Victorian Values Biblical Sexual Ethics
Cold Hearts that Cast the First Stone
Published in The Herald, Glasgow, "Open Forum," 17-11-97, p. 15
reports about the Rev Helen Percy’s relationship with an elder of her kirk
reveal more about the tremendous social forces under which sexuality still
operates in Scotland, than it does about the biblical position on such matters.
under pressure from such negative forces as fear, guilt and what might have been
disturbing early-life experiences often act imprudently. So leaving aside the
ethics of any cover-up lies and manipulation, what does scripture itself have to
say about sexuality?
in both Old and New Testaments, Victorian “family values” prove to be a
politician’s myth. Any obscenity laws intending to protect the family would
have to have large tracts of the bible banned.
the Old Testament first. It is resplendent in contradiction. Deuteronomy 21 lays
out rules for polygamists to ensure that inheritance rights of the male
firstborn are not entangled where there’s more than one woman’s firstborn.
Abraham had two wives; Solomon had many. The body of the Levite’s daughter is
sexually abused for political purposes in Judges 19. The obscenity of this is
compounded in Judges 21 where, to bring reconciliation amongst the Israelites,
genocide is perpetrated to steal four hundred virgins from another tribe.
such ugly licentiousness with the opposite extreme, Leviticus 21 rabidly states
that a priest’s daughter who turns prostitute is to be burned. Leviticus 20
provides a handy list of sexual crimes carrying draconian punishments. However,
the case of Helen Percy and Sandy Nicoll falls outside this particular piece
legislation, because she is unmarried. Generally in the Old Testament, the
concept of adultery applies to the adulteration of that “property” which is
another man’s wife, especially that
of a man from within one’s own tribe. It was a sin of women more than of men.
not all is lost for those latter-day Pharisees who wish to purge the Church of
its “sinners”. Under Leviticus 20:18, guilt could still be established in
the Percy/Nicholl case if, at the time in question, Miss Percy had been having
her monthly “sickness”. This would allow the couple to be “cut off from
among their people”. And it would give the Church a possible defence from
unfair dismissal legislation under the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act
the New Testament offer more black-and-white guidance for zealots who would
presume to pry behind the especially titillating curtains of the manse? Their
obvious Pharisaic recourse would be to St Paul. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul warns
the early Christians to have nothing to do with fornicators, drunkards and other
sinners. However, the Church of Scotland has already ruled Christ to be a higher
authority on such matters. Had it not done so, Helen Percy would never have
become a minister in the first place because St Paul also says, in 1 Corinthians
14, that “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”.
then was Christ’s teaching on family values? Far from upholding family
structures designed to perpetuate patriarchal property-rights, Jesus repeatedly
warns of the need to break free from conventional family ties in order to serve
the spiritual family. In Matthew 10 he says that he comes to set relatives
against one another and that “a man’s foes shall be they of his own
household”. His contempt for property rights is shown in Mark 10, where for
the rich young man, he adds an eleventh commandment - to give it all away to the
Jesus’ teaching against divorce is clear. In Matthew 5 he states categorically
that divorce equals adultery. But curiously, he adds the impossibly stringent
injunction that even to look on a woman lustfully is to commit adultery in the
heart. At a stroke he thereby implicates nearly every heterosexual man. If
there’s one way to destroy a sin it’s to make it banal. So what was the
actual attitude towards the incarnate expression of love of this God-man whose
own mother, according to Matthew 1, was suspected of pre-marital adulteration
until vindicated by angelic alibi?
the fabulously sensual account of Luke 7, we find Jesus having his feet
incessantly kissed, washed with tears, massaged with scented oil and dried with
the long hair of a woman who “was a sinner”. When the Pharisee who was their
host saw, he concluded that Jesus must be a false prophet. Jesus responded by
saying that, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loveth much.”
in John 8, the Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of
adultery. Jesus says to let he “that is without sin amongst you” cast the
first stone in executing the mandated death penalty. They skulked away.
then, might such a Jesus have said if sitting on the church courts weighing the
fate of Helen Percy? Would it be “off-with-her-dog-collar”, or forgiveness,
not seven times, but seven times seventy times?
we move towards a new Millennium, might we look towards the churches in Scotland
being openly for and of the “sinners” like Helen Percy and Sandy Nicoll?
Might the eleventh commandment, in which it would seem Helen Percy had much to
commend herself, become more important than the seventh, as it seemed to have
been for Jesus? The Church of Scotland, for one, has already taken great strides
towards becoming less a church of the Pharisees.
courts might ask ... might the “fallen”, like Percy and Nicoll, more than
the self-righteous, not understand a thing or two about Christ’s central
theology of forgiveness? And might not their real-life tainted ministry be
preferable to the sycophantic, clinical purity of the ice-cold heart, that
qualifies any who presume to cast the first stone? Might such acceptance not
point towards the Church’s salvation rather than its disrepute? After two
thousand years of waiting, is it not time to turn upsidedown the idea that, for
the “unrighteous”, the churches are “nae fur the likes o’ us”?
McIntosh is a Quaker and a sinner.
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