Over the last year or so, public debate around Christian morality has been dominated by a couple of things – the “Safe Schools” program of gender inclusive education and the plebiscite on marriage equality. These topics have raised a number of issues for Christians about how to respond. One question is about how Christians should relate to state power and legislation. Another question is how to truly love our neighbours when they are different from us. But another is a question about how we read the bible.
As society has changed to allow more people to come out as being of non-heterosexual orientation, many Christians (including myself) have had their biblical interpretation challenged by our experience. This experience of getting to know people who are gay, lesbian or trans; and recognising that these friends did not do anything to choose this “sin” and in pursuing loving relationships they hardly seemed to be committing some great wrong.
There are several responses that I have seen to this dilemma. One is to weasel around the words in the bible – saying things like “Jesus never mentioned homosexuality”, or “the homosexuality strongly condemned in the bible was not the same as the mutually consensual relationships of today”. Another response is to just discard the bible, or at least parts of it, as something written in another time and not relevant for today. Another is to carry on in a state of cognitive dissonance – on one level affirming the words of the bible but in practice loving and accepting people whose lives don’t quite fit into a biblical idea of sexual morality.
All of these I’d say are fairly understandable ways of dealing with our predicament, and I would certainly recommend our interactions with others are dictated by love rather than any particular interpretation. An interesting thing about these three responses is that they all are premised, at least as a starting point, on the idea that there is one coherent, “inerrant” line through the bible that we should obey.
The historical context of Christianity in a way dictates this view of scripture more so than other religions. While a formal doctrine of “biblical inneracy” is a very recent phenomenon; the early Christian church developed its creeds out of theological arguments aimed at articulating one true doctrine. The dominance of Greek thought and its emphasis on rationality and reason would have been very influential on this. Protestant Christianity meanwhile, emerged contemporaneously with the Enlightenment, the “age of reason”. In these contexts Christianity was seen as needing to make logical sense. Jewish religion (the people who wrote most of the bible!) as a counter-example is much less strict on dogma; interpretation is perpetually fluid and open to debate.
If you take a step outside of these cultural dictates, it is no great stretch to say that the bible contains numerous contradictions that are hard to reconcile – just to name a few you could say the violent, vengeful God vs the forgiving “love your enemies” of Jesus, salvation by faith alone vs judgement for actions, God’s sovereignty vs human free will. The New Testament interpretation of Old Testament passages too would rarely pass today’s standards of contextualisation.
To use one (topical) example, the question of homosexuality has challenged for many Christians how we read the bible. I already mentioned some of the responses I have noticed. But I think this challenge is also an opportunity to reassess how we use the bible.
I don’t especially like to say this, but it is pretty hard to read the bible and find a pro-homosexuality message. It is our experience that makes us want to. To say that Jesus doesn’t mention it is hardly sufficient (since there are plenty of other things he doesn’t mention which we can all still agree are morally wrong), and to say these verses are bound in the context of the time is fair enough, but where does that leave the rest of the bible? And who gets to choose which bits are for today and which aren’t?
To re-examine a biblical view on homosexuality, I’m going to look at all the biblical references to it, but only in depth analyse a couple of them. There are six references to homosexuality in the bible. This of course is worth remembering – many many other things are given more airtime in the bible yet this issue has come to be commonly seen as the most definitively “Christian” political issue.
The first is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. It’s a pretty well known story, so I won’t go into the details. But it paints a picture of a very depraved society, though as many have pointed out the actions of a city full of men demanding access to rape two strangers is hardly the same thing as a consensual homosexual relationship. Interestingly, when Sodom is later used as an allegory for sin in Ezekiel 16, homosexuality is not mentioned. Instead, it says “Sodom.. was arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
The Old Testament law has two references to homosexuality – Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Both of these are strongly worded (calling it “detestable”) and come amongst a set of sexual guidelines that mostly still resemble our society’s parameters of sexual morality. Much of Leviticus though is full of laws relating to food and clothing that very few Christians today would consider keeping – it is in fact Christian orthodoxy to not see these laws as essential to be kept. Much of the New Testament is dedicated to arguing why these laws should not be kept (though to be fair, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 does still ask the non-Jewish Christians to “abstain from sexual immorality”).
Moving to the New Testament and there are several references in the letters of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, homosexuals are listed among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Timothy 1:10 is a similar list, though the word here sometimes translated as homosexuals is disputed – in my NIV bible it is translated as “perverts”. Of more direct reference to homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27, which we will come back to in a second.
Actually the bible passage mostly used by Christian opponents of same-sex marriage is none of these – it is Genesis 2:24, the part in the creation story where it says “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This passage, it is claimed, is a description of God’s intended order, and is reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19 when he is asked a question about divorce by the Pharisees.
Now this is where I want to really dig into our interpretation of this. There are several interesting things to note here. One is that neither Genesis nor Matthew is about gay marriage. Matthew 19 is in fact about divorce – and very strongly prohibits it. Most churches, at least in the Western world, no longer hold to the line Jesus says here that “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” I would suggest the reason for that is our experience that not every marriage is healthy and that actually sometimes the most loving and just thing is divorce.
Secondly, Jesus’ affirmation of Genesis here is a funny kind of affirmation. He starts with “at the beginning the Creator made them male and female”, but in this very same passage he somewhat cryptically says “some are eunuchs because they were born that way” (which I think at the very least is an acknowledgement that sexual and gender binaries are not as clear as many would claim from the bible). And he quotes “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”, but again says “some have renounced marriage for the kingdom of heaven”. In saying this, he seems to be affirming the disciples’ assertion that “it is better not to marry”. Paul echoes this at length in 1 Corinthians 7, a chapter that starts with “it is good for a man not to marry”. So much for God’s “intended order”.
In fact, the Christian loyalty to the nuclear family which leads many to oppose same-sex marriage for the sake of children’s right to a mother and a father doesn’t really seem to come from the bible. Jesus in fact repeatedly criticises the primacy of the family –
in Luke 8:19-21 “Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.’”;
Luke 9:59-62 “He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”;
None of these verses, of course, are referring to same-sex marriage. But Jesus is against a love for those close to us that excludes others – “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47); and for a radical kingdom of God that transcends human barriers and includes the marginalised. To sum up the Christian message as a defence of the nuclear family is to do the exact opposite of the verses I have just quoted.
Let’s move back to Romans 1. It is the opening statement of Paul’s long exposition of why humans are unable to be justified by law and instead require faith. And it says “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
The basis of Paul’s objection to homosexuality here would seem to be that it’s not natural. It’s interesting then to venture to another of Paul’s letters – one which we’ve already seen also mentions homosexuality – 1 Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives the church at Corinth some guidelines for worship. It’s a strange and convoluted passage with the main thrust being that women should cover their head in church and men should not. Paul uses the same terminology as Romans 1 (“para phusin” in the Greek, if you’re interested) to say that it is natural for men to have short hair and women to have long. There are a couple of noteworthy things about this.
Firstly, it’s another biblical instruction that most Christians disregard with no guilty conscience – because contrary to what the bible says, our experience teaches us that it makes no difference to prayers whether a man’s head is covered or a woman has short hair. Secondly, there is no definition of “nature” I can think of that would indicate it is natural for men to have short hair and women long. Men have short hair because they cut it with scissors. So we’re forced to conclude that Paul’s definition of “nature” can at times be kinda questionable; and that his gendered distinctions of headwear here would seem to contradict his assertion in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free.
So where does this leave us? Probably further from a definite position on anything than we were at the start. But doctrinal rigidity can be a problem because once we dig around we may find it’s on shakier ground than we first thought. But more than that, it could lead us to miss out on what the holy spirit is actually doing.
I mentioned earlier the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It’s a very interesting piece of scripture because it actually documents how the early Christians dealt with their theology being challenged. Barnabas and Paul return from their travels telling of Gentiles converting to Christianity. For us reading now, this seems obvious as part of the message of Jesus. But for the church at the time this would have seemed much more of a crisis of belief. The Old Testament; from the laws, the history of wars and invasions, the post-exile books where the prophet Ezra condemns the Jews for inter-breeding (Nehemiah 9), and the prophetic books which frequently condemn the surrounding nations and speak of Israel’s resurgence; continually asserts a picture of Israel as the exclusive people of God.
The New Testament interactions with Gentiles; from Jesus’ argument with the Syro-Pheonecian woman (Matthew 15), to Peter’s dream from God (Acts 10); show even for the positive encounters with Gentiles it was far from a given. And yet, at the Council of Jerusalem the apostles take the experience of seeing the holy spirit move among Gentiles and decide on a massive theological shift.
‘“After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things” –
things known from long ago.”
“‘I will restore David’s fallen shelter –
I will repair its broken walls
and restore its ruins –
and will rebuild it as it used to be,
so that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations that bear my name,’
declares the Lord, who will do these things.”
“All mankind seeking the Lord” would seem quite different from the Jews “possessing the remnant of Edom and all nations”. If you look into it more you’ll find that James’ quote is actually tacked together from three different prophecies made by three different people in three different contexts – the line about all mankind seeking the lord comes from Zechariah 8, while the Lord doing these things known from long ago is from Isaiah 45. James is effectively rewriting the bible to suit their new experience of the Holy Spirit. Adding to the feeling that they are just making it up as they go along is the statement from the apostles to the Gentiles – where the instructions about the disregarding most of the Old Testament are justified because they “seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28).
In the end, the church won out from the apostles’ willingness to have their doctrine challenged. It expanded to new places and people; most of the most influential figures in Christian history have been non-Jews. More than that, it enabled the church to actually live out the inclusive vision of God and the Holy Spirit to act.
It’s worth remembering Jesus’ many repudiations of the Pharisees’ legalism and his very concise summary of the Old Testament laws (Matt 22:34-40). Paul in the end says the same thing (Galatians 5:14). St Augustine’s answer to the debates of christian morality? “Love and do what you will”. Christianity should never be reduced to a set of rules (something New Testament writers struggled against); it is a living thing – the quest to radically love and to bring about the kingdom of God. The bible only really works in this context.
But where does this leave us in regards to the bible? In the classic words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” I hope the bible is not useless (for one it would make all the time I spent writing this redundant), but I believe it only makes sense in the context of love in action.
In the end the bible is an amazing book, and one passage in isolation can still be very powerful. It is also an undeniably counter-cultural text (though it has much more to critique about our current society than just sexuality, which would be nice to see more Christians acknowledge). But to use this book as a guideline for how we will base our life, or how we will relate to public policy that can affect other people’s lives; we need to view any one passage in the context of the whole book, of history and the wider body of knowledge; and of our own experiences. A lot has changed in the 2000 years since it was written, just like a lot changed over the centuries that the Bible was written in and a lot will change from our time into the future. The trick is to be open to the light our new experiences will shine on the word of God, and to love boldly and radically.
I’ll admit that my own experience has led me to reject verses that see homosexuality as innately wrong. I even go to the rallies in support of marriage equality, to churches that explicitly affirm diverse gender and sexualities, and support in any way I can the struggle of people of all sexualities to authentically live out a life of freedom and fulfillingness. And having put a lot of time and thought into it, I can also say that I do so not in spite of my faith in Jesus and the bible, but because of it.