License to interpret: the Bible and same-sex relationships

It will be four years this June since the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the United States. This post might feel a little behind the times given all the societal changes going on already. But as many of you know all too well, the church often drags its feet when it comes to change, coming kicking and screaming into relevance — if it isn’t already too late when it gets there.

Today’s post is a follow-up to the one entitled “Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile.” It will go through some of the passages used to condemn same-sex relations and talk about why we have the freedom to interpret them in a new way.

Just a little dose of humor… “Bible-thumper,” get it??
From http://www.brainlesstales.com/2012-03-16/bible-thumper

There are 6-7 main verses that are used in support of “traditional marriage” and against homosexuality. And for perspective: When we compare that to the amount of verses that talk about the poor, wealth / poverty, and economic justice issues: well, it’s miniscule. Jim Wallis and his peers created a “holey” (haha) Bible when they cut out all verses about the poor: 2000 verses on poverty and justice as opposed to just a handful about same-sex relations. (I got some great info from a guy who already wrote this post I’m writing: here’s his link if you’d like to check it out!). I won’t go through all the verses on same-sex relations – just read his article, after you get through reading mine!

The Old Testament

The first stop on our tour is the Old Testament Levitical laws. Some Christians use verses from the Old Testament to support their traditional marriage approach, such as Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). Levitical prohibitions are included as part of “purity code” law. These codes are intended to set the Israelites apart from other people groups, to preserve their identity. Most Christians today don’t have any issues mixing their fabrics (Deut. 22:11, Lev. 19:19, etc), and unless allergic or vegetarian, are willing to eat shellfish (Lev. 11:10); we no longer refer to women’s menstrual cycles as their “sickness” (Lev 20:18, NRSV), and except for in the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t stone both parties when a man rapes a woman who is engaged to (and thus the property of) someone else.

Please, no. Gilead is not a society I want to exist in!
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock (9637472bd) Handmaids ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ TV show premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA – 19 Apr 2018

Okay, fair enough. Sounding a little antiquated already. Later on in the New Testament, Peter has a vision where all the animals are spread out on a sheet together, and he hears that all is allowable for eating. The old Levitical laws don’t seem to matter so much when all they cause is discord between Jews and Gentiles. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15) is what the passage says.

This is an important idea. We will come back to it later: and not just in regards to food and Levitical laws.

One last stop in the Old Testament: Sodom and Gomorrah. Modern-day fundamentalists worry America is turning into a modern-day equivalent, with moral licentiousness, depravity, and excess. I mean, I might agree with them on some points – but not quite the way they are thinking, and probably closer to the real meaning of the story.

A rather dismal situation, right? Glad I wasn’t there…
(retrieved from here)

Honestly, when I read the Sodom and Gomorrah passage just now in my NRSV (Genesis chapter 19), I had to go consult the internet for why this is used as an anti-homosexuality prooftext (prooftext = passage, often taken out of context, to support a belief the reader holds). In the story, Abraham is basically talking God down from utterly destroying the city of Sodom. First, if you believe in a God who is all-knowing and unchangeable, realize you are also probably not reading this passage “literally” as Abraham appears to literally be negotiating with God. But I digress.

So what is the point of the story? Scholars say the story is about God testing Abraham (making sure he’s the guy he’s cracked up to be) and finding him to be noble, ethical, and worthy. God is able to be argued out of wholesale destroying the city and agrees to save it (temporarily) for the sake of ten good people.

The next part of the story is really disturbing. Lot is now the main character, and he is hosting some angels in his home (like you do) when some evil men (from S & G) come to his door sounding like they are demanding sexual relations – aka RAPE – of the male angels in the home. Instead of his guests being dishonored in such a terrible way, Lot offers his virgin female daughters for the men to rape. WHOA! Call the cops!! And I’m sorry: did you want to make the main point of this story that being gay is wrong? It seems to me the obvious message has more to do with sexual violence, lust and power, and inhumane treatment of others, far more than the particular genders of who is mistreating whom.

So when you hear the story, what part of the passage do you give the most weight to?

The New Testament

Moving on to the New Testament, which Christians generally give more credence to and really have to consider the weight and meaning of passages. We’re going to spend some time with our dear friend Paul. Paul is so formative for Christianity as a whole. Could it have spread as well as it did without his influence? It seems unlikely. But he can be quite challenging to many progressive-leaning Christians, because he says some pretty uncomfortable, seemingly intolerant things.

The passages often used as prooftexts against homosexuality are Romans 1, 1st Corinthians 6, and 1st Timothy 1. We’ll look at Romans 1:26-27:
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”
The context of this passage is that Paul is writing a letter to the Christians in Rome arguing that the Jews and Gentiles all need to be reconciled together under one identity of being in Christ. They are needlessly divided. Part of his argument is pointing out that both groups do the same things, including the above references.

Some people argue that since unity is Paul’s point here (throughout the first couple of chapters of Romans), we can smooth over the rest. I do find that important, but also think we can acknowledge safely that Paul appears to be anti-homosexual here. Some people work through interpretative issues by saying Paul is only talking about uneven power balances of men with young boys. I wouldn’t say that doesn’t influence him and how he views homosexual relations, but I don’t think it’s the full story.

So come on, Paul. Why do you make things hard on your modern-day readers?? I wonder if the answer might be surprising.

Ohhh man.
(Reference: “Cain” by Henri Vidal, 1896.)

For those in the “oh my gawwwd Paul, cut me a break!” crowd because of passages like this and why women should be silent in church, etc, ponder this. Imagine ancient Rome and ancient Jewish culture, round about, oh, 60 CE. Women do not belong to themselves, but are the property either of their male relative, or their husband. They have no rights. The society is very patriarchal, and there is a strong power dynamic of how people relate to one another. And especially in Jewish culture, the shame/honor dynamic is especially prevalent. Presenting the right image to others, and not bringing shame upon oneself or the family, is of ultimate importance. A man had to preserve the image of virility and power, honor and status. Women were protected only by the men in their lives. In their society, a man with a man means one of them is dishonored (in the weaker, un-masculine position). A woman with a woman means no one is protecting them.

And aside from all that, Paul seems to be making an argument for the “natural” way of things to take their course, which to him seems obvious that male and female genitals only belong to each other. I wonder if Paul’s mind might be changed if he knew that the “passions” each sex can experience for its own kind (i.e., same-sex attraction) can be as ingrained as eye color, skin color, temperament. He didn’t have the science we have today. He didn’t have the culture of legal equality among sexes and sexual orientation (equality we’re working on, at least). But you know what? I think Paul would be open to changing his viewpoint if he only knew more. Just think about his conversion experience where his whole life turned upside down.

Let’s go back to the passage where Peter hears, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Peter having his vision.
Retrieved from http://weareisrael.org/clean-foods/peters-dream-in-acts-10/

In our culture today, I think that on the whole Christians get more of a bad rap for narrow views on sexuality (and here I include both sexual orientation and abortion issues). Except, of course, from within certain folds, where those same Christians feel self-righteous for upholding the faith and moral conduct. But society is changing. Gay marriage is becoming more and more normal, and we see these couples living everyday lives like the rest of folks, falling in love, committing to each other in sickness and health, buying homes, having kids.

Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” Do we not know that God has called all of God’s children clean, and loves them ferociously? Do we not know that when we can live free of shame and guilt and oppression, we are that much more capable of producing goodness, grace, justice, kindness, faithfulness in our world?

It is high time we stop allowing a narrow reading of the Bible to dictate policy, whether in our country or in individual churches. I can’t force change, but my hope is that with some education and the softening of hearts, people will change. With that change, we can look at our lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, and queer siblings in the eyes and say “you are one of us. You belong here. I belong to you. We all belong to each other.” And then they may at last feel the love, and with a love like that, then might you find the answer is “YES.”

Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile

Once I knew I would be working as a counselor in a Christian counseling center at my pastor husband’s new church, in a new town where we knew no one, I immediately started crafting an online counseling profile in my head. What identity did I want to present to others? And how would I make clear to prospective clients who I am and what I stand for?

I do play therapy; I got my degree from a seminary; I’m psychodynamically trained; I have a heart for the spiritually wounded, questioners, and leavers of the faith. These are all true. But there was something else I needed to convey.

The line that kept standing out in my mind was LGBT friendly. This was a message I felt passionate about.

Now, this may not seem very significant. I’m licensed by the state of Ohio and I follow the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which specifies I cannot discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc etc. I was educated in the importance of this. But a counselor being obligated to not discriminate is a far cry from a counselor being comfortable with and even welcoming diversity across the sexuality spectrum. Furthermore, I know that people too often associate Christianity across the board with a very narrow (and often judgmental) view of what is acceptable sexual practice. Many Christians still think you cannot be a Christian if you accept gay people being gay.

I know this all too well. You see, I grew up in a tradition that believes same-sex relations are an absolute sin. My evangelical / fundamentalist (I differ from Merriam-Webster in describing the jump to fundamentalism as not only interpreting your holy book in a strict, literal way, but actively denouncing and viewing with fear and suspicion the outside world. But that’s a post for another day!) upbringing taught me that the Bible (and therefore God) viewed homosexuality as an abomination. It even went so far as to believe that there is such thing as “the gay agenda” whose sole quest is to bring the world down into debauchery and moral decay. “Conversion therapy” was viewed as a legitimate and effective treatment for gay people to help guide them into a heterosexual way of life.

Of course, for people who find themselves experiencing same-sex attractions, whether in small degrees or in totality, this can lead to buckets of guilt, shame, and even self-loathing or self-hatred. That, or they have to find a way to make a quick exit from this theology, but it’s hard to leave such baggage behind. 

The path I took to get to where I am from where I was is far too long for this post (but stay tuned for another post in the future, about how to honor Christianity, the Bible, and non-heterosexual relationships at the same time). I have moved so far from that now that it might be easy to think such views are fading from society. In many ways, they are, if we look at the media and newly elected representatives as measuring sticks. But we all know those are far from genuine representations of the beliefs many people across the country hold. The Liturgists gathering that I just attended this month reminds me that there are still so many people – especially Christians – who are wrestling with the question of sexuality and God’s view on their own or others’ sexual orientations.

I was always aware that specifying “LBGT friendly” (and I could have added other letters) is a calculated risk. The pro obviously being that I am being true to myself and my practice, and communicating what may be desperately needed information to people who want a safe place to explore questions around sexuality, or who just want to be accepted for who they are already comfortable being.

The risk being that I am writing my statement on a website I am making for the whole counseling center, not just my own web page. I hope the others are comfortable with it, but I didn’t ask. I also might scare off some people who read the website and decide it’s not “Christian enough” for them (even though I am the only who specifies this). Or, perhaps a parent of a questioning, curious, or just open youth will not allow their child to see a counselor who might affirm their stance. (This, by the way, is not merely a hypothetical situation; it’s just not everyone reads our website thoroughly).

Some of you who come from traditions like mine understand the tension of such an action. I am sure there is at least one church in our small town alone that is being actively divided over the issue of sexuality and what is “acceptable” in Christian doctrine. I love our church’s website and how it describes doctrinal stances, but I am also keenly aware there is nothing on there about sexual orientation. It’s a big, divisive issue to take on, especially in a public setting. It’s easier to not talk about. Many Christians who would be affirming are quiet about it. I think this is even more the case in small towns, though I am still trying to figure this whole small town culture thing out. 🙂

So, I have decided to not be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” but rather to be out of the closet about what I stand for. This is especially important in the context of a Christian counseling practice, where others might easily assume things about my beliefs. I have decided if I have the welcoming light of love, acceptance, grace, and affirmation to share, then I should not hide it under any bushels, but let it shine so all can see. One little way I can do this, in my little role as one of the counselors at a Christian counseling center, is to specify “LGBT friendly.” Because I want everyone to know there is more than one way to be a Christian. And that God’s love is already for everyone and God loves us exactly the way we were made.

Just to be clear: All are welcome. 
https://goo.gl/images/G658Fd

omygourd… SCIENCE!! (why Genesis and science are not enemies)

Omygourd… SCIENCE!!

Recently I heard a brief presentation from a lovely, caring, passionate woman who was speaking about providing Christian religious education to elementary school children. I was on board with what she was talking about (sharing about the love of God to kids whose parents opt in to the program), but then she said something that made my heart sink. A boy informed her that he couldn’t believe in the 6-day Genesis creation because his dad told him the universe started with a big bang. She expressed to us her sense of sadness for him and asked that we pray for his mind to be open to change.

*Deep sigh*

First, let me say that I get it. I come from the tradition where believing in a literal 6-day creation is one of the litmus tests of faith. I felt like my 7th-grade science teacher was personally attacking my faith when she introduced our class to the concept of evolution. The process of trying to figure out how to incorporate modern science into my religion was terrifying, and there is a real sense that “those scientists” are just godless people who are out to destroy Christianity.

I’m on the other side of this divide now. But what I’m becoming increasingly aware of is that even today, the divide is still quite real. I wonder how often people still feel like they have to choose between believing mainstream scientific research versus believing in the religion they hold dear, which they also believe holds eternal implications for their soul.

My concern for the little boy, and the woman teaching large numbers of the kids, is that they will think you have to pick one side or the other. The little boy has clearly been introduced to mainstream science from his dad. The likelihood that he will change his mind about this and believe young-earth theory in the long run (not just for his 3rd and 4th grade years) seems like a long shot, when his family upbringing teaches him differently. What if he thinks Christianity is sold wholesale with believing in young earth, without any big bangs, without any evolution? That someone cannot believe in Christianity, evolution, and the big bang, all at the same time? And then he throws out the whole thing?

There is a third way. The choice is not either / or. The choice can be a resounding “YES!!”

It takes a different way of reading the Bible. There’s so much to say that I can’t even start to cover it in one blog post, but reading Genesis without needing it to square with a literalist view of how creation came to be can be so exciting and inspiring.

Here’s the thing. Genesis was never meant to be a factual record of how the universe, earth, and all the living species came into existence. Ancient peoples just didn’t have that concern. They told stories as representations of how things came to be. Stories that demonstrated values they had and beliefs about where they saw themselves in the universe, what they thought about good and evil, and what it means to be human. The Genesis creation story, when compared with other creation stories written in ancient Mesopotamia, stands out due to its belief in the goodness of creation and the lack of violence with which God creates the world (we just don’t realize that because we are not exposed to other creation myths of the time). That is a beautiful, inspiring thing! Just think about what insights the ancestors of your religion had about the nature of a loving God! It’s enough to make me use too many exclamation points in this one paragraph!

If we can shift our framework for Genesis from literal, factual story to a beautiful, poetic story about how life came into being and what God is like, the whole thing changes. I would say it opens right up. No longer are we trying to figure out how long a “day” in Genesis is, and why Genesis 1 and 2 seem to be describing the same situation but differently, and how both scenes can be literal (huh?? Yes, read Genesis 1 & 2 for yourself and look closely). No longer are we trying to force the Genesis story into a box it was never meant to be in. It is finally allowed to speak for itself as the artful masterpiece it is.

I know that jumping from a poetic reading of Genesis to believing in the big bang and evolution (however we think of it… intelligent design included) may just be too much. Or maybe you’re disinterested in the whole thing, or maybe none of these questions have ever bothered you. And that’s okay. No one needs to or should deconstruct their faith in a day. Many people never feel the need to.

But in my own experience, I find a much more vibrant, alive, and – dare I say – evolving faith when I trust that God is not confined by our personal interpretation of text on a page, and trust that God is also actively present in science (which is just systematic inquiry into the reality we find ourselves in). When I am open to the mystery of what is and how things happen, my heart quickens and I am moved deep in my being. God will always show up, even if it does not look like how we thought it would.

Amen!

Omygourd! Because gourds are funny. Photo cred Mallory Woodard

and Jesus was moved by her faith

There’s no way around it. I am a pastor’s wife. (I suppose I might also say that I have a pastor husband, but either way, my life is becoming deeply intertwined with the church). We have moved from the big city to a small town, to be an integral part of the life of the church. I’ve never lived in a small town. I’ve never been a pastor’s wife in this way. I am finding myself drawn more deeply toward spirituality in general, and Christianity in particular, in this new life phase. (If this seems obvious of a pastor’s wife, read early blog posts and note that I’ve had a long period of deconstruction of faith and have been to many a locale on the theological map). Christianity is calling me, perhaps necessarily (what can one do in a small town besides attend and participate in the life of your husband’s church?); perhaps because it is, itself, compelling.

***

The story of the Syrophoenician, or Canannite, woman is calling to me in particular. Coincidentally, Kevin preached on this very passage (Mark 7:24-30) the same morning I encountered it in the memoir I am reading. My mind continues to mull over it days later. In the story, the woman begs Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter to heal the child. Jesus is not from the same social group as this woman. His people conquered her people (the Canaanites) long, long ago, and they still look down on the Syrophoenicians with disgust. Jesus – son of God, right? – goes so far as to call this begging woman a “dog.” You filthy, disgusting, scavenging creature. Try to allow yourself to ponder that, Christians. It’s right there in the Bible. The woman is undeterred, however. “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs,” she retorts. Andrea Lingle points out, “The Canaanite woman claimed her place at the table or under it.” And Jesus is moved by this. The woman’s child is healed by her faith.

Jesus is moved by the woman’s faith. Jesus actually moves his position, his beliefs, because of this woman who refused to back down and be seen as undeserving of the graces and healing he had to offer. Christians who need to see Jesus as always, only fully divine, never saying or doing anything questionable, will see this differently. They likely see Jesus as purposely testing the woman to get her to demonstrate her faith. They might downplay the fact that Jesus actually gave this woman a terrible insult. To me, this seems to be a case of making the story fit the pre-existing theology.

But let’s not sugarcoat things. Let the text speak. If we read the story and interpret it based on the context and what it actually seems to be saying – not interpreting it to try and squeeze a particular meaning out of it – Jesus seems to be prejudiced against this woman initially, but is moved by her insistence that she, too, belongs in the realm of grace. It seems that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, believed initially that he was here to minister to the Jews. He is here for the children of Israel. And then the beliefs he thought were certain shift. This woman will settle for crumbs, but she will not settle for less than that. And then Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees that she too belongs. She receives full healing for her daughter because of her faithful insistence that healing is for her, for them, for everyone.

It is a significant divide we walk here. I am well aware of that. I acknowledge there are multiple ways to interpret this story. You may disagree with how I read it. It is an interpretation that is compelling to me. 

If Jesus is only, fully divine, then he’s either “just testing” her, or he’s not really insulting her, or God thinks it’s okay to insult people like that. A solely divine Jesus would not need to be moved by this woman to give justice to all, would he?

A Jesus who is, who needs to be, moved by others is a Jesus who is also fully human. Catch your theological breath and just play with ideas here. As my pastor husband quoted in his sermon, Karl Barth says we need not try to reconcile two beliefs seemingly at odds to try and make one cohesive belief system. We can just hold them both up together and let the rest be a mystery. Jesus Christ, divine. Jesus Christ, fully human. Jesus, God’s agent, divine, full of mercy and grace. Jesus, human, forgetting sometimes that all meant all. Jesus discovering through an encounter with the “other” that he is here not just for some – for his own people – but to heal and reconcile the whole world together.

I find this to be deeply moving. I generally do not feel full of grace, though I believe grace profoundly belongs to all. I go to the sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted so I can minister and be a counselor to those who are hurting. A man walks in and willingly cuts in front of me and another woman who have been waiting for a ridiculously long time in an empty waiting area so he can get fingerprinted for his concealed carry permit. He reinforces stereotypes I have of people like him. He feels entitled to get what he wants despite the needs or rights of others, and he does not even know it. And I confess: I have some hate for him in my heart.

But I know Jesus’s gospel isn’t just for people like me, the kind do-gooders of the world (who still have secret hate in their hearts). His gospel is for gun-toting Make America Great Again hats, for bleeding heart liberals, for desperate immigrants crossing borders and crossing deserts under cover of night, for families with loved ones killed by illegal immigrant gang members. His gospel of reconciliation and grace is for Jews, Canaanites, and even Romans. His gospel is for Israel, Native Americans, and even the United States. And in this story of the Canaanite / Syrophoenician woman, I see Jesus making the profound discovery of this as well. Perhaps there is hope for all of us.

 

Featured image credit goes to the Junia Project: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwifiZmYtMXdAhUvUt8KHcF-CdcQjRx6BAgBEAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fjuniaproject.com%2Fcaring-marginalized-jesus-canaanite-woman%2F&psig=AOvVaw22ej_O-oyaCQ6iAu80yQKJ&ust=1537389314168444