How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part III
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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
14 thoughts on “How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part III”
Here is a quote reprinted in Lifewatch from Christianity Today, November 11, 1996 in Pro Ecclesia, Fall 1997:
The late, great German systematic theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014) once wrote: “If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the Biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on Biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” We need to listen to Scripture on which the Discipline of the UMC is based..there are those who are tearing our church apart by trying to change the meaning of Scripture. I agree with this quote of Wolfgang Pannenberg. Truth will prevail.
God shows such great love for His own that he bothers to discipline each of us; should we not love others enough to discipline them when they stray? Homosexuality is wrong, it has always been and always will be; let us continue as individuals to recognize that and as a church to teach that. Science does not support the value to society of homosexuality (although some scientists may); in fact unbiased scientific study reveals the deleterious impact it has on culture and society. Even a sufficiently informed secular society should decry the promotion of homosexual behavior. Would we not censure a math professor who teaches 2 + 2 = 6? Why then embrace the errant philosophers who teach deviant sexual behavior is normative.
Forgive this lengthy post and forgive the fact that it is not directly relevant to the present blog. I am somewhat frustrated with conservative (“orthodox,” “evangelical”) leadership in the UMC. I appreciate their hard work and their insightful writings—such as the present blog. However, it seems like their overall strategy regarding the present crisis is weak and ineffective. My observation is that they plan to support conservative delegates at GC, maintain communications as to events at GC, and write occasional position papers. In addition they have invented the “Wesleyan Network” and the “New Room Conference.” I am frustrated that neither of these is well-defined.
The conservative leaders have generally maintained that the UMC belongs to them and that the liberals are the ones who have strayed from the true church. Therefore, they should hold steady in their insistence on enforcing the Discipline and maintaining the present policies of the Discipline. The problem with this strategy is that it cannot stop the blatant disregard of the Discipline by renegade clergy and bishops determined to support them. Because people are consistently getting away with defying the Discipline, its prohibitions are rendered null and void de facto. This makes GC largely meaningless. Most likely GC will maintain the present policies. Conservatives will declare victory. However, the “progressives” will continue their guerrilla warfare. I think their effect is going to be disproportionate to their numbers. If one counts the number of overt, high-profile pro-gay clergy and lay people, it probably is fairly low—maybe 10%. However, they have heavy-duty effects. The example closest to home is the case of Cynthia Meyer, pastor at Edgerton, who “came out” in a sermon before her congregation. The sermon was videotaped by Reconciling Ministries Network and the tape was made available on line. This allowed RMN to “frame” the issue to the public. Moreover, the local new coverage of the issue was definitely slanted pro-gay. Although Bishop Jones has played it “by the book,” and although a “conviction” is very possible in the Great Plains Conference (but not a sure thing), conservatives have already lost the PR battle and I see no way they can make it any better in this case.
More than one conservative commentator has said, in effect, that the progressives will continue until they win. That seems to be their goal. It is very possible that they will “win” sooner than many think. So my question is: why do conservatives continue to act so “conservative” or “reactionary.” Why are they not more pro-active? Why not build a new denomination that has some built-in policies that will make it much less likely that the kind of mess we are in right now will not occur. I think first and foremost would be development of some Asbury-like seminaries that would produce orthodox pastors. Second, there needs to be vibrant, strong literature and other resources for growing a strong laity. There also needs to be greater support for evangelism and missions that are predicated on calling people into a born-again experience in Jesus Christ. I would dare say that we need to think long and hard about infant baptism and its sequela, which is nominalism.
I think that it is a mistake to act like the present UMC is a wholly orthodox institution and that radicals are far outside the general culture of the denomination. In fact, many, many local churches, church-supported colleges, general church administrative structures, and—certainly—seminaries are characterized by absence of orthodox teaching and preaching, by, in some cases, new-age-like spirituality, by resistance to any talk of personal salvation, and by deadness and boredom, which lead to dominance by dysfunctional lay persons. When this is the picture of the local church, the evangelical pastor who walks into the situation finds herself in the midst of a mission field. So, describing the conservative movement as defending the status quo is a strategic mistake. Related to that mistake is to over-estimate the solidity of the laity. Many may vote instinctually for conservative policies, but, in many cases, they are doing so out of their own cultural instincts and with little Biblical knowledge to back up their positions.
I realize my statements are harsh, but I do hope that, somewhere, a coalition of conservative leaders are thinking through these issues and developing a strategy that will save what is best in the UMC.
I totally agree. I am often disappointed at our AC to hear those who support the conservative movement speak without conviction or lack the ability to articulate like this writer does. What do you suggest be done to improve upon the current approach? Do you have suggestions? Should the church just split and get it over with? I’m thinking that is the only answer to this dilemma.
Split and get it over with.
What Bill said.
A view from the pew: The New Room Conference is very effective in that it is introducing the United Methodist Church to a sound teaching of basic orthodox Christianity doctrine something which has not had a strong nor consistent presence within the denomination for a very long time; in its absence, all sorts of thoughts and understandings have been allowed to take root and give rise to the current debate re sexuality. I am also making peace with the fact that there probably is no way to bring the renegade liberal/progressive fundamentalists under control because they are only interested in their agenda–how do you deal with people who believe they are right and anybody that disagrees with them is a black-hearted, Bible worshiping bigot? And those are only a few of the adjectives they have used to describe orthodox/conservative Christians. This battle was probably lost back in the 1960’s when the church became very vocal and involved in the Civil Rights Movement but lost its voice in response to the sexual revolution; the liberal/progressive fundamentalist agenda is an unholy alliance of those two things from that era.
Bill Fitzgerrel says: “…So my question is: why do conservatives continue to act so “conservative” or “reactionary.” Why are they not more pro-active? Why not build a new denomination that has some built-in policies that will make it much less likely that the kind of mess we are in right now will not occur.” I would ask Mr. Fitzgerrel: Why should Conservatives have to leave the Church and form another one. Why don’t Liberals like yourself who cannot follow the long established laws of The Church be the ones to leave and form a new Church with your own set of beliefs?
I am amazed that you read my entire comment and concluded that I am a liberal. My comments were pretty critical of the conservative leadership because I am concerned that the liberals are creating an environment so destructive that the denomination will be in chaos in a few years. I encourage you to re-read my entire comment.
I have believed that a schsim between conservatives and liberals would NOT be the end of UNMC. Let each Church vote on whether they want or will except Liberal or Conservative pastors. Let the membership decide the road that their Church will walk down.
Tom, I feel like a fish that has been filleted! Maybe a better metaphor would be my childhood memory of Mama’s beating a piece of steak with the edge of a saucer until it was scored and scarred. Then it became “country style steak.” You beat me up pretty well. I am eighty years old, happily married for sixty years this June, and grandfather to seven grandchildren, none of whom is LGBT or Q at this point. However, I had a childhood neighbor, a college friend, and several parishioners through the years who were in one or another of these “classifications.” One was a transgender who had been a high school quarterback in Pennsylvania, became a woman, converted to Judaism, and is now an engineer in Israel. Do I understand any of the life journeys of either of these? No. But after counsel, tears, and listening to their perspective, one thing remained; I loved them and believe in my hear that God does too. As I urged them to read the Bible, I pointed them to passages which speak of “God’s steadfast love,” not God’s anger, wrath, and cultic laws. I am in my third year of writing a book on each book of the Old Testament. I work with four translations and six commentaries-some conservative and some liberal. I must confess that some passages give me trouble and must confess that I don’t think Ezra was doing God’s will when he drove the immigrant wives and their children out of the camp.
Tom, you have rendered a great service to the people in your blog audience who needed expert counsel in refuting my little piece. My major concern is that we do not divide our church.
Your brother in Jesus,
Thank you for your gracious words, Donald. I consider you a brother in Christ. I cannot hope to match your record of faithful service to Christ’s kingdom.
I want to make clear that nothing I have said in how to interpret the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality means that we are not to demonstrate the utmost in love and care for persons wrestling with their sexuality. In my pastoral ministry, I have always attempted to approach people first and foremost with the loving invitation of a personal relationship with our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We are all “unacceptable” in God’s eyes, yet he makes a way for us to come close to him. As the old saying goes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. In our love for all people, we are called by God to teach his ways that lead to human flourishing. We are to teach them with compassion and grace, but we are to teach what God considers the way of righteousness. To withhold from people the wisdom and guidance of God through his Word would also be a denial of love.
For many evangelicals, the issue is whether the prescriptive teachings of the Bible remain the norm by which we judge our beliefs and our actions. While our experiences in life rightly cause us to examine and reexamine the Scriptures to make sure we understand and apply them correctly, our experiences ought never cause us to reject the clear teaching of Scripture. I am convinced, along with the vast majority of biblical scholars down through the centuries, that the Bible is clear on the topic of homosexuality when it is interpreted objectively using the standard principles of hermeneutics. For the church then to reject that clear teaching would be a rejection of biblical authority in favor of the subjectivity of personal experience.
I, too, am concerned that our church’s unity is threatened. From my perspective, our unity is not threatened by having different understandings of biblical teaching. It is threatened by the determination of some to act contrary to our covenant life and reject our established means of decision-making as a church. We have withstood differences of opinion on this subject for 40 years. But we cannot withstand the undermining of the very fabric of how our church is designed to function. Such willful disobedience and defiance is only an attempt to bully the church into letting people have their way. That is far from the “Christian conferencing” that our General Conference is supposed to operate under.
I am a Christian that believes all of God’s word. God’s word stands forever.. The Holy Bible is very clear on sexual immorality of any kind: premarital sex, adultery, prostitution, and homosexuality to name some of them.
Jesus teaches us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Then he teaches us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Christian leaders should always teach God’s word. God holds leaders accountable for leading people from His word. Christian leaders need to be held accountable when they act against God’s word. These leaders should strive to be holy and righteous so that they can do God’s will for each of them.
As Christians we should welcome all people regardless of their lifestyles in our churchs in hope that by hearing the word of God that they will become saved and transform their lives to live by God’s word and commands.
I always pray for our leaders and our churches to abide by God’s word.