To get it right on homosexuality means that we need to get it right on a lot of other things.
I think the dark and deep fear that many Christians harbour about homosexuality is that, if we’ve got this wrong, maybe we’ve got a lot of other things wrong. If we have to challenge the churches’ traditional teaching on this point, does this mean that we have to challenge the whole, broader structure? If we concede an error on this point, do we have to concede an error on a lot else too?
Understandably, people are threatened by this possibility (me too, if I’m honest). As a result, many argue that the whole is sound – we’ve just got something a little off on this one issue. If we understand the broader tradition correctly, they argue, we’ll get it right on homosexuality. Somehow, if we just do what we’ve always being doing better, or more faithfully, we’ll come to the right answer on this as any other question. We can move forward on this issue without really scrutinizing much of the broader synthesis.
Well, I don’t think that is true at all. In fact, I believe the key challenge for this generation of church leaders is to face just how untrue this is. Quite aside from the homosexuality issue (which is, all things said, a minor one), I think we’ve been getting a lot wrong. If we’re really going to arrest contemporary Christian decline – and if we’re going to move forward with a new evangelization, for a new generation – we’ve got to start to come clean about our broader problems. These are not superficial issues. They are not the perennial issues of human fallibility and sin. They are in how we read the Bible, how we have been thinking about the church, how we do theology, and even how we understand Christianity itself. The mainstream Greco-Roman Christian synthesis that we’ve all inherited is faltering – maybe not to the point of complete collapse, but very nearly so. And we need to do something about it.
So, what do we have wrong?
It’s much better to phrase this question as “what do we need to get right?”
What we need to get right is the Gospel – the Good News. We need to get it right in two ways:
1) We need to be clear about its content. It’s amazing how difficult it is for much of contemporary Christianity to clearly articulate what the Good News is.1 But the Good News is simple: it’s the promise of God’s radically free gift of salvation, forgiveness, and life eternal – freely given in the death and resurrection of his son, to all of us, who are God’s beloved. This good news is not the Bible, it’s not the church, it’s not some holy individual, it’s not some type of experience, and it’s not some process of personal growth. It’s a promise of God’s mercy. And how do we fundamentally relate to this promise? We trust it. We rely on it. We let go of all of our strivings and fist-clenching, and surrender to it.
2) We need to understand that this Good News is the foundation of everything. It’s the test or measure of doctrine, ethics, theology, the church, and so forth. It’s not one aspect among others – it’s everything.
I believe that when we get the Gospel right in these two ways, we get everything right. So for an issue of homosexuality, if we keep the Gospel front and centre, most of the traditional difficulties become a whole lot less pressing – and the fear, anger and deception that surround this question melt away.
Let’s start with the Bible.
My relationship to the Bible has changed over the years. As a child it was a source of ancient, fascinating – at times a bit weird – stories. As a teen is was mostly a boring and incoherent “religious book”. But in my college and seminary years it became something more. It became a powerful text unlike any other, limitless, sacred, numinous. It became, in effect, a real Scripture – the Word of God, self-contained, complete, able to be the context for every other text, the criterion, the revelation of who God was and what he wanted. Christianity became for me a great exegetical encounter with this special text. The Christian’s task was to inscribe ourselves and all reality into this book. True, this encounter was complex, involving interpretation and judgement. But this ultimately magnified the power of this one book – it ultimately made belief in this book all that much more credible and appealing.
As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become much more cautious about thinking of the Bible in this way.
The problem is that, inasmuch as the Bible is a powerful text for us Christians, it is also represents a very great temptation – one that most of us underestimate. There’s something very alluring, almost seductive, about having God, and wisdom, and everything, somehow neatly contained within the covers of one book: God in a box, as it were. I suddenly become very powerful and important in holding, and understanding, and interpreting this book. The community that is the custodian of this book suddenly can claim a huge degree of control over others and society. Indeed, it is almost compelled to do so, especially if we conceive of this book as essentially a set of rules, as a kind of complex prescription or framework that can encompass all of reality (and it’s pretty hard not to see the Bible this way). And the temptation to use this “God in a box” as a kind of weapon becomes almost irresistible.
But a little reflection reminds us that this is not a Christian way of understanding the Bible. Let’s ask a few pointed questions.
- Did God die on the cross to give us a book?
- Is the Good News – the great Gospel itself, the great word of God to us in this world of pain, of suffering, of sorrow – that God has given us a kind of written puzzle to sort out?! (Perhaps he could have given us a crossword or Sudoku instead?)
- Is the object of our ultimate belief – in the sense of what we ultimately trust in – a book?
- Is the Word of God words on a page?
- Is a book the revelation of God?
- Is the Christian life essentially an exercise in interpreting a text, i.e. an exercise in human knowing and reading? Can the Christian life be reduced to our reason’s efforts to garner “insights” from a book?
No. Of course not. None of this is true.
- God died on the cross to grant us the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.
- The Good News is that even while we are still sinners and dead and undeserving of God’s gifts he still grants them to us, with love, and generosity.
- Our ultimate belief is in the promise of the Good News – we trust in what Christ means for us.
- The Word of God is Christ crucified for us.
- The revelation of God is Jesus on the cross, dead, broken, rejected, a curse – and rising again.
- The Christian life is essentially an exercise in faith, in trust, in hope in the Gospel.
If we substitute the Bible for any of these things, the result is quite terrible. It’s apostasy. That book sitting in our pews and homes becomes our new Molech, our new Chemosh, our Asherah. The Bible becomes our god.
But this is how most of us have grown up understanding the Bible. It’s the one temptation that Christianity has fallen into again and again. Many associate it most with certain streams of the Reformation, but it’s much older and more pervasive (almost anything touched by Origen or Augustine, for example, shares in it). We never think it’s possible that the tradition could be so deeply penetrated by an error – but it is.
Getting it Right
What is the right place of the Bible? Simple: the Bible is the servant of the Gospel. The Bible is a source of traditional texts that very early generations of Christians thought – maybe wrongly sometimes! – to be useful for understanding and communicating the Gospel. But the scriptural texts themselves do not determine the Gospel; the Gospel makes scripture. We do not distill the Gospel as the most coherent summary of the biblical teachings. We receive the Gospel – in practice from any manner of sources2 – and then we read the Bible to learn and understand more about the Gospel.
If we get this order correct, reading the Bible becomes pretty unproblematic. Basically, we constantly learn two things: a) we’re all sinners, and we need God’s mercy, because we can’t do anything about sin – we just make it worse; and b) God has had mercy through his crucified and risen son, Jesus.
Bang. That’s it.
Maybe we wish there was more than this? In a way, do we prefer our Molech-bible, where we can think of every word as having an inherent divine power and significance, with ultimate authority over ourselves, others, all reality – however much this may harm the Gospel? Idols always give a kind of security – and by definition allow us to pass off our human ways as divine. We like that.
Or do we? In the end maybe we don’t really like this type of Bible. In my experience, the idol-bible ultimately drives us before it with much fear, compulsion and anger. Like all idols, the Bible ultimately becomes a slave-master.
But if we return to homosexuality and the Bible, what does this all mean? If we remember that the Bible is the servant of the Gospel, we remember that only the Gospel has authority; only it binds our conscience; only it is essential; only it has a truth claim. This means the church has the responsibility to preach the Gospel – and that’s it. That is all it is accountable for. The church does not and cannot – as church – go beyond this. The church does not preach the Bible. So the church has no “prescriptive” power beyond the proclamation of the Gospel itself.
So we can all relax a bit!
Phrased differently, we can remember that the only thing that bears on salvation is the Gospel. Everything else – in the Bible or elsewhere – may well be helpful or important in a given situation, but it never becomes absolute. Salvation is one hundred percent about faith in the Gospel – other things may be helpful, but they’re never critical. And the Gospel is the message of salvation by grace alone – full stop. Full, earth-shattering, law-ending, death-ending, sin-ending, Greco-Roman (and every) culture-ending, stop.
So today, looking at the various ancient passages on homosexuality, there are many things we might say about these texts. But the one thing we must assure is that these – or any other texts – don’t get in the way of the Gospel. And when we discuss them, as with all of scripture, we must do so in a way that “drives home” the Good News – for the individual, for the community. What exactly does this mean today for how we understand Levicitus, Romans, etc.? Perhaps there are multiple answers. But whatever we come up with, it must credibly convey the Good News. And, I’m guessing, today, this probably does not mean forcing people to conform to the sexual mores of ancient societies that are centuries and centuries dead.
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- I think this is a structural weakness of the traditional Greco-Roman synthesis. The Gospel is so highly sublimated into social and cultural-intellectual praxis that it tends to become inarticulable – and so easily lost. [↩]
- The problem of where we get the Gospel, if not from the Bible, exercises people a lot more than it should – I’ll come back to this in a later post. [↩]