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The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Binding, Loosing, and a Conclusion

This is the ninth and final post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion of relevant Hebrew Bible texts is here. A study of Romans 1:26-27 is here. A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be found here. A discussion about marriage in the Bible is here. A few notes about gender in the Bible can be found here. A discussion about biblical interpretation and use is here.

In this last post discussing issues around homosexual practice in the scripture, I want to look at the early church. Specifically, how did the early church, using Jesus’ example and teachings, address the issues that threatened to divide it, perhaps similar to the ways that Christians are dividing themselves today. Afterwards, it seems to be prudent to use the positive and lasting examples of the early church and apply the same process in our context.

Keys of the Kingdom

In Isaiah 22:21-22, we find the words “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” Now, in the original context, this referred to a person named Eliakim. However, in the time between testaments, many Jewish teachers believed that this verse applied to the one would rule over God’s people, or over the “house of David.” This distinction gets blurred and in the New Testament, we see the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven” being used more often.

This person, the heir to the key of David’s Kingdom, would have the authority to “open and shut.” This opening and shutting became synonymous with the Hebrew ideas of “binding” and “loosing.” More on that in a bit. This is relevant, because Jesus, upon hearing Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, says this to his disciples, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Binding and Loosing

According to Jewish Talmud: Chagigah 3b, the power to bind and loose was the power to forbid and permit. This was the ability to say a certain act was permitted for the people of God or forbidden. This even applied to laws that were in the Torah itself. One example that Jesus gives is when the Pharisees were cross with Jesus for not making his disciples wash their hands. He turns the tables on them and says that they allow people to dishonor their fathers and mothers by making sacrifice more important. In essence, they have “bound” the rules of sacrifice, and “loosed” the command that we should honor our fathers and mothers. Jesus does not condemn this binding and loosing, but rather condemning that they have acted out of selfishness.

According to Josephus, the authority of binding and loosing was indeed claimed by the Pharisees. They could admit people or banish them, as well as bind certain days to be holidays.

Further, there is precedent that when those with authority permitted or forbid something, that these decisions would be honored by God (Talmud Makkot 23b).

So, with that context in mind, read the words of Jesus himself, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matt 18:18-20)

What Jesus is doing here is radical. He is indicating that the power to bind and loose, to permit and forbid actions, is being given to his disciples. This does not mean throwing out the law, but properly binding and loosing for their contexts, just as others had been doing before them. And whatever they decide, even in a group as small as “2 or more,” will be honored, because Christ himself will be among them. This of course, does not mean that mistakes won’t be made or corrective “binding and loosing” wont have to happen further, but it does give Jesus’ followers the authority themselves to decide how best to serve God and follow the way of Jesus in the best way possible, without fear.

Binding and Loosing Observed

It seems that the disciples (and their disciples, etc..) took this responsibility very seriously. In fact, from Acts forward, the scripture is full of this binding and loosing activity. The first one is actually in Mark 7. Jesus told his followers that it isn’t what goes into a persons mouth that makes them unclean, but what comes out of their heart. In a parenthetical statement, the author of Mark notes that the church understands this to mean that no foods are unclean any longer. Is there any doubt that this was a breech of precedent? Was there any indication in the Hebrew Bible that God wanted dietary restrictions to be temporary? No, there wasn’t. Yet, the disciples of Jesus took the words of Jesus, applied them to their contexts and “loosed” the laws around food. And bacon lovers rejoiced.

This wasn’t the only time though. Acts 10 records for us that Peter had a dream, the result of which was that God told him that “he should call no person unclean.” And thus, against his people’s laws, he went into a Gentiles home, and contrary to conversion laws and Jewish precedent, baptized a family of non-Jews because he could see that the Holy Spirit was moving in them. Peter simply made the call. He bound. He loosed.

Acts 15 records that after the above incident, many gentiles were coming into the church, and there were people insisting that they get circumcised and become Jews. Contrary to any conceivable teaching beforehand, the group decided that no gentiles should be forced to follow ANY law in the Hebrew Bible except for 1) abstain from food sacrificed to idols,  2) don’t eat blood, 3) don’t eat from the meat of strangled animals, and 4) don’t fornicate. And the reason they gave? Verse 28 – “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” In other words, they prayed about it and felt authorized to make that call.

Do you worship on Sunday? Do most Christians you know worship on Sunday? Why? The Sabbath in scripture is Saturday. The reason is because some Christians bound and loosed it.

Do we condemn anyone for not staying home on the Sabbath? Do we hold rallies against people who are doctors on Saturdays/Sundays? We bound and loosed that one as well.

What about Paul’s condemnation of women teaching? Thankfully, we realized Paul was binding and loosing, for his context, and many churches have loosed that one as well.

Food, circumcision, non-Jews as God’s people, Sabbath laws… You would be hard pressed to think of any more important laws in the Old Testament. And yet, when unity was threatened, these Christians, due to the teaching and example of their Rabbi Jesus, felt approved, and indeed, responsible, to bind and loose, forbid and permit, and as a result, kept unity in the church.

Ask yourself, what did Jesus bind? He said the most important laws are to love God and love others. Those two can’t be unbound. Everything else, if the early church is any example, is up for negotiation. Not willy-nilly. Not without struggle. Not without God’s Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, it is our responsibility to do as the early church did. We must bind and loose today.

Ask yourself, how often does the Bible talk about unity? Compare that to the times it even comes close to addressing homosexuality. That alone should solve the majority of our problems.

How?

I suggest, borrowing from our Methodist friends, that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral can be helpful here. In trying to seek what the church binds and looses, we seek God through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. In all of these, we seek the Holy Spirit. And we act. We don’t be afraid to make wrong decisions, because we can always bind and loose again. But to not act, or to simply outsource our responsibility of binding and loosing to what the ancients did, or even the scripture itself, is to make idols out of things not God.

In conclusion

As a result of the last 9 discussion posts about the scripture, gender, marriage, interpretation, and homosexual practice, I have reached a conclusion. For myself, at this moment. I am only one person, and so this can’t and won’t be authoritative for anyone. Yet, I will be having these discussions at my church, and we will decide together how, or if, to bind and loose faithfully.

As a result of studying the scriptural verses around homosexual practice, I don’t think that the Bible condemns homosexuality at all, outside of pagan worship, orgies, or exploitative sex. Each instance of laws regarding homosexual practice in the Bible are one of these, and just like their heterosexual counterparts (straight pagan worship, straight orgies, and straight exploitative sex), they are condemned in that context. Monogamous, married homosexual union is never addressed in the Bible.

Marriage itself is a fluid thing in the Bible. Various variations on the one man-one woman theme are present in the scriptures, and either not condemned or allowed as normative alongside traditional marriage. This was mainly due to cultural realities and societal understandings. Homosexual marriage need not be any different due to our societal understanding today. Acceptance will neither hurt nor undermine traditional unions anymore than the variations present in the scripture did.

Gender roles in the scripture are quite fluid. There is no seemingly right or wrong way to be a Godly man or woman. God, through Jesus or the Holy Spirit, seems to treat each person as an individual, not as a member of a particular gender. And as such, there in neither “male nor female” in Christ. So there should be no problems with a homosexual person acting more like whatever traditional (or non) gender role they feel comfortable with, as God sees them as individuals first.

Jesus, not Paul or any other person, is our teacher. Jesus shows us God. Everything we need to know about God is reflected in him. He is the “image of the invisible God.” As such, when anything, even scripture itself, flows against that revelation, it is not thrown out, but it must be reinterpreted in light of Jesus. Those of us who are non-violent and believe the Kingdom of God is too, have already done this a million times. Joshua told of How God ordered the slaughter of women and children. I say it wasn’t God. I say it was the interpretation and writing of someone who was chronicling the events around God’s people and assumed it was God’s will. Well, it wasn’t. Jesus doesn’t mention homosexual practice. One assumes that if it was that important to him (who knows the future) he might have mentioned it. But our teacher didn’t.

Last, our binding and loosing authority gives us the freedom and responsibility to act in love. Love for God and love for others. Those are bound, not by us, but by God through Christ. They can’t be undone. As a result, when I look out on how LGBTQ persons have been treated, when I see the studies that suggest no vast health difference in gay and lesbian families and their straight counterparts (for children or adults), and when I see how that there are indeed many  many LGBTQ persons that seem to have had the Holy Spirit fall on them, just as it has me, I am left with no choice but to advocate for full acceptance of LGBTQ persons in our churches. As members, visitors, deacons, elders, and ministers. Openly gay or closeted. And I advocate we perform homosexual marriages. Not with caveats. And not later. Now. Regardless of what our denominations say, regardless of what the law of the land says. Let’s aim to misbehave.

In all of these things, I protect and honor the responsibility and authority of others to partake in the same process, studying, seeking God, and binding and loosing. And if there are differing conclusions, which there surely will be, that is ok. But we must remain unified. Act according to your conscience, as it is “neither right nor safe” to do otherwise. I will always be your brother in Christ, but in any case, the above seems good to me and the Holy Spirit, and now you, and I, know where I stand.

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The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: How We Read and Interpret Scripture

This is the Eighth post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion of relevant Hebrew Bible texts is here. A study of Romans 1:26-27 is here. A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be found here. A discussion about marriage in the Bible is here. A few notes about gender in the Bible can be found here.

The issues in this post are more important and far reaching than the last 7 combined. And the discussion has much farther reaching implications as well. Boiled down, what we discuss today is the big reason why discussions (or lack thereof) around homosexual practice tend to be so divisive in many churches. That is because no matter how Christians feel about homosexual practice, they feel more strongly and passionately about the Scriptures. The reason we are taking a bit of time to discuss Scripture itself near the end of a discussion about Homosexual practice is that how we read scripture ultimately determines how we use scripture to inform our discussion and our decisions.

What is scripture? Why do we believe it? In what sense is it the Word of God? Where does the authority of Scripture lie? And lastly, how do we use it?

The Bible is a collection of books. It isn’t one, very large book. It has many different human authors as well. It might be more helpful to think about the Bible as a bookshelf, like you would have at home. And this bookshelf is labelled “God stuff.” Now, this “God stuff” shelf only has books written between a certain number of years. Further, this shelf has a few books on it written by the same author, covering different topics. It also has books on the same topic, written by different people, with different points of view.

By the time of Jesus, the books of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) were considered holy texts by Jesus ans his people. This is because they narrated the story of God’s interactions with humanity, and gave them a context in which they could participate with God in healing the world.

The New Testament tells the story of Jesus, and then also collects a series of letters and writings by Jesus’ followers afterwards. Those in the early church, while Christianity was  not yet an accepted religion, circulated and used the same books we have in our Bibles for worship, teaching, and growing in their faith.

Hundreds of years after these books initially began their circulation, Christianity became not only legal, but the preferred religion of the Roman Empire. And councils were called for various purposes to get the leaders of the universal church to come to conclusions on various matters. One of these matters was which books are we going to officially endorse as “scripture?” And thus they codified the books that were already in use. Sure, there were discussions about other books that didn’t make it in, but these books were never used as widely, never regarded as authentic, nor were they ever seen as useful in worship. The books we have were the same books used in the late first century, only a generation removed from the authors and events.

But is all scripture equal? Some, who believe that every word in the Bible is factually true, perfect, and given by God to a human, word-for-word, would say yes. Others disagree. To answer this question, we must ask ourselves where the authority of scripture comes from. If you said “God,” you would be in good Christian company, but that isn’t the whole story. To frame the question in a different way, “In what way is the scripture authoritative on God’s behalf?” Is every word in scripture inspired by God? Were the authors who wrote the scripture inspired by God, and so whatever they wrote is considered scripture? Perhaps. But, regardless of what a televangelist or a small town country preacher would tell you, the Bible does indeed have contradictions. It has errors. It even blatantly disagrees with itself. If you take the view that every word in the Bible is inspired, you have a serious problem there. Also, what do you make of words in the Bible where Paul says this: “To the rest I say—I and not the Lord…” Paul is saying that these words are NOT God’s, but PAUL’s. If ALL scripture is God’s words, then Paul is lying, or is it God lying?

Perhaps the Bible’s words aren’t inspired, but perhaps the authors of scripture are. For example, if we all of a sudden found a manuscript written by the Apostle Paul that was unknown to us before, it would make sense to include it in scripture, right? Maybe not. The problem with this view is that the authors of scripture disagree with each other. Not only that, but they actually SAY that they disagree with each other. For example, Paul says in Galatians 2, “But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned.” Interesting that two people who spoke on God’s behalf, being inspired and all, would disagree with each other…

But what if there is a third option? What if the Bible is inspired, not in the authors, not in the actual words, but in the events that they bear witness to? What if the inspiration of Scripture is when God interacted with humanity in various ways, touched the lives of people, did amazing and wonderfully loving things, and people wrote them down, and wrote about what they meant. That would not mean God was any less involved, nor would it mean that the Bible is any less important for the churches or the believers. In fact, it allows the Bible to speak on its own terms, allows the authors to speak with their own authentic voices, and makes the Bible an indispensable witness to what God has said and done. And it still means the Bible is inspired.

But it also means that the Bible doesn’t stand or fall on the contradictions it contains. If many people bear witness to an event, and a few details are wrong, in our world we would not discount the event. Rather, we would take the inconsistencies as hints that the actual event did in fact take place, and was not just words rehearsed by conspiratists.

But what does this mean for how we read it? If the Bible bears witness to what God is doing, perhaps we should let the Bible speak for itself. Hebrews 1 tells us that in the past, God spoke through a variety of means, prophets, etc… But now, in the last days, God has spoken to us by his son, who is over all. It says that Jesus is everything we need to know about God. It says that Jesus is exactly what God would look like if God was human and taught and said and did everything God would do. Whoa. Jesus told a parable about a man who owned a vineyard, but leased it out to some folks to work the land. He sent servant after servant to check up on the field, but they were beaten and sent home. Finally, Jesus said, the man sent his son, whom they killed. This parable, of course, was about Jesus himself, and one of the points was, Jesus is the final word of God. Not in the sense that Good can’t or won’t speak to us again, but in the sense that if you get Jesus, you have got everything you need to know.

So why then, do we have scriptures after Jesus died? This is the core of the misunderstanding. There are those who think that God didn’t say enough through Jesus and so needed to keep talking through Jesus’ followers after Jesus ascended. Poppycock. The scriptures that follow Jesus’ ministry were not new teaching from God. The scriptures we have after Jesus are his followers’ honest attempt at taking JESUS’ teaching to vastly different places, contexts, and peoples. Paul’s letters are not Paul’s attempts at new teaching. They are Paul’s attempts to help people in various places live out Jesus’ message as best they could in their city. And as such (here is the thing), Paul’s letters do not have authority over us today in the same way Jesus’ teaching does. Scripture bears witness to Paul, Peter, John, James, and others as they try to follow Jesus in their contexts. It does damage to their intent when we blindly follow their words and parrot their phrases without doing the hard work that they did when they took Jesus’ words and contextualized them. Paul’s world is not ours. Not by a long shot. So Paul’s words should be read as a fellow follower of the teacher, not the words of the teacher himself.

Further, Jesus the final teacher, shows us exactly what God is like and how God would interact with us. As such, if we see something in Jesus that teaches us about God, and that thing doesn’t jibe with what another part of scripture seems to indicate, then we know that we must go with Jesus, even if it means that a different part of scripture now appears wrong. And, if the scripture is a witness to God’s words and acts, and not the words and acts themselves, this shouldn’t bother us so much. The person who wrote that part of the Bible witnessed God’s acts and words, and made a mistake in the interpretation or the writing. Just like we sometimes do. And God still uses us.

So for the Christian, the words, acts, life, and teachings of Jesus serve as the lens through which we see every other part of the scripture. Jesus is the reflection of God. Not the law, not Paul, not the prophets, not even Peter. Jesus.

And Jesus says nothing about Homosexuality, by the way.

Next time, we will conclude. And it’s a doozy.

Jump to part 9, Binding, Loosing, and a Conclusion, here.

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The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: A Few Notes on Gender in the Scriptures

This is the seventh post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion of relevant Hebrew Bible texts is here. A study of Romans 1:26-27 is here. A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be found here. A discussion about marriage in the Bible is here.

These are just a few thoughts that occurred to me in the midst of our discussion. None of this should be taken as “gospel,” – pun intended – but rather just my personal reflections on gender and the Bible.

In the current climate of discussion around homosexual practice, it has been argued that homosexuality may be wrong because it is an attack on traditional gender roles. Further, it is often said that these gender roles are rooted in scripture. Therefore, it is often argued that it is important that Christians should do everything in our power to oppose the confusion, disruption, and casting off of “traditional” gender roles that homosexuality represents. In this regard, I believe “they” are right. Homosexual people (as well as bisexual and transgender folks) do indeed seem to disrupt “traditional” gender roles. But, if Jesus taught us anything, it is that tradition that is not rooted in the scriptures AND love, may not be worth keeping. So what does the scripture say about gender roles?

Genesis 1:27 – “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

What this verse indicates is that God has created humans in God’s image, and that, somehow, males and females both embody the image of God. The way I read this, which may be controversial, is that without a woman AND a man, one cannot fully reflect the image of God. Women are just as important as men, and without one or the other, God’s image on Earth would be incomplete. Of course, Jesus takes this to a whole other level, and does include the whole image of God in himself, though he is a man. I wonder what that says for the women-specific parts of God’s image that are present in Jesus? It seems that Jesus may have had to break traditional gender roles in order to fully image God on Earth. Maybe.

Deborah – In the Book of Judges, we are told the story of Deborah, a prophetess and a judge of ancient Israel, led the nation and spoke the words of God to the people. While many in our current Christian culture would find this offensive, as they misuse the Bible, it appears God has no problem with women both in leadership or teaching about God.

Ruth – a foreigner among Israelite people. She seduced and aggressively pursued a relationship with a man who was her social superior. Not a very good “woman.” And yet, God approved, even in the midst of the scandal, and used Ruth to support the lineage both of King David AND Jesus.

Esther – Esther was a Hebrew girl who was forced to parade around in some sort of Persian beauty pageant in order to be given the “prize” of becoming a bride to the current king. Esther happened to win, although her life was one of misery because there were powerful forces who wanted to kill her entire race of people. Unfortunately, Esther could not ask the king to help because he had issued an edict that his wives could not speak unless called for. Esther broke this rule, disobeyed her husband’s direct order, and was used by God to save her people. I guess God has less of a problem with women submitting to men than Paul did in some of his churches.

Isaiah 66:13 – “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

It seems as if God is adopting a traditionally female gender roll. Hmmmm.

Jesus – Jesus broke gender norms all of the time. For example, it was very taboo for a man to meet a women alone, let alone talk of marriage with her. That would have been fine for women, though. And yet Jesus does that very thing. Jesus lets women touch him and his feet, another gender norm broken. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, saying how he would have protected her like a hen (female) protects its babies. Jesus refuses to fight (a traditionally masculine trait), and cooks for his friends. He allows himself to lose an argument to a female, tells parables where God is represented by females, and indicates in Luke 11 that it is not by fitting in to traditional gender rolls that people please God, but by a person’s response in spirit and deed to God’s kingdom.

Of course, Galatians 3:28 puts a bit of an easy cap on all of this when Paul says that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Turning not only gender, but societal roles upside down.

Now, lest people think that I am being biased, there are indeed many verses which tell women to do some variation of submit, obey, listen, and be silent, either in marriage or at church, or society at large. However, these were all written after Paul’s writing of Galatians. Given that Paul knew and commended female deacons (Phoebe), allowed women like Pricilla and Eunice to teach others about the faith, met in a house church led by the woman Lydia, never-mind belonging to a church which was started when Peter quoted Joel as saying that daughters would prophecy, and God’s spirit would fall on men and women. Acts also tells us that there was a man who had 4 daughters who all prophesied. Now, how do you square Paul’s teaching about women being silent with those facts? Fairly easy, as it turns out.

If Paul, having an encounter with the risen Lord, comes to the conclusion that in Christ, women and men are equal, and experiences this both by looking at Old Testament examples (as above), knowing the life and teaching of Jesus, and seeing this lived out by those women in the church around him, he of course would teach in his earliest letter (Galatians) and would likely preach in the earliest churches that he started, that women were equal in every way to men. However, what would those churches look like, if, once Paul left them to their own devices, they believed Paul? What if the women started teaching and doing traditionally “male” things without all of the benefit of learning that the males had? It would likely lead to poor teaching. Also, it would upset social norms and make Christians look like rabble rousers and turn people off to the faith. So Paul, being a pastor first (a tendency we seem to forget) would write back to those churches, telling them that “I (Paul, not God) do not permit a woman to teach, etc… Of course, this is all in the context of Christians “mutually submitting to one another,” which is also readily forgotten by many today.

All of this to say, that the traditional gender roles that we hold today are not biblical ones, at least not in the best sense of the word. Perhaps a better way to seek gender roles is to look at Jesus, who never treated anyone as a gender-ed person, but as an individual. Jesus himself, in being the complete image of God, bore in his body both the male-like AND female-like image of God. Also, Jesus embodied the wisdom of God (the female version of the LOGOS in Proverbs).

In many areas of our lives that we take for granted, traditional gender roles have been broken, to no great harm. This does not mean that men and women are the same and must conform to the standard of each other in some sort of forced equality. It does however mean that God is more than capable of bringing good into the world through many variations on gender themes, not being limited to one culture’s rules about who should be acting like what simply because they have this or that reproductive part.

Jump to part 8, A discussion about biblical interpretation, here.

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