Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

GLBT Persons in Church: Case for Full Inclusion, 2

In my first post on this topic, I tried to clarify some terms and presuppositions. READ THAT FIRST–especially before writing angry comments. This post will prepare us to read the (few) biblical texts related to this topic (or which have been used in speaking of this topic). We’ll actually get to particular texts next time. First, we need to talk about how to read Scripture in moral discernment–in deciding ethical issues.

There is an important 2-point minimal consensus in Christian ethics (identified by Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen) on the relation of Scripture to normative Christian ethics:

  1. Biblical ethics is not and CANNOT BE identical with contemporary Christian ethics.
  2. To be authentically “Christian,” all contemporary Christian moral judgments MUST relate to Scripture in some fashion.

Now, this is a VERY minimal consensus and many of us, myself included, would like to say far more. But first, let’s examine why this consensus exists. The first statement will be far from obvious to many and the second to others.

Biblical ethics is not and CANNOT BE identical with contemporary Christian ethics. Really? Why not? Several reasons which I list in no particular order.

  • First, the biblical writers and communities did not confront many of the moral issues and historical forces which shape our lives today: e.g., genetic engineering, global warming, cloning, nuclear weaponry, civilian nuclear energy, etc., etc. Although same-sex pairings and actions were known, I am arguing that they did not confront “homosexuality” as we understand it today.
  • This leads to a second reason: sometimes a moral issue remains much the same in its basic outline, but the context is so altered that the biblical response no longer applies. E.g., On almost every page from Genesis to Revelation is a deep concern for poverty and hunger, but the causes of hunger in our day are less to weather eccentricities than to hunger as a constructed human reality. Practices of gleaning will hardly help today’s urban poor. The basic moral issue is the same, but the altered context will demand an alteration in the character of response, too.
  • On some issues the Bible has plenty to say, but says numerous different things: e.g., on war and peace (with continuities, but also sharp differences between on Old and New Testaments) or on the relationship of women and men (with some texts stressing equality and others prescribing female subordination). Which biblical texts should be prioritized over others?
  • On some issues the wider shape of biblical faith points in a different direction than specific biblical texts. The classic example here is slavery. Nowhere in Scripture is slavery as such completely condemned (the closest is the book of Philemon). Even the jubilee legislation of Leviticus–which demands freeing Hebrew slaves every 50 years still allows for permanently enslaving non-Hebrews. A slave’s death was not considered as morally bad as a free person’s death. Even though biblical slavery was not based on the concept of “race,” the 19th C. movement to abolish slavery had a hard time because the conservatives seemed to have the stronger biblical case. (In fact, I would argue that most American evangelicals and Southern Baptists never changed the way they approached scripture. They abandoned slavery because they lost a war, not because they learned to read the Bible in such a way as they saw it as evil.)

But the second point of the consensus is equally important. Christian ethics cannot simply forged apart from reflection on Scripture. This collection of texts forms our identity narrative–it tells us who we are by telling us who we have been. It tells the tales of our ancestors in faith and their experiences in history with God: How they encountered God and responded, sometimes faithfully and sometimes not. We call these texts “Scripture,” and claim it as our “canon,” or “rule of faith.” We believe in some mysterious way that God speaks in and through these very human words (in a way different from whatever other writings, etc. in which we may hear God)–so that the community of faith can hear in them the Word of God. Christian ethics is not CHRISTIAN apart from Scripture.

No one, of course, derives their moral conclusions ONLY from Scripture–not even, maybe especially not even, those who think they do so. We approach texts from within various traditions that make up the Christian Tradition. My own (ana)Baptist faith has often made negative comments about “human traditions”–believing that no confession of faith, creed, or theological document (or person like the pope) is infallible or unable to be questioned or revised. I hold to that view, strongly. But that does not mean that we stand outside any traditions–no one does. And the more familiar we are with our own and other traditions, the more we can see where they are helpful in illuminating biblical insights–or where they distort and lead to misreadings.

Our own experiences also shape the way we read Scripture. We approach texts and moral issues with particular loyalties and vested interests.

Reason and the human sciences while providing no moral voice of their own can also help us. After all the first question to ask in moral discernment is not “What must I/we do?” but “What is going on?” (H. Richard Niebuhr) and “What is God doing in this context?” (Paul Lehmann). (Lehmann’s general answer, “God is in the world working to make and keep human life human” is a good one, but fails the ecological test–it is too anthropocentric.)

One of the strengths of the critical methods of biblical interpretation is that they serve initially to distance the text from ourselves–to show us how ancient and strange and different the world of the biblical writers was from ours. That may seem alienating, but we too often assume we know the answer to moral or theological issues before we even ask the questions. We have to make sure we are not hearing echoes of our own voices–our child rearing, our Sunday School lessons, what we heard said about gays or lesbians (to take our current issue as illustrative) in locker rooms or on the playground, etc. To discern the voice of God in Scripture and in the living church today, we first have to screen out other voices and look at these ancient texts with new eyes.

So, with these preliminary thoughts in mind, I will in my next post in this series begin to examine the texts in Scripture that have been used in the debate over “homosexuality.” I will begin with the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis 19–with a glance at a parallel story in Lev. 19. From there we will examine a pair of laws in Leviticus. Before leaving the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, we will glance back at the creation stories in Gen. 1-2 (I will explain later why we do not begin there) and note some general things on sexuality found in the Song of Songs. Then, in the New Testament, we examine 2 common “vice lists” in Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) before turning to Rom.1-2, the most extended discussion of same-sex matters, the only place lesbianism (female homosexuality) is specifically discussed alongside male-male actions (there are hints of female-female eroticism in Ruth, but nothing conclusive). Rom. 1& 2 is also the only place where much in the way of theological reasoning is given on this issue. There are good reasons why many consider it to be the key text in the debate. Finally, before leaving biblical exegesis for reflections on other sources of information (Tradition, science, and experience), we will examine an obscure saying of Jesus that some new studies suggest may have been a positive word for people we today would call gays and lesbians. (This will be very tentative because of its newness–it has not been widely tested in academic debate.) My final post on the topic will move from Scripture to contemporary church in theological reasoning. [This outline is open to revision as necessary.]

I expect much interaction–and many to disagree. I understand that. I took 10 years of wrestling with this issue before coming to a position on full inclusion. My own strong commitment to biblical authority kept me wrestling with texts (like Jacob with the stranger/angel at the river Jabbok) long after my experiences with meeting gay and lesbian Christians was pushing my heart toward full inclusion. I had no desire to jump on some politically correct bandwagon. If you are cautious in reading my arguments, I fully understand. I ask only an open mind and heart–and to keep reading and wrestling and praying long after this series is done. I will give sources for further reading for those interested.

If you already know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about this issue, why bother reading this series? I welcome constructive criticism. Please point out any errors I am making. But if you are not reading with an open mind, why bother to read at all? The Bible is not really authoritative for us, no matter how much we claim otherwise, if we are not prepared to hear a different Word in and through its pages than the one we already believe beforehand.

December 30, 2006 Posted by | Bible, GLBT issues, homosexuality | 18 Comments