Unbiblical?

Our family of churches, the ones that make up Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, are gathering this week for worship and business. The tension we’ve been living in for the past couple of years is almost palpable at times, while in other moments we just hug and laugh like always.

[sarcasm alert] We’re probably the only ones wrestling right now with issues surrounding human sexuality. [end sarcasm alert] There’s a narrative in the wider Evangelical culture that an agenda is pushing us to have conversations that don’t need to be had, that shouldn’t be had. That God has spoken in the bible, and there is nothing to discuss. Why are we being pressured to have these conversations?

I’d like to offer some thoughts to go against and strike down that narrative. For years, I’ve been praying, thinking, reading the bible, studying biblical words, reading books, and (probably most significantly) walking with flesh and blood people as they’ve sought Christ around all kinds of issues regarding sexuality.

I will just speak to my experience.

I have heard the voice of Christ in silence. I have heard the voice of Christ in the scripture. I have heard the voice of Christ through people who affirm a traditional position on human sexuality, and I have heard the voice of Christ through people who affirm monogamous, lifelong same-sex commitments. God is speaking in lots of ways and I am doing my best to listen.

I find myself bristling whenever I see this issue painted as “bible vs. worldly pressure.” Sure, there are people who affirm same sex marriage and who do not hold to biblical authority. But it is not by any means all. Experiences of conflict and tension cause us to diligently search the scriptures and the voice of Christ. This is necessary. The bible shapes how we experience the world, and how we experience the world shapes how we interpret the bible. This is why God gave the Holy Spirit to illumine. This is why God gave community, the body of Christ, to help understand Christ’s instructions.

When the early church held the historic councils that shaped what we consider orthodox Christian belief, it did not do so in a vacuum. Bishops didn’t sit around and go, “Hey, you know what? Let’s get together and figure out the core things we believe.” Nope. The councils were always called in response to pressure and disagreement and different practices and beliefs. There was sharp disagreement and dissension in the church every single time (experiences) that pushed for these councils (Christian community) to deliberate what Christ was saying (with use of, but not exclusively relying upon, scripture).

We live in a time when gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and queer people are advocating for their place in the world and in Christian faith. It is not wrong that this experience is causing us to dive into scripture and discuss in Christian community what Christ is saying. It is normal. It is not wrong that the stories of evangelical Christians who identify as LGBTQ are driving us to question our interpretation of scripture and to seek Christ. This is normal, and right, and a way to faithfully seek God. In other words, it’s normal, not “worldly pressure” to seek Christ and study the bible more carefully. It is not unbiblical to ask, “Have we understood this correctly?” It is the way of the Berean (Acts 17:11).

Or think about the Reformation. When the bible was translated into various languages, when the printing press was invented and put the bible in many people’s hands…these had a huge influence on the Reformation. But we are naive if we think the pure bible caused the Reformation. The development of western philosophy also drove the Reformation, highlighting the individual as opposed to social hierarchy and community. Politics drove the Reformation, as kings and princes realized embracing these ideas would help them throw off the shackles of Rome and gain power. Yet we still trust that the Sovereign God spoke truth through the Holy Spirit in the vast changes that occurred, marred as they were by “fleshly” things like philosophy and politics.

Our beliefs color how we interpret the bible. It’s naive to think that they don’t, to think that the bible just speaks truth and that’s where our beliefs come from. Let me give one example out of thousands. The word “hilasmos” or the other form “hilasterion” in Greek is only used a few times in the bible. It’s used to describe what Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has done for us, so it’s a fairly essential thing to get right. How do we translate it? One option for translation is propitiation, which means something done to someone to atone for sin. This would mean Christ changed something in God, that Christ atoned for God’s wrath, in order to forgive sins. The other option for translation is expiation, which is something done to sins themselves. This would mean simply that Christ cleansed sin in us through his death, implying that all of the Trinity was working together to bring salvation instead of Jesus placating an angry God. (See here for more.)

Not surprisingly, scholars and pastors who believe that God’s wrath needs to be avenged seem to choose propitiation, while other traditions choose expiation. My point is, it’s all inter-related. The scriptures have shaped our theology which shapes how we interpret and even translate the bible. It’s not easy to get it right. It’s not easy to realize when we are just wanting to find a path we like, and when we are letting God challenge us to change or maybe even repent. But it is certainly not unbiblical to ask, “What does the bible really say? What does this word really mean? How have my/our beliefs in the past rightly or wrongly shaped my interpretation of the bible? How does this new experience with a person give me new insight into the bible?”

I don’t like our disagreement, but I am no longer afraid of it. I don’t like saying “I don’t understand all of this”, but I am no longer afraid of it.

I embrace humility. I embrace Christ. I desire for the Holy Spirit and the bible and my community to hold me accountable and to guide me into all truth.

I embrace and listen with extra care and respect to those on the margins, because that’s exactly what Jesus modeled for me. This means listening with love to my brothers and sisters who identify as LGBTQ, hearing their stories and their way of interpreting the bible and the voice of Christ.

Those are some of my thoughts tonight. May we ask the questions, and pursue Christ. May we sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron.
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11 thoughts on “Unbiblical?

  1. Pingback: Unbiblical? (Links, Quaker)

  2. Thank you for writing this. I have the urge to curl up under the pew and hide whenever sexuality and LGBTQ issues are brought up in church. I woke up this morning to your post in my inbox, and halfway through it I started breathing again. If more people approached these questions with this kind of courage and calm, there would be a lot less cowering under benches. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

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  3. Thanks for raising these questions and demonstrating with only one Greek word how drastically different views of God, reality, and humanity can hinge on the interpretation of just one word in scripture.

    I think there lies the huge problem for all Christians, and in our small corner, Quakers.
    “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” I Corinthians 14: 7-8

    I won’t bore you with detailed information of all the theological car wrecks…no doubt you’ve been in a few yourself. Briefly–I’ve gone through various ones including that the “atom bomb is God’s gift to America,” ‘we can’t have more than 10 minutes of Open Worship because someone might start speaking in tongues,’
    “the Bible is inerrant,” whether communion and baptism are spiritual or need physical symbols, the whole same sexuality issue since 1992…and so many more.

    Then there is the whole issue of whether women can be pastors, and whether women are to be in subjection to their husbands (and slaves to their masters). Fortunately, Quakers
    came to a conclusion on this several hundred years ago. But most Christians disagree!

    But we’ve not always lived close to a Friends Meeting (when I was teaching in Arizona it took a 41/2 hour drive to attend Quaker worship). So in the various cities where I’ve taught school, we have attended Mennonite, Baptist, and charismatic churches and others (where ever there was good child care and their doctrine wasn’t horrific).

    It’s rather weird, but the most Quaker practicing church we attended wasn’t a Quaker one!And think of all the splits which have occurred in the last couple hundred years of the Friends, and which are happening right now in Carolina, did last year in Indiana, etc.

    And then there are the controversial topics that drastically changed my life. A Christian leader told me when I was 17, it was God’s will that I go to Vietnam and kill. Needless to say if I had listened to his interpretation of the Bible–he supplied plenty of Bible verses to prove his points–I would have lived a very different life than I did.
    Or if I had accepted Calvinism as a teenager when it was being pushed as the biblical view, instead of starting to attend a Quaker meeting in Philadelphia…etc.

    And now we have sexuality again.

    Rather despairing.

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  4. Well said, Gregg. Thank you for your honesty, your listening, and your firm commitment to the ongoing process of seeking God’s leading.

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  5. Thank you for posting this. I grew up in the middle of the church culture wars of the 1990s, and consequently have a nigh-uncontrollable urge to curl up in a frightened ball under the pew whenever sexuality is discussed in church. If more Christians addressed these questions with this kind of courage and calm, I’d have an easier time staying upright. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts, whatever they are, on the subject.

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  6. I’m sure for many in our Yearly Meeting the complicated issue/discussion that you refer to is too complex. I would suggest outside the scriptural focus the problem of homosexuality is still too complex for most to even begin to try to understand, even for those who claim they are in favor of homosexuality or claim that’s their choice.
    With my study and masters degree in the field of phycology I would propose that many children at the age they discover that some other children are not the same sex as they are then begin to adjust their understanding to include those of the opposite sex. If during this stage of development they have unsatisfactory connections with those of the opposite sex it may cause them to reject those of the opposite sex and continue to develop their relationships with those of the same sex. This can occur over a period of time and it’s subtlety isn’t understood by the child but they come to the conclusion that they “prefer” those of the same sex as opposed to those of the opposite sex. Though the scripture is reasonably clear about homosexuality many of those who claim to be that are dealing with a personal preference (psychological mal adjustment) not how they were created in the way God intended for all humans.
    As you can understand I’m wanting to come to a more complete knowledge of the issue, but am fully convinced the God didn’t create but male and female for His purposes and we as Christians should love and accept those who claim to be homosexuals but are commanded to urge them to understand and accept Christ as their savior and be the person God desires them to be. As Jesus said to the woman at the well (who had several men in her life) “Go and sin no more”, obviously referring to the lack of purity in her life.

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    • I am sorry, Peter, but no reputable psychologist remotely agrees with your assessment of why someone identifies as homosexual. It demonstrates that you have not known on a personal and intimate level (as a friend) many, if any, gay persons. Very few fit your description of childhood “trauma”, and many heterosexual persons do (go figure!). Your explanation is simplistic and frankly incorrect (sorry for the blunt statement – but it must be said).

      Quakers early on used the Spirit of Christ within them, along with the ever present Holy Spirit, to receive inspiration from the Bible. If they chose to use the Bible as a rule book as some modern evangelical Quakers do; they would not only have been against same-sex marriage, they would have also not supported women speaking in the church, they would have supported slavery because of commands to slaves in the Bible to “obey”, they would have supported a ban on all debt (no loans for cars, homes, anything since Christians were to abstain from debt), as well as many other prohibitions. If one goes down the road of using the Bible as a rule book – instead of using it for spiritual inspiration, it leads to living like the Pharisees – and we know what Jesus thought of that.

      It is all too convenient to decide that the biblical passages regarding the aforementioned need to be taken “contextually” and understood in light of the culture then; but at the same time decide the passages regarding homosexuality must be adhered to ‘as is’. I think such a position is called hypocrisy at best.

      Going down the path of basing one’s Christian actions, compassion, and judgments on biblical passages is pure folly. In fact it is idolatry. It leads to divisiveness, schisms, and the opposite of Love and unity that Christ so exemplified.

      Every passage where Jesus is recorded as speaking, he is begging us to simply live in love as God does. Jesus embraced society’s outcasts as being “one” with him; as opportunities to love even more. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Quaker evangelicals led the way in helping all Christian evangelicals to go down the path of loving (through action) our homosexual brethren even more.

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  7. Thanks for your post, Gregg. I agree that we need to be thinking carefully about these issues in the light of what we know. I have been drawn especially to study the Bible again on this and to read as much as I can about how interpreters of the Bible are understanding its teaching. It is clear that interpreters on all sides of the issue don’t think that this is a cut-and-dried, simple task. I have been surprised in the last few years how many died-in-the-wool, certified “evangelical,” Bible-loving leaders have written thoughtful pieces in which they say, “I have concluded that we have been wrong on this,” often at great risk to themselves. One result of my study is that I have grown impatient with those who oversimplify by referring to “what the Bible simply and clearly teaches.” So yes, let’s study, think, and talk together, graciously if we can.

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