This is the second of several posts addressing the debate about homosexuality that will soon take place at the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America (June 7-12, 2018). To see earlier posts, scroll down.
Before I continue, let me say that every single statement I make in these posts is backed up by many hours of study and thought and dialogue. I could provide lots of footnotes, but I am just going to ask you to trust that I have done my homework in the Bible, in scholarly resources I trust, in relationships and conversations. If you want a bibliography, I’ll be happy to furnish one. More than anything else, I am trying my hardest to follow Jesus. That doesn’t mean I’m right. It just means I’m earnest.
The first consideration that has to be addressed about affirming or not affirming LGBTQ persons as full and legitimate members/leaders in the Christian church is the Bible. The arguments using biblical texts for either stance reflect the speakers’ understandings of how and why the Bible was written and what it means for us today.
For that reason, in my own exploration of what the Bible says about homosexuality, I had to ask myself the question, “What is the Bible for?” Did Moses, or Paul, or anyone else think that what they were penning would be scrutinized two or three thousand years later for evidence in ethical debates? It seems unlikely. Nor did those who prayerfully determined the biblical canon (the writings included in the Scriptures) anticipate fundamentalism many centuries later, when people would consider every word in the Bible equal to every other word in weight and meaning. (See, that idea is pretty young. Christians didn’t play “my text can beat your text” for many centuries, probably because they were dealing with things like the plague, war, slavery, stuff like that.)
Here’s what I think about the Bible. It is a record of people’s understanding about God that evolved over centuries. It was not one-sided; God was active in the process. But it seems that God let people deduce things about the divine that weren’t so great (like God annihilating people out of wrath) because it was all on the way to revealing the bigger (truer?) truth, but one step at a time, each one through the lens of anthropology at the time. These are big things to teach, and God is patient. So… there’s a story of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping it so he could learn that God doesn’t operate that way even though the religions of the time thought God did. There are so many other examples, but I’ll leave it at that.
Did the Holy Spirit inspire it all? I think so, because that’s what the Holy Spirit does. How that happened was probably as different as each writer was to each other. Are there things in the Bible that no longer apply? I think that’s true too, because the Holy Spirit is dynamic and involved in our progressive understandings of God and what it means to follow God, from four thousand years ago until today.
Am I wise enough to know which things still apply in original form and which don’t? Well, I do have a God-given brain to help me with that. But thinking we can tell everybody else precisely which text is timeless and which is contextual is a weighty responsibility that pastors can fumble even when we take it seriously. We need to offer one another grace about it instead of spending all our time debating, because too often the people whose lives we are discussing end up suffering collateral damage.
So we have Paul telling the early Christians that people who lusted after their own sex were sinners, because back then, there’s a good chance that older men taking advantage of younger men is what that meant (pederasty). Nowadays we have a different understanding of what homosexuality is. It’s good to have Paul’s example of discerning what it means to follow Jesus, because that is what we should be doing. But assuming that Paul’s advice two thousand years ago was meant to be a static ruling for all time seems to me to be an insult to the Holy Spirit, who expects us to pay attention to the factors at play in our time, in light of what we know about God. Then we can determine how we are called to love each other, the driving ethic for followers of Jesus Christ.
And frankly, Paul had a background of killing people over rules, and we can’t expect him to shake that impulse completely. He had his dark side just like the rest of us. He also wrote about grace, and about love being the bottom line, so I am willing to give him a pass on a few comments in his letters.
Then there is Jesus. I have to give his words and witness more weight than anything else, because he said himself that he is the only one who has been in both places (in the full presence of God and here among us), so he ought to know what he is talking about. But that’s for another day.
In case you are wondering which texts people have been arguing over, here’s the list. I’ll take you to a few others in the next few days, so stay tuned.
Noah and Ham (Genesis 9:20–27)
Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1–11
Levitical laws condemning same-sex relationships (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)
Two words in two Second Testament vice lists (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10)
Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 1:26–27)
I believe that these texts do not refer to homosexual relationships between two free, adult, and loving individuals. Legitimate (non-condemning) interpretations of these texts include rape or attempted rape (Genesis 9:20–27, 19:1–11), cultic prostitution (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), male prostitution and pederasty (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10), and promiscuity and/or the Isis cult in Rome (Romans 1:26–27).