ON DOING PUBLIC THEOLOGY
A Brief Reflection on the Notion that Jesus Decriminalized Sex Work in the John 7:53-8:11 Pericope
It goes without saying, and yet here I am saying it anyway, good theology showcases God and evokes doxology and devotion to God. This simple point shouldn’t really be contentious in the field of theology and to support this we do not have to go further than the etymology of the word “theology”. Theology is made up of two Greek words, 1) theos and 2) logos and literally reads the study (logos) of God (theos). On the semantic level it is clear that theology is about God and therefore to engage in theology is to engage with our minds and hearts in thinking about God or in the words of Anselm, theology is “faith [in God] seeking understanding”.
This point is necessary in light of the growing emphasis on a particular theological engagement, namely, public theology. The important point public theology seeks to make is that theological reflection has to extend beyond the church (while not without the church), beyond the classroom (while not giving up on the classroom) and beyond the academics (while not being suspicious of academics). Public theology, must therefore necessarily also engage with the world and the ethical, political and socio-economic issues in the various spheres of life.
This is a good point and makes public theology an important feature within theological studies. However, it is here where I want to stress again the initial point I made about the goal of good theology. Even though public theology engages in issues of society, politics and ethics, to name a few – it must still be stressed that whatever matters public theology reflects on the ultimate goal is not those matters per se but must remain God. Any matter that becomes the ultimate goal in theological reflection other than God means that, at that shifting point, the reflection has ceased to be theological.
DECRIMINALIZING SEX WORK
One example of doing public theology has recently come up and received a lot of attention and become a real point of controversy. A church in Cape Town has come out in support of decriminalizing sex work and has gone as far as supporting their support with the Scriptures. The Central Methodist Mission under the leadership of Reverend Alan Storey is arguing that “Jesus was the first to decriminalize sex work” and John 8:7 has been used as a support text.
This has been hailed as a perfect description of what public theology looks like i.e. theological reflection on issues of public and societal importance. The point though in this brief address is not to firstly or ultimately argue against or for any position on this matter but to take this specific situation of doing public theology as an occasion to demonstrate the importance that theology must always be ultimately about God and missing this central starting point is to most certainly go off the proverbial theological rail.
At this juncture I will be quick to make a few very necessary concessions. Firstly, I will concede that despite the disputed canonicity of John 7:53-8:11 the passage does have an important theological contribution to make regarding the issue at hand. Secondly, I will grant that the use of John 8:7 to support the notion that Jesus decriminalized sex work is not proof-texting. With that said, I want to now move on to engage the passage as well as the implications it raises.
A HERMENEUTICAL READING OF JOHN 7:53-8:11
It is of course important to rehears the narrative of John 7:53-8:11. An unnamed woman is allegedly caught in the act of adultery (either via prostitution of an adulteress affair) and she is brought by the Pharisees to Jesus (8:3-4). They proceed to charge her with a capital offense citing the Law of Moses (see Leviticus 20:10) as grounds for their accusation (8:3-4). The Pharisees are framing this as a legal and theological matter, before making it a social matter, by accusing this woman of transgressing the Law of God given to Moses.
It’s also important to keep in mind the purpose behind their actions, and that is, they are seeking to discredit Jesus on theological or Scriptural grounds e.g. “He (Jesus) goes against the Law of Moses, surely he’s a fraud”. This distinctly religious, theological and jurisprudent tone of the narrative must be appreciated. Some have sought, too quickly, to contextualize this narrative and frame it as dealing with social inequalities, raising matters of “dominant powers” and “oppression of the marginalized”. Though there may be such implications and applications in this passage, this interpretive grid cannot be sustained as the dominant intention by the author, on the basis of the immediate context.
After the Pharisees bring their charge against this woman, it’s instructive to note that Jesus does not disagree with them. If the woman truly has been caught in adultery the law requires capital punishment (Leviticus 20:10). By the way, it goes without saying that the man is guilty too but seeing that he is not named or anything said about him, his relevance to the point the narrative makes is probably not that important – perhaps he was a Gentile and the Pharisees determined the Law of Moses doesn’t apply to him as much as it applies to the woman, who let’s assume, is Jewish! This supports the view that the problems raised here is a problem concerning the Law of Moses and upholding it; it’s a Jewish problem and it is on these religious grounds that they seek to discredit Jesus (8:6).
This significantly informs the point John (textual variant issues notwithstanding) is seeking to make through this narrative. If their purpose is to discredit Jesus then John’s purpose will be to vindicate Jesus and this appears to be the controlling aspect of this narrative. In this light, John’s stated purpose for writing his gospel account (20:31) compliments this reconstruction. .
Jesus seemingly greets their accusation with complete indifference as He ignores them to the point of diffusing their aggression in remaining silent (8:6b). However, they persisted (8:7) showing how desperate they were to cause disparity between Jesus and Moses and so discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people. John informs his readers of something that may seem inconsequential at first and that is the posture Jesus assumed before responding. John writes Jesus “straightened up” (8:7). This is a remarkable image John wants to impress on his readers – an image of the straight and upright person of Jesus – against the hostility of the Pharisees Jesus does not shrink back but in bold perfection faces their aggression straight up.
This is a very appropriate image John provokes in the minds of his readers regarding Jesus who has now straightened up – the very embodiment of the law and the one sent to fulfill the law. In other words, John wants his readers to see that Jesus need not even verbally vindicate Himself but stands in His perfection vindicated upright and straightened. It’s noteworthy how the focus of the narrative has moved on from the woman – not to say anything in favor of disfavor regarding her but the focus is now on the main protagonist and that in all the gospel accounts is always Jesus.
Jesus finally responds to the Pharisees and says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). Not to belabor the point but instead to demonstrate it, John juxtaposes Jesus posture i.e. “straightening Himself” with Jesus’ response i.e. he who is without sin cast the first stone. In this there is clearly something being said about Jesus sinless perfection.
An interpretive problem which deserves consideration is in Jesus’ actual statement here in verse 7. Is he being sincere/serious or sarcastic or both? While the answer could be both, it is necessary to stress that nothing in the passage would suggest that Jesus isn’t being sincere and serious. In other words Jesus meets their cry for justice with a sincere response, “if there is any among you without sin, cast the first stone” (8:7) – judge the evidently guilty woman! Jesus is being serious. This could easily count as some ancient-eastern-Jewish-court-room scenario and the prosecution, in this case the Pharisees, charges the suspect, in this case the woman, of breaking a clearly stipulated law.
Jesus’ response is essentially not to argue the validity of the charge – which is here assumed to be with merit – but to determine who then gets to judge. Jesus’ concern then is not about the guilt of the woman but that her hypocritical accusers are not interested in justice but to exploit her guilt in an effort to set Jesus up. As one New Testament scholar remarks, “Her accusers had made her the bait for a trap”.
So, if this was a woman who prostituted herself and was caught with a married man; an act which under the law (of Moses) was punishable by public stoning, was Jesus decriminalizing sex work in John 8:7 and somehow nullifying the Law of Moses on this issue? Before the moral zealots begin to decry such a “ridiculous” interpretation it is important to appreciate that there is an issue of legality that features strongly in this narrative. The Law of Moses, given by God to constitute and govern Israel as a nation and the Jews as a people, is brought up and appears to have been violated by this woman. Therefore, Jesus saying “he without sin cast the first stone” could be read as Jesus not only disarming these hypocritical religious leaders but in effect setting aside this law and thereby decriminalizing what could be constructed as sex work.
I do, however, think this would be a narrow reading and interpretation of this particular narrative. What were Jesus then intending with his response in John 8:7? Jesus was doing public theology, but the kind of public theology that brings God to bear on the life of God’s world and the falleness and brokenness in this world. Jesus’ words in John 8:7 make three God-centered public-theology points that I briefly state now.
THREE MAIN POINTS JESUS MAKES IN THE NARRATIVE
- Jesus makes the point that only God charges the guilty
Jesus is demonstrating in John 8:7 that the Pharisees were in no (better) position to pronounce guilt on this woman. Here the lesson is clear that only God charges the guilty or one could say only the law establishes guilt, not the law-breakers. The public theology implication worth reflecting on here is that fellow-law breakers – which is the disposition of every person – are not the standard by which others are measured but the law established and given by God alone measures all our hearts.
This point could go a long way in removing the condescending nature many take towards those deemed “more sinful” and engaged with “greater sin” e.g. sex workers. Here an objective morally perfect standard stands over every person and reminds every person that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). This could remove any stigma attached to certain sins that provokes hostility on the part of some towards those so called “greater sinners”. Taking the point Jesus makes here, namely, that it is the law that charges the guilty is to be a reminder that the same law that judges the immoral person and the adultery i.e. the woman, judges the gossiper and the liar and the one whose heart is full of deceit i.e. the Pharisees.
- Jesus makes the point that only God judges the guilty
Jesus says “he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Jesus was not setting aside the law, nor is he decriminalizing the supposed “sex work” of this woman – no less justifying her adultery. This would be a narrow and mistaken reading of the text. Instead Jesus affirms the truthfulness of the law and in verse 6 concedes that it has indeed been violated. He even goes further than conceding the violation of the law and begins to address the issue of sentencing and judgment (8:7).
In other words, this woman is guilty of violating Moses’ law but the question is not whether she will be judged but by whom she will be judged! Jesus immediately rules out the Pharisees as prospective judges on the grounds that they are equally sinful and if the interests of their hearts are exposed then they too must face the same judgment they are calling on for this woman! As one New Testament scholar puts it, “Their vicious hatred of him was as bad as her immorality”. Jesus, therefore, makes the point that only He who is without sin judges, which is basically the same as saying only He who is perfect judges. This of course is God (or contextually the God-man).
The public theology implication worth reflecting on here as it relates to sex workers is that as a society and community of human-beings we must be careful of passing judgment on others while sheltering our own evil hearts. Were the interests of our hearts exposed we may be as repulsed by it as we are by the outward immorality we are so quick to observe in others. This doesn’t mean that one must condone or approve of sex work or any immoral behaviour but that properly appropriating ones position – not as a judge – but as a sinner more gentleness and grace may be shown towards other seemingly worst offenders than us.
- Jesus makes the point that only God can forgive
Now while it was said earlier that the main point here is not to speak for or against Jesus decriminalizing sex work that is not to say that it isn’t a point at all. Clearly the position I take here and that leaks out in how I’ve constructed my argument is that Jesus is most certainly not decriminalizing sex work or setting aside any laws. In fact the opposite is true – in John 8:6 Jesus is enforcing the law by calling for judgment to be served – but only by him who is without sin.
John writes that slowly but surely, “they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones” (8:9). They conceded Jesus’ point that like the woman they too have sinned, like the woman they too are guilty, and like the woman they too ought to be “condemned” (8:10). Jesus knowing they all left, addresses the woman and asked her “where are they?” (8:10). Could this be understood as Jesus wanting to impress upon this woman, who has been humiliated for her sins by extreme hypocrites, that she was not the only guilty one and thus providing her some comfort not in her sin but in her not being the only sinner? Might this be helpful in ministering to sex workers who may already have formed the perception that they are morally beyond hope?
It’s worth noting again that before Jesus asked here about the whereabouts of the Pharisees, John tells his readers that Jesus was “straightening up” (8:10). John again stresses the upright and straightened position Jesus takes which I’m almost forced to take as yet another important inference. Similar to the first instance where Jesus’ straightening up posture which was juxtaposed with the law (which is upright), John now juxtaposes Jesus’ upright posture with these words “Did no one condemn you? Neither do I” (8:10). In other words John is painting a picture with this verbal imagery of “Jesus straightening”, that Jesus is not only upright in reference to the law keeping but He is always upright in reference to grace giving.
The real scandal here is not that Jesus decriminalized sex work but that Jesus forgives sex workers! This is truly the essence of public theology in the purest form. Public theology is the announcement of the good news to the world. The message the church of the Lord Jesus Christ has is not that Jesus sets aside the law for the sake of bringing the marginalized immediate physical safety and protection, but that Jesus keeps the law on our behalf and then forgives us our breaking of the law bringing the-whosever-believes eternal safety and protection!
The intent here is by no means to villainize the good people of Central Methodist Church and it’s perhaps at this point important to state that the underlying concern of the Central Methodist Church and Reverend Alan Storey is to show care and concern for the most vulnerable in society which in their view includes sex workers. I believe it’s possible to grant the genuineness of their motives without having to brand them as promoters of immorality and sin. There seem to be genuine pastoral and Christian concern for the safety and dignity of women who are sex workers. This is a worthy concern that any professing Christian ought to have and not only for women who are sex workers but for anyone in any immediate danger or anyone suffering discrimination.
MINISTERING ON MORE SURE GROUNDS
However, the vastness of biblical revelation provides much stronger ground to stand on to demonstrate such care. Public theology must not merely care to be imaginative or innovative but must seek to be faithful to the biblical witness. There is enough in the wisdom of God, given in the Scriptures, to sufficiently address an array of complex issues in the world. I will note two examples:
Firstly, the God-ordained means of earthly authorities and the laws they are called to uphold and enforce (Roman 13:1-4) is a good starting point for Christians who are concerned about the physical safety of anyone. The concern for the safety of sex workers is not addressed by setting aside the law against sex work but enforcing the law against assault and other violent behavior that these women are experiencing.
Secondly, the concern for the human-dignity of sex workers is not something to be worked for – in decriminalizing sex work – but it is something to be affirmed – despite them being sex workers. Irrespective of what people may do or become, they fundamentally remain image bearers of God. Though, through the fall, the image of God in human beings was marred it was not completely destroyed and human life has divinely derived dignity. Sex workers are human beings and as human beings they too have divinely derived dignity. Therefore dignity is not earned it must simply be upheld!
In fairness to Reverend Storey, he makes this similar point, ““The basis of our protection and care for the well-being of sex workers is rooted in the theological fact that all human beings are engraved with the indelible image of God and therefore are to be treasured as the priceless gifts they are.”
PASTORAL IMPLICATIONS FOR DECRIMINALIZING SEX WORK
I would also like to add that the notion that Jesus decriminalized sex work has massive practical implications for the witness of the church. Public theology must also be pastoral theology. So allow me to raise a few very important questions that Reverend Storey must think through as he provides counsel and discharges his pastoral ministry. If the church begins to proclaim that Jesus does not deem sex work immoral, and criminal how would the mother of a sex worker think through this? Will Pastors advocating for the decriminalization of sex work regard it as a legitimate vocation and what kind of career guidance and counseling would they offer women considering it – perhaps women in their family who may be open to it?
There is another layer here that must be considered and that it is the potential untold damage to the cornerstone of society, namely, the family. It is widely known that a large percentage of men who seek the services of sex workers are married. How would Jesus’ decriminalization of sex work relate to the issue of adultery, and the potential destruction of the family? Can a pastor march for the decriminalization of sex work with a sex worker and sit down to counsel a hurting wife who is picking up the pieces of her marriage that has been shattered by the services of a sex worker? – Irrespective of the fact that the husband initiated it. I’m almost sure a grieving wife’s heart is not comforted by such technicalities.
What kind of counsel would Reverend Storey provide a wife who comes to him completely shattered because her husband has “consulted” a sex worker? Or do we say that Jesus only decriminalized sex work where the “customer” is not married? Or shall we even dig the ethical ditch deeper and say that Jesus drew a distinction between what is morally acceptable before God and lawful acts in a country and just because something is legal in the land doesn’t mean it is moral before God?
THEOLOGY MUST BEGIN WITH AND END IN GOD
Many churches can take a lesson from this particular church who is seeking to reach out to those stigmatized and marginalized in society. As Reverend Storey says “In other words, our care for another has nothing to do with how they live and everything to do with the mere fact they are alive. Sex workers are some of the most vulnerable people in our society who are consistently treated as outcasts”. However, the best way to do this, infused by the implications of John 7:53- 8:11, is to draw near with love and the good news that Jesus is willing and able to forgive sins, to heal broken hearts and to reconcile to God in order that true and lasting flourishing of life may occur.
Theology must begin with and end in God. Public theology though concerned with the world at large and the specific issues in society – must begin with and end in God. When engaging the biblical text, one of the first hermeneutical steps is to ask of the text the right questions in order that the text will yield the right answers. The question that must be asked of every verse of Scripture – which is after all the self-disclosure of God – is what does this have to say and teach us about God and how does that theology inform our worship of God, love for our neighbor and life we lead?
Asking that question of John 7:53-8:11 will not yield the answer of decriminalizing sex work. The narrative John 7:53-8:11 is firstly all about God’s prerogative to charge the guilty, God’s perfection to judge the sinner and God’s grace to forgive whosoever believes in His Son Jesus Christ. Starting with the woman, the Pharisees, or even the concept of sex work is starting on the wrong foot and compromising the path we then take thereafter.
However, the narrative does have a positive message for those marginalized, discriminated and hated as a result of their immoral life-style choices. While the woman “caught in the act of adultery”, is initially belittled and discriminated by the Pharisees, Jesus is observably patient with her and does not immediately join forces with the Pharisees in condemning what is obviously generally accepted sinful behavior. Here we are taught to be patient like Jesus with sinners like ourselves!
It is also instructive how Jesus is impartial in his dealings in this account demonstrating not only the guilt of this woman but also the guilt of the Pharisees. We are then taught here by Jesus to be impartial in our dealings with those society deem less than us because they supposedly live more sinfully than we do. We must measure our piety not by the impious behaviour of others but by the perfect word of God and only then will we realize, to our surprise, that there may not be much difference between what’s in our hearts and what’s observable by our eyes in the lives of others.
Then finally, in the narrative Jesus teaches us to be gracious with those marginalized by their immoral life choices, as Jesus was with this woman. She found grace in Jesus (8:10-11). The question for us is what would a publically despised prostitute find in us?
The John 7:53-8:11 pericope does not decriminalize sex work or set aside any law. If Jesus did this he would have played into the hands of the Pharisees who were seeking to discredit him by trying to show the people disparity between Jesus and Moses. However, Jesus who alone is perfect and who is God in the flesh with authority to forgive transgressors – shows grace to this woman. In fact, we know that Jesus regarded her “lifestyle” as sinful because after refusing to condemn her Jesus instructs her: ““Go now and leave your life of sin.” (8:11).
This narrative presents us a theology for ministering to those discriminated because of immoral lifestyles deemed socially (and morally) stigmatic. The theological constituents for such a ministry is made up of us being, deeply patient, genuinely impartial and unconditionally gracious – holding forth the good news of Jesus Christ to any, who are oppressed, marginalized and discriminated against! In the famous John 3:16 Jesus did not only mean the part about how God so loved the world, he did not only mean the part about believing and having eternal life but he most certainly also meant that whosoever believes, even a sex worker, will not perish but have everlasting life.