What Is the What?

Brief note: Since the church where I pastor, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, voted on Sunday, April 17 to honor all marriages (gay and straight) by refraining from signing marriage licenses, I have been asked to present a justification of my views on receiving LGBTQ folks as equals in all aspects of the life of the church.  Here is a brief glance at the nature of my thinking on this issue.

On Facebook, as many of you know, I tend to be kind of a smart aleck.  More to the point, I tend to be a decidedly liberal smart aleck—a fact that annoys some people, while others seem more appreciative of my sarcasm.  At any rate, I received a message on Facebook the other day from someone about whom I care a great deal.  It read, in part:

“Many of the people in my generation are politically what they are because of their upbringing. It would do us well to hear the “other” side in a constructive manner. For instance, I have been thinking about the homosexual question, and all of my learning and understanding comes from my conservative teaching.”

The note went on to ask that I offer some clarification of my views on the “homosexual question.”  Notwithstanding the implication that my snarkiness is often less than “constructive,” I take the message to be a genuine attempt on the part of the writer to understand a different view—admittedly, something about which I could do better myself.  Since I believe the request to be a serious one, and since my early “learning and teaching” also came from “conservative teaching,” I feel a certain responsibility to try to offer a serious answer about how I have arrived at my current theological convictions.  And while the nature of the medium in which I provide my response necessarily narrows the scope of how thoroughly I can address each issue associated with this question, I will try to provide a general account of how my beliefs have changed.

At the heart of what my questioner refers to as conservative teaching, it seems to me, is the issue of authority—namely, who or what guides my theological beliefs, and how those beliefs get converted into action.  Growing up, I learned that it was the bible that provided a blueprint for what to think and how to act.  If the bible said it, I was taught to believe it.  On this reading of scripture one operates under the defining assumption that the bible was written with the intention of providing a clearly understandable set of universal guidelines by which to live, one that extends to all times and all places.  In other words, what the bible said 2,500 years ago is just as binding today as it was then.  When it said not to steal, that was a universally binding command.  When it said not to murder, that was meant for me as much as for the Israelites wandering in the desert.  When it said, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10), that was supposed to apply to . . . wait a minute.  It was there that I ran into problems with reading the bible as a timeless blueprint, since big portions of it were ignored as being only for certain times and places.

So when Paul said that a woman “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head [either a veil or long hair], because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:9, cf., also 11:6), and I noticed that the women I knew never wore veils and often cut their hair short, I was told that Paul was issuing only a situational command.  That is to say, Paul was only speaking to women of his time.  But when, some verses later, Paul said, “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (14: 33b-34), I was told that he was speaking to women of all times and places.  It wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to tell consistently between time-bound and timeless commands.  I just couldn’t figure out why the command for women to be silent in church should operate beyond the first century Roman Empire, but that the command that women ought to wear veils and refrain from cutting their hair shouldn’t.

I concluded that the church operates in a decidedly different context now—one the apostle Paul could not have foreseen.  That argument began to change my mind about women’s ordination (another “question”—that is, the “women’s ordination question”—I had learned from early on was a theological no-no).  In fact, it made enough sense to other Christians around me that there had already been a substantial shift in many parts of the church over the issue of ordaining women.  As important as that hermeneutical shift was, however, my ideas about women in ministry were cemented when I finally received the honor of working side by side with them as colleagues.  I saw how gifted they were at tasks that I had been taught were to be reserved to males.  I worked with women who could preach and teach and administrate much better than I could (not necessarily a heavy lift, that).  I saw this as a way that, over time, the Holy Spirit was able to reveal a new conception of what God intended.  It didn’t necessarily mean that God had changed, but that the world in which we lived had changed enough that God’s true vision of the way things ought to be could finally be received.

It occurred to me, though, that another gradual revelation of God’s true design had happened even before the shift on women in the church.  The bible, while not commanding slavery, certainly seemed to condone its practice.  In fact, many people who, at one time, defended the practice of slavery did so while standing firmly within the tradition of biblical interpretation, using the bible as the defensive tool of choice.  However, we’ve reached a point where, looking back, it seems outrageous that anyone ever used the bible to defend this kind of treatment of other human beings.  It struck me that perhaps the church’s stance toward gays and lesbians might follow this same trajectory.  In other words, I thought that maybe the Holy Spirit is in the process of revealing to us God’s true vision of the way things ought to be with respect to homosexuality.  If this is the case, then we need not necessarily say that God has changed (though my colleagues who are Process theologians probably wouldn’t object to this description), but that the world has changed sufficiently to be able to receive the fullness of God’s truth on this issue.

But beyond what I take to be the inadequacies of a static view of biblical interpretation that seeks to match the brown shoes of scripture with the often black tuxedos of context, the thing I found most persuasive in changing my theological views of homosexuality was my contact with my brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian.  In the church where I minister there reside some of the finest people with whom I’ve ever been fortunate enough to work—people who just happen to have been be born loving others of the same gender.  These people are my parishioners; but more importantly, they are my friends.  My gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have the same love for Jesus in their hearts as all the rest of the people with whom I work.  They want to be a part of a community seeking to live faithfully as followers of Jesus.  They want this.  Unfortunately, though, the church has not traditionally wanted them back.  We have caused grave damage to people whose only crime was to be created different.  I found I could no longer view people for whom Jesus died as defective or degenerate just because the object of their affections happened to share the same anatomy.

I don’t have the space to go into a separate exegetical defense of the seven “clobber” passages, those passages in the bible usually cited as arguments against homosexuality; those arguments are well rehearsed on both sides (stay tuned for future articles on the “clobber” passages, where I’ll rehearse the arguments again).  My point here centers on how we identify authority.  I want to be clear about the fact that I’m not suggesting that the bible isn’t authoritative; I believe it is.  Instead, I’ve come to the place where I can no longer accept as authoritative the view that scripture is a handy guidebook, indexed with rules for every occasion.  Scripture acts as authoritative when interpreted within a community that seeks seriously to understand the story of God’s loving interaction with humanity in the person of Jesus the Christ.  And the community in which I interpret scripture consists of people who are better disciples than I am, but whose gender identity or sexual orientation differs from my own.   And, as someone who claims to follow Jesus, my primary vocation is to learn to love others (all others) with the same radical abandon as the Jesus who radically abandoned good sense by answering “the Derek question” and loving me.


6 thoughts on “What Is the What?

  1. Coming from a very conservative background, and still in ministry in a somewhat conservative church, I want to tell you that I support you in this and am praying for you and your church as you continue this path. Right now, I cannot openly say this to those around me, but I hope that will also change.

  2. This is nothing new for the church to be divided, many of us have been brought up in what some would call conservative lifestyles. But why is it, if the conservative doesn’t agree with the liberal’s then conservative’s must have the wrong view. You mention that for you, the holy spirt has guided you to more fully understand the current or modern view points of the Bible to be more in line with the changing world. I have been taught that on so many of these issues we all would be better off being silent, when the Bible is not completely clear.This doesn’t mean we don’t love individuals that may be living a different lifestyle then what we believe. But I do believe that we are not to change or conform to the world. My concern has always been where does one draw the line on what is called the modern or living in today’s world. We all can have our own views in relationship to what the Bible may teach, but we need to all agree to disagree as none of us will know who is right till the day of Judgment. Or is it now that we don’t believe the day of judgement because of the new fad of the modern view of the Bible that God loves everyone so why would he send anyone to Hell if there is a Hell”” See what I mean where do we start and stop on these controversial issues.

  3. Dr. Penwell, you seem to be conflating the punishment with the crime. I think everyone agrees that today we don’t believe in stoning those who commit adultery, however most of us still believe adultery is wrong. in John 8 Jesus gives us a new model for how to deal with a person who is living in adultery and it specifically rejects stoning. Yet as Jesus sends the woman away, he says in verse 11, “Go and sin no more.” He hasn’t ceased to call adultery sin….he has just ushered in an era of grace under which we now live until the eschaton. The same thing seems to apply to homosexuality as far as I can tell. In no place in the Bible is the prohibition against homosexuality overturned, but I think John 8 gives us an excellent blueprint for how to respond to it. I think Jesus’ very kind words to the woman caught in adultery would still apply to all of us who are caught in any sin….”Go and sin no more.” Furthermore, I don’t merely read that as a commandment to me…i read it as a promise. Because of what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection, I am now able to step into a relationship whereby I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to “Go and sin no more.”

    I think when you conflate the punishment with the crime, it makes for very cute rhetoric, but seems to misunderstand the text rather severely. I am not suggesting for a second that this is yours (or anyone else’s) goal, just being descriptive of what I see in those fallacies.

    As for dietary laws and all other Kosher laws, I believe Acts 10 deals with them rather nicely. While the dietary laws were in place under the Old Covenant, Jesus gives Peter a vision that in effect wipes out those laws freeing us to eat all the shrimp we want! (; ) )

    Going back to the issue of homosexuality, I would encourage you to read Leviticus 18…one of the most explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible, and notice where homosexuality is found. It is right between child sacrifice and bestiality. Expanding our pericope a bit further we find that most of us (whether followers of Christ or not) would agree with just about every moral law written in that chapter with the possible exception of having sex during a woman’s period. The rest of them read quite comfortably as acts that we would not condone. e.g.

    1. don’t have sex with your step mom (or mom)
    2. don’t have sex with your step sister (or sister)
    3. don’t have sex with your child or daughter-in-law
    4. don’t have sex with your Aunt
    5. etc

    You will search in vain for a controversial law in that chapter of sexual prohibitions apart from having sex during a woman’s period or homosexuality. Why do you think that is?
    I appreciate your blog and would love your thoughts on this. Thanks!

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