This is the first in a series of articles by The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., examining the Biblical texts traditionally used to address the issue of homosexuality from a religious (Jewish and Christian) perspective. This first article is the philosophical basis for all that follows in examining the seven passages which are used to assert that God condemns homosexuality and homosexual practice. To borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, used to describe the Biblical texts employed to keep women “in their place,” these are the “texts of terror” used against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Let us be clear: people of good faith disagree, both on whether or not this method of “Bible study” is the “right” way of reading and interpreting scripture, and on its application to these texts. What is offered here is one way, and a particularly Anglican/Episcopalian way, of engaging in that endeavor.
But before we begin with any one text, let us ask the most basic question of all: How are we to regard the Bible?
Be assured, I believe the Bible to be the Word of God — but not the “words” of God. That is, I do not believe that the Bible was dictated by God and written down by scribes of one sort or another, unmediated by the scribes’ own life experiences, culture, religious belief and context.
I believe that the Bible is many accounts, by many writers, over a thousand years time, of their experience of the Living God. Their accounts were heard (more often than read) as an experiential guide on how one accesses God (or how God accesses humankind) and discerns God’s will. The Bible is a collection of first-hand encounters with God, as experienced through the faithful (and sometimes unfaithful) people of God – from the Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures (somewhat condescendingly referred to by Christians as the “Old” Testament) and the Christian scriptures of the early Church in the “New” Testament.
As such, it is the place we always begin. In reading these holy texts, we learn the ways that people of faith have historically come to know God and God’s will. They are enormously instructive, and over several millennia, these texts have served as a guide for pilgrims of faith in their encounters with the Living God.
Some of these texts are history, some are poetry. Some are fables and myths, meant to teach an important truth. Some are personal accounts of individuals, and some are communal accounts of a nation. All are set in a particular historical and cultural context. And context is the central key in understanding these texts, and the all-important task of determining whether the wisdom contained therein is applicable to all people for all time.
Dan Helminiac, in his book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality (Alamo Square Press, 1994), offers a brilliant illustration about the importance of context:
It is important to pay attention to the different ways of reading a text, especially when dealing with ancient texts, like the Bible. The words might suggest one thing to us in the 21st Century but have meant something very different to the people who wrote them long ago.
Take an example from everyday life. In the United States we have an expression: to be out in left field. To understand this expression you have to know something about baseball. Areas of the baseball field are called center, right and left field, as viewed from the batter’s position. Most batters are right-handed. They swing from right to left. So they tend to hit the ball more often and more deeply into left field. When they do hit a ball into right field, the ball is not likely to go as far. So the player covering left field needs to be positioned far back in the field, far from the other players. In many ways the left fielder is isolated and out of touch, off in his or her own world. So to say that someone is “out in left field” means he or she is disoriented, out of contact with reality, wrong, unconventional, loony.
Now, what if you spoke perfectly good English but knew nothing of baseball or American usage and you heard that expression for the first time? “You’re wondering about Robert? He’s out in left field.” You might go out looking for Robert in a field somewhere off to the left! You understood the words, but you missed the point.
Of course, you could argue that the words mean what they say. You heard them, and you did understand them. They locate Robert in a field that is “left,” and “left” is a direction opposite “right.” After all, you do speak English! You could insist if you wanted, but everybody else would think you’re out in left field.
Baseball was really the big thing in the ’40s and ’50s. Other concerns have since shared the scene. So to make the same point in the ’60s and ’70s, you might have said, “You’re a real space cadet.” Today you might say, “You just don’t compute” or “You’re 404” (from the World Wide Web error message, “404 Not Found”: the requested document could not be located).
Those sayings have nothing to do with real fields, space travel or computers, and they all make the same point. But ignore the culture in which they belong and you’ll miss the point despite understanding the words.
Much of the Biblical scholarship of the latter half of the 20th century has been concerned with understanding the contexts in which the Holy Scriptures of the Bible were written. Scholars have researched and discovered much about the culture, science, knowledge, biases, and pressing issues in the societies of the ancient world – both within the Hebrew and early Christian communities, as well as the hostile, threatening and pagan cultures which surrounded them. To go back to our analogy, scholars have been learning about the various games of “baseball” operative at the time the Holy Scriptures were written, with the purpose of better understanding the meaning of those words.
So, first and foremost, in reading texts from the Bible, we must ask, “What did these words mean to their author?” and “What did these words mean to the community for which they were written?” Once the context has been understood, then we ask the question, “Is the message of this text eternally binding on all people of faith, or, has something changed in the context between then and now, which renders this text ‘culturally bound’ and not applicable in the same way to our current situation, given the knowledge and understandings of the present time?”
Not even the strictest fundamentalist or Biblical literalist gives the same authority and moral weight to every word of scripture. Few of us would hold Paul’s injunction against women appearing in church with their heads uncovered to have the same moral weight as Jesus’ injunction to forgive our enemies. Few of us are willing to be bound by all the commands given to us in the Biblical text – otherwise, we would give all we have to the poor to follow Christ, redistribute all the land every 50 years, refuse to charge any interest on our loans/investments, share our worldly possessions communally as did the early Church, and refuse to support our nation’s defense budget in accord with Jesus’ commandment not to resist evil. We have come to understand certain things as acceptable in the Biblical culture and time, but not in our own – among other things, polygamy and slavery – which few Christians would promote despite their acceptability in Biblical times. As we approach the Biblical texts about homosexuality, we must not conveniently change our stance to one of asserting that every word of scripture is inerrantly true and universally binding on all people for all time.
Understanding scripture in its contexts is no easy task, and it is fraught with potential misuse. All readers of scripture are subject to self-deception – that is, the temptation to interpret the scriptures in a way that satisfies our own selfish desires and biases, rather than hearing the truth of the passage which may challenge, condemn and call into question those desires and biases. That is why scripture must always be studied and understood in community. The temptation is too great to interpret scripture in our own image to attempt it alone. One must always be subject to the larger community’s understandings to guard against only hearing what one wants to hear.
Part of the community whose voice needs to be considered, is that of the Tradition – that is, what has been said over the years about any given passage of scripture. We, in the present time, are not the only ones who have struggled with these passages, and our own understanding needs to be informed by the larger community of the faithful in the past.
And third, we need to use our own reason and experience in interpreting these scripture passages. Our knowledge of science, psychology, and modern scholarly understandings need to inform our approach to these passages. Our knowledge about common allusions in scripture – from leprosy to demon possession, from conception and birth to race and gender realities – will inform our interpretation based on new findings from the secular realm.
These considerations – scripture, tradition and reason – will be our method for looking at the seven scripture verses traditionally thought to be associated with the issue of homosexuality.
One final and important note: I do NOT believe that God stopped revealing God’s self with the closing of the canon (officially sanctioned as “holy” and official) of Scripture. Some would argue that God said everything God needed and wanted to say by the end of the first century of the Common Era (a less condescending way of referring to that time since the birth of Christ). They would posit a God who, when the scriptures were “finished” bid the world a fond farewell and went off to some beautiful part of God’s creation (the Bahamas, Patagonia, Nepal?!!), leaving us to our own devices, given that everything had been said that needed to be said. I don’t believe that.
In John’s Gospel, which is largely made up of the conversation Jesus has with his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus says: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16: 12-13a) I take this to mean that Jesus is saying to the disciples, “Look, for a bunch of uneducated and rough fishermen, you haven’t done too badly. In fact, you will do amazing things with the rest of your lives. But don’t think for a minute that God is done with you – or done with believers who will come after you. There is much more that God wants to teach you, but you cannot handle it right now. So, I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you into that new Truth.”
The Church used scripture to justify slavery until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Church acknowledged that it had gotten this all wrong, and began to change itself and the culture into a more inclusive community. Was that not the Spirit leading us to a new truth about people of color? For centuries, and still to this day in some quarters, scripture has been used to denigrate and subjugate women. But many of us have come to know the error of those ways as we experience the gifts for ministry that women have been given. Is that not the Spirit leading the Church to say “we got it wrong” all these years?
And now, in these times, we are swept up in the holy chaos of asking, “Could we, people of faith, have been just as wrong about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? Might it be the Holy Spirit leading us to a new truth about homosexuality? Do we have the courage to admit we were wrong all these years? Are we open to being led by the Spirit to a new place?
I believe we have been wrong. And I believe it is the Holy Spirit leading us to this new understanding. And yet, we have these seven “texts of terror” with which we must deal. We cannot sweep them aside merely because we don’t like them. We must understand them in their contexts and see if there is a faithful way forward, following the Spirit’s lead, in learning this new truth.
In the next article, we will take up the great granddaddy of all the homosexual “texts of terror” from Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Lev 18:22) and “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Lev 20:13)