How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part I

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

Understanding and applying the teachings of Scripture to our daily lives is not rocket science, but it is also not kindergarten. Thankfully, many of the most important teachings of Scripture are straightforward and understood from a plain reading of the biblical words. Other teachings, however, are more difficult to glean from Scripture without a basic knowledge of the historical background and the rules of interpretation that have been developed over the centuries to aid such understanding.

Unfortunately, a teaching of Scripture that was once considered clear and easily understood has now been obscured and complicated by many efforts to rationalize a change in the church’s position. I am speaking of the church’s understanding of homosexuality. A recent article by Dr. Donald Haynes illustrates some of the pitfalls of improper biblical interpretation. While I have great respect for Dr. Haynes and his teaching and writing over the decades, I was disappointed by the approach he took toward Scripture in this article.

Because we believe in the authority of Scripture as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice,” it is important that we discuss and critique one another’s interpretations of Scripture. Biblical interpretation is done not solely as an isolated individual, but in community with brothers and sisters in Christ, and particularly in community with Christian leaders down through the centuries. Therefore, our approaches to Scripture ought to be open to discussion with one another, that we might learn from each other. In that vein, I would like to take several blog posts to engage Haynes’ approach to interpreting biblical teaching.

My overarching critique of Haynes’ approach is the same one I have of many others who engage the Bible on the subject of human sexuality. Namely, they often seem to have a conclusion in mind (the affirmation of same-sex practice) and then seek to find ways to explain away or disregard the teaching of Scripture in order to bring it into harmony with that conclusion.  I would like to use Haynes’ article as a way to point out some ways that Scripture is often misunderstood and misapplied.

  1. Misclassifying certain verses and/or lumping unlike verses together into a category that can be disregarded.

Dr. Haynes places the foundational verses relating to homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) into the category of “Mosaic cultic laws, most of which we ignore.” He then goes on to cite various laws from Leviticus that we no longer observe, such as prohibitions against eating blood, crossbreeding animals, and blending fabrics. He could have also cited the prohibitions against eating certain foods, like pork. “By what logic do we insist that God still wills that homosexual conduct be punished if we merely wink at the others? In Christ’s death on the cross, I believe we are saved by grace through faith, ‘not of works lest anyone should boast.’”

Haynes has a theological problem here, in that he seems to discount the need for Christian disciples to maintain our conduct within biblical boundaries of behavior. Yes, we are saved by grace and not by works. Our success or failure in living by God’s standards is not what determines our salvation. But God saves us to live a godly life. We are saved for a life of holiness, not just from a life of sin. The New Testament is replete with instructions on how Christians are to live (more on that in a moment). Our acknowledgement that we are saved by grace through faith does not relieve us of the responsibility to determine as best we can how God wants us to live, and then by God’s grace to do our best to live that way.

Haynes’ interpretive problem here is that he classifies the prohibitions against homosexual conduct as “cultic laws”—laws relating to the Old Testament system of sacrifice and worship that included a heavy emphasis on ritual. But if Haynes wants to classify all of Leviticus’ “Holiness Code” as cultic and no longer applicable today, he has to throw out the laws against incest, adultery, bestiality (all in Leviticus 18), stealing, lying, idolatry, fraud, mistreating the blind, slander, hatred, revenge, sorcery, prostitution, and cheating in business (all in Leviticus 19). Nearly all Christians would agree that these laws still apply today. There is no indication that they are connected exclusively to Old Testament ritual.

United Methodist doctrinal standards helpfully distinguish between “the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites” and “civil precepts” on the one hand, versus “the commandments which are called moral.” “No Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience” to this latter type of commandment (Articles of Religion, Article VI). It is plain that laws relating to sexuality are not ceremonial or governmental in nature, but moral (in contrast to the other examples Haynes points out). That is how we can distinguish the Old Testament commandments that still bind us today. These distinctions, by the way, are based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, not dreamed up by later church leaders (for example, Mark 7:14-18, Acts 10, Hebrews 8-10).

Haynes seems also to want to say that only the Old Testament commandments that are quoted in the New Testament are still applicable today. But it hurts his case that prohibitions against homosexuality are repeated in the New Testament, as well, which leads to our next point.

  1. Misinterpreting and misapplying the biblical and cultural context to nullify the teaching in question.

Haynes turns to Romans 1:24-27 and limits Paul to “raging against the Roman culture of idolatry.” Haynes goes on, “Given that he’s writing from Corinth – a city known as the ‘sin city’ of the Mediterranean world – Paul was likely referring to both the male and female prostitutes that were the norm in pagan temples.”

It is important to note that not all pagan religions of the time involved temple prostitution; only a few did. It would be a mistake to read idolatry into all the prohibitions against homosexual conduct, as idolatry is not the basis of the prohibitions in I Corinthians 6 or I Timothy 1. More importantly in Romans, Paul sees homosexual conduct as a result of idolatry, rather than an expression of idolatry. Of course, there is an element of idolatry in the “worship” of the “perfect body” that is sometimes found in particularly the male gay community. But that same idolatry of the human body can be found even more frequently in the heterosexual community, so it is not distinctive to homosexuality. Therefore, it would again be a mistake to say that Paul is only concerned about homosexual conduct that is found in pagan temples or that is related to idolatry.

My next blog post will address the proper use of science in interpreting Scripture, as well as other interpretive shortcomings in Haynes’ approach to biblical teachings on homosexuality.

Comments

  1. “…they often seem to have a conclusion in mind (the affirmation of same-sex practice) and then seek to find ways to explain away or disregard the teaching of Scripture in order to bring it into harmony with that conclusion.” A very apt and precisely accurate characterization.

    • Angela Bailey says:

      Not only does Dr. Lambrecht’s comment accurately describe the position of liberal theologians, but it also describes the logic of many scientists these days. When it comes to issues they support, such as Darwinian evolution, man-made temperature change, and other controversial issues, they tend to put the cart before the horse: Let’s determine the result we want to see, and somehow direct the data to reach that goal–even if the data’s a bit skewed! I look forward to his next submission!

  2. . . . . The Bible can be “interpreted” to support either position. Christians should simply read the Bible and see sex as not often addressed. When homosexual sex is discussed it is ALWAYS understood to be sex done as an aggressive rite or by a prostitute or other receiver casually and does not address homosexual preference.

    . . . . This is clear when considering the homosexual orientation was/is considered a trait that should be hidden. The preference for the same gender was never remotely addressed in Scripture. Sexuality was supposed to be coupled with love and monogamy was encouraged.

    • How can you say that, when Romans 1:26-27 says nothing about violence in relation to sexual behavior, nothing?

    • Gary Bebop says:

      Arguing that the Bible is neutral on homosexual acts is bogus. Re-read Romans 1:18-32. And to suggest that the Bible “seldom” addresses sexuality is laugh-out-loud funny. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled by the clever misreads of false teachers. Blessings…

    • I agree,Curtis, my husband and I have several kind, compassionate, loving married gay and lesbian couples as our good friends. We live in Massachusetts where marriage equality was legal for over ten years before it was legal in all states. I am grateful that other gay and lesbian couples can now marry in all states, and have their marriages recognized in all states. This was an issue for Massachusetts couples who married, but, due to having obtained employment in a state that did not have marriage equality.
      It came about late in our history, but in 1976 the psychological and psychiatric societies recognized that being LBGT is an inborn trait, not a “chosen lifestyle,” and this trait was not abnormal or “a sign of sickness,” or “moral weakness.”
      I hope that the UMC will come to this conclusion, too. If the UMC continues to alienate our LBGT sisters and brothers I can see a split in the church at the conclusion of this coming General Conference. We had a split in the 1850s over the issue of slavery. The M. E. Church South allowed clergy and laity to own slaves, whereas the M. E. Church North did not permit the ownership of human beings. The Methodist Episcopal Church (as it was known in the mid 19 and part of the 20th century) did reunite, but our African American brothers and sisters were usually relegated to sitting in the balcony of many churches. Jim Crow reined, and sadly, it has not completely disappeared, as we can see by the way our fine president has been treated. That is a whole different story.

  3. Linda Cebrian says:

    When witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses, I always emphasize the historical/grammatical approach of deciphering context, language, culture and history. I explain that the meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew is fixed. A noun is a noun and a verb is a verb. We can argue with each other, but one cannot argue with the original languages. Thus, the meaning of Scripture is revealed, not interpreted.

    I always propose that we talk about revelation, not interpretation. Christians get themselves into so much trouble by talking about their “interpretation” rather than what Scripture reveals.

    In relation to homosexuality, it is important to remember that the Biblical writers knew nothing of revisionist terms such as “gay” “sexual orientation” or “LGBTQIA.” There are no words for “homosexual”, “gay”, “lesbian”, or “sexual orientation” in Greek or Hebrew. The ancient world did not label people according to sexual proclivity.

    The Greek “arsenokoitai” refers to males who go to bed with other males. It is a compound of arseno (male) and koite (bed). Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as “sodomite” as does Strong’s Concordance. The Greek “koite” is the word for “bed” when intercourse is implied, whether illicit or marital.

  4. . . . . The preference for the same gender was never remotely addressed in Scripture. Sexuality was supposed to be coupled with love and monogamy was encouraged. I do not believe sex was ever mentioned in a positive way and marriage was encouraged as an alternative for those unable to be celibate.

    . . . . Christians who have been married and have been divorced have absolutely no business condemning homosexuals. Christians who are overweight have no business condemning homosexuals. A casual drinker or an alcoholic drinker have no business condemning homosexuals. Lust, thirst, and hunger result from natural physical drives to seek physical comfort or pleasure.

    . . . . .Jesus apparently never had sex yet was tempted in “all ways” like any other human. There is no mention of Jesus having physical desires for the woman at the well or for any disciple. The disciples were, ironically, not married and did not have sex.

    . . . . .Sexuality is a very strong human physical drive not addressed properly by the Bible. An asexual human, -Christ, and 12 asexual disciples left one of the most important human topics largely unaddressed. Oops , not quite a perfect book. Really close to perfect and with no mistakes other than omissions. The Bible was, after all, written and organized by humans. King James….? 1611?

    • Curtis, thank you for writing. You seem to have quite a few mistaken ideas.

      If you mean the Bible doesn’t address same-sex orientation, you are correct. That is a human construct of the late 20th century. The Bible addresses conduct, and is clear that same-sex relations are wrong in God’s eyes.

      Sex is definitely mentioned in the Bible in a positive way. Genesis 1-2 say that God created us as sexual beings and called it “good.” He also commanded the man and woman to be fruitful and multiply. (That requires sex!) The Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) is an extended poem on the beauty of married heterosexual sex. Paul encouraged celibacy for two reasons: 1) because of the difficult times (when the early Christians were under great persecution) and 2) in order to devote more time and energy to serving the Lord. But he says that those who marry “do well.” And he uses marriage as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church–hardly a negative view of sex.

      The Bible does not condemn all drinking of alcoholic beverages. Jesus turned water into wine, after all. Our bodies are not to be used in ways contrary to God’s will. Drunkenness, drug addiction, gluttony, and sexual immorality are all wrong. Because some people commit one sin, doesn’t make other sins acceptable.

      Jesus never had sex (unless he was married before he entered the ministry and his wife died). But some of the apostles were married. Paul says, “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (I Cor 9:5) Jesus and the apostles were not asexual. They were sexual persons, some of whom engaged their sexuality in marriage, and some of whom engaged their sexuality in celibacy. Both are legitimate Christian options.

      The Bible was not written and organized by humans in 1611. The Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus used. We have versions of it from at least 200 BC, if not before. The New Testament books were written starting 25-30 years after the resurrection. All of the books of the New Testament are mentioned by about 150 AD. Beside that, we believe the Bible was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that it is not just a human book, but a revelation from God. This is the Christian understanding of Scripture. To depart from it is to depart from Christian teaching.

      • Thank you sir! I was not aware of a married disciple. I do not like the fact the relationships were not often discussed.

        “. . . . The Bible was not written and organized by humans in 1611. The Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus used. We have versions of it from at least 200 BC, if not before. The New Testament books were written starting 25-30 years after the resurrection. All of the books of the New Testament are mentioned by about 150 AD. Beside that, we believe the Bible was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that it is not just a human book, but a revelation from God.”

        I had no idea. I know of the “Gospel of Mary” as well as several other “gospels”. I knew of King James in 1611. You said, “All of the books of the New Testament are mentioned by about 150 AD.”, and I would like to see this addressed with sources in a future post. I was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write a book and will attempt to obey though I do not yet understand how to do all the Holy Spirit led me to do.
        See human-dignity-us.org for part of the “book” the Holy Spirit led me to do.

    • Carla Skidmore says:

      You, I can tell are a true Biblical scholar. Another wise scholar spoke of the Wesley Quadrilateral and said that Reason, Experience and Tradition, thee of the legs of that quadrilateral, should be used to interpret Scripture. We cannot say that anyone, even the good people at Good News, follow every “rule” as written in scripture. We certainly do not feel that consuming pork or shellfish is an “abomination.” We do not take our sons to the “gates of the city for stoning, should they disobey us.” We do not stone women for adultery. I always wondered why men were not stoned in that era,? Divorce is not considered a reason for denying ordination or remarriage, in today’s world. Women now speak out in church and now, can be ordained in the UMC. Many changes have taken place over the centuries, and decades, as new information is available and as mores change. Although Good News, and some in the UMC, state that sexual intimacy is verboten, except between a man and woman, and then only after marriage, I know that most marriages in the UMC, between a man and a woman were done long after that couple became sexually intimate.
      The good, sincere, but mistaken, followers of Good News, seem to feel that Scripture is more important than any or all of the other three legs of that quadrilateral. If that was true, it would not be a Quadrilateral.

      • Thank you for your comment, Carla. Obviously, it is important to interpret Scripture properly within its historical context and in light of the whole teaching of the Bible. Tradition, reason, and experience are aids in that interpretation. However, the term “quadrilateral” is an unfortunate one and the late Dr. Albert Outler, who coined the term in relation to Wesleyan theological method, regretted in later life that he described it in that way. Our doctrinal standards state that Scripture is primary (Articles of Religion, Article V and VI; Confession of Faith, Article IV). So the four legs are not equal. Tradition, reason, or experience cannot overrule the clear teaching of Scripture.

  5. Bill Fitzgerrel says:

    In Romans 1:24-27, Paul describes the development of sexual impurity among the pagans. (He addresses the sins of the Hebrews at various points in chapters 2 and 3. He comes to the conclusion that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” ((Romans 3:9)) In these discussions throughout chapters 1-3 he is making generalizations about certain groups, but he does conclude that “all have sinned.” ((3:23))) In 1:18-23, Paul indicts most of the human race for the sin of idolatry. That Haynes would consider this “raging” is ridiculous. He is simply describing the nature of the sin of idolatry. Would Haynes prefer that he praise idolatry? Paul then goes on to describe the degradation of the idolators into sexual impurity. He understands that degradation as a consequence of God’s giving them over (NIV: “God gave them over” in 1:24 and 26). This is a little mind-bending, but I think that if one looks over the entire context of Romans, one can see that God allowed sin to work itself out to the point that people could see the horror of life without God. For example, see Romans 7:13: “sin might become utterly sinful.” In the case of sexual impurity, Paul describes a two-step degradation (1:24-27): sexual impurity in general (most likely heterosexual fornication and adultery), then, homosexuality. This homosexual behavior is not described as violent, as (necessarily) man-boy relations (which was sometimes a power relationship), nor as cultic. It is simply described as people lusting for people of the same sex and, in the process, abandoning “natural relations.” The result of God’s next step in giving them over is that they “have become filled with every kind of wickedness…” (1:28-32) Just as Paul is not saying that every pagan has every characteristic mentioned in 1:29-31, he is not saying that every pagan engages in heterosexual or homosexual sin. Nevertheless, all of these sins characterize the idolatrous pagan culture. (As I stated earlier, he was not letting the Jew off the hook, and he had plenty to say about their sins.) If we consider Western (European and North American) culture today, I think the indictments in Romans 1 would apply. Yet, we are not an explicitly idolatrous society. However, we certainly have drifted far from Christian teaching, and today our society is saturated with atheism, new-age spirituality, and various Eastern religions. False gods certainly abound. Along with them, many Christian churches teach distorted notions about the gospel and the truths of the Scriptures. In the midst of this spiritual degradation, we observe that degradation of behavior, including sexual impurity, characterize our society. Hence, the crisis in our denomination is centered on sexuality, but the backstory is the distortion of interpretation of Scripture.

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