December 13, 2018

A Response to Nicki (Part 2): The Bible and How We Interpret It

Nicki is a commenter at the post What Do Gays And Lesbians Hear? She made some excellent points that deserve response. I appreciate the constructive conversation, and especially the participation of gay friends.

I quote again from Nicki’s comment.

Personally, I believe the only way to understand the Bible, is to understand it in the culture and context that it was written in. The world is not flat. Women are allowed to speak and be participants in Church. We eat shrimp and shellfish. We plant more than one type of plant in a field. We wear clothes made of more than one kind of fabric ( ie. polyester). All these things were considered an abomination in the Old Testament. What was considered an abomination several thousand years ago had more to do with preserving the Jewish religion and nation than anything else. Preservation of health without refrigeration, preserving the nation through procreation, preserving ritual purity etc. were of paramount importance and influenced the law and culture.


One of the most difficult issues facing us in this discussion is our attitude toward the Bible and its role in the conversation.

I see no possible resolution of this impasse. I believe both sides would say that if it could be clearly demonstrated that scripture teaches the other person’s position, then adoption of that position would follow.

Advocates of “Gay Biblical Interpretation” and typical evangelicals both believe that scripture must be interpreted. None of us are practicing the slavery that is accepted in the Bible. Few of us are enforcing the Biblical admonitions on headcoverings. These and many other issues- including the role of women in general- are interpreted through a kind of Biblical interpretation that separates cultural practices of the first century from the obligations of Christians.

This is right and is an important responsibility for all of us who believe scripture is authoritative.

The problem at that point becomes clear, and Nicki demonstrates that problem: Advocates of “gay Biblical interpretation” have an approach to the Bible on this issue that most of us simply cannot adopt and will not adopt. It simply cannot be seen as sound, cautious, respectful use of the Bible.

Among the positions that evangelicals would have to endorse:

1) That God creates homosexuality as “good.”
2) That Old Testament prohibitions on homosexual sexual acts be rejected on the basis of the interpretation of texts on slavery, etc. The controlling hermeneutic of the topics is so different that this methodology can’t be sustained.
3) That homosexual behavior is not included in the Biblical descriptions of sexual sin.
4) That Jesus was silent on the specific subject of homosexuality, etc. and therefore, the Bible gives tacit approval to homosexual relationships.
5) That the supposed pagan cultural norm of “consenting adult homosexuality” is to be preferred over against the obvious Jewish prohibition of all same sex sexual behavior.
6. Same sex relationships among Biblical characters.

I often affirm that I have a view of scripture that precludes absolute clarity on many subjects. Unlike many Christians, I believe the Bible can be approached and arranged in ways that support various positions on which Christians may disagree.

When I say this, however, I am not referring to those instances where Biblical clarity is undeniable. I believe this is an issue where scripture is clear and the surrounding factors do not move us into the area where cultural concerns deeply influence the outcome. Sexuality is closely tied to the image of God and to the Trinitarian nature of love. Sexual sin of any kind is not a matter of pragmatic or political issues, but of faithfulness to the original intention of creation.

That is why the prohibitions on two kinds of cloth in Leviticus can’t be compared to Paul’s description of sexual sin in Romans 1. Sexuality is mapped into creation before culture becomes a factor. This is why many evangelicals simply cannot make the compromises that gay theologians ask us to make. Too much is at stake in the created order of sexuality.

Well respected New Testament theologian Luke Timothy Johnson is a Biblical scholar and an advocate of gay marriage. In recent comments, he was surprisingly straightforward.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality-namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.

This is a far more preferable and profitable basis for discussion. Instead of asking for a complete surrender of major tenets of Biblical interpretation, Johnson admits that scripture does not endorse homosexuality, and advocates should appeal directly to reason and collective experience.

I would suggest that the impasse we face would be less of an obstacle to relationships and mutual respect if we stopped arguing over what the Bible says and how to interpret it, and recognize the more fundamental factors for many gays: they are arguing on the basis of their own life experience.

Comments

  1. wouldn’t the same exact argument be true for woman’s roles in leadership – appealing to a pre-cultural view of our design and how that reflects the trinity?

  2. I don’t want to derail the discussion onto another issue, and I’m not really clear what you mean. Obviously Christians differ on that issue as well. I do feel a lot more is asked by gay interpretation than by egalitarianism.

  3. I was incredibly grateful to Luke Timothy Johnson when he declared that [gay Christians] explicitly reject the commands of Scripture. Though I disagree with his willingness to turn to another authority outside of God, his declaration showed an honesty that few (on either side) have previously brought to the table.

  4. We as evangelicals who sincerely attempt to interpret and obey Scripture will have to face this fact:

    Many homosexuals will never admit that their attractions are sinful. So, now what. How do we receive – reject – love – those who desire Christianity without at least an intial alignment with the Biblical view? No one can change a person’s view except the Holy Spirit. When I was saved I still believed in abortion, evolution, smoking pot, and a litany of other issues and truths that the Spirit changed within me later, BUT I WAS WELCOMED INTO THE BODY OF CHRIST.

    I want to know not how to change people’s views, that is usually futile. I want to know how do we treat those who believe Jesus is the only Lord and Savior and yet come in with a deception about sexuality?? Is there a time frame we allow them to change?? Do we recive them as lititimate believers or not? And if not, do we tell them?

    The Biblical views about the sinfulness of that lifestyle notwithstanding, how do we show Chist to these people who, like Nikki, who have like I did doctrinally unsound baggage? We can provide a discourse for them but that is still wanting. Do we reject them until they acknowledge their sin, or do we embrace them with all the unconfortableness of their unbiblical views?

    This is serious and the subject is not just “how do we change their minds”, no, the conversation turns now to us. The church has not had an introspective discussion as to our behavior and hospitality toward people like that because we are understandably worried about changing the Scriptures. We must work our way out of Jerusalem and into the least of these with some probing and inconvenient observations about ourselves.

    Welcome to the end days complete with the community of ostrich evangelicals. And of course I must present my “non-emergent” credentials so I can avoid some of the mischaracterizations that usually accompany any conversation that escapes the usual confines of “orthodox” thought.

  5. Kevin Montgomery says:

    I’ll also agree with Luke Timothy Johnson (who, btw, also wrote an excellent and accessible book on the Nicene Creed that greatly increased my appreciation for it). There are places in Scripture that condemn homosexual acts.

    However, Anglican that I am, I would tend also to agree with the Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker, who makes a distinction between “natural law” and “positive law.” The former deals with things good or bad in themselves, while the latter deals with things that are declared good or bad either by God or by human authorities and can be changed based on different circumstances. Scripture itself contains both.

    Given that the Hebrew term in Leviticus, often translated into English as “abomination,” refers more to something ritually impure than evil in itself, I would see it more in the realm of positive law. The question then is whether or not (and how) that particular command can be changed, reinterpreted, or even ignored. (Now if someone more knowledgeable about Hebrew has a different opinion, I’m willing to admit my error.) Of course, to do so requires careful communal deliberation, much prayer, but also allowance for pastoral trial before coming to conclusive decisions.

    I take Scripture seriously and hold it in primary place, but I also try to apply the lenses of tradition and reason to inform my reading of Scripture. (Likewise, I also rely on Scripture to test and critique both tradition and reason.)

  6. More is asked by gays of their interpretations than others??? Well, maybe some do, but so do many conservative Christians! Can the ‘gay interpretation’ be considered a reaction to not having ANY interpretations except from the people that really tend to not like them?

    So, when a ‘cacusian’ heterosexual male studies ancient texts, languages and cultures and interprets the bible through his eyes and other organs which have been studied by previous generations of basically the same and comes to particular conclusions which have to be fought over years upon years after females and minorities have gained education,knowledge of ancient cultures, and beliefs–have maybe a few concepts and interpretations been presented that are valid?? If so, will there be more?

    Romans has been quoted several times in these posts, but only certain portions of course. So here is one other question to think about. Look at the varying interpretations of that section, and ask your self–what is the natural use of a female? Is it only sexual? Having your wife by-your-side when you answer may or may not be a good idea.

    Also, did everyone go ‘gay’ and then and only then did humans and become the following–

    (CEV) 28Since these people refused even to think about God, he let their useless minds rule over them. That’s why they do all sorts of indecent things. 29They are evil, wicked, and greedy, as well as mean in every possible way. They want what others have, and they murder, argue, cheat, and are hard to get along with. They gossip, 30say cruel things about others, and hate God. They are proud, conceited, and boastful, always thinking up new ways to do evil. These people don’t respect their parents. 31They are stupid, unreliable, and don’t have any love or pity for others. 32They know God has said that anyone who acts this way deserves to die. But they keep on doing evil things, and they even encourage others to do them.

    Sorry–I see many heterosexual Christian or not that have these qualities.

  7. In the first place, I think I’m the one who brought up the adage that we try to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Michael didn’t say that I don’t believe.

    I also thought of Romans 1. There is clearly teaching in the New Testament that homosexuality is not what God ordained for humanity. The practice is sexual sin. While there is no record of Jesus encountering homosexuality, there are plenty of accounts of his dealing with other sexual sins. The Samaritan woman at the well had multiple failed marriages and was currently engaged in fornication. Jesus set an example by talking to her, treating her like a human being, and ultimately sharing the gospel with her. When others in her own city shunned her, Jesus did not. Sexual sin is just one example of fallen humanity being sinful. The original intent of Michael’s first post (the one Nikki is responding to) was that the church needs to be careful how it represents itself to gay and lesbian listeners: like Jesus, we need to be sensitive to all the people we encounter, because every person has sinned in some way. Remember the 2 men Jesus described praying in the temple? We need to not be like the Pharisee, thanking God that we are at least better than…anyone.

  8. Kevin (NOT Montgomery):

    I don’t know any serious or respected evangelical interpreter on Romans 1 who ties it only to homosexuality. It’s about the sinfulness of the human race, and the distortions of sexual sin are only an example. I completely agree that all persons are indicted at the end of Romans 1, and as I said elsewhere, that opens the door to universal salvation in Jesus.

  9. Blank Slate says:

    Micheal, do you have the link to where you “said elsewhere, that opens the door to universal salvation in Jesus.” I would like to know what you mean by that. Thanks.

  10. Blank:

    If the word universal makes you uncomfortable, just leave it out. I don’t believe in “limited” atonement, but I’m not an actual universalist. As close as I can be, though 🙂

    I just said that universal sinfulness puts all of us on equal footing at the cross. Nothing more unusual than that.

  11. I think the discussion on Romans 1 is often misunderstood. Paul is not picking out homosexuality as being some kind of uber sin. He is saying that it came about as a RESULT of sin. Because man rejected the knowledge of God, man began to desire those things that are contrary to God’s desires. This would place homosexuality at the core. It does not matter whether one is born, made, or chooses to be homosexual. That discussion is irrelevant to the theme of Romans 1. Paul is simply saying that it is a result of man’s deluge into sin. It is a symptom of the larger problem, just like hatred, malice, and debauchery are all resultant behaviors of a sinful heart. This may be splitting hairs, but I believe it is an important distinction. As long as we are focusing on individual “sins” and trying to define what is and what is not sin, we miss the larger picture that man has become inherently sinful and in desperate need of God’s grace. Once a person realizes that all of his or her righteousness is filthy rags before God, he stops worrying about singular issues and looks at the larger picture of Christ’s sacrifice.

    Just my two cents.

  12. Michael,

    Do you see a problem in Johnson’s appeal to human experience over the witness of Scripture? It seems to me that his view raises the question of whether the voice of Scripture matters at all. He not only proposes that human experience (in this case, that of homosexual persons) be considered as a valid hermeneutic for interpretation, but actually argues that experience ought to override what he readily acknowledges to be the clear teaching of Scripture on the subject of homosexuality.

    Once Johnson’s proposal is accepted, it’s not clear to me why one ought to bother with an Near Eastern text that is historically and culturally specific to the point of being irrelevant today. In other words, if our experience has the final word, then why does the Bible matter at all for the Christian–homosexual or not? Am I missing something here? I ask that question sincerely.

    WWH

  13. Anyone else notice how this discussion has devolved into a “Lord, what about him?” debate (a la “When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”), an issue I had a few thoughts on recently.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World

  14. To Michael Spencer-

    Thank you again for allowing this subject on your blog and allowing discussion on it. Also, thank you for addressing the Romans 1 section, I thought I had seen more than the two posts citing that particular chapter regarding it. Even though I agree with your post, I must confess, I have heard a multitude of Christians citing those particular verses and more for their anti-gay rhetoric–for example the post that followed mine. Could not part of Romans 1 seem to be alluding or referring to mankind’s attempt to ‘know’ their pagan gods and ignore the one True God? Were there not fertility rituals and sexual ‘interactions’ with the gods seemed part of the practice of many ancient cultures?

    Also, as you saw on the first portion (Section 1) of the question, many people raised the question of 1 Cor. 5 and fellowship with gays that were ‘Christians’ but unrepentant of their homosexuality– I just started to write that comparing withdrawal of fellowship from a ‘believer’ involved in an adulterous relationship with either his step-mother or even worse mother seems out of place [was the father alive?], but realized that bringing this up is almost a silly and unproductive cause since a high portion of those discussing 1 Cor. 5 assumed without any doubt that homosexuality is a sin and could not be anything else but that. Seems the only way to figure this out is to call upon God and have Him guide us and our hearts. For the non-gays to maybe get to know or at least observe some gay Christians and see if God is working in their lives and to what extent and as for us gay Christians, allow God to work as fully as He pleases in our lives and to whatever extent.

    Kevin H.
    aka Niveksi
    http://www.gaychristian.net/

  15. Lauren wrote:
    I was incredibly grateful to Luke Timothy Johnson when he declared that [gay Christians] explicitly reject the commands of Scripture. Though I disagree with his willingness to turn to another authority outside of God, his declaration showed an honesty that few (on either side) have previously brought to the table.

    To be fair to Luke Timothy Johnson, he wouldn’t necessarily say he is turning to another authority outside of God, but would say that experience comes out of the discernment of the moving of the Holy Spirit. The example he typically points to is Acts 15 where Peter discusses his experience with Cornelius, on whom the Holy Spirit descended forcing Peter to say, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ (Acts 10.47) This led to the council under James to side with Peter and Paul against those who may well have been saying, ‘But the Bible says that all must be circumcised!’ (my paraphrase.) For Peter, Paul, and (perhaps reluctantly) James, the Holy Spirit and the experience of those Gentiles made for the change.

    Whether or not one agrees with LTJ’s argument is another matter, but I don’t think it’s fair to say he is turning from the authority of God. He is trying to think through these issues as best he can. I also think this is a better place to begin a discussion.

  16. It is the universal “offer” of salvation made individually effective by faith in Christ. Hence “Go and preach to every creature”. But in the context of this discussion what are the prerequisites for conversion as it pertains to repentance, sin, and the particulars of the lost sinner’s present circumstance?

    And as an “Ariminian” I must ask this question, “Can a lost sinner be decieved by a wrong and false gospel?”. For instance, If a homosexual person inquires about salvation in Christ but he is told he must forsake his lifestyle first or upon the very act of faith and that message is flawed, can that present a man made road block in the path of a seeker?

    Remember Jesus Himself said that the Pharisees were blocking the way for sinners to enter the kingdom due to their man made rules, and he said that publicans and harlots enter the kingdom before the teachers of the law. We teach with great and swelling words that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works. We are such great reformers, aren’t we, “the just shall live by faith” is our borrowed montra.

    And yet we require, we require, certain works in order to be fully saved. “What if they never change?”. I guess we would FORCED To leave it in God’s hands, what a novel experiment. Until then maybe we could pray, maybe we could teach, maybe we could love, maybe we could show some grace that doesn’t license sin but authenticates love.

    Oh yea, we must worry about the implications of that upon our systematic theology which professes a sovereign God but refuses to trust completely on that same sovereignty we so often tout. What would happen if we recieved some gays into our fellowship and they never changed? What would happen if they left the same? What would happen if they never really were converted?

    Jesus even made a refernce to Sodom that pulled the self righteousness from under has followers who assumed that their righteousness exceeded that of Sodom because they did not commit the same sins. The more I delve into this whole area I am confronted with a question of the veracity of the grace we claim. Can it only apply to the clean outside like the Pharisees, or is the grace of God sufficient to save a sinner right where he is and start a process of conforming a son to His older brother? Must this sinner present himself with the sanctification process already in gear before he can follow Christ?

    In the end we are accomplished grace talkers but when it comes to dangerous and vulnerable and powerful grace we shrink with the uncomfortable uncertainty of an 8 year old little girl in a room full of dignitaries. We are afraid of making a mistake, we are afraid of expanding grace, we are afraid of trusting God. And what was the slur thrown at Jesus most often? He ate and drank with sinners and even allowed women of known sinful sexual practices to worship Him who He even used to chasten the self righteous thoughts of His discples about. He recieved sinners without preconditions.

    We can sleep well tonight, they can never accuse us of that…

  17. PA Merritt says:

    Clark,
    When you say something like this, “The Samaritan woman at the well had multiple failed marriages and was currently engaged in fornication” you need to realize you are adding modern western cultural values to an ancient middle eastern story.

    Think about what you know now about the relationship women have with men in that part of the world, even today. What woman today in that region would have been able to have even 2 husbands, much less extramarital relationships, without being stoned for her sin?
    This was a woman whose family had probably set her up with 5 arranged marriages, each time sent back for any number of reasons (death of husband, illness in husband’s family, poor relationship with husband’s mother or 1st wife or whatever). The man she was living with was not her husband; in fact, it was probably her father or her oldest living male relative because no one else would have her. Of course the townspeople shunned her; she was incredibly unlucky.

    We all do this. We all take our own life history and education and perspective and cultural values and see the bible through that lens. When we prooftext to one verse like Romans 1:26 or Hebrews 13:4 or any other verse, the refraction from that lens (to continue the metaphor) can be blinding.

    What we need to remember is why Jesus came in the first place, living by example a life where orthodoxy was an unnecessary hindrance, where caring for the abandoned was paramount and where sharing love was to be as natural as breathing.

    Where in this discussion of sin and becoming like Christ (as we define it, regardless of source) are we talking about the love Christ had for tax collectors and lepers and the people on the fringes of society? Who are the lepers in our society, and are we caring for them the way we should?

    I put it to all of us; if we define ourselves by what sins we have or have not committed, and separate ourselves from others based on such distinctions then we have missed the point entirely. Jesus did not come to point out sin, in our lives or those of others. Jesus came to bring a better way of love and compassion and healing.

    Does this make sense at all?

  18. I agree with Lauren: To me it is far more honest to say “We depart from the Bible when it comes to same-sex relations” than to say “If you squint really hard after spinning in a circle 10 times, maybe God isn’t really saying same-sex relations are bad.”

    My sexual sins (past and present) are still sin just like same-sex sexual activity. I don’t think anyone here is advocating that we frog march gays out of church. I think the issue though is what should the pastor say if asked point blank: “What does God think of homosexual sex?” I would hope the answer would be something like “It is a sin – any sex outside of biblical marriage is a sin. We are not a church that grades the severity of sin and we recognize that we all sin in a variety of ways. But God sent Jesus, who sacrificed himself for all of our sins.”

    One of the larger baptist churches in my area had a bit of a controversy regarding its gay members. A membership directory was being published with pictures — you could take a family picture to be put in the directory. Two guys, who by all accounts have been in a long-term committed relationship, roll up and want their “family” picture taken. The person signing them up said “I don’t think so.” Controversy ensued — pastor then decided that there would be no family pictures period.

    As I stated in the earlier thread, we need to separate the PR problem from the scripture issue. It is easy for straight people like me to elevate the sin of gay sex because it is highly unlikely I’ll ever be tempted. It’s easy for single people to bust on married people who cheat. But just because many of us want to throw our brothers and sisters down on the floor to snatch that sawdust from their eye doesn’t mean the sawdust isn’t there. What frustrates me about this debate is that both sides are using human standards to evaluate it rather than God’s standards. In the valley of the blind, the one eyed man still only has one eye — there is no grading on a curve contrary to the old saying.

    We. Are. All. Sinners. Who have only one hope.

  19. Sorry, I’ve only had time to skim all the post, reading some more than others, so I hope I’m not being redundant.

    A comment to Michael’s first posting shared the story of two gays and their struggles. Several comments in this posting have asked the question (in different ways) of how Jesus would respond to gays.

    In my frail understanding of who Jesus is, via reading his history in the NT, I will share how I see him reacting.

    I’m not making a gay-stereotype but I want to use the most extreme example to make a point. If Jesus was to enter the most “extreme” gay bar of sexual variation (say a sadomachistic bar or bathhouse) I believe that 1) Jesus would be very comfortable (as comfortable as he would be in a church elder’s board meeting) 2) the people in the room would feel very comfortable with Jesus too, and not feel condemned 3) Jesus would see through the cultural trappings (piercings, tattoos, leather thongs) and see directly into the heart and the pain of the individual in the same way as he would look past the shirts and ties at the elder board meeting and into the specific pain of their hearts. The pain of the gay group may be unique to their experiences of being born with desires that were incongruent with the society in which they lived and wanted to be accepted in. Gay bigotry is alive and well from elementary schools throughout life. The individuals would sense Jesus’ compassion and understanding of their personal struggles in a way that they had never felt before.

    Would Jesus invite them to follow Him? Of course. Would they? Like within any group, some would and some would not, because of His terms. His terms? “Follow me.” That, like for all of us, will mean an evolution of who we are.

    When would Jesus be confrontational, turning over tables etc.? I really believe that the people, whom Jesus didn’t care for, were the Ted-Haggard types . . . those living a façade, preaching one thing, living squeaky-clean lives on the surface (condemning the “homosexual agenda”) but secretly living something else. I think this Haggard-syndrome is more common that we would like to believe. I’ve personally known three. I would tell their stories but my time is up . . .

  20. I realize that my last posting may be out of place as Michael has moved on to “Part II” about how we interpret it. My posting may belong to Part I better (sorry but I can’t move it now).

  21. Charlie says:

    I would like to add a thought to the discussion focused on Jesus’ acceptance of sinners. There is no doubt that He came to seek and save sinners, he was a friend of sinners, he ate and drank with sinners, and he focused his greatest criticism upon those who thought they did not need a “Doctor.” He despised self-righteousness, as he did every other sin. It is also true that when Jesus entered into the life of a “sinner” he brought with him a powerful righteous presence that would not allow that person to stay the same. After his encounters they went and sinned no more, Zacchaeus mended his ways with those he had cheated, etc.

    Why he dealt with some more harshly that others I don’t know. But his objective was always the same no matter what the sin or who the sinner…repent, bring forth fruits suitable for repentance, turn and follow me, put off the old, etc. How this repentance plays out is not cookie-cutter, but it must indeed play out if we are to assume the role of Disciple.

    Yes, Jesus receives us, all of us, just as we are. But, he never intends to leave us in that state but rather to conform us into His Holy image. This is grace so amazing!

  22. Michael O. Wright says:

    Dueteronomy chapter 23, no forbidden marriage shall come into the assembly.

  23. Charlie –

    Amen and amen.