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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 131

Interpretation

(Archived material may be found at tonycrosscolumn.org.uk)

 

Although there may well have been a number of causes that led up to the present dispute in the world wide Anglican Communion, homosexuality has been the presenting problem. Behind the argument about homosexuality there has been fundamental disagreement about how Christians should regard the bible.

Naturally, all Christians regard the bible as their authority. We all depend on it completely for our religion. To that extent we all regard the bible as the word of God - or, as some would prefer to term it, as containing the word of God. But there is a huge gulf between how Christians at one end of the spectrum see the bible and how Christians at the other end see it. The debate about homosexuality has displayed this difference for all to see and has exacerbated the division between Christians who differ on the subject.

On the subject of homosexuality there are many Christians who believe that we should accept two people of the same sex who want to commit to each other for the rest of their lives. Many also agree that such unions should be blessed by the church and accepted by the Christian Community. Christians who are gay-friendly in this way have to struggle with certain texts in the bible that condemn homosexuality - texts that form the basis for the outright opposition by the gay-condemning group of Christians, who accuse the others of abandoning the plain instructions as set out in the bible.

When gay-friendly Christians attempt to reconcile homosexuality with Christianity they usually adopt one or both of the two main attitudes towards the bible.

The first attitude disagrees with the translations of the bible. They hold that the bible does not mean what it has been represented to mean. That is, that what the writer was writing about was not homosexuality as we know it today. For example, they might suggest that the biblical text does not refer to a commitment between two people of the same sex to live together in a committed relationship for the rest of their lives. Or they may aver that the meaning of the actual words used in the New Testament is not applicable to homosexual relationships today. For example, they may suggest that the New Testament writers were referring to male temple prostitutes or some such.

Thus in various ways they attempt to distinguish the meaning of the actual biblical text from the situation today. We will return to this aspect later.

The second approach taken by gay-friendly Christians seems to be the reverse of the first. In this approach they accept that the actual words in the bible mean what they appear to mean, but they suggest that they have lost their relevance for life today. In other words, they are saying that the only sensible way to read the bible is to interpret its meaning for life today. Some of the bible, they say, applies today as it did two or three thousand years ago, but other parts no longer apply.

To adopt this approach means, of course, that one’s attitude to the bible becomes all important. If one treats it as a book of rules, applicable for all time, then there is little or no need for interpreting. But if one sees the bible not as a literal guide but as a more general guide, then there is a need for us to use our brains to interpret the text for our own times.

Both those who see the bible as a rule book to be followed as literally as possible and those who see the bible more as a guide setting out eternal truths and principles, all see the Holy Spirit as being present in our lives to help us understand God’s truth. Without that assistance and enlightenment we would all be lost indeed.

Those who see the bible, not as a rule book but more as a guide, refer to practices mentioned throughout the bible that no longer apply. There are a number! For example, Christians are no longer forbidden to eat shellfish, nor are we likely to stone adulterers. There are numerous other examples where society has radically changed over the intervening two thousand and more years. Life today, they say, cannot be lived by the rules of two thousand years ago - the biblical text has to be ’interpreted’.

Those who are gay-friendly are able to accept homosexual practice because they see the condemnation of it in the bible as belonging to two or more thousand years ago. We have moved on in our knowledge and understanding since then. They say we are not bound rigidly today be a view of homosexuality formed long before it was properly understood.

Gay-friendly Christians still hold to the bible as containing the word of God, but they are able to accommodate homosexuality because they do not see it as contrary to the revelation that Christ gave us through his life and teaching.

Naturally those holding this view are not advocating a sexual free for all! But they accept that responsible, committed relationships between two people of the same sex are parallel to that of a man and woman who marry. It is not marriage (which is between a man and a woman), but it is a committed partnership founded on love and as such should be blessed by church and congregation, as it is by God.

Personally I see merit in both the two approaches outlined above. I believe there is real doubt about what the writers in parts of the New Testament meant, and a number of reputable biblical scholars support this view. But I also believe profoundly that we should banish the idea that we must follow the bible literally or slavishly. We have been given brains to use and we have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us in our understanding - we are meant to interpret the bible as we read it.

The commitment of two people of the same sex to each other for life seems to me to fulfil the Christian ideal. I believe that Christ would bless such a couple if he were walking the land today.

The main objection to the views expressed above - and we have to deal honestly with these objections by gay-condemning Christians - is that we devalue the bible.

The argument goes like this: if you decide to choose which verses of the bible you will accept and which you will refuse, then are you not in danger of eventually just reproducing a reflection of your own morality? Are you not cherry-picking the bits you like? What sort of objective morality is that? How can you truly adhere to ‘Christian’ moral principles if you just select what you wish to follow?

This is a genuine problem for many Christians. It also sounds plausible to those who never read the bible for themselves! What is the answer?

I think the answer goes something like this. Whether you like it or not, every person who reads the bible selects those parts that they pay more attention to and those that they bypass. We all read many of the strictures in the Old Testament and accept that they applied then but not now. They no longer apply and we all ignore them. We make our own choice.

Let me try to illustrate this. I will not choose Old Testament examples - although there are plenty! Lets take something about which Jesus instructed us: divorce.

Most Christians agree that divorce is wrong. But it happens - these days the figures are quite high. The churches accept it and many will remarry divorced people in church if asked. But it is wrong - and Jesus plainly said so - Matthew 19 and Mark 10. If you divorce for the wrong reason and remarry then Jesus says is tantamount to adultery. But today everyone accepts divorce as a regrettable but socially acceptable fact.

So what are we to make of this? Here is a clear command of Jesus that, in practice, we largely ignore. Surely you would not want to suggest that what Jesus said was just an ‘ideal’! That is a get-out! If you allow divorce because we ‘cannot reach up to the ideal’, then you may as well say that gay men can shack up with other gay men if they feel impelled emotionally and physically! That seems to me to be applying a similar principle!

Why is it some Christians are willing to act contrary to ‘biblical principles’ in some areas (e.g. divorce) but not in others (e.g. homosexuality)? Isn’t the real reason for a rejection of homosexuality that it goes against all that people have been taught and have learned from childhood? Maybe there are some who are able to objectively disagree with homosexuality, but I guess the vast majority are struggling with feelings of distaste for it.

When we try to assess the authority of the bible we have to rely on three basic supports. The first is the message of the bible itself (the message of the whole bible), and the second is the experience of Christians down the ages, and the third is our God-given reason and knowledge.

The message of the bible is not to be found by quoting texts, but rather by taking the whole message and forming an opinion of how that should be interpreted in today’s world. The message of the experience of Christians down the centuries is to be understood in the light of their understanding of Christianity and the world around them at the time, as expressed through their world view. Our reason and our knowledge enable us to form a view, after make use of every scrap of knowledge and understanding we can find.

The last few hundred years has seen an incredible transformation in the world through the acquisition of fresh knowledge and understanding. Compare the life and outlook of a modern commuter to the City of London every day with the life and outlook of a Galilean peasant two thousand years ago. They live in almost totally different worlds.

Immense strides have been made in the field of sexuality and psychology and today we understand human beings far better than ever we did. Greed is still greed and self sacrifice is still self sacrifice. Love is still love. But in almost every other area - and particularly that of self knowledge - we are different people. We are not the same as first century Palestinian man. We are different.

In the field of sexuality we now realise that some people have an orientation towards the same sex. It is not a choice - it is a given in their lives. In the light of that, society is in the process of re-evaluating its attitude towards homosexuality. Laws are being changed. Same sex partnerships are now acceptable by law in around nineteen countries.

That means that, as Christians, we have to go back to our bibles and re-evaluate our attitude to homosexuality. Forget isolated texts - we have to work out what the whole of Christ’s message is for the homosexual. And what the attitude of everyone else should be towards the homosexual. How would Christ treat homosexuals?

Surely sooner or later most Christians will recognise that the bible has to be interpreted and applied afresh in each new generation. Rigid adherence to old laws and insights just will not do. Surely we must soon reach the place where we all see that two people of the same sex may love each other and commit their lives to each other for the rest of their lives and remain faithful - just as heterosexual couples do. Surely as Christians we need to give them every encouragement and help them on their way. Of course the church should bless their union and we should all rejoice that these two Christians are faithfully following their Lord in their relationship together.

Tony Cross

June 2007


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