Our family of churches, the ones that make up Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, are gathering this week for worship and business. The tension we’ve been living in for the past couple of years is almost palpable at times, while in other moments we just hug and laugh like always.
[sarcasm alert] We’re probably the only ones wrestling right now with issues surrounding human sexuality. [end sarcasm alert] There’s a narrative in the wider Evangelical culture that an agenda is pushing us to have conversations that don’t need to be had, that shouldn’t be had. That God has spoken in the bible, and there is nothing to discuss. Why are we being pressured to have these conversations?
I’d like to offer some thoughts to go against and strike down that narrative. For years, I’ve been praying, thinking, reading the bible, studying biblical words, reading books, and (probably most significantly) walking with flesh and blood people as they’ve sought Christ around all kinds of issues regarding sexuality.
I will just speak to my experience.
I have heard the voice of Christ in silence. I have heard the voice of Christ in the scripture. I have heard the voice of Christ through people who affirm a traditional position on human sexuality, and I have heard the voice of Christ through people who affirm monogamous, lifelong same-sex commitments. God is speaking in lots of ways and I am doing my best to listen.
I find myself bristling whenever I see this issue painted as “bible vs. worldly pressure.” Sure, there are people who affirm same sex marriage and who do not hold to biblical authority. But it is not by any means all. Experiences of conflict and tension cause us to diligently search the scriptures and the voice of Christ. This is necessary. The bible shapes how we experience the world, and how we experience the world shapes how we interpret the bible. This is why God gave the Holy Spirit to illumine. This is why God gave community, the body of Christ, to help understand Christ’s instructions.
When the early church held the historic councils that shaped what we consider orthodox Christian belief, it did not do so in a vacuum. Bishops didn’t sit around and go, “Hey, you know what? Let’s get together and figure out the core things we believe.” Nope. The councils were always called in response to pressure and disagreement and different practices and beliefs. There was sharp disagreement and dissension in the church every single time (experiences) that pushed for these councils (Christian community) to deliberate what Christ was saying (with use of, but not exclusively relying upon, scripture).
We live in a time when gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and queer people are advocating for their place in the world and in Christian faith. It is not wrong that this experience is causing us to dive into scripture and discuss in Christian community what Christ is saying. It is normal. It is not wrong that the stories of evangelical Christians who identify as LGBTQ are driving us to question our interpretation of scripture and to seek Christ. This is normal, and right, and a way to faithfully seek God. In other words, it’s normal, not “worldly pressure” to seek Christ and study the bible more carefully. It is not unbiblical to ask, “Have we understood this correctly?” It is the way of the Berean (Acts 17:11).
Or think about the Reformation. When the bible was translated into various languages, when the printing press was invented and put the bible in many people’s hands…these had a huge influence on the Reformation. But we are naive if we think the pure bible caused the Reformation. The development of western philosophy also drove the Reformation, highlighting the individual as opposed to social hierarchy and community. Politics drove the Reformation, as kings and princes realized embracing these ideas would help them throw off the shackles of Rome and gain power. Yet we still trust that the Sovereign God spoke truth through the Holy Spirit in the vast changes that occurred, marred as they were by “fleshly” things like philosophy and politics.
Our beliefs color how we interpret the bible. It’s naive to think that they don’t, to think that the bible just speaks truth and that’s where our beliefs come from. Let me give one example out of thousands. The word “hilasmos” or the other form “hilasterion” in Greek is only used a few times in the bible. It’s used to describe what Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has done for us, so it’s a fairly essential thing to get right. How do we translate it? One option for translation is propitiation, which means something done to someone to atone for sin. This would mean Christ changed something in God, that Christ atoned for God’s wrath, in order to forgive sins. The other option for translation is expiation, which is something done to sins themselves. This would mean simply that Christ cleansed sin in us through his death, implying that all of the Trinity was working together to bring salvation instead of Jesus placating an angry God. (See here for more.)
Not surprisingly, scholars and pastors who believe that God’s wrath needs to be avenged seem to choose propitiation, while other traditions choose expiation. My point is, it’s all inter-related. The scriptures have shaped our theology which shapes how we interpret and even translate the bible. It’s not easy to get it right. It’s not easy to realize when we are just wanting to find a path we like, and when we are letting God challenge us to change or maybe even repent. But it is certainly not unbiblical to ask, “What does the bible really say? What does this word really mean? How have my/our beliefs in the past rightly or wrongly shaped my interpretation of the bible? How does this new experience with a person give me new insight into the bible?”
I don’t like our disagreement, but I am no longer afraid of it. I don’t like saying “I don’t understand all of this”, but I am no longer afraid of it.
I embrace humility. I embrace Christ. I desire for the Holy Spirit and the bible and my community to hold me accountable and to guide me into all truth.
I embrace and listen with extra care and respect to those on the margins, because that’s exactly what Jesus modeled for me. This means listening with love to my brothers and sisters who identify as LGBTQ, hearing their stories and their way of interpreting the bible and the voice of Christ.
Those are some of my thoughts tonight. May we ask the questions, and pursue Christ. May we sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron.