The Target of the Rules

Preston Sprinkle

The following post is written by Jeff Cook, where he responds to my response to his opening argument. This is part 4 of 10 of our dialogue about homosexuality. The first three posts can be found here: One, Two, Three.

Hey Friends. Thanks to those of you who are contributing in productive and gracious ways through the comment section, and thank you to Preston for your thoughtful response!

Though our material may not be new, Preston and I hope we can repaint how conversations over this and other contentious issues can take place in health-promoting, mind-challenging, church-building, (dare I say “virtuous”) ways. We would love for Christians to feel permission to speak about hard issues, without feeling the need to tear one another down, but in ways that unify despite disagreements. With that target in mind, let’s review my argument from Monday.

I said I would defend two claims:

(1) Jesus and the New Testament writers embrace a virtue ethic focused on character and the kind of person you are becoming, rejecting “deontology” which says moral goodness is defined by rules.

(2) The virtue ethic painted in the New Testament does not prohibit monogamous gay relationships.

In this post, I will review how those two claims faired and look at Preston’s response.

Let’s look at (1): Jesus and the New Testament writers embrace a virtue ethic.

First, in response Preston argued that Jesus only critiqued the Pharisees’s made up rules, not deontological approaches to ethical living, but with the exception of “hate your enemies” the rules quoted in Matthew 5 (which was the focus of my post) all come from the Torah.

The repetition of “You have heard [Moses] say … but I say to you” is deliberately contrarian and repeated five times. Notice the preceding revision to Torah earlier in Matthew 5. Jesus’ statements of Blessing (Mt 5.3-11) intentionally redirects and supercedes the statements of blessing at the end of Deuteronomy. The Beatitudes set the stage and launch a paradigmatic shift that works through out the Sermon on the Mount culminating with the last parable. It is Jesus’ word—his perspective and moral theory—which are the only foundation that will stand when the storms come.

As an ethicist, I see Jesus offering a new moral paradigm in the Sermon on the Mount. He is not building on past truths. Jesus formulated an entirely new way of understanding moral goodness and of being the people of God only hinted at in the Old Testament.

Second and more importantly, Preston suggested I am creating a false dichotomy between good character and God’s commands (which many other commenters saw as problematic as well). Preston said, “I would say that [the New Testament writers] target both what you do and who you are, because who you are and what you do are not at odds; the latter will flow from the former.”

On a practical level we agree here. Divine commands flow from God’s desire to make us like Christ. Rules serve the purpose of making us virtuous. In that way there is no dichotomy.

Theoretically, however, deontology and virtue ethics are mutually exclusive. Deontology judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a set of rules; virtue ethics judges whether one is acting from and seeking to exhibit certain character traits. One theory for gauging “what is good” aims at rule following, the other aims at becoming a certain kind of person.

Theoretically, the “both/and solution” is not an option. Because deontology and virtue ethics are mutually exclusive one theory must be primary in defining “moral goodness”—and as I argued in the post, the New Testament sees virtue as the definer of godliness. As such rules gain their value only insofar as they promote the life of character and Christ-likeness, some rules being easily set aside if they do not (Rm 14).

Now, here’s where Preston and I agree. The rules of the New Testament and the Christian virtues do not contradict one another. But as such, a challenge emerges: What Christian virtue do those in monogamous same-sex relationships violate? If there is a necessary connection between virtue and the rules—where is it? I contend that if there is no virtue which—by its nature—forbids monogamous same-sex relationships, than we must be misinterpreting the apparent prohibitions in the New Testament.

Said a different way—because virtue and divine commands go hand in hand, there must be a virtue-focused reason as well for objecting to gay sex—but none has been offered yet. This calls into question whether the three New Testament passages that seem to forbid gay sex apply to monogamous same-sex relationships.

Finally, I would love for Preston or other commenters below to address the arguments I gave Monday from torture and from masturbation. I find these very relevant to our conversation, but have yet to see any responses to these illustrations for my first point.

In summary, I see no reason to reject my first claim: Jesus and the New Testament writes embraced a virtue ethic.

Let’s look at (2): the virtue ethic painted in the New Testament does not prohibit monogamous gay relationships.

First, Preston responded with a question: “Does not the NT get to define what is virtuous?”

Yes, and the virtues it upholds as central (namely faith, hope, love, justice, perseverance, gentleness, self-control, etc) do not by their nature seem to outlaw monogamous same sex relationships. That is, none of the character traits that are elevated as godly seem affected by a monogamous same-sex relationship.

Second, Preston wrote, “ I can’t imagine Jesus, Paul, or any other Jew placing such a thick wedge between a virtuous character and the rules that help shape it.”

Neither can I, and that’s my hermeneutical point. When speaking about gay sex Paul must *not* be talking about monogamous gay relationships. Listening to his language and attitude for exegetical clues, it’s much easier to read into Paul’s fiery pronouncements against the man-bedders (arsenokoitēs) a condemnation of those who abuse little boys, use sex to dominate others or worship in dysfunctional ways, but not the healthy homosexual partnerships many of us see and enjoy. Godly people simply don’t get fired up, the way Paul is, about the real life monogamous gay relationships we see each day. This is a significant clue for understanding Paul’s target in 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and Romans, and I’m sure we’ll talk more about this next week J.

Thirdly, Preston responded to my syllogism saying there are other known, immoral acts which are not necessarily prohibited if we only think of virtue. He gave the example of Generous Jack, so that my argument might be put this way:

(1) The New Testament infallibly displays the good life.

(2) The good life displayed in the New Testament is the virtuous life.

(3) [Giving money only to other wealthy folks and cancer research] does not violate virtue.

Then it necessarily follows that the New Testament does not prohibit giving money only to other wealthy folks and cancer research.

On my view Premise 3 fails. When we ask Micah’s virtue-directed question, “What does love require of me?” it pushes us toward better targets of our generosity than those who with already exceedingly large salaries. The claim that it can be wise and charitable to give only to other wealthy people I think, in most instances, is mistaken.

Finally, in reference to Preston’s virtuous son riding into the street: I am confident Young Mr. Sprinkle is kind, generous, and faithful, but in this hypothetical he is not wise and therefore he does lack some virtue. The rule—“Don’t run into the street!”—is a ladder being offered for him to climb to the new heights of wisdom, and once he is wise he will not need his dad to give him any such rules. Young Mr. Sprinkle will then act out of character. This illustration displays again that what matters more than the rules is the telos of the rules—virtuously mature human beings who reflect our Father.

In conclusion, I think my main contention stands: one will not—by necessity—become less virtuous by enjoying a monogamous same-sex relationship, and as such that “rule” does not aim necessarily at godliness or sanctification.

I look forward to your responses!

Editors Note: This debate is also featured at Patheos Head to Head. For more debates on this and other topics visit our Patheos Head to Head main page.*Jeff Cook lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes (Zondervan 2008), and a pastor of Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. You can connect with him at and @jeffvcook.

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