Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Beyond "Right" or "Wrong" - Thoughts on Interpretation

My dear progressive friends, of course it is possible to interpret the Bible as condemning same-sex marriage. It isn’t even very hard to arrive at that interpretation.

But, my dear conservative friends, a claim that the Bible itself directly condemns same-sex marriage is not supportable. It just doesn’t.

For someone who takes the Bible very seriously as a moral code intended to govern human behavior, this is the interpretive lens through which the entire book is read. And for one with such an interpretive lens, obedience to God is a matter of applying the text directly to personal behaviors. And sometimes you make a few interpretive steps to get there. And all of that is fine; we all do that.

So, in order to go from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the Biblical euphemism “lie with” (the typical interpretation is “have sex with”).
- Since the passages only mention men, you have to interpret the passages as applying to both men and women, unless your claim is that same-sex marriage is only condemned for men but for women it is okay.
- You have to interpret sex as either synonymous with marriage or the only or primary reason someone would get married.
- You have to interpret the “as with a woman” (NRSV) part of the phrase from a heteronormative perspective. That is, you have to interpret it with the assumption that all men would in fact lie with a woman. (The truth is that gay men would not, so the strictest literal reading of these lines does not apply to a homosexual man.)

In order to go from Romans 1:27 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several similar interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the “Therefore” in verse 24 and the “For this reason” in verse 26 in such a way that does not directly connect verse 27 to what has come before. (The previous verses are a description of idolatry.)
- You have to interpret words like “degrading,” “unnatural,” and “shameless” (NRSV) as applying to loving, mutually respectful, life-long, covenant relationships (i.e. marriages).
- You have to interpret marriage as consisting of being “consumed with passion for one another” (NRSV), or otherwise interpret degrading and shameless sex as synonymous with marriage or a primary reason for marriage, or have a preconceived notion that homosexual sex is inherently shameless and degrading.
- You have to interpret the “exchanging” and “giving up natural intercourse” from a heteronormative perspective. (For a gay woman for example, sex with another woman is in fact “natural.”)

And finally, in order to go from either of the other two scriptures frequently cited in this conversation, you have to interpret the practice of pederasty as being equivalent to marriage between two consenting adults who love each other very much and want nothing more than to spend the rest of their lives together as a married couple. The word “homosexual” is often used to translate the Greek in these two passages, even though the word wasn’t invented until the late 1800s and did not appear in translations of Scripture until the mid 1900s.

And the truth is, you can absolutely take those interpretive steps to arrive at the conclusion that same-sex marriage should therefore not be allowed in the church. The ample evidence of this truth is simply that a lot of people do.

However, what is unsustainable is to say without qualification that “the Bible condemns same-sex marriage.” The best you can do is say, “My interpretation of the Bible leads me to personally condemn same-sex marriage.”

And honestly, I do not begrudge my more conservative friends their belief. I just wish they would be honest about the interpretive steps they took to get there. Widespread unwillingness to do so has done great harm to people.

(And by the way my more progressive friends, same-sex marriage is certainly not directly blessed in the Bible, either. One must take some interpretive steps to arrive there as well. My own interpretation of the passages cited above involves condemnations of idolatry, promiscuity, child abuse (pederasty), and sexual violence – all things that I am glad the Bible condemns. And my own interpretations of numerous other passages lead me to a belief that a mutually respectful, gracious, loving, covenant relationship between two consenting adults is a beautiful thing, and one that the church should indeed celebrate and honor with marriage vows.)

Furthermore, I wish we could all be honest about the fact that there are indeed hateful and homophobic people in the church. It is infuriating and exhausting when every time hate and homophobia are pointed out, then begins the inevitable protests of “But not me! I’m just doing what the Bible says.” Okay, not you, dude. But can you at least acknowledge that it’s there, and speak up when you see it?

And finally, the very last thing I want to do is push someone away from a relationship with God. I lament that when there are differing interpretations of scripture that lead people to very different places, some Christians choose to double down on their own perspective even when it is hurtful, which inevitably builds barriers between people and Jesus. I personally would choose to err on the side of love and grace, offering a connection instead of severing it altogether.

In the United Methodist Church, we are far, far beyond arguing over whose interpretation of Scripture is “right.” There are a variety of interpretations of Scripture in our denomination. The discussion has shifted to, “What are we going to do about that?”

That conversation requires honesty, humility, and integrity. I fear the supply of these qualities may be too short in this present season to make any difference.


Unknown said...

Can I share this? Excellent.

Unknown said...

I do not know why it had me down aa unknown, but again can I share this. Debi Altheimer

Andy B. said...

Debi - You may. The best way to share would probably be through Facebook or Twitter.
- ab

Anonymous said...

"And my own interpretations of numerous other passages lead me to a belief that a mutually respectful, gracious, loving, covenant relationship between two consenting adults is a beautiful thing, and one that the church should indeed celebrate and honor with marriage vows."

I've come to look for this statement in all the back and forth on this subject. It's amazing how often a statement of support like this is excluded. It's just a long, rambling critique of the other person's interpretation/integrity/intelligence. Statements of support, such as this, just seem fundamental for change IMO.

I think its excluded in many cases, because so many, like myself, are hesitant to give that unqualified support of celebration. It's 5,000 years of human history versus 50. It's a foreign concept that just strikes me as hard to believe that we would want to endorse and celebrate. Condemnation seems to be totally counterproductive and the Methodist church has repudiated that idea for 50 years, but affirmation seems to be a significant step further.

With that being the case, the second requirement for personal change is for me to have a connection with individuals that model that my status quo thinking is actually incorrect. The fact is that I don't see a lot of mutually respectful, gracious, loving, covenant relationships between gay men, especially at church. I live in a major metropolitan area that is a center for LGBT life. My son goes to a private school. Sebastian has two gay fathers. It's been an interesting process to watch him at school, but I'm watching, attending birthday parties, etc. I wouldn't say that's a connection, more like exposure. I think that's very, very rare.

To expect people with no exposure, much less connection, to get to affirmation just seems like a real stretch. A bridge too far. It will be interesting to watch how we resolve this issue next month. We aren't going to create millions of connections with covenantal gay men in the next month. I think it will be a great loss if the traditionalists, who have stuck with the UMC as we have progressed to be a more liberal church, leave over this issue. When I'm online I don't see a lot of love for traditionalists from progressives. Unfortunately, loving your enemy, whether its a Roman solider or a UMC traditionalist is what Jesus thought it took to create change.

It's not clear to me whether anyone can leave with property (be it a church or conference), but I think we may have gone too far to not find out at this point.