My social media has been burning up with opinions ever since the court ruling on Marriage Equality. Yours too? The opinions won’t change things; it is now the law of the land. But perhaps opinions can change how we receive Marriage Equality, how we engage with LGBTQ people about it, how we engage in loving as Christ told his followers to love.
The Bible is not trail mix from which we pick and choose. So what is it? How do faithful, earnest Jesus followers approach the Bible? I’m sincere when I say that is a good question.
One interpretation is that the Bible is an instruction manual, and if we follow the instructions in it, our lives will be godly, fruitful, and Christlike.
Another is that the Bible is a love letter from God to humanity, drawing us into a loving relationship through Jesus.
There are other interpretations, but these two are relevant to our question of how to engage biblically with this new law of the land called Marriage Equality. How do we sort through these two possibilities?
Let’s start with the instruction manual, an interpretation overflowing with problems. An immediate question emerges: which instructions? Don’t tell me “the ones in the Bible.” Our understanding of the Bible’s instructions clearly changes over time.
Marriage, divorce, slavery, flat earth, and on and on and on—all of these interpretations have changed drastically, depending on the culture and the church hierarchy at any point in history. (I elaborate on two examples below, and they barely scratch the surface.)*
This points up the second problem: which pieces will we “pick out” and which will we “ignore”? Because that’s the thing. The instruction manual view requires us to pick and choose! To think it’s even conceivable to keep all the commands is crazy, really.
If that is not immediately evident to you just by my saying it, Rachel Held Evans’ My Year of Biblical Womanhood will convince you. It’s impossible to keep the laws of the Bible, and it was meant to be impossible.
Jesus made that clear. He told those who thought they could keep the rules, who thought they were keeping the rules, that they had no idea what they were talking about. You don’t murder? You murder people in your heart every day! You don’t commit adultery? You do so every time you lust after someone not your spouse.
I hope you’re mature enough — and honest enough — to admit you can’t keep rules! Paul says clearly that while rules have the appearance of godliness, they have no power over flesh, and they don’t produce good behavior.
That leaves us with the love letter approach to the Bible. We find the Bible’s support for that in a variety of ways, but the simplest is what Jesus said when asked about the greatest command. You see, he faced people who, like those struggling with the new law for Marriage Equality, wanted to know how to reconcile all this. How do we choose among these countless laws so we can do the right thing? He made the answer very, very simple. Simpler than any religious leader is likely to think possible! He said:
In case we aren’t sure what love looks like, he tells us something else that’s very simple. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Period. You want to be constantly told you’re a sinner going to hell? You want your civil rights to be withheld from you? You want to be rejected from family and friends and community?
No, and neither does anyone else.
If you want a picture of how to treat people kindly — even if you disagree with them — click on the photo below to watch this Baptist preacher show you.
This instruction manual view is how Christians have become so harsh and unloving. It is anathema to the very heart of the Bible they claim to follow. This way will not win a single person to truly knowing God.
Instead, hear this from Jesus about the Bible’s commands. “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
Put away the instruction manual and pick up the love letter. It will make all the difference.
*Just Two Examples of How Biblical Interpretation Has Changed
At one point the church burned a lot of people at the stake because the Bible clearly told us to beware of witches, and even to kill them. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Exodus 20:18, or “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or is a wizard, shall surely be put to death,” Leviticus 20:27.
We don’t do that today. Did the Bible change? No, we did.
At one point the world was thought to be flat because the bible was clear about it! Job 38:13; Proverbs 8:27; Isaiah 40:22. The Bible talks about “the ends of the earth” multiple times. (Deuteronomy 13:7, 28:49, 28:64, 33:17. Job 2:8, 19:4, 22:27, 33:13, 48:10, 59:13, 61:2, 65:5, 72:8.)
We don’t do that today. Did the Bible change? No, we did.
Clearly, clearly we understand today the figures of speech as well as the biblical writers’ limited understanding of the cosmos, but they believed in a flat earth then. Enough to persecute scientists like Copernicus and Galileo.
What has never changed, what matches the teachings of Jesus and the heart of God, what the Bible does clearly say is that rules do NOT produce life.
“You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.”
Again, put away the instruction manual and pick up the love letter. It will make all the difference.