It’s probably not best practice for a preacher to say this publicly, but my sermon this weekend was pretty awful. I think it’s because I’ve psyched myself out thinking that my congregation isn’t interested in the esoteric, mystical theological nerdiness that I care about, so I got tangled up in knots trying to figure out how to craft a relevant message instead of listening to what God had given me to say, which is why it never came together. So first I wanted to say I’m sorry to anyone who was there. And I wanted to try to write now what I should have pulled together more coherently before I stood up in front of God’s people. What I wanted to say in my sermon is that the Bible is so much more than a reference manual or a rulebook; the reason it’s called “God-breathed” is because God wants to use it to make our existence inspired, which means to live in the freedom and delight of His breath.
This is a post where I’m raising a question that I flat-out don’t know the answer to. I watched a conversation yesterday between Derek Rishmawy who represents what I call the “Calvinist you can talk to” perspective and Stephanie Drury who is a “post-evangelical feminist.” Derek had written a post about the importance of not dissing King Solomon and the sacredness of scripture just because Mark Driscoll has misused Solomon’s words in Proverbs and the Song of Songs. Stephanie’s response was that for people who have been spiritually abused, some words in the Bible are permanently toxic as a result.
I got an email today from the Virginia Methodist state listserv that let me know there’s going to be a resolution at our Methodist Annual Conference this year regarding the question of homosexual clergy (in my first year as a voting member — GULP!). The email cast its opposition to unbanning homosexual clergy according to the framework of the United Methodist constitution. Our United Methodist Book of Discipline says that the 25 Articles of Religion agreed upon by our forebears can never be revoked or tampered with by United Methodists in later generations. Article 6 says regarding Old Testament regulations that “although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.“ The author of the email considers the Leviticus 18:22 prohibition on homosexuality to be part of the moral law of the Old Testament. Thus, removing the ban on homosexuality is, in his perspective, not only un-Biblical but unconstitutional according to United Methodist bylaws.
I’ve been very reluctant to touch this issue with a fifty-foot pole. For pastoral reasons, I refuse to take a “pro” or “anti” position on this issue other than to affirm that I am bound as a Methodist pastor to uphold the standards currently set forth in our Book of Discipline and I will uphold the Discipline after the Methodist General Conference in 2012 regardless of what gets decided. I also believe that as a Christian, I’m supposed to submit myself completely to the authority of the Bible. I also have a best friend who’s gay and I participated once in a Bible study with Christians who were gay and seemed like more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ than I was.
So there’s a tug of war inside of me involving my personal experiences, my loyalty to the church, and the authority of scripture. Those of you who are familiar with Methodism might know that we have a concept called the Wesleyan quadrilateral that describes the four things we bring to bear when listening to God’s voice in our lives: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Now these four are not equally weighted. Scripture has the most weight and is supposed to draw the boundaries for how we utilize our church traditions, logical reason, and personal experiences. At the same time, we never read the Bible from a completely neutral “objective” perspective: all Christians use our tradition, reason, and experience as part of our Biblical interpretive process whether we admit to doing so or not.
In any case, with this particular issue, the important question I must ask as a Christian and Methodist pastor is whether ordaining homosexual clergy undermines the authority of the Bible. I realize that there are Christians who believe that the Bible can be instructive in their lives without being absolutely authoritative. But I don’t consider that to be an option. In order to hear the Word of God in the world, we need to have a single authoritative text that tells us how to interpret all the other news articles, mystery novels, and blogs that we come across. I’ve got to be able to decipher God’s voice in the midst of a lot of chaos and confusion and competing voices. The Bible is my lens for interpreting the rest of reality. If I see something happen, the Bible gives me a way of describing what I’ve seen in the terms of my Christian faith. Moreover, we have to agree as a Christian community on the boundaries of the covenant to which we have submitted; otherwise we will always be autonomous free agents only accidentally and temporarily in community, “blown here and there by the winds of every teaching” (Eph 4:14), because of our lack of a binding common discourse.
So can a Christian respect the authority of the Bible and not condemn homosexuality? Can Methodists respect our Articles of Religion and allow gay clergy to be ordained? These questions have to do with whether the Levitican ban on homosexuality is part of the “moral” law of the Old Testament that is universal to all times and cultural contexts or part of the “civil precepts” or regulations “touching ceremonies and rites” that were applicable and essential only to the particular context of Israelite society. Augustine wrote in his De Doctrina Christiana that the basic principle we should look to for guidance in interpreting scripture is the one Jesus laid out when He said that “all the law and the prophets hang on [the] two commandments” to love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:40). My understanding is that an Old Testament commandment constitutes a “moral” law if it relates to my ability to love God or love my neighbor. The Ten Commandments, for instance, map perfectly onto this principle, with 1-4 related to loving God and 5-10 related to loving other people.
So what about being gay? Certainly sexual promiscuity whether extramarital or premarital creates an obvious problem for our ability to love our neighbors and ourselves. But what about a gay person who has a monogamous lifelong relationship with a single partner just like a chaste married straight person? Does that create an obstacle for loving one’s neighbor or loving God? When people want to argue that homosexuality dishonors God, they typically use Genesis 1:27 to say that God created us “male and female” with specific complementary roles to be played in creation, most importantly the marriage relationship which they describe as always being between a man and woman (the same people usually argue that women are supposed to submit to men as part of this divine order, a command which appears quite a bit more often in scripture than the prohibition on homosexuality).
When the Methodist Church decided to ordain women in 1956, they officially rejected the principle that God’s plan for humanity is defined according to a gender hierarchy of complementary roles. They also decided to interpret the scriptural passages which explicitly prohibit women from teaching (1 Tim 2:12) or even speaking in church (1 Cor 14:34) as being applicable in the original cultural context of the early Christian community but not universal “moral” principles that should be followed by all Christians in all times and places. So should the United Methodist Church rescind the rights of women to be clergy? (I’m not going to argue in favor of this for fear that my clergy wife will throw all my belongings onto the front lawn).
If the prohibition against women teaching and speaking in church addressed a particular cultural context that is no longer applicable, then these prohibitions don’t constitute part of the moral law about which the Articles of Religion speak, so the United Methodist Church church can ordain female clergy without undermining Biblical authority just like we can serve shrimp and pork at our church potlucks and we don’t have to stone our children for being disrespectful to their parents. So are homosexual clergy analogous to female clergy? Does being sexually involved with a member of the same sex undermine a person’s ability to love his/her neighbor or love God? If so, then the Levitican prohibition of homosexuality is indeed a moral law applicable to all times and places. If not, then the prohibition of homosexuality is bound to a specific cultural context in the past.
I can see a context in which homosexuality would be problematic to the social fabric of a community. That context is the patriarchal order of the early city-states of the Ancient Near East. In our day, many people think of patriarchy as being a way of thinking that is inherently oppressive to women. But in the time when people first started living in city-states with complete strangers (as opposed to nomadic tribes with their extended families), patriarchy was the means of protecting women and children from sexual violence. The sexual code of Leviticus 18 sets the boundaries for how sexual contact can and cannot occur. Without these boundaries, ancient cities became like Sodom (Genesis 19) where gangs of horny men roamed the street and raped anyone who couldn’t defend themselves. The problem of Sodom illustrates why Leviticus 18 is necessary (and it has nothing to do with the gender of the parties involved). In Judges 19, the men of Gibeah gang-rape the female concubine of a Levite who visits their town.
The reason that the homosexuality ban is part of the necessary boundary system of patriarchy is because men were the points of reference by which different households were demarcated. The way that Leviticus 18:22 is written is revealing: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” Raping another man (there was no concept of consensual sex in ancient times) constituted making him into a woman, thus removing the boundary marker by which members of his household were protected from gang-rape. Homosexuality thus would have caused the whole protective system of patriarchy to fall like a house of cards. That’s why it was unloving to one’s neighbor to sleep with other men.
To me, the prohibition on homosexuality constitutes a moral law only if the patriarchal social order is necessary in all times and places to protect women and children from gang-rape. I personally believe that patriarchy is an obsolete social system that had an important function in the development of civilization but is no longer necessary due to thousands of years of laws and social conventions that have replaced the social need for households to be protected and demarcated by fathers. In our modern context, “patriarchy” has a totally different purpose than its originally legitimate protective function in the ancient world but that’s a topic for a different essay. In any case, I view the homosexuality prohibition as a “civil precept” of ancient Israelite society that was absolutely necessary in that context but does not constitute a timeless universal moral law like the prohibitions of adultery or stealing or coveting, for example. I don’t think this view compromises my commitment to the absolute authority of every word in the Bible, and as a United Methodist pastor, I will uphold the Discipline regardless of my personal perspective on this issue.
So for those of my facebook friends who don’t know, this week there’s a virtual “Rally to Restore Unity” being held by Christians on facebook and other places in response to some ferocious theological debate that has taken place on the Internet largely as a result of Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins. The idea is that we as Christians ought to promote unity in the church rather than saying that anybody who disagrees with us isn’t a true Christian. I don’t endorse everything that’s being said by other people, but I do think it’s worth reexamining how the Bible actually defines heresy, which is actually not the way that we have tended to understand things as Protestants who splinter into a new denomination every time we disagree on a theological detail.
For most of Christianity’s history (pre-Reformation), heresy was more or less judged according to whether it created schism, or a splintering of the unity of the body of Christ. The reason that Marcionism, Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Donatism, Montanism (and a whole lot of other –isms you’ve never heard of) came to be seen as heresies is because they threatened the unity of the body of Christ and undermined the ability of Christians to work together as committed disciples.
The reason I make this point is because it’s not enough to be “Biblical” to avoid heresy. The Bible is a complex enough text that you can take bits and pieces out of context to justify a practice that goes completely against the spirit of the Bible. This is why Paul told the Corinthians that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which was actually the verse that caused the great fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine to convert to Christianity after he had trouble taking certain Old Testament passages literally. Of course, some asinine people take this to the nihilistic extreme of saying that nothing in the Bible needs to be taken seriously if every verse can be misinterpreted. And then in response, others say that we must interpret everything literally or not at all.
The reality is that we have to make decisions about which passages get more weight than others when interpreting the Bible. If James says that “faith without works is dead” and Romans says that “we are justified by our faith and not by works,” then do we interpret James in the light of Romans or Romans in the light of James? (Personally I think that some days I need James and other days I need Romans; the fact that they seem to contradict is only a problem if I’m trying to come up with an airtight systematic doctrine that’s purer than everybody else’s.) This issue actually came up when I was helping a friend write a sermon this December. We had to decide how to read Peter’s statement in Acts 10:35 that God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” If this is true, then it seems to clash with what Paul says in Romans about God only “accepting” those of us who are justified by our faith in Christ. So do we say that Peter can’t really mean what he’s literally saying or do we somehow hold Acts 10:35 and Romans 5 “in tension” with one another (whatever that means)?
In any case, my point is simply that we need a better litmus test with which to measure true or false Christian teaching than to just ask whether it’s derived in some way from something “Biblical.” The 2nd century Gnostics did all kinds of proof-texting from the Bible to support their heresy. In response, the bishop Irenaeus wrote that Biblical passages are like a set of mosaic tiles that can be rearranged to form different pictures according to how they are prioritized and privileged. He said that properly orthodox Christian teaching arranges the Biblical tiles to form a lamb, while the Gnostics were rearranging the same tiles to form a fox. If the same words can make a fox and a lamb, we need a litmus test that helps us read the Bible in such a way so that we see the lamb of God and not some fox of Satan. The Bible actually gives us several litmus tests to use. Each of them sets the boundaries of orthodoxy (right teaching) according to the needs of orthopraxis (right practice).
First of all and most prominently, we have Jesus’ claim that “all the law and the prophets hang on” the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. What does this mean? The way that Augustine interpreted it is to say that all scripture has the goal of leading its readers to fulfill these two commandments. Thus the way to know whether I am interpreting scripture correctly is whether it leads me to give myself more fully to God and my neighbor in love. Interestingly, the poster child Jesus gives for the second great commandment to love your neighbor was a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a man who was not simply a different race than Jesus’ audience of Jewish religious leaders, but someone whom they considered to be an absolute heretic because of the Samaritans’ religious mixture of Jewish and pagan beliefs.
As much as it makes us squirm, Jesus seems to be telling us in the Good Samaritan story that the priest and Levite’s orthodoxy was inferior to the Samaritan’s heterodoxy because the Samaritan was the one who was able to show mercy (though it is also true that when Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 under different circumstances, he critiques Samaritan beliefs and affirms the superiority of Jewish orthodoxy). There are certainly ways to abuse the litmus test of love. It’s perverse to say that because scripture is supposed to lead me to love my neighbor and God, then I can sidestep any Biblical passages that feel “unloving” to me because they’re uncomfortable. The only way to become a Christian disciple capable of real love is to have layers and layers of corrupt worldly socialization chiseled away from us by God largely through wrestling with uncomfortable Biblical passages.
Another litmus test comes in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He tells Timothy that the problem with “false doctrines” is that they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:4-5). Controversial speculation is the fruit of heresy; advancing God’s work is the fruit of orthodoxy. The goal of a pastor like Timothy should be to cultivate pure hearts, good consciences, and sincere faith. This means making decisions about what to share with which people at what time. When the Corinthians take Paul’s initial teachings out of context to engage in political power-play within their congregations, he explains that they have misused surface-level teachings which were appropriate to them as new believers by trying to make them into absolute norms: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:2).
The reason God didn’t write the Bible as a flat, static text whose passages offer obvious interpretations at first-glance is because He wasn’t looking to give us a soap-box from which to launch self-righteous tirades against other people. Instead He gave us a dynamic resource full of milk for some believers and solid food for others as the occasion dictates according to the purpose of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The reason that God breathed scripture is not to give us ammunition for winning theological cage matches with other Christian but to equip us for doing God’s work. Orthodoxy exists for the sake of orthopraxis.
Notice that I’m not saying there are no boundaries; what I’m saying is that the boundaries exist for a reason – to create dedicated Christian disciples who will work as a unified body to transform the world. Sometimes heretics undermine this purpose by coloring outside of the lines of the Biblical canon; sometimes they stay inside the lines but in a mischievous way that follows the letter but abuses the spirit of Biblical witness. And ironically it’s often the case that the Christians who are the most zealous grand inquisitors of others’ doctrinal shortcomings have been deeply compromised by worldly values themselves. If you have the need to prove something with your doctrinal “loyalty,” then perhaps you haven’t yet received the good news that Christ died to take away our need to prove anything.
A third litmus test that I’ve always found helpful are the fruits of the Spirit that Paul shares with the Galatians towards the end of his letter to them. Galatians is Paul’s angriest letter because some of the Galatian leaders were trying to force a whole slew of Jewish religious practices onto the Gentiles who had converted to Christianity. We have many Galatians in the church today who try to tell other believers which political party they need to vote for and what political issues they need to prioritize in order to be a true Christian. After Paul emphatically exhorts the Galatians not to put their trust in anything other than Christ, he gives them a concrete means of measuring whether they’re living by the Spirit or the flesh: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). Whenever our doctrine causes us to be less than kind, gentle, peaceful, loving, joyful, patient, faithful, and self-controlled, then that’s a pretty good indication that we’ve fallen for a heresy of some kind. An orthodox use of scripture will result in the Spirit’s fruits blossoming in our soul.
The test of orthodoxy is more than just asking whether we are being “Biblical.” Far more important is whether we create or remove stumbling blocks for people with whom God wants us to share His love, whether we get our kicks from force-feeding the toughest morsels of spiritual meat to new believers or prayerfully discern between giving them milk or solid food as thoughtful shepherds in imitation of our own Good Shepherd, whether we promote controversial speculation for the sake of our own power play or advance God’s work for the sake of the Kingdom, and whether we justify ourselves with our own doctrinal rightness or devote ourselves to unifying the body of people who are okay with being wrong since Jesus Christ is their only justification.