When we consider the potential usefulness of viewing covenanted same-sex unions as a disputable matter in the Christian community, we must understand the diversity with which we approach and seek to interpret scripture. The sheer fact of such difference ought to motivate us to embody a posture of humility rather than self-righteous judgment of one another. However, more often than not, we knock one another over the head with our claims of superior exegesis and hermeneutics, assumptions about depth of commitment, motivations, and ability to rightly discern. Eugene Petersen says,
“We are fond of saying that the Bible has all the answers. And that is certainly correct. The text of the Bible sets us in a reality that is congruent with who we are as created beings in God’s image and what we are destined for in the purposes of Christ. But the Bible also has all the questions, many of them that we would just as soon were never asked of us, and some of which we will spend the rest of our lives doing our best to dodge…… As we personally participate in the Scripture-revealed world of the emphatically personal God, we not only have to be willing to accept the strangeness of this world – that it doesn’t fit our preconceptions or tastes – but also the staggering largeness of it. We find ourselves in a truly expanding universe that exceeds anything we learned…. Our imaginations have to be revamped to take in this large, immense world of God’s revelation in contrast to the small, cramped world of human “figuring out.” We learn to live, imagine, believe, love, converse in this immense and richly organic detailed world to which we are given access by our Old and New Testaments. “Biblical” does not mean cobbling texts together to prove or substantiate some dogma or practice that we have landed on. Rather it signals an opening up into what “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, [but] what God…… has revealed to us through the spirit: (I Cor. 2:9-10)”
The imaginative largeness that Petersen speaks of can be a great challenge. But where it is lacking, it is very difficult to have a fruitful conversation about the potential of homosexuality being a disputable matter. As I encounter people in the church engaging the question of the appropriateness of gay partnerships, my general observation is that those who are open to or affirming of same-sex relationships give significant weight to the historical / cultural context. They are comfortable moving beyond “figuring things out” to consider the progressive revelation of God through the scope of Scripture and the ways that the Holy Spirit continues to reveal Jesus to us in our current context. Those who maintain a traditional understanding of heteronormative sexual intimacy, generally speaking, may view the application of cultural considerations as suspect or as an excuse to discount what they clearly see as prohibition. They would tend to point to the hermeneutical principle that states there is one single original interpretation though there may be multiple applications. Any serious interpreter of the Biblical text will be well acquainted with their own limitations. This means several things. First, we must recognize that any appeal to the authority of Scripture has the potential to be coloured by the limitations of our ability to interpret rightly the very authority we seek to call upon. When discussions focus on the authority, inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, it can become very easy to talk past one another when the assumption is “I care about the authority of Scripture and you don’t.” It can be unhelpful to wax eloquently about the inerrancy of Scripture without an accompanying acknowledgment that while Scripture may be inerrant, there are no inerrant interpreters of Scripture. We do well to remind ourselves that we see through a glass dimly and that no one has a perfect pipeline to the mind of God. Secondly, it is important to maintain an openness to engage with other traditions that may function with a different hermeneutical grid. No one tradition within the Christian community holds the monopoly on correct interpretation on every question. To only engage scholars and thinkers who agree with the presuppositions you bring to the text will, in the end, lead to an impoverished interpretive task. The third limitation we are called to explore is the way our own status and privilege may obscure the selfish and power-maintaining version we hold of God’s story. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh make the observation that postmodern critics of the Biblical meta-narrative (overarching story) tend to see it as the “legitimation of the vested interests of those who have the power and authority to make such universal pronouncements.” For those of us who do find ourselves a part of the heterosexual mainstream, we must reflect on the potential influence our heteronormative assumptions may bring to the text. I often encounter ministry leaders who try to engage their reflections and subsequent position and policy statements by asking themselves how they would approach the subject if one of their children were gay. Even closer to home, is asking the question, “What if I were gay?” “If I were same-sex attracted, how would I wrestle with the full council of God as it relates to my life, my sense of personhood, my desire for love, companionship and family? How would I live in the tension of my own drive to overcome my aloneness and my desire to live in fidelity to the authority of Scripture as it reveals God’s character to me?” At the end of the day, those of us who navigate life’s journey in the comfort of the dominant experience of sexual identity will never fully know how we would answer that question. We cannot live inside someone else’s skin. We therefore can own no smugness in our certainty of how we would respond. That ought to remind us to engage this conversation of interpretation of specific texts with a spirit of humility and a willingness to listen well. It will perhaps prepare us to participate more generously in conversations exploring a disputable matter application. The following insights about good interpretive practice may be helpful to posture us in the place of humility as we encounter those whose interpretations differ than ours or who continue to live in the tension of some uncertainty on the specific question of the appropriateness of covenant same-sex partnerships. The interpretive journey must function in dependence on the leading, guiding and quickened discernment of the Holy Spirit. This means that those who wish to take seriously the message of the text for the manner in which they live and engage their world must learn the disciplines of walking in step with the Spirit. Interpretation, while rigorous and necessarily eliciting our best thinking, is not primarily an intellectual pursuit or culmination of our best talents, abilities and expertise. We primarily humble ourselves in dependence on the reality of the life of the Spirit within us guiding us into all truth. We do this even as we recognize that we see through a glass dimly, are prone to self-deception, and will not engage the Spirit with perfect clarity. Interpretation of any portion of the text must find its focus in the person of Christ. God’s story points to and climaxes in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This grand mystery energizes our Spirit-led imagination to ask of any text where Christ is seen. Martin Luther said, “If you will interpret well and securely, take Christ with you, for He is the man whom everything concerns.” This presupposes, of course, that we have steeped ourselves in relationship with Jesus, his birth, life, death and resurrection, his words, his ministry, his commands. This Christo-centric focus illumines why it is that when people cite in the debates on homosexuality that ‘Jesus said nothing about homosexuality’ intense emotions flare up on all sides. For those who look to this as some level of evidence that this was not a priority issue for Jesus, it ought not to be viewed as a weak attempt to say, “this is no big deal”. Rather, consider that this individual may be truly seeking to ground themselves in the central focus of God’s story – the Incarnated, Reconciling Redeemer. And when others react to this statement with a seemingly ferocious defense that Jesus obviously knew and maintained consistency with the Levitical admonishments about male same-sex behaviour, it ought not to be seen merely as an inability to consider the weight of Jesus’ silence on the matter for same-sex attracted people. Rather, consider that this individual may be attempting to protect Jesus from what seems to them to be a misuse of his silence on a significant question. His silence alone, however, is clearly not the only issue in tension. In Jesus we see the pinnacle of God’s redemptive plan revealed through promise and God’s faithful love. This promise of redemption is a shared essential of our Christian faith. But to whom this promise extends is a point of contention. In the ministry of Jesus we see a Saviour who reaches, intentionally and consistently, to the margins. He talks and eats and heals and experiences solidarity with all the wrong people. His ministry, seen from this perspective, is all about inclusion. And surprisingly enough, sometimes that inclusion carries very little to no instruction about right living or avoiding sin or even the need for confession or repentance. Consider the story of the ten lepers found in Luke 17. Jesus encounters the lepers who cry out for his mercy and he tells them to head off to show themselves to the priest. This was the traditional way in which an individual with a skin disease could be proclaimed clean and re-integrated into life in the community. The text tells us that on the way they were cleansed. And the one leper who had no hope of reintegration into community, no matter how clean his skin was, returns to Jesus. He is a Samaritan. And Samaritans, after generations of feuding and alienation, are not allowed to enter the Temple. He realizes that his only hope is to return to the One who mysteriously has the power to physically heal him. It would seem that he intrinsically knows that his best hope at a new life is to return to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus’ claim is to be the new temple, the new place of reconciliation with God and the people of God. Jesus says to the leper, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Imagine that. I would have felt obliged to instruct him in the way of Jesus, wouldn’t you? I would have said something about sin, confession, holiness, prayer, reading the Scriptures, the coming of the Spirit to help him, the importance of being with a worshiping community, the need to get a good mentor or spiritual director, and the importance of justice, service and love. If this was the only time I had with him, I would have done my best to give him a crash course in living out a life in the way of Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t do this. He sends him on his way with an affirmation of his faith. Yet in other encounters, Jesus offers more instruction. Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more”. He tells the man let down through the roof by his friends that “his sins are forgiven”. He tells the Samaritan woman that “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23) When we are caught up in the story, we can worry less about dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in terms of what Jesus’ formula for reconciliation is, and we engage the personal reality of our own sense of reconciliation with God as actualized in our faith in Christ and experience of the Holy Spirit. This frees us to rejoice and anticipate the reconciliation of those on the margins in our current context. In Jesus we also see what can seem to be a paradoxical relationship with the law. In Matthew 12: 1-8 we see fairly typical response of Jesus to a challenge from the teachers of the law. “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” In Mark’s account Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In this text, Jesus models a discernment of the spirit of the law, not the letter. Such a response sings of a spaciousness in which God’s people, in light of their need, find mercy and provision in the place of rigid expectations of the law. Indeed, consideration of the words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” is not inconsequential when considering a response to the reality of same-sex attracted brothers and sisters. We also read of Jesus’ high regard for the law. In Matthew 5: 17-18 Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” And then we also have Jesus’ summary of the law in Matthew 7: 11, 12 “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” And again in Matthew 22: 35-39 “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”” For those who seek to be Christ-centered in their interpretive journey with Scripture, there may still be different emphases of the words and teaching of Jesus. A differing sense of Jesus’ priorities may influence the application of Scripture to their decision-making regarding the invitation to experience love and intimacy in a same-sex consummated covenant relationship. A great comfort in the interpretive quest, particularly for those who may feel limited in their training or understanding of specific hermeneutical tools, is the accessibility of the Bible’s central message. The Bible tells a story of a God who reconciles people into life-giving relationship with himself and is about the work of making all things marred by sin and brokenness right. This is understood to be the “Perspicuity of Scripture”. This means that anyone who reads the Bible can understand its good news. The invitation of redemption is plain to see regardless of how much one understands or has studied how to best interpret the Bible. The challenge is when people take this idea of perspicuity and apply it much more broadly than the central message of redemption to include specific complex contextual questions. The result is the expectation that a plain, literal reading of the Scriptures will offer a clear answer to any question confronting a Christ-follower. This can be seen in the myriad of huffy blog comments left by Christians who insist, “The Bible is clear” and therefore refuse to listen, engage, extend respect, care or sensitivity to the Christian who questions this presumed clarity. A comment left this morning on one of our video clips featuring a gay Christian who is currently single but open to having a partner demonstrates this. The comenter said,“you are a reprobate! you have one foot in hell! you are not a christian! a real christian will shun you! it is a grave sin to even debate this. the bible is super clear on this! you Lots wives will all burn in hell forever! that is where this begins and ends! no debate none! None!” This expectation of perspicuity on all moral and ethical matters can be a cover for a refusal to engage the threatening process of confronting one’s assumptions or constructs in which we manipulate the text to exert power over others. It can also be a cover for what is akin to a sense of panic at the thought of questioning the system that holds our faith and confidence together. Such panic fails to see beyond oneself and is ultimately narcissistic. For those able to see beyond the reductionistic notion of perspicuity on all complex matters, one realizes the necessity in interpretation to take into account the context of the text. This context will consider the text in light of the full council of God (all of Scripture), the particular book in which it is found, the grammatical meaning of the specific words, and the historical context of the author and intended audience. Such attention to context will seek to prevent pulling specific phrases out of the larger frame of reference as is so often seen in proverbial proof-texting. It will also ensure that texts that are understood to reference homosexual behaviour will be considered in light of the redeeming, reconciling message of Scripture, the exegetical challenges of interpreting the notoriously difficult Greek works arsenekoiti and malakoi, and the cultural backdrop of the author and audience. Such careful consideration of contextual issues will quickly raise the reality of diverse understandings posited by different scholars, practitioners and pastors, and every day gay and lesbian followers of Jesus. We have considered the effect different ways of viewing homosexuality can impact people’s openness to considering same-sex unions a disputable matter in part 2. Here in part 3 we briefly looked at how people approach and engage scripture. In part 4 we want to look at the different ways people engage experience, tradition and reason to wrestle with the questions of faithful discipleship for same-sex attracted people.