Archives for March 2016

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part III

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous posts are HERE and HERE. It is important for us to critique one another’s approaches to Scripture, in that it is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. In this concluding post, I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Comparing one set of biblical interpretations to other sets, without recognizing their differences.

Haynes employs the tired comparison of the Bible’s teachings on same-sex behavior with the supposed justification of slavery and the subordination of women in Scripture. He argues that, since the church has changed its mind on slavery and the role of women, it can change its mind on homosexuality. It is important when interpreting Scripture to look at the whole, as well as individual teachings. Regarding both slavery and the role of women, the Bible shows a trajectory leading toward the understanding we have today.

While the Bible recognizes slavery as existing in the society of the time, it never commands people to be enslaved, and in fact it regulates slavery among the Israelites in such a way as to make it less onerous. I Timothy 1:10 condemns slave traders as ungodly and sinful. In Philemon, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to condemn slavery.

The Bible consistently raises the level of women’s value and treatment above the heavily patriarchal society in which most of the Bible was written. Jesus spoke to women as equals and welcomed them as disciples. There were female leaders in the New Testament church. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is no male or female was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to elevate the place of women and recognize women as equally capable of leadership and ministry.

In the case of both slavery and the treatment of women, the position we have evolved to today is based on the clear teaching and trajectory of the Bible. Regarding homosexuality, however, there is no such trajectory. All references in Scripture to same-sex practices are negative, both in the Old and New Testaments. We embrace the truth that all persons are created by God and bear his image, and are therefore to be treated with love, dignity, and respect. But there is no warrant in any scriptural teaching for evolving into the approval or affirmation of same-sex behavior.

  1. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Haynes says, “Adultery is condemned fifty-two times in the Bible, self-righteousness seventy-nine times, covetousness forty times, and idolatry 169 times! Are we seeking to bar all these behavioral sinners from marriage, ordination, and membership?” Haynes seems to be saying that, since we don’t enforce behavioral standards with regard to other sins, we should not do so with regard to same-sex behavior.

First, the church’s laxity on issues like divorce, greed, and pride is lamentable. Preaching and teaching against these sins and others, as well as a ministry of redemption and restoration, is much needed. (I would note that the Bible does permit some instances of divorce, so that is not a black-and-white situation. UM News Service recently reported that the Liberia Annual Conference has a standing rule against divorced clergy being nominated to serve as bishop.) However, laxity in working against some sins does not excuse laxity in working against other sins.

Second, there is no lobby or organization working to change the church’s teaching that adultery and idolatry are sinful. Most everyone acknowledges that the things Haynes lists are indeed sinful and ought to be avoided. We may be imperfect in our ability to avoid those sins, but we strive to avoid them. On the other hand, Haynes has joined others represented by Reconciling Ministries Network, Affirmation, Love Prevails, and the Love Your Neighbor Coalition who are organized specifically to say that same-sex conduct is not a sin. That is a far different matter than acknowledging our imperfection at living up to biblical standards—it is changing, or rather overturning, those standards altogether.

As Haynes is quite aware, no one is saying that persons living a sinful lifestyle ought to be barred from attending church or even getting married, whether that lifestyle is unmarried heterosexuality, greed, pride, or any other sin. But to allow for same-sex marriage is to completely change the definition of marriage and explicitly place the church’s blessing on same-sex relationships, which would be contrary to Scripture. Further, we expect ordained clergy to live to a higher behavioral standard, not just in terms of our sex lives, but in terms of our personal habits and interpersonal relationships (see Book of Discipline, ¶ 304.2-3). In fact, some clergy persons have tragically lost their credentials and been fired because of heterosexual sin or infidelity.

  1. Choose one truth of Scripture and read everything else in the Bible in light of that one truth.

Martin Luther is famous for this error, when he disparaged the book of James because it did not sufficiently reinforce Luther’s pet doctrine of salvation by grace and faith alone. (James talks about the need for works, as well, as an outgrowth or demonstration of our faith.)

Haynes resorts to the tried and true commandment to “love your neighbor.” Anything that does not exhibit love for neighbor (in Haynes’ view) is not to be accepted as biblical teaching.

Taking this approach, however, closes out the possibility that each book of the Bible—indeed, even each passage—has its own voice and its own point to make. Much of biblical interpretation consists in balancing truths that are held in tension. God is three, and yet one. Jesus is God, and yet fully human. God is love, and yet holy. Doctrinal error creeps in when we lose our balance—when we emphasize one side or the other of the equation too much. Too much “three-ness” in God yields three gods. Too much oneness in God omits Jesus and the Holy Spirit from divinity. We need to give each biblical author his/her own voice and let that author teach us, before we then integrate and balance that teaching with the rest of Scripture.

If one is to pick a particular scriptural truth to emphasize, “love your neighbor” would be a good candidate. Haynes’ problem is that he defines loving our gay and lesbian friends and relatives as affirming and approving of their relationships and behavior. But that is a faulty definition of love. Jesus loves each one of us infinitely, so much that he willingly came to earth as a human being and gave his life for us. Yet, Jesus does not approve of all of our behavior. When we sin, he confronts us lovingly (and sometimes sternly) through the Holy Spirit. We don’t perceive that discipline as a lack of love (see Hebrews 12:4-11). There is no contradiction between loving our homosexual neighbor and maintaining the church’s teaching that homosexual behavior is wrong in God’s eyes. Just as there is no contradiction between loving our neighbor and believing that their pride, greed, or idolatry is wrong.

Dr. Haynes concludes his article with a quote from John the Elder:

“Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

The same John the Elder also says:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (I John 1:5-7)

As we address difficult and emotional subjects in the church, may we seek to balance God’s love and God’s light, aspiring as did Timothy to be one “who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). To have the Bible as our authority means to hold it “as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (The Confession of Faith, Article IV).

I hope this series of posts will help us gain clarity on how we approach Scripture to understand and apply its message to our lives today. May we learn from each other, “as iron sharpens iron,” and come to a unified understanding in the church that will form the basis for moving forward together in unity.