by Darryl G. Klassen
How do we abuse scripture in relation to biblical sexuality?
If the purpose of hermeneutics is to bridge the gap between the mind of the biblical writer and our own understanding of the text, we must confess that we come to scripture with a particular set of lenses. These lenses are smudged with our cultural context, our contemporary issues, and a preconceived goal of what we want to read in scripture. This may lead to an abuse of the text to make it say what we want it to say.
There are countless ways that we abuse scripture in the pursuit of defining sexuality—in both affirming and traditional perspectives. Here are four hermeneutical lenses:
1. The Hermeneutic of Experience
Christians who desire to affirm the LGBTQ position and erase centuries of pain and exclusion from the church appeal to the hermeneutic of experience. They agree not to elevate experience over the authority of scripture. However, they believe that the value of experience has been ignored in how we read scripture.
For example, Jesus warned his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount to watch out for false prophets (Matthew 7:15–20). He said a good tree bears good fruit; a bad tree bears bad fruit. By their fruits, you will know a false prophet.
Since traditional teaching on same-sex relations has brought harm to gays and lesbians (bad fruit—depression, suicide), experience reveals traditional teaching as unbiblical. In contrast, Christians embracing LGBTQ people brings good fruit (acceptance, love, affirmation), and an experience of grace and mercy; thus, it is Christ-like.
Question: Do we have the authority to reinterpret biblical teaching because that teaching brings an uncomfortable experience?
In hermeneutics, “Context is king in interpretation.” In the context of Matthew 7, we read that Jesus defines “bad fruit” as “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them” (v. 26). Good fruit = obedience; Bad fruit = sin.
If adherence to Jesus’ commands results in discomfort for some, does that make it “bad fruit”? Imagine the unhappy life that obedience to scripture may produce when a married couple stays together even though the spark of love has fizzled. Jesus’ teaching on divorce, if taken seriously, would not result in a “good experience” but would produce “good fruit.”
2. The Sin Trajectory
This hermeneutical lens teaches that the concept of sin is in flux; sin has changed over time. After all, Jesus does not mention same-sex relationships in his discussion of sin. OT prohibitions have been swallowed up in the grace of the new covenant.
Affirming Christians ask that traditionalists adopt a “redemptive-movement” hermeneutic. Do we not see this in the biblical teaching of women and slavery? The context of oppression on women and slaves in the Bible will seem harsh to us from our Western perspective. Yet the NT writers move in a liberating direction in contradistinction to NT contexts. Women have been set free by the gospel and slavery is considered immoral by Western standards.
Same-sex restrictions have not had that same consideration. Those with same-sex orientation are under the same restrictive teachings as their first-century counterparts. Even an appeal to OT teachings (Leviticus 18) reveals an inconsistency: A man sleeping with a man is still an abomination, but mixing fabrics is now okay, as is working on the sabbath and charging interest on loans. We read in Colossians 2:14 that the legal demands have been canceled.
Affirming Christians point to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch as proof that the NT teaches the inclusion of sexual minorities. There is a new trajectory: In the OT, God extended blessings to Israel through procreation; in the NT/church, God extends his blessings through faith in Christ.
True, the Mosaic Law excluded eunuchs from certain religious privileges. With the Ethiopian eunuch we observe a welcoming inclusion into the church under the new covenant. In the eunuch we see a foreigner, a sexually-other individual, given dignity and worth, an example of the limitless grace of God.
Does this mean that God accepts sexual minorities just as they are? According to the prophecy of Isaiah (56:4–5), eunuchs may live in relationship with God under the new covenant. No one will be excluded. But the prophecy also says that they must “choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant.” In other words, God welcomes all who align their lives with his program for kingdom living.
Does Jesus’ silence on same-sex issues imply that the trajectory on sin has changed? Does the new covenant erase the restrictions on sexuality in the OT?
3. The “Greatest Sin” Fallacy
This hermeneutic, if it can be called so, is multifaceted. Conservative Christians who want to maintain a biblical standard for the church regarding sexuality and holiness will use this hermeneutic to build walls. And walls are meant to keep people out.
The “greatest sin” fallacy is based upon the idea that a chapter and verse rightly adhered to provides evidence enough that homosexuality is a sin—an abomination before the Lord. There are six passages (“clobber passages”) in scripture that provide the heaviest argument for this defense. They are typically used to clobber progressive or affirming believers with “the truth.” In terms of their interpretive meaning, they are not wrong.
If we are talking about how we abuse scripture, then we must consider how these passages are used by conservative Christians inappropriately.
a) First, scripture can be used ungraciously, as a weapon, to “beat down” the other.
b) Scripture does not need our anger or our hatred to be effective; in fact, it lessens its power.
c) Scripture has more to say on sexuality than these six passages. Of the 31,102 verses in the Bible, only six talk about same-sex sins.
d) Conservative Christians are guilty of focusing on the LGBTQ movement as the “greatest sin” of our times, as if it were the only issue in our battle to be holy. We view same-sex attraction with disgust while:
- Turning a blind eye to the sexually-active youth in our congregations.
- Condoning the culture of extramarital affairs.
- Failing to address the issue of pornography in our clergy and membership.
- Allowing easy divorce and remarriage among believers.
Same-sex relationships are not the unforgiveable sin; it is a sin among other sins.
The scriptures speak to all sins and to all sinners with the same truth and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
4. The Simple, Traditional Hermeneutic
“Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
This simple, traditional hermeneutic has been the mainstay of evangelicals for many an argument over the last several decades. It has been a defense against challenges to fundamental values. Is it sufficient to respond to the diverse social issues of our time?
To answer a complicated issue such as sexuality by simply opening the Bible and citing a passage is a poor application of the sacred Word. Such a response to those seeking theological answers to social problems lands in the category of abuse and ungraciousness.
A gay Christian responded to this hermeneutic saying, “Jesus and the scriptures that tell of his good news are products of their ancient environment. We can’t read the Bible expecting to find a robust 21st-century cosmology any more than we can read the Bible hoping to find an evolved anthropology or a position on the Confederate flag or the Pythagorean theorem. Or, for that matter, an elaborate position on human sexuality that takes into account all the advances the social sciences have made in the past few decades” (Brandon Ambrosino).
There are, to be sure, universal truths that we must acknowledge: Love God, love your neighbour, forgive your enemies, care for the poor.
There are historical-theological truths we would die for: Jesus died for sinners on a cruel cross and rose again on the third day.
Then there are controversial truths: Young Earth Creationism vs. Theistic Evolution; literal adherence to Mosaic Law (stone your children if they disobey); sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow Jesus (do we do this?).
This latter category begs for careful thought and study. Can a simple, traditional hermeneutic truly answer the question of sexuality in curt cliches?
Darryl Klassen (D. Min.) is a husband to Sharon, a father to two twenty-somethings, a preacher, and an adjunct professor at Steinbach Bible College. Darryl has pastored two EMC churches and is currently on the preaching team at Blumenort Community Church.