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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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The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Romans 1

This is the fourth 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 Hebrew Bible texts is here.

I had meant to consider in this post all of the New Testament texts that have directly apply to our discussion about the Bible, homosexuality, and Christianity. However, it seems to me that the passage of interest in Romans in the most salient and also the most ripe for discussion, so I will look at the data for the 1 Corinthians passage and the 1 Timothy passage next time, while making Romans 1 the sole focus of today.

Romans 1

Romans 1:26-27 is the particular passage that many argue is an airtight case against homosexuality. The verses are as follows: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

The first thing I see here is that the opening sentence reminds us that this verse does not stand in isolation. “For this reason” forces us to look backward to the context of this verse. The reason that “for THIS reason” refers to is found in the preceding verses, 24-25, which are as follows, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator

Of course, this brings up another reminder (THEREFORE) which causes us to go back even further, to verses 18-23, which are as follows, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.”

In summary, Paul is lamenting (with a rhetorical goal which I will address below) that there are gentiles who, although Creation itself bears witness to God, have turned away to false gods, ones who resemble humans, birds, four-legged animals, and reptiles. Because of this (their idolatry), God gave them up to shameful passions. The way that this played out, the consequence of their idolatry, was that God allowed them to bring shame on themselves, including shame that comes from unnatural sexual acts. Paul says in verse 27 that they “received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Noting the above, it is clear that the sin that is in view here is not the sexual acts themselves, but rather idolatry. In particular, pagan styled idolatry which involved the gods common to the surrounding areas, be they Greek/Roman, Levantine, or Egyptian/Mystery-religion. In fact, Romans goes on to say that the penalty for sin is death, but here, Paul says that they have already received the due penalty for their shameful acts, which Paul calls error, not sin. The sexual acts, be they homosexual or otherwise, are the consequence of idolatrous sin, not the sin itself. To be sure, Paul does indeed condemn sexual sin, but it isn’t clear from this verse that all of these acts are indeed sinful in and of themselves, but rather the implication is that no matter what the sexual acts are, that committing them as part of a pagan worship service is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Verse 26 notes that “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.” Some have taken this to be a condemnation of lesbian sex. However, the text does not refer to lesbian sex, but only to “unnatural” intercourse. This could be referring to lesbian sex, but likely refers to the way women would abuse their bodies in cultic fashion by having sex with statues (of gods), participating in orgies, or even bestiality, as were all common in pagan rites and celebrations.

Verse 27 claims explicitly that men were abandoning “natural” relationships and having sex with each other, as they were consumed by lust. This is the most clear condemnation of male to male intercourse in the Bible. However, there are still things to discuss before a conclusion is reached.

The verse in question raised a thought in my mind. It says that men were abandoning “natural” relationships. In the context of his writing, there was no such thing as a “homosexual,” in the way we think of the term today (which is less than 200 years old). For the Roman culture around Paul, it was not uncommon for a man to have a wife, with whom he had children and left to tend to his household affairs, as well as a lover, who attended to his sexual desires. The two were not nearly as connected as our culture deems them to be. In fact, marriage very very rarely happened for love, and if a marriage never led to love, it didn’t matter at all, since that was never the point of marriage in the ancient world at all. So men would be married for financial or societal reasons, and could keep lovers on the side, and, in addition to these lovers being women, men and boys were often the lovers. In Roman culture, this in no way insinuated that the Roman male was “gay” or “homosexual.” In fact, this did not seem to bother anyone in the slightest, as it was just fulfilling a sexual desire. Indeed, it was considered legal for a Roman male to be the dominant partner in any sexual union, whether male/female or male/male. But it was considered wrong for a Roman male to be the submissive partner. All of this to say, that one’s nature was never questioned. It was assumed that homosexual acts were simply to meet sexual desires. Paul, and the surrounding culture, simply couldn’t have conceived of  two men, in an equal partnership of love, wanting to marry each other. It is clear that to Paul then, giving up one’s “nature” meant going against what came naturally. But what if it came naturally to someone to desire a loving homosexual relationship? I don’t think any of us can crawl up inside Paul’s mind to answer that question. But, the seed of doubt is there that this verse may not be addressing the sort of homosexuality that is being debated in our culture today.

Further, these acts are described as shameful and degrading, not sinful. Once again, the sin in view here is idolatry  not sexual mores. And so, given the context of the preceding verse, one gets the impression that Paul is saying something that might sound like this to our modern ears: “So there are tons of people out there, who knowing in their hearts that there is a God, instead of going to church on Sundays to find him, went instead to the mythological religions, and God let them do it. There, at their worship services, where the debauchery ran high, women were doing all sorts of vile things with their bodies, like they do in pagan cult rituals. Men, who seem mild mannered Monday through Friday, when Sunday rolled around could be found having all sorts of sex with themselves behind the veils of idol worship. Of course, when the passion cooled down, the booze ran out, and the std’s and facebook pictures showed up, God’s teachings made more sense and they were ashamed of having participated.”

Please don’t take the above as gospel, but it is simply one way to get at how all of this might fit together.

As if to put the above in context for us, Paul goes on to list, in verses 28-32, a list of things that, as a result of idolatry “should not be done.” It is interesting to note that there are no sexual items listed, homosexual, heterosexual or otherwise. It is clear from the rest of Paul’s writings that he does indeed have a problem with misused sexuality, but it is clear that from this passage in Romans, that it is not Paul’s intent to discuss sexual ethics, but rather to simply describe the things that people were doing, as a result of idolatry,  that they were ashamed of.

Lastly….and I think this is the big point… all of this, especially leading to verse 32, where Paul states, “those who practice such things deserve to die,” was rhetorically engineered to whip the pious up into a frenzy. By the time they were done reading Romans 1, religious Jewish Christians would have been shouting, “amen!” And then Paul drops the hammer that is Romans 2:1. “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say,* ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?”

Paul says then, after he has whipped up a self-righteous religious frenzy in his audience, that they should never try to condemn those others, even the worst idolaters. Because they, even the faithful Jews who have accepted Messiah, do the same things. The whole of Romans 1 has led to this moment, where, far from condemning anyone, Paul makes it clear that God has not, and therefore no one, not even the most pious Christian, should make any attempt to condemn anyone else. For myself, I simply cannot, even with its condemnation of homosexuality in the context of idolatry, see Romans 1 as offering a blanket condemnation of all homosexuality. The text simply does not support that. A loving, homosexual, egalitarian marriage would have been as possible for Paul and the Roman world to comprehend as a telephone would have been. The Bible doesn’t speak about telephones. That is because the writers simply couldn’t have imagined it. The same is true for the sort of homosexuality that is in discussion today.

For all of the discussion above, this does not amount to a Biblical endorsement of homosexuality or homosexual practice. I remain committed to examining the data, and making every attempt to be as unbiased as I can. The best I can say about Romans 1 is that it is a scathing commentary and condemnation of idolatry. The act of knowing God and throwing God away to give in to desires, is a very shameful thing indeed. Further – no one should try to condemn anyone else, even given a multitude of deeds we consider vile, because when we do, we condemn ourselves.

Jump to part 5, A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, here.

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