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.