With the major shift in our country’s
laws affirming marriage equality, homosexuality has become a
hot-button issue within Evangelicalism. We have seen both
Evangelicals who are speaking out in favor of acceptance of their
LGBT brothers and sisters (often losing their jobs in the process),
and at the same time we have seen a doubling-down from Evangelical
institutions and leaders in rejecting this shift.
Those Evangelicals who see
homosexuality as wrong tend
today to argue this point based on the “authority of Scripture
alone,” meaning they present no actual evidence that would
lead them to conclude there is anything harmful with people in loving
same-sex relationships, other than that “the Bible says so.” In
other words, their position —and this is by far the most common
position among conservative Evangelicals today— is essentially that
it does not matter what you or I think, it does not matter what we
can observe, it does not matter what gay people tell us... all that
matters is what the Bible says. The Bible condemns it, that settles
it. All we need to do, they argue, is to look to what Scripture
clearly teaches about homosexuality, and regard this as the final and
authoritative word on the matter.
As I demonstrate in Disarming Scripture
, there is a major flaw in this kind of reasoning. Using
this exact same approach to the Bible has lead Christians in the past
to support both slavery and child abuse based on the “authority of
Scripture.” Let me clarify here that first of all, I am not
referring to spanking, but what would be considered criminal child
abuse—beating children bloody with a whip or rod. This type of
child abuse was common among Christians (as well as the broader
culture) for centuries, and was justified based on the “authority
of Scripture.” Likewise, slavery was justified for centuries on the
“authority of Scripture.” We should not have any romanticized
notions of what slavery was like in the ancient world—it was brutal
and inhumane. Slaves in the ancient world were not only commonly
beaten, but raped by their masters.
We can see from these examples that
this approach to Scripture—which is the predominant approach taken
by Evangelicals today—has led in the past to justifying things that
are terribly damaging, immoral, and abusive.
Now, that of course does not mean that
just because some things in the past were hurtful and immoral
(like slavery and child abuse) that therefore anything we
object to in the Bible is automatically wrong. However, it absolutely
does mean that we cannot rely on “what the Bible plainly
says” alone, detached from any sort of moral evaluation, ignoring
our conscience, ignoring people telling us they are being hurt. If we
do not question, and in fact ignore our conscience screaming at us
“this feels really wrong,” and ignore everything we can observe
about how humans work, including people saying to us “this is
hurting me!” pressing on despite all of that “standing on the
authority of Scripture” this is a virtual guarantee that we
will arrive at abusive and hurtful interpretations.
Evangelicals Who Can’t
Remember Their Past
“Up until very
recently, all Christian churches and theologians unanimously read the
Bible as condemning homosexuality. By contrast, there was never any
consensus or even a majority of churches that thought slavery and
segregation were supported by the Bible.”
Keller cites a number of authors to
back up this claim. For example he claims that “historians such as
Mark Noll have shown the 19th century position some people took that
the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly
controversial and never a consensus.” However, this completely
misrepresents what Noll actually says. Of course there was not a
consensus. That’s why we had a Civil War. The point is not that
Keller can find progressive-leaning American Christians who opposed
slavery. The point is that those who read the Bible like Keller does
now were the ones who supported slavery then. Listen to what Noll
actually has to say on the issue,
thirty years Americans battled each other exegetically on the issue,
with the more orthodox and the ones who took most seriously the
authority of Scripture being also the ones most likely to conclude
that the Bible sanctioned slavery.” (Noll, Civil War as Theological Crisis
As Noll illustrates with multiple case
studies, it was much easier for those on the pro-slavery side to make
a direct appeal to the “plain meaning” of Scripture. Theirs was
the stronger and more self-evident biblical argument, Noll observes.
Yet that very focus on “correct” interpretation led them to
commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and barbarity— all done in the
name of submitting to the authority of Scripture.
Further, as Matthew Vines points out in his response to Keller's review
, this is
not only a matter of slavery in America, but slavery practiced by
Christians for centuries upon centuries. Slavery was vigorously
defended by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.
Keller’s characterization of history is just flat out wrong here.
The reality is, the church has a long history of endorsing slavery
based on the authority of the Bible.
The same is true of the church’s endorsement of what we would now
regard as criminal child abuse, again based on the “authority of
Scripture.” The issue here is that history shows us that reading
the Bible in this unquestioning authoritarian way has led Christians
to defend and maintain these deeply hurtful and immoral practices.
As the saying goes, “Those who cannot
remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” What Keller is not
facing is that Evangelicals such as himself continue to read their
Bibles today in regards to homosexuality in precisely the same way
conservative Christians read it in the past in regards to slavery.
Nothing has changed in this regard. The hermeneutic of unquestioning
obedience is identical. Evangelicals have apparently learned little
from their past in regards to how they read the Bible.
I'll never forget the first time I visited the Gedaechtnis-Kirche (Church of Remembrance) in the city center of Berlin. The pastor, seeing that I was an American, came to me and said, "I want to ask your forgiveness for what my people have done." I was only 22 at the time, and pastor couldn't have been much older, meaning that at the time of WWII he was not even born. Yet here he was asking for forgiveness on behalf of his country. As an American that never left me. It was so... what's the word I'm looking for?... Christian. Yet in my own country, a country where its citizens often refer to it as "a Christian nation," such a statement seems nearly unthinkable. I wish that we American Christians could take responsibility for the past sins of our country like that young German pastor did. I wish we Evangelicals could learn to care less about defending our doctrinal camp or our Bibles, and a little bit more about the marginalized and the "least" among us. I wish that was not so foreign to us.
Referring to 19th century
Christian abolitionists, Noll writes, “[T]he stronger their
arguments based on general humanitarian principles became, the weaker
the Bible looked in any traditional sense. By contrast, rebuttal of
such arguments from biblical principle increasingly came to look like
a defense of Scripture itself” (45). The same could be said today.
The reason Evangelicals like Keller so adamantly oppose acceptance of
same-sex relationships is because they see this as tantamount to the
defense of the authority of Scripture. Likewise, the strongest
arguments of those Evangelicals who are gay affirming such as
Matthew Vines or Ken Wilson are those based on humanitarian
principles—noting the harm that is resulting among gays due to the
rejection and condemnation they experience.
The overwhelming majority of social
scientists and mental health practitioners today would maintain that
there is simply no evidence that same-sex relationships are
destructive or harmful in and of themselves. Conversely, what we can
observe, as far as harm is concerned, is that statistically the LGBT
community has a higher rate of drug abuse, mental illness, and
suicide than the larger population— alarmingly higher in fact.
The reason is quite clear: the rejection they experience.
Being kicked out of their homes, hiding who they are, being
threatened and hated, etc. can easily make a person sick, depressed,
broken, and even drive them to suicide. As their voices have begun to
be heard, we have seen story after story of how gay and transgender
kids have felt hated, at times even hating themselves.
This matters tremendously. This is what
we need to pay attention to. This needs to factor into how we read
the Bible. As I say repeatedly in Disarming Scripture
, if we recognize that our particular
interpretation and application of Scripture is leading to observable
harm, this necessarily means that we need to stop and reassess our
course. Scripture, as Jesus read it, needs to lead us to love God,
others, and ourselves. If we find that it is leading instead to
causing harm then we are getting it wrong.
I appreciate very much the work of
Vines and Wilson. My concern, however, is that the approach taken by
left-leaning Evangelicals like Vines continues to affirm the
authority of Scripture but argues that we have just misread it. The
basic argument is that we just need to understand the context, or
know the Greek better, and we will see that the New Testament is
actually not condemning homosexuality.
says his book
God and the Gay Christian “envisions a future in which all Christians come to embrace and
affirm their LGBT brothers and sisters— without undermining their
commitment to the authority of the Bible” (3). That’s certainly
a laudable goal.
However, the problem is that this ultimately
plays into the hands of conservatives like Keller who want to
restrict the conversation to solely “what the Bible says,” and
discount any discussion of what is good and loving based on paying
attention to our life experience and relationships. It acts as if the
problem was simply one of correct exegesis, and that all we need to
do is find that right reading to settle the matter. Again, this
leaves out the necessity of a moral evaluation of the text, and
connecting our reading of Scripture to our life experience.
In his book, Vines tells how his father
changed his mind “persuaded by biblical scholarship, historical
evidence, and reason” (19). This surely plays a vital role, but I
would like to underline (and I think this is something Vines knows) that
the reason for his father’s change of heart was surely not because
of exegetical arguments alone, but also because his father loves his son.
Love is not a factor that can be removed from exegesis. When love is
there, those exegetical arguments can build a bridge. For all the
parents and loved ones of LGBT Christians, the exegetical arguments
in Vine’s book could be the glue that works towards love and
reconciliation. But when those same arguments are encountered by
someone like Keller who feels the need to defend Evangelicalism’s
doctrinal front-line, those appeals to relationship and love are
simply discounted, and the focus is placed solely on “what the
Bible has to say.”
For such Evangelicals, the issue of
homosexuality is tied to their understanding of the authority of
Scripture. However, with the issues of slavery and child abuse that
understanding of “the authority of Scripture” has been
shown to be deeply flawed, leading to advocating things deeply
hurtful and wrong. That immoral understanding of Scripture has to
change. We Evangelicals need to find a way of reading the Bible that
leads us to Jesus-shaped love, not a way of reading that is divorced
from love and relationship.
Labels: Bible, Evangelicalism, homosexuality, Keller, Vines