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when we get it wrong (and how to make things right)

As a Christian who believes that non-straight Christians should have full participation in the life of the Church, I have become particularly sensitive to the unique challenge of going against the unanimous testimony of Church history.

It’s kind of a scary thing.

I’ve learned that the impetus to shoulder the theological burden of proof is always on the side of the reformer.

And this makes sense – I mean, duh – odds are, if most Christians throughout the history of Christianity have believed something to be true, that belief is probably time-and-tested and true and should most likely be left alone, right?

I implicitly hold this logic on issues like the resurrection, for example.  Or the concept of the trinity.  Or standard Church teaching on celibacy, the divinity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the canonicity of the book of Matthew.  What makes “the gay issue” any different?

When Church history weighs against you, sometimes it can feel like you don’t have much of a case.

And this can suck, especially when it comes to the LGBT conversation, just because it’s already so darn contentious nowadays.  Sometimes it feels like folks won’t even try to hear my side of things before I’m called a liberal or a heretic and told I must be throwing away the Bible or risking eternal damnation.

To be honest, I’ve quite literally been accused of going against God’s word and “perverting the course of nature” – of caving into culture by placing false authority “over the authority of the Holy Spirit” when it comes to reading the plain words of the Bible.

Which I always think is kind of funny because these are – literally – the exact same words Protestant theologians John Calvin and Abraham Calovius said about a man named Copernicus around 500 years ago. (and pretty, pretty please watch this video if you haven’t already!)

Remember, for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, every single Christian believed that the earth was the center of the universe.

That is, until a young Church cleric named Copernicus started shaking things up when he postulated that the earth…actually revolves around the Sun.

It’s kind of crazy – the Christian scientists and theologians who got behind Copernicus’ new evidence were actually called heretics and liberals(!) for dismissing the clear “straightforward reading” of Bible verses like Psalm 93:1, Joshua 10:13 , and 1 Chronicles 16:30 – all verses which plainly seem to indicate that the Sun revolves around the earth.

However, as this new scientific knowledge continued to spread and be discovered by other believers, Christians prayerfully returned to the holy scriptures and re-examined and re-researched them – and they eventually realized that they’d been teaching an incomplete doctrine based on a basic misreading of the Bible.

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Today, for the first time in human history, Christians have a concept of something called sexual orientation – that people are born with an unchosen, unchangeable attraction either to members of the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes.

This new knowledge, once again, uniquely places the impetus upon us to responsibly use our intellect to prayerfully re-examine how we read the Bible on an issue that has clearly harmed so many people, gay and straight, both those inside and outside the Church.

Here is my point: sexual orientation as we understand it today was not something the Biblical writers ever conceived of.  It is not something Luke or John or David or St. Paul could have sat down and had a conversation with us about any more than they would have been able to adequately explain to us (in perfect English, of course) how they came to live on a small portion of one of seven continents on one of eight planets in this universe…in the midst of an atom-soaked, space-and-time-bound, multi-dimensional plane of existence.

And this isn’t something we can fault anyone for!  This doesn’t make the early Jews and Christians who wrote the Bible wrong – they were only living within the times God placed them in, times before very real concepts like computer programming or chromosomes or bacteria or sexual orientation were ever understood.

I know the “Science! Copernicus!” argument (as I’m apparently calling it) doesn’t get us all the way there, from totally opposing homosexual relationships to blessing committed, monogamous same-sex unions.

So as always, we must return to the words of the Bible.

I won’t do the topic any justice here, but suffice it to say it is extremely inappropriate to use the Christian Holy Book – the story of the life and love of the God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth – as a weapon against anyone.

It is spiritually cowardly and intellectually manipulative to use words we’ve carefully lifted out of their contexts in a few early Christian letters – (let’s be honest: words written to communities of believers living during the height of Roman corruption; words written to Christians who were surrounded by appalling orgies, pagan temple prostitution, master-slave sexual exploitation, institutionalized pederastic “homosexual” relationships) ­– and to try and apply these words to today’s discussion of what is actually, specifically transgressive about a Christ-centered same-sex relationship. (My friend Matthew does a wonderful job examining the most biblically egregious flaws of non-affirming theology in this video.)

Now, I’ll admit that I understand the appeal of watering down the Bible in order to remain popular with my fellow conservative Christians – for years I continued to twist the several isolated scriptures that speak against ancient sexual exploitation and promiscuity, trying to wrestle them into some uniform treatise against today’s committed Christian gay couples.

But my prayer is that the Church no longer be deceived by the devil’s stale, never adapting, never-changing theological precepts.  May we never forget that one of our most hallowed traditions as Christians is reexamining those traditions we love – and trying to understand which ones we may have gotten wrong, which of our longstanding teachings may actually harm people and go against what God is still revealing to us.  (Any practicing Christian who is not a member of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the importance of this reformation process…heck, even the Catholic church has shifted many of her teachings over the years.)

Anyhow, here’s how I see the cross-roads before us, as it were.

We can stick our heads in the proverbial sand, clinging ignorantly to a superficial and detached understanding of 6 unique, important verses of scripture, or we can go deeper into the Bible, prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit’s movement in the world today and good fruit in the lives of LGBT Christians guide our interpretive process.

Over-turning a tradition (in this case, the rejection of loving, same-sex relationships) that is scientifically non-demonstrable and morally reprehensible does not mean “throwing away the Bible.” It means coming to a more grounded, conservative reading of the text.

Faithful Christians did this with heliocentrism, and they did it with the subjugation of women, and It took hundreds of years and many thousands of deaths, but we, the “heretical, radical, hell-bound, Bible-forsaking liberals,” did it again with abolishing slavery.

Gay-affirming believers got to where we are on this issue because we had way too much respect for the sacredness of the Bible to not question whether our own limited understandings of the text weren’t – once again – wayyy off.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Every non-Christian before Copernicus thought the Earth was the center of the universe also, and the “liberals” and the scientists disbelieved him as much as the church did since the core motivations for heliocentrism were based more in experience and an Aristotelian worldview than in distinctly religious committments. So in my opinion this isn’t very analogous to what’s going on with homosexuality and the church.

    October 17, 2013
    • And I meant to say “…core motivations for geocentrism…” sorry.

      October 17, 2013
    • “Every NON-Christian before Copernicus thought the Earth was the center of the universe also…”

      Kiefer, this is incorrect. Aristarchus of Samos, ancient Greek philosopher, believed in heliocentrism as well and was actually fairly foundational to Copernicus’ thought. You can read more about him on this Wikipedia page.

      Second, an analogy is defined as a “comparison between two things,” right? So of course it’s not a perfect comparison – that’s not the definition of analogy. They are different issues with different circumstances and different consequences: for example, false teaching on heliocentrism don’t utterly silence an entire group of Christians, take lives, go against the scriptures in such a severe manner as nonaffirming theology does.

      Agreed, they are not “the same issue.” But speaking strictly on terms of the difficulty of overturning an established church tradition, I think it’s a valid comparison.

      October 19, 2013
      • Of course analogies aren’t the same in every way, but they must be similar in the way the argument needs them to be. You’re trying to use heliocentrism to illustrate the alleged initial stubbornness of the church in the face of the rest of the world arriving at some truth. But my point is that there is a crucial disanalogy: while the rest of society is coming to believe that homosexual behavior is okay today, the rest of the world in that time was on the same side as the church during the switch to heliocentrism. The church was being no more stubborn than the unchurched, the scientists, and everyone else then.

        Yes there were a few philosophers before Copernicus who defended heliocentrism, but almost everyone disbelieved it when Copernicus arrived and even for a while after he arrived since his arguments weren’t very good and he had virtually no evidence until Brahe and Kepler and Galileo backed him.

        October 19, 2013
  2. “it is extremely inappropriate to use the Christian Holy Book – the story of the life and love of the God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth – as a weapon against anyone.”

    Just something I thought worth mentioning that in Ephesians 6:10-17, Paul talks about putting on the full armor of God. There is only one thing that is spoken of as a weapon rather then defensive armor, which is the “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17).

    That being said, Paul is talking about fighting spiritual forces of evil and the Devil’s schemes here. But the context of Ephesians as a whole shows time and time again that Paul sees division and lack of harmony within the church as the work of a spiritual force of evil.

    October 17, 2013
    • “Paul sees division and lack of harmony within the church as the work of a spiritual force of evil.”

      I see it this way as well. When I look at the lives stolen, the families shattered in the name of pride and rejection, the shame induced, the gospel-message of God’s love and sacrifice being slowly dismembered and distorted towards so many of His faithful – I remember just how much a lack of harmony is being stirred up by Satan in the Church today.

      It reminds me of the Christians who, though they didn’t *like* slavery per-se, accepted its apparent presence & regulation in the scriptures, and defended its existence not to “stir up division.” (If you haven’t yet, consider reading historian/theologian Mark Noll’s “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis“)

      Dwelling on the words of Paul, may we remember that the devil hates gay Christians, straight Christians, all those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Evil does not want a single prodigal soul to come to saving knowledge of God.

      And that Ephesians verse says just as much: The Bible is only to be used as a weapon against Satan. Not those who are only trying to find a space and a voice for themselves within the Church.

      October 19, 2013
  3. I sincerely wish this new social conservatism within the church would move away from talking about intimate sexual morality. A really radical message that seems consistent with Jesus’s teaching is being an incisive social and ethical critic. This new movement in the church must move away from the temptation to create a new sexual ethic in the church. That said, the scholarly inquiry is useful, however I do not wish to be told that my sexual/gender organs, practices and identities requires some new moral code. That is not a message of welcome and for this reason, I’m afraid to say the message is old wine in new bottles.

    October 21, 2013
  4. I admire your loving, respectful attitude towards homosexuals, but this post raises a number of questions for me.

    Are you sure that “sexual orientation as we understand it today was not something the Biblical writers ever conceived of. It is not something Luke or John or David or St. Paul could have sat down and had a conversation with us about …”??

    In AD 181, Theophilus of Antioch wrote in To Autolycus (1:14) of the idea of gay marriage. And the concept is also referenced in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud of the 3rd to 5th centuries (in Chulin 92a, b). If the people of that era were grasping and talking of the notion of gay marriage, does this not imply that they were grasping the idea that some people prefer to engage in a long term same-sex relationship? IE doesnt that imply that there was some grasp of the idea of a homosexual orientation?

    You write; “We can stick our heads in the proverbial sand, clinging ignorantly to a superficial and detached understanding of 6 unique, important verses of scripture, or we can go deeper into the Bible”

    Indeed we can go deeper. We can recognise for example, that gay activists are a little shallow to claim that the Biblical guidelines on homosexuality, are limited to 6 verses. In addition to the classic 6, there are also the verses which imply that holy Christian relationships are inherently heterosexual.

    Also you are plugging the infamous video from Matthew Vines. Have you Googled to review what the critics of that video have said? He gained a lot of fans from that video, but he also drew a lot of critical attention online from theologians.

    Blessings.

    December 11, 2013

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  1. 3 things I hope critics don’t say about Matthew Vines’ new book | A Real Rattlesnake Meets His Maker

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