In this day of social media mobs and troll-fueled extremism, it’s not unusual for a politician to be digitally attacked for being too weak and “not really one of us”—on a seemingly infinite number of topics.
Even so, one might be surprised to see Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)—not known for repudiating the far extremes of his base—labeled on various social media platforms as soft, weak, and compromising. Some even suggested that Cruz was rejecting the Word of God itself. His radically “progressive” idea? That Uganda shouldn’t criminalize homosexuality and execute gay people.
Normally, a social media controversy is the most ephemeral of pseudo-events. People who want to be noticed post shocking and even ridiculous things (“Y’all! It’s not just Target that’s gone woke; let’s boycott Chick-fil-A too!”) to get attention, knowing they’ll be denounced and quote tweeted, which will amplify their reach. They think that retweets and followers will somehow give them the belonging and significance they crave. Often, the best course is to ignore such things in the spirit of Proverbs 26:4—“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.”
Sometimes, though, their kind of trolling can lead to two catastrophic ends that should concern those of us who follow Christ: the unjust killing of human beings made in the image of God and, at the same time, the bearing of false witness about what the Christian gospel actually is.
At issue is a harsh new law signed by Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni that would not only outlaw homosexuality but also mandate conversion-therapy-type “rehabilitation” for gay people who are arrested and require a kind of surveillance culture in which citizens are criminally liable for not turning in people they know to be gay. But most chilling of all, the law would impose the death penalty on categories deemed to be “aggravated homosexuality.”
Of course, repressive regimes violate human rights all the time and all around the world—and there are vast limits on how much other nations can do about it. But in this case, many are wondering whether the primary problem is that Uganda is taking the Bible out of context.
Some of those sniping at Cruz—especially for his categorization of the Ugandan law as “horrific” and “wrong”—argue that the senator’s issue is really with God. After all, they say, doesn’t the Bible dictate that “if a man has sexual relations with a male as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable [and] are to be put to death” (Lev. 20:13)?
I am an evangelical Christian committed to the verbal inspiration of the Bible, meaning I believe that every word of it is exactly what God intended it to be, by the power of the Spirit. I am also committed to the inerrancy of the Scriptures: that the Word of God speaks truthfully. Jesus’ view of the Bible—“Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35, ESV)—settles those issues for me.
I am also a Christian who agrees with the teaching of both the Scriptures and the church—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, for 2,000 years—which is that marriage is a one-flesh covenant between a man and a woman and that sexual expression outside of that covenant is wrong.
And yet my repulsion at the Ugandan state violence in this law is not despite those commitments but precisely because of them.
One does not honor the authority of Scripture if one obscures its meaning. Leviticus 20 explicitly condemns almost every form of sexual immorality—premarital sex, extramarital sex, and nearly every other kind of nonmarital sexual expression. Sexual sins are included alongside occultic practices, necromancy, and the cursing of one’s mother and father.
Of course, this is consistent with the rest of the biblical witness (whatever one thinks of its authority). Yet the penalties of death that come with those violations are situated in a very specific context in redemptive history. God revealed that the theocratic civil code, as well as its punishments, was for a purpose: to separate his people from the rest of the nations to prepare them to enter the inheritance of the land (Lev. 20:26).
To cite such passages of the old-covenant civil law as a mandate for a civil state outside that covenant is a misinterpretation that doesn’t fit with any historic, apostolic teaching of Christianity. In fact, it’s in line with those who would argue against any ethical content of the Christian faith by saying, “Yeah, well, if the Bible’s true, we couldn’t eat shellfish either.”
The moment one hears this, one knows that the arguer either isn’t aware of the old covenant/new covenant distinctions in the ceremonial and food laws (which is a major emphasis in the New Testament) or isn't arguing in good faith. The same applies to those who would say, “Well, the church in the Book of Acts shared their possessions in common” as an argument for the state-imposed communist totalitarianism of Lenin, Stalin, or Mao.
In the New Testament church, the apostles resolved the question of the Law in a Council at Jerusalem. They did not, as some might argue, wipe away the moral content of the Old Testament Law. For instance, Christians—whether Jew or Gentile—were still to abstain from sexual immorality (Acts 15:20). But the new covenant community was not a reconstruction of the Old Testament code of criminal penalties for violations of holiness.
In fact, we have example after example of Jesus and the apostles teaching the opposite. I hold as authentic Scripture the passage in John in which Jesus stops the stoning of an adulterous woman (“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” 8:7). I know some Christians believe it to be a later textual addition, but even if that were true, Jesus’ posture toward sinners was consistent throughout the Gospels.
In writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul rebuked an example of sexual immorality explicitly mentioned in the text of Leviticus 20—having sex with the wife of a family member. Paul also quoted, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13, ESV) —a text that was used in the Old Testament civil law to denote the death penalty (Deut. 13:5; 17:7; 22:21).
Yet Paul did not use this language to call for any criminal penalty by the state—and certainly not execution. Instead, he saw the “you” of the new covenant as applying to the church, not to the state. And the church is not given the power of the sword (Matt. 26:52; Rom. 13:1–7; 2 Cor. 10:4).
Moreover, Paul specifically notes in his letter that the church does not have judgment over outsiders. The local church should remove a sexually immoral person—if finally unrepentant—from membership in their community, but this does not mean they should stop associating with those who do the same things on the outside: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor. 5:12).
The word judge here does not mean to make moral assessments of what’s right and what’s wrong but rather to identify who is accountable to whom. In other words, the world is not accountable to the church. The church is accountable to the church—and, even then, not with physical or criminal penalties but with the spiritual means of Word and sacrament.
The revered late Presbyterian biblical theologian Edmund P. Clowney noted the disastrous consequences of those who use the Bible without being able to situate its texts in their redemptive-historical context. In fact, he said that using the Bible as a collection of moral examples—unhinged from the broader story of God’s purpose to sum up everything in the crucified and risen Christ—leads to a situation in which biblical history is “a chaotic jumble.”
“Those who find only collected moral tales in the Bible are constantly embarrassed by the good deeds of patriarchs, judges, and kings,” he wrote in Preaching and Biblical Theology. “Surely we cannot pattern our daily conduct on that of Samuel as he hews Agag to pieces, or Samson as he commits suicide, or Jeremiah as he preaches treason.”
“Dreadful consequences have ensued when blindness to the history of revelation was coupled with the courage to follow misunderstood examples,” Clowney wrote. “Heretics have been hewed in pieces in the name of Christ, and imprecatory psalms sung on the battlefields.”
In the unveiling of his purpose, God did indeed demonstrate his judgment through Samuel’s sword and Samson’s self-sacrifice and so on, but that moment in redemptive history is not where we are situated now. “Christ has not now given the sword but the keys to those who are charged with authority in his name,” Clowney wrote. “The sanctifying of God’s name in spiritual church discipline reflects in our situation the theocratic obedience of Samuel.”
Misinterpreting this is the equivalent of concluding that one should sacrifice a lamb on the church Communion table during a sermon series on Leviticus. At this time in history, God has commissioned us not to subdue the world with violence but to bear witness to the One he sent: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
Not everything that’s a sin is a crime. To equate all sin with crime, without the authority to do so, is itself a sin against God—to take the name of the Lord our God in vain. If the historic Christian vision of marriage and family is true and good and beautiful, as I believe it is, then we demonstrate that truth, goodness, and beauty to our unbelieving neighbors through our witness—not by threatening to kill them.
Unleashing the violence of state-ordained execution, imprisonment, and surveillance on gay and lesbian Ugandans is a condemnable act of authoritarianism and a violation of the self-evident and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To do such a thing is a matter of power, not of conviction. It demonstrates not a commitment to the Bible’s authority but a rejection of it.
Call it what you will, but don’t for a minute call it Christian.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.