“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of Jews, of Gyps, of temple tax, of sodomitic flings! And why hellfire is burning hot, and whence went the church bell’s rings.”
The next question and answer is from 8/3/2023.
Aaron resides in Falls Church, Virginia. He writes,
“Pastor Wilken, I was having trouble squaring what your response was on the listener comment line about civil punishment and homosexuality with what Doctor Mike Middendorf said on the original episode on God commanding the killing of homosexuals in Romans1:32.
“I understand you to say having civil punishment was something Western civilization had seen for millennia as reasonable to one degree or another. Doctor Middendorf seemed to rule out civil punishment altogether, saying he didn’t think that would be applicable to the sin of homosexual behavior in any case, just as the government shouldn’t be perhaps punishing greed or for disobeying parents or anything like that. Am I misunderstanding something here?
“Furthermore: stipulating that the Bible doesn’t command civil laws mandating the death penalty for homosexuality… does it forbid them?”
Thanks for the email, thanks for listening in Virginia, Aaron.
Doctor Middendorf and I were speaking to two kinds of subtly different points. Mine was simply a recognition that the laws of Western civilization have included criminal penalties for homosexuality and for adultery and for fathering children out of wedlock, and for all sorts of things that we no longer punish civilly. That’s just an observation of history.
Whereas Doctor Middendorf was dealing with the question, “was St. Paul advocating that the Roman government should be executing homosexuals when he says that homosexuality, among all these other sins, is worthy of death before God?” And he said, that’s not what Paul’s doing. Otherwise, he would have called for the Roman government to punish greed and disobedience to parents and all all sorts of things like that.
So he was making a different observation than I was, because Paul, living in that Roman context, simply could have said, “these things should be punished by death by the government.” But he doesn’t. He acknowledges that all these sins, not simply homosexuality, but all these sins before God, are worthy of death. And again, in the course of Paul’s long argument from Romans chapter one, in Romans chapter two, he goes from kind of the hypothetical to the “you” of Romans chapter two. That where we can find everyone else guilty of all these sins, ultimately comes down to where we stand, where I stand before God. And I too, along with the homosexual and the extortioners, all the other things that he lists there, I too stand worthy of death before God.
Retconning the Narrative
The first and most pressing matter to address is Wilken’s attempt at rewriting history.
If only that segment had been merely answering the question “was St. Paul advocating that the Roman government should be executing homosexuals”! There is a simple and honest answer to that query, and it goes like this:
Not as such.
Paul wrote a theological treatise on the coming of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an audience of believers in Rome. Paul’s purpose in writing was not to — in the fashion of Machiavelli — assume the role of advisor and counselor to the emperor. Rather, he sent this letter ahead of himself as a herald of the Gospel.
However, we may not derive from this lack of address to the ruling authorities that Paul was opposed to a civil death penalty for sodomitic acts. Such would be worse than an argument from silence, for in this text Paul does indeed give clear indication as to his convictions on this matter when he says that “[sodomites], knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.”
The objection may come: “Aha! But Paul is not here giving a command, to say that we ourselves, or the government which rules us, must do this.”
It is quite true that Paul here speaks in the indicative sense, and not the imperative sense, but this is proof itself in his subscription to such a command, given by Another. In the same way, I might say “what goes up, must come down”. I say this not as the author of such a law, but as an observer of the law which was given apart from me, and to which I bear witness with testimonies of words.
Again, when Paul spoke about death being the proper penalty for sodomitic acts, he was arguing from this as an established and accepted fact, not arguing for it as a prescriptive conclusion. For Paul, it was a foregone conclusion that this penalty was the salutary civil punishment for sodomy and, moreover, his argument from this fact rests on the assumption that his hearers are likewise disposed.
Therefore, while Paul did not undertake in this letter to advocate for the Roman government to execute sodomites, he did in this letter acknowledge the continuing meetness of the law God spoke to the Israelite nation through Moses. Nothing in Paul’s statement should cause us to doubt that a judgement of earthly death remains an appropriate punishment for sodomitic acts, as also for murder, even as through Paul’s appeal to this law he is working to turn our faces toward the judgement of eternal death for all manner of the unrighteous works for which man is guilty.
Is that what we got? No.
- Told that capital punishment for sodomy was an antiquated practice of ancient Israel that was unique to its place and time
- Told that the penalty was analogous to Israel-specific ceremonial laws, such as those regulating sacrifice and dietary restrictions
- Told that the penalty was analogous to the practice of slavery — the obvious cue for the audience to “boo”
- Told that this law was fulfilled and done away with in Christ
- Told that this law was merely typological, only to show God’s judgement on sin
- Told that this law was simply to show us how sinful we are, to cause us to despair and drive us to Christ and the Gospel
- Told that Christians are to love all, not selectively choose certain sins to carry out justice upon in the civil realm
- Told point-blank that the government should not punish “homosexual behavior” (which is undefined, so we are left to wonder if Middendorf is against sodomy laws, or simply against the censuring of “gay pride” parades)
Read that list again. This repeated pattern of argument over the years is exactly how the ELCA got a transgender bishop.
Civil Punishments for Civil Crimes
It bears repeating in discussions like these, where civil penalties are in view, that we need to ever and always be careful to mark a distinction between the internal proclivities (concupiscence) of Original Sin, and externally consummated acts (actual sin). The clergy class marinates in Second Use (the Mirror), which is focused on the Moral Law written on our hearts, so much that they entirely forget the First Use (the Curb), which is chiefly focused on external manifestations of lawlessness. As such, they fall easily into the antinomian shuck and jive, asserting:
If we had civil penalties for manifest adulterers, then we would have to punish everyone as all have at times had lust in our hearts!
This is of course a patently absurd assertion. It is incoherent to contend that, because a civil law has an underlying moral component that is violated in concupiscence (without breaking the civil law itself), it means that the civil law is per se absurd and should not be enforced. So, it will suffice here to simply remind of the necessity of marking this distinction.
As an aside, Wilken’s earlier point that civil punishments for adultery were abolished in the United States prior to the abolition of sodomy laws — to the country’s lamentable detriment — is worth recognizing. It accomplished the steepening of the gradient of the slippery slope that has brought us to this moment in history.
Not My Heckin Daughterino!
One of the reasons any discussion of capital punishment for sodomites is fraught with peril, even within the believing community, is that so many of our brothers have had sons and daughters taken captive by this corrosive ideology. Everyone with a sodomite son or daughter understandably shrinks from the concept of putting them to death, were such laws in place. Doubtless this very strain has caused not but a few to renounce “the God of the Old Testament,” and try to find a way to incorporate celebrating perverse acts into the practice of their (now so-called) faith. These need our prayers and compassion, even as we stand firm in God’s revealed will.
What is additionally lamentable in such cases is that only very few ever consider that if the sodomite(s) that got to Joanna had been put to death aforehand, she wouldn’t have become “Joey”. A social contagion plague ends when the vectors are brought down to the dust. You want this to be before it finds your house, and a Godly society will invest in this.
A Prayer and A Noose
Over a century ago we understood the difference between God’s mercy and civil judgement. Someone found guilty of a hanging offense would be spiritually ministered to in the days leading up to the execution, and once they took their place on the gallows the charges would be read, followed by the sentence, which was ultimately capped with: “May God have mercy on your soul.”
That is, we understood that, in this life, clemency for the perpetrator is often cruelty for the victim(s), and we do what we must, while hoping in the Lord for the deliverance of the condemned’s soul.
Indeed, sparing the wicked from lesser punishments now is to hate them, for without the rod of correction their iniquities will only grow more vile and bold. As Luther put it:
Just as it is a great mercy not to allow young people to have their will and way, whether it be accomplished by threats or by the rod; it will still cost trouble and labor enough to oppose and prevent evil, even though we punish severely. If punishment were altogether omitted and mercy took the place of office, the country would be full of rogues, and the world become a mere den of murderers. Then one would say to another: If you steal from me, I will rob you; if you go with my wife, I will go with yours. No, this would never do; therefore the executioner is a very beneficial and even a merciful man, for he prevents the rogue from repeating his crime, and restrains others from committing crimes. He executes the one and thus threatens others that would do the like, that they may fear the sword and keep the peace. This is a magnificent grace and pure mercy.Martin Luther, Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity, Text: Luke 6:36-42
But contra Luther, the LCMS insists that you are always the greater sinner. They bid men be sorrowful for getting out of bed in the morning, for as they are sinners every temporal act of any kind must be shot through with the evil nestled in their hearts. And since they are such great sinners who desire clemency, when they hear of obscene acts committed against others they can only muster the Golden Rule: “I must do unto others as I would have them do unto me; I would have forgiveness for my wickedness, therefore I must ask them not to do it again and let them go free.”
This is exactly what happens when you say that your own trifling sins are logs in your eye, whereas even the grossest most depraved and destructive sins of your neighbor are but specks in theirs — as I previously covered extensively. You would bid Hans the executioner to find other work and pat yourself on the back for your great mercy; and hence the world would be overrun with rogues.
Game Theory for Christians
When it comes to the question of what is to be done with the perpetrator of a wrong, there are three main ways a society can get it wrong and result in utter collapse of civil trust and cooperation.
- Failure of the civil magistrate to enact retribution on wrong with fair and sufficient punishment to avert repeat offense (Lex Talionis, cf. Ex 21:23-25, Lev 24:19-20)
- Men becoming so litigious that the courts are overwhelmed with petty disputes and can no longer function to uphold just laws
- Men resorting to vigilantism to settle personal disputes in a dog-eat-dog feeding frenzy
When Christ said,
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.Matthew 5:38-41, NKJV
… he was not thus abolishing civil courts or civil punishments, nor was he forbidding Christians to file charges against and seek recompense from someone who has wronged them (as some LCMS pastors teach). This would have been to collapse society according to point 1 above. In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly speaks of civil courts as one who expects them to continue in their role of adjudication, and that’s before you even get to Romans 13. In this, the predominant 21st century Lutheran interpretation — that Christ came to abolish the law (cf. Matt 5:17) by revoking for believers Moses’s grant of appeal to civil authorities — is dead wrong. Contra Joel Biermann, when Jesus says not to resist an evil person, he is not here contradicting Proverbs 25:26.
Rather, Christ was preaching against the Jewish custom of practicing points 2 and 3 above.
Regarding point 2, this hyper-litigiousness (generally with regard to money, cf. Matt 5:25-26, 18:21-35) is inferred in verse 40 above, where the lender is suing the debtor over his cloak — the very thing which Moses forbade.
When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God.Deuteronomy 24:10-13, NKJV
Regarding point 3, you see such taking matters into their own hands each and every time they tried to stone Christ or cast him off a cliff.
Instead, Jesus shows his first hearers a better way.
Rather than taking one another to court and clogging up the system over pennies, forgive one another’s debts.
Rather than striving with one another as Cain against Abel, going back and forth in escalating eye-for-eye tit-for-tat Hatfeld versus McCoystein feuds over what started as trifles and insults, forgive one another’s trespasses.
Christ shows his first hearers, and everyone who has come after, how to avoid the social death-spiral of hard-heartedly refusing to forgive.
Nothing in that necessitates against turning to the civil magistrate to punish intractable bad actors, guilty of gross violations of the law, common decency, and social peace and safety.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this total of four essays. My prayer is that this has given you deeper insight into the purpose and beauty of God’s Law, and that this has given you firm footing to withstand neo-Lutheran gaslighting regarding same.
As at the end of the first piece in this cycle, I will end with a warning and a charge.
The warning is that, if those trends in speaking about sodomy, personal sin, et cetera (which I have waged war against in these essays) continue to find purchase in the LCMS, then the saga of this denomination as a Christian one is de facto finished. No other denomination has survived saying the things that now ring from our seminaries, publishing house, and pulpits. To a one they have all become skin-suits stuffed to bursting with necroses.
Therefore my charge is that the LCMS attending among you the readership share these essays with your pastors. Talk about these subjects openly at Bible study and in your homes. Read Leviticus and Deuteronomy, along with a good commentary if need be (volume III of this project should do well, if you can wait 2 years). Meditate on the nature of the law for the governance of society, and how that is similar and how that is different to the moral law.
Pray for Wilken to understand these matters. And if he cannot or will not, then pray for him to retire quickly so that he does not bring shame on the great good he has done with his broadcast over the years. Die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain, and all that.
God gave Solomon the wisdom to administer over His people because Solomon requested it. Do the same in petition for the wisdom to understand the times we are in, and for the truth of God to stand as a bulwark in your mind against the derangement of the age.
May God grant it to you. Amen.