In the days since I “came out” as an inclusive, progressive, and post-Evangelical Christian, I have been contacted more than a few times by others who find themselves on a similar road and a similar spot in their journeys.
Some of them have a question like this: I want to take an inclusive position on LGBTQ; it feels right intuitively. It makes sense of the science, it makes sense of the sociology, it makes sense of my intuitions of justice. And, it would sure help me be more loving toward my gay/lesbian friends, neighbors, family members, etc. But, then, there’s…the Bible!
And also, there’s there’s their Evangelical communities, jobs, political and financial pressures, etc. But in this post, let’s just focus on that question about the Bible.
In yesterday’s post, I argued that “biblical authority” is a far more complicated phenomenon than Christians often like to admit. The phrase, the”authority of the Bible” often just means whatever we take the Bible to mean, about whatever view of a topic we happen to hold, and can sufficiently justify to ourselves via our interpretation of biblical texts (including our selection of the most relevant texts, and rejection, revision, or utter neglect of those which would complicate our interpretations).
Maybe that’s a slight overstatement, but when we consider the issue of slavery (which I raised yesterday), of polygamy (on the whole, the Bible is far more congenial to polygamy than many proponents of “biblical marriage” would ever want to admit), of the obvious patriarchy which runs through the Bible’s pages (though with surprising egalitarian impulses also scattered throughout), its apparent sanctioning of gruesome violence and even genocide (see much of the Old Testament historical books!), and its vastly outdated cosmology, the ambiguity and difficulties associated with the phrase, “the authority of the Bible” begins to sink in a little bit.
But even with all that and more besides, the Bible is a beautiful, powerful, and yes–divinely inspired book! Christians wrestling with the LGBTQ question and the implications of the SCOTUS affirmation of marriage equality still want and need to find in the Bible exegetical and theological justification for making the shift toward inclusion.
Here’s the good news: It’s there.
Just as you can discover biblical reasons for the rejection of slavery, segregation, racism, white supremacy and just as you can find biblical reasons for the affirmation of the full humanity of every single person, created in the image of God…
Just as you can discover biblical reasons for the rejection of polygamy, sometimes based on the ideas of women as property to be owned and managed, so you can discover biblical reasons for the affirmation of monogamous, covenantal relationships based on fidelity, trust, and sacrificial love…
Just as you can discover biblical reasons for the rejection of demeaning and oppressive patriarchy and systemic violence toward women and girls, and just as you can find biblical reasons for the full equality of women and men, boys and girls, created in the image of God…
Just as you can discover biblical reasons for the rejection of the use of violence against other human beings and just as you can discover biblical reasons for the way of peace and peacemaking and for a vigorous critique of the conflation of church and Christianity with the heavy hand of Empire…
…So you can discover biblical reasons for the rejection of heteronormativity and for the rejection of the marginalization, oppression, and de-humanization of LGBTQ persons and you can discover biblical reasons for affirming their natural humanity and their desires for love and need for acceptance underneath the umbrella of God’s love for all persons.
This is good news for Evangelicals who are highly conscious of “biblical authority” and who want to maintain (as do I, by the way) a “high view” of Scripture’s authority in the Christian life and for the church.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the best resource I have found for doing this is James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.
Brownson skillfully weaves through the biblical material, dealing extensively with the “6 texts” (7 if you count the parallel Sodom and Gomorrah accounts as two), swirling at the heart of the debate within Christian circles on the morality of same-sex relationships.
But Brownson does not just do a straight-up “exegesis” of the texts and leave it at that (as if “straight-up” exegesis is possible). Rather, he argues the case in a much broader way, dealing with questions of hermeneutics (what it means to interpret texts), theology, and the issue of “moral logic.”
His argument is the result of his attempt to determine the “underlying moral logic” of the Bible in relation to same-sex relationships. He takes on the “traditionalist (exclusive) case” at the centerpiece of its theological and ethical argument–which is the assumption that gender distinction in the Bible (i.e. healthy “biblical” sexuality as as consisting of one male and one female in covenant relationship) underscores the normativity of heterosexual relationships and rules out homosexual relationships as inherently sinful.
Up front, Brownson acknowledges the challenge of discerning moral issues in the Bible. Regarding gender relations, the Bible includes “contrasting streams” of patriarchy and equality (egalitarianism). The “tensions” created by the contrasting streams are pushed (or maybe pulled) forward in the New Testament toward a resolution in the direction of equality. The tensions are, he says, “best resolved by the eschatological vision of the New Testament, which holds in tension the ways in which we ‘already’ have entered into the new life of the world to come (and thus have left patriarchy behind) and the ways in which we still live in the world, and have “not yet” fully entered into the life of the world to come…” (84).
Brownson is drawing from a well-established tradition in Evangelical interpretation made recently famous by William Webb, sometimes called the “redemptive-trajectory hermeneutics.” The Bible contains evidence both of the “present” world and of the “new world” (eschatology); it reflects the tension in both is patriarchy and its egalitarian impulses; in both its apparent commendation of slavery and in its push toward equality and freedom (see Philemon). While Webb sees evidence of such a movement on slavery and gender equality, he doesn’t find any such “movement” in the Bible’s treatment of same-sex relationships.
For Brownson, however, when we encounter the Bible’s “treatment” of homosexuality, we are in fact encountering a phenomenon very different from modern, loving, monogamous homosexual relationships. When we are dealing with a complex moral issue of which the Bible writers had little, or none, or vastly different notions, the pressure is on us to discern the “moral logic” underneath or within the text, rather than to try to find a “literal” affirmation or denial of an option that just wasn’t available to them.
Brownson shows that, when we dig into the pertinent texts (he spends a lot of time on Romans 1:24-27) we find that Paul’s concern was not with same-sex eroticism per se (i.e. “externals”) but rather was a matter of the heart and of the will. Paul was certainly advocating for sexual purity and was against sexual impurity: but the impurity he was against was lustful, licentious, profligate, self-serving, extreme, and even violent sexual behavior.
This was the perception of “same sex” relationships in the ancient world and would have been Paul’s perception, too–and that perception was reinforced to Paul by the Sodom and Gomorrah story (he evil of Sodom and Gomorrah was the evil of rape, not of homosexuality per se). Furthermore, in the “vice lists” (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10), Paul was speaking against “pederasty”: homosexual prostitution involving male boys. The “relevant” texts are simply not about the same sex, covenantal relationships that are practiced today and that are now socially and civically encouraged by the legalization of gay marriage.
For Brownson, just as there are streams of patriarchy and streams of egalitarianism, and just as we see “glimpses of new creation,” or eschatological impulses bubbling in transforming the present, moving toward a fuller more complete ethic, so we can apply that eschatological vision to the issue of same-sex relationships.
He points out the reality that “social change takes time” (79), and so the New Testament’s eschatological vision is not complete or “fully realized” in the pages of the Bible itself. In fact, I would add, it is not complete or fully realized today.
Maybe in the same way that modern readers perceive eschatological movement in the Bible with respect to movement toward abolition of slavery and full equality, monogamous marriage, egalitarianism, the preference of non-violence, and so on, we can envision (with the addition of knowledge the Bible writers never had), a theological and biblical ethic of inclusion for LGBTQ persons in the church. So he asks,
Does the fact that Scripture never countenances such relationships mean that they can never exist? Or is it the case that the sexual ethics of Scripture may have a wider applicability than their original scope and focus? (108)
For those who need and want to find in the Bible’s pages a legitimation of same-sex relationships, it may be difficult to find a slam-dunk proof-text. But you can read the Bible through the lens of the eschatological vision, the “fuller ethic” that such a vision commends.
You can read it through the centrality of the person of Jesus–who embodied the love of God and who calls us all by God’s into the kingdom of God on earth.
And you can read it with an emphasis on the fruits of mutuality, commitment, grace, covenant fidelity, and of course love.
You can be a Bible-believing Christian, and be inclusive, too.
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