Today I'd like to discuss how I arrived at my position on gender roles and LGBT rights. Specifically, I am a feminist, and I am gay affirming. So how did I arrive at those conclusions biblically?
To answer that I need to discuss my three core sources of theology, which are the Bible
in conversation with science
Ethics as the Lens for Biblical Interpretation
Ethics is the art of thinking morally. Ethics is inseparable from biblical interpretation because if we are not reading and interpreting and applying the Bible in a way that is moral and good and loving, then we are simply reading it wrong. That premise is the baseline for how Jesus read Scripture, and for how we should read it, too. When people do the opposite, taking things that are obviously immoral, and reasoning that if the Bible says it, it must be moral, they are calling evil good, and thus get the Bible and life dead wrong. It's worth noting that this is something that Isaiah, the biblical prophet most quoted by Jesus, specifically criticized, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil" (Isa 5:20). So if we think that doing so is a faithful reading of Scripture, we are kidding ourselves. It is a misreading because it is immoral.
We need to interpret Scripture through the lens of love, we need to ask as we read "is this interpretation good and loving?" Biblical interpretation must be done through the lens of ethical evaluation, and to fail to do this is to fail to do the central most important task of biblical interpretation. To fail to do this is to read in a way that promotes evil in God's name.
This all may sound self-evident. Of course we should read the Bible morally, and this requires that we learn to think ethically as we read. But an ethical evaluation of the biblical text goes against the grain of how one learns to do biblical exegesis in seminary, where students are taught to not ask ethical questions in the name of scholarly objectivity, and where the compartmentalized nature of specialization keeps ethics detached from exegesis. To the extent that this is true, seminaries are failing to train future pastors, professors, and theologians properly.
Because of this deficit, I have had to go out of my way to bring ethics into conversation with theology and biblical interpretation. I'm so glad I did. My theology, as well as how I interpret Scripture, has been profoundly deepened and enriched by learning from good ethicists. Two contemporary ethicists who were formative for me as a young evangelical were Ron Sider and Glen Strassen. More recently I have learned a lot from David Gushee and Russell Moore.
What's critical is that the main focus of the ethicist is not interpreting the Bible, but addressing the moral questions of our day, critically asking how we can live in a way that is good. Like the prophet, the ethicist must be independent from the tradition. This focus is crucial because otherwise the ethicist becomes an apologist for status quo interpretations (and I can unfortunately think of a few ethicists who fit this description). Doing ethics in this sell-out way is of course... ahem... unethical, and it also means we lose the very thing that makes ethics valuable: helping us to think morally.
Again, this is precisely how we should be reading the Bible -- not with the aim of maintaining the status quo of the power tradition, but with the aim of letting the Bible lead us into loving practice. Scripture is not an end, it is a vehicle, and ethics is the key.
Science and the Importance of Having a Theology Based in Reality
Practically applying this is where psychology comes in, and more broadly where science comes in. Science is the study of how reality works. Social science is the study of how humans work in that reality. The way this functions is that science comes about by trying stuff in the real world and seeing what happens. It's about experimentation, observation, practice, evidence-based.
I don't think it can be stated enough how important it is that our interpretation of the Bible coincides with reality. The trouble is, Christianity has often seen science as a threat. When one thinks of this conflict between faith and science what comes to mind is often questions of natural science, evolution vs creationism for example. But social science poses a far more substantial threat to stuck-in-the-past theology because it speaks to what is moral and good. Social science, for example, tells us that beating children is bad for them, which challenges the traditional view, found in the Bible, that it is good for children to beat them. Social scientists know this because they observe what happens to children who are beaten, and observe that this harms them.
Again, this really should be a no-brainer. We should be able to look at the effects of what we do, and observe whether we are causing harm or promoting good. Science provides us with tools for doing this as objectively as humanly possible, and puts us on a path of continually seeking deeper and better understandings of how we humans function based on observing us in our lives. It's not perfect of course (nothing we humans do ever is), but science helps us get to places way beyond where we could go without it. Again this is not only true for how natural science helps us with things like medicine and technology, but also for how social science can help us to be... social.
Again, my theology has been deeply influenced by learning from psychology. The fact that I'm married to a psychotherapist is of course why I know much more about the practical world of contemporary psychology than I got from college text books. We've learned an awful lot in the century since Freud, including lots of insights from the neurosciences, and psychology is not just about lying on a couch and talking about your mom.
The bottom line here is that when I approach theology and biblical interpretation, I am always looking for how this will work in practice. I observe that Jesus was, too. Of course science did not exist at the time, but reality did. Science is simply a tool to help us to measure that reality better, and I'm deeply grateful for it.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
So let's bring all of this together in relation to gender roles (both impacting women's roles as well as LGBT issues). I recently read this in the "what we believe" part of a church's website in the city where I live. I'm sure you can find a similar statement from a church in your town,
"Adam and Eve were made to complement each other in a one-flesh union that establishes the only normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women, such that marriage ultimately serves as a type of the union between Christ and his church. In God’s wise purposes, men and women are not simply interchangeable, but rather they complement each other in mutually enriching ways.
God ordains that they assume distinctive roles which reflect the loving relationship between Christ and the church, the husband exercising headship in a way that displays the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and the wife submitting to her husband in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord. In the ministry of the church, both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God.
The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments." (emphasis added)
So to sum up, as you can see in what I highlighted in bold, they not only are not gay-affirming, but they also think that women should assume a lesser role, submitting to their husbands. That submissive role is the ceiling for a woman's "full potential" in life. Only men can be leaders in the church.
Here's the kicker: All of this "must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments" which translates to, we will hold this view despite what we can observe about how people work and how reality works (science), and we will hold to this view despite what we learn from asking whether this stance restricts and harms people, treating them as if there were less than they can be (ethics).
This is an example of reading the Bible detached from science and ethics, and thereby detached from reality and morality.
Typically, when discussing what the Bible has to say about a topic such as gender roles, the conversation is restricted to the sphere of biblical arguments. This is true whether one is making an argument for or against women's equality. They might bring in cultural context, they might look into the Greek, they might question the authorship (implying for example that if Paul didn't write 1 Timothy it's okay for us to discount its rather sexist perspective).
That's all fine and good, but what is left out of this is bringing the Bible into conversation with science and ethics, that is, connecting the Bible with reality and morality. Let's try this out with women's roles:
It is easy to observe that women are perfectly capable of assuming roles that have been traditionally reserved for men. We have women who are CEOs of major corporations, women who are chief of surgery, women professors, women Presidents, and plenty of women pastors who are all doing just as good of a job as their male counterparts. So to claim that they cannot lead is demonstrably false.
So the way I arrive at the conclusion that women should be able to assume leadership roles is simply that they obviously can and are, and so any interpretation of the Bible denying this strikes me as one that is detached from reality. Indeed, as we read in the above statement of belief, it is intentionally so.
Imagine going to this church as a woman. Let's further imagine that you are the female dean of a seminary, and are responsible for equipping scores of future pastors. But suddenly when you enter the doors of this church you are not allowed to be on the board of elders or even to lead a Bible study. This is of course completely absurd. It's like walking through the doors of this church is equivalent to walking into a time machine, teleporting you into the patriarchal past, undoing the progress of centuries. The church has made itself into an irrelevant island, clinging to the past, not because it is good or true, but just because this is their frozen tradition.
So allow me to sum up in a single word my reasoning for why women should be seen as fully equal to men: Duh.
My reasoning for being gay-affirming is similar. It is essentially the same reasoning taken by those in the mental health field. A major part of what they do is help promote human flourishing. Because of this, the question they have asked, and indeed the question they ask with everything, is this: What is best for people? What leads to harm, and what leads to flourishing? How can we best help people to live well?
What they found is that while there is simply no evidence that same-sex relationships are themselves harmful, there is a considerable amount of evidence that the condemnation and rejection the LGBT community faces is profoundly harmful. Further, attempts at changing a person's sexual orientation have proven to be deeply harmful.
So if we ask, "how can we help someone to find life?" If we ask the moral question "what does a person need most?" The answer I am led to is that they need to know they are loved, just as they are, and for who they are. That's true of everyone.
Further, I can see nothing at all that is harmful about two adults in a mutually loving relationship. This is not like having an affair which does harm another person. It is also not like being a sexual predator who harms others. These are issues of harming others, via betrayal and dominance. When people try to make parallels between LGBT people and sexual predators it is a false parallel. I wish I didn't have to spell that out, but based on the current
discussions on bathrooms and the T part of LGBT, apparently I do. Harming others has nothing to do with one's sexual orientation or identity.
So again, I attempt to look at the reality of life (science), and ask tough ethical questions. The conclusion I come to is that there's nothing wrong with being gay, and there is something very wrong with the way that gay people have been made to feel condemned and rejected by fellow Christians. That's where repentance needs to happen.
I maintain that it is vital that we employ the tools of both ethics and science as we engage these and other questions of biblical interpretation, and that to fail to do so will lead us to an immoral reading detached from reality.
Labels: Bible, ethics, homosexuality, psychology, science, women