The Church and Homosexuality – The Ultimate Issue
|By: T. M. Moore; ©2003|
|Many Christians are wondering how the Anglican Church could have appointed an openly gay bishop. T. M. Moore suggests that one major reason may be the current trend to interpret the Bible based upon our own agenda, while ignoring or denying any interpretation that contradicts or condemns us.|
The late Francis Schaeffer was once asked why so many Christians seemed to have so little sense of the reality of the Christian faith. Why is it, the inquirer wanted to know, that all our soaring beliefs and lofty professions produce so little in the way of a real, vital experience of faith, one that truly changes the world for Christ? Schaeffer replied by saying that the greatest reason for a lack of reality in the life of faith “is that, while we say we believe one thing, we allow the spirit of the naturalism of the age to creep into our thinking, unrecognized.”
In many ways contemporary Christians are taking their cues more from the spiritus mundi * than the Spirit of God. One area in which this is especially apparent is in the field of Biblical interpretation; and one way this is dramatically visible is in the question of the place of homosexuals and homosexuality in the Church.
The debate over the Anglican Church’s appointment of Rev. Gene Robinson as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, while it has focused on the issue of homosexuality and contemporary Christian belief (as well as Rev. Robinson’s personal qualifications), has managed to obscure the larger issue of how Christians interpret and make use of the Bible in their practice of faith. Is the Bible God’s Word, final and authoritative on all matters on which it speaks? Or is it simply a kind of divine sourcebook, which we are free to use in our particular cultural contexts as we struggle to make our way in life? Shall we take the Scriptures at face value, on everything about which they clearly speak? Or are we free to re-mold and re-cast them according to our peculiar interests and needs, and the changing temper of the times?
This is not a question of whether Scripture is literally true. Conservative interpreters fall into the trap of their more process-and-personal-oriented adversaries when they insist on the absolute literalness of the Bible at every point, for certain parts of the Bible are simply not literally true. When Jesus, for example, described Himself as “the vine,” He did not mean that literally. He was speaking figuratively, as any responsible interpreter knows. However, what He intended by that figure of the vine is literally true, namely, that He sustains and nourishes us, and that only by His life coursing through us can we bear fruit. There’s not much room for variance of opinion among Biblical interpreters here—at least there hasn’t been for nearly 2,000 years.
The problem comes in when, because some interpreters are unwilling to take a position of the literal truth of Scripture, they fall off the other way into a purely process-and- personal view of how to interpret the Bible. In such a position, what matters is not so much the literal and final truth that lies behind the teaching of Scripture, in whatever form or literary genre that teaching appears, but the means by which we approach the understanding of Scripture and the degree of personal satisfaction we find in our interpretation. A “process-and-personal” approach to understanding Scripture seeks to be inclusive of all considered opinions and to make room for all parties to find something meaningful in every text of Scripture, something they can take away and be satisfied with, and that others in the process are required to acknowledge as legitimate, if only for them.
This, for example, is the approach to Biblical interpretation that characterizes many adult Bible studies among evangelical Christians. The process is open and tolerant: Everyone brings his or her Bible, they all have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion, and everyone is expected to respect everybody else’s view, if only out of common courtesy. The main point of the study is that every participant should find something personally meaningful. Hence, the moderator, having read the text, may go around the group and ask, “Well, then, Sally (or John or whomever), what does this passage say to you?” Each person responds while all the others smile and nod politely, until the whole group has weighed in and we can go on to the next verse. At the end of the night much interesting discussion has been enjoyed, many opinions have been shared, everybody feels good about himself or herself, and all go away satisfied. And, if the evidence of nearly two generations of doing this is any indicator, all go away unchanged.
The problem in such a process-and-personal approach to understanding Scripture is that the truth God encoded in His Word gets lost in the attempt to involve everybody in the discussion and to encourage them to find something they can feel good about before the night is done. If everyone’s view of the Bible—of God’s truth—is equally valid and significant, even if only personally, then no one’s view represents unchanging truth, and truth itself is compromised and obscured.
I’m reminded of the scene in Spartacus in which, following the defeat of the slave rebellion, the Roman general rides up to the hundreds of captives and asks, “Which of you is Spartacus?” Before Kirk Douglas can stand up and surrender, Tony Curtis jumps to his feet and says, “I’m Spartacus.” Then another one jumps up: “I’m Spartacus.” And so on, until the whole grimy horde is standing and shouting at the top of their lungs, “I’m Spartacus,” in which case it was impossible to sort out the one true Spartacus from all the others.
Now Rev. Robinson and his supporters clearly take a “process-and-personal” approach to understanding the Bible. While the Bishop admits, “Ultimately, of course, Jesus Christ challenges us to take Him at His word”, he demonstrates in his own approach to the Bible that this is not at all what he does (all quotes from materials the web page of the Diocese of New Hampshire, 6/7/03). The Bishop is clearly more interested in process and personal satisfaction in wrestling with the Bible than with discovering what it really has to say about any issue. He has allowed the spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness, the spirit of tentative conclusions characteristic of our postmodern age, to subvert his overt profession of taking Jesus at His Word. His deference to the spirit of the age means that he cannot see the plain teaching of the Spirit of God.
In response to the question, “Can we live together while we fight?” the Bishop replied, “faithful Episcopalians will continue to disagree on whether abortion is a moral choice, whether dioceses should be forced to open their ordination processes to women, or whether faithful gay and lesbian relationships should be celebrated and not just tolerated. The particular answer to any of these questions is less important to me than how we as a Church deliberate about them. Are we prayerful about them, listening for God’s voice instead of our own egos? Do we truly value the people who hold an opposing view, while disagreeing with their position? And most of all, can we continue to come to the communion rail, humbly receive the Body and Blood of Christ, respecting the dignity of those who disagree with us? I believe we can. And must” (emphasis added).
Here the Bishop demonstrates that the only truth that finally matters is not the literal truth encoded in God’s Word, as the final authority on all matters of faith and practice, but the process of getting at whatever truth individuals might conclude, and the duty of all to allow them to hold their view, however disagreeable it may be. “I’m Spartacus…I’m Spartacus…”
In a sermon on the parable of the wheat and the tares Rev. Robinson clearly demonstrates the homiletical implications of this approach to the Word of God. For centuries interpreters have understood this parable as setting forth the truth that there are ultimately only two families of people on earth, those deriving from the Word of God’s grace and those who serve the purposes of the devil—the interpretation, by the way, which Jesus Himself gave to this parable. Rev. Robinson, on the other hand, embracing a process-and-personal approach to the text, obscures the meaning Jesus Himself taught for the sake of vaunting his own views about arrogance and judging others. In the process of his sermon he lumps both the weeds and wheat together into the Body of Christ: “Don’t be so sure you KNOW who are the weeds and who are the wheat. Don’t presume to know what is right. Say what you believe. Talk, discuss, fight even. But don’t claim to KNOW what God wants. Learn to exist together as the Body of Christ.” To do otherwise would be arrogant, you see.
In fact, Rev. Robinson counsels his hearers to see themselves as both weeds and wheat and to “avoid arrogating to ourselves the knowledge of good and evil.” Let’s just all “instead embrace humility and the miracle that ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’” Both the weeds and the wheat. So who are you to judge others who are just as much wheat and weed as you?
Now the point of all this technical rambling is simply this: The Bible is clear on the matter of homosexuality. That is, its plain language and simple words cannot be mistaken: Homosexual practice is an abomination to God (cf. Rom. 1:24-32; 1 Cor. 6.9), and failure to restrain one’s homosexual impulses debars one from admission to the Kingdom of God.
But this plain and, yes, literal teaching of Scripture flies in the face of the spiritus mundi. Therefore, those who are caught up in “the spirit of the naturalism of the age” and who deny the literal teaching of Scripture for a process-and-personal approach to understanding its words, will find a way to take what Scripture clearly says and turn it to the support of whatever position or view or practice brings them personal satisfaction. It happens all the time, and Rev. Robinson and “liberals” are not the only ones guilty of such self-deception and trashing of truth.
So what’s the lesson? First, let all who profess the evangelical faith determine that they will allow the Bible to speak for itself, following the centuries-old traditions and practices of interpretation which have guided the Church in all her expressions, and that they will seek not simply for a smooth and inclusive process or a universal sense of personal satisfaction in relation to the teaching of Scripture, but for the eternal, unchanging truth God has encoded in His Word. On this point, many evangelical Christians need some refreshing of their approach to understanding the Bible. Let us not be found saying one thing about the Bible and letting the spirit of our self-indulgent, pluralistic age lead us to do something altogether different.
Second, let us pray for Rev. Robinson and others whose view of truth is that it only consists in the process and in personal satisfaction. If no one is Spartacus then we have no leader, so what has all this fighting and dying been about? If there is no truth, no eternal unchanging truth that we can know and proclaim and defend, then why does it matter at all if a homosexual is made a bishop, or if anyone becomes a Christian, or even if society comes to accept the idea that homosexuals should be both Christians and bishops? In fact, it does not. Which is precisely the message that Bishop Robinson and all those who hold his view of how to interpret the Bible are sending to the truth-starved generation of which we are a part. Pray that Rev. Robinson will come to see the clear truth of the Bible, and that he will experience the Spirit of God changing his heart and practice, so that he will not cling to what gives him merely personal satisfaction, though it be clearly contrary to the plain words of Scripture, but will know the eternal satisfaction God gives through obedience to His Word, plainly declared and understood.
The plain teaching of Scripture requires it of us.
T. M. Moore is a Fellow of the Wilberforce Forum and Pastor of Teaching Ministries at Cedar Springs Church in Knoxville, TN. His latest books are A Mighty Fortress (Christian Focus, 2003) and Redeeming Pop Culture (P & R, 2003). He is the editor of the series, Jonathan Edwards for Today’s Reader, and of the first volume in that series, Growing in God’s Spirit (P & R, 2003). He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Concord, TN.