According to the reports, the Conference on Marriage, Homosexuality and the Church that took place at Andrews University on October 17-19, was organized by Richard Davidson and Roy Gane, professors of Old Testament at the Seminary, to counter the publications of John Jones and Fritz Guy, professors of Religion at La Sierra University, in Spectrum, and the campaign by Adventists against Proposition #8, placed on the November ballot in California to reverse the decision of the California High Court which had authorized same sex marriage.
When the Adventist campaign against Proposition #8 was launched, those participating in this web page reacted with some strong opinions. The reaction to the Conference at Andrews has been even more animated and informative. That two professors at the Seminary considered it necessary to combat the ideas proposed by two professors at La Sierra demonstrates that we are living in a defining stage in the history of the Adventist Church. The comments posted in this page in response to the reports of the Conference showed that at the core of the debate about homosexuality are not different exegetical methods, but different definitions of what is sin. Since this is the case, it is time to search for a biblical definition.
To begin with, let us look at the system established in Israel to cleanse sinners of their sins. According to the sacrificial system, sin is a spot on the person that prevents God from blessing, and instead provokes God’s cursing. Reading the descriptions of the different offerings for the expiation of different sins (Lev. 4-7), one is surprised to learn that no sacrifice is specified for what we would normally consider sin. The sins listed have to do with ritual purity, a point of view that we have definitely abandoned. Holiness is conceived as something that one acquires or looses by physical contact, and the sins for which sacrifices are specified, it must be noticed, are inadvertent sins, sins committed “unwittingly”.
In this context we must remember that according to the gospels Jesus ordered the lepers, once healed, to go to the temple and offer the corresponding sacrifice to be reintegrated to society (Mc. 1:40-44; Mt. 8:2; Lc. 17:12-14). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed anyone who, already at the altar ready to perform a sacrifice, remembered that his brother had something against him to leave the sacrifice aside, go and reconcile himself with his brother, and then, by all means, return to the altar and offer the sacrifice (Mt. 5:23). Moreover, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem and offered the required sacrifice for the purification of the mother and the child after childbirth (2:22-24).
After the resurrection, the disciples were found regularly at the temple at the hour of the morning and evening sacrifice (Acts 3:1). Acts of the Apostles also says that Paul was eager to be in Jerusalem to participate in the celebration of Passover and that when he arrived to the city he joined four men in Nazarite vows (21:17-26). In this way the first five books of the New Testament report that Jesus, his disciples and Paul viewed sin as ritual impurity which needs to be cleansed by a sacrifice at the temple. The references in Acts, in particular, indicate that the first Christians did not think that the death of Jesus had put an end to the temple and the need to atone for ritual impurities. This, I am afraid, creates a problem for those who wish to use Jesus and the apostles as moral guides.
On the other hand, we also learn that Jesus performed a prophetic act at the temple which, undoubtedly, was extraordinary by its violence. It is almost impossible to be certain as to the significance of this act. Was Jesus symbolically destroying the temple? Putting an end to the sacrificial system? Or, Putting an end to the abuses that had become parasitic to the sacrificial system? The first prophets of Israel, of course, had already proclaimed their opposition to the temple. In the classic words of Micah: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (6:6-7). Surely these rhetorical questions anticipate a negative answer.
Amos, Hosea, Micah and the other prophets openly declared themselves against the sacrificial system. According to them, what causes God to withdraw blessings and dispense curses as punishment is the abuse of the neighbor, the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor, the hypocrisy of trying to buy God, in other words, social and economic injustice and the abuse of religion for selfish ends. The solution to these evils is not sacrifices of oil, rams or, even, one’s first-born child (something which was also done in Israel). It is the discontinuation of such conduct. The prophets call the people to change course, to turn, to convert, as the drill sergeant shouts to the marching troops. For the prophets sin is not lack of ritual purity, or the wrongful handling of the sacred. It is immoral conduct. The sphere of sin does not have to do with the temple and its mediation between the sacred and the profane. It has to do with justice as the foundation of social and economic peace. In the famous words of Micah, what God demands is “only to do justice, to love covenant loyalty and to live life humbly in God’s company” (6:8).
In the third place, Judaism came to understand sin as the transgression of The Law, and in this way created a sphere parallel to the temple in which sin is a legal problem. The sacrificial system does not include sacrifices for the transgression of any of the ten commandments. Of course, it must be emphasized, The Law does not consist of only ten commandments. The Rabbis determined that The Law contains 612, and in it the transgression of any one of them is equally condemned. In this context, it must be remembered also that the Old Testament ignores that the sin of Adam and Eve brought with it The Fall of Humanity in a cosmic sin. The notion of The Fall entered Jewish theology with the rise of apocalypticism. In the Old Testament the paradigmatic sin that establishes the natural sinfulness of the people is the rebellions in the wilderness during the exodus.
We cannot overlook that both in the Old and the New Testament it is assumed that sins are the cause of all the misfortunes in life. Sickness, poverty, infertility of land, cattle or humans, defeat in the battle field, etc., are the direct consequence of sin. In other words, sin unleashes the wrath of God, as the negative aspect of God’s retributive justice. Apocalypticism, it seems, arouse in order to affirm God’s retributive justice while taking seriously the misfortunes of the innocent.
In Romans 1:19-3:20, Paul develops the idea presented in verse 18: the wrath of God of heaven is manifest against all iniquity. As the idea is developed it becomes clear that the wrath of God is manifest in sinners. At first, Paul uses concepts predominant in contemporary Judaism. Sin number one is idolatry, and number two is sexual irregularity. Paul emphasizes, however, that given that among Jews sin is the transgression of The Law, God is impartial. Therefore, both the Jews under the condemnation of The Law and the gentiles under the condemnation of their conscience are sinners. The section ends confirming the affirmation that all human beings are sinners by a series of quotes from the Scriptures. In summary, under The Law or under one’s conscience all are sinners and manifest the wrath of God.
Immediately, Paul takes up the idea expressed in 1:17: the justice of God is manifest in those who have faith, without the participation of either The Law or the conscience. While The Law and the conscience are agents that force sinners to admit they are living in a world fallen to the cosmic power of sin (a purely apocalyptic idea), these instruments of condemnation do not function in the world of the Second Adam, the world of those who have faith in the One Who Raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Those who through baptism participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ live in the new creation. In this creation sin is not the transgression of The Law, but the performance of what is contrary to faith. Christians who live by the power of the Spirit Who raised Jesus Christ from the dead sin when they act without being convinced that the Lord approves the way in which they are transposing their faith in God into a way of life that actualizes the presence of Christ in the world. Among those who participate in the creation of the Risen Christ, sin is not defined by The Law, but by faith, or more specifically, by the lack of faith(Rom. 14:5,14,23).
The fourth definition of sin that we find in the Bible has nothing to do with ritual purity. Paul explicitly dismisses the distinction between sacred and profane in the realm of being (Rom. 14:14). It has nothing to do with the norms of social and economic justice of one’s contemporaries. Even less has it to do with The Law, as Paul takes extraordinary pains to emphasize. This definition is neither social, nor economic, nor political nor religious. It is a spiritual definition. It is for those living by the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
So far I have limited myself to describe as succinctly as I can the definitions of sin I find in the Bible. The Bible does not tell me, however, what to do with these four definitions. The Bible does not tell us that we must distinguish between ritual and moral sins, or between carnal and spiritual sins, or between cardinal and ordinary sins. The Bible does not tell us whether these definitions are complementary or exclusive. If we do not wish to admit that these definitions reflect experiential changes in the life of the people of God through centuries and cultures, we must admit that choosing to specifically condemn only certain sins is culturally conditioned. Given these circumstances, we should not be surprised when we discover among us those who say homosexuality is a sin and those who deny it.