Category Archives: Doctrine
I’m taking what I hope will only be a one-post break from my review of The Bible Tells Me So to share a long summary of an event I attended this weekend. Hopefully sometime soon, I’ll be back with part two of my review series!
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Eight months ago, after a summer away from church and a good deal of soul-searching, I started attending Thoburn UMC. I had only had minimal experiences with United Methodism before, but they had all been more or less positive. And I had heard a lot of great things about Thoburn, so I figured I would give it a shot.
At first, it was all very different to me. It is as if Christianity were like a metal ball within a transparent glass globe, and that globe has many angled flat surfaces, kind of like a disco ball. Depending on what surface you look through, the metal ball might appear large, small, wide, narrow, etc. The ball is the same, but every angle skews it differently.
So the surface through which I saw Christianity had shifted as a result of being immersed in Thoburn culture, and largely in an incredibly positive way. Here was a faith community that challenged me to step outside myself. I have learned so many new things about Christianity since I’ve been going to Thoburn, and that really could be a blog post in and of itself.
Today, though, I want to narrow in on one of the newer things I have learned. This weekend I attended an all-day lecture event titled “Reclaiming Our United Methodist Heritage.” The speaker, who wrote a book of the same name which the small group leaders at my church are currently studying, is Paul Chilcote. The insights he shared were so life-giving, so profound, that I thought I would write a summarization of them here. I apologize in advance for the length, but since I’m already planting this post in the middle of a series, I didn’t want to break it out into separate posts like I probably should have!
Session 1. The Message: A God of Grace and Love
Paul began his first lecture by defining grace as understood by John Wesley, whose theology and work of revival in England formed the foundation of United Methodism. Wesley challenged the Calvinistic view of grace in that day, which claims that God has predestined certain people to accept His saving grace, and others to reject it.
For Wesley, God’s grace is universal; all may receive it, and none are excluded from it. It is an all-encompassing grace (which, by the way, makes perfect sense to me since that is the very definition of grace itself!!). Paul defined this Wesleyan grace as God’s unconditional movement toward all created things in His desire to draw us into his loving embrace.
After giving this broad definition, Paul went on to describe how there are two components to this kind of grace: creation and restoration. It is foundational to the Christian faith that God created the world ex nihilo—out of nothing. Therefore, God’s very first act of grace was creation itself. God is self-sustaining, so giving us life—and such a diverse, enormous, complex life at that!—was an act of grace and not an act of necessity.
The second broad component of grace is restoration. To kick off his exploration of this, Paul began by describing how this theme is woven throughout orthodox theology in a way that is beautifully unique to Christianity. The very concept of a Trinitarian God—three-in-one, father, son, and spirit—is entirely unique to the Christian faith and points to the fact that (this is SO cool!) the very nature of the triune God reveals his desire for reconciliation, for relationship. God himself is a relationship, a nexus, a model for how he desires to interact with his creation. What a powerful concept!
This grace of restoration is not only an individual movement, but as Paul put it, has a “cosmic dimension”. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul the apostle declares “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”(NIV) This is restoration on a corporate scale, concerned with the redemption of the world as well as the redemption of the individual.
Here, Paul transitions into a description of the Gospel that dovetails perfectly with this two-prong grace, and brings into light the ways many Christians fall short of telling the whole story of the Gospel. In light of Wesleyan grace, the Gospel has four chapters: creation, fall, forgiveness, and restoration. Too often, especially in the evangelical tradition, the gospel is watered down to concepts two and three, and we forget where we came from, and where God is leading us in the broader scheme of things.
Chapters one and especially four are crucial to the Christian life, for restoration is the process of imbuing us with the capacity to love others in the way that God has loved us. It is the beginning of the journey described in 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is the process of sanctification in which followers of Christ are vessels of clay to be shaped into something new, something that has a purpose in the Kingdom of God.
Session 2. The Community: A Family in Which to Grow
The second lecture of the day transitioned into a discussion of the necessity of community in the Christian walk. If our ultimate purpose as Christians is to love, he argues, then we need community to do it well, because loving well is something that cannot be a solitary task. The Church is meant to nurture and deepen our faith, which then manifests itself in a love that is action-oriented. This is key: if there are no such acts of love in our lives, then our faith has no meaning (a concept that is very clear in scripture). And the Christian community is the force responsible for propelling that outward manifestation of love.
Embracing the Four-Chapter Gospel as described in the previous lecture is also key to developing a rich community. To illustrate this, Paul walked us through a history of the Church’s development in the United States. When the Great Awakening swept through the nation in the mid-eighteenth century, Protestant Christianity as a whole became fixated on individual salvation. We began asking ourselves the question “am I saved?” when in reality the more poignant and important question is “what am I saved for?” And the answer to that question, of course, is what the fourth chapter of the Gospel is all about.
Paul then went on to share a brief illustration about Billy Graham, and how conversion is never enough to sustain growth in Christ. As an incredibly successful evangelist, Graham spent many years converting many people to Christianity. What he found later in his life, however, was that many of his converts were not remaining within the faith. Much like the seeds that fell on rocky ground in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, they had an incredible conversion experience but did not grow roots in the Christian life. As a result, they gradually fell away.
Graham came to realize what Wesley had already encouraged centuries before; Christian community creates retention, it creates Christians who develop and grow roots in a way that a single recitation of the sinner’s prayer can’t. In essence, small groups (which I should point out are quite different from institutionalized Church!) are vital to spiritual development.
Paul concluded his lecture with a fresh interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Typically, when we read this story we see Mary as someone to be admired; she knew learning from Jesus was more important than carrying on with the house work, and her sister Martha would do well to worry less about hosting Jesus. Paul, however, used this story to illustrate the duality of the Christian life; we can’t always be like Mary, sitting and listening and learning and doing nothing. We must also be like Martha, who took on acts of service in a practical way. We as individuals and as a corporate body need both: Mary’s heart and Martha’s hands.
Session 3. The Discipline: A Pilgrimage of Accountable Discipleship
This lecture focused on different practices of the church and individual Christians as we grow in Christ. Paul began by introducing several helpful concepts that we must understand in order to carry out these practices, which he defined as “the things we do to address fundamental needs in response to God’s active presence in the light of the world.”
We then broke down these practices into smaller sets. Works of piety encapsulate the broad categories of worship and devotion, while works of mercy involve acts of compassion and justice. There are both corporate and personal dimensions to each of these practices, and the two must be balanced in sync if healthy growth is to occur within the life of the Church.
Another aspect of Methodist practices that I found to be particularly interesting was the emphasis on song. Indeed, Song is so central the United Methodism that in England it is known as “the singing church.” John Wesley’s brother, Charles Wesley, composed many great hymns during his lifetime. Often throughout the lecture, Paul would read through a few stanzas of one of Charles’ hymns and then draw out theological insights from them that meshed beautifully with the Methodist ideas he was sharing.
We spent a great deal of time on the final practices that Paul explores in this lecture: that of the Word and the Table; i.e., scripture and communion. Paul framed his discussion of the Table within the concept of time: we can see it in the dimension of the past, in which the focus is the Lord’s Supper and its significance in preceding Jesus’ crucifixion. For us it is an act of “anamnesis”, of reenacting the past to bring its reality into the present moment. It is a commemoration of the most significant story in all of history: story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The present dimension is most easily defined in the word the Eucharist. Growing up, I had never referred to the Lord’s Supper as such, so I looked up the word to see what distinguishes it. Far more than a commemoration, when we refer to sharing the bread and the wine as the Eucharist, we are adding a dimension of gratitude. Paul took this even further, and described the Eucharist as a practice of joy and celebration. I loved this concept, especially since it was so new to me.
Finally, the future dimension of the Lord’s Supper focuses on the hope we have in God for the restoration of the world. The ultimate purpose of the table, in the grand scheme of things, is press us outward, to move us into a world in need of the hope we have.
Session 4. The Servanthood: A Mission in God’s World
The final lecture of the day was largely about our relationship with our mission field: the world. Paul prefaced his introductory statement with the warning that it would be controversial, and indeed it was: we are part of the Christian faith not for our own salvation but to be God’s ambassadors for love and service. The entirety of our life is meant to be an offering to God: a very high calling indeed!
This concept has ultimate clarity in the story of the gospel and what Paul calls “kinosis theology.” This is the idea that it is the nature of God to empty himself. For example, when Jesus came to the world as a human being, he emptied himself of all Godly qualities save one: Love. And since Love is the essence of God, Jesus remained wholly human and wholly divine.
Of course, we as a church are called to live in a similar manner. Paul used the metaphor of a hurricane to illustrate what this would look like in the life of the church. The strongest hurricanes are the ones with a powerful centrifugal force: that is, an outward force that spirals wider and wider. If a hurricane shifted to focus inwardly—centripetal force—it would die quickly.
The Church must always be that centrifugal force. We cannot be an introspective people, concerned with preserving our own traditions and maintaining our own small way of life. If we do, we would be as dead as the eye of a hurricane. The Kingdom would move forward, because God is at its head, but it would move forward without us.
Instead we must be concerned with the world around us, and attuned to its needs. Paul talked about two dimensions to these acts of service. The first is what we most often think of: acts of compassion. This type is generally something personal, and it involves being present in the midst of those who are suffering.
The second type is justice, which is of course generally a more corporate approach. This type recognizes the mistreatment of others, and translates empathy for them into an effort to improve their circumstances. As Paul described this form of service to others, I couldn’t help but remember a quote that I had read once. Tony Campolo, an influential and very wise minister, declared that “justice is nothing more than love translated into social policy.” And likewise, Paul made it clear to us that justice always has a political dimension. It is about doing God’s work in the world by changing the systems in place that oppress.
The final session of the day was rounded off with the plea to listen. So often, injustice is something subtle, worked so deeply into the fiber of our culture that it is only by being attentive listeners that we can see the problems that plague others and realize the need for change. And again, this is something we must do on an individual level and as the corporate body of Christ.
In all, the day was full of so much learning, and exposure to new ideas and fresh ways of thinking about the Christian walk. But I really believe that if I remember anything from this event five years down the road, I think I will probably remember the way we participated in communion at the end. We sang a hymn and read some liturgy, as well as reciting the Lord’s Prayer. But what struck me about it most of all was how intimate it all felt. Having grown up in the church, I’ve participated in communion more times than I remember, but always as part of a large congregation and usually by being served in my pew.
Communion that day was a pretty small group, so small that we could have all lined up together at the same time to come to the front and receive the bread and the wine. And in keeping with all the lectures Paul presented over the course of the day, Paul spoke words that reminded us of the future aspect to these elements we were receiving. This was a reminder of God’s love for us, and we must in turn go and extend that love to those around us. It is what we were made for, and it is what God’s purpose is for each of us.
“A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” ~ Dresden James
Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, and even before it began with the life of Jesus, there have been pivotal moments of change when someone dared to question longstanding traditions and beliefs. Today we regard such people as Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas as forefathers of our faith, strong and brave heroes to whom we owe the beautiful, rich, diverse religious tradition we know today as Christianity.
Yet, in their days, these men were denounced as heretics and feared for the ways they were rattling the foundations of everything the religious majority of the day believed. They were feared and opposed by Christians who fought tooth and nail to maintain a tight grip on the beliefs and practices they had always embraced as the only plausible way of living out the Christian faith.
For example, a short excerpt from the same book I talked about in my last post (which I have now finished, and highly recommend!):
“Aquinas is called ‘Doctor of the Church’ today, but he was called many, many much worse things during his years of teaching at the University of Paris. He was labeled a heretic on several occasions, and as a man who was sullying the pure gospel with corrupt ideas. Aquinas’s ideas were hotly contested, and the real churchmen of his day thought the professor incendiary and dangerous to the minds of the youth.” (Inventing Hell, p. 155)
This zealous opposition to new ideas within the Christian faith is as old as the origination of the Christian religion itself. Even Jesus and his teachings about the Kingdom of God were staunchly resisted by the dominant religious leaders of Jerusalem. In Mark 3:6, Matthew 12:14, and John 10:45-57, we read about the pharisees plotting to kill Jesus because of his “heretical” teaching and because they were threatened by his popularity.
It seems to be quite a pattern throughout the history of the Christian religion that we have a terrible track record with accepting and integrating big theological shifts. Part of it is human nature, I think. Changing the broadly accepted pattern of how things are supposed to be is frightening to think about. We like our traditions to be familiar, well-worn by time, and when someone comes along and speaks out against the oppression and legalism and general ungodliness of our traditions, our visceral reaction is to denounce that person as a heretic.
Yet these “heretics” are now venerated as the founding fathers of our faith. And it begs the question: who are the pioneers of the Christian faith today, who will lead us into a new way of understanding the Christian religion? Who are the people today that the Christian majority—which, let’s face it, largely consists of conservative evangelicals—has cast out because their beliefs are dangerous? And perhaps a more important question: are we casting them out because we truly believe that what they teach is contrary to scripture? Or are we casting them out because we are afraid of what challenges the status quo, just as the Pharisees were in Jesus’ day?
All these questions are hard to answer, hard to even consider. But we must consider them because maybe, just maybe, God’s Kingdom is bigger than the four walls of conservative theology. Maybe God’s Kingdom is big enough to include truths that will once again reinvent our long-established religious tradition. Just as he did in the life of Jesus, in the life of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas, maybe God is working today in ways we never imagined He would, and through people we would never expect.
So I’ve been writing a lot about books lately, because I’ve been picking up some fascinating ones. Right now I’m reading this book called Inventing Hell by Jon M. Sweeney, and it’s really, really freaking me out. It’s screwing with my head and everything I’ve always believed about the Bible, and I just don’t know what to do with this new information I’m soaking in.
Before I get into all that, let me briefly explain what the book is about. Basically, it analyzes how we as human beings have conceived of the afterlife throughout history—specifically, what we have believed about hell. Sweeney mostly tackles this from a Christian perspective, delving into every Old Testament reference to the afterlife and explaining what most people believed about it in those times.
The bulk of his book, however, is devoted to discussing Dante’s Inferno and the incredibly pervasive influence this great work has had on how we conceive of hell today. It’s been pretty mind-blowing to realize that so much of what we believe about the afterlife is extra-biblical, and how the scriptures are anything but uniform when it comes to the fate of perished sinners.
I picked it up because I wanted to become more informed on what the Bible really has to say about hell, and if belief in its literal existence is biblically sound, or if it is simply a man-made doctrine like so many orthodox doctrines seem to be (technically, I guess you could say all doctrines are man-made, but that’s a whole new can of worms). But oh my goodness, have I gotten more than I bargained for by reading this!
So, all of this brings me to why I’m freaking out. In the chapter I just finished, Sweeney talks about the transition when people first began exploring the belief in the immortal soul. Almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament, it was generally believed that every human who dies descends to Sheol, which is a huge spiritual graveyard—essentially a permanent resting place which is neither benevolent nor malevolent.
All that changed when Socrates and Plato came on the scene, roughly 400 years before the birth of Christ. They introduced the idea that the soul is immortal and lives on after one’s body has died. Sweeney then spends a large chunk of the chapter outlining very specific ways in which Paul was heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates’ ideas when he penned the letters that would later become part of the biblical cannon. For example, Sweeney writes:
“For centuries, Christian theologians pointed to Paul’s words in Romans 1:21, saying that he was talking about some of the Greek philosophers when he said, ‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God.’ And so-called pagan authors like Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil were quoted and paraphrased, their words seemingly baptized as holy whenever necessary.” (Inventing Hell, p. 83)
And another, more thorough excerpt, in case that one didn’t really hit home:
“If you are an orthodox Christian believer, you probably never knew just how Greek you were. Even Paul’s most famous one-liner, about welcoming the soul’s release from the body at the time of death, wasn’t an original. ‘I say that to die is gain,’ said Socrates in the Apologia, and then Paul: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21)! The idea of an ideal city, introduced by Plato in The Republic, also seems to be addressed in similar terms by Paul in his lengthy letter to the Romans. Enough. The comparisons could go on forever. Simply put, Paul learned from Greek philosophy and made use of the immortality of the soul in the formation of Christian theology.” (Inventing Hell, p. 84)
Now this is my crisis. Over the last few years I’ve essentially been putting a lot of the Christian beliefs I’ve always held as inerrantly true on the chopping block. Some I have reconsidered, and some I haven’t. But one that I have held on to quite tenaciously is the belief that the biblical cannon was assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and its content from Genesis to Revelation is divinely inspired by God.
I’ve always believed that, and I’ve never wavered, because how else am I to know what is Truth and what isn’t unless God has revealed it to us tangibly?
But now I am discovering that the theological foundation of the Christian faith, and in some cases the verbatim words themselves that Paul wrote and that most orthodox Christians consider to be God’s Holy Word, are based on the philosophical writings of two pagans! That is a really hard concept to grasph considering the high view of scripture I’ve always believed in.
Needless to say, all of this will take a long time to digest and process. I’m going to keep plugging along in Inventing Hell, because it really is a remarkable book and I’m learning all kinds of fascinating things. I just don’t know where I go from here, regarding what I believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible. I guess, essentially, I feel I have no rational choice but to add it to that growing list of beliefs that are going on that chopping block.
I’d really love your thoughts on this blog post. Reading Inventing Hell has given me so much to process, and doing so is always easier with the wise input of others. Specifically, I’d like to hear about how you believe Christians ought to reconcile the divine inspiration of scripture (if you believe in that, of course) with the fact that much of the New Testament is quite clearly based on pagan writings.
I know I’ve hardly wrtten at all this month, but life has been unusually busy with my new position at work and the added activities I have been doing on the weekends (both of which have been very good for me, but not conducive to blog writing!). So I won’t say I’m back to writing on a regular basis, I’ll just say that I’m writing whenever I have the words and the time. This might be monthly, or weekly, or multiple times a week. It just depends.
Anyway, today what I want to write about is a revelation I had while visiting a very dear friend of mine last weekend. As you may know if you read many of my blog posts about church, I have quite the love-hate relationship with it. In fact, with the exception of last Sunday when I went to church with my friend, I hadn’t attended an actual church service in about a month and a half (I’ve just been going to Sunday school instead). I’ve just been feeling quite disillusioned in general, and I’ve found that going to church often makes me feel frustrated instead of fulfilled, so I just haven’t been going at all.
So that’s my context. Now for my friend’s context. She’d grown up going to a tiny United Methodist church her whole life, and found that it did not meet her needs for spiritual sustenance and sound teaching. She has found all of that at the church she is attending now, and she is even considering becoming a member. She is s grateful to have found the church that she has, and feels blessed to be included there.
The sermon on Sunday was on the passage in 1 John 2 that talks about how the church at that time had “anti-christs” in its midst, and how the believers must be wary of such teachings. The pastor went on to talk about how we today must be wary as well, and to denounce as “anti-christs” anyone who teaches ideas contrary to the gospel.
This is an important message, to be sure. But I started bristling and becoming defensive when the pastor offered an example of an “anti-christ” which I didn’t all think fit the bill, then proceeded to offer other examples of people whose counsel Christians ought to shun, all of which I thought were problematic.
That’s all I’ll say about the sermon, but suffice it to say that I listened to it with a terribly judgmental spirit, resisting the pastor’s words even though the over-arching point—Christians should cling to the truth of the Gospel and be wary of those whose ideas run contrary to it—was a sound one.
Anyway, I voiced all these grievances to my friend on our drive home, and she ended up telling me that she felt hurt that I was so antagonistic toward the pastor’s ideas, because she believed in his message. I apologized, and we were fine after that.
But our discussion—and my reaction to the pastor—got me thinking. I don’t even know what kind of Christian I am any more. I’m the kind of Christian who walks into a sanctuary with my arms folded metaphorically, with a mind that is already filtering the pastor’s words with the lens of my own experience and ideas and my own understanding of God’s Word. I’m the kind of Christian who analyzes the living daylights out of pastors whose beliefs are generally conservative, as this pastor’s was, yet who drinks in the sermons of more progressive pastors (for example, I listened to an Adam Hamilton podcast sermon on the drive up to visit my friend, and his sermon was basically the opposite of the one I heard at my friend’s church, and I really thought it was a good sermon!).
Here’s the truth. In reality, I’m the kind of Christian who hasn’t truly felt at home in an evangelical church for a good long while. I recognize that this is partially because of my own attitude, and my own bitter heart, and my own antagonistic disposition that is wary anytime a pastor uses the phrases “biblical principles” and “God’s truth” and such like that in the same sentence. But I don’t know what to do with that just yet, because I also don’t want to be the sort of Christian who blindly accepts the word of every pastor who tells me this is what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, and this is what it means to be an anti-christ.
So my revelation was two-fold: I realized for the first time that I’ve got an attitude problem that needs to change if I’m ever going to feel comfortable with a body of believers. And I realized I need to remember what my friend and her roommate wisely told me: God doesn’t separate people based on conservative or progressive beliefs. He judges us by our hearts, and while this doesn’t give us carte blanche to accept harmful beliefs, it should give us pause and remind us that in the end God’s judges the hearts of men, not us. If I remember that, I think I might find it a little easier to get along with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and not be so hard on them and their beliefs.
Today, something happened in me that hasn’t really happened before. It wasn’t something big; it was actually small. A little light that flickered into existence, a tiny glow that warmed me through.
I discovered the beauty of ritual for the first time.
I attended a church I visit once in a while, but have never gone to on a regular basis. Their Good Friday service seemed more appealing to me than my home church (which apparently consisted of a musical about Christ’s death and resurrection), so I decided to go.
The guest speaker was a Messianic Jew who walked us through all the different elements of the Jewish Passover meal. She told us about how a Jewish family would purge their household of yeast, which represents sin. She told us about the unleavened bread, which the father of the family would break apart, wrap in a cloth, and hide for the children to search out later.
She told us about the hyssop branch that the Israelites used to spread the blood of a spotless lamb to protect their first born sons from the angel of death. And she told us about the horse radish, the sour food they consume in remembrance of their slaver in Egypt.
Then she told us what it all meant, how every single element of the Passover meal points to Jesus. Through the blood he shed, we too can find purification from sin, just as the Jewish home was purified of yeast. The process by which the father hid the wrapped and broken bread of course signifies the death and resurrection of Jesus, as does the sacrifice of the perfect lamb. Some of this was new to me, and some of it wasn’t; but hearing about it all together, how the Passover is unified in its celebration of the Messiah, was beautiful.
And then of course, we learned about the bread and the wine, the moment where Jesus went off script and built his own words upon the tradition of Passover. When he broke the bread and poured the wine and spoke over them, he did not invoke the past of Judaism, the moments to remember with joy and sorrow.
He invoked the future. He made the Passover come alive. “This isn’t just bread,” he said. “It is my body.” “And this is not wine, but my blood shed for you.” The elements became a beautiful metaphor by which we commemorate the most powerful story that ever existed, the story of God becoming man and paying a price no man would pay.
And when I stepped forward after the service to receive the bread and the wine, I remembered the fullness of this. Jesus, in his Last Supper with his disciples, infused an old tradition with the New Covenant, and it is such a beautiful thing to think that this is what I commemorate when I consume the elements.
So I feel as though I’ve discovered a value in rituals such as communion—and even the whole Passover meal!—that I had never known before. And isn’t that what the Resurrection is all about, God creating good from darkness, beauty from ashes, new life from death?
This blog post is my response to some thoughts my dad shared:
“Okay so here is a jump into the law/no law debate….there seems to me to be two threads running in the Old Covenant scriptures…one thread is the redemption thread….ie animal sacrifice etc…and the civil thread….ie common law for Israel which includes the ten commandments. It would seem to me that the first thread is tied off on Calvary while the second thread is ongoing, especially if you are Jewish. The Jerusalem Council statement in Acts that frees Gentiles from the second thread, allows a volitional obedience to the civil law by Gentiles…thus Jesus’ words about not one jot or tittle of the law passing away until all is fulfilled come into play…lots to discuss here…have fun”
There are a thousand different angles I could take in my response to these ideas, but I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Of course, I think that when Paul says we are free from the law of sin and death, he means what he says. Paul does not draw a distinction between ceremonial law or civil law, so why should we?
Over and over again throughout Paul’s letters—especially in Romans—Paul makes it abundantly clear that by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ freed us from the law, and we are no longer bound by its statutes, whether they be civil or ceremonial. I compiled a list of some of these key passages here, so I won’t delve any further into Paul’s treatment of this debate.
Another point raised is that in the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, the early Christians established that Gentiles were obligated to follow only certain parts of the law that they deemed essential: abstaining from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, eating the meat of strangled animals, and drinking blood.
This does not correspond with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 whatsoever—four laws out of hundreds hardly qualifies as “every jot and tittle”! So why these laws? I am no expert on the Torah or first century Judaism, but I would wager a guess that these laws were especially important to James and the other members of the Jerusalem Council, and that violating them would have been deemed particularly offensive to the Jews.
So I don’t think this was about obedience to the Law at all, but rather a matter of James mirroring what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 about becoming “all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel. I think James is asking the Gentiles to become as Jews, and honor the Law not for the sake of the Law, but because honoring it is a sign of respect for the Jews and their way of life.
This would explain why Paul seems to completely reject the decision that the Jerusalem Council established about the law of circumcision being binding on Gentiles—a decision that he even supplemented with eye witness testimony of Gentile converts! Just one chapter later, Paul circumcises Timothy:
“Paul went first to Derbe and then to Lystra, where there was a young disciple named Timothy. His mother was a Jewish believer, but his father was a Greek. Timothy was well thought of by the believers[a] in Lystra and Iconium, so Paul wanted him to join them on their journey. In deference to the Jews of the area, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised before they left, for everyone knew that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:1-3)
Therefore, the Jerusalem Council was not about rejecting the law of circumcision. If that were so, Paul would not have circumcised Timothy. The text says that he did so “in deference to the Jews of the area” in order to preserve the peace and unity of the body of Christ. Sometimes, people aren’t ready for the radical, life-giving freedom that Jesus gifted us with, and honoring the Law even when it has no intrinsic value is the best way we can emulate the life Jesus has called us to live.
Speaking of Jesus, the last point my dad brought up was to pull a quote from Matthew 5 as justification for the “civil law” being binding on believers today. Jesus says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19, NRSV)
I have a couple thoughts on this passage. The first is that there must be more to this passage than the surface level reading. After all, our righteousness is not measured by our diligence to the letter of the Law. If that were the case, Jesus would have praised the Pharisees instead of chastising them. Over and over again, in his parables and teachings, Jesus rejects strict adherence to the letter of the Law in favor of a more compassionate approach to obeying God that requires a faithful heart and not just faithful actions.
So I did a little poking around online, and I came across an informative article that breaks down the passage in question and addresses the meaning of each verse. With regard to verses 19-20, this article states that most Christians interpret these verses one way:
“Many understand Jesus was contrasting the “old” and “new”, i.e., comparing the “Law of Moses” with the “Law of Christ”, which would govern His kingdom. This in essence has Jesus teaching that the “Old Law” only condemned the outward actions but that the “New Law” introduced by Jesus condemned the inner conditions which lead to the outer actions.”
That makes sense to me. But then, this writer continued to offer another alternative that I found to be even more compelling:
“However, I understand the contrast to be different. It was a contrast between the “traditional interpretation and application” of the Law [and] the “righteousness of the kingdom” Jesus would require of His disciples. In fact, Jesus demonstrated that the righteousness of the kingdom was not only contrary to the manner many had interpreted and applied the Law but was in harmony with the original spirit of the Law as given to Moses and the Israelites.”
This makes so much more sense, and dovetails perfectly with Paul’s radical statements about how New Covenant believers are free from the Law. Particularly, in Philippians 3:8-9, Paul’s words reflect the above interpretation of Matthew 5:19-20 perfectly. Jesus came to complete and fulfill the old covenant, in which the veil is intact and obedience to the letter of the Law is equated with righteousness, with the new covenant, in which the spirit of the Law dictates how we apply it to our lives—i.e., the Golden Rule is our standard.
This is why Jesus would say he desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13), and why men were stoned for carrying sticks on the Sabbath under the Old Covenant (Numbers 15:32-36), yet Jesus defended his disciples for picking grain under the New Covenant (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus brought a new way of living in relation to God. It is not a relationship which allows believers to ignore the Law entirely, but rather to view it with a spirit that is covered in a blanket of grace, in which the Father’s love for us drives us to righteousness. We are not concerned with legalism, or even the jots and the tittles, but as we more deeply understand the nature of the Creator of the Law, and as we walk daily in the love of the Father, something tells me the jots and the tittles fall into place anyway.
This is the second essay in a two part series. For part one, click here.
Over the past year, I have studied the topic of homosexuality and the Bible extensively. I have read the relevant scriptures in context many times, and I have carefully weighed both affirming and condemning commentaries about the Bible and its treatment of homosexuality. Through these studies, I have found that each position requires an overarching framework by which the reader interprets biblical texts and assesses their applicability in our modern society. And I have also found that the framework offered by the affirming argument aligns with the overarching narrative of scripture in a way that is holistic, compelling, and doctrinally sound.
The purpose of this essay is to outline this framework and assess how it applies to homosexuality. I will be separating this argument under several different headings, each of which addresses a different angle of what I believe about homosexuality and scripture. In this respect, it will be very different from my first essay, which methodically assessed a series of passages that are traditionally used to condemn gay relationships as sinful. In this essay, I am much more concerned with the larger, overarching themes of scripture, especially the New Testament.
I will be honest and say up-front that there are no Bible verses that directly and explicitly affirm homosexuality. However, I believe that the reason for this is the same reason why there are no explicitly clear scriptures that condemn slavery or misogyny, or afford women equality in the church and in marriage. Every part of the Bible was written by individuals constricted by their cultures to people constricted by the same cultures. This does not mean the Bible does not contain timeless truths, and it does not mean the Bible was not divinely inspired. Rather, I think the Bible contains a complex blend of timeless truth and ideas limited to particular times and ways in which the Holy Spirit infused writers to write words relevant for a particular people, but not always for all people in all times.
Therefore, discussing an affirming view of this issue can be quite a challenge because our culture is so different from the varying cultures in which the manuscripts that now make up the Bible were written. It is the exact same problem that abolitionists of the mid 19th century faced when told that challenging slavery was the equivalent of denying God’s Word. In that day, the pro-slavery camp actually had much more explicit evidence by way of particular verses than the abolitionists did (much in the same way conservative Christians today have more explicit evidence concerning homosexuality). See this blog post for more thoughts on that, and how this point connects to my discussion below.
The Nature of Sin: Origination in the Heart
One clincher for me in the debate about the sinfulness of homosexuality was what the Bible says about the nature of sin. Specifically, in Mark 7 we read a story about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees. The Pharisees get upset with Jesus because his disciples are eating food without washing their hands—which they considered to be a ritually unclean act. Jesus chastises them, then later in private discusses the encounter with his disciples:
““Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”” (Mark 7: 18:23)
Jesus is telling us here that sin is not external—i.e., committed by forgetting to wash your hands, but rather internal. Sin is a matter of the heart, and letting your own flesh win the day. All the sins he lists—sexual immorality, theft, murder, etc., stem from a deeper place that abandons love for the other in favor of some form of selfish indulgence. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples that sin has nothing to do with violating the letter of the law and everything to do with letting your own flesh reign.
Paul describes a similar concept in his letter to the Romans. As a human being who struggles constantly with sin, his words are full of frustration and angst:
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:21-24)
We see here that sin is as deeply saturated within the spirit of Paul. It is within his very nature, and holds a place of internal conflict within his heart. Such is the nature of sin; it originates inside and then is manifested in selfish acts.
Now, what does all this talk of sin have to do with homosexuality? As we have established, sin originates with the heart. Every evil action stems out of evil desire. Therefore, to claim that homosexual relationships are sinful, but heterosexual relationships are by nature wholesome, you would have to concede that there is something innately sinful and corrupt about loving someone of the same gender. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot come up with a reason having to do with the heart why this would be so.
The New Covenant Means Freedom from the Law
For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of life as a believer under the New Covenant is freedom from the Law. But let me be clear. This does not reduce the Law to pointless and arbitrary rules. Rather, as Paul states in Romans 7:7-10, the purpose of the law is to reveal the sinfulness of our own hearts. He uses the example of coveting; because the law forbade it, Paul realized how often he desired to covet.
But as New Covenant believers who are infused with the Holy Spirit, we are utterly free from the restrictions of the Law. Paul makes this abundantly clear over and over again throughout the New Testament; he reminds us that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18b). And in Romans 10:4 Paul tells us again, “Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.” Galatians 3:19-25 and Ephesians 2:14-16 offer similar exhortations about freedom in Christ from the burden of the Law.
And so, under the New Covenant, we are free to walk in direct community with the Father through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. There is no set of written codes that is sufficient to guide us; the Holy Spirit itself provides the guidance we follow. And to the extent that we produce love, joy, peace, patience and all the other fruits of that Spirit, we are walking in obedience to the Father, and no code or law of morality or righteous practice is necessary. Therefore, when we see our gay brothers and sisters—whether single or in covenant relationships—exhibiting such fruit, what right have we to impose a moral code upon them? What right have we to say that their lives run contrary to the very real truth in scripture which says that against such things as the fruit of the Spirit, there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23)?
Before I move to the next section, I would like to expound on the preceding paragraph by offering a few more examples in scripture. For it is all well and good for me to say that the witness of fellow believers is sufficient to embrace the wholesomeness of their relationships. But unless I can back it up with biblical passages, these are just my words.
So let’s have a look at Acts 15:1-21. In these verses, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are having a contentious debate about the newly converted Gentiles, and whether they ought to be bound by the law of circumcision. After several Jews insist they must, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas stand up and offer their arguments. Peter begins by reminding the council that God alone decides who is accepted: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (v. 8-9). Then, he chastises them for insisting that the Gentiles bear a yoke the Jews themselves have not been able to bear (v. 10). Paul and Barnabas enthusiastically reinforce Peter’s points by describing the signs and wonders God has performed through the Gentiles (v. 12).
In the end, James resolves the issue. He suggests a compromise: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (v. 19-20). In other words, the testimony of good works brought by Peter and Barnabas, and Paul’s insistence that God alone decides the condition of the heart, are sufficient; the Gentiles are not bound by the law but free to pursue the will of God without conforming to Jewish law.
I would suggest to you that the debate that the Jewish council had about the Gentiles is the very same debate we Christians have about the gay community. We exclude them from the possibility that they are walking in obedience to the Father because their lives do not conform to the standards that we understand to be established as law by God. To the Jews of that day, it was inconceivable that God could accept those who have chosen so blatantly to deny his law. And to many Christians today, it is inconceivable that God would accept and work His will within the hearts of gay people, simply because they have the capacity to fall in love with the same gender instead of the opposite gender.
The Exhortation to Love Fulfills the Law
Here we come to the very linchpin of the pro-gay biblical argument. For me, Romans 13:8-10 is one of the most important passages in all of scripture. It sums up everything we could possibly need in order to walk faithfully in the will of God. This beautiful passage reads:
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The extraordinariness of Paul’s claim is overwhelming; it is saying that love itself fulfills the law, and no other commandments are necessary! Not only this, but as Justin Lee informs us in his essay on homosexuality (which you can find here), this passage is essentially the crescendo of all the arguments Paul has been building in Romans to this point:
“Incidentally, this passage in Romans 13 isn’t just some random, obscure passage. Paul spends almost the entire book of Romans building an argument about law, grace, and sin, trying to explain what the Christian gospel is all about. Paul uses the word ‘law’ 74 times in twelve chapters! The passage I just quoted from Romans 13 is the conclusion of Paul’s grand argument; it’s the last time ‘law’ is mentioned for the rest of the book.”
This is the same point we see again and again in scripture, spoken by Jesus himself as well as the other New Testament writers (see Matthew 22:37-40, John 13:35, Galatians 5:14, 1 John 4:7). Every commandment God has ever given us is simply an extension of the commandment to love. Therefore, if we love, we automatically live in submission and fulfillment of God’s commands; this is Paul’s point. And so when a man loves a man with the same compassion selflessness, and strength of spirit that a woman loves a man, why would that first sort of love violate Romans 13:8-10 when the second sort wouldn’t? Therefore, to call gay relationships sinful reduces God’s law to an arbitrary command that is divorced from the standard of love and renders the Romans passage void.
There is just one other Bible passage connected to love that I find to be very enlightening for this discussion. In Matthew 12, we read an account of Jesus’ confrontation with some Pharisees. They have caught his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, and they demand that Jesus chastise his followers for violating the law. Instead, Jesus turns the tables on them completely:
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice; you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8)
Here Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, in which the prophet Hosea is rebuking the Jewish people for being aloof of the suffering around them. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, co-authors of The Children Are Free, offer this commentary on Jesus’ words:
“Amos, who prophesied around the time of Hosea, talked about how people of the time were attending places of worship, offering sacrifices, and then going home to cheat the poor and foster injustice. Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing the same thing; they were more concerned with rule keeping than with human hunger. Jesus’ point is clear: Human need is more important than rules—even rules found in the Bible.”
Again and again, throughout the Scriptures, Jesus ignores the pull of legalism in favor of compassion. He recognizes human need, whether it is physical or emotional, and meets those needs. This sort of compassion—this sort of love—is not the sort that thrives on obedience to laws but rather keeps an open heart toward the suffering of those around it and engages that suffering. This is the love we are called to demonstrate again and again throughout scripture, and it is exemplified in the love of a same-gendered partnership no less fully than an opposite-gendered one.
The very purpose of the Gospel is to free us from the law of sin and death. We are no longer under the yoke of the Law, but rather we are free to pursue the heart of the Father and walk daily in his commandment to love. And perhaps, if nothing else, we should remember that our lives should reflect the fruit of love that God is sowing in us. For as Jesus says in Matthew 17:16-20,
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
I have seen such good fruit produced among Christians in the LGBT community. I see devotion to the Word, loving-kindness for those around them, and compassion demonstrated where often none is deserved. I see love demonstrated in all of its beautiful forms, both romantic and otherwise. There is no corrupted heart, no sinful indulgence in the way these Christians interact with others, no veil of sin between them and God because they are in same-sex relationships.
And so I ask you. Who are we to deny that witness?
I’ve been meaning to write this series for a long time, and I am now very excited to finally write down all the thoughts that I have read about and mulled over for more than a year now.
This blog post is going to be written in a considerably more formal and long-winded tone than most of what I write here. The reason for this is that once I get into “English major” mode and set about exploring a thesis I’ve established, the formal writing style tends to flourish. That being said, I will be breaking up this topic into two separate blog posts. This post addresses the so-called “clobber passages”, the six passages in the Bible that Christians typically use to condemn homosexuality. In my next blog post, I will address the scriptural foundation for why I find it plausible to affirm gay relationships.
Before I officially begin my exploration of the “clobber” passages, however, I must offer the disclaimer that most of what I discuss below is a summarization of others’ research, all of which is cited at the end of this essay. I am not a Bible scholar, and indeed I have not even taken formal courses on biblical studies. But that does not mean I don’t have a brain and can’t uncover and examine biblical interpretations and assess their validity for myself. So my words below reflect the soundest, most persuasive arguments I have found which have informed my current understanding of scripture and homosexuality.
And so, without further ado, please enjoy part one of this series…
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I believe the Bible is the holy, inspired Word of God. I also believe that covenant gay relationships are equal in all respect to straight ones. I know that most modern evangelicals would find those two statements to be entirely incompatible, but the research I have done over the last few years has led me to believe that this is not the case.
In this half of my discussion of homosexuality and the Bible, I will be discussing five of the six passages that Christians typically turn to in order to condemn gay relationships as sinful. Let me say before I begin, however, that I recognize that it is not enough to refute traditionalist arguments concerning the so-called “clobber passages”; I must also be able to provide a biblically cohesive reason for why I believe scripture supports gay relationships. This is what I will be addressing in the second half of my series.
The first reference to homosexual sex in the Bible is in Genesis 19. This passage narrates the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s decision to destroy the cities because of its inhabitants’ many sins. Due to its irrelevance, I will not be incorporating this passage into my discussion of the traditionalist biblical proof texts on homosexuality. I believe that the context of this passage as well as cross-references in Jude and Ezekiel are clear enough that we can safely surmise that the homosexual acts described in it are domineering and lust-driven acts of rape that have no place in this discussion. I will leave it at that.
In Leviticus 18 and 20, we find two matching series of commandments regulating sexual practices among the early Israelites. Embedded in this list, we find a commandment forbidding same-sex erotic behavior (v. 18:23) and a subsequent decree of capital punishment for such behavior (v. 20:13.) There are several ways of understanding these verses. Some identify them as sexual purity codes established to distinguish the Israelites from the surrounding cultures of the time. They refer to the beginning verses of Leviticus 18 to support this claim.
While I believe this is a sound observation, I also think that there is more to these verses than that. Furthermore, to group Leviticus 18 and 20 under the category of moral law does not acknowledge the bizarre and erratic nature of the laws—for example, why do these verses forbid intercourse during a woman’s period (v. 19) and having sex with a woman and her daughter (v. 17), yet remain silent on more general sexual sins such as premarital sex and adultery? These laws are oddly specific.
Therefore the most sensible analysis that I have found for the purpose of these laws had nothing whatsoever to do with morality and everything to do with protecting the social hierarchy of ancient Israelite culture. These laws also served the purpose of protecting women and children, who were considered socially inferior in a patriarchal society. Preserving the patriarchal order of male headship was necessary for their safety and the general preservation of societal structure. Therefore, men having sex with men would have disrupted that order. These laws were not established for moral reasons but for social ones.
There are no further verses in the Old Testament that refer in any way to homosexuality, so we will now turn our attention to the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, Paul lists off a number of sins, traditionally called the vice lists. Homosexuality is included in both lists, and when most Christians read these verses it can seem plain as day that Paul is condemning same-sex behavior as universally and inherently sinful. However, a deeper look at the original wording of these verses suggests a great deal of ambiguity.
In the Greek, the word translated as “homosexuality” in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy is the word “arsenakoitai”, which is a compound word that combines the Greek words for “man” and “bed.” So it is very clear that “arsenakoitai” refers to some form of same-sex erotic behavior. However, it is difficult to get more specific than this, because “arsenakoitai” was used so rarely in writings contemporary with Paul’s letters. In fact it is so rare that some scholars even suggest that Paul created the word himself.
The 1 Timothy passage sheds some light on how we may be able to interpret “arsenakoitai” properly. The verses in the NKJV read:
“But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.”
It is very interesting to note that this vice list is broken down into closely connected pairings: “the lawless and insubordinate”, “the unholy and profane,” etc. In the grouping which includes homosexuality (here translated as sodomites, betraying again the ambiguity of the Greek word), we find that it is grouped with fornicators and kidnappers. Why would this word be grouped with seemingly unrelated sins, except because they are in some way connected?
I would offer the suggestion that “arsenakoitai” refers to Romans who indulged in pederasty. This would explain the word grouping. It is very likely that the Greek words for “fornicators” and “kidnappers” refer to male prostitutes and the slave traders responsible for selling them to the “arsenakoitai.” Therefore what Paul is condemning is not homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather exploitive sexual practices among first century Romans.
Again, though, the interpretation of the word is not conclusive. The view offered above, however, is the one that I have found to be most faithful to the context of scripture and the meaning of the original Greek words. Therefore to translate this word generically as “homosexuality” is an unfortunate travesty.
Because the same exact compound word appears in the 1 Corinthians passage, I will not address it further here but rather let this interpretation of 1 Timothy stand, since this passage offers a little more context than 1 Corinthians. It should be noted, however, that the vice lists in the two passages as well as the manner in which Paul expounds on these lists is remarkably similar. Suffice it to say, based on the wide variety of ways the original Greek is interpreted and translated, I believe it is completely implausible to rely exclusively on these two verses as a reliable way of deciding the sinfulness of homosexuality.
This leaves one last passage in the Bible which addresses homosexual sex: Romans 1:18-32. I believe this is the most compelling of all the “clobber” passages, and so I will be spending more time addressing it than I have the other verses.
In most of my studies, I have found that those who affirm gay relationships appeal to verses 22 and 23 to suggest that Paul is talking about Roman pagans who worshiped idols (specifically, the Roman goddess of fertility, Aphrodite) and engaged in unnatural sexual rites (both heterosexual and homosexual in nature) as part of their temple worship.
While I believe this interpretation has some degree of merit, I also do not believe it describes the entirety of what is going on in Romans 1. The inclusive language in verses 18-21 suggest that Paul is talking about a much larger group of people than just a few Roman pagans. Likewise, the extremely long list of sins in verses 28-32 seems to include the sorts of sins that all of humanity is guilty of, and not just a selective, small group known for its temple sexual practices.
In his review of Eugene Rogers’ book Sexuality and the Christian Body, Richard Beck suggests that the key to understanding Romans 1 lies in the general human understanding of race and gender. Throughout history, the “standard view” holds that women are morally inferior to men, and thus more prone to sexual deviance and promiscuity. Likewise, minority races have been considered the same way (e.g., in antebellum America, black men had a scandalous reputation for having an unnatural sexual appetite for white women). As Beck writes:
“In both cases we see how immorality generally, and sexual licentiousness in particular, get attributed to natural kinds (e.g., race, gender). In the Old and New Testaments this same reasoning was applied to the Gentiles. As a natural kind the Gentiles were considered to be naturally prone to immorality and sexual deviance. Paul gives us the standard Jewish view of the morality of Gentiles in Romans 1.”
So we see that this passage is about much more than Roman pagans or even modern-day gays and lesbians. Paul is describing Jewish sensibilities toward Gentiles, only to refute them two chapters later. In Romans 3:9 Paul essentially levels the playing field and reminds the Jews that there is no morally superior race, but all come to God equally, as sinners in need of redemption. The point, then, of Romans 1 was not to condemn homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather to outline Jewish understandings of moral inferiority—including sexual deviance—then turn the principle on its head.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that these arguments in and of themselves do not suggest support for the morality of gay relationships. Rather the purpose of writing this is understand how and why these passages describe specific homosexual acts as inherently immoral (as in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy), culturally binding purity laws regarding gay sex (Leviticus 18 and 20), and general statements about the sexual perversion of a class of people considered to be morally inferior (Romans 1).
While I believe the interpretation I have offered of passages is valid, I also recognize that it is not enough to refute the conservative approach to these verses; I must also be able to present why I believe scripture affirms and supports gay relationships. If scripture is to be our guide for morality and living a Christ-centered life, we must be able to draw from its pages a cohesive understanding of what it means to live such a life, in our romantic relationships as well as in every other part of our lives.
Part two of this series, which I am very excited to write, will address this. After all, writing about the “good news” is so much more of a blessing than exploring the problems with the “bad news.” I hope you enjoyed this, and look out for part two to be published within the next few days.
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Recently, I have had my great admiration for the popular author and blogger Rachel Held Evans deeply questioned. I was told that although she was an eloquent and beautiful writer, her ideas were incompatible with scripture and that I should be very careful about exposing myself to human thoughts that run contrary to God’s Word. It felt like a small taste of what Rachel must experience on a regular basis from other evangelicals, and it wasn’t an experience I enjoyed very much—although I must admit that the person I was speaking with inspired me to remember that God’s word always has the authority (as I noted in my previous blog post).
However, after watching Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate about creation vs. evolution last night, I feel the need to express why exactly I appreciate Rachel’s perspective so much. Just like I told the friend I had the aforementioned discussion with, I love Rachel’s writing because it is so inclusive. She offers room for disagreement and never claims that her word is the final word, or even worse that her word is God’s Word. She writes with a tremendous amount of humility, respect, and faithfulness both to scripture and to this modern world we live in. She helps me make sense of things that otherwise seem impossible to reconcile, and for that I am infinitely grateful.
All right. I’m done gushing now; let me get back to my purpose for writing this post. This morning I was perusing all the various reactions to the debate, and as often happens when I’m reading internet articles, I ended up following a rabbit trail to articles written a few years ago on the human origins debate and the Bible. In the articles I dug up, Rachel and Ken Ham were essentially responding to each other’s statements about the authority of the Bible and what it means for the historicity of the creation account.
On his website, Ken Ham posted this article, which I found to be infuriating. It was loaded with buzzwords and buzz phrases that really got under my skin and reveal the reality of Ham’s agenda. He describes evolution as the “indoctrination of our age”, essentially dismissing it as a religion and not a science that has no scientific plausibility and a plethora of harmful effects on my generation. Ham also laments that Rachel “has no doubt been led astray by compromising church leaders”, despite the fact that she is very clear in her book and on her blog that honest research into the science of evolution led to the position she has adopted, and that her change of mind had little to do with what liberal church leaders were teaching her.
Speaking of the word liberal, Ham also makes this harsh statement: “the BioLogos website indoctrinates people in rank liberalism”. BioLogos is an organization founded by the head of the human genome project, Francis Collins. The website offers an exploration of theistic evolution, and how we can understand that evolutionary science points to the immanent and awesome power of our God. The scientists at BioLogos simply hold that science and religion are completely capable of compatibility. There is nothing rank or liberal about it—Ken Ham is simply projecting negatively saturated political ideology onto a science organization.
What bothered me the most about Ham’s article was his avid devotion to fighting a culture war over this his beliefs. He concludes his article with this remarkably antagonistic statement: “Well, Rachel, I have news for you. Your generation is not ready to call a truce in this battle in the culture wars; in fact, we are finding more and more people are getting enthusiastically involved in fighting the culture war by standing uncompromisingly and unashamedly on God’s authoritative Word.” Whether you agree with Ham or not, I think it is quite safe to say that his words are divisive, one-sided, and completely committed to keeping battle lines intact.
And here I circle back to why I have so much more respect for Rachel Held Evans than I do for Ken Ham, even though it has been suggested to me that her ideas are not “firmly grounded in Scripture.” She answers Ken Ham’s accusations in this blog post, which she concludes with this wise statement:
“I am not asking Ken to change his interpretation of Genesis or even his devotion to it. If he believes it is the best interpretation, then he should continue to commit his outstanding energy, creativity, and resourcefulness to promoting it. I respect his conviction and I count him as a brother in Christ because, at the end of the day, Ken and I agree on what’s most important —that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
All I am asking is that he honor this common bond and join me in making peace, in acknowledging that there is enough room in Christianity for both of us and that we can talk about this issue without our weapons drawn. We don’t need a Church in which everyone agrees on the age of the earth. We need a Church that is committed to the Apostle Paul’s instructions that “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).””
This is a far cry from Ham’s devotion to a culture war, and serves to illustrate the fundamental difference in these two ideologies. Ham says the entire Christian faith depends on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Rachel says such things as differing ideas on biblical interpretation are peripheral to our commitment to unity as a body of Christ. There is room for a truce, room for conflicting ideas to put down their weapons and join each other in communion. Why is that so hard to accept?
After a fantastic and convicting conversation with the young adult group leader at my church, I’ve had a lot to mull over. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible and its role in my life, and how I ought to approach it. Basically, I was told to be careful about the Christian blogs I read because they may offer ideas that are not based in scripture. I ought to be going to the Bible first when seeking to understand doctrine, then weighing the verses I read against what other Christians are saying before I embrace a particular doctrine.
That would be all well and good if scripture were always clear. But it’s literature, and so of course there are many layers and complexities and meanings to its holy words. And the blogs I read help me make sense of those words and offer a layer of human understanding that in some instances infuses these well-loved verses with a meaning and a perspective I could never have found on my own.
I have realized something, however. I have realized that I do rely on the blogs too much. In fact they are drowning out my own voice, and when I debate controversial topics with people, it isn’t my own ideas that I am expressing, but rather someone else’s. I think, perhaps, that I rely on the voices of others on the internet because I feel as though I can’t defend my ideas without them. Like I’m not smart enough or something like that, so I have to look up sound, compelling evidence that I am right.
And…I think there might be a thread of truth to the idea that I allow the blogs to color how I read scripture. I guess I’ve just come to realize that, at least when it comes to believing certain doctrines, sola scriptura isn’t enough. Listening to the ideas of my contemporaries—both on blogs and fellow believers at my church—is very important. And so is listening to church tradition, intellectually sound reasoning and the nudgings of my own heart. But reading scripture to figure out doctrine is also different from reading scripture with a spirit that is seeking to learn how to be more like Jesus.
So I’m going to try to focus on tempering my blog-reading time and spend more time in the Word with a teachable spirit that does not ignore the ideas I read on the web, but also does not elevate them to a position they shouldn’t hold either. Because, let’s face it—when it comes down to it, the Bible has a lot more to teach me than the blogs do.