Thanks for reading. This series looks at some of the questions tweeted/texted in during last Sunday’s discussion on homosexuality. You can read yesterday’s question here: “Can you be both gay and Christian?”
Why do some churches accept homosexuality and even perform gay marriage ceremonies?
As with yesterday’s question, I’d like to address this question from two sides: sociology and theology. Today’s church basically struggles with two questions:
- How can we remain faithful to the message of Christianity?
- How can we be relevant to the culture around us?
What makes any church different at all? The answer will always be found in the way she answers those two critical questions.
a.) Theology: How we read the Bible
Christians have long been described as “people of the book.” This means our beliefs are shaped by the character of God as revealed in the pages of the Bible.
The problem is that texts that prohibit homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:25-27) go against our culture’s supreme values of “openness” and “acceptance.” So churches are faced with a dilemma: How can we remain faithful to these specific texts and still be relevant to the culture that surrounds us?
The question is answered not in what the Bible says, but how we choose to read it. Let me explain. The Bible was an ancient book. We are separated from its culture, from its language, and from its time period. How can we read it at all? The science (and art!) of interpreting any text is referred to as hermeneutics. A “hermeneutic” is a way of reading the text. Don’t let the big words throw you. It’s simpler than it sounds, but we need to know some vocabulary in order to intelligently navigate these issues.
There are many different “hermeneutics” out there—many different methods. But in regards to sexual ethics, we’re seeing a collision of two main kinds of hermeneutics:
(1) HISTORICO-LINGUISTIC HERMENEUTICS
This is a very traditional approach. This approach seeks to understand the original language, culture, and literary features of the Bible. The end goal is to identify a set of principles that were at work in the lives of the original audience. The spiritual application is to identify ways those same principles are at work in our lives today.
So, in the context of sexual ethics, we can see that the writers of scripture gave clear prohibitions against homosexuality, and endorsed marriage between man and woman. This is why the language of “one flesh” is so important: it appears first in Genesis (2:24) but is repeated by both Jesus (Matthew 19:5-6) and Paul (Ephesians 5:31). The principles there are absolute and unambiguous.
Numerous attempts have been made to reinterpret these texts. Perhaps the Bible is speaking of homosexual prostitution, idolatrous religious sexual practices, or just sexual promiscuity in general. None of these suggestions has had lasting impact. If you truly are interested in reading more on these specific issues, I’d direct you to Robert A.J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice.
(2) TRAJECTORY HERMENEUTICS
This is a more contemporary approach. While this approach acknowledges the principles set forth in scripture, it insists that the Bible presents us with many authors whose “voices” carry us through to the present day. It’s up to us to understand how these voices speak to our issues. Common examples are issues such as slavery or the treatment of women. The Bible “endorses” slavery (or so it is claimed), yet we now recognize that slavery is wrong. So while the Bible condemns homosexuality, it presents us with a loving God who is ultimately accepting of all people.
This might sound hopelessly abstract and needlessly complicated, so let’s look at a real-world example. In December of 2008, Newsweek magazine published an article by Lisa Miller called “Our Mutual Joy.” Though she does not say as much, Lisa Miller’s arguments seem to (generally) resonate with a trajectory approach:
“Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition…The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours. […]
In the Christian story, the message of acceptance for all is codified. Jesus reaches out to everyone, especially those on the margins, and brings the whole Christian community into his embrace.…The great Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, quotes the apostle Paul when he looks for biblical support of gay marriage: ‘There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.’ The religious argument for gay marriage, he adds, ‘is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.’
The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage.”
Do you see her argument? The Bible is not literal, but put us on a trajectory towards a better view of “slavery.” Now we must do the same with homosexuality.
The problem with trajectory hermeneutics is simple. Traditional approaches use the Bible to interpret our culture. Trajectory hermeneutics uses culture to interpret the Bible. It is an example of what Paul warned a young pastor about: that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions (2 Timothy 4:3).”
We can see that in the constant appeal to slavery. But the slavery of the ancient world was nothing like that of the present. Yes, there were men who have historically used the Bible to endorse slavery. But they lost—not because of an appeal to culture, but because it was shown that scripture never endorses slavery as it has been largely practiced in recent centuries. What is worrisome is that writers such as Lisa Miller seem ignorant of this entire period of history. One of the Israelite’s worship songs sings: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). God’s Word interprets our experiences. We must not be guilty of letting our experiences interpret God’s Word.
b.) Sociology: Religion in culture
But have you ever wondered why so many churches that endorse homosexuality tend to seem so very traditional? I’m speaking of former “mainline” denominations whose actual church practices tend to be a lean a bit more toward traditional architecture, robes, liturgy, etc.
The answer is simple: without a secure foundation in God’s Word, we are left only with dry tradition. The problem with mainline denominations is that in a quest for cultural “relevance,” they have negotiated themselves into premature obsolescence. Everyone is preaching a message of acceptance and tolerance. And if the message outside the church is the same as inside the church—why bother at all?
This is a hard lesson for today’s contemporary church. In our own quest for “relevance,” have we sufficiently honored the deeper truths of scripture? It should not surprise us, then, that many young people are gravitating toward the “high” church traditions—because these traditions speak of deeper meaning than the “life lessons” that have grown to define the megachurch movement.
Churches have sought to be relevant to a changing culture. To do so, they have been forced to invent new ways to read the Bible. But those who follow Jesus know that our experience is measured by God’s word, never that God’s word is measured by our experience.