Last week I did something for the very first time in my life. On this one occasion, at least, I managed to overcome my anxiety that this was unmanly behaviour. It would not have happened had it not been so cold. There were only six of us, three women and three men, and the building was unheated. I had worn my hat on the way there, and this time I did what the three wise women did, and kept it on throughout. Paul may have told the Corinthians that ‘Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head’ (1 Corinthians 11.4), but he was honest enough to abandon theological justification and conclude that male and female headwear and hairstyle was more a matter of social convention: ‘If anyone is disposed to be contentious – we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God’ (11.16).
As my inhibitions testify, customs can be persistent and persuasive.But, even as he urged men to cut their hair and take their hats off for worship and women to grow their hair and keep it covered when praying and prophesying, Paul couldn’t help observing that men and women are mutually interdependent, and that, above all, all of us owe our existence to the grace of God (11.11-12). Observing the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul by receiving communion with my hat on was perhaps part of the continuing process of my own conversion. My head ‘was strangely warmed’. It was liberating!
It was the snow and ice that led me to 1 Corinthians 11, but it may not be a bad place to begin our exploration of the resources that the Bible may have for us in the diversity of our sexuality and human flourishing.
In a brief introduction to his letters to the Corinthians (Canongate, 1998) the novelist Fay Weldon accuses Paul of prating love while demanding submission: ‘don’t smoke, don’t own guns, don’t be unrighteous, don’t spit in church, let’s have no dissension here! Don’t, don’t, don’t. Put away your adulthood and submit’. But, of course, Paul’s response to the difficulties and divisions facing the community at Corinth is much more thoughtful than that. Instead he shows the community ways of bringing together their reading of the Jewish Scriptures, what they have heard and believe about Jesus, and their own concerns,
experiences and questions. It is less a matter of giving them his answers than of giving them the resources to find their own.
Twenty-five years or so after Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, our first Christian writeraddresses this congregation in Greece. He begins by reminding them that they in Corinth are called by God to be saints, ‘together with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours’ (1.2), and he encourages them to focus on that call. They disagree about many things, and their communion is threatened with schism (1.10, cf. 11.19). Some have written to him with their slogans which he quotes,
‘All things are lawful for me’ (6.12, cf. 10.23), ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’ (6.13), ‘It is well for a man not to have sex with a woman’ (7.1), ‘All of us possess knowledge’ (8.1), and they may have hoped that Paul would pronounce as to who had the right answers.
But Paul does no such thing. Is it lawful to eat food first sacrificed to idols (8.1) and then sold in the meat markets? Well, yes and no! And the way you will find out is to bring together your reading of the Scriptures, your commitment to Jesus Christ, and the particular circumstances in which you find yourselves, where you are called to be saints.
Paul acknowledges that from their reading of Scripture alone, the enlightened and sophisticated individuals in the community know that, in the words of the Shema, ‘There is no God but one’ (8.4, cf. Deuteronomy 6.4) and that in the words of the psalmist, ‘The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s’ (10.26, cf. Ps. 24.1). And so Paul allows that there are occasions when they may ‘eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience’ (10: 25).
But that is not the whole story, because the Scriptures are to be read in the light of their commitment to Christ, and reading this way Paul adapts the Jewish confession of God as one Lord: ‘Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist’ (8.6). And what a difference that makes. ‘We know that “no idol in the world really exists”, and that “there is no God but one” ’ (8.4); but this one God is identified in Christ with what is foolish and weak, low and despised (1: 27f), and so the yes to eating must sometimes become a no for the sake of the conscience of a brother or sister who, although perhaps not so wise or strong, is one for whom Christ died: ‘When you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ’ (8: 12; cf. 10: 29).
Far from taking one side with an easy answer, and very far indeed from simply saying ‘don’t’, Paul suggests that for some of the community, who are more superstitious about idols, it may be dangerous to eat this left over meat. But, pressing the point about the particular circumstances of the community, for others the danger may lie elsewhere. If there are those who may be destroyed by eating food sacrificed to idols (8: 10), then there are also those for whom it is Lord’s supper itself that has become dangerous to eat: ‘For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement on themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died’ (11: 29f.).
This seems very strange indeed to us, and is another reminder that Paul’s cultural context
is not ours. But it seems most likely that those who do not discern the body are those who are failing to recognize the needs of those poorer and weaker members of the body who are going away hungry. Being faithful to God’s call is then not a matter of easy answers, such as no to idol meat and yes to the Lord’s Supper. What matters is the nature of God in Christ, and the whole community whom he calls to be saints.
I find it particularly remarkable that when addressing that question of gender differentiation in worship, Paul offers, in that one short passage in chapter 11 (2-16), two different ways of bringing together the creation accounts in the Jewish Scriptures, commitment to Christ as Lord, and the particular experiences and concerns of the community. The first is hierarchical, God and Christ, husband and wife. From the story of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2.21-23) Paul argues that men and women are fundamentally different, and the latter subordinate to the former. This was the common view of his Jewish and Graeco-Roman contemporaries, and was accepted as part of the natural order. Paul can ask, ‘Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair it is her glory?’ (11.14-15). What Paul here calls ‘nature’ we would call ‘social convention’, and it seems that he has an eye on those ‘outsiders’ (14.16, 23-24) who might be misled by seeing women prophets with dishevelled hair into thinking that Christianity was simply another ecstatic cult. The priority is the call to commend the gospel.
But even as Paul argues that hierarchical gender distinctions are natural, he offers a simultaneous second reading of the creation accounts in the light of Christ, stressing the mutuality of men and women: ‘Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God’ (11.11-12). And so he leaves no doubt that in the Christian community both men and women have the authority to pray and to prophesy as they build up the church.
This diversity of interpretation, even within one passage addressing one issue, suggests that we will need to listen to different voices as we work together to interpret the Scriptures in the light of our own call to follow Christ in the twenty-first century. And in our proclamation of the good news in our particular circumstances we will need to be aware that what we have discovered to be ‘natural’ and what might now be obstacles to the acceptance of the message in our society will be as important as, but very different from, the assumptions and conventions of first century Corinth.
Doing well and doing better!
Because Paul has such a bad press, ‘don’t, don’t, don’t, … submit’, as Fay Weldon puts it, I would like to share with you one more remarkable example from 1 Corinthians of a bringing together of the Scriptures, following Jesus, and particular circumstances in ways that allow considerable diversity of sexual practice within one call to proclaim the gospel. Paul finds it necessary to defend himself against fellow Christians who have questioned his apostleship. They have pointed out that he is not accompanied by a wife, as James, Peter and the other apostles are, and that, unlike them, he does not get his living by his preaching of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9.3-7). Paul acknowledges that the pattern of the other apostles’ lives is based both on scripture and on the teaching of Jesus. On their side of the argument is, of course, Genesis 1-2 and the command, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1.28). And Paul even finds a scriptural text for them, in support of their being paid by those to whom they minister. It seems a surprising one to us, but Paul allows to them that what is written in the law of Moses, ‘you shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’ (Deuteronomy 25.4) was expressly written to give Christian apostles a ‘rightful claim’ on their churches (1 Corinthians 9.8-12). He also readily agrees that ‘the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living bythe gospel’ (9.14), which seems to recall Jesus sending out the twelve taking nothing for their journey (Matthew 10.5-15; Mark 6.8-11; Luke 9.2-5). And in allowing that the other apostles have the right to be accompanied by believing wives, he may also have been aware of the tradition that Jesus sent out his appointed seventy in pairs (Luke 10.1). On his own side of the argument, Paul repeatedly says that he engaged in manual labour so that he would not be a burden to those to whom he preached (1 Corinthians 9.18; 2 Corinthians 11.7; 1 Thessalonians 2.9), and he is clear that he would prefer all Christians to be single so that they can devote themselves fully to the affairs of the Lord (1 Corinthians 7.7, 32-34).
Even so, Paul does not question the other apostles’ interpretation of scripture or deny that they too are following Jesus. Instead he defends his own position by interpreting scripture in the light of Christ. He reads these scriptural texts not as commands that he must obey, but as rights that he has received. And, in the light of Christ, he gives up these rights to be accompanied by a wife and to be supported by the Christian community (1 Corinthians 9.12-18). For Paul this renunciation follows Christ in putting others before himself. His argument continues, ‘For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win some of them’ (9.19). What he says here of himself echoes the language he frequently uses of Christ, who ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (Philippians 2.7).
Interpreting scripture in the light of Christ, Paul argues that it is appropriate for him to remain single and to support himself by manual labour. However, he accepts that the other apostles are being loyal to scripture and to the teaching of Jesus in being accompanied by believing wives and supported by the Christian community. Paul believes that he is imitating the pattern of Jesus’ life in renouncing his right to support just as much as the other apostles are following Jesus’ teaching in their dependence on the community. Reading scripture in the light of Christ leads not only to a diversity of interpretation but also to an acceptance of such diversity.
Given Paul’s own preference for singleness in the service of the Lord, and remembering the slogan of some of the Corinthians that ‘it is well for a man not to have sex with a woman’ (7.1), it is interesting that Paul does not point to the singleness of Jesus as his example or concede to the tendency of those in the congregation who wanted to turn celibacy into a rule. Instead he allows both the right of those apostles to be married, and he affirms those Christians who still choose to marry: ‘So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better’ (7.38). In the service of the Lord it may only be a second best, for we owe more to Freud than to Paul if we see our primary calling to be to heterosexual partnership and procreation. But it is here an acceptable option, and it is worth noting that Paul’s emphasis is on mutuality rather than dominance, wife and husband are equally owed their ‘conjugal rights’ and each has ‘authority’ over the other’s body (7.4), and this is more about desire, ‘if his passions are strong … it is no sin … let them marry’ (7.36), than about procreation.
It was good to hear Paul being drawn into the imagined pillow talk of John and Effie Ruskin in Peter Bowker’s Desperate Romantics, a drama about the Pre-Raphaelites shown on BBC 2 last summer. After five years of his refusal to consummate their marriage poor Effie pleads with John, ‘the husband does not have authority over his body, but the wife does’. That would have been a marvellous moment for 1851, but neither the imagined nor the historical John was persuaded. The real Effie later wrote to her father that among John’s alleged reasons for the non-consummation were ‘religious motives’. The marriage was annulled, and in 1855 Effie married John Millais and together they had a family of eight children.
Becoming one flesh.
Clearly Paul’s positive attitude to sexual intimacy reflects the influence of the tradition about Jesus. He says that his teaching not to divorce and remarry (7.10-11) is based on a command of Jesus, and indeed it is very similar to the saying in all three synoptic gospels that remarriage is adultery (Matthew 5.32, 19.9; Mark 10.11-12; Luke 16.18). Paul seems closest to the tradition recorded in Mark (10.2-9) which assumes that both husband and wife could initiate divorce and where Jesus is innovative in teaching that adultery can be committed against a woman as well as against a man: ‘whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her’ (10.11). Of course, Paul has more to say, ‘to the rest I say – I and not the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7.12), and it is possible that he is suggesting a circumstance where remarriage may be appropriate. His world is no longer that of marriage only within the Jewish nation (see Num. 25; Deut 7.1-7), and indeed he has nothing to say against interracial marriage. And in the world of his Christian congregations a believer may be married to an unbeliever, and bodily union is at best also a sharing of hearts and minds: ‘Wife for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband for all you know, you might save your wife’ (7.16, cf. 7.14). But where the unbelieving partner wishes to separate, then the believing partner should let them go, and,
Paul adds, ‘In such a case the brother or sister is not bound’ (7.15). This not being bound would normally be taken to mean being free to remarry, and perhaps this is what Paul means here. In any event, Paul’s discussion of Jesus’ Palestinian teaching in the different circumstances of Greek Corinth is instructive. He at least does not make the mistake of turning Jesus’ words concerning the preciousness of sexual intimacy and mutual faithfulness into a law that binds.
In his Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (Allen Lane, 2007) Martin Goodman considers how far the Christianity adopted by Constantine had strayed from its Jewish roots and sees the Christian view of marriage as an unbreakable bond rather than the Jewish view of marriage as a contract between husband and wife as one of the key differences (p. 545). As we have seen from 1 Corinthians, it is questionable whether ‘unbreakable’ was always there from the beginning, but Jesus’ challenge of divorce by his appeal to Genesis (1.27 and 2.24), ‘So they are no longer two but one flesh’, does seem to shift the emphasis from a legal contract to a personal bond (Mark 10.2-9, cf. Matthew 19.3-8). Divorce, says Jesus, was allowed by Moses ‘because of your hardness of heart’, and it seems that Jesus’ fundamental attitude to the commandments is to see them as inadequate. It is often pointed out that, in looking back to the beginning of creation, Jesus is regulating sexuality by an appeal to the creation story as affirming a model of male-female monogamy. But we need also to notice that in speaking of regulations written ‘because of your hardness of heart’, Jesus is also using the creation story to look forward to the dawning of the promised new age when, in the words of Ezekiel, God ‘will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36.26, cf. 11.19).
In this light it is worth looking again for a moment at Genesis 2.23-24:
Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken’. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.
Doubtless the institution of marriage is in view here, but in hearing that rapturous cry, ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’, we can perhaps understand why commentators such as von Rad and Westermann have seen this story as setting our sexuality in the wider context of the need for relationship and human community.
There seems to be just such a more inclusive of the passage in the New Testament itself. Paul writes to the Galatians:
As may of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer any Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3.27-28). Jew or Greek, slave or free, but male and female in an echo of Genesis 1.27, ‘So God created humankind in his image … male and female he created them’, and in anticipation of the climax of his letter, ‘for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision in anything but a new creation is everything’ (6.15).
In this context Paul’s ‘no longer male and female; for you are all one’ seems also to echo Genesis 2.24, ‘they become one flesh’, particularly when we remember that Paul uses this text ‘the two shall be one flesh’ in 1 Corinthians 6.16-17 in a discussion of the believer’s relationship with Christ.
So in the New Testament we have not only Jesus’ use of Genesis 2.24 to refer to marriage as the new age dawns but also Paul’s use of it to refer to the wider context of human relationship recreated in Christ. In a conversation with the novelist Howard Jacobson shown two weeks ago (24/1/10) in the first of Channel 4’s new series, The Bible: A History, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, found the meaning of the creation narratives as ‘the redemption of solitude’.
The New Testament gives us two different account of this not being alone in two different interpretation of the ‘one flesh’ of Genesis 2.24. In some ways these two New Testament accounts of ‘the redemption of solitude’ stand in tension with each other. We have already seen that Paul thinks that marriage can be a distraction from the fullness of life in the community of those called by Christ (1 Corinthians 7.32-35). And Jesus himself, in calling men and women into the community that shares his life and destiny, asks them to be willing to break the ties of family commitment, including, in Luke’s version, wife in the list of those who might have to be abandoned ‘for the sake of the kingdom of God’ (18.29-30, cf. Mark 10.2-30).
Jesus, like John the Baptist before him and Paul after him, seems not to have chosen the way of marriage, and we have glimpses of the ways in which his ‘redemption of solitude’ was realized in the wider context of human community. For example, in his reaction to the woman who, in Luke’s account, bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them with ointment (7.36-50). Jesus shows no anxiety that her sensual and tactile act is humanly inappropriate or sexually dangerous. Instead he says, ‘She has shown great love’ (7.47). Perhaps we can link this with his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5.27). Jesus suggests here that male sexuality requires male responsibility. Just as the men at that dinner table would have dismissed that woman from the city, so other men required women to cover themselves. Ben Sira warned fathers, ‘Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter – see there is no lattice in her room … do not let her parade her beauty before any man’ (Ecclesiasticus 42.11-12). But Jesus accepted the bathing, kissing, anointing as an act of love, and he expected men to be able to look at a woman without wanting to have her, without seeing her as someone to abuse or possess.
Again there is diversity of interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, by Jesus and in the light of Christ, and there is diversity of practice. And neither is made into a rule. Some abandoned family to follow Jesus, but Peter remained married. Paul commended the unmarried state, but he never questioned the married Peter’s status as an apostle.
To whom it is given.
In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ teaching about divorce, ‘his disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry’. But he said to them, ‘Not anyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given’ ‘. And ‘this teaching’ seems both to refer back to his teaching about marriage and then forward to what Jesus says next about eunuchs, including those ‘who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’ (19.10-12).
There are diverse callings, and they are all for those to whom they are given as God’s
gift, for whose who live by God’s forgiveness.
When I wore my hat last week no one commented as we warmed our hands with our coffee cups after the service. My sisters and brothers accept me with my head covered or uncovered. But in France a parliamentary committee has recommended a ban on women wearing veils in public places, and in a bleak refugee camp in Somaliland, Quresh, a woman whose husband had just been shot and killed, recently described how the religious police had then run into her house in Mogadishu: ‘Woman, why are you not wearing a veil?’ ‘There were two of them with a whip … even now you can see the marks’ (The Observer Magazine, 31/1/10).
Paul was once one of the religious police – it was one of his credentials: ‘As to zeal, a persecutor of the church’ (Philippians 3.6). Circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance were to be imposed by force if necessary. But ‘the conversion of Paul’ was to a new understanding of his religion. He had, he told the Romans, been reading the Scriptures as ‘the law of sin and of death’, but now he read them as ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (8.2). Now the commandments are not to be imposed, because loyalty to Christ comes above everything else. And so remarkably he could say to those same Romans about Sabbath observance, ‘Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds’ (14.5).
At the beginning of the same letter Paul depicts the disorder of a collapsed selfish society that, as he goes on to explain, is reversed when the new community in Christ follows his selfless way of ‘peace and mutual upbuilding’ (14.19). In describing this self-determined society Paul includes one example of behaviour that most of his Jewish and Gentile contemporaries would have agreed was a rejection of gender distinctions that were both natural and conventional. Same-sex relationships were disordered because men should not be the passive, penetrated partner and women should not presume to have the active mind and desires of a man.
As we read this Romans 1.26-27 in the light of Christ and in our own circumstances, we should consider:
that what we understand to be ‘natural’ or ‘conventional’ matters;
that Paul is not offering ethical guidance at this point in the letter;
and, above all, that the converted Paul left behind an understanding of religion as the imposition of commandments.
Paul challenged even those who keep the fourth commandment and those who did not keep the Sabbath not to pass judgement on each other (14.10). Instead they and we are to ‘welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’ (15.7).