When Presumptions of Men Obscure the Truth of Scripture

According to the book of James, we all make mistakes. Perhaps nowhere is that propensity toward human error more obvious than in the history of biblical interpretation.

One of the more interesting cases is that of John Calvin and Martin Luther, who were unanimous with the Catholic Church — and later the Protestant church — in condemning the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) as a heretic. What was Copernicus’ crime? He asserted that the earth rotates around the sun. However, “godly” people and the Church believed the Bible taught otherwise. The proposition that the earth rotates around the sun was unacceptable to the Christian theologians of that period because there were many biblical passages which seemed to indicate that the earth did not move. Among the texts most frequently cited were the following:

— He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Psalms 104:5)

— On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still and the moon stopped till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. (Joshua 10:12-13)

— Generations come and generations go but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises. (Ecclesiastes. 1:4-5)

— The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. (Psalm 93:1)

As far as they were concerned, the Bible’s words used to describe the sun rising and setting and moving across the sky could be interpreted to mean nothing other than that the sun, and not the earth, is the one that moves.

Martin Luther, referring to Joshua 10:13, in his series of “Table Talks” in 1539, said the following:

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon… This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Luther’s disciple, Melanchthon, in emphasizing Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 said:

The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun revolves… Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.”

And John Calvin, citing Psalm 93:1 in his Commentary on Genesis said:

“Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit? … the world also is established that it cannot be moved.”

Calvin, Luther and all believers with them took their stand on what they believed to be the clear teaching of Scripture and went to their graves condemning Copernicus as a heretic. It was many, many years before the church recognized that the descriptions of the sun’s movement were what today any first-year Bible student calls “phenomenological” or merely descriptive. Allowance must be made, they discovered, especially in poetic texts, for the use of metaphorical language. Copernicus is only one such case in which the consensus of opinion about how the Bible should be understood has changed over the years. There are scores of others.

While the Bible does not change, our understanding of how biblical texts should be interpreted has changed considerably.  Throughout 2,000 years of church history, Christians of all traditions have used the Bible to support scores of doctrinal positions they believed to be as clear as mineral water but later had to confess to be mistaken.  Over the years Christians have found biblical “proof” that slavery is God-ordained, that women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, that interracial marriage is wrong, that women should not be allowed to preach, teach or wear jewelry, that anti-Semitism is biblically supported, and on and on. As with the case of Copernicus, various biblical texts were cited to give support to each of these and, of course, the Bible verses that once footnoted these notions are all still in the Bible.

As we look back over 2,000 years of history, we find that oppression of one sort or another against people who are “different” — whether by means of race, color, gender, class, sexual orientation or, as in the case of Copernicus, in the face of scientific or archeological discovery — has always been endemic. And to our shame, the oppression and injustices are always carried out in the name of someone’s Christianity. One of the lessons we can learn from these experiences is that reading and interpreting Scripture is not quite as simple as some would like to believe. A text does not simply “say what it says” despite the rational and good intentions of some readers. For reading Scripture is not only a matter of what is written there, but also what we expect to find there, what we bring to the text, and what we take away from it. Reading Scripture then is by no means a clinical or a neutral affair.

The doctrine of those who still read their anti-gay presuppositions into the biblical texts is believed to be only the most recent doctrinal position well on the way to being generally acknowledged as a mistake of this kind. What will it take for those who still cling to their anti-gay theology to admit that they, like many well-intentioned Christians before them, have made a mistake? We’d do well to remember that while it may seem evident to us that others did terrible things in the past, it isn’t always so easy to see that we ourselves may be doing terrible and exegetically unsupportable things today.

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Same-Sex Marriage: Why Christians Need to Think Again

President Obama told ABC News yesterday that he supports same-sex marriage, saying that he believes same-sex couples should be able to marry.  Needless to say, Obama’s support for gay marriage is being met with a mixed reaction around the world.

Some Christians insist there is a biblical ban on any expression of homosexuality and on homosexual relationships that is so unconditional, so unambiguous and so central to the Christian faith that it should be defended as strenuously as the doctrine of the incarnation.  But a steadily growing number of evangelicals, Bible scholars and other spiritually-minded men and women who have done their biblical and theological homework with thoroughness assert the issue is not so cut and dried.

Too often people think they already know what the Bible says about homosexuality having heard a few verses taken out of context and brandished as conversation stoppers.  But as people continue to do their biblical homework, they’re finding that a respectful exegetical reading of Scripture allows, if not requires, a change of mind and heart on this issue.

There are only five or six verses in the entire Bible that have been interpreted as addressing or condemning homosexuality.  These verses, often referred to as the “clobber passages” because they are frequently used to clobber or bash gay men and women today, are verses taken out of their contexts to proof-text the Bible’s alleged anti-homosexual stance.  (These passages have been addressed under separate cover on this blog.  Links to these posts may be found below or by clicking the link to the “Archives” page near the top of this one.)

Aside from the fact that the few verses of Scripture that generally get appealed to in this debate do not hold up to scrutiny when examined more closely and in context, same-sex marriage also holds same-sex couples accountable to the same disciplines others try to live by — like fidelity and permanence.   Phrased positively, it shelters us all under the same moral canopy.  It compels all of us to recognize that marriage is not primarily constituted by the externals — a man and a woman — but by the relationship itself: faithful, truthful, mutual, and permanent.  Marriage can then be seen as an intersection of God’s grace and human loyalty and courage, rather than simply the coalescence of genital concavities and convexities.  It can reinforce and shore up the marital institution itself that today is sinking toward minority status.

Some have argued that same-sex marriage will alter marriage as we know it in both definition and practice.  Many build their case on what they term “the defense of traditional marriage.”  But I’ve yet to understand what harm they think they are defending marriage from.  How does the marriage of Adam and Steve alter or exercise any detectable impact whatsoever on the marriage of anyone else?  In countless dialogs I have asked that question and have never heard it answered, even implausibly.  Those who insist that marriage could be undermined by gay people entering into marriage need to explain what aspect of love, commitment and faithfulness between gay people is it that undermines heterosexual marriage?

It’s also true that while few human institutions claim to be as traditional as marriage, even fewer have undergone more traceable metamorphoses.  Imagine how you’d like concubinage with female slaves functioning as secondary wives and surrogate mothers; a woman’s loss of property to her husband once married; levirate marriage where men were required to take a dead brother’s wife and produce heirs for him; a husband’s unquestioned right to philander; marital indissolubility in the face of spousal or child abuse.  All these and more were once part of marriage’s bedrock tradition.

In the fourth gospel, Christ delivers an intimate address to those to whom he was the closest, those who had been with him from the beginning.  At one point he said something perfectly terrifying.  Jesus said:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  (John 16:12)

He went on to promise that “the Spirit of Truth” will remain among us forever, one whose office is to reveal those concealed matters to us bit by bit, always slightly in advance of our readiness to receive them.

As we look back on 2,000 years of Christian history we see that the Spirit of Truth has done precisely that on scores of notions that the Church at one time believed the Bible to be as clear as mineral water on.  Notions such as: slavery is God ordained, women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, interracial marriage is wrong, women should not teach or preach, anti-Semitism is biblically supported, and on and on.

The Christians who held these views were all convinced they had the Bible on their side and that their understanding of the Bible was self-evidently correct.  They also had substantial support from many other like-minded Christians.  In each of these matters and in thousands of others, the Sprit has faced the same task with God’s people: to introduce gently the understanding that the “the voice of my private sensibilities is not the voice of God”.  God’s voice simply does not sound to empower us to the harm of others — ever.  Righteous indignation is simply anger.  It evaporates in God’s actual presence, which may furnish a clue as to its origin.

It has been suggested that that the Spirit is now addressing the Church on the matter of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage.   It is further suggested that the Church’s traditional position on this issue is only the most recent doctrinal position well on the way to being generally acknowledged as a mistake of the kind cited above.

The Spirit agrees with all who treasure the Bible as a — if not the — primary source of divine revelation.  To that effect, the Spirit of Truth is driving us back to our Bibles on this issue.  The result for many is a detachment from the canonized interpretations with which we had shielded ourselves from God’s fresh voice.

Perhaps the Spirit of Truth would have us grasp the real tradition of marriage.  The tradition is not primarily something external, like the customary male/female sexual constituency.  Rather the essence of marriage is the courage and generosity with which two persons commit to each other in truthfulness, mutuality, fidelity, and the expectation of permanence.  This is not a curse or a threat; it is Christ’s restorative gift to all of us.

The Spirit has re-presented to the Church what the authentic church tradition has always been: to love one another as Christ has loved us that we lay down our lives for each other.  To shrink from that divine challenge is neither faithful nor orthodox, regardless of who says it is.

See also the following related posts:
Genesis 1: Turning the Creation Story into an Anti-Gay Treatise
Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?
Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?
Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch
Genesis 19: What the Bible Really Says Were the Sins of Sodom
Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart
Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality

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Exodus Cancels Next ‘Love Won Out’ Conference Due to Lack of Interest

In conjunction with the growing awareness that ex-gay therapy does not work and that the traditional interpretations of the few passages of Scripture that generally get appealed to in the debate over homosexuality do not hold up to scrutiny when examined more closely and in context, there seems little doubt that Exodus International is in decline.   In an email sent out this week, Exodus International’s Senior Director of Events told would be attendees that their ex-gay Love Won Out (LWO) conference scheduled for later this month has been cancelled “due to the low number of registrations.”

This seems to be just the latest blow in the unraveling of the oldest and largest umbrella organization for ex-gay ministries.  Recent months and years have seen their pleas for funds become increasingly more desperate, their staff and benefits cut and significant ministry partners disassociate.   Most recently, Exodus International president Alan Chambers admitted that “99.9 percent” of the people he has met “have not experienced a change in their orientation” and last month Dr. Robert Spitzer, the researcher who authored the most widely cited ex-gay study recanted his findings and apologized noting, “I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct.”  Now Exodus’ main recruiting tool, the LWO conferences, is attracting fewer attendees.

This is the first time Exodus has canceled one of its LWO conferences though attendance has been steadily declining at these events over the past couple of years.  In September 2011, attendance at an LWO event in Houston was at a record low 450.  That’s down from the nearly 1,000 attendees Exodus has drawn to its events in the past.

Says John Smid, former Executive Director of the ex-gay ministry Love In Action, and who now speaks out against ex-gay groups claiming that orientation can change:

“I am glad to see LWO go away. After attending over 35 of them through the years it was one of the saddest events I’ve ever attended.  Parents crying, kids being pulled around the conference by the dominance of their parents’ desire to get them ‘fixed’.  Speakers trying hard to give hope to the parents but knowing deep inside that these kids were never going to change. It’s hard to keep that facade up.”

Fact is many of us have watched over the years as the semantics of the Exodus message have been regularly massaged to respond to each new wave of criticism.  In my own role as a former “ex-gay” ministry leader, it gradually became clear to me that the ex-gay process did not work, that it often did more harm than good, and that ex-gay ministries were too afraid to honestly assess the fruit of their work and admit their staggering level of failure.  The long-term consequences for many who took part in these programs and ministries were depressing, if not downright disastrous.  The long-term damage has been incalculable.  A strategy that had largely been inspired by hyped-up expectations of change proved spiritually catastrophic and many people gave up their faith altogether.

The striking contrast between the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry in the New Testament and the fruit of the ex-gay ministries should have given Exodus and their associates reason to pause.  Jesus’ works of healing were never challenged on the basis that perhaps they had not taken place.  On the contrary, the blind did see, the lame did walk and the dead were raised.  Not even Jesus’ worst enemies suggested anything less.  Instead, Jesus’ enemies were incensed by the fact that his healing ministry was so obviously effective, because it shamed them, exposed their lack of compassion and undermined their authority.

Yet despite all the evidence that’s now come to the fore refuting the claim that orientation can be changed, despite the dismal success rate of the ex-gay movement, and despite countless testimonies from those who have been involved with these ministries and have come out on the other side to say they’re not effective, Exodus still continues to proclaim their message of “change”.  The critical importance of Exodus’ just learning to listen and walk alongside people in the journey of faith would be incalculable.  When we’re not listening we’re not learning.  Jesus surely gave us this example of listening in his ministry again and again.  The importance of listening is powerfully portrayed in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, “Life Together” and amazingly pertinent in our present time:

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.  It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him…  Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.  

Should Exodus heed Bonhoeffer’s words and learn to listen better, they might hear Jesus’ admonition that new wine requires new wineskins (Matthew 9:17) and understand that unless we can be flexible in response to what God is doing in these times, we shall be of no use to Him.  They may also discover that God’s concern is not to change the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian people — to bring them in line with social norms — but to help them become secure in Him, assured of His love and acceptance and set apart to follow Him faithfully and responsibly.   But as Upton Sinclair wisely noted, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary [or perhaps his career, reputation, social standing and/or Christian ministry] depends on him not understanding it.”

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Robert Spitzer Apologizes for His Ex-Gay Study

Truth Wins Out  is reporting the text of an apology by Dr. Robert Spitzer to Ken Zucker.  Zucker, to whom Spitzer’s letter is addressed, is the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the journal in which Spitzer’s landmark study was originally published in 2001.  Here is the text:

“Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct.  After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.

Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: “can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?” Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, “how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?” – a not very interesting question.

The Fatal Flaw in the Study – There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientationI offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.

I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.

Robert Spitzer, M.D.
Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry,
Columbia University

This statement follows up an earlier statement to Gabriel Arana and my earlier post: “Dr. Robert Spitzer Retracts 2001 Landmark Ex-Gay Study”.    For over a decade, ex-gays have relied on the results of this study to prove their claim that ex-gay therapy works and that sexual orientation can successfully be changedAnyone wishing to continue promoting this flawed research will do so only in the knowledge that its author has now retracted his initial claims, publicly disowned the study and apologized for making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy.

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Genesis 1: Turning the Creation Story into an Anti-Gay Treatise

Someone wrote: “Biblical arguments about context and culture aside, where the rubber meets the road is here: Genesis!  It is as plain as the nose on your face that God made man and woman for each other… exclusively.”  

This was part of a comment I recently received.  Throughout history, Christians of all traditions have used the Bible to support doctrinal positions they believed to be “as plain as the nose on your face” but that they later had to confess to be mistaken.  The doctrine of those who read their anti-gay presuppositions into the Creation narrative of Genesis — and other biblical texts — is believed to be only the most recent doctrinal position well on the way to being generally acknowledged as a mistake of this kind.

In Genesis 1:27 we read:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)

To argue that the Creation story privileges a heterosexual view of the relations between humankind is to make one of the weakest arguments possible: the argument from silence.  An argument from silence is no argument at all.  The Creation story is indeed about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, as critics of homosexuality like to admonish.  But though heterosexuality may be the dominant form of sexuality, it does not follow that it is the only form of appropriate sexuality.

The authors of Genesis were intent on answering the question: Where do we come from?  Then, as now, the only plausible answer is from the union of a man and a woman. The text celebrates God’s deliberate and equal creation of man and woman: God created both the males and the females.  The Creation story does not pretend to be a history of anthropology or of every social relationship. It does not mention friendship, for example, and yet we do not assume that friendship is condemned or abnormal.  It does not mention the single state and yet we know that singleness is not condemned.  The Creation story is not, after all, a paradigm about marriage, but rather about the establishment of human society.  The Creation story is the basis, and not the end, of human relationship and thus to regard it as excluding everything it does not mention is to place much too great a burden on the text.

This text is often cited in what’s loosely termed “the defense of traditional marriage.”  Yet while few human institutions claim to be as traditional as marriage, even fewer have undergone more traceable metamorphoses.  Imagine how you’d like: (a) concubinage with female slaves functioning as secondary wives and surrogate mothers; (b) a woman’s loss of property to her husband once married; (c) levirate marriage where men were required to take a dead brother’s wife and produce heirs for him; (d) a husband’s unquestioned right to philander; (e) marital indissolubility in the face of spousal or child abuse.  All these and more were once part of marriage’s bedrock tradition.

The argument against homosexuality from the Creation order is also hazardous on other fronts.  Virtually all churches reject the notion that God created sex for procreation only despite the fact that the first man and woman were commanded to be fruitful and multiply.  An argument based on an inability to reproduce is all the more problematic to defend given the vast number of marriages that never lead to procreation. Some couples marry at ages when childbirth is no longer an option.  Other couples are childless because of impotence, infertility, health restrictions, or genetic concerns.  Still others opt to not have children for a variety of reasons. The lack of children doesn’t invalidate these relationships nor does it devalue them.

Undoubtedly, the male and female sex organs are designed to complement one another and are necessary to produce babies.  But sexuality means much more than reproduction.  This insight seems to be confirmed by the complementary account of Creation provided in Genesis chapter 2.  We’re told God was strangely sympathetic to the loneliness of Adam, observing that within the universe he had so conspicuously pronounced “good” there was, nevertheless, a significant omission. It was “not good” for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  In the following verses, we are given another account of the purpose of sexuality: not procreation this time, but companionship.  In other words, a primary creation purpose of sex is interpersonal intimacy.  Sex as a profound expression of love and mutuality is something most of us accept gratefully as a good part of God’s good world.  It is a marvel, a mystery and a grace that babies can come from ecstasy, but the ecstasy does not require babies to justify it.

Complementarity

It is here in Genesis 2:18 that we have the first appearance in the Bible of the expression “not good”.  This is the first thing in the history of the universe that God declares as not good.  What was it?  It is not good for man to be alone, to be all by himself.  Everything up to this point had been prepared for life, and certainly for the life of humanity.  But suddenly there is but one human and that’s not good.   Man needs somebody specifically suited for him so God says he will make a suitable helper.

As scholars have pointed out, complementarity is what is in view here.  Not a workmate as some insist.  Others wrongly use the term to promote female inferiority and passive submission to “complement” male superiority.  Complementarity involves seeking someone matching you, someone “like-opposite” you, complementary and perceived as fascinatingly other than your own sense of self.

This is not a question of genitalia.  Even in the physicality of heterosexual relationship, so much more than the mechanics of genitalia is involved.  The complexity of the “one-flesh” phenomenon is a union that has much more to do with two persons than with two body parts.  In complementarity, one is looking for companionship in the fullest sense of intimacy, a fully matched person, utterly suitable in every way that actually fits the needs in question.  Not simply for procreation, but a companion.  Fact is procreation is not even mentioned as a reason why God was creating a companion for the man.

In anti-gay rhetoric, however, Jesus seems to have died so that an anatomical technicality might be tweaked.  In other words, it’s what a couple does with two penises or two vaginas instead of what another couple does with one penis and one vagina that constitutes the sin in the anti-gay argument — period.  The self-sacrificing love that “fulfills the law” and is shown within a committed same-sex marriage is beside the point.  Yet in both heterosexual and homosexual attraction, what draws two people together is the fascinating otherness that each sees in the whole persona of the other, not the shapes of their genitalia.

Mixed Orientation Marriages

This sheds light on why mixed orientation marriages — where one spouse is same-sex oriented — almost always fail.  Statistics suggest that up to two million gay men and lesbians in the U.S.have married heterosexually in the belief that the only way to achieve a loving, committed relationship and a family is to enter the traditional form of marriage espoused by their family, community or church.  In doing so, most gay people deny, ignore, or leave unquestioned their orientation.  As the heterosexual spouses who have lived through a mixed orientation marriage have repeatedly indicated, eventually those feelings can no longer be suppressed. After a painful struggle between fidelity and truth, love and deception, many come to terms with their suppressed orientations.  In the majority of cases, the couples divorce, leaving broken families and single parents across the country. Thus, the gay or lesbian spouses’ attempt to commit to a heterosexual marriage endorsed by their churches and others ends up hurting not only themselves, but also their wives or husbands and, most importantly, their children.

As for the “ex-gay” claim that reparative therapy works and that sexual orientation can successfully be changed, studies confirm that after many years in a mixed orientation marriage, the same-sex oriented spouse is still same-sex oriented (see ‘Characteristics of Mixed Orientation Couples’ recently published in Edification, a journal from the evangelical Society for Christian Psychology).

In Summary

There’s nothing in the Creation narrative that either condemns or approves the love that people of the same sex have for each other.   The notion that this passage restricts sex to heterosexual marriage is the reader’s, not the author’s.  The text simply does not say it.  The text is mainly concerned with describing how things have come to be as they are, not with prescribing how people ought to act.  To insist otherwise is to inject our later-day prejudices into the biblical text, wearing the fig leaf of biblical authority.

The desire of at least some gay couples to have their parings solemnized and made permanent within the confines of holy matrimony is actually a conservative development.  What we have in this community is a group of men and women who have voluntarily withdrawn from the chaotic Friday night meat-market scene in order to construct a permanent relationship based on mutual love.

While we all make mistakes, nowhere is the propensity toward human error more obvious than in the history of biblical interpretation. For 2,000 years, Christians have read the Bible convinced they will discover the certainty and authority of infallible truth within its pages. Yet on a host of issues, the consensus of opinion about how the Bible should be understood has changed.

The parallel between today’s debate over homosexuality and earlier debates in which the Church was eventually forced to acknowledge they had erred is striking.  We’ve already witnessed a global shift in this debate in that the few passages often quoted to claim the moral abhorrence of same sex relationships are now being more exegetically interpreted by steadily growing numbers of theologians, evangelical Bible scholars and others, just as texts have been reinterpreted in the case of slavery, the ordination of women and a host of other issues.  For those under the age of 35, same sex marriage is not even an issue.

The Church has too often lagged behind other institutions in recognizing when it has erred.  Howard Hendricks, longtime professor at Dallas Seminary, was fond of saying to his students, “They should charge admission to this place so that visitors can see how people used to live 50 years ago.”  I pray for a day when the Church will be the engine rather than the caboose when it comes to changing society.

See also the following related posts:
Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?
Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?
Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch
Genesis 19: What the Bible Really Says Were the Sins of Sodom
Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart
Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality

* Links to these and other posts may also be found on the “Archives” page.

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Dr. Robert Spitzer Retracts 2001 Landmark Ex-Gay Study

For over a decade, ex-gays have relied on the results of a controversial 2001 study to prove their claim that ex-gay therapy works and that sexual orientation can successfully be changed.  But if they continue to promote its flawed research, they will do so only in the knowledge that its author, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, has now retracted his initial claims and publicly disowned the study.

In an article in the May issue of The American Prospect magazine, Spitzer tells author Gabriel Arana he wants his retraction of the landmark study on the record.   According to the article, titled My So Called Ex-Gay Life:

“In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” said Spitzer.  “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.”

After noting that failed attempts to rid one self of homosexual attractions “can be quite harmful,” Spitzer requested that writer Gabriel Arana print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Spitzer’s 2001 study was a surprise and created a media firestorm because he had previously led the charge in 1972-73 to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Spitzer, now 80, admits he was proud of having been instrumental in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

While some have alleged that homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder in 1973 for political reasons, fact is the APA removed it for scientific reasons.   Specifically, in order for a mental condition to be classified as a psychiatric disorder, the requirement was it had to meet a two-pronged set of criteria set by a scientific committee, in consultation with experts in the field, for the revision of the whole DSM.  Additionally to satisfactorily meet the two-pronged set of criteria, it had to meet both and not just one.  The two-pronged set of criteria that had to be met to be classified as a mental illness or disorder was: (1) in full blown manifestation it had to be distressing to the individual, and (2) in full blown manifestation it had to be invariably associated with social dysfunction.

Since they rightly concluded that homosexuality clearly did not meet this two-pronged set of criteria as do actual psychiatric disorders such as alcoholism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, et al., it was appropriately removed from the DSM.  Had homosexuality been retained in the DSM, it would have stood out as a sore thumb as the only category not meeting the two-pronged standard set by the scientific committee for the revision of the whole DSM.

Yet despite his pro-gay stance, 28 years later, Spitzer released a study that asserted change in one’s sexual orientation was possible.  His 2001 paper, “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Orientation?” was met with criticism from the start.  The flaws were obvious: both the media and his peers blasted the study charging that Spitzer misrepresented his research and distorted his findings.  The APA denounced the study at their annual meeting and noted the research was based on a scientifically insignificant sample of 200, the study was not submitted for peer review – a fundamental prerequisite for the credibility of any study – and Spitzer interviewed his subjects by telephone for 45 minutes, hardly a basis for reliable data.   Additionally the 200 “ex-gays” Spitzer reported on were recruited from Exodus and other ex-gay and reparative therapy groups — the very groups that had a vested interest in proving ex-gay therapy could work.

Spitzer now says his main goal in conducting the 2001 study was NOT to urge gay people to pursue reparative therapy, but to see if it actually worked on those who sought treatment.   Spitzer says, “I actually had great difficulty finding participants.”  This, of course, should come as no surprise.  As some of you know from this blog, I myself personally responded to an ad Dr. Spitzer placed in 2001 eliciting testimonies from people who had been involved in ex-gay ministry when his study was conducted.  I underwent a preliminary phone interview with one of Dr. Spitzer’s associates where it was determined that my background was exactly what they were looking for, for participation in the study.  But then during my telephone interview with Dr. Spitzer, he disqualified me from participating in his study after learning that I did not believe reparative therapy worked.  Dr. Spitzer explained he was “looking to speak with people who believe that gays can change.”  If others who answered his ad were disqualified from participating on the same grounds, one need not be a rocket scientist to figure out how Dr. Spitzer published the conclusion he did.

The ex-gay movement has relied on the Spitzer study as the single piece of objective evidence that therapy can work.  The need for that evidence became even more pressing as the movement began to suffer increasingly more high-profile defections and more and more people who had been involved in ex-gay therapy came forward to say not only does therapy to reorient gay people not work, but that it in fact contributes to making people anxious, depressed and at times suicidal.

Both the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations also regularly issue warnings concerning the harm incurred in reorientation procedures, whether religious or clinical.  These procedures actually increase the socially-imposed self-loathing of gay people.  These warnings point out several flaws in the research and treatment models: that they take place within a doctrinaire religious climate; that there are no reliable follow-up or long-term studies to confirm reorientation; that their results are not replicable by others.

If you pray with gay Christians, you will see God perform any number of miracles.  They will often include the expunging of self-loathing, of bitterness toward family and wider society, and relief from previously chaotic patterns of sexual behavior.  You will, not, however, see God reorient these seekers to heterosexuality in either their arousal or their fantasy patterns.  That may eventually prompt you to understand that God does not consider their homosexual orientation a disorder.

Yet despite all the available evidence disproving the ex-gay claim, the Exodus International website today contains no less than five direct references to the 2001 Spitzer study to support its message that “sexual orientation can successfully be changed.”

I’ve watched over the years how the semantics of the Exodus message have been regularly massaged to respond to each new wave of criticism.  It will be interesting to see what Exodus and other ex-gay groups will do with this latest revelation.

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Genesis 19: What the Bible Really Says Were the Sins of Sodom

Everyone is familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  At least many people think they are.  The point of the story is to condemn homosexuals and homosexual behavior, right?  Wrong.   And contrary to the belief of some, it’s not merely about a breach of the ancient sacred duty of hospitality either.  Fact is there is much to cull from the biblical text that is often missed.  Let’s take a closer look at this often misconstrued passage and I suspect you’ll see some things you did not see before.

FIRST HINTS

Sodom is used as a symbol of evil in dozens of places in the Bible, but not in a single instance is the sin of the Sodomites specified as homosexuality.  In Ezekiel chapter 16, we read that the prophet declares the word of God saying that a self-righteously religious Jerusalem had not only imitated the vile deeds of the Sodomites, but had become even more corrupt. Then the prophet spells out explicitly what God calls the sin of Sodom:

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord … this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:48-50)

Here we have the Bible commentating on the Bible.  We can hardly get better Bible commentary than that.  Here we have what the Bible says is God’s commentary on the story of Sodom and on Sodom’s sin.  Note that contrary to what some are taught, there is no mention of homosexuality in God’s commentary of Sodom’s sin.  In fact, in Genesis 18:20, we read that long before the attempted gang rape at Lot’s house in Sodom the Lord said:

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.  If not, I will know.”  (Genesis 18:20-21)

As evangelical Bible scholar William H. Brownlee explains in the Word Biblical Commentary on Ezekiel 1-19, “The word used for ‘outcry’ always refers to the outcry of the oppressed.”  He says, “this is exactly the situation of Ezekiel 16:49.  We are to think of the anguished cries to God of the ‘poor and needy’ to whom the wealthy Sodomites afford no help or encouragement.  … ‘Gave no help and encouragement is literally ‘did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’  The verb ‘to strengthen’ means not only to give material assistance, but also to give encouragement.  …the converse charge [such as is found in Jeremiah 38:4] of ‘weakening the hands of the people’ … means to discourage, to demoralize.  Thus the ‘poor and needy’ of Sodom and her daughters were so completely demoralized that they had no one to whom to turn, except to Yahweh.”

So God heard their anguished cries of complaint and investigated.  Not that there’s anything God is ever in the dark about.  But he shows the fairness of his judgments which are never the result of rash or sudden resolves.  He judges on his own infallible knowledge, not on the information of others.

DESTESTABLE THINGS

In addition to charges that the Sodomites were arrogant, overfed, unconcerned, and did not help the poor and needy (16:49), God’s commentary on the story of Sodom and on Sodom’s sin also says Sodom “did detestable things before me” (16:50).  Some Christians are quick to stop here and say, “Um, its homosexual; that settles it, let’s move on.”  But before we read our own interpretation into the text, let’s first see if the Bible tells us specifically what these detestable things were.  It is respectful of God’s gift to us to go after his intentions and meanings before arriving at our own.  Sure enough, we find that God, speaking though the prophet, spells out in striking “in your face” condemnation explicitly what Sodom’s abhorrent conduct entailed.

Jerusalem we’re told has a resemblance to her “sister” Sodom (16:46, 16:48, 16:49, 16:56).  The Lord repeatedly calls them sisters because they are kindred spirits in wickedness.  They are also both ancient Canaanite cities.  Sodom was a leading Canaanite city (Gen 10:18) and, according to Ezekiel, a city where people would do anything to maintain their surfeit of wealth and ease and power.  Sodom’s sister Jerusalem too was an old Canaanite city (16:1-3), conquered by King David who made it his new national capital.  And here in Ezekiel 16, the prophet critiques the many cultic Canaanite practices Jerusalem has adopted, some of which are quite revolting.  But from the viewpoint of Ezekiel, this isn’t too surprising since Jerusalem was descended from pagans in the first place:

“The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites…” (Ezekiel 16:1-3)

The root of the unitary nature of these “detestable practices” is everything that had to do with the exercise of the pagan Canaanite religion.  Canaanite religious practices were barbarous and thoroughly licentious.  The astounding characteristic of Canaanite deities, that they had no moral character whatsoever, brought out the worst traits in their devotees and entailed many of the most demoralizing practices of the time.  In his commentary on their sin in Ezekiel 16, God starts by indicating their vile deeds included cultic prostitution and building “high places” (16:15-16).

Cultic prostitution was practiced by the Canaanites to promote fertility.  Fertility was highly prized in Ancient times in ways that are completely foreign to our modern thinking.  Fact is in many ways their lives literally depended on it: fertility of the land in the form of rains to ensure and boost crop production, fertility of life through pregnancy and birth, fertility for reproduction of their livestock, and so on. Devotees would visit the pagan shrines and perform sacred sexual rituals with male and female shrine prostitutes to give honor to the Canaanite pagan gods and thereby ensure fertility and prosperity.

The “high places” were the illicit shrines where their worship occurred and their cultic prostitution rites were performed (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:29).  God hated the “high places” of the Canaanites and after the Israelites entered the Promised Land they were strictly commanded to overthrow these “high places,” lest they be tempted to worship the Canaanites’ pagan gods and partake in their depraved practices (Ex 34:13; Num 33:52; Deut 7:5; Deut 12:2-3).

Their idolatries also included “making male idols and engaging in prostitution with them” (16:17, 16:20-21, 16:36).   If this was not enough, they also “took their sons and daughters and sacrificed them as food to the idols” (16:20-21).  The practice of child sacrifice to the Canaanite god Molech included a ritualized slaughter of their children (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; 2 Kings 17:31; 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 19:5; 32:35), followed by burning the bodies to ashes.  Drums were pounded to drown out the cries of the children.

They are also repeatedly condemned for building “lofty shrines” to worship the Canaanite pagan gods (16:24-25, 16:31, 16:36, 16:39).  You can read the whole chapter for more on these sordid details and a greatly expanded essay on the subject in Ezekiel 23.   They are also described in my earlier post: Leviticus 18: What was the Abomination? (link also found on “Archives” page).  But not in a single instance in this extensive list of vile deeds, or anywhere else in the 26 times where Sodom is mentioned in the Bible (18 in the OT and 8 in the NT), is the sin of the Sodomites ever specified as homosexuality.

Among other things, this illustrates how blinded we can be by our “reifications” and “canonical interpretations”.   A reification is when we use a concept or doctrine so often and for so long that it comes to be a distinct “thing” to us, something that’s really there, a piece of our mind’s furniture.  We are unaware of how much of our mental furniture consists of reifications.  A canonical interpretation is a way of looking at a biblical passage or doctrine that we’ve become so accustomed to, that the interpretation has become indistinguishable in our minds from the text or passages themselves.

SACRED DUTY OF HOSPITALITY

Evangelical Bible scholar Brownlee also notes, “hospitality to strangers was a virtue exemplified by Abraham (Gen 18:1-8) and Lot (Gen 19:1-3) and an important virtue expected of noble-minded people.  Contrarily, the oppression of the stranger as exemplified by [the attempted gang rape at Lot’s house] in Gen 19:1-9 was, according to ancient Semitic custom, a very grave crime.” 

It is difficult for us as modern readers to imagine that a breach of hospitality could be so serious an offense (though according to Genesis, the Lord was already inclined to punish the Sodomites even before the angels arrived there, which is why they were sent.)  In the ancient world, inns were rare outside of urban centers and travelers were dependent on the hospitality and goodwill of strangers not just for comfort but physical survival.  In desert country where Sodom lay, to stay outside exposed to the cold of the night could be fatal.  Ethical codes almost invariably enjoined hospitality on their adherents as a sacred obligation.

Stories of divine testing of human piety by dispatching beggars or wayfarers to demand the sacred right of hospitality are commonplace in the Old Testament.  In nearly all such stories evil persons appear either as neighbors or other townsfolk who do not fulfill their obligation and are punished, violently or by exclusion from some divine benefice, while the solitary upright family is rewarded with a gift or a prophecy of misfortunes to come.

It is shocking to us to think that Lot would have offered his daughters to the Sodomites.  But this is another example of how different their culture was from our own.  In that time, the father of the house actually “owned” the women.  They were his property.  He was free to do with them almost whatever he wanted.  This action, almost unthinkable in modern Western society, was analogous with the low status of female children at the time and was not without its parallels even in the more “civilized” Roman world.  Once again, we cannot assume the ancient people to whom the Bible was written were just like us.  In some ways, they were and in others, their thinking was so foreign to us that the gulf is almost impassable.

The identification of Sodom with the breach of the sacred duty of hospitality is also made by Jesus when he warned his disciples, sent like the angels as God’s messengers, that they would not be received in some places:

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.  I tell you the truth; it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that town.” (Matthew 10:14-15)

MALE-TO-MALE RAPE

We should also note that during biblical times men (and the kings) of conquered tribes were often raped by the invading army as the ultimate symbol of defeat and humiliation.  Male-to-male rape was a way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes and a way of humiliating visitors and strangers.  If we miss this, we not only miss what was going on in the Sodom and Gomorrah text, we also miss the meaning behind other passages such as 1 Samuel 31:4 and 1 Chronicles 10:4 where Saul, gravely wounded by the Philistines, instructs his armor-bearer to:

“Draw your sword and thrust me through with it lest these uncircumcised come and abuse me.”  (1 Chronicles 10:4)

SUMMARY

So what then were the grievous sins that caused God to judge Sodom worthy of such destruction?   The sin of Sodom was avarice, pride, and a determination to have riches at any cost, according to God’s commentary in Ezekiel.  Sodom did practice pagan rituals, including cult prostitution involving ambisexual sadomasochism.  Why did they do such abominable things?  Because they believed that these things would bring them fertility and secure their place in the world.  They were haughty, had prosperous ease, too much food and did not aid the poor and needy.  Ezekiel said that they practiced all that to get and to maintain their enormous wealth.

Sodom was perverse, according to Ezekiel, because it was rich and powerful and coveted ever more and yet more power.  They believed they obtained that power through multi-sexual sadism, the drinking of blood, semen and other body fluids, the eating of flesh, animal sex and the sacrificing of their children to the pagan gods.  This was the famous sin of Sodom, not what you’ve heard.  And as bad as Sodom was, according to Ezekiel, Jerusalem was much worse off as a city.

This is not my interpretation; it is that which is given in the Bible.  You and I do not get to rip passages from their context and replace them in another age for the sake of convenience.   And we don’t get to make things up as we go along.  As always, we are stuck with the internal interpretation of the text as the primary meaning.

See also on this blog the following related posts:
Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?
Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?
Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch
Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart
Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality

* Links to these and other posts may also be found on the “Archives” page .

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The Top Regret of the Dying

There’s an article circulating on Facebook titled “The Top Regrets of the Dying,” written by a nurse named Bronnie Ware, who for many years worked in palliative care.  Ware writes about her experiences working with people in the last three to twelve weeks of their lives and of their sharing with her the most pressing regrets of their life.  The number one voiced regret of her patients was:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Living a life true to oneself is something we all grapple with at one time or another.  But for those who happen to be both Christian and gay, the struggle to live authentically can be an all encompassing one and a life-long endeavor.  The following sentiment from one Christian gay man I mentored is fairly indicative of what many gay believers experience before they come to terms with being gay and ultimately integrate their rich Christian faith with their sexuality:

 “My life had been a long and strenuous process of self-denial, a long and ultimately unrewarding pattern of placating my way through life, of going through the motions, of following somebody else’s chart to someone else’s destination, and of forgetting almost completely, or repressing the memory of, such validating life experiences as would have helped me identify myself and rejoice in my own identity.  It led me up the road to what appeared to be success — because my chosen way of fighting what I felt to be my illegitimacy was to create a life of measurable legitimacy — but what actually was a lifelong charade up to that point.  I recognized myself as a triumphantly successful, soul-sick wretch, the proverbial empty shell.  I was trying my utmost to live a life that was never mine to live to begin with.” 

GROWING UP GAY

The story of how a young man who happens to be gay becomes a mature and responsible adult male is often not like other boy-to-man stories.  Our society most often aborts or derails the gay man’s development early, either directly by oppression and ostracism, or indirectly through self-hatred and self-limitation that constant oppression and ostracism so successfully incubate and nurture.  Not all gay men even begin the journey; some live whole lives in hiding, either from themselves, from the church, from the larger society or all three.  Still others turn to suicide.

In many cases the emergence of the “different” self, is followed so closely, so immediately and so diligently by the campaign of voluntary and involuntary concealment that the identity of gay men in our society is almost by its own nature cloaked in disguises from the very beginning.  From the earliest of the closeted gay man’s experiences, his mechanisms for concealment become paramount in his arsenal for growth.

He begins by concealing parts of himself from himself.  The duplicity eventually rewards him with lowered self-esteem for his deceit.  He becomes depressed because of his low self-esteem.  The depression intensifies the need for concealment, since he associates his self-esteem with the hidden truth about himself.  Further concealment continues the cycle.

TRYING TO CHANGE

We now know that efforts to change one’s sexual orientation fail.  People who have experimented with homosexual behavior (as many heterosexual people do) can turn away from it.  Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, can become celibate.  Or they can marry against their desires and have children.  But research on efforts to help people do a 180 degree U-turn with their sexual orientation — their feelings and fantasies — reveals that no such treatment is effective.  Many a person has tried hoping upon hope to escape their culture’s contempt without succeeding.

Christian ex-gay organizations have had a go at this too offering support to those seeking to leave their orientation.  But many — including more than thirteen such organizations affiliated with Exodus International — have been abandoned by their ex ex-gay founders.  Countless former ex-gay ministry leaders, including myself, confess that they counseled hundreds of people who tried to change their sexual orientation and none of them changed.  The bottom line is it doesn’t work.

Many gay and lesbian Christians have felt “called” to heterosexuality, but after years of effort, prayer, laying on of hands, Christian counseling, and searing guilt, have found only misery and in many cases lost faith.  While there is no scientific evidence that reparative or conversion therapy is effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation, there is much evidence that this type of therapy can be destructive.

FAST FORWARD

What happens to gay Christians who continue to repress and suppress their orientation?  Many join the ranks of those who lament: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

One leader of an international Christian ministry received a touching letter from an 85 year old professor emeritus of a well-known evangelical college telling him how very much he would like to have a mate after all these years of sublimating and denying his homosexuality.  But he wrote that he knew that would now be impossible.  He wished he’d had the courage to live a life true to himself, not the life others expected of him.

Another story involves a conversation with another older man who decided early on, based on what he had been taught by other Christians, that homosexuality was out of the question.  He consequently suppressed and denied his sexuality, got married, and fathered and raised two children.  He did everything he thought society and the Church expected of him.  His children are now grown, living lives of their own, and he has since retired.  But he recently sat down with a colleague and poured his heart out in remorse explaining that now in his senior years his homosexuality has come back to haunt him with a vengeance, and he deeply regrets that he spent his life denying and suppressing it.  He considers it the most costly mistake of his life.  Sadly these stories are not unique of the many who continue to repress and suppress their orientation.

SUMMARY

You don’t have to wait until you’re on your death bed to appreciate that aging is God’s way of telling you that you don’t have time to waste.  It’s an opportunity to ask:  What am I tethered to that’s not good for me?   What can I move past and move forward into?   Growing old is a privilege, for not everyone gets to do it.  Aging then is a gift.   I am now, probably for the first time in my life, the person I have always wanted to be — though I am sometimes taken aback by that older person that lives in my mirror (who looks like my dad!).

Jesus himself taught: “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly”  (John 10:10).   Yet philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once remarked, “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.”  He meant it, of course, as a critique of the church of his day for diminishing, trivializing and otherwise squandering the extraordinary gift that had been given it and pinching God into a straightjacket of exclusionary judgmentalisms.   It may be applicable as well to churches that have driven from its doors literally millions of gay men and women who would have accepted Christ.

But then, the same critique might be made of individual Christian lives as well. Isn’t abundant life a wondrous miracle?  And don’t you think it’s out there all of the time, everywhere if we only had the eyes to see it?  I think Shakespeare got it right when he said: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  The reverse is also true:  Be false to yourself and you will be false to everyone.  “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me” need not be among the regrets you grieve over toward the end of the life God has given you.  As Mark Twain rightly said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”  And those twenty years will pass by awfully fast.

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Is There A Christian Case For Same-Sex Marriage?

I was not going to blog about this since the video of Michele Bachmann’s Iowa town hall meeting this week has already gone viral.  But I decided it raises some important points to consider, especially for people of faith.

For the field of presidential hopefuls, same sex marriage is proving to be an awkward and complicated topic as attitudes change and more states legalize gay unions.  During Wednesday’s town hall, Jane Schmidt, a student at Waverly High School, in Waverly, Iowa, asked Michele Bachmann, “Why can’t same-sex couples get married?”  Bachmann said, “They can get married, [if] they abide by the same laws as everyone else. They can marry a man, if they’re a woman, and can marry a woman if they’re man.”

Sounds simple enough.  But how might you feel if you were told that your only church-sanctioned or societal options for meeting your sexual intimacy needs would be to either:  (1) remain in lifelong sexual abstinence, (2) convert to the opposite sexual orientation, or (3) marry someone of the gender to which you are not sexually attracted?  These are the options Bachmann and many other people of faith propose for gay and lesbian people.

Gay marriage has become the most important domestic social issue facing 21st century Americans, particularly Americans of faith.  It’s also an issue that is tearing many faith-based communities apart.  But is there a Christian case for same sex marriage?

It seems much of the Christian objection to what some call the “gay lifestyle” rests on our sensible objection to promiscuity.  But if marriage was something to which heterosexuals were restricted, what do you imagine their “lifestyle” would look like?  How would you like some minister to come along and determine that YOU qualify for celibacy?

We can readily extrapolate four values that the Apostle Paul thought constitute marriage.  They were fidelity, mutuality, truthfulness, and permanence.  Notably, nowhere in any of Paul’s letters do we find child production as a rationale for marriage.   (See related exegetical posts elsewhere on this blog on Romans 1, Romans 2, and Leviticus 18.  Links to all previously published posts may be accessed from the “Index” page.)

Few human institutions claim to be as traditional as marriage.  Yet even fewer have undergone more traceable metamorphoses.  Imagine how you’d like concubinage, or a woman’s loss of property to her husband once married; levirate marriage; a husband’s unquestioned right to philander; marital indissolubility in the face of spousal or child abuse.  All of these were once part of marriage’s bedrock tradition.

The fourth gospel offers us a speech of Jesus at the last Supper that alerts us to expect that further revelation from God would emerge as we grew ready to receive it.  Indeed that has been the case.  So much has that been the case that historical theologians estimate that three-quarters of the classical heresies were not the radical liberal adventures of current fable — they were stubborn conservative efforts to maintain “traditional” ways of thinking in the face of fresh revelation.   Howard Hendricks, longtime professor at Dallas Seminary, was fond of saying to his students, “They should charge admission to this place so that visitors can see how people used to live 50 years ago!”

While we all make many mistakes, perhaps nowhere is this inclination toward human error more apparent than in the history of biblical interpretation.  For 2,000 years, Christians have read the inspired biblical text convinced that they will discover within its pages the certainty and authority of infallible truth.  Yet on a host of issues, the consensus of opinion about how the Bible should be understood has changed over the years.   As a result, many whose views were at one time considered heretical have now found themselves reinstated among the orthodox, and vice versa.  One would think the frequency and seriousness of the Church’s misjudgments would have produced a greater degree of caution and humility.  On the contrary, reckless rigidity and arrogant intolerance seem as endemic as ever, and nowhere is this more evident than in the sectors of the Church that pride themselves on being “biblical.”

Those who insisted that slavery is God-ordained, that women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, that interracial marriage is wrong, that women should neither preach or teach, to cite only a few examples, were all convinced they had the Bible on their side and that their understanding of the Bible was self-evidently correct.  They all also had substantial support from many other like-minded Christians.  But most of us now know that what they were touting was their presumptions of what the Bible teaches, not the truth of Scripture, and hurting innumerable innocent people in their error.  Perhaps then, the warning of Jesus about the danger  of trying to conduct eye-surgery on someone else when you are unknowingly the victim of poor vision yourself, would be a helpful one to remember as the Church slowly but assuredly comes to realize that “its déjà vu all over again” with the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage.

If it is true that we are saved by faith in what Christ has done then the antigay message touted by Bachmann and others cannot be true.  Whether we are straight or gay is irrelevant to God’s redemptive work in our lives.  It is the fact of responding to Christ that is the all-important thing.

The wish of most of the gay Christians I know is to have their pairings solemnized and made permanent within the confines of holy matrimony.  That is a conservative development.  What we have in this community is a group of men and women who have voluntarily withdrawn from the chaotic Friday night meat-market scene in order to construct a permanent relationship based on mutual love.

So wherein lies the problem here?  What would it take for you to rethink this issue and realize that for most of us, now in middle age, dislike of homosexuality came with the territory; our reasons for opposing it had more to do with our own cultural backgrounds than with any biblical argumentation?

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Christmas: A Jewish Holiday?

Every year as December unfolds our world gets caught up in all that it believes makes the celebration of Christmas special.  Gifts are purchased, cards are written, decorations are hung, and parties are attended.  Yet these things are not what the holiday is about.

As a Jew growing up, I thought Christmas (like Jesus) was “a Gentile thing.”  It was not until years later that I came to understand the birth of Christ was the fulfillment of a promise God had given to the Jewish people through the Hebrew prophets centuries earlier.  In fact, as we follow the progressive revelation of Scripture, we discover that the primary point of the New Testament is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah of the Old Testament.

THE PATRIARCHAL PROMISE

Christmas is about the culmination of God’s love, first promised centuries ago to a faithful man named Abraham, who at God’s instruction departed a city called Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan (Gen 11:31).  This is about the equivalent of God asking you to take a hike from Philadelphia to Minneapolis.  God promised Abraham many wonderful things, including:

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you … and in you shall all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2, 3)

Through Abraham, God promised to manifest His love to all humanity.  Although there is not much detail about the promise given at this early stage of the story, the promise revealed a hint of what would ultimately become the great Incarnation: God himself becoming man in the person of the Messiah.

The Lord established a covenant with Abraham, making him the progenitor of the Jewish people:

“The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, I am God Almighty.  Walk before me and be blameless and I will establish my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.” (Gen 17:1-2)

The Scriptures make it clear that both Abraham and his wife Sarah were beyond the point of being able to bear children.  Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 89, when God promised that Sarah would have a son within a year (Gen 18:10).  This would be the “sign” that God would keep his covenant with Abraham and make a great nation from him.  God also promised that Abraham’s descendants would become as numerous as the sand of the sea and the stars of the sky.  So great in number, said God, that they could not be counted.  (Gen 22:17; 32:12)

A year later this “sign” took place in the birth of Isaac, through whom the Jewish people came.  It was the sign needed to authenticate the covenant.  This was a miraculous birth.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. (Gen 21:1-3)

As God had established his covenant with Abraham, He then confirmed his covenant with Isaac. 

“I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant and with his descendants after him.” (Gen 17:19)

The blessing of Abraham became the inheritance of Isaac.  God then gave the promise to Isaac’s son, Jacob (Gen 28:13-14) and so the great promise continued to unfold: In tracing his ancestry, we discover the Messiah would come through the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:3), the son of Isaac (Gen 26:4) and the son of Jacob (Gen 28:14).

THE COVENANT WITH DAVID

Later God revealed that of Jacob’s twelve sons, the Messiah would come from Jacob’s son, Judah (Gen 49:10) and ultimately, from Judah’s descendant, King David (1 Sam 13:14).  To David, God said:

“Your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:16)

Long after David was dead, that promise lived on and took on greater specificity.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah declared:

A shoot [or descendant] will come up from the stump of Jesse [David’s father]; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isa 11:1)

The picture given is of tree that has been cut down, leaving only a dead stump.  A single shoot remains growing low, near to the ground, but will eventually bear fruit.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us. (Isa 9:6a) 

This verse, set to music by George Frideric Handel, now a fixture of every Christmas season and one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, was penned by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah 600 years before the birth of Christ.  The verse emphasizes the humanity of the Messiah who would one day set foot onto the stage of human history.  Isaiah sees a son given by God and being born into the human world.  The phrase “unto us a son is given” in the Hebrew Old Testament emphasizes a unique gift of God.  Then in the second half of the verse, the deity of the Messiah is emphasized as this Son is given four names, two of which can only be applicable to God:

And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isa 9:6b)

The next verse further identifies him as the descendant of David, confirms that his house, kingdom and throne will be maintained eternally by the everlasting Son, and gives a description of his reign, which will be characterized by peace and justice:

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.  (Isa 9:7)

The Lord created an entirely new nation, the nation of Israel, to bring to the world the reality of the one true God, His word and His love.  That love appeared on the first Christmas night in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2:7).  Divine love is the message the angels shared with the shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flock by night.”  “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8, 10-11).

Though gradual in its unfolding, yet clear and bold are the main outlines of the description given us through Moses and the Hebrew prophets of the Jewish Redeemer that God promised to send.

The great hope of the Hebrew Scriptures was not that a Messiah would come.  The great hope of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God would come. “Oh God, that you would tear the heavens and come down!” (Isa 64:1)  “Get up into a high mountain and say, Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9)

Nearly 2,000 years ago a Jewish child was born contrary to the laws of nature.  His was an obscure birth in an obscure village of Palestine.  With little fanfare or formality, Jesus Christ was born that first Christmas.  It was hardly an event to capture the headlines.  After all, what greatness might you expect from a child whose delivery room was the stable, whose first bassinet was a feeding trough, and whose first visitors were field hands and foreigners.  And yet that birth carries such profound significance, it would henceforth mark the dividing point of human history, forever separating B.C. from A.D.

If Christmas isn’t a Jewish holiday, then it ought to be.  If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, as promised by God and the fulfillment of the prophecies of our Hebrew Bible, then Jews should be able to join in with others in celebrating the birth of the greatest Jew that ever lived.

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