Sunday, September 7, 2008

Conforming or Transforming, Part 2

The first leap, I suspect, begins with Jesus’ summary of the Law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Since we are talking about harming another human, and Jesus seems to consider all humans neighbors, I am guessing that those who believe that homosex behavior is blessed by God would argue that the second part of the summary is fulfilled by homosex behavior. If homosex behavior does no harm to another human and in fact does good, (providing close, loving, lifelong companionship in a sexual relationship as does heterosexual marriage), then homosex behavior in a consensual, lifelong relationship could be considered loving one’s neighbor.

This passage, of course, is a bit far afield from the various passages that most believe speak of homosex behavior in one form or another. But it does have the advantage of using Jesus’ summary of the Law. If all God’s commands can be reduced to loving God and neighbor, and homosex behavior does no harm to neighbor, in fact loves neighbor, then one could argue that homosex behavior is blessed by God.

There are a couple problems with this argument. The first is Paul’s writings and for that matter some of Jesus’ sayings. The New Testament makes commandments concerning several activities stronger, that is more restrictive than the Torah. The Torah forbids adultery. Jesus forbids thinking about having sex with someone else’s wife. If we accept that Paul in Romans and 1st Corinthians says that homosex behavior is wrong (and as I said in my first post I am more than willing to have the discussion/debate on what Paul intended to say), then, if we believe Scripture is inspired we have to say that homosex behavior does not show love for God or neighbor.

Here we reach a significant issue in the debate. Should we say that the words of Jesus (or the lack of them) trump the words of Paul? This depends on how one thinks the Bible was written. If we believe that the Gospels were edited by people who sought to apply the good news of Jesus and his teachings and actions to the needs of their particular communities then we have to say we simply don’t know if Jesus ever said anything about homosex behavior or not. We can say that if he did the editors of the Gospels, (if they knew of a saying by Jesus on the subject), did not think it necessary to record it. Arguments from silence are inherently dangerous.

A second issue is whether the Gospels are somehow more inspired than the letters of Paul. I think not.

More important is the question of whether sexuality is a significant theme in the Bible, or more particularly in the way Christians use the Bible. To put it another way: what is the central saving theme of the Bible? Most Christians would say the central saving theme is the good news of salvation that begins with the call to Abraham and Sarah and finds its completion in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Sexuality is not a central theme in the Bible. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. It is, in fact, attached to the central theme by the simple fact that some sexual behavior is sinful and must be repented of and forgiven.

To finish on the question of whether one can argue from the Bible that homosex behavior is blessed by God I think that the general Law, loving God and others, is further defined by specific commands or statements such as Paul saying that homosex behavior is wrong.

Just in case anyone is wondering I think all the other behaviors listed by Paul in 1st Cor. 6:10-11 are also sinful.

So we move to the second question concerning science. I think in the PCUSA there is pretty close to general agreement that the writers of the Bible spoke out of the worldview of their days. When inspiring the Biblical writers God didn’t tell them to correct the scientific misconceptions of their days. There was no firmament but God didn’t tell the writers that because debate over whether there was a firmament or not was not the point in the writings of the Old Testament. Genesis 1 is a radical statement that the gods of the Babylonian oppressors were not really gods at all but were simply things that God had made. Correcting the science would have confused everyone.

So we can and should think that the universe is not shaped the way people of Abraham’s or Jesus’ day thought it was. Neither should we think that the intestines are the seat of feelings as suggested in Greek words used for feelings. Feelings, that is, emotions, come from brain chemistry, not where we may feel the feelings.

So does modern science, by showing that homosexual desires are extremely difficult to change, (no matter what their cause), suggest that science should overrule Scripture on this particular issue? If we assume that modern scientists know more than the ancients about homosexual desire should those findings determine how we think about homosex behavior as Christians?

The first, as I noted earlier, is that some ancients believed in a kind of sexual orientation for both homosexuals and heterosexuals. They didn’t have scientific proof that sexual orientation is extremely difficult to change, as far as I know, because they weren’t doing surveys.

The key question is this: did the Biblical writers know and believe that sexual orientation existed? And the answer is: we don’t know. The closest we come to an answer is in Romans 1 and it is difficult to draw such a conclusion from that passage. When it says that God gave them up to unnatural passions does that mean that their passions were fixed as in orientation or not? In this case I think we have to say that the Bible doesn’t say.

It seems to me that the question is backward. Christians should use the Bible to decide whether the product of modern science should be used or not. I’m writing this on a computer. Are computers good? I think that depends on what one does with the computer. But are chemical or nuclear weapons good? I think we can safely say that the Bible, while it doesn’t mention them, has themes that argue against the use of weapons of mass destruction.

So does the current level of study on the subject of homosexual orientation tell us something that would suggest that homosex behavior can be a good? If we use the Bible to examine the science we have to say, first, that the Bible clearly sees sexual feelings as strong motivators for both good and bad behavior. Acting on sexual feelings is not always good. Certainly David acting on his desire for Bathsheba was not good. David’s orientation, at least in this case, was heterosexual but his acting on his orientation was wrong in this case.

So should we apply the same standard for acting upon homosexual orientation? If one’s sexual orientation is either fixed or extremely difficult to change should we apply the rules for heterosex behavior to homosex behavior?

This, I think is the strongest argument of those who say that homosex behavior can be good. In my mind, however, it does not overrule the Bible. Until it can be shown that the ancients did not believe that sexual orientation in some was fixed one cannot argue that modern science overrules the Bible. If we have to argue from silence I’m going stand with the Bible.

An argument either way is an argument from silence. To say that Paul didn’t know about homosexual orientation is an argument from silence just as is the argument that he did. Therefore, as a Christian, I think the Biblical position must rule.

Homosex behavior conforms to this world. One may not be transformed to a heterosexual orientation but one can choose one’s behavior.

One last comment. It is frequently said that we should not discriminate against a whole class of people, namely those whose sexual orientation is homosexual. It seems to me that this argument stands on shaky ground. There are many who are single who desire to be married yet who never marry. Should we then say that they, as a group, are discriminated against because the Church believes heterosex behavior should only happen within marriage? There are also those who were married but are no longer married either because of the death of a spouse or divorce. These people do not always have the opportunity to remarry. The argument for homosex behavior it seems to me is equivalent to an argument that single people who do not have an opportunity to marry should be able to act on their sexual desires with others. I think neither argument can be sustained.

Be transformed. Being transformed doesn’t always mean our desire to sin goes away. It does mean that we need to repent and with the help of the Holy Spirit change our behavior.

Pastor Bob

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Conforming or Transforming

I'm a bit behind in the lectionary because I took some vacation time, (see previous posts). Anyway, I wanted to preach on Romans 12:1-8. But the core of this blog is going to be about conforming and transforming.

Jack Rogers, beloved brother in Christ, friend and mentor, says that we Reformed types are like those who clean out desk and dresser drawers by pulling out the drawer, dumping out the contents, putting only the necessary stuff back in the drawer and trashing the rest. I think he's right. Further whether he intended to do so or not I think he has properly interpreted verse 2 of this passage, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." (NIV) Christians are to be about transforming not conforming.

Now we Reformed types make a big deal out of trying to transform the world. And don't get me wrong God intends this as part of our task. I get worried sometimes, however, that we seem to have lost the central individual and communal task described in this verse: the transformation of the individual Christian and (although not stated here) the Christian community as well.

This is curious because careful examination of self in comparison with the Bible on the one hand and the world out there on the other hand was long a central task of us Reformed types. Of course we can't claim this as our own. Roman Catholics, Methodists and lots of other kinds of Christians used to do this very effectively as well.

The task is on the one hand very simple and on the other very difficult. One studies the Bible (both individually and with others) to find out how we humans are supposed to behave. Then we take a look out there at the world we live in and make a comparison: Scripture and world. The implication here is that Scripture is right and the world is wrong unless it conforms to the Scripture. And we compare our own reading of the Scripture with that of others, (and we also use all the proper tools available to get the real meaning of the Scripture), so that we are as sure as we possibly can be that we have really learned what the Scripture says. Oh, and it doesn't hurt to compare what we learn from Scripture in our captivity to our culture mindset (culture helps determine how we read the text) to the writings of Christians in the past and Christians from other cultures. White Americans, (more than 90% of the membership of the PCUSA) don't know everything about the Bible.

That's the easy part. The hard part is the transforming. We can't do it by ourselves. We need the strength of the Holy Spirit and help from other Christians as well. It helps if we all have a few sisters and brothers who know all about our lives, keep their big mouths shut, and listen to us as we describe what's changing and what isn't in our lives.

That's the task. But the problem I see in the Christian world today, and it isn't just in the PCUSA but in every Christian group I see in America is that we are more interested in conforming than transforming. Well, that's not true of the Amish.

What concerns me today in the PCUSA is that too often we actually make up our minds on the basis of what the culture says and does and not on what the Scripture says. An example: our ongoing debate in the PCUSA about homosex behavior and the origins of homosex desires.

A bit of truth telling first: I think that homosex behavior is wrong. I also claim ignorance of the origin or homosex desires.

For the Christian the proper method to decide about any issue is to look to the Biblical text to determine what our viewpoint should be on any issue including this one. So I am all for debates about the meaning of the various passages that definitely do or may refer to homosex behavior and/or desires. And my idea of the proper method of determining that meaning is this:

1. Translate the text. Translators over the years have made decisions about the meaning of words and sentences. If one has the skills to define the words and then place them in the grammatical context use them!

2. Check the context around the passages. Do the sentences before and after the text under examination say anything about the meaning of the text in question?

3. Try to figure out the author's and/or editor's intention by reading the text not only in the immediate context but also in the context of the whole particular book of the Bible.

4. Take a look at the text in the context of the whole Bible. Are there other passages that tell us something about the meaning of the text? Is there a theme, major or minor, into which the particular text falls?

5. Then and only then should we look at the current culture and decide how to apply the text in today's culture.

Now to experienced exegetes this is not news. This is what we are supposed to do. I happen to think, after using this method to study the passages that clearly refer to homsex behavior that the Bible says that homosex behavior is wrong. I also happen to think that there is a theme that stretches from Genesis to Revelation that suggests homosex desires are not God's intention.

Thus as I apply the Biblical text in today's culture I think that homosex behavior conforms to this world and, if one is transformed by the renewing of one's mind one cannot call homosex behavior good.

I am more than willing to have a discussion/debate about the Biblical message about any subject including homosex behavior and desire using this method. What concerns me as I watch the debate and participate in the debate these days in the PCUSA is that some of my colleagues in the PCUSA seem to use a different method to decide whether homosex behavior and desire is blessed by God or not.

Two particular methods concern me. And let me put in a caveat here: I may be not be hearing people correctly. Unfortunately as we have these debates we use the 2 minute method. This means that in governing bodies of the PCUSA we give a speaker 2 minutes to make a statement on the issue. But in discussion with colleagues as we do the hard word of exegesis I hear one method that I am sure is wrong and another that may be wrong.

The method that I am sure is wrong is to start from this world, in other words to use natural theology. One can see this method at work on both sides of the debate. Among those who agree with my conclusions I hear sometimes that the penis is meant to fit in the vagina and therefore that God intends humans to only participate in heterosexual sex, (and not heterosexual oral sex either). Now if one comes to this conclusion by beginning with the Biblical text I have no problem. In fact I think some of the texts may point in this direction. Yes, the writers of the Bible sometimes point to the natural world and say this is what God intends. But the Biblical text is the revealed word of God. If God wants to inspire Biblical writers to use nature as basis for saying that a particular act is right or wrong, that's God's business, not mine. I am concerned with people who start with the natural world and then move to the Bible. So if someone tells me that homosex behavior is wrong because the penis is made to fit in the vagina I'm going to ask that person to show me where s/he finds that in the Bible.

Those who disagree with me may actually go through the hard work of exegesis or not but then say that God has created some with homosexual desires. I would ask where they find that in the Biblical text. What I often hear is that

1. Some have homosexual desires and as far as they can tell they have had those desires as long as they can remember.

2. Science says that those who have homosexual desires have those desires for genetic reasons or for reasons that result from chemical or other reasons in the womb.

3. Therefore God intends people who have homosexual desires to have those desires and those desires are good and should be acted upon in a way that gives God glory. (most who use this argument say that homosex behavior should be acted out between 2 people who have these desires as a lifelong experience and those two people should make a lifelong commitment. A very few argue that homosex desires and subculture are different from heterosexual desires and subculture so therefore should not be limited to God's intention for heterosexuals.)

There is a further part of this argument but I'll get to that in a bit.

If one begins from experience rather than the Scriptures I suggest that one has moved outside of the Reformed method of determining what behavior is right and what behavior is wrong. In fact even the Methodists who use a quadrilateral, (Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition), say you have to start from Scripture. So if one begins from experience I have to say we are not going to have a fruitful discussion because we are going to talk past each other. I am more than willing to have a discussion about why I think we have to start from Scripture with those who think we can start from experience but if we come to the conclusion that we disagree about the proper starting place I have to say, (and this is harsh), that the one who says we can start from experience argues from outside the Reformed tradition. I would even go so far as to say that that person argues from outside the Christian tradition.

So, with Karl Barth, I have to say "Nein!" And with Martin Luther I have to say, "
Wir haben einen anderen Geist!" Karl Barth says, "No!" And Luther says, "We have a different Spirit!" (I had to go to Google translator to get Luther's spelling right.) :)

However if someone goes through all the Biblical passages and themes and disagrees with me about the translation of the passages or the meaning of the passage for today, we can talk. Here is that other part I mentioned.

Some argue that the Biblical writers didn't know that it in nigh unto impossible for one to change one's sexual orientation. I will agree with this. There are a limited number who can move from exclusive homosexual orientation to a bisexual orientation and an even smaller number who can move from an exclusive homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation. Most can only change their behavior. So the questions at hand are as follows:

1. Did the Biblical writers or at least some of the Biblical writers who write about homosexual behavior know that some humans are exclusively homosexual in their orientation and highly unlikely to change?

2. Has modern science shown that homosexual orientation is genetic or congenital in its origin or are there other possible reasons?

As to the second question as I have read the scientific studies the writers have said basically that there are some indications that point to some possible causes for sexual orientation but that there is no conclusive proof as to how one comes to one sexual orientation or another. There is some evidence that a limited number may be able to change their orientation but that evidence needs further study.

As to the first question there is some evidence that some in the 1st century AD believed that homosexual orientation might be fixed. There is no proof that the Biblical writers (Paul in this case) knew of such belief.

If indeed the Biblical writers did not know that sexual orientation is, at the very least, very very difficult to change, can one make the leap to say that homosexual orientation is a gift from God? I think not.

There are two assumptions in this leap. The first is important indeed vital to the leap.

1. No one gets hurt if two people who have a fixed homosexual orientation make a lifelong commitment and only have sex with each other.

2. Modern science may overrule Scriptural commands.

And since this is getting way too long I'm going to leave ya'll hanging and write more later.

Pastor Bob

Monday, September 1, 2008

Back to Work!

No great theological thoughts this time. Just a health update.

I'm out of the deep pain stage and into the aching stage. So tomorrow I'm headed back to the office, with a pillow. Gotta write a sermon for next Sunday and find out who is in the hospital. Suddenly I have a great deal more empathy for those in the hospital.

For all those of you who have kept me in prayer, my thanks.

Pastor Bob