By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
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.
- 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.
- 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.