How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part II

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht


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 post is HERE. This discussion on the proper understanding and application of scriptural teaching to the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons is the most important discussion we can have, in that Scripture is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. Here I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Using the results of scientific inquiry to overturn the teachings of Scripture.

Haynes says, “While the Bible makes seven references to homosexual conduct, it never mentions homosexuality as a genetic sexual orientation.” But there is no such thing as “genetic sexual orientation.” Scientists have identified no “gay gene.” The American Psychological Association states: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation … no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.” So Haynes’ appeal to science is undercut from the beginning by that very science.

Haynes goes on, “What if a genetically homosexual person cannot wish or pray or choose one’s way out of their same sex attraction? Would it not be cruel of God to bring someone into the human family only for the purpose of condemning them?” Here, I believe Haynes is engaging in theological exaggeration to support his point. He characterizes the argument in a way that no orthodox Wesleyan would agree with.

First, we must be clear that God does not condemn anyone for their attractions or desires. Otherwise, all of us would be condemned! It is only when those attractions or desires lead to behavior that is contrary to God’s will that it becomes a sin (James 1:13-15). Alternatively, if we entertain and nurture desires or attractions that lead to sin, we may be guilty of sin (Matthew 5:22, 28). But even when we sin, we have the possibility of forgiveness and restoration through the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s goal is to reshape both our actions and our desires in the image of Jesus.

Second, Haynes overlooks the fact that we all have a “sin orientation” – that each of us has an inborn tendency to have desires and attractions toward sin. The attraction could be toward anger, greed, revenge, lying, or promiscuity. These attractions toward sin are not the result of how God made us, but of humanity’s fall into sin and rebellion (Genesis 3). We all battle sinful desires and seek God’s grace to withstand and overcome them. Just as we will not be free of all sinful desires until we get to heaven, we should not expect that persons with same-sex attraction will be free of all instances of that attraction until they get to heaven.

But while we cannot “wish or pray or choose” our way out of attractions toward sin, we can indeed pray and choose not to succumb to those attractions and engage in the sin itself. Haynes is not asking us to have grace toward persons who have fallen into same-sex sin, so that they may receive forgiveness and restoration. He is asking us to redefine a sin as not-sin. He is asking the church to teach that homosexual conduct is not sinful, but to be affirmed in the same ways as heterosexual conduct. That is quite a different matter.

While we welcome the insights of science (which are often tentative and incomplete), we ground our understanding about morality, right and wrong, in the timeless truths of Scripture. Otherwise, we have given up the authority of Scripture as our primary guide to faith and life.

  1. Arguing from silence.

Haynes says, “Holy Scripture never refers to homosexuality in the context of a loving relationship between two consenting adults whose sexual orientation might be naturally homosexual, and who have a committed, monogamous relationship or marriage.” Leaving aside the point that science does not support that persons “might be naturally homosexual,” what does Haynes’ statement mean?

It could mean that the biblical authors were unaware of the possibility of a loving, committed same-sex relationship. However, historical research has demonstrated that such relationships did exist in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (see Plato’s Symposium and Philo of Alexandria’s Contemplative Life, cited in Gagnon, page 137, note 33-34). Certainly, Paul would have been aware of such relationships in the context of the much more libertine sexual climate of the Mediterranean world of his time. And if we believe that God is the ultimate author of Scripture, he is certainly not unaware of the possible lifestyles that could exist.

It could mean that the biblical authors meant to condemn only abusive or idolatrous same-sex relationships, while allowing loving, committed ones. Given that every reference in Scripture to homosexual behavior is negative, one would think that the authors would mention the exception that merited acceptance, in order to clarify what the Bible really teaches.

It could mean that the biblical authors did not mention loving, committed same-sex relationships because they believed that the existing references adequately covered the issue. If the prohibition in Leviticus is taken to be of all same-sex behavior, then there would be no point in the authors reinforcing that this also applied to loving, committed relationships. The bottom line is that there is no approving reference to same-sex relationships, even though the Bible spans over 2,000 years of human history and encompasses a wide variety of cultures, including Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.

Arguments from silence are always fraught with uncertainty and not something one can build one’s theology on.

  1. Ignoring Scriptures that don’t support your viewpoint.

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complimentary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

Haynes also glosses over the list of ten different behavioral sins in I Corinthians 6:9 that are condemned by Paul, with the note that some of the Corinthians were each of these things, but had been redeemed by Jesus Christ. NLT translates one of those words as “those practicing homosexuality”. The important point here is that the Greek word Paul uses, arsenokoitai, is a direct transcription of the two words used in the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22. It constitutes a direct allusion and restatement of the Levitical prohibition by Paul as binding on Christians (indeed, all people). To ignore this connection is to miss a significant verification that this Old Testament law holds true for New Testament Christians.

I hope these blog posts are helpful in thinking through how we as the church interpret the Bible on this sensitive issue. My next post will look at ways we improperly compare one biblical teaching with another and how we can distort the teaching of Scripture by focusing too much on one biblical truth.

13 thoughts on “How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part II

  1. Good analysis — I believe that Rosaria Butterfield has much to say as to how the Body of Christ should address these questions. As Rosaria has emphasized, all in the Body of Christ today need to reflect on their identification with Christ( the Jesus of the Bible)- not their non Biblical identification as homosexuals, heterosexuals or transgenders- these are terms that do not appear in the Bible. Sexual self identification and orientation is a modern view apparently based on the recent work of Freud and others. As Jesus pointed out , we are all made in God’s image and in the beginning of creation God formed us as males and females. Also See Rosaria Butterfield’s new book and the quotes below.

    Openness Unhindered Quotes (showing 1-30 of 37)

    “When the Lord entered my world, I experienced that gospel-ignited “expulsive power of a new affection” (to quote the title of Thomas Chalmers’s famous sermon). That new affection was not heterosexuality, but Jesus, my Jesus, my friend and Savior. I was not converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief.”

    ― Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ

    Jesus is the Word made flesh, and that “knowing Jesus” demands embracing the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus of someone’s imagination. The whole Bible. Even the places that took my life captive.”
    ns. John D Smith, Fairfax Va

  2. Tom, I appreciate all your posts and this one is right on time for me. I am a Student Licensed Local Pastor and a statement was made last week in class that conservatives have a difficult time doing scholarly work. However, I see the pitfalls which they claim for conservatives as being the same pitfalls they fall into. These posts have helped me frame and confirm my thoughts. In my attempt to be scholarly and properly weigh thoughts and viewpoints, I sometimes begin to wonder if I am on the wrong side of things. Your posts and Good News help keep my feet planted firmly. Thank you.

    1. Geoff, I know you weren’t speaking approvingly of the statement “that conservatives have a difficult time doing scholarly work,” but anyone who states that should be asked to read the voluminous, scholarly, thoughtful and irenic works of United Methodist theologian Tom Oden.

      In Christ,

      The enemy hates clarity

  3. Looking for a Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality is just like looking for a Biblical Analysis of Oral Sex and other Sexual Positions. Why do we feel a need to look for these type things in the Book? Humans look at the Bible as if it were written by Jesus. It most definitely was NOT written by Jesus but most Christians agree it is God’s written word. The Bible does not cover sex adequately in my opinion. Sexuality was an afterthought to creation.

  4. Doesn’t the “argument from silence” charge go both ways? Same sex marriage (or even something approximating that) is never mentioned in the Bible. And those arguing for it because it has never been condemned in scripture are the same shaky ground as those arguing for against it because it is nowhere affirmed in scripture. So each side draws on other aspects of scripture to make their case.

    Speaking of silence (pun intended), where do you get that lesbians are not allowed to get married? Your argument for gay men not marrying is that the few “clear” references to male-male sex in both OT and NT are “all” condemnatory. Where are the “clear” references in the OT and NT against female-female sex? Please tell me you’ve got more than Romans 1:26 because that single reference is “far from clear.” I note that the Roman Catholic tradition has read female-female sex into the word “unnatural” also read into “unnatural” any non-procreative intended sex (such as oral sex to name one example)n even when between a married straight couple. And unlike the male-male sex references in other passages which seem, to you, unrestricted and only subjectively contextualized, the context because the language seems unrestricted and only subjectively contextualized, the immediate an unambiguous context of Romans 1:26 is sex accompanying idol worship.

    1. Dave, thank you for engaging. I appreciate your spirit.

      Just because idolatry is mentioned in the same passage as Paul’s statement against lesbian relations doesn’t mean that only lesbian relations that are a form of idol worship is what Paul is talking about. Plainly, Paul in Romans 1 sees same-sex relationships as one of the results or consequences of idolatry, not simply as a form of idol worship. His argument is that, because we have turned our backs on the Creator and worshipped what he created, we have become mixed up in our thinking, which has led us to embrace all kinds of perverse activity. “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.” The shameful lusts are a result (because of this) of idolatry, not a practice of idolatry. Here, he includes not just same-sex relations, but also “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” You wouldn’t want to argue that Paul is condemning all these evils only when they are conducted in the context of idol worship. They are universal prohibitions.

      Furthermore, the Bible is not silent about same-sex behavior, which is what underlies same-sex marriage. Therefore, it is not an argument from silence to say that the Bible does not allow for loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, even if the Bible doesn’t specifically prohibit such relationships. Translating it into heterosexual terms, it would be like saying – if the Bible said heterosexual intercourse was wrong but didn’t say anything about loving, monogamous heterosexual relationships, we could say that heterosexual marriage is all right. That would miss the point that heterosexual intercourse is part of heterosexual marriage. Prohibiting one prohibits the other.

      There is also the strong analogy that, if same-sex behavior is forbidden to men, it is also forbidden to women. The basis for both is the same. As Paul says, “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women.” He equates male and female homosexuality.

      The Roman Catholic idea that all sex has to be at least potentially procreative has no bearing on the interpretation of this passage or of the larger issue. Most evangelicals and indeed most biblical interpreters down through history have not agreed with the Catholic understanding, yet have understood Romans and the larger issue of same-sex relationships the same way–as God forbidding all such relationships. Paul’s view of “nature” here is the way God created the world. Men and women were created to engage in sexual relations with each other. Our bodies testify to what is “natural.” To use our bodies for same-sex relations is to use them in a way that God did not intend. Thus, it is “unnatural,” as Paul uses the term.

  5. Please let us not forget when the NT was written, and by whom. It was written long after the death of Christ, by men who were writing what someone “told them,” and these stories were handed down. You know, from speaking with your grandparents or parents that stories handed down are often expanded. Some of the tales from the NT were reminiscent of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures (OT). This is called Midrash.
    We pick and choose what scriptural texts we “believe,” and which we ignore. Not many people refuse to eat pork or refuse to dine on shell fish, unless they are allergic to these items. We do not, if we are clergy, refuse to marry a couple where the woman or the man has been, previously divorced. We do not think that a divorced woman who remarries is committed adultery. We wear clothing of other materials. We eat gravy, and what is that? Blood of an animal.
    Years ago, in the mid 1800 the Methodist Church, then called the Methodist Episcopal Church, split over the issue of slavery. The ME Church North did not believe that a human being could ever “own” another human being. Whereas the ME Church South allowed their clergy and laity to own slaves. Sadly, even when slavery ended the church relegated their African American brothers and sisters to the Central Jurisdiction. It did not matter if that church was in Ohio, or New York, or Florida, if the church had a black cleric, and mostly black congregants, that church was in the Central Jurisdiction. This continued into the 1960s, as my husband and I sat with a wonderful bishop from that district who, because we were white, “asked” if he could sit with us. I was shocked and saddened, too, as of course this gentleman would be welcome to sit with us. He did, and we had delightful time chatting and dining together. This was at a conference in Ocean Grove, NJ in the early 1960s. In 1967 my husband left the full time ministry in NJ and we moved to MA where he resumed his engineering career on a full time basis but kept his “finger in the pie,” and would fill in for clergy who needed a Sunday off. When he retired from General Electric he assumed the position as associate minister for seven years, until 2000. When we moved to MA, I resumed my nursing career, and worked until 2003.
    Just prior to 2000 we read a wonderful book by an Episcopal Bishop, John Shelby Spong. The book was entitled, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” I suggest that everyone read this book. It brought Jesus, the true Jesus, and the Bible into perspective for thinking people, who want a living faith. Bishop Spong has written numerous books and theses. All of them worth reading.
    If the UMC refuses to accept our LBGT sisters and brothers into full acceptance, meaning the rights of marriage, and ordination, I fear another split, until the right wing of the UMC comes kicking and screaming into, at least, the end of the 20 century, and hopefully, some day, into the 21st century.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Carla. I would like to respond to a few of them.
      1. Many of the NT authors were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry (Matthew, Mark, John, Peter, James). You also underestimate the value ancient people placed on accurate transmission of oral tradition. That is how they were used to keeping the stories alive, and “embellishment” was not looked upon favorably. We have every reason to trust the witness of the NT to accurately report the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Do some of the “embellishments” you allude to include the miracles that Jesus did? We serve a miracle-working God, and I have no problem believing those miracle stories are authentic.
      2. As I mention in the blog series, we have sound hermeneutical and theological reasons for which OT laws we consider apply today and which do not. Jesus declared all foods clean, which is why we eat pork and shellfish. Ceremonial laws, such as mixing together two types of cloth, no longer apply. I could go on.
      3. I’m sorry that you are so heavily influenced by John Shelby Spong. He wants to deny nearly every basic tenet of Christianity. What he is espousing is a totally different religion, based on humanism, not Christianity. It is dishonest of him to claim to be a Christian.
      4. You are right that a separation of some type may be coming. As long as pro-gay advocates believe that they are the ones who have the truth, in contrast to 2,000 years of Christian teaching and the beliefs of 99 percent of all worldwide Christians today, we cannot live together in the same church. I don’t think the Lord will evaluate us for how “in step” we are with modern culture. I think he will want to know if we have been faithful to what he taught us in Scripture. I for one am not willing to place my own knowledge and wisdom above Jesus Christ’s.

    2. A view from the pew: I admire your convictions and do not fault you for them. The discussion about sexuality is not what is dividing the church. What is divisive is your insistence that we all come ‘kicking and screaming’ to your point of view and if we do not then somehow we are deficient, unenlightened idiots; a stance that represents a brand of Christianity that I do not relate to. Not to mention that if you use John Shelby Spong as a spiritual guide then we have to come to a parting of the ways, because I do not believe in his version of Christianity. It is as simple as, if you respect my beliefs then it is much easier for me to respect yours. But if you continue with the stance that you are right and I am wrong, then we, and by extension The United Methodist Church have a huge problem.

  6. Brother Tom,

    Your rebuttals to my earlier article on “Homosexuality and the Bible” are well done! The reality is that your initial point that I bring a premise to the scriptures is well taken. Is this not true of every Bible reader? If we did not come with doctrinal, cultural, gender, and denominational journeys, why do we have over 300 Christian denominations in US/America alone plus other countries and plus the exponentially rising number of independent churches? Do you yourself not bring an “agenda” to the way you choose and interpret God’s Word?

    I am really a theologically conservative person who has a very high view of scripture–believe it or not!!! My own life as a teenager, a college and seminary student, a pastor of 46 years, and a District Superintendent who had to receive the credentials of gay clergy in the 1980’s have all been “sprinkled” with persons who told me they were gay. I listened to their stories and still have them seared into my memory.

    I wonder if we do not see homosexulatiy differently when we see it through the life stories of specific persons than when we see homosexuals as “they” or “them” with no faces or sharing.

    At any rate join me in Wesley’s catholic spirit: “Though we may not think alike, we can love alike.”

    Your brother in Jesus,

    Don Haynes(age 80)

    1. A view from the pew: I have very much admired your previous writings and have found them extremely helpful. But, by using Wesley’s catholic spirit as your trump card, you espouse the same faulty understanding of it that is rampant among the church. I suggest you spend some time with Wesley’s sermon on the subject, especially the second half which clearly identifies the person of a truly catholic spirit. Wesley very much realized that people come to Christianity with certain prejudices and identifies that as the source of all the different denominations and factions. His understanding of the catholic spirit was not about different understandings under the same umbrella, but acceptance of other factions who share a common a theology of who God is and who we are but have different modes of worship, etc. Remember, Wesley split from the Fetter Lane Society and established one at the Foundry because of a disagreement in what was required of us in this life; not to mention his friendship with another pastor became strained because of differences in the understanding of what it meant to be “elected”. It is not appropriate to use Wesley’s understanding of the catholic spirit to justify the theological diversity that is currently running rampant in the United Methodist Church and theological diversity is why the sexuality discussion has become so acrimonious; we are no longer a people of one faith.

      Also, when you talk about being influenced by the story of people being attracted to the same gender, this quote from Oswald Chambers–who is Wesleyan comes to mind:

      “‘Unless my relationship to God is right, my sympathy for men will lead me astray and them also; but when once I am right with God, I can love my neighbor as God has loved me. How has God loved me? God has loved me to the end of all my sinfulness, the end of all my self-will, all my selfishness, all my stiff-neckedness, all my pride, all my self-interest; now He says I am to show my fellow-men the same love.”

      Part of God’s creation that was so good included man and so that man would not be alone, God created him a companion, a woman and they were instructed to “fill the earth” with more men and more women. And there is absolutely nothing ambiguous about that!

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