A Case for the Possibility of Changing our Minds
Before we open the Bible itself, it’s important to provide a response to the question above. After all, the average conservative Christian today has been perfectly happy with our standard reading of the Bible against homosexuality and same-sex marriage for a long time. Why would we even ask these questions?
In this chapter, we will look at why it is so important to return to a sincere study of the Bible on the topic of homosexuality. We will explore the following two questions:
- Are there any parallels in the Christian tradition for changing our minds on such long-standing orthodox perspectives?
- Are there any compelling reasons to spend time working on this particular question?
I would like to answer these two questions by making a case that we can agree on each of the following four assertions:
- The Bible has always been and continues to be interpreted in different ways.
- We've all changed our minds on previously orthodox interpretations of the Scriptures in the past.
- Much harm is coming to gay people in our community.
- Our Christian community is fragmenting, and many are rejecting our faith tradition over this issue.
We’ll start with looking at what it means to interpret the Bible, as distinct from simply reading it.
Is the Bible simply read, or is it interpreted?
The first question every Christian must ask is:
Unfortunately, my personal experience in the conservative evangelical Christian community did not give me the foundation to understand this question. I had a tragic lack of knowledge of church history and how things have changed over time. This may not hold true for all readers, of course.
I have gained much by beginning to correct this gap in my understanding of our faith, through personal reading and the encouragement of my new church community in the global and historic Anglican Communion. As I’ve found, there are deeply marvelous or profoundly disturbing variations in understandings over time, depending on your perspective. My personal conclusion has been that God must somehow be ok, even maybe actively encouraging, the variety of our beliefs.
Translation as Interpretation
It has been important for my journey to realize that there is no one final and unchanging reading of the Bible. Some people refer to this concept when we use the word interpretation.
The most basic, straight-forward level of interpretation starts with the fact that the Christian Bible is a collection of 66 (or 73, or 77, depending on your church tradition) independently written texts that were originally set down in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek.
Every Christian who reads the Bible in a language other than these three is reading a translation. Every translation is a form of interpretation, especially when coming from languages that are 2,000 to 3,000 years old and are no longer in common use (modern Hebrew and Greek are functionally different languages).
It is one thing to translate from Spanish to French, or German to English. Even as similar as these languages are, with common roots, translators have to make judgement calls on how to best communicate a concept in the target language.
When we go back to ancient and especially non-Western languages it gets much more complicated. Words in ancient Hebrew (containing approximately 8,000 words) can mean many different things in English (with about 660,000 words), either changing based on context, or conveying many meanings all at the same time. We understand the definition of most words, but some have been lost to the ages and we must guess at the original intent. The Greek text of the New Testament is closer to modern languages such as English, and easier to reference because of the volume ofother literature written in it, but it is still not something we can simply plug words into a mechanical replacement device.
Every translation is an interpretation simply getting it into the target language. There is so much more that could be said about translating the Bible which we don’t have space to cover here, but it is a fascinating topic.
The second level of interpretation during translation comes from the unavoidable bias of those who are translating. Even the most careful and impartial scholars must make subjective choices of words and meanings. This is part of why we have so many different translations (over 100) to choose from today in English, from very strict literal translations like the YLT or NRSV to what are called "dynamic equivalents" like The Message. Most are somewhere in between, but none are exactly the same as the original texts.
Tanakh interpretation example: Ishmael
Here’s an example of how difficult it can be to accurately translate ancient Hebrew in particular, and how that can have a dramatic effect on our lives and understanding.
In Genesis chapter 16, the angel of the Lord pronounces a blessing on the pregnant Hagar, the concubine of Abraham, after she had been driven from their home by the jealous Sarah. Here is the traditional rendering of the blessing:
“I will so greatly multiply your offspring
that they cannot be counted for multitude...
Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”
— Genesis 16:10-12
This translation that we normally see in our Bibles gives a decidedly mixed blessing that has contributed to tension and conflict in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, as Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabic tribes who remain in conflict with the descendents of his brother Isaac, the Israelites.
Yet there are other ways to translate those same words. The reputable Judaica Press translation has verse 12 reading:
And he will be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand will be upon all,
and everyone’s hand upon him,
and before all his brothers he will dwell.
Some interpreters suggest one more layer, that the preposition translated as “against” or “upon” can be “with” instead. Others say that the phrase “wild ass” is more accurately “fruitful man” which fits with the multiplication promise in verse 10. We could end up with the following:
And he will be a fruitful man,
his hand will be with all,
and everyone’s hand with him,
and before all his brothers he will dwell.
There are many layers that contribute to distrust and enmity between the Jews and Arabs, but a simple change of translation in this instance could soften some of those long-lasting tensions.
New Testament interpretation example: anathema
The last book we covered in my old group Bible study (at Siloam Springs Bible Church, EFCA) was Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I love this group because we were determined to focus on the text itself. We read aloud from various translations and then discussed what we heard with the benefit of a retired conservative Bible scholar (associated with John Brown University and Wycliffe Bible Translators) at the table who could help us with the original Greek text. My reading of Galatians 1:8-9 in New Testament scholar N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament translation (a favorite of our conservative scholar) is:
The translations others were reading mostly said the same thing, translating the Greek word "anathema" (ἀνάθεμα 331) as "cursed by God" or "cursed" or "accursed." Yet one member's reading followed the New English Translation (NET)'s rendering of "let him be condemned to hell!" This conservative scholarly translation, associated with Dallas Theological Seminary, decided to add a layer of meaning to Paul's words which may or may not have been his original intention. While it could be logical to interpret Paul's words as referring to eternal damnation, this is going beyond the actual literal text and applying a non-traditional interpretation as if it is the only way to read it. The 1984 NIV translation also interpreted this with added meaning as "eternally condemned", but the newer 2011 NIV removes the speculative timeframe with simply "under God's curse".
I'm not mentioning this out simply to pick on the NET Bible here (though I have noticed this is not the only place the translators of that version make similar decisions), but simply pointing out that some level of interpretation is a required part of the translator's job.
Interpretation in reading and study
Of course, even after the texts are translated into English, different Christian communities can read them in different ways. We could dive into exhaustive discussion on this topic, but the simplest evidence that I know of is to point out that there are approximately 41,000 different denominations around the world that differentiate based on doctrine and practice for a variety of reasons. Every one of them believes that there was/is evidence, mostly from Scriptural sources, to insist on their interpretation being the best, if not the only, way of being Christian and reading the Bible.
One classic example within the evangelical community is the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. This fundamental difference in how to read the Bible on the subjects of the nature of man, eternal predestination, and the extent of salvation has existed unresolved since the 17th century. Each side bases their positions on the teachings of a 16th century thelogian, respectively John Calvin or Jacobus Arminius. This debate continues to remain a distinctive split today, to the extend that some modern Calvinists claim that Arminianists aren’t saved and/or preach heresy. For Calvin, what was key is that God has full and ultimate control over all aspects of the world and our lives:
“I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.”
— Isaiah 45:7
|God's Sovereignty||God is in absolute control of every part of life, all good and evil according to his will.||God limits his control to give us freedom, though he knows what we will choose.|
|Ability to believe||We are totally depraved in our sin, requiring the Spirit's regeneration to believe.||While fallen, we have free will to choose or reject salvation.|
|Predestination||God chose those he would save before creation unconditionally.||God conditionally chose only those whom he knew would freely believe in him.|
|Christ atoned for||Christ's redemption was limited only to the elect, did not atone for all sinners.||Christ's atonement was universal, although we must choose to accept.|
|Call of the Spirit||The Spirit's call to salvation for the elect is irresistible.||We have free will to resist the drawing of the Spirit.|
|Assurance||The elect who are truly saved persevere—can never lose their salvation.||We can fall from grace if we do not continue in the faith.|
For myself, I understand the Calvinist argument, but I don’t agree with the interpretations of Scripture that it is based on for a variety of reasons. Therefore I do not agree with some of the core doctrines of many prominent, respected theologians and pastors like John Piper. Yet at the same time, I believe that John Piper is very intelligent, he loves God and people, he is devoted to his faith, and he does the best job he can to interpret the Bible accurately (and I freely admit he has more training and experience than I do). I must be humble enough to admit that I can never be certain I have chosen the “right” interpretation.
There are still other mainstream Protestant interpretations such as Anabaptists (e.g. Mennonites) or Lutherans. Once we add in Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox perspectives, we end up with a vast variety of interpretations all based on the same written Scriptures.
Let’s be clear. Within Christianity orthodoxy, even within just Evangelical Protestantism, we have interpretative disagreements on things as fundamental as:
- Who did Jesus die for:
- How then are you saved?
- By belief alone? And on what belief?
- What about the works which James discusses?
- Must we persevere, or prove our transformation?
- What about baptism forms, signs of the Spirit, which prayer do we use, can you lose your salvation, etc?
If these basic principles have so many orthodox interpretations from the same text, could we allow for the possibility of different interpretations on the subject of human sexuality? Does unity mean forced homogeny, or can it be a shared love both bridging and celebrating different perspectives?
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
— Jesus speaking with his Father in John 17:20-23
This doesn't remove the need for critical reading of anyone making the case for a different interpretation of course. Please continue to do so.
Lessons from History for our reading of the Bible
Over the centuries, our churches have chosen positions on some social issues with which we no longer agree. These positions were supported by arguments directly from Scripture passages, and we can follow the same logic today as we read along with them. However, most conservative Evangelicals would find it very troubling to return to those same positions even though they had been in place for hundreds or thousands of years.
Here are a few examples, among many others:
- Geocentrism considered unambiguously supported by Scripture for 1,400 years until Copernicus and Galileo.
- The execution of heretics was supported by Saint Augustine and John Calvin among many others.
- “Manifest Destiny” justified the killing and oppression of native peoples in the Americas using Scriptural themes.
- American anti-abolitionism/pro-slavery was supported by conservative Christian preachers through the 1860s.
- Resistance to suffrage for nearly 100 years by appeal to Scripture.
- Antisemitism supported as ecumenical doctrine for nearly 2,000 years, until the Holocaust.
- Segregation supported by appeal to Scripture and Christianity through the 1960s (see example from Bob Jones, Sr).
- Interracial relationships and marriage prohibited on Biblical grounds as late as 2000 by Bob Jones University.
- Remarriage of divorcees prohibited without exception.
I’d like to highlight a few which may be helpful.
The geocentrism vs. Heliocentrism debate: Copernicus and Galileo
In the 16th century, first Copernicus and then Galileo pushed back against the traditional and Biblically-supported view of the Earth-centered universe. Since Ptolemy published his work on astronomy in 150 CE, geocentrism had become accepted as the one valid explanation of our solar system. Resistance came from religious scholars who were convinced by the long-standing tradition (1,400 years) and their view that you could not hold the Scriptures to be infallible if you rejected geocentrism.
It was Protestant leaders who first pushed back on these new ideas of heliocentrism, as the Catholic Church initially had no concerns about the scientific research. Martin Luther was one who was opposed to this new theory, even before Copernicus’ book was officially published:
“There was mention of a certain new astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] ‘So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. [Joshua 10:12]’”
— Attributed to Martin Luther in 1539, recorded in Table Talk
Martin Luther also wrote that the literal descriptions of stars fixed to the firmament with waters above them were required to be held to with firm faith against those who wickedly denied them:
“We Christians must be different from the philosophers [i.e. scientists] in the way we think about the causes of these things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them and admit our lack of knowledge rather than either wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.”
— Martin Luther, Lectures in Genesis
Indeed, the descriptions of the “firmament” in Scripture are problematic in our modern understanding of the world. While it can be easy to read past this word as an archaic concept we don’t understand, the original idea is quite simple. The world as described in the Hebrew Bible is founded on the model of the universe as depicted in the illustration below. The ancient Hebrews believed that there was a huge dome above the earth, upon which the stars were fixed and the sun travelled. This firmament separated the waters above and below the earth:
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome.
And it was so. God called the dome Sky.
God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the Dome of the sky to give light upon the earth...
“...let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”
— Genesis 1:6-8a, 16-17, 20
We see this worldview repeated in the story of the flood, as God drew on the reserve waters out of which he had created the universe to make a world-ending flood a few chapters later:
...on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth,
and the windows of the heavens were opened.
— Genesis 7:11b
A literal dome, or “firmament”, along with other aspects of this model is clearly described throughout the Bible. For example, verse 4 of Psalm 148 calls on the “heavens of heavens and waters above the heavens” to praise God.
By the time of the Reformation, the 2nd century CE astronomer Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe was accepted by scientists and theologians alike. It had added some observations and mathematical models onto the older firmament view. Yet it was consistent with the foundational concept of the earth as the center of the universe, firmly planted in space while all else revolved around us in their own sets of nested spheres.
While Joshua stopping the movement of the sun was a primary text as Martin Luther pointed out, there were a number of other verses quoted in support of geocentrism. For example:
“Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.” (Psalm 93:1b)
“The world also is firmly established, it shall not be moved;” (Psalm 96:10)
“You who laid the foundations of the world, so that it should not be moved forever,” (Psalm 104:5)
“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)
In 1616, 67 years after Copernicus’ book was originally published, the Catholic Church banned his work as heretical. They followed up with condemning Galileo as a heretic in 1633. The ban on Copernicus’s work remained in place for two centuries while the debate gradually shifted toward acceptance of heliocentrism by both scientists and theologians. It was finally removed in 1822, while Galileo was only pardoned in 1992.
Today most Christians, even very conservative ones, have no concerns about reading these verses as poetry and not scientific descriptions. We might even think it ludicrous that the church would be bothered about this topic. Yet even today there are groups (see Geocentricity.com or FixedEarth.com) who insist that Geocentrism must be the proper theory of astronomy by referencing these same verses.
Solid Biblical support against the Abolitionists
I trust we all find this horrifying today, but in the 1800’s both sides of the Abolition debate were supported by ministers and Scriptural claims. Here is an excerpt out of one of the debates.
In 1860 the Reverend Henry J. Van Dyke wrote and preached a sermon in the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn titled “The Character and Influence of Abolitionism”. In this widely reprinted and distributed sermon he roundly denounced Abolitionists as abandoning Scripture:
“...I am here to-night, in God’s name, and by His help, to show that this tree of abolitionism is evil, and only evil, root and branch, flower and leaf, and fruit; that it springs from, and is nourished by, an utter rejection of the Scriptures; that it produces no real benefit to the enslaved, and is the fruitful source of division, and strife, and infidelity, in both church and State. I have four distinct propositions on the subject to maintain — four theses to nail up and defend:
I. Abolitionism has no foundation in the Scriptures.
II. Its principles have been promulgated chiefly by misrepresentation and abuse.
III. It leads, in multitudes of cases, and by a logical process, to utter infidelity.
IV. It is the chief cause of the strife that agitates and the danger that threatens our country.”
— Reverend Henry Van Dyke (1860)
The Reverend Van Dyke goes on to cite Scriptures such asGenesis 17:23, 17:27, and Leviticus 25:44-46 (others include Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2). He speaks of Jesus’ silence on the subject of slavery in the gospels, when he would have been surrounded by Roman slavery. He refers to verses in the Epistles mentioned above which instruct good treatment of slaves and obedience to masters, but do not condemn slavery. He expresses his fears that the proponents of abolitionism are forcing the division of the nation in their fervor.
The last point above has some resonance in our debates today. Both James Dobson and Alan Keyes, prominent and politically-influential conservative Christians, argued that a summer 2015 Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage could bring us to a new civil war.
The Reverend J. R. W. Sloane published a review and refutation of Van Dyke’s sermon shortly after, which shows both that not all agreed with this anti-Abolitionist position but neither was it an isolated outlier in the debate at the time:
“Were the author of the discourse some obscure or eccentric individual, without position and without character, we might pass it by in silence, leaving it to the scorn of the Christian world, and the oblivion to which it must ultimately be consigned. When we consider, however, that he is a minister, said to be a man of intellect and of culture, pastor of a large and respectable congregation in a neighboring city, occupying an important and responsible position in a religious denomination which is one of the most powerful and influential in the country, the cause of truth and righteousness demands a different mode of treatment. We are to remember, also, that the principles which he advocates are those of the Old School Presbyterian Church, with which he is connected; that his sentiments, however abhorrent to all right Christian feeling, are thundered from hundreds of pulpits Sabbath after Sabbath by men who are the chosen moral and religious teachers of the people — men, too, by no means contemptible or to be despised.
It may be said that I do injustice, when I charge upon an ecclesiastical body the sentiments of a solitary individual connected with it. To this, I reply that the Rev. Mr. Van Dyke claims that these are the principles of his Church, and no one has ventured to deny the claim.”
— Reverend J. R. W. Sloane (1861)
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in America, have publicly described their stance against same-sex marriage with the words “We are on the wrong side of history, just like we started.” Yet they were formed in 1845 by a denominational split over slavery—choosing to separate so as to appoint slaveholders as ministers and missionaries against a ruling of the national Baptist Board. The official complaint listed in the formation Proceedingswas that slaveholders were not being treated as equals in the church by their Northern counterparts. Baptist theology in the region had undergone a dramatic pro-slavery shift after a few decades of strong church growth.
The first president of the South Carolina State Baptist Convention, the Rev. Richard Furman, wrote in 1823:
“...the sentiments in opposition to the holding of slaves have been attributed, by their advocates, to the Holy Scriptures, and to the genius of Christianity. These sentiments, the Convention...cannot think just, or well-founded: for the right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”
He described how the Law in the Tanakh regulated permanent and inheritable slave ownership of certain people based on their tribal origin (Leviticus 25:44-46). Paul’s letters to Timothy in the New Testament clearly instruct slaves to “regard their masters as worthy of all honor , so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed” (1 Timothy 6:1b).
Furman continued his argument in support of slavery by appealing to Divine Law and morality:
“Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church. ...they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties.
In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions.”
It was another 150 years before the denomination made an official statement of regret and apology for their historic support of slavery, racism, and segregation.
On this side of the debate, we can rejoice in knowing that there were many convicted, inspired white Christians like Anglican William Wilberforce, Presbyterian Charles Finny, and Quaker Benjamin Lay who worked hard to overturn slavery. We should not blame Christians or the Bible solely for the institution of slavery, or for the 450 years it existed in America based on an appeal to racial inferiority. However, it is important to recognize the responsibility that a widely accepted interpretation of the Bible had in giving support to the institution for many centuries.
Universal support for antiSemitism
Another tragic mis-interpretation of Scripture can be found in near-universal church support for antisemitism from the first century until after World War II. It's hard for many of us today to fathom that this was true because it's not something we have experienced in our lifetimes. Support from 2,000 years of tradition, church leaders, and specific verses in Scripture had Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches united against the Jews as a cursed race, to be completely replaced by the church in God’s plan.
Verses such as Matthew 8:12 and 18:31-33, John 8:43-47, and I Thessalonians 2:14-16 were read as God’s condemnation of the Jewish people as a whole. One of the strongest passages used was Matthew’s account of “the people as a whole”, the Jews, accepting full responsibility for Christ’s death on themselves and their children (interpreted as all descendants):
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”
Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
— Matthew 27:24-26
Many Christian leaders from the first centuries on taught that Scripture taught the condemnation of the Jew and Judaism:
“...they have committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the savior” and “The blood of Jesus falls not only on the Jews of that time, but on all generations of Jews up to the end of the world.”
— Origen (c.a. 200 CE)
“Judaism is a corruption. Indeed Judas is the image of the Jewish people. Their understanding of the Scriptures is carnal. They bear the guilt for the death of the saviour, for through their fathers they have killed the Christ.”
— St. Agustine (c.a. 400 CE)
“Jews are slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, enemies of God, haters of God, adversaries of grace, enemies of their fathers’ faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men of darkened minds, leaven of the Pharisees, congregation of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of goodness.”
— St. Gregory (c.a. 600 CE)
By the end of his life, Martin Luther had switched from a supporter of the Jews to a strong antisemitic. He wrote a book called "On the Jews and Their Lies" in which he urged for the destruction of homes and synagogues, forbidding religious teaching, confiscation of valuables (until they convert to Christianity), forced labor, and eviction from the country. He even wrote "...we are at fault in not slaying them..." at one point, which had an enormous impact 400 years later in the Lutheran churches of Germany.
Based on these teachings Adolf Hitler confidently proclaimed in Mein Kampf: “I believe that I am today acting according to the purposes of the Almighty Creator. In resisting the Jew, I am fighting the Lord’s battle.” In a speech addressing Polish Catholics he stated “I as a German Catholic, ask only what is permitted to Polish Catholics. To be antisemitic is not to be un-Catholic. The Church used every weapon against the Jews, even the Inquisition. Christ himself was a pioneer in the fight against Judaism.”
Dr. David Gushee, an evangelical Southern Baptist scholar specializing in Holocaust study and Christian Ethics, writes that during World War II some Jews seeking help from Christians were met with explanations of why they would not be helped, supported by passages in the Bible and from the writings of early church fathers. It took a willingness to look past church teachings and see people in need for help to be given.
Fortunately, the church felt forced to go back to those Scriptures after being confronted with the horror of the Holocaust. In 1965 the Catholic Church officially reversed their original teaching that all Jews were responsibility for Christ’s death. Within a short period most churches changed their interpretations of what had appeared to be very clear verses for nearly 2,000 years. Sadly, there are still some conservative churches in America who teach that the Jews are an eternally cursed race, and much of anti-semitism is still supported by an appeal to Scripture.
Can those who are divorced remarry and stay in the church?
Traditionally churches generally agreed that Scripture clearly taught (Mark 10:10-12) that all divorced people, regardless of fault or reason, were banned from remarriage (if divorce was even allowed). Since the person they had been married to was still living, it was considered to be a form of ongoing adultery, not just a one-time problem. This seems related to some of the current theological arguments about the difference between a single committed sin and living in ongoing sinful practices.
I read an article recently about how C.S. Lewis ran into this barrier, and successfully countered it in ways that might apply to this current topic. In 1957 the Church of England refused to marry C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman because she was divorced (her husband divorced her for leaving the country years after he abandoned the family for alcohol and affairs). One local parish priest decided to marry them anyway after the Bishop of Oxford turned them down. It wasn't until 2002, 45 years later, that the Church of England officially changed policies to allow remarriage under certain conditions.
Today churches interpret the Bible on this subject in different ways, as shown below (at least according to their doctrinal documents):
|Reformed Presbyterian Church||Evangelical Presbyterian Church||Presbyterian Church (USA)|
|Southern Baptist (SBC)||American Baptist Churches||United Methodists|
|Roman Catholic Church||Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod)||Lutheran Church (ELCA)|
|Church of England||Episcopal Church|
|Evangelical Free Church (EFCA)|
Why is there so much pain in the gay community?
We’ll now move on to the third section of this chapter, looking at the painful experiences of the LGBT community.
There is much which can be written and debated on this topic. What cannot be denied however is the extent of pain and damage being experienced among those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
Suicide, Depression and Abuse
It’s widely accepted that people in these groups suffer from depression, substance abuse, and suicide at higher rates than the average population. A number of studies have shown that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth have a four times greater rate of attempting suicide (up to 40% of the kids).
These rates increase dramatically when they face strong family rejection, doubling the suicide rate again to eight times normal. Even though the estimate of the gay population is roughly 5% of the country, gay youth make up 40% of the homeless youth population overall due to being kicked out of their homes.
22% of them don’t feel safe at school (compared to 7% of the non-gay population). 90% (vs 62%) are harrassed or assaulted each year. The “...higher prevalence of suicidal ideation and overall mental health problems...has been attributed to minority stress” according to an article on Wikipedia.
We can see ripple effects from the harshest conservative Christian advocates against homosexuality around the world. In 2009 three evangelical American Christian activists participated in a conference that advocated against homosexuality in Uganda, leading to a bill proposing a unilateral death penalty for all gay people regardless of practice. After modification to a sentence of life imprisonment, this was passed in 2014. Even though it is currently held up in the courts, the discussion led to increased violence against gay and lesbian people in the country. Jeffery Gettleman for the New York Times writes:
“Human rights advocates in Uganda say the visit by the three Americans helped set in motion what could be a very dangerous cycle. Gay Ugandans already describe a world of beatings, blackmail, death threats like ‘Die Sodomite!’ scrawled on their homes, constant harassment and even so-called correctional rape.”
Here's some more raw data I found from a Wikipedia page on suicide:
- LGBT youths who experience family rejection:
- 8X more likely to attempt suicide
- 6X more likely to have high levels of depression
- 3X more likely to use illegal drugs
- 3X more likely to be at high risk for HIV or other STDs
- "Numerous studies have shown that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have a higher rate of suicide attempts than do heterosexual youth."
- 30 and 40% have attempted suicide
- Four times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.
- "...higher prevalence of suicidal ideation and overall mental health problems...has been attributed to minority stress."
- Harassment at school:
- 3X more like to say they don't feel safe at school (22% vs 7%)
- 90% (vs 62%) have been harassed or assaulted each year.
According to The Trevor Project (sources listed there):
- LGBT youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide. CDC (2011)
- Suicide attempts are 4 to 6 times more likely to have serious results. CDC (2011)
- 50% of young transgender youth seriously consider suicide. 25% have attempted. Grossman, A.H. & D'Augelli, A.R. (2007)
- Family rejection results in 8 times more suicide attempts. Family Acceptance Project. (2009)
- 1 out of 6 high school students seriously considered suicide in the past year. CDC (2011)
- Every episode of harassment increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 250%. IMPACT (2010)
WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF THESE PROBLEMS?
There are two general ideas about why there are so many mental and physical problems amongst the LGBT population. The first is the view most evangelical churches hold. The second is offered as a possible alternative or supplement:
- Homosexuality is a sin and there are consequences?
The orthodox Christian view of homosexuality (orientation and/or practice, depending) is that it is a sin, and that those who live in sin face both temporal and eternal consequences. They see the solution being salvation from this sin through Jesus Christ, and a rejection of the sinful practices.
- The marginalization and abuse of gay people is causing the issues?
Another perspective is to wonder if the attitudes and actions of the surrounding culture is contributing to the problem. When conservative Christian organizations and individuals make very clear their belief that God rejects homosexuals and/or their experience of love, and this is reinforced by much of our culture, it seems reasonable that this could directly impact a person's sense of their self and how God's love applies (or not) to them.
If it there is even a small possibility of the second option having some responsibility for the problems, it seems that we should take this very seriously and take some extra effort to be sure that we're getting it right.
As a quick example before we move on, what if we were to consider the potential outcomes to a decision to suspend judgement and remain completely silent on this issue? Even if the traditional "non-affirming" argument is correct, then we would be leaving it to the Holy Spirit to convict our brothers and sisters as they grow in faith and maturity in Christ. The downside of continued vocal opposition being wrong may be considered far more damaging.
A short personal account
I found this relevant excerpt from a book by an evangelical scholar (Dr. David Gushee) talking about how he changed his mind:
"My beloved baby sister, Katey, a single mother and a Christian, who had been periodically hospitalized with depression and anxiety, including one suicide attempt, came out as a lesbian in 2008. Her testimony is that her depression was largely caused by her inability to even acknowledge her sexuality, let alone integrate it with her faith – and this was largely caused by the Christian teaching she had received. The fact that traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure is surely very relevant information for the LGBT debate."
Fragmentation and Rejection of the Church
We face two large crises in our churches today as well.
Fragmentation of Unity
Because this issue is often viewed as one that we cannot "agree to disagree" on, we are facing church and denomination splits constantly. The Episcopal church division in 2007 was one of the most high-profile, with more conservative congregations deciding that they could not remain in fellowship with colleagues they were officially free to disagree with. Many joined with Anglican congregations in Nigeria or other parts of Africa in an attempt to remain part of the Anglican union (although they are no longer officially recognized as such by the Archbishop of Canterbury, according to the rules that govern the Anglican Communion).
I am reminded of Jesus's words to his disciples, that we be known by our unity (not by how much we agree). It is sad to see how this core identity seems to be disappearing. If there is even a chance that we could remain in community together, shouldn't we seek that possibility?
Rejection of the church by the younger generation
As these social issues seem to becoming the main focus of the conservative Christian community in the United States, the younger generation appears to be repelled more and more by the representation of the Gospel that they are seeing. While we should not give up truth to be popular, what if we are wrong, and our witness is driving people away from the hope of Christ? What if the unpopular truth is for our own community, in a parallel with Christ's condemnation of the righteous Pharisees of our day?
- Non-Christians surveyed said:
- 16% have a "good impression" of Christianity.
- 3% expressed favorable views of evangelicals (vs 25% in older generations)
- Negative perceptions: judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%).
- 91% describe Christianity primarily as "anti-homosexual"
- Church-going Christians said:
- Half perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political.
- One-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.
- 80% believe Christianity can be described as "anti-homosexual"
- "One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a 'bigger sin' than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians."
"When young people were asked to identify their impressions of Christianity, one of the common themes was 'Christianity is changed from what it used to be' and 'Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.' These comments were the most frequent unprompted images that young people called to mind, mentioned by one-quarter of both young non-Christians (23%) and born again Christians (22%)."
Another survey shows that the abandonment of the church is increasing with the younger generations (who are also generally more supportive of gay marriage):
"Nearly half of Millennials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared to two-fifths of Gen-Xers (40%), one-third of Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of Elders (28%)."
Among those who no longer go to church,
"...almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were unable to identify a negative impact. Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22%), bolstering morals and values (10%) and helping people believe in God (8%). Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18%), the church's stand against gay marriage (15%), sexual abuse scandals (13%) and involvement in politics (10%)."
What if we are incorrect on our judgement against homosexuality, and this is causing direct harm to our representation of Christ in our world? Again, shouldn't we take the time to prayerfully consider our position very carefully given the negative effects to the perception of church in our society?
Nothing in this section should suggest that we change our minds on the topic! However, I hope that it is clear how there may be a possibility of changing our minds, and how important it is to be sure that we are correct if we are going to continue wholesale rejection of homosexuality. There is much at stake for our churches, our communities, and for all people created in the image of God in our country and around the world.
If you're willing to continue this journey into what our Bible has to say on the subject, I hope you'll join me in an earnest exploration of six key passages in the following sections.