Dealing With Controversy Biblically
This afternoon the film, In God’s House, will be shown, followed by a panel discussion of distinguished guests. The film shows the struggle that Asian gays and lesbians have in the church.
A United Methodist woman pastor in Pennsylvania announced to her congregation that she was lesbian and that she had a partner. Charges were brought against her and the Conference withdrew her orders. However, her church hired her to continue ministry as a layperson.
In Texas a United Methodist pastor denied church membership to a gay man. Charges were brought against the pastor, but the Judicial Council (the Supreme Court of our denomination) decided in the pastor’s favor, saying he did not violate church law.
Homosexuality is a controversy that is dividing the United Methodist Church. How do we deal with controversy biblically? In particular, homosexuality. Behind the conflict over the rights and status of homosexual persons is an ancient and deep-seated disagreement about the role of the Bible in our faith and practice, and the interpretation of the Bible. What is the authority of the Bible? How do we understand and apply the Bible to us today?
I join with those United Methodists who subscribe to the historic, Wesleyan traditional belief in the authority of the Bible. 2 Timothy 2:16, “All scripture is inspired by God.”
Therefore, because the Bible has authority over us, what about troublesome passages like:
Leviticus 11:2-8 forbids the eating of rabbits and pigs.
Leviticus 12 forbids a woman who has given birth to a son from going to church for 33 days, because she is impure. If she gives birth to a girl, she is impure for 66 days!
Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”
Deuteronomy 12:18, 21, “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother…Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.”
Leviticus 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”
1 Corinthians 11:5, “Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head.“
Psalm 15:1,5, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?… Those who do not lend money at interest.” (Where would America’s economy be if we took that seriously?)
Do you know anyone who obeys all these passages? It is obvious that all Christians use some method by which we decide which verses and passages have more authority than others. Let’s look at some methods of biblical interpretation.
1) “Pick and Choose” is the most popular form of biblical interpretation. Pick out the passages with which we agree and discard the rest. This method assumes the Bible has no inherent authority. Whatever agrees with our biases, prejudices, and what we want to do, is chosen, the rest discarded. Whatever one agrees with has more authority than the Bible. Those of us who believe in the authority of the Bible must reject the Pick and Choose method.
2) The “All or Nothing” method assumes that every word is literally written by God and every word is authoritative. If some passages are questioned, then the entire Bible is in question, they say. Such believers, however, are rarely consistent. Do the women wear head coverings? Do they throw stones at their misbehaving children? Do they lend money at interest? We must reject the All or Nothing method as unworkable, and not even followed by its own adherents.
3) The “Filter” or historical method. God did not write the words of the Bible. God inspired human beings to write down what God inspired them to write, but God did not suspend the humanness of each author. The Bible is the Word of God communicated through the experience, language and culture of humans. In other words, what they wrote comes through the filter of the cultural and religious customs of their day. In order to understand the author’s filter, we must ask questions of each passage and book: When was it written? Who wrote it? What was going on at the time? Why was it written? To what situation and to whom was it written?
The Bible covers a period of about 2,000 years--from Abraham through the early church. There are different cultures reflected in the Bible, from the nomadic Hebrews to the sophisticated Greek culture of the Roman Empire. There are many filters to work through. Many of the troublesome passages can be attributed to cultural filters, and therefore do not have authority over us.
4) The “People First” method. When deciding what is authoritative and what is not, what criteria do we use? Our own ideas, our own cultural bias, modern science? I believe I have come to a conclusion, which I hope will be helpful for the church. As Christians who follow Jesus as Lord, who recognize Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of our faith, we attempt to understand and look through Jesus’ filter. Jesus Christ is our ultimate authority, and Jesus put PEOPLE FIRST.
Jesus reinterpreted Scripture, and even changed Scripture. He was not bound by the traditional interpretations. Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ (Jesus is quoting Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20) But I say to you," Do not resist an evildoer.” There are those in our day who still quote Leviticus, and ignore how Jesus changed the old Leviticus law. Another example is Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies.”
Also, Jesus defied the legalists and their literal, strict interpretations of Scripture. Jesus flagrantly disobeyed laws and violated tradition, much to the consternation of the legalistic Pharisees. The criterion Jesus used was that he put people first. The needs, hurts and pain of people were more important than laws. When his disciples were hungry and picked grain on the Sabbath, violating strict Sabbath laws, the Pharisees were livid. Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:26) Do you hear the principle, how Jesus interpreted Scripture? People are first.
When Jesus healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were again livid and immediately conspired against Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) People first! Saving life is more important than observing the Sabbath.
When the Pharisees questioned him about divorce, Jesus changed Scripture. He overruled Moses! The Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 24:1) allowed a husband to divorce his wife simply by giving her a certificate saying they were divorced. Jesus opposed this easy divorce law (of course, the wife did not have the same freedom), and declared, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:9)
When a woman was caught in the act of adultery, the Law of Moses commanded that she be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10) Jesus undermined the authority of the law by turning it back on the accusers. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
In the current controversy over homosexuality, there are many United Methodists who are quite passionate about the few Bible verses that condemn homosexual behavior. They are also quite passionate about our denomination’s position, which accepts homosexuals as “individuals of sacred worth” but condemns “the practice of homosexuality.” I don’t understand the distinction. It’s as if we accept tennis players, but they are forbidden from playing tennis. Or, we accept swimmers, but they are not allowed to swim. We accept homosexuals, but they can’t act like one!
Also, the official position of our denomination--“fidelity in marriage, and celibacy in singleness”-- is cruel. No sex outside marriage sounds right, but our denomination does not allow “holy unions” so gays are forever single by definition, and therefore are commanded to be celibate. In 1943, Esther Oda of our congregation, left the Internment Camp in Washington, and went to Mississippi to marry her fiancé who was a soldier in the U.S. Army. They asked the Army chaplain to marry them. He refused to marry them because they were Japanese! Imagine. Isn’t it equally tragic for the United Methodist Church to prohibit gays from forming holy unions and thereby forcing them into singleness and celibacy? It’s easy for married heterosexuals to condemn gays to celibacy. Easy and cruel.
United Methodist legalists are quite passionate about their beliefs, but are either ignorant of or do not care how their beliefs affect people, how homosexuals are hurt by the church laws. We are not putting people first.
Jesus was impatient with the legalists of his day.
Jesus cared about the man with the withered hand, and healed him, even though it meant violating the Sabbath laws.
Jesus cared more about the need of his disciples to eat than he cared about the Sabbath law.
Jesus cared more about the rights of women who could be divorced easily, than he cared about the sanctity of the holy Mosaic scriptural law!
There is no record that Jesus ever said anything about homosexuality.
And, I believe, Jesus cares more about gays and lesbians than he cares about the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church!
Jesus put people first.
Love God, love neighbor is our church’s mission statement. I’ve been explaining that these commandments are summaries of the Ten Commandments. Last Sunday I summarized the first four commandments: Let God Be God. The last six commandments can be summarized: Love neighbor by putting people first. If we truly put people first, there would be no stealing, no murder, no adultery, no coveting, etc. Put people first.
I suggest to you that, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the criterion by which we decide what in the Bible is authoritative for us, and what in the United Methodist Book of Discipline is authoritative for us, is that we, following Jesus, put people first.
We’re not just talking about laws, principles, Biblical interpretation, we’re talking about people—real, live human beings who hurt, who suffer, who struggle with their lives, trying to fit in, trying to belong, doing the best they can, wondering why they are the way they are, agonizing why God made them that way.
We’re not just talking about people in the news or demonstrating on the street, we’re talking about people we know, people in our families (most families have a gay person somewhere). We’re talking about people in our church—people who have been raised in this church. People, I believe, Jesus puts first.
© 2007 Douglas I. Norris