Owning our Interpretation

“I have loved ones who are LGBTQ2S+ and I wish I could affirm their relationships... but the Bible just won’t let me do it. My heart is there, but my hands are tied by scripture itself.”

Two weeks ago, I was asked how I would respond to such a statement. I fumbled a response about how lots of Christians through history have felt their “hands were tied” when it came to what scripture says about slaves and women and divorce, but later changed their minds. Still, my response felt unsatisfying.

Only a couple days later, I listened to something that further informed my thinking: an episode of “Reclaiming My Theology,” hosted by Brandi Miller. (It’s an excellent podcast that I’d recommend especially to my fellow White Christians who are trying to tease out the impact of whiteness, racism & colonialism on their theology.)

The episode I heard was about the theological implications of White worship of the written word. Miller’s conversation partner was David DeLeon, and he made some comments that really stood out to me:

“Every interpretation of scripture that you come up with has to be owned in its fullness... We can’t foist the responsibility or the power of an interpretation back onto the written word... because the text doesn’t speak for itself. It speaks when people say something or make something of it, when communities form around it, as I’ve said. And I think if people actually gave thought to the fact that you are always interpreting scripture, you’re not just reading it, it’s always being interpreted, then I think we would all be more careful with whatever hot takes or ambitions that we have about scripture, because we’re not blaming things on God; we’re actually taking ownership for that.”

DeLeon believes we need to resist passing the buck for our interpretations to the Bible itself, or to God’s own self, by saying: “That’s just what God says. You can get mad at me, but you’re really getting mad at God.” Instead, we need to take ownership of our interpretations, recognizing that we are making interpretative choices every time we read and attempt to apply scripture to our lives. We each read through a set of lenses, influenced by the translators of the original Hebrew & Greek text, by the people around us, by the community of theologians who have interpreted the text in the past, by our life experiences, by what seems reasonable to us, and by the Spirit. There is no such thing as a plain or objective reading of the Word apart from these influences.

DeLeon’s prime example of “owning your interpretation” is from Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said... but I say unto you...” (Matt. 5). Here, Jesus is owning his reinterpretation and the consequences of it.

I’d add another great example from Acts 15, which I preached on a couple weeks ago, where the Jerusalem Council decides that their experience in observing Spirit-filled Gentiles is something that “the words of the prophet are in agreement with” (Acts 15:15), and that they should accept these Gentiles into their fellowship without requiring circumcision, despite the fact that the prophets they quote say nothing about dropping circumcision as a prerequisite. The apostles start with the real evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work: the fruit of the Spirit in the Gentiles; then they read scripture through the lens of that experience. There is great ownership and humility in their words to these Gentiles: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28).

When I read scripture, I find a beautiful trajectory of widening welcome, a divine circle that opens and includes more and more people, especially those who are on the margins of power. I find a thread of increasing acknowledgment of the equity of all humankind, a thread of broadening concepts of family and belonging, and countless signs that the Spirit loves to work in the rascals and the underdogs, the people we least expect. And when I read the texts that are usually interpreted as prohibiting my marriage to my wife, I see the moral logic of those texts as being culturally and temporally bound, and no longer applicable to my context.

I fully own that these are interpretive moves I have made, and that they could be wrong. I hold them, in part, because I’ve found that these particular interpretive moves bear the most beautiful fruit in my life and the lives of those I love.

I hope that those who understand these scriptures differently from me can also own the fact that they bear responsibility for their readings. I hope that instead of saying, "the Bible won't let me do it," they can acknowledge that their interpretation of scripture is holding them back, and recognize their responsibility for the effect that has on my life, and the lives of their other LGBTQ2S+ loved ones.

It may seem like a small step of humility, but it's an important one.

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