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.
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.