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Tears in God's Wineskin: A Theology of Hospitlity

Part 4: Appendix


Translation & Interpretation

Biblical hermeneutics unfortunately cannot bring closure to the discussion concerning acceptance or non-acceptance of homosexually-oriented Christians in the Church, since the issue will always be deeper than simple disagreement over what biblical text may or may not say. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this study it is appropriate to consider those biblical texts linked to homosexuality and how they are understood.

 Good hermeneutics and bad hermeneutics for these texts exist, regardless of personal attitude towards homosexuals, because of the varying levels of care with which biblical text is researched. Someone may passionately state, “The Bible clearly shows . . .” and speak with scholarly insight and wisdom, but just as likely they may reveal a profound lack of scriptural understanding, accompanied by a presumption of sovereignty over truth. Care must be taken whenever a particular opinion is strongly held regarding biblical text, for it is likely prejudiced by external influences that render the text itself a misunderstood pericope. In the same regard tradition may be considered of greater importance than theological development and cultural changes, providing a political deafness rather than openness to possible new truths and theological expansion.

 While exposition and hermeneutics make up this chapter and not psychology, it is worth noting that from personal experience, I tend to find that the more uncomfortable and insecure a person is in their own sexuality, the greater their ignorance of and prejudiced towards a sexual orientation different from their own. In recent years, some of the most homophobic people have been revealed as being homosexual and in hiding, fearful of what might be thought of them. Refraining from sounding like a tabloid wishing to name names I am aware of a variety of scandals over the past 20 years in America and the UK involving certain conservative Christian evangelists and Roman Catholic Priests, publically highly anti-gay, who have been revealed to be homosexual. Such a state of affairs confirms as true René Girard’s observation that, “The best way not to be crucified, in the final analysis, is to do as everyone else does and join in the crucifixion.” [1]    

 Biblical text is a rich collection of literary genres, spanning a myriad of peoples, cultures, languages and ages that requires translation and interpretation for the modern ear of equally diverse cultures and languages. The text may be material, artistic, ideational, cultural, social, literary, or a combination of any of these and its medium may be biography or autobiography, history, treatise, poetry, fable or legend; with shades of polemic, information, dialogue, politics or hymns; incorporating moods of metaphor, simile, allegory, parable and literality. Accepting everything in the Bible as literal, or dismissing it all as purely figurative, at best undermines the wealth of scriptural meaning and its intended revelation, at worst it twists the Old and New Testaments into indigestible stodge and sometimes even oppressive poison.      

 The New Testament tells us to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” and the French generally do this, as do believing Christian Arabs, but most of us do not kiss each other whenever we meet. Are most of us therefore acting unbiblically? We seem to place enormous importance on being “born again” in order to enter the Kingdom of God, as Christ commanded Nicodemus, yet almost completely ignore his command to the rich young man of “sell all you have and give it to the poor.” Jesus instructs his disciples to wash each other’s feet, but I doubt many of us have ever practiced this. It is epistemologically crucial to take seriously our hermeneutical responsibility regarding scripture while carefully balancing this with a realistic grasp of how flexible we may be in relation to day-to-day modern living as we draw on ancient text to guide us. Nowhere is this perhaps more currently applicable - or more fiercely debated - than with the subject of homosexuality and the church.

 The Bible is held by some to categorically prohibit same-sex relations on the grounds that they are unnatural and forbidden by God, while others insist that there are different ways to interpret scriptural text without abandoning biblical authority. Such diametrically opposing views raise the question of how we should consider translation from ancient text which is steeped in specific Hebrew or Greek/Roman culture, colloquialism and idiom of the day. Similarly the question must be raised concerning what criteria we are meant to use when considering whether text is eternally authoritative or merely historically and culturally informative and thus irrelevant today. When considering ethical and moral issues, does our understanding of biblical text include reading scripture in the light of scripture and carry the desire to understand divine truth regardless of personal prejudices? Perhaps more habitually, our understanding of biblical text and its authority depends on how well it supports and reaffirms entrenched personal views founded on our own social conditioning, traditions and taboos. It takes great courage to be open and vulnerable before the Word of God and leave behind social blinkers in order to seek God’s truth, love, holiness and commands in all their fullness, for all people, without being hindered by our own personal views.

 We read in Genesis how everything God made was “very good” from the beginning. We recognise and assert that everything God makes is indeed good and we consider with awe how wonderfully and fearfully made, is the divinely constructed human being, created and loved by God the Father, redeemed at cost by the Son and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It seems strange, then, that a people confessing allegiance to a holy, unconditionally loving, wholly imaginative and creative God who himself took on flesh, has so little positive and celebratory sexual Christian theology. Weighted in favour of Paul’s writing, and aided by Augustine, the human body tends to be viewed with suspicion and regarded as carnal, lustful and ‘bad’, while the human spirit is perceived as transcendent, pure and ‘good’ because as Paul notes, “the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh,” (Gal 5:17) and Augustine contemplates, ‘So I was in conflict with myself and was dissociated from myself . . . [The will] is torn apart in a painful condition, as long as it prefers the eternal because of its truth but does not discard the temporal because of familiarity.’ [2] Perhaps unsurprisingly, many if not most heterosexual Christians, inhibited to express, speak of or write about heterosexuality in general, are afraid to address the subject of homosexuality with anything other than fear of its ‘otherness’ and consider its position in creation as erroneous. Can we seriously consider, however, that God who creates all things “very good” would deliberately create an apparently defective people to be hated by others?

 The on-going debate of nature versus nurture excites and provoke as the question is asked of whether or not homosexuality is learned behaviour or genetically fixed. As developments in genetic mapping progress, growing evidence suggests a definitive existence of sex genes. However, at this time of writing there is no final and concluding proof of the genetic pre-fixing of homosexuality and no single cause of sexual orientation has been established. This study is not the arena for discussing what is a vast and intense body of genetic research but suffice to say this fascinating field of work does at least suggest either a genetic prevalence or an epigenetic passing on of homosexuality from parent to child. [3] Such mounting evidence may eventually necessitate some serious rethinking by a Christian conservatism that opines so vehemently the view that homosexuality is a choice, a learned behaviour, a ‘life-style’ [4] not created by God, that may consequently be un-chosen and unlearned, rather than a sexuality that is in-born and thus God-created from the outset.

 Throughout the history of the Christian church are instances of strongly entrenched views being radically transformed from one position to something entirely opposing as human understanding of our world and universe has developed. Copernicus was condemned by the church for asserting that the earth was not the centre of the universe as was originally believed by the church, Galileo was excommunicated for maintaining that the sun did not rotate around the earth, and Isaac Newton’s conclusions concerning physical laws were constantly challenged by the church. Yet, as humankind’s knowledge via microscope and telescope has developed we have come to understand more and more about our existence and the scientific laws that govern us and the early scientists have frequently been proven correct in ideas that were originally opposed by the church because of scriptural understanding. The church and Darwin were once at loggerheads in court over issues of Creationism that are today rarely debated and just a century or so ago Christians across Europe and the Americas appealed vehemently to biblical text to condone and support the slavery trade, yet today this appalling practice is regarded by Christians as wholly unacceptable. Similarly, attitudes towards women, their authority, ability to teach and serve the church, have altered drastically over recent years, as confirmed with the 2014 acceptance of women bishops, though many would argue much still remains to be changed.

For homosexuality and the church, we have reached a time when conventional church denominations and conservative Christians continue, on the whole, to drown out the voices of inclusive denominations and liberal Christians who dare to test and rethink the condemnation of same-sex relations. Christian gay men and lesbians continue to face dismissal by Christian churches and groups as deviants who should repent of homosexual sin and remain celibate; regarded as sick and in need of healing; oppressed/possessed and in need of deliverance; or indeed viewed by some as beyond all hope and merely awaiting the fires of hell.

Such judgemental attitudes cause gay men and lesbians to experience, at best, an overwhelming sense of being unwelcome, condemned and disregarded, which in turn allows the church in general to ignore hate crimes and the verbal and physical violence perpetrated against gay men and lesbians. Zealous heteronormativity and homophobia are licensed by prejudiced sentiment and anti-gay activity within society and are occasionally even fuelled by emotive preaching. However, an interpretation of biblical text that condemns a specific minority while supporting their oppressors should never sit comfortably with Christians when New Testament teaching consistently confirms the need for grace, love, liberation, the treatment of others in the way we would wish to be treated ourselves, and a refraining from being judgemental.

How then should we approach scripture regarding homosexuality? What does the Bible actually say, both for the Hebrews and early Christians and for Christians today? Is there cause to suggest the Bible even allows for or condones same-sex relations? Foundational biblical teaching is crucial for all Judeo-Christian beliefs and therefore our opinions, religious or otherwise, must at least attempt to consider scriptural data separately from the effects of cultural conditioning, which is never an easy position to maintain. However, I intend to show that when biblical text is understood from the perspective of language, content, context and the cultures of the day, it comprehensively reveals no blanket condemnation of gay men and lesbians. A presumed ‘sin’ of homosexuality must be read into scriptural text where it is not found, by a fallible and vulnerable people, within an imperfect church, struggling to deal with non-heterosexual relations that are simply different from and less common than heterosexual relations.

It is easy to form an opinion based on a personal dislike of something or from a presumed perception of what the majority of other people think. It takes time and effort to form opinions based on research and understanding. Reinforcing assumed or learned opinions with ‘cherry picked’ biblical pericopes that may be out of context can provide a seemingly weighty and powerful position, but it is nonetheless deceptive and destructive. Supporting a preconceived opinion through the use of biblical material is not the same as studying the word of God without bias and then applying it appropriately to life. There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of literature on the Internet, posted by

conservative evangelical pastors and lay people condemning homosexuality that is based on their appreciation of biblical text. However, one would be forgiven for concluding that the majority of these writers believe that God did not out-breathe scripture in its diverse forms across thousands of years of different languages and cultures but dictated directly in 16th Century English for the King James’ version of the Bible, to be understood literally.

The bulk of such work leans towards actualisation, the assumption that ancient biblical texts refer in a straight forward way to modern realities. Consideration of language, culture and context is absent and what is offered is an exposition of modern words as understood today. Turning to biblical theologians and scholars, particularly over the past four decades, it seems significant that most, in their scholarly work, conclude no outright condemnation of homosexuality but something other, that is either clear to understand or less obvious but nonetheless not at all a black and white denunciation of same-sex relations.    



[1] René Girard, The Scapegoat, Yvonne Freccero [trans.] (Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), p.155.

[2] Henry Chadwick [trans.], Saint Augustine: Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), VIII, v 10, p.148-150.

[3] For a good introduction to Genetics and this question see A. Gardener and T. Davies, Human Genetics, 2nd Ed., (Oxfordshire: Scion Publishing, 2009); Ricki Lewis, Human Genetics: The Basics (Oxford: Routledge, 2011); Daniel Nettle, Evolution and Genetics for Psychology (New York: Oxford university Press, 2009). See also William Rice and Uban Friberg, “Homosexuality as a Consequence of Epigenetically Canalized Sexual Development” in, Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol 87, No 4 December 2012 (University of Chicago Press), Available online at: http://www.jstor.org.

[4] The term ‘lifestyle’ is a misnomer, suggesting, as it is perhaps supposed to, that homosexuality is a simple matter of choice, much in the same way someone might choose a pair of shoes or a handbag; an accessory just as easily put down as picked up. In truth, lifestyle has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with levels of salary that simply enable a specific standard of living to be maintained.