Well, we’re all anxiously awaiting word from the Supreme Court about same sex marriage. Most likely before the end of the month. And general consensus from both sides seems to anticipate a ruling favorable to the prospects of LGBTQ people who want nothing more than to enjoy the same rights and benefits as everyone else, specifically the same rights and benefits associated with being recognized as legally married.
It’s going to happen. If not now, then soon. (But probably now.)
But the changing understanding of marriage presents some significant obstacles to people who believe that the Bible must be read as a timeless blueprint for personal, social, and ecclesial relationships. That is to say, many people who’ve grown up believing one thing about LGBTQ people are now facing mounting pressure to reexamine their interpretive strategies when it comes to the Bible. More and more, everyday folks are having to figure out how to reconcile the problem of living in a culture that increasingly views same sex marriage as no big deal with a particular kind of Biblical interpretation that does.
So, I thought I might provide a quick and dirty guide to how such a reconciliation might be accomplished.
In being publicly supportive of justice for LGBTQ people and the kinds of relationships they desire to have affirmed, I’ve gotten a common reaction from some quarters. In many cases it’s simply dismissive: “Hey jerk! Why don’t you quit playing at being a Christian and just admit you hate God and the Bible?”
In other cases, the reaction is much nicer sounding, but the underlying implication remains—the implication that I’ve had to engage in some grand hermeneutical sleight-of-hand to be able simultaneously to love Jesus and gay people as they are: “You were such a nice boy! What's happened to you? Where did you lose your way?”
I understand why people are sometimes skeptical about how Christianity can find a rapprochement with LGBTQ folks, since the Bible does seem to speak directly to this issue. However, it is not a hermeneutical dodge on the part of progressive Christians to suggest that they believe the Bible was initially addressed to a different time and different culture, one that couldn’t have foreseen, for instance, a time when slavery would be outlawed or when women could work as supervisors over men.
Why would we expect a compilation of texts that allowed for the possibility of polygamy, capital punishment by rock-throwing, and the owning of other human beings to be able to speak without nuance or qualification about the ethics of modern relationship possibilities?
“Because it’s inspired by God. That’s why.”
But I’m not saying it wasn’t inspired by God. However, I don’t think that inspired by God means dictated by God. If that were the case, I’d have to be constantly making excuses for a God who was cool with:
- the rape of a virgin as an offense that requires nothing more than making an honest woman out of her—if you get caught (Deut. 22:28-29)
- killing the children of one’s enemies (1 Sam. 15:3; Psalm 137:9)
- requiring veils for women (1 Cor. 11:5) and the prohibition of braids or jewelry (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3)
- slaves accepting the authority of their masters “with all deference” (1Pet. 2:18), rendering “service to their masters with enthusiasm” (Eph. 5:7), and without back talk (Titus 2:9)
If you take the position that the Bible is something like divine transcription in which God taps somebody on the shoulder like a 1950s banker talking to a harried secretary and says, “Take a letter,” you have a tough job keeping all the details straight: “That was for then, but this is for always.”
But reading the Bible as a story that reveals the heart of God doesn’t necessarily commit you to the proposition that God’s vision for the world has been set in the stone of ancient Near Eastern ethical codes and mores. That is to say, it is possible to read the Bible as revealing God’s sense of love and justice through the lives of fallible people distilled through inadequate filters of particular cultures, which, having given way to other people and other cultural situations, can now be more fully appreciated.
The act of reading the Bible in a modern context is an attempt to read over the shoulders of people who lived in a different world with a completely different set of expectations about what is possible, or what God could conceivably bless. In much the same way that it is possible to read the U.S. Constitution as addressing a completely different world from the one we inhabit (incapable of imagining the problems associated with living in the 21st century) but which embodies profoundly important principles, progressive Christians understand the Bible to contain profoundly important principles about justice and regard for others that can now be realized in ways that up until recently would have been culturally impossible.
In other words, there are Christians who happen to read the Bible as blessing same gender relationships not in spite of the Bible, but as an embodiment of what is best about it.