If there ever comes a time when evangelical Christians are known for something other than their opposition to homosexuality, maybe today’s Supreme Court ruling will help. We have been living through an era in which Christian morality has been almost exclusively focused on sexuality. Within the Christian community, the gay marriage debate has helped to delineate two entirely different visions for Christian holiness. Do we understand holiness primarily in terms of correctness, or fidelity to a set of commandments? Or is holiness primarily a state of the heart in which we have been emptied of all obstacles to loving God and our neighbor? How you understand holiness determines how you will read scripture and how you think about homosexuality as a Christian.
I. Holiness as correctness
If holiness is about correctness, then the purpose of reading the Bible is to figure out what opinions you are supposed to have about the issues in our world. What is most important to Christians who pursue this form of holiness is that they approve what is supposed to be approved and denounce what is supposed to be denounced. In this worldview, the purpose of the church is to make sure that we are correct. If you don’t correct others when they are in error, then you are allowing unholiness to corrupt your fellowship, so every Christian disciple needs to be brought into accountability and close supervision. In such an environment, conversation about the Bible means learning the correct phrases to say from listening carefully to the phrases that your small group leader and preacher use and then mimicking them.
When you are guided by this conception of holiness, the challenge of holiness is to hold fast to the correctness you have acquired against a ferocious assault of contradictions from the outside world. The opposite of holiness is understood to be agreeableness, or “compromise” (in evangelical-speak). Your holiness is measured in direct proportion to the number of controversial, “old-fashioned” opinions you hold about the set of issues that God has placed in front of you to test your faithfulness, such as the role of women in the church and at home, whether the Earth was created in six solar days or billions of years, whether or not you should spank children, whether or not hell exists, and of course, homosexuality (did I miss any?).
Pursuing this type of holiness means that your thoughts and conversations tend to focus on whatever topics cause the most friction between the Bible and modern sensibilities (as opposed to, say, the areas of spiritual growth where you personally need the most improvement). The reason homosexuality is such a perfect testing ground for this form of holiness is because it pits the Bible against civil rights, which makes the opposition to homosexuality utterly confounding to liberals who get mad and call you a bunch of names, which increases your holiness points through persecution.
II. Holiness as a state of the heart
You can also define holiness as a quest to gain what is called “the heart of Christ.” There are no explicit Biblical references to pursuing the heart of Christ, but it has been a concept in Christian piety since the beginning, most famously delineated in 14th century priest Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, which was one of Methodist founder John Wesley’s favorite books. People who see holiness in this way yearn to respond to every life situation the way that Jesus would and focus on eliminating every competing allegiance or obstacle in their hearts to purely Christlike instincts.
With the first form of holiness, the basic guiding question is “Am I perfectly correct?” With the second, it’s “Am I perfectly loving?” To this second holiness, sin is a problem not just because the Bible says it’s wrong, but because it prevents me from seeing Jesus’ heart and being perfectly loving to others. I want to be liberated from whatever idols and addictions corrupt my love and make me oblivious to the needs of others, whether or not they are explicitly named in the Bible. When I go to the Bible, I am not looking for a set of correct opinions about issues; I am looking for a savior to follow and imitate. I understand every teaching in terms of how it will purify my heart so that all my instincts and intuitions are Christlike.
The Good Samaritan story in Luke 10:25-37 seems to be a very plain illustration of the difference between these two types of holiness. Why did the Samaritan stop, but not the priest and the Levite? The text says that he was “moved by compassion.” So it’s a heart thing, not a head thing. The priest and the Levite had all kinds of rules to tell them how to behave correctly. But ultimately their sense of duty was no substitute for having a Christlike heart. In fact, their rules of cleanliness probably forbade them from touching the body of the wounded traveler. Their sense of holiness was understood in terms of obedience to a book instead of love for a God who tells us to love Him in our neighbors.
III. The Gay Marriage Debate
Christians with these two very different conceptions of holiness are almost completely incomprehensible to each other. When someone uses the Bible to find correct opinions on controversial issues, every verse is basically boiled down to “pro” or “anti.” The details aren’t important. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether Paul was talking about a Roman orgy in Romans 1:26-27 or that he specifically named adultery that occurs with multiple same-sex partners as being “against nature.” All of these details are airbrushed out because the proof-text can only be “pro” or “anti.”
It also doesn’t matter that the meaning of the two words malakoi and arsenokotai that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 can only be speculated, and they could very reasonably mean the provider and client of a male prostitution relationship. That’s intolerable; God wouldn’t be unclear like that if the purpose of the Bible is to give you clear positions on important issues. That’s why when one prominent anti-gay activist Bible scholar decides that these two words mean the passive and active partners in gay sex, then the debate has been resolved permanently forever and the translation is set in stone because the NIV says so.
If you understand holiness to be a state of the heart that is most surrendered to God’s love, you’re going to read the Bible completely differently than someone who is combing the text to find correct stances on popular issues. Someone who understands holiness in this way wants to know how any behavior sabotages the reign of God’s love in one’s heart. Correctness for the sake of correctness isn’t adequate. The context of every prohibition and instruction matters because the context is part of how we are able to understand analogous behaviors in our time that the Bible doesn’t name explicitly.
To this view of holiness, when you take out prostitution and promiscuity, it’s hard to see what the gender of someone’s lifelong partner has to do with whether or not you are able to love as Jesus loved. So you start to question whether Paul’s teachings have been interpreted incorrectly, and whether the need for the Leviticus prohibition on male homosexuality occurs in an ancient patriarchal context in which “uncovering another man’s nakedness” had disastrous, chaotic implications for the social order.
Incidentally, the command “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” is only a prohibition on homosexuality if a male reader is presumed, and the reason male readers are presumed by Leviticus 18 is because only men got to decide about sex in a patriarchal order. So to apply Leviticus 18:22 literally and without context to our time means not only 1) that men should not have sex with men, but also 2) that men should be the only decision-makers in sexual relationships.
IV. The Real Issue
To me, the real issue that God is exposing here is that many Christians demonstrate a complete aloofness to Paul’s teaching about justification by faith with the way that they define Christian discipleship and use the Bible. To understand holiness as the pursuit of correctness is exactly like the gospel that Paul’s opponents were preaching to the Galatians and Romans. You cannot betray Paul’s teaching more perfectly than to take Paul’s words and make them into the new “law” that saves us. And yet so many evangelicals have basically become modern-day Galatians substituting a new “law” for the old “law,” not recognizing that putting all our trust in God’s mercy and renouncing the self-justifying pursuit of correctness is the only means by which our hearts can be conquered for Christ, who then gains the access to crucify our sinful nature and resurrect us into new life. It’s understandable that we’d rather be correct than under God’s mercy, but correctness is damnation in those terms.
So the debate about homosexuality is only the superficial means by which the real, underlying apostasy is exposed. If we keep on using God’s teachings to justify and elevate ourselves, we will keep storing up more and more of His wrath. What we need to do when we open the Bible is search for Jesus and ask Him to convict us of any sin that keeps us from loving like He loves. We need to stop making holiness about our approval or disapproval of other peoples’ behavior and instead seek to be emptied and perfect vessels of the love that we have received from our savior.