Homosexuality, the Death Penalty and the Old Testament. . .

Monday, October 14th, 2013

I read with some interest the recent interchange between Adam Hamilton, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, and Rob Renfroe, the President of Good News on homosexuality which appeared in the May/June issue of Good News magazine. Most of the exchange followed fairly predictable lines which one would expect. However, it was the final response by Hamilton that caught my attention. Hamilton closed his final response by pointing out the passage in Leviticus 20:13:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death…”

Hamilton argues that both Renfroe and he are in agreement that the second part of the verse concerning stoning someone to death for a sin is culturally bound, since no Christian – even Renfroe – is advocating that homosexuals or anyone else be stoned to death. Therefore, the only difference between Renfroe and Hamilton, he concludes, is that Hamilton considers both parts of the verse to be culturally bound and not applicable for today, whereas Renfroe regards only the latter part of the verse to be culturally bound.

This blog is not about the issue of homosexuality, although that was the presenting issue between Hamilton and Renfroe. I am more interested in Hamilton’s exegetical method and how we read all kinds of passages like this in the Old Testament. First of all, it is a matter of the biblical record that the moral demands of the New Testament are higher than those of the Old Testament. If, for example, the act of adultery is regarded as “porneia” in the Old Testament, the very act of looking at a woman with lust is regarded as “porneia” in the New Testament (Matt. 5:27, 28). Many such examples could be given. Second, even if we put the first point aside, it is important to understand the reason the New Testament does not command Christians to stone sinners. It is not because of a relaxation of the moral demands of God, nor even, quite frankly, because of any relaxing of the consequences of sin.

On the contrary, the New Testament teaching is that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness. It is in the face of Christ that we see the full extent of how God’s mercy meets God’s righteousness. It is not that “stoning” is culturally bound and therefore we can draw a red line through it. It is not because God has now relaxed the consequences of sin. Rather, it is that Jesus Christ has already borne the full penalty of our rebellion against God and neighbor on the cross. Just as we say, “Christ died for us” so we could also say, “Christ was stoned for us.”

To use the grace of God to nullify the judgment of God demonstrates a misunderstanding of the Christian gospel. When we try to take away or diminish the judgment of God we actually diminish the cross where Jesus bore the penalty we deserve. Leviticus 13, as with the whole of the Old Testament Law, is not vacated by Christian faith. Rather, it is fulfilled by Jesus Christ who said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18).


  • Teddy Ray says:

    Dr. Tennent,

    This post had a different effect on me than expected. In a short blog post, you’ve convinced me — more than any lengthier treatment ever has — that Christians shouldn’t support the death penalty. I had leaned that direction for quite a while, but this is the best case against the death penalty I’ve seen.

    I agree with your main point, too. I’m disappointed that UMs hold Hamilton in such high regard and have given him such a big platform. He’s an excellent communicator, but his exegesis and preaching content leave a lot to be desired.

  • Dan Owsley says:

    I don’t believe that Dr Tennent is arguing here against the death penalty, which, in my opinion, is upheld by Christ and the apostles. The state does have the authority, yeah, the responsibility to apply the death penalty. Again, I don’t think this is Dr Tennent’s main focus.

    • Teddy Ray says:

      Hi Dan,

      I’m aware that Dr. Tennent’s main focus here isn’t to argue against the death penalty, as I tried to indicate in my original comment. Nevertheless, I think his post is persuasive about why we should not support the death penalty. Specifically so when he says, “the New Testament teaching is that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness.”

      The statement that the state has authority and responsibility to apply the death penalty is an odd one to me. I’m not sure I understand where Christian belief requires, or even substantiates, that claim.

  • Ben Gosden says:

    So how exactly does Christ and the Apostles uphold the death penalty? On first glance that statement reands like the very exegetical gymnastics that Dr. Tennent is describing here.

    • Dan Owsley says:

      I believe the theological academy dismisses the death penalty as a legitimate use of justice by the state because it does not fit their modern worldview. So, they look at the Scriptures and disqualify all that they do not embrace and relegate it as “culturally specific” thus abandon the divinely revealed wisdom in the Scriptures for the appropriate exercise of authority by the state. We act as if we in the 21st century have arrived at a higher level of Biblical understanding, discarding what is obviously upheld by the Scriptures and cramming the Scriptures, New and Old Testament, into our own culturally limited mold. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery”, where all things ancient are belittled and subjected to ridicule, unless something in ancient wisdom happens to fit into the modern paradigm. I find many religionists in America today attempting to somehow cram Scripture and the Christian message into molds that are acceptable to the modern viewpoint. In this arduous hermeneutical exercise, they are lessening the witness of the Gospel, leaving it impotent. In the books of the Law we have a divine design for the state and how it should carry out justice—a design that is profound, just, practical, and pertinent in 2013. Christ and the apostles never revoked this design, and lived peaceably in a state, albeit pagan, that carried out the death sentence for serious crime, and prohibited vehemently sexual practices that threatened the family, the community, and consequently, the state. To disparage God’s design for the state is un-Christian. Over the centuries, since the establishment of the church, states influenced and informed by the Scriptures and the faith of the apostles have instituted the death penalty as an integral part of a just society. Only recently have these states in Europe and now the Americas abandoned the death penalty and severe penalties for sexual crimes against the family and the community, succumbing to the prevailing winds of atheistic philosophies. These states believe that they have a superior viewpoint concerning justice, and thus belittle and disparage the strong wisdom for the state clearly enunciated in the Holy Scriptures. Theologians in the academia have lost touch with the wisdom of Scriptures, promoting a vision for the state that ostensibly comes from Christ, but denies the respect and strong adherence which Christ himself had for the state and the design of God for the state. Not once did Christ raise his voice against the authority of the state to execute justice upon offenders as revealed in the book of the LAW. He said that He did not come to revoke the LAW, but to uphold it and fulfill it. Many theologians today revoke the Law. They ridicule it, and exclude it from any serious consideration, something which the Christ and the apostles never did. Or, they show disgust toward the Law and a sense of personal and cultural superiority over Moses and the Law, as if it were outdated, obselete, void of any true value. This is not how our Lord and the apostles treated the Law of Moses and neither should the church today. Lawlessness is taking over American culture and it is now that the church, like Christ and the apostles, need to uphold God’s design for the state and guide the state in true and wise reformation. To cave into the promiscuity and lawlessness, apologizing for the design for the state presented in Scripture, is contrary to the tenor of the New Testament, and weakens the witness of Christ and His church. Will the American Christian church take the Scriptures seriously, or will we dismiss it as “culturally specific” and inadequate for the challenges that face the world today? I trust we will take the Scriptures in Old Testament seriously, understanding its wisdom, truth, grace, salvation, even as Christ and the apostles did. I find dismissive attitudes of scholars like Hamilton and many others, to be appalling and utterly futile. We need to exorcise our “chronological snobbery”, receive the wisdom today of all the counsel of God, and carefully and gracefully apply this wisdom to ourselves, our family, our community, and to the state. Thank God for His Spirit and the fellowship of believers that help us in this divine task.

      • Teddy Ray says:

        This is an interesting response, Dan. I take from all you’ve said here that you believe the modern nation-state should be governed according to the standards given to Israel in the Pentateuch. Do I understand you correctly?

    • Ben Gosden – Paul upheld the right of the government to use the death penalty. He said that they do not “bear the sword in vain” referring to the death penalty. Also, Paul said that if he had done anything worthy of death, he would not refuse to die.

  • […] Tennent – Homosexuality, the Death Penalty, and the Old Testament: Hamilton argues that both Renfroe and he are in agreement that the second part of the verse […]

  • […] Asbury seminary president responds to Adam Hamilton’s exegesis over the question of why we no longer stone sinners. […]

  • Riley says:

    I don’t agree entirely. Under the line of logic you have presented above, the death penalty must be entirely abolished in the civil sphere.

    Leviticus 13 prescribes a civil human judgment for particular sins. This civil judgment foreshadows God’s more perfect judgment to come, but the two must be distinguished. It’s better, I think, to recognize that Christians are not individually called to mete out such punishments insofaras they do not wield the sword (Rom 13). It is not given to individual citizens, but only to the civil magistrate.

    • I don’t think the Bible prescribes or prohibits the death penalty. Leviticus describes a theocracy, which we do not have in the U.S. (far from it!). The functions of the state are described in Scripture, but the manner for carrying them out is left to the providential judgment of rulers (elected, appointed, hereditary, or other).

      My reasons for opposing the death penalty are more pragmatic than theological. The death penalty costs a lot more to administer than life in prison and has not been empirically shown to be a deterrent to crime. Also, it cuts short the time given an offender to repent and turn to Christ for forgiveness and restoration. (Although, some might argue that facing death might prompt some to come to repentance who would not otherwise do so.)

      Dr. Tennent’s point that Christ has fulfilled the death penalty for all humans is also a good one. However, I take Jesus’ atoning death to substitute for our (potential) eternal death as punishment for sin, rather than for our temporal death. Extending Tennent’s logic, one could argue that, since Christ took our punishment upon himself on the cross, the state ought not punish anyone for lawbreaking (a non-sensical interpretation).

      • John Meunier says:

        The case Tennent is trying to deal with is how we account for the fact that we don’t stone adulterers and other sinners.

        Hamilton argued that we don’t do that because stoning is an archaic cultural practice and he then extends that analysis to the sins themselves. Tennent is arguing that there is no analysis to extend. The reason we don’t stone people is because Jesus changed the economy of sin and atonement.

        I think we confuse the issue when we leap from this analysis to questions about how 21st century secular nation states should or should not administer justice.

  • Don L. says:

    A couple months ago, I did a formal debate in which I argued, as Tennant does, that Christ fulfills the law of the death penalty. However, I stopped short of saying that Christians should not practice the death penalty, but simply argued that the death penalty is not mandated.

    The debate is online here:

  • Dan Owsley says:

    Just getting back to this discussion after a couple of days away. Answering Ted above and putting out some more food for thought…

    Ted commented and asked me
    This is an interesting response, Dan. I take from all you’ve said here that you believe the modern nation-state should be governed according to the standards given to Israel in the Pentateuch. Do I understand you correctly?

    The short answer is “yes”. The design for the nation of Israel, as set out in the Penteteuch, is the blueprint that was followed as nations were being formed in Europe and consequently in the Americas. Each attempt was flawed, to be sure, but mounds of intellectual effort was made to work out constitutions that reflected the inspired blueprint in the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and the apostles. We can learn from these valiant efforts.

    We can explore new ways of applying the same blueprint in the face of the paganization taking place in our Western world, especially in Europe, Canada, and the U.S., although it is rapidly spreading to other countries in the Americas. Since the state and church have been made more and more separate in America, the church has been reluctant to inform and influence the state toward the godly design. As the main culture in America slid more and more towards pagan licentiousness, the church’s protest and resistance became less and less significant.

    I see the culture spiraling down toward godlessness, and the church, in some ranks, is weakening its witness when it caves in on issues like the state’s responsibility to implement a just penal system (the anchor of which is the death penalty, in my opinion as I observe the Penteteuch) and prosecute sexual crimes (such as adultery, prostitution, homosexuality). These crimes, now pretty much legalized in the nation called the United States of America, are causing our nation to fall into confusion and bedlam.

    These issues, however important, are superficial when compared to the central and core issue in the OT blueprint for a nation: The true worship of God. That is another, and, yeah, more critical, discussion: How can the church bring true worship to the center of the nation?

    The church has answered that question throughout the centuries in creative and enduring ways, employing careful and hard thought; and, it will always need to be ready to move true worship to the very heart of the country. We have stellar examples before and after Christ.

    Allow me to argue the following: The reason that Christ did not address extensively issues related to the state is that he knew that restoring true worship is at the very center of the restoration of the nation. His main beef was not with the state, but with the church (those given authority to conduct worship). When worship is right, the blueprint for a just state will follow, aligned carefully and thoughtfully with the OT blueprint.

  • Owen says:

    If I can add my own two cents to the debate that has diverged from Dr. Tennent’s pourpose.

    We have the following two propositions:
    A) The Old Testament Law/Torah provides the death penalty as a judgment against some/many sins
    B) Jesus died and fulfilled the Torah, thereby taking away the necessity of the death penalty within Torah (but not necessarily all punishment).

    However, one thing that is add that the death penalty did not originate in the Mosaic Torah, according to Pauline logic that is grounding on the promise to Abraham not being part of the Mosaic Covenant (what is earlier encompasses what is later rather than what is later encompasses what is earlier). According to Genesis, the death penalty originates after the flood God use to wipe out the intensely violent human world as a response to bloodshed. This is a dramatic reversal of the protection Cain received from God, which his descendant Lamech appropriated for himself.

    According to the logic used above as Christ’s death fulfilling the Mosaic Torah, it does not address the Noahic punishment. But it does register the essential freedom from the letter of Torah in order to show mercy, just like Jesus showed mercy to the adulterous woman about to be stoned in John 8 (this text presumes Jesus’ sinlessness allows him to stand as judge in the application of Torah). For all except murder, the death penalty has been absolved as a necessary means.

    Furthermore, mercy is God’s FIRST response to bloodshed as in Cain, not exact retribution (although God’s mercy was mixed with punishment through exile). Negative reciprocity for murder comes as a result of the violent escalation and as an attempt to prevent such. But that doesn’t change God’s primary response of mercy and grace to even murder, unless we presume God Himself changed. What this leads to is a sense in which life is to be highly valued above the correction of sin by those who seek to imitate God (through Christ), but in the circumstances where life has been/is being taken, there is a certain tension/ambiguity. Neither response is universally wrong in the face of bloodshed, but certainly God’s desire is for love and forgiveness that does not consider the death penalty as the primary or essential response to bloodshed.

    But in no sense is the state to resemble the fixed pattern of the Mosaic Torah (although, the demonstration of God’s character is reflected in Torah, albeit not exclusively nor finally). If the followers of Jesus are not bound to follow Torah, and are even cut off from Christ for trying to add Torah after converted (see Galatians), then the Torah is not the framework for the nations. In so far as the government is a reflection of the people of God (after all, governments are formed by people; they have no independent existence), the Torah is not the path to follow but the path of Christ through the Spirit. And in so far as the government is a reflection of people other than the people of God, they have no part of the Mosaic covenant in the first place.

  • Dan Owsley says:

    It seems we so easily dismiss the validity of the Torah and the wisdom it affords for the governance of nations. Christ did not make void the Torah, as he very clearly states. Is it not abundantly clear that our nation, after ‘humanizing’ our laws, abandoning all alignment with revealed wisdom, has become more and more lawless?