THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 6
A gay man looks at the bible…
This is my seventh attempt to write something about the bible from the gay person’s perspective. Why has it been so difficult? Because I find I have a mass of contradictory feelings and thoughts about the bible! And why is that? Because I have read and loved, treasured and studied the bible for over half a century; there is just so much that needs saying. Anyway, here goes with edition number seven – and there will be further thoughts on another occasion!
I treasure the bible and have based my life on what I believe to be its message. I see it as the Word of God. I have at least ten translations of it in the house – plus books that list variations between dozens of versions. I love the bible and I depend on it. Sometimes I also feel perplexed and confused and sad at the way other people read, treat, quote the bible. And yet I share a complete devotion to it – truly we Christians are meant to be ‘men of one book’.
So we have to start defining and qualifying. By the term ‘Word of God’ I mean that I believe that the bible is divinely inspired. In fact, I believe that God has entirely decreed that we should have exactly what we have got. All several hundred different versions of it! I do not believe that it is ‘infallible’, nor that it is ‘inerrant’ – both of these words are used about the bible by many Christians. I find no problem that people can uncover discrepancies between different parts, nor that there are contradictions on all sorts of things in all sorts of places. I feel no distress at this, because I don’t believe that God wanted to produce a bible that is ‘perfect’ in that sense. If he had, he would have produced it. I am satisfied that he did not, and does not, want us to regard the bible in that sort of light.
The bible is a treasury – a priceless library of men’s search for God over three millennia, and of God’s response. It points the way to salvation, and charts the ways of the human heart. It reveals very clearly just how paradoxical we human beings are. We can love and hate at the same time, profess complete allegiance yet betray in the next breath. It shows man at his best and at his worst. It has poetry, law, literature, history, ethics, worship, to name but a few. It is our source book which we ignore at our peril. I believe in, and practise having a daily devotional quiet time with my bible in front of me.
Yet, when all is said and done, the bible is just letters printed on a page. In itself it is an inanimate object. It cannot speak, persuade, give illumination without something else. What is that something else? It – or rather he – is the Holy Spirit. The bible is God’s revelation to us, but without the Holy Spirit operating in our minds as we read, it is no better than just another volume of history or law or poetry etc. Only with the Spirit can our minds and hearts be moved by the words on the printed page. And wherever the bible is read you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is there also, seeking to illumine the meaning to the heart of the reader, and hopefully to win his allegiance to wholehearted commitment to God.
It is precisely at this point, in my opinion, that so many Christian fundamentalists go wrong. They put the book on a pedestal, and omit to say that only with the Holy Spirit can any of it make any sense to anyone. I think their way leads to idolatry, for they are making obeisance to a book – an object. It isn’t a gilded cow made from rings and gold ornaments, but it is a ‘holy cow’ – something that all Jewish Law promulgated against, and something alien to Jesus Christ and his apostle Paul. For me, the fundamentalist approach is an abomination. Something to be recognized and avoided at all costs.
So, I rely on the bible as the Word of God, but I rely totally on the Holy Spirit to aid my every reading so that I receive the light of Christ on the verses I read. I take advantage of every iota of fresh information about the meaning of the words used to New Testament Christians, every fresh archaeological find, every fresh psychological insight into the minds of the writers of the New Testament. I press my intellectual ability and all my reasoning capacity into the service of God, and make it subject to the Holy Spirit. I refuse to just use my mind to produce human reasoning – all must pass through the filter of the Holy Spirit, to see what he wants to point out to me and show me.
This is why the whole argument about whether the bible legislates against homosexuality is, I believe, often fought on the wrong ground. Of course it is possible to analyse the few verses that are trotted out against homosexuality and to show that the mindset of those times was so vastly different from today. Of course it is easy to show that homosexuality as a concept only came into being just over 100 years ago. But to argue in this way is to let the opposition dictate the battlefield. We may need to show that we have answers of that sort – but lets get the battle back onto the right ground!
The right battleground is not about this text or that text, but rather on how we should use the bible. Those who want to argue against homosexuality from specific verses must be asked to regard instead how they view the bible itself. Do they really think that the bible specifically covers every new situation arising in the twenty-first century? What about the dropping of the atomic bomb, gene therapy and cloning? What text talks of that? What do they think the bible is for? Are they in danger of making the bible into an idol? A sacred book that must be ‘literally’ true and ‘literally’ followed, entailing a desperate search for the ‘relevant’ text?
They must be asked why it is that St Paul never condemned slavery. It is a crucial question, because it reveals that morality is always contemporary. Christ did not come to lay down moral laws – only to say that we must love God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself. That is the only true moral criterion. And each century will have different views about what loving our neighbour means. To some extent each century builds on the insights coming from it’s predecessors.
In New Testament times the status of women was vastly different from that of today in the West. Does that mean the New Testament writers were ‘wrong’? No – simply that they lived in a different age, and we have moved forward under God to see that men and women are truly equal (though different) and should be accorded an equal place in society. Paul could not even contemplate suggesting such an idea in his day and age, but today we would be choosing darkness instead of light if we did otherwise.
As one begins to think about it one can see that all the time, when we read the New Testament, we select what we want to agree with and quietly drop the other bits. Paul talked about women speaking in church – now ignored. Jesus talked about divorce – now largely ignored. Many examples can be found.
There is another authority, besides the bible - Christian tradition. Usually it is maintained that this is embodied in the Church – the creeds, traditions, laws and rituals. And to a large extent this is true. But it is a confusing authority, as evidenced by all the churches being so at odds with each other. One baptizes babies, another baptizes only adults. One has Holy Communion weekly, another has it only every few months. One has women priests, another men only. One welcomes gay Christians, another does not. One allows divorced Christians to remarry in church, another doesn’t. And the list goes on infinitum. If you try to circumvent this by saying that there is only one true church – the Roman Catholic Church – then you only have to look at their history to see how dreadfully wrong that church has been at various times in the past. That should not surprise – it is run by men just like you and me.
So where is this article going? Perhaps to say simply this: God has provided the bible for us. We have to struggle to understand it as best as we may. We have to investigate and research as much as we can. It is “a lamp unto our feet” – but we have to use it in the right way. And trying to deduce numerous immutable moral laws is not the right way. We need to enthrone the twin principles that Christ (and Paul) stated: that we must love God with all our hearts and our neighbour as ourselves. All other moral ‘laws’ stem from these two and they have changed over the last two thousand years and will change again over the next two thousand years.
And for the gay person? No difference. The two primary principles laid down by Christ operate. As for all the rest – it is between you and the Holy Spirit. Don’t let any church, or any church official, or any stricture from the society in which you live overrule your obedience to the Holy Spirit as he guides you in love into all truth. Or do I mean in truth into all love? Perhaps it is the same thing.