Have you ever gotten deep into a conversation only to realize that you and your dialogue partner are talking about completely different things?
I feel like that happens a lot when I try to articulate the reasons why I, as a Christian, have come to fully include and affirm the LGBTQ community in the life of the Church.
I’ll spend a few minutes explaining some of the important nuances of my position.
And then whoever I’m talking to will turn around and ask for the specific verse that sanctions same-sex relationships, transgender identity, or whatever specific topic marks the point of our disagreement.
(and I realize I’ve had a few discussion on this topic with readers of this blog over the last few days so let me say I don’t have anyone specific in mind here)
Even if you don’t or can’t agree with all of my conclusions in those posts, I trust that they at least demonstrated that it’s difficult to view the Bible as a handbook for any and every contemporary issue.
As many a biblical scholar has said, the Bible was written for us in some sense, but it wasn’t written to us.
Another point that I hope the above referenced series of posts conveyed is that the Bible must be interpreted in light of the unique cultural and historical situation in which it was written.
It’s like seeing the sequel of a fantasy or sci-fi movie before watching the original. You haven’t been introduced to the movie’s universe yet, and so you don’t have the conceptual tools to make sense of what you’re seeing.
Similarly, we too come to the text with our own cultural and historical expectations that make up our biases, assumptions, doubts, and desires that we then project onto the pages of scripture. To stick with the movie analogy, this might be like watching a work of sci-fi or fantasy and then complaining that it doesn’t play by the rules of “real life”.
No one comes to the text neutrally.
And that brings us back to the remaining arguments that Richard Beck lays out with regard to a Christian affirmation of the LGBTQ community.
These arguments are primarily hermeneutical arguments. That means after asking what the text said and meant in its time and place (exegesis) they then ask what it must say to and mean for us today (hermeneutics).
That’s not to suggest we can make the biblical text say whatever we want. But it’s an acknowledgment that to make a certain (ancient) cultural expression of God’s revelation normative for the here and now would be idolatrous. It would be doing exactly what conservatives want to avoid by elevating human words to divine status.
It’s God’s self-revelation that remains true for us today, not the cultural expression that bore witness to it. This distinction is crucial.
So no, I don’t have a specific verse that celebrates or condones same sex relationships or transgender identity. Though I do believe that yesterday’s post helped demonstrate that there are probably aren’t verses that directly condemn these things either, at least as we now understand them.
Instead what I offer in these remaining arguments is an interpretive lens, one that I think is consistent with the apostolic witness of God’s self-revelation in Christ, through which the LGBTQ community can be fully affirmed and embraced.
Beck calls the second of his arguments the Marriage as Grace argument. Here Beck acknowledges that,
“non-affirming views of same-sex marriage root their views of marriage in biological complementarity and biological reproduction. Marriage is between a man and a woman. In this Adam and Eve become the model of marriage, what we mean when we say that a marriage reflects the Image of God.”
However, without also getting into the relevant scientific and biological problems in this claim – so as to keep us grounded in the text itself, Beck in turn suggests that,
“affirming views of same-sex marriage argue, however, that there is another marriage found in the Bible, the marriage between God and Israel. This marriage is not based upon biology but upon election and grace. In this marriage the Image of God is witnessed in covenantal fidelity.”
What is being highlighted here is that so-called “Biblical Marriage” is not as clear cut as many conservatives make it out to be.
In addition to the relationship between God and Israel that Beck points us to, it’s also important to remember how alien and eschatological Paul’s construction of marriage is in the New Testament. In contrast to the transactional and property based understanding of marriage that was – to paint in broad strokes – culturally common at the time, Paul reinterprets marriage as a sign of the gospel.
So not only does the Bible establish criteria for redefining marriage apart from gender complementarity and reproductive potential, but we need to remember that the way we understand marriage in our (western) context has already changed drastically from what Paul was suggesting in his time and place.
You see, even as Paul worked to reinterpret marriage in light of the gospel, he still did so through a lens wherein marriage tended to be a property/estate agreement (with the women being the commodity in this case) as opposed to a social contract grounded in mutual love.
And so before we accuse the LGBTQ community of trying to undermine the “biblical” definition of marriage, we need to make sure we are crystal clear about what exactly that definition is.
Because a startlingly compelling case can be made that on this point, the Bible doesn’t say what conservatives think it says.
In light of all this, Beck is able to summarize this position by arguing that,
“in short, an affirming position of same-sex marriage argues that marriages can reflect the Image of God in different ways. There are marriages and families in the Bible that are born out of grace and covenantal fidelity rather than biology.”
Beck’s next argument is dubbed The Holy Spirit Changing a Literal and Traditional Reading of the Bible.
I mentioned in the last post that none of these arguments are mutually exclusive and that I actually hold to some form of all of them.
As has already been pointed out multiple times on this blog, the New Testament authors regularly take liberties with the way they interpret the Old Testament, to the point that their interpretations could comfortably be called contradictions or corrections of previous biblical writings.
Remember, this wasn’t new to them. Old Testament authors/redactors did the same thing to other parts of Hebrew scripture.
And so it shouldn’t be too traumatizing for us when Beck notes that,
“a huge hermeneutical crisis faced the early church when the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 and Peter allowed them to be baptized, formally bringing the Gentiles into the church and recognizing them as co-heirs of the covenant God made to Abraham. This was a hermeneutical crisis so big it split the church.”
Why was this such a big deal? Beck continues,
“the issue was that circumcision was proclaimed by God to be an “everlasting” sign “in the flesh” of the covenant between God and Israel (Gen. 17.13). A plain and literal reading of the text argued that the Gentiles, therefore, would have to be circumcised to gain access to the promises made by God to Abraham.”
But we know what happens next and the church, with some understandable hesitation, chooses to trust the present experience of the Spirit over their traditional readings of the text. This allows Beck to conclude that,
“in short, the Bible itself shows us how the action and activity of the Holy Spirit can guide the church toward different readings of Scripture, even overturning literal and traditional readings. Affirming views of same-sex marriage argue that something similar is happening in our time. We observe the fruits of the Spirit in same-sex unions, evidences of holiness, fidelity and grace. The same way the early Jewish Christians saw the fruits of the Spirit manifest among a group they knew to be–because the Bible told them so–sexually depraved and under the judgment and wrath of God.”
I actually think this is the strongest of all arguments in favor of Christians affirming the LGBTQ community in the life of the faith and Church in no small part because I believe it’s immune to many of the exegetical arguments that dominate conservative disagreement.
Considering the cultural and scientific limitations that exegesis of the text does teach suggest about the biblical authors understanding of sexuality and gender, I would argue a move like this is defensible no matter how high or low your view of scripture might be.
Next up, Beck offers up an argument from the perspective of Love and Liberation. This is perhaps the simplest of his arguments and it makes the same appeal that I alluded to in an earlier post when I argued that God’s preferential posture towards the poor and marginalized should guide our convictions on this matter.
Where this becomes a biblical argument is in pointing out the ways in which Jesus (not to mention the Church after him and the Hebrew prophets before him) bend the focus of his attention towards his contexts most marginalized people groups.
And who is our society’s most marginalized people group?
In spite of some political momentum in the past decade, both history and present reality can make a pretty compelling case that the LGBTQ community at least makes the list, alongside a host of ethnic and cultural minorities and women in general (and don’t forget that a lot of people check more than one of these boxes).
This argument requires that we remember how different the context of the Bible was from our own, allowing us to translate the truth in and behind the biblical narrative to our own time and place.
In a later post, Beck puts forth a fifth argument that concerns the exclusion and inclusion of Eunuchs in the life of the people of Israel. It’s a compelling addition to what we’ve already discussed and so I suggest you check it out.
However, to close out I want to focus on a different argument that specifically has Paul’s supposed arguments in Romans 1 in view.
In an article analyzing the purported wrath of God which Romans 1 says is to be poured out on all unrighteousness, Matthew Distefano examines the position of renowned biblical scholar Douglas Campbell who contends that the arguments put forth in Romans 1:18-32 are in fact not the voice of Paul, but rather that of his opponent whose position he goes on to counter in the turn to Romans 2.
You should read the article for a fuller picture. But if this is right, then Romans 1 is not as clear cut of a condemnation of the LGBTQ community as conservatives like to think as it doesn’t even represent the actual view of the apostle Paul himself.
It’s also important to point out in this case that much of the material that Paul’s opponent (per this argument) puts forth in Romans 1 is almost directly quoted from non biblical Jewish texts which conservatives Christians tend to not otherwise see as authoritative.
Matthew’s argument (and by extension, Campbell’s) is a compelling one that, if correct, actually fits nicely alongside most of the additional positions I’ve already put forth above as well as in my previous post.
My point in briefly sharing this argument is to demonstrate that even if you were to reject every argument that I’ve put forth over the last few posts, you would still have to contend with the work of respected biblical scholars like Campbell who are working directly from the text itself and drawing into question many traditional interpretations and assumptions.
Well, that does it. Although, in reality, I’m sure it doesn’t.
I still suspect that my intentionally brief look at some of the biblical reasons many Christians are now coming to affirm the LGBTQ community will do little to sway the minds of those who arrived to this discussion already fairly firm in their convictions.
What I hope these posts did accomplish, however, is to demonstrate that those Christians who are moving to embrace the LGBTQ community are doing so with the Bible still firmly in view, and are not simply picking and choosing from the text at their convenience.
I also hope to have shown those of you who perhaps had no idea that affirming the LGBTQ community was even an option for professing Christians that such an affirmation can be achieved without necessarily becoming a so-called progressive Christian, even if the taken stance will inevitably perceived as progressive relative to mainstream Christian culture.
I think there are many good reasons to move towards a progressive expression of the Christian faith. But I don’t think that one needs to do so in order to fully accept and affirm the LGBTQ community in the life of the Church.
In the next couple of posts I’ll be introducing you to a host of voices and resources on this issue who have done far more work on this topic than I’ve managed here in a few blog posts.
In doing so I hope to give you the opportunity to not only pursue any further study on this topic you might be inclined towards, but also to see the ways the Holy Spirit is already at work in and through the lives of LGBTQ Christians in the world today.
Grace and Peace.