I wrote much of what follows in 2005, in some email conversations that took place when our denomination was struggling with whether to accept homosexuals in leadership roles. By writing it, I convinced myself where I stood on this issue–and stand by it even more strongly now. I’ve edited and updated it to share with you today. It’s long. In case you don’t get all the way to the end, here’s the bottom line for me: If I make a mistake, I’d rather the mistake be based on the fact that I tried my best to be as accepting and as loving as Jesus.
Some issues are best discussed in deep, heartfelt one-on-one discussions, by people who know and trust each other. So this will be a long blog post because I can’t give you my opinion without letting you know more about me and some things that I believe first.
I love the Bible. It is my source of knowledge about God, the book that instructs my life, the place I go when I need guidance, strength, wisdom, nurture, etc. It is the authority for my life, therefore I do not read it lightly and I do not think that any part of it has more authority than any other. I continually pray and seek to understand it in depth and with high respect.
I love to teach Bible study. An important focus of my ministry has been to teach others to understand the Bible deeply, to explore the rich depths of unconditional love and amazing grace that shines through the written Word. One of my favorite thoughts to share in Bible study is that God’s grace is more amazing than we can understand or acknowledge.
I honor and respect the historical Baptist tradition that emphasizes the freedom of each person to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” I respect each person’s “soul freedom” to believe in God as it seems right to them, as well as each church’s independence to determine its own governing theological understandings and principles.
My personal walk with Christ leads and guides my theological perspective. My greatest desire is to walk closer and closer with Christ, to do God’s will on earth, and to do and say things that are pleasing in God’s sight.
I have absolutely no doubt that God called me into ordained ministry. My call to pastoral ministry has been confirmed for me by the members of the three congregations I’ve served, the numerous churches and groups where I’ve spoken and taught, and many family and friends who seemed to know even before I did that this was the call for my life.
God called me into ministry later in life, as a divorced female. I now believe that that was quite intentional on God’s part. According to some traditional biblical interpretations, I would have had three biblical strikes against me that would have stopped me from answering my call.
The first strike against me would have been because I am an African American. At one point in our country’s history I would not have been considered a complete human being, but something less than human, a slave. At one time in our country many good, Bible-believing Christians knew with all their hearts that the Bible supported and possibly required that there be slaves who were second-class citizens. Since that time, God has enlightened most of our society that slavery is wrong, and that the Bible shouldn’t be interpreted to support slavery.
And as a divorced person, many good, Bible believing Christians feel very strongly that I should not hold a leadership role or office in the church. The Biblical passages that tradition has used against divorced persons must be read with an understanding of their cultural background. Jesus refused to support the divorce that Jewish tradition allowed because the simplicity of the procedure was being used by the males to oppress the females in that society. The way I understand those passages is that Jesus’ pronouncements on the issue were for the purpose of helping the oppressed females of that culture, and that while divorce is not to be encouraged, what is more important is to ensure that people are not oppressed.
As a female, many good, Bible following Christians still believe that God would not call me to serve as ordained clergy, and certainly not to be pastor of a church. I might not be overstating it to say that probably most Christians still believe that, considering the Catholic take on this issue. I was raised in an A.M.E. Church, which is one of the denominations that was ordaining women when I was a child. I joined a baptist church as an adult, but it was one that was more progressive than many other baptist churches on this issue. It never occurred to me when I finally answered God’s call on my life that anyone would have the right to tell me that God wouldn’t do that. I’m among the many who have explored the Bible more fully on the issue of women’s leadership, and I read the many Biblical passages that are supportive of women’s leadership as being just as authoritative as those passages that have been taken out of context to deny women’s leadership. But there are still too many who ignore the support for women’s leadership shown in the Bible because they’ve been taught that only those oppressive-sounding passages (i.e. “Women shall keep silent in the churches…”) are “what the Bible says” on this issue. (See my “writings” page for a link to more of what I’ve written about this.)
So when I discovered how the Bible was being used to oppress women, when I read what Jesus said about divorce, and when I paid attention to how the Bible had been used to support slavery, I knew that I needed to understand the Bible better. I learned to study the Bible deeply and not to simply accept what many otherwise good church leaders have been teaching. I now read the Bible for understanding in a deeper and more meaningful way, which involves knowing more about the historical background and the cultural, social and literal contexts in which the writings took place, as well as paying attention to our modern day predilections as we read through our own limited social locations.
Through this kind of in-depth reading, the beauty, majesty, authority and love of God comes shining through the Bible for me, and I have grown to love it even more and more. This is one of the reasons biblical interpretation is so important to me….not just for justifying my own position, but because deep bible study helps us to understand so very much more about just who is our God. I will not give up my beloved Bible to traditionalists and fundamentalists to have the final say on what the Bible says. And because of where I came into ministry, I will always question Biblical interpretations that support discrimination and oppression.
So yes, there are Biblical passages that seem to denounce homosexuality. But my brother John and the gay people I have met in my life force me to think about this issue more carefully, to study the Bible more deeply and to reconcile what my heart and my head tell me who God is with the teaching that people who are born homosexuals are not to be allowed to live out the life that is natural for them.
In order to find guidance on issues such as this, I find myself leaning on what the Bible tells us about Jesus, His words and His actions. Jesus came to help the Jewish leaders understand more deeply the sacred texts and commandments, because they had interpreted them in a way that was oppressive, emphasizing complex rules and regulations that governed who would and would not inherit the Kingdom of God. He helped the people delve deeper into the purpose of the commandments, teaching people to “turn the other cheek,” go the extra mile, give the extra coat, etc. He sums up his discussion with a key phrase for me, and that is that all of the laws are for the purpose of helping us to love each other better—to treat each other the way we each want to be treated.
Jesus says to us that all the law and the prophets—all that God has taught God’s people—hang on the two highest commandments, which are to love God and to love each other. I know there are many people who believe that love includes forcing people into acceptable molds, but from experience I can tell you that it doesn’t feel like love to be told that, because of who you were born to be, you are not good enough–especially when God is telling you something else!
Jesus’ grace is truly amazing. His grace is so amazing that He angered the synagogue when He told the people that the widow of Zaraphath and the Syrian leper received the blessings of God versus the religious leaders who thought had a right to inherit the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ grace is so amazing because He was willing to anger the Pharisees by sitting and eating with sinners and the hated tax collectors, people they knew were condemned to hell. Jesus’ grace is so amazing because He used a hated and condemned Samaritan to show how much more important love is than holding positions of authority, and He allowed unclean women to touch Him and to engage in the priestly function of anointing Him before His death. Jesus’ grace is so amazing that most of His disciples did not understand it, at least before His death. We need to continue to allow Jesus to amaze us with His grace, and not try to limit it according to our limited understandings.
I need to understand that as soon as I believe I see a speck of sawdust in someone’s eye and think I need to correct them, I have a plank in my own eye. It is not my right to judge, that’s God’s right. It’s not my right to draw the lines on who’s in or who’s out, that’s to be left up to God. I always need to be reminded that I can never fully know God’s plan for salvation.
While I have not done a full-scale in-depth study of the passages that are used to condemn homosexuals, I have read some interpretations that made me think. Here are some of the thoughts I’ve read on the subject: The sin of Sodom was not just because the men wanted to have intercourse with men, but had to do with the sexual abuses of rape and sexual excess, and there were other abuses in that city as well. Leviticus 18:22 sentences to death men who would lie with other men as with women, but Leviticus also had laws that sentenced to death people who committed adultery, children who curse their parents, and incest. There are a lot of rules that made sense to the people of that time that no longer make sense for us today. These were rules that were designed to keep the children of Israel together and set them apart from the other nations around them. Many of these nations were engaged in temple prostitution and sexual excesses, including sexually abusing and sacrificing male and female children. This sexual worship formed much of what is the basis for Paul’s corrections to the churches, which had more to do with keeping the idol-based sexual excesses out of the church than with homosexual behavior. Jesus had nothing to say about homosexual behavior, and neither did the 10 commandments.
Finally, I need to remember that I do not have the final authority on how to interpret God’s Word—no human does. We all see through our glasses darkly. As soon as I think that I have the final and only interpretative take on the Bible, and that everyone who does not agree with me is wrong, I’m substituting my wisdom for God’s wisdom, and that makes me arrogant. Jesus and the prophets had a lot more to say against arrogance than they did about homosexuality.
I know this way of looking at things does not provide hard and fast rules like many people like to have, and that’s part of the problem. I truly believe we hurt the congregations we serve by laying on them hard and fast rules that are easy for us to pronounce, without teaching them to search for the deeper understandings that we must gain in order to see more clearly what God’s Word has to say to us today. It’s a lot easier to lay down rules than it is to teach people to care enough to wrestle with how to love each other better.
For me, the answer to the question of whether God would want us to condemn and demonize homosexuals is that that doesn’t sound like the God of my experience. I do know this: that I can recognize the people who are called by God because of their love for God and their love for others; and I know who are the people of faith because they try to do their best to usher in God’s Kingdom on this earth. My experience is that some of those people happen to be homosexuals.
I don’t know why God has inclined some persons to homosexuality, but that’s not my knowledge to have. I do know that when I don’t fully understand, all I can do is lean towards love and remember Jesus’ amazing grace.
My bottom line is this: If I make a mistake, I’d rather the mistake be based on the fact that I tried my best to be as accepting and as loving as Jesus.
I’m not alone in my thoughts on this; many progressive Christian leaders agree with me. Here are a couple of links that I’ve seen recently: A blog post by Rachel Held Evans: “The Bible was ‘Clear…” and an interesting view by Roger Wolsey: 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible. Here are some books that also can help: Struggling with Scripture, Walter Brueggeman (2002), Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers (2006), The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, by Peter J. Gomes (1996).
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