30 May 2015
Voices That Confuse: Reclaiming Biblical Truth from Interpretative Distortions
This article appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter. It is being posted here for those who prefer to read it online and may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.
The church is in confusion today. The voices advocating for the inclusion of same-sex relationships in the church have been loud enough to sow confusion even among ordinary church members in solid evangelical churches. The typical layperson’s grasp of Scripture on the issue of homosexuality is weakening. Studying the Scriptures on the matter doesn’t seem to help anymore. Why? Because these passages are increasingly undermined by strong, cultural worldviews that are driving alternative interpretations of Scripture.
Do you know what they are? These “background doctrines” are influencing how Scripture is being read today. Living our lives before God, aligning our wills with his, is the central objective of our Christian faith. It matters how we live and on what basis we claim God’s approval.
Here are just three of the worldviews we need to see operating in the background, along with ways we can respond to them with biblical faithfulness.
One, personal stories drive biblical interpretation.
In our culture, personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We don’t look outside of ourselves, to God, to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own experience.
We see this when we look at behavior. There are no longer any agreed-upon moral standards to determine what is right or wrong. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” And no one has the right to say my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.
Do not think this is merely a secular way of thinking. It is making headway into the church in subtle, but powerful ways.
For example, a video made several years ago, For the Bible Tells Me So, presents emotionally powerful stories of kids who grew up in the church and who took their own lives because of the discrimination, abuse, depression, and isolation they felt growing up gay. These are powerful stories and they should move us. But the objective behind telling these stories is to cause us to question why we should hold on to the traditional view of homosexuality in light of how painful—even life-threatening, as the argument goes—that position is for people who live with same-sex attraction. The message? Holding on to the orthodox view hurts people. It’s dangerous.
This illustrates how we decide what is right or wrong—how does it impact others; how does it impact me? Divine revelation, which is God’s story, becomes secondary to my personal autobiography.
How do we respond to this cultural worldview, that our personal stories interpret God’s will for us?
1. We do need to listen to people’s stories. There are things we need to learn in all these stories of those living with same-sex attraction. Our hearts should be moved to compassion by stories of isolation, loneliness, abuse, rejection, fear. But subjective experience can never be the basis for arriving at objective truth. Personal stories illuminate; they challenge us; they help us apply the truth of Scripture to our lives. But they must be viewed in the light of what Scripture teaches about life and God. We need an objective word outside us to fully understand ourselves.
Personal stories illuminate, challenge us, help us apply the truth of Scripture to our lives. But they must be viewed in light of what Scripture teaches about life and God.
2. We need to recognize that all our stories are broken. There is a hidden message inserted into these stories when they are presented in these ways, and it’s not immediately evident. It’s this: my sexuality, no matter how it presents itself, is essentially good. The reason I struggle here is because the traditional view of Scripture doesn’t acknowledge the truth of my own experience. I am not in need of rescue or redemption from myself—what I need is freedom to be what I believe I should be.
But the biblical view is that everything about us is broken by the Fall. When Jesus pursued society’s outcasts (a major theme of pro-gay apologetics), he meet them where they were—but he didn’t leave them there. He healed the lepers, and he forgave the “sinners and prostitutes.” When we truly meet Jesus, we are not affirmed in the direction we want in life—our lives are turned upside down and redirected.
3. We need to give true compassion. Ultimately, to allow these stories to reshape God’s word to approve what it does not, is to offer a false compassion. Our compassion must be God’s compassion and not the world’s. God’s compassion comes to us in and through our suffering—and we recognize that sometimes God does not remove our “thorns in the flesh.” We dare not think we can be more merciful than God by encouraging someone to live in ways that are incompatible with his calling.
Two, modern culture is superior to ancient culture
This worldview doctrine goes like this: We moderns know more than people who lived long ago. They were ignorant. We’re not. They didn’t have the knowledge and data that we have today.
Now, this worldview centers on two arguments.
The first one is that sexual orientation is genetic and fixed. Same-sex attraction is part of God’s design for sexuality and is therefore natural and good. We know this from science.
The second one is that the Bible’s negative view on same-sex relationships was because the biblical writers did not observe, in their culture, positive, monogamous same-sex relationships like we see today. They were concerned with promiscuity, exploitative sex like prostitution, and deviant sexual practices centered on cultic worship. So the Scriptures that prohibit homosexual behavior do not apply to loving, faithful same-sex relationships. It’s time to bring the ancient Bible into our time now.
So, how do we respond to this cultural worldview, that modern trumps ancient?
1. Regarding the argument that being gay is genetic, and that orientation is immutable, we respectfully say that it has not been proved. Saying it is, is only a bare assertion. Right now the dominant evidence points not to nature, but to nurture—and maybe some sort of combination. But, let’s be careful and wise here. We should be open to whatever medical research is discovering. We should not close our minds to the possibility that homosexuality might have some genetic or biological component. The Fall has affected everything about us, even down to the smallest level of our biology. But the Bible’s claim to be our guide to faith and life—in other words, how we ought to live—is not altered or threatened by this. Ultimately, science cannot make a moral judgement.
2. About same-sex relationships, when Paul wrote Romans, same-sex relationships, even long-term ones, were not uncommon. Paul traveled widely in the Greco-Roman world, he was a highly educated man, and it is safe to say that he would have been familiar with the varied sexuality embedded in Greco-Roman culture, just as anyone is today who has studied the classics. Paul is clearly saying that all homosexual behavior—not just promiscuous sexual behavior or sex connected with idolatry—is in need of redemption by the atonement of Jesus Christ.
3. We can agree that the Bible is not a science or medical textbook. But let’s be clear on what it is: a book that is authoritative on the human condition. It makes that claim—it says what is wrong with humanity and how God is redeeming it. 2 Timothy 3:16 is one of a number of passages that assert the Bible’s authority over how we ought to live.
One more thing: If Scripture is subordinate to whatever cultural perspective is current, then how can we believe anything God says? We will always throw out portions we don’t agree with, if we see the Bible as merely being man’s ancient attempt to understand God. Faith, then, will always default to what I want in life. As Tim Keller often says, if the Bible is an eternal word from God, then we should not be surprised that every generation and culture will be offended by something in Scripture. God’s ways are not our ways.
Finally, doctrine is bad; love is good.
Doctrine kills the human spirit. Religious rules and propositions place burdens on people, robbing them of freedom. The Bible is about love, and that’s what matters. Whatever is loving among people is to be celebrated, especially when it includes those who have been religiously excluded or mistreated. So, any passages that appear unloving to any group of people are reinterpreted or dismissed as not being authentically from God (or Jesus). This argument is being made forcefully today: How can loving relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, be wrong? That is a powerful argument. A powerful emotional argument.
Do we have a response here?
1. The biggest problem with this argument is that love needs an objective definition. Love is more than a desire that pulls me or a feeling that overwhelms. If the strength of my love for someone makes it right, then anything goes. I can love whomever I want, in whatever way I want. The logical end of this worldview is a definition of love expressed by Woody Allen when he married his adopted step-daughter: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
But love without definition or boundaries is not harmless. The Fall has corrupted all good things. Without a moral standard, love is easily twisted into self-centered pleasure, vulnerable to abuse and power. That’s not love. God’s design for sex—and marriage— was originally good, and it remains so even today, in spite of our continual failing to faithfully live within its life-affirming boundaries. The transcendent meaning of sex and marriage is a vision we need to grasp anew.
Love needs definition—and it is found in the One who is Love himself. The foundation for loving others is first to love God and obey his commandments (1 John 5:1-3).
2. It is significant to note that Jesus always appealed to Scripture when addressing controversial issues. When he discussed sexual behavior with the Pharisees, in the context of marriage and divorce (Matthew 19:3-6), he referred to God’s creational order of male and female as affirming the only permissible boundaries for sexual expression. The so-called “silence” of Jesus on the issue of homosexuality is clearly dismissed by his recognition of God-ordained sexual boundaries.
3. There is another hidden message in this post-modern doctrine—that love requires sex. Intimacy is not possible without it. But intimacy is much richer and more varied than sexual expression. Intimate relationships—where vulnerability, transparency, companionship, selflessness, and a sharing of mutual interests and life-goals are lived out—happen in friendships, too. God cares deeply about our relationships. He knows that some will not marry or cannot marry, and that can be a significant loss to live with. He knows that. But he has placed us in a community of his body, and deep, loving friendships should be the norm. We have lost that perspective today. C.S. Lewis said, in The Four Loves, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
Finally, how we live regarding all issues of life ultimately reveals our hearts toward God. “Thy will be done”—or my will be done—describes everyone’s relationship with God. To possess a reliable compass to see if we are living for him or for our own desires, requires that we submit everything to God. Unless we work hard to discern our own personal or cultural “background” agendas, the temptation to merge God’s will with our own will always remain deceptively strong.