“But there are some of us who’ve seen the new paradigm, a gestalt in which our view of the equality of our LGBT sisters and brothers isn’t an attempt to ‘ignore the Bible,’ but is itself a reordering of our relationship to the Bible in ways that seem more faithful to its true message about the wide embrace of God.
“We learned to love our LGBT sisters and brothers not because they needed to change, but because we did.”
That President Obama’s announcement of his support of marriage equality for LGBTQI people was met with consternation by many in popular Christianity shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. That his “brand” of Christianity fails to be persuasive to a portion of the Christian world should surprise no one either. It is common to dismiss anyone who supports hospitality to those created LGBTQI by God as deluded (at best) and evil (at worst).
What I continue to find troubling, though, is the extent to which people who oppose marriage equality maintain that any support of it by those who call themselves Christian is some kind of hermeneutical dodge. The working assumption seems to be that if you fail to employ some form of traditionally conservative interpretive schema, you can’t reasonably expect to call yourself Christian. Because everybody knows that “liberals” don’t actually believe anything important about God or the Bible or following Jesus; they’re just trying to baptize their godless agenda and impose it upon the unsuspecting majority of real Christians. What many people apparently find too difficult to fathom, however, is that some people—among whom I take President Obama to be one—hold these “liberal” positions not in spite of but because of their commitment to following Jesus.
What would Jesus do? Scorch the earth with the dignity of people already trampled underfoot, apparently . . . at least if Rick Perry is the scriptural exegete.
From The Daily Conversation
Recently, I received a comment from a reader who wished to challenge me on some preliminary thoughts I offered on the subject of how I came to my position on homosexuality. I am including “Mark’s” letter and my response to him. I have not identified “Mark.” If he wishes to do so, I will make space for him on my blog to offer yet another response. The reason I am offering this is to continue the conversation about what it means to interpret scripture–especially as it relates to the issue of homosexuality. I have not edited “Mark’s” comments in any way. They have also been published in the comment section of “What is the What?” You may read that post to get a full sense of what “Mark” is responding to.
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
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!
First, thank you for doing such a careful reading of my post. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, as well as your generous spirit.
I do want to challenge you on a few things, though. Any conflation of sin and the punishment for sin that I would defend now has as its purpose to call into question a particular hermeneutical strategy, which goes roughly something like this:
The bible is a sacred text inspired by God, and its clear commands should therefore be taken seriously as commands that are universally binding, which is to say, good for all times and all places.
This is certainly a defensible interpretative method, and one that claims a wide number of backers. It must answer a few questions of its own, however, before it gains the status of the hermeneutical high ground. First, what scripture “clearly” commands is never as innocent an assertion as those who would offer it tend to imply. To suggest that “my” reading of a text is the “clear” meaning implies that those who differ are either ignorant or self-consciously sneaky. This is a meta-critique of the tack you seem to take.
Second, and more specifically, you must first answer why it is that the commands of God should be broken down into (at least) two categories—punishment and crime—the latter of which is universally applicable, while the former is merely contextual. The postmodern in me wants to ask, “Says who?” Offering Jesus’ handling of a particular case from a disputed passage as evidence of God’s foreclosing of a particular kind of punishment engages in the same practice of drawing inferences that you seem to think bad when I do it. Your point is an arguable one (and clever) . . . but it is only that; it is by no means the “clear” meaning of the text. It is, as you say, “cute rhetoric.”
Although your point may be that Jesus sets out in John 8 to overturn antiquated laws, it is by no mean obvious that that is, in fact, Jesus’ point. In other words, you’re thrown back on an interpretation of a text to which you bring a host of interpretative assumptions—which, of course, was my point in the first place. In other words, that’s how scripture always gets interpreted. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes” when it comes to scriptural interpretation. What it does mean is that scriptural interpretation is a contextual and communal practice requiring lengthy conversation to discern the meaning of a text—as well as the humility to say, “We’ve long thought such and such is the case, when, as it turns out, that does not seem to be the case at all.” The question is not whether we do that (your parsing of sin/punishment is evidence that we can’t get beyond doing it), but rather how will we make an ancient document speak to a contemporary world it couldn’t envision.
Moreover, you never make clear how it is that I “severely misunderstand the text.” If the text says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them,” and you say that the first part is universally valid while the second part is time-bound and need not be bothered about anymore, it is you who must offer more convincing proof as to how you split that particular hermeneutical hair—beyond extrapolation. For that is what you provide: an inference concerning the obviation of capital punishment for sex crimes from a text whose primary purpose seems to be dealing not first with punishment but with the self-righteous attitudes that set one person over another. And if you take your inference to be true in some universal sense, then you must provide an explanation as to why it is that your inferences occupy the privileged position of universal norm, while other textual inferences made by “severe misunderstanders” like me are invalid.
Acts 10 and the argument on the rescindment of kosher dietary laws by reference to Peter’s vision—c.f., the previous two paragraphs.
Let us turn now to Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with males as with a woman; it is an abomination.” You rightly point out that this verse is wedged into a list of other uncontroversial sexual proscriptions. That is to say, 18:22 follows a long list of injunctions against incest–which no one would seriously defend. And although you never go on to explain by what interpretative mechanism it is that one of the verses (i.e., “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness” Lev. 18:19) is no longer binding, you do draw attention to it. I think we ought not to leave it quite so quickly. Why does this particular verse escape universal condemnation? By what authority does this passage no longer claim normative status in your view?
As to the seemingly straightforward condemnation evident in Leviticus 18:22 against males lying with males “as with a woman,” I would draw your attention to the previous verse about sacrificing children to Molech in 18:21. This shift is significant, signaling that we have moved to concerns about the worship of other gods. Leviticus 18:22, read in context, may very well center on the ritual sexual practices of fertility religions that bespoke allegiance to other gods. If true, what is at issue is the enduring problem Israel faced with respect to the worship of foreign gods manifest in particular kinds of cultic practices.
Whatever the case, I’m not willing to cede the point that the sexual arrangements that are at issue in 18:22 between two males approximate the loving commitments between two people of the same gender for which I am arguing in our contemporary world. What is at stake in the “clobber passages” that are used to argue against homosexuality seem to have less to do with the anatomy of the beloved than with whether one person exercises power over another by sexual means. In other words, I am arguing that Christians have a greater investment in promoting just and loving relationships built on mutuality than to ensure that everyone has the appropriate sexual equipment before being accepted as partners.
Given the nature of the recent goings on in the world with respect to the LGBTQ conversation, in particular Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine’s rejection of the Believe Out Loud ad campaign, as well as the PCUSA decision on Homosexual ordination, I thought I might offer a few thoughts about what it means to remain silent in the face of injustice–and about what it means not to, what it means to be creatively maladjusted. Disclaimer: My analogy with the Civil Rights movement is only meant to be suggestive, not to establish easy equivalences.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those whowere selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:1319).
Following the first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus and his new disciples take a few days off, then head into Jerusalem.
Where do they go? Straight to the temple.
What happens? Jesus makes a whip of cords and starts turning over the tables of the money changers. He’s ranting and raving about how they’re turning God’s house into a marketplace. The folks in charge don’t much care for his attitude and say, “Who are you? What sign can you show us for doing this?” Then, Jesus commits the ultimate Jewish faux pas by saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
What Jesus has done, in effect, after making such a grand splash at the wedding at Cana, is to guarantee that the very people who might have helped promote his ministry are the ones whom he has alienated by his little foray into temple finances. He’s made some pretty influential enemies in his first trip to Jerusalem.
So what? What’s the significance?
Well, think about it. When Jesus cleanses the temple in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it occurs at the very end of Jesus’ ministry—after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and just before being snatched up and crucified on Good Friday—which, if you think about it, makes more sense. You can see why Jesus would be upset with the religious establishment in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They’ve hounded him for three years, and are plotting to kill him. A little righteous indignation seems appropriate.
But in John, the cleansing of the temple comes right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He’s had nothing but smooth sailing up to this point. Why upset the temple bigwigs right off the bat? It makes much less sense, from a narrative standpoint, to have Jesus challenge the money changers in the temple just as his ministry is taking off. Why does John set up the story this way?
John puts the story of the cleansing of the temple right next to the wedding at Cana on purpose. He’s making some rhetorical hay about the shape and trajectory of Jesus ministry.
What do I mean?
Well, how must the disciples be feeling after seeing Jesus pull a Bobby Knight in the temple? They have to be terribly confused. They thought they were getting a pretty engaging guru, fun to have around at parties, somebody to keep the open bar open—but what they got instead was a loose cannon, an unpredictable guy who knows his way around the business end of a whip. Jesus’ impatience with the way things are calls to mind what Martin Luther King wrote in Strength to Love:
“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
Well, Jesus is nothing if not creatively maladjusted.
Jesus explodes our tame, self-aggrandizing expectations about how joining up with him will be the end of our problems. John wants to show us that just because you follow Jesus doesn’t mean everything magically becomes sweetness and light. In fact, joining up with Jesus may cause you a whole new set of problems you might otherwise have avoided if you’d just stayed home and watched Jeopardy. Sometimes we have to follow Jesus into the temple, where only hostility awaits us.
And that bothers us, doesn’t it? If not, we haven’t been paying attention to what happens to people willing to walk into the teeth of the storm.
In April of 1963, a group of well-meaning (I think) white clergy in Alabama got together and issued a statement calling for the end of demonstrations they considered “unwise and untimely,” by “some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” even though this group of white clergy recognized “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we just celebrated on Monday, responded to these clergy in his, now famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Not surprisingly, Dr. King’s anger at the unjust social systems made bolder through their embodiment in law is present throughout his letter, raising again the Augustinian question about whether unjust laws—laws that degrade “human personality” and “distort the soul”—ought rightfully to be considered laws at all.
Dr. King reserves his biggest disappointment, however, for the church. He rightly criticizes white moderates, whom he considered to be “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice’; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He speaks candidly in his letter about weeping because of the laxity the church, about how “blemished and scarred” is the body of Christ “through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformist.”
At one point, Dr. King recalls with a certain wistfulness “a time when the church was very powerful.” It’s interesting to note, though, just how he sees the church’s relationship to that power. The church was at its most transformative, he argues,
“when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than humans. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their efforts and their example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.”
It occurs to me that we who have committed ourselves and our communities of faith to seeking justice, in this case for LGBTQ people, are the inheritors of that legacy—a legacy that hears the cries of inequity and injustice, and remains incapable of turning a deaf ear.
We are the spiritual offspring of the creatively maladjusted. We cannot stand by and do nothing. We join together across the diversity of theological and denominational lines to take our place in the procession—a procession that, just in this country alone, stretches back through the Civil Rights movement, through women’s suffrage, and through the abolition of slavery.
We are people who cannot abide and will not stomach the excuses offered up by unjust systems that somehow “now is not the time,” or that raising a ruckus only contributes to the problem. We draw together because we’ve been called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—not because there is anything necessarily heroic in us, but because we’ve been passed a torch by heroes and saints who’ve gone before us, and who have called us to bear witness that God is not satisfied with either an unjust society or a lazy church “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘peace.’”
The Kentucky Family Foundation posted a commentary yesterday on its blog, taking Douglass Boulevard Christian Church to task for what the KFF considers an attempt by the church to curry favor with the “intellectual elites.” And while I have indicated my belief that the most importat part of this issue centers on embodying Christ’s justice rather than on arguing about it, I find it necessary to clarify certain matters of contention raised by the author at the KFF.
The Family Foundation will comment only briefly on the relative insignificance of this act since the church itself is comprised of only 80-120 members and caters to an explicitly liberal social agenda.
As I read this portion of the KFF commentary, a couple of things occur to me. First, I am struck once again by the dismissive nature of the comments about DBCC’s size. The reference to the church’s size serves no substantive purpose in support of the author’s argument, other than to draw attention to the superior position of influence from which s/he speaks. I feel certain that everyone who reads the article realizes the cultural prominence of KFF relative to the modest community at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. Naming this disparity in size and influence, however, fails to advance the discussion, but serves merely as a form of rhetorical jockeying for advantage.
Second, it seems important to me to address the charge of catering “to an explicitly liberal social agenda”–as if the author has opted out of the “social agenda” catering business, and is seeking only to speak from some neutral ground beholden to no “social agenda.” I enter into this conversation with the assumption that KFF, while occupying its own particular set of theological and political positions, makes its case from a set of convictions that rise above pure approval-seeking from a constituency with a decidedly different “social agenda” from the one to which DBCC is supposedly indebted. In other words–and though I strongly disagree with many of their conclusions–I think they believe they are doing what God would have them do to be faithful. Consequently, it seems somehow troubling to me that the work undertaken by Douglass Boulevard Christian Church fails to receive the same good faith respect from the author.
The fact remains, however, that actions taken by Douglass Boulevard and others like it, represent a diminishing voice in Christianity. Liberal churches—those that reject biblical authority—eventually wither because the very essence of their existence—Christ and obedience to his commands—becomes sidelined for what are perceived to be more important social agendas.
Whether liberal Christianity is a “diminishing voice in Christianity” is, as I have said in the past, an observation of correlation, not an argument about causation. Notwithstanding that questionable contention, however, I want to challenge the assertion the author makes that Liberal churches “reject biblical authority” and “eventually whither because” they place “Christ and obedience to his commands” on the sidelines, in favor of “what are perceived to be more important social agendas.” First, and most obviously, let me ask what commandment of Christ that Douglass Boulevard is supposed to have disobeyed by our recent action? Since Jesus never explicitly addresses homosexuality, I’m not sure I see the way the author is connecting the dots. (In a side note, let me be quick to mention that Jesus had a lot more to say about how the politically and theologically powerful use their resources at the expense of the powerless than he ever had to say about sexuality–in any form.)
Which assertion leads me to my next thought: What DBCC set out to do by its action in favor of treating LGBTQ people and heterosexual people the same–far from trying to figure out a way to circumvent the difficult demands placed upon the followers of Jesus–was, in fact, an attempt faithfully to emulate the kind of lovingkindness and commitment to equitable social arrangements Jesus himself displayed. That is to say, since Jesus did not give us explicit instructions about this issue (and neither, I would argue, did the epistles), we have tried to envision how the love of Jesus might be embodied by our community in our current cultural context. Our purpose, therefore, was not to disobey Jesus, but to find radically expansive new ways of living that honor the Jesus we find in the Gospels. So, whatever “social agenda” we pursue, whether it correlates to some other “social agenda” or not, is unintelligible to us apart from Jesus. Consequently, the allegation that Douglass Boulevard Christian Church displays “ecclesial hostility towards [sic] Scripture” misses the point entirely from our perspective. We do what we do because we think it is the most faithful rendering of scripture for the world in which we live–not a denial of it.
In recent days, the pastor of Douglass Boulevard has offered a theological and personal justification for the position adopted by the church. But the justification offered reduces to facile explanations aimed at jettisoning Christian teaching on human sexuality. His rebuttals to Christian teaching against homosexuality are built upon straw-man arguments and lack serious exegesis. In addition, his arguments are unoriginal and are not respected by serious biblical scholars. But exegesis and rebuttal will not matter when personal volition and Maslow’s self-actualization become more important than Christ and his commands.
As to my “theological and personal justifications for the position adopted by the church,” they were an attempt on my part to enter into conversation with people who approached me because either they did not agree or did not understand why I believe what I believe about LGBTQ people and their acceptance by God. My essay was more narrative than exegesis, because my intent was not to hammer my interlocutor into intellectual and spiritual submission, but to extend a serious conversation. That my “arguments are unoriginal” and “not respected by serious scholars” –which, I think, is another assertion in search of an argument–I’ll leave to someone else to decide. I will make this observation, though, that the post by KFF seemed less like a conversation between brothers and sisters who disagree than like the combat waged against a mortal enemy. Some clarification on that front would be I think, helpful.
The truth is that the actions taken by Douglass Boulevard are not prophetic, but a testament to the capitulating spirit that follows from abandoning the clear instruction and teaching of Scripture. In championing liberal theology, Douglass Boulevard is allying itself with a rogue strand of Christian theology that retains neither orthodoxy nor longevity.
Admittedly, it would be an enviable accomplishment for the folks at KFF if they were to be in possession of “the truth” about “the actions taken by Douglass Boulevard.” However, according to the Christian tradition DBCC is supposed to have abandoned, the discernment of truth is a communal achievement, drawing upon the often uncomfortable diversity of the broader church–much of which it appears sadly, in this case, has been written off before a conversation has even begun.
This morning Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky—a seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention—posted a commentary on a recent action taken by the church where I am the senior minister, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. We voted without dissent as a congregation on Sunday, April 17 to speak a positive word to the LGBTQ people in our congregation about our commitment to treating all of our members equally, by refraining from signing civil marriage licenses until the state extends the rights and privileges of marriage to everyone—without regard to sexual orientation. The implications of our disagreement concerns more than just words, but I’ll offer a few words of my own as an initial response.
The tone of Dr. Mohler’s commentary, while generally fair, veers into dismissiveness when taking an apparent shot at the size of DBCC’s membership.
For many years, I have driven by this church in its present location. The congregation was once much larger, with many families attending. This article indicates that the congregation has followed the trajectory of liberal Protestantism right down to the dwindling numbers of both worshipers and weddings from within the congregation.
Two thoughts struck me as I read this paragraph:
- Dr. Mohler’s linking of liberal and decline conveniently ignores a particularly important statistic concerning his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has experienced a consistent decline of its own since 2007. I raise this issue not necessarily to denigrate the efforts of my brothers and sisters who happen to be Southern Baptist, but to draw attention to, what I take to be, the faulty premise of drawing a bright line of cause and effect between liberal and decline. As the membership decline among the traditionally conservative Southern Baptists indicates, there’s more to decline than liberal theology.
- I also think that a linkage between faithfulness and the size of one’s community is a presumption that fails the most basic of hermeneutical tests–that is, the life of Jesus. Since the size of Jesus’ community dwindled considerably the closer he got to the ultimate act of faithfulness–which is to say, his crucifixion–it seems an idiosyncratic interpretative twist to equate the crowd size of the approving with the doing of God’s will.
To his credit, Rev. Penwell does not deny that the Bible condemns all homosexual behaviors as sin. Instead, he employs a trajectory hermeneutic that argues that new contexts require fundamentally different ways of understanding even what the Bible clearly addresses.
So, his argument is that the Holy Spirit may now be “revealing to us God’s true vision of the ways things ought to be with respect to homosexuality” — a vision very different from that actually found in the Bible.
And thus, the fundamental divide over biblical authority and interpretation is laid bare for all to see. The real issue is not same-sex marriage or even sexuality. The fundamental issue is the authority and interpretation of the Bible.