Friday, June 10, 2011

Strange Flesh

And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. (Jude 1.6-7)

Cameo Roles

My partner Walt was reared as a Jehovah’s Witness, which is sort of like being a Fundamentalist with a twist. Without exception every practicing Witness I’ve ever met is a model of devotion. Yet, after 20 years with Walt and many visits with his extended family, I’m still not sure what they believe. In the early days of our union, we compared a lot of faith notes and usually ended with one of us saying, “That’s weird, because we didn’t interpret it the same way,” or, “We never talked about that.” One evening, for no particular reason, Walt asked, “So what did they teach you about Nephilim?” I sighed, because Nephilim—who pop up in three verses of Scripture (Genesis 6.4, Numbers 13.33, Jude 1.6)—are one of those conundrums that just can’t be solved. Akin to fantastic creatures in Daniel’s prophecy and The Revelation (a Witness favorite), the Nephilim’s cameo roles in our saga signal apocalyptic wrath (Genesis) and epic confrontation with superhuman forces (Numbers). But their real story is anybody’s guess.

In Genesis 6.4, we learn Nephilim are the offspring of unholy unions, “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans.” Judaic tradition equates “sons of God” with angels—in this case, fallen ones who take up residence on Earth after they’re ousted from Heaven. Although this inter-being congress infuriates God, Nephilim are spared the stigma of their shameful origins. “They were the heroes of old, men of renown,” Genesis tells us. Humanity catches the brunt of God’s anger. Seeing “how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth” (v5), God declares, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” (v7) Enter Noah and the ark.

The Sin at Hand

Evidently the Nephilim manage to survive the Flood. Numbers 13 reports they’re alive and well and living in Canaan, the land God promises to Israel. Before taking possession of it, Moses dispatches 12 spies to gauge what they’re up against. They return with unhappy news: “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there of great size. We saw the Nephilim there… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (v32-33) After parting the Jordan for Israel to cross over and destroying Jericho’s walls, routing the Nephilim is the cherry on the miraculous-seizure-of-Canaan sundae. It’s not every day a road-weary, untrained army defeats a nation of angelically spawned giants! Yet a quizzical side of the story gets glossed over. Canaan is a pagan stronghold given to gross perversions that don’t square with Genesis’s “heroes of old, men of renown,” indicating a big part of their story goes missing.

I don’t recall Walt’s explanation of how Nephilim figure into Jehovah Witnesses’ end-time theology. But I can safely say the only times our preachers mentioned them was when they dragged out Jude 1.7: “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” The discussion brooked no curiosity in children of celestials gone wrong. The Nephilim got wrung into the rush to assert homosexuals will burn in Hell. And I know I sound like a broken record. But if we just read the text, intelligently hearing what Jude says, we can’t possibly miss his point. Like 1 Timothy, Jude warns readers not to be seduced by false doctrine. The sin at hand is unbelief. No more than surface knowledge of the Nephilim and Sodom is required to spot the connection. Jude defames heretics by talking about the trouble with angels, not same-sex orientation.

Ignoring Instructions

Of all the mangled clobber texts, the alleged condemnation of LGBT people in Jude is by far the most absurd, because the writer tells us how to read the text. Prefacing the Sodom and Gomorrah example with “in a similar way,” Jude insists we link verses 7 and 6: “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the Great Day.” What do the Nephilim’s angelic ancestors have in common with Sodom? Obviously, they all paid awful penalties for their perversion. Yet the exact nature of their sin doesn’t become clear until we note the “and” that starts verse 6, directing us to verse 5: “Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.” Those destroyed for unbelief are Egyptians who drown in the Red Sea. And why don’t they believe, despite God’s ferocious display of power in the ten plagues precipitating the Hebrews’ liberation? Egyptian fealty to Pharaoh springs from belief their monarch is the son of Ra (“pha-ra-oh”), i.e., another product of celestial and human intercourse.

When following Jude’s direction for reading the text—top to bottom or bottom to top—there’s no disputing how he defines “Sodom’s sin.” The men of Sodom invite God’s wrath by attempting to rape angels. Going light on the original text analysis (for which you’re no doubt grateful), the Greek translated as “sexual immorality” is “indulging in fornication,” in other words, “taking improper liberties.” Meanwhile, “perversion” condenses a phrase that means “going after strange flesh.” (I can’t pass the chance to point out Jude’s word for “strange” derives from the root heteros, “of a different kind,” or that the phrase infers Sodom’s compulsion is highly addictive.) Whether or not Sodom’s men knew their intended victims were angels is open to debate. The Genesis account suggests not. Jude seems convinced they did know and didn’t care, refusing to believe God’s fury at their perversion—going after strange flesh—would trigger a wrathful deluge like the Flood that destroyed mortals who slept with angels or the Red Sea that swept over Pharaoh and his men. But it did.

Only by ignoring instructions that Jude provides for reading his letter can anyone possibly misconstrue verse 7 to mean human sexuality of any kind. And, just in case the common thread eludes us, Jude comes right out and explains it in verse 8: “In the very same way”—one more connect-the-dots directive—“on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings.” Beyond making it clear he cites Egypt, the fallen angels, and Sodom as instances of perverse celestial-mortal couplings, Jude also clarifies “these ungodly people” constitute his real focus. We discover who they are by returning to the top of the letter.

Going After Strangeness

Jude begins by saying he “felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” (v3-4) Jude urges us to contend for the faith, to believe God’s Word and its promise of grace for all who believe through faith in Christ. Unbelief like that exhibited by the Egyptians, humans who consorted with fallen angels, and Sodom’s citizenry results in going after strangeness, i.e., overstepping mortal bounds to imagine ourselves on par with heavenly beings. The message is actually simple: stay with what you know and don’t meddle in God’s business.

The comparison of false teachers to Old Testament figures who couple with gods or angels sounds silly to modern ears. Yet legends of human-celestial intercourse were a dime-a-dozen in Jude’s day. What throws us off now was abundantly plain to his original readers. These examples drive home the grave error of those who contort the promise of redemption “once for all” into threats against anyone who doesn’t comply to their beliefs—which Jude says is really unbelief that brings wrath. People who corrupt the gospel of grace and deny Christ’s lordship presume to live above the realm of grace and Christ’s authority. It’s a dangerous place to pitch one’s tent.

Where Grace Abides

The trouble with angels is they’re not us and we’re not them. As humans, we’re totally dependent on God’s grace, which we receive by faith in Jesus’s surrogate sacrifice for all people for all time. Jude’s know-your-place-in-the-divine-scheme message is evident in the New Testament’s constant reminders Jesus took our place. Philippians 2.7-8 states Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Regarding angels, Hebrews 2.8-9 says, “God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Emphasis added.) If Jesus found it necessary to become lower than the angels, so must we. And because He humbled Himself to our level, where we are is where grace abides—not with the angels, not in Heaven, but here with us.

“These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage,” verse 16 says. Baseless condemnation and exclusion exalt those who practice them. It’s a twisted compulsion that no true believer should embrace or excuse. No wonder Jude compares false teachers to humans habitually “going after strange flesh”. Going after strangeness—placing oneself above grace by insisting others are beneath it—overreaches and falls short. It’s a self-defeating route people pursue “on the strength of their dreams,” never realizing they’re on the road to ruin. (In essence, they’re “chasing the high.”) That some dismember and abuse Scripture to deny God’s grace to all, especially a text warning them not do it, is so strange it defies reason. But reason’s absence is faith’s opening. So while they persist in their addictive ways, we follow Christ’s way, meeting their condemnation with compassion and prayers.

Jude’s letter targets those who pervert the gospel of grace for all as an immoral means to boast and condemn. He compares them to people who go after strange flesh—an addiction loaded with extremely dangerous repercussions.

Postscript: Jude’s Doxology

Undoubtedly, Jude is one of the New Testament’s more vitriolic epistles—as well as one of the more impenetrable ones, with no less than eight arcane Old Testament allusions tucked in its 25 verses. Yet few epistles equal the ravishing beauty of its closing doxology, which doubles a benediction and praise:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (v24-25)


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Love Is the Goal

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. (1 Timothy 1.5-7)

The Scenes Behind the Text

First and Second Timothy and Titus, the epistle following them, are collectively called “The Pastorals.” Together, they offer invaluable advice regarding structure, policies, and procedures of congregational life—even though they address different issues and, given variances in language, style, and subject matter, are believed to come from different writers at different times. Only 2 Timothy is immunized from doubts about Paul’s authorship. Linguistic and historical anomalies strongly suggest 1 Timothy and Titus are composed between 80-200 CE by one or two writers signing Paul’s name to their correspondence. While we would reject the practice as fraudulent, writing under apostolic imprimatur is routine for Early Church writers. Ancient readers don’t share our concerns about date, authenticity, and accuracy; they realize Paul isn’t the author, just as they’re aware Timothy and Titus (of whom we know little) have left the scene. The credited author and addressees are symbolic—perhaps to indicate the letters regard problems troubling European churches (Paul’s area of leadership) and to direct the letters to ministers carrying on Paul’s tradition.

With none of the Bible’s original manuscripts at our disposal, it’s possible 1 Timothy and Titus’s grammatical inconsistencies result from editorial decisions and/or transcription error. Thus, we can’t rule out their authenticity altogether. Still, speculation about authorship remains based on both alluding to events unnoted in The Book of Acts, Paul’s authentic letters, and other first-century church documents. The case for questioning First Timothy’s authorship is especially strong. It focuses on combatting Early Church vulnerability to Gnosticism, a rival, pseudo-Christian sect. This problem doesn’t obtain crisis status until the second century.

In light of our interest in 1 Timothy 1.10 as a frequently quoted clobber text, it’s essential we’re familiar with the scenes behind the text in order to align our reading with its stated intention: “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” (1 Timothy 1.5-7) These words gain tremendous resonance as we explore the clobber text in detail.

In its full context (v8-10), the text reads: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

Clear and Up-Front

So we enter the letter less sure of who wrote it when or to whom it’s written than whom it’s written about. And that’s important—particularly for those struggling to free the text from Fundamentalist and neoconservative readings—because placing a broad swipe against Gnostics (v3-7) just prior to rattling off a organized list of offenders (v8-10) appears to toss everybody in the same bin of Babblers Who Don’t Know What They’re Talking About. Which is not at all what’s happening. We need to be extremely clear and up-front about this while “de-clobbering” verse 10. A few points we can’t lose track of:

As a pastoral letter, 1 Timothy discusses, but does not declare, doctrine. The urgent tone and specificity of its criticisms—going so far as naming names—send up flares we must read it with utmost care, since confidential content plainly suggests the letter isn’t meant for wide consumption. Whether leaders or laity, our remove from the situation steers us to the letter’s desired outcome: a Christian culture of pure, conscientious, faith-driven love. That is the test for everything we say, think, or do about the text. Any interpretation evidencing impure motives, unjust attitudes, doubt, or fear of punishment (love’s opposite, according to 1 John 4.18) is not to be trusted.

The false doctrines, myths, controversial speculations, departure, meaningless talk, and ignorance (v3-7) the epistle vilifies are Gnostic beliefs. They have no connection with “lawbreakers and rebels” listed in verses 8-10. The roster is included to equate Gnostics with types of people whose disregard for law and order generates disbelief, violence, sex crimes, and deceit.

Consequently, the text is overcrowded with five parties pursuing five agendas: ancient Gnostics corrupting Christianity; ancient pastors safeguarding Church doctrine and order; ancient believers who seek pastoral guidance for their protection; modern Christians who confine the text to its apparent meaning; and modern Christians striving to free the text from its misinterpretation. That’s a lot of people with a lot going on. If we don’t keep them straight, we risk confusing what’s about whom and how it affects us. So, before we sort out this mess, let’s meet the Gnostics, since they started it.


Jewish Gnostics are hardly Johnnies-come-lately. In fact, they pre-date Jesus, originating as an alternative sect that blends Greek mysticism and Judaic monotheism into a belief system that looks nothing like either, yet often sounds like both. They don’t gain much traction in Jewish circles, however, because what they teach blatantly contradicts Judaic principle. Gnosticism breaks everything down to two divisions: material and spiritual, with the material world being inherently evil and the spiritual world inherently good. Since humanity, nature, and the God dwelling among them are “earthly,” they’re evil. “The Divine,” angels, and their heavenly abode are good.

The Gnostics (from gnosis, or “knowledge”) have no use for faith, as that requires belief in God’s goodness. For them it’s all about what you know. Yet the dualism of their construct isn’t that hard to figure out and “easy” religions raise suspicions. Which is why they embroider their doctrine with intricacies that take years to unravel. They invent angelic hierarchies and arcane pathways said to free the soul from earthly evil. They also spend a great deal of time tracing their roots back to Eve, whom they revere for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. These departures from Judaism’s belief in One True God Who dwells in Creation, Adam’s patriarchy, and atonement for sin assign the sect negligible status in Jewish life. Then, Christianity’s explosion offers exactly what they need to raise their profile.

The Early Church’s radical inclusion of all peoples and rapid expansion across Europe provides the Gnostics a new, far more receptive audience. The Hellenistic side of their philosophy has indubitable appeal for Gentile converts steeped in polytheist mythology. At the same time, Gnostic mastery of Jewish Scripture gives them an edge over less adept pastors, teachers, and leaders. With cunningly selective use of prophetic texts, they mount an alternative portrait of Jesus that solves hotly contested doctrines (at the time) like the Virgin Birth, Jesus’s divinity, and Christ’s bodily resurrection. None of this matters, they say, as Jesus was never human. Like Greco-Roman gods, He was a divine entity capable of imitating human form without physically assuming it. This, of course, destroys core doctrines of Jesus’s supreme sacrifice—a physical atonement that fulfills the Law and Prophets—and the Risen Christ’s defeat of mortal death. Many Gentile converts not yet trained to understand the Incarnation’s far-reaching implications fall easy prey to Gnosticism’s know-it-alls.

Outside of Grace

By mid-second century, Gnostics infiltrate European churches, landing positions as teachers, deacons, and lay-leaders. First Timothy’s writer fires off his/her letter as a salvo that first debunks the Gnostics and urges ministers to assert their pastoral authority: “Command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.” (v3-4) The writer states the overriding purpose for the command: love, which has no part in religious controversy. Finally, he/she reminds readers arguing against Gnosticism invariably leads to defending Judaic Law, which merely counters one cumbersome belief system with another.

To emphasize this point, the writer slips into “Paul mode,” echoing the Apostle’s great freedom-from-Law theme and paraphrasing earlier letters now in wide circulation. “We know the Law is good if properly used,” the writer stresses. “But remember: the Law isn’t made for those redeemed by grace, whose lives are governed by faith and Christ’s commands.” The Law is given for those outside of grace, we’re told. The writer runs down four groups of “lawbreakers and rebels,” citing examples of each with a fifth default category “for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.” His/her choices are interesting, to say the least.

Extremely Specific

Before delineating the groups, what leaps out at us is the absence of idolatry—a veritable fixture of similar lists in Paul’s authentic letters. That changes the context dramatically, redefining 1 Timothy’s infractions as conscious choices rather than religious error. The reason this distinction is critical to the original readers’ (and our) understanding is basic. If the writer pronounces these harmful pursuits as “sin”—i.e., spiritual failure due to human frailty—she/he concedes the Gnostic position that humanity, its religion, and Creator are by nature evil. Isolating unhealthy practices as “lawlessness” permits the writer to categorize types of behavior that consciously don’t witness “God’s work—which is by faith.” In other words, they mirror the Gnostics’ refusal to believe, trusting only what they know. But knowledge without faith leads to pride, corruption, controversy, hatred, and violence. It defies Christ’s gospel, of which love is the goal.

The four categories demonstrate opposition to mindsets the writer insists are vital to the love-goal: a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith. Group One (“the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious”) portrays disbelief. Groups Two and Four—violence (“those who kill their fathers or mothers… murderers”) and deceit (“liars and perjurers”)—exemplify impure hearts, or evil intentions. Group Three’s sex offenders (“sexually immoral,” “those practicing homosexuality,” and “slave traders”) represent corrupt consciences. Once again, imprecise translation encourages us to generalize Group Three’s examples, when the original language is extremely specific.

“Sexually immoral,” put elsewhere as “adulterers” or “fornicators,” is a loose translation of pornois (masculine, plural) from the root “to sell off”—ergo, common male prostitutes we call hustlers or rent boys. (The same root gives us “pornography,” for-sale erotica featuring paid models and performers.) “Homosexuality” resurrects Paul’s coinage for male patrons of male temple prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6.9 (arsenokoitais; see the previous post for details.) While both texts take aim at male prostitutes and their clientele, 1 Timothy’s removal of “idolatry” from its list and use of a term adaptable to men or women confirms the writer intentionally expands Paul’s scope from sex rites to sex commerce. “Slave traders” (andrapodistais; “kidnappers”) misses the connection to flesh merchants who abduct and enslave people as prostitutes.

The Goal and the Test

First Timothy 1.10 ends up confirming our suspicions the text is not a blanket indictment of LGBT believers. Precisely read and interpreted, it reviles the sex trade—not same-sex orientation—as unconscionable behavior that, like disbelief, violence, and deceit, defies Christ’s command to love. This is precisely why the writer turns to these types to neutralize the Gnostic invasion. The sect’s know-it-all pretense promotes myths, controversy, and meaningless talk that foment division, disorder, prejudice, and hatred. It doesn’t merely corrupt Christ’s gospel of love; it destroys it.

Love is the goal and the test. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13.2: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Believers who leverage so-called superior knowledge to promote hateful doctrines match 1 Timothy’s description: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Beliefs they advance do not advance God’s work—which is by faith. They fall short of the goal. They need our compassion and prayers.

When we open 1 Timothy we’re startled to find its objective is not to condemn believers, regardless of orientation. It commands us to resist those who leverage so-called superior knowledge to promote hateful doctrines. Love is the goal.