey God’s Holy Word at this very important point. But it is not a justification for abandoning love and truth. Subjugating truth to an unbiblical appropriation of “love” abandons love altogether. To our same-sex attracted neighbors within the church, we exhort you: Seek holiness as the Bible defines it. Seek love from your local community of believers. Bear witness to a crucified and risen Messiah who lives in you, empowering you with His Spirit to overcome the temptations of the flesh.

For further study of the types of arguments made by Vines and Cortez, see:

[1] The “fruit” metaphor appears a number of times in Matthew’s gospel. Contrary to Vines, it does not signify bad outcomes generically. In the metaphor, fruit grows from a root. If a root is evil, then so will its fruit be evil. Conversely, evil fruit always comes from an evil root. In Matthew 3:8, “fruit” symbolizes behavior that comes from a repentant heart. In Matthew 12:33, “fruit” stands for blasphemous words which flow from an “evil” heart. In Matthew 13:8, 23, it signifies “a lifestyle which responds to the preaching of the word” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], 291). The good or bad quality of the fruit is determined solely by its conformity to God’s revelation in Christ, not by any particular sinner’s subjective impression of it (as Vines has it). Furthermore, Vines’ misuse of Matthew 7:15-16 would create ethical anarchy if applied consistently. To wit: It may cause someone personal distress and psychological “harm” to tell them that they should not murder their neighbor. That would be a “bad fruit” on Vines’ definition. Nevertheless, no one would permit murder just to avoid that “bad fruit.”

[2] Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 27-28.

[3] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 455.