I do seriously worry about interpreting the Bible in such a way as to ignore gospel truths in favour of making scripture more palatable for twenty-first century audiences.
I am very concerned about the danger of trying to “fit” the Bible into what we want it to say to justify whatever point—theological, social, political—we are trying to make. I think it is extremely valuable to understand the torah, the gospels, the epistles, and the rest of the scriptures “in context,” but I also see how easily we could start using such readings to throw away clearly worded language concerning fairly straight-forward teachings.
Maybe this is the reason that “understanding Paul in context” has never been entirely satisfactory for me for justifying women in roles of leadership or no longer seeing homosexuality and other non-cishetero sexual attractions as sins. I think it is utterly imperative for every Christian to read the Bible carefully, understanding it as a collection of distinct works (poetry, history, letters, historical chronicles, etc.) that have an underlying connective tissue (the story of God’s relationship to creation). But I do worry about using “selective exegesis” by looking at the “Biblical context” only for certain passages or focusing on specific historical realities at the expense of, rather than alongside, others.
I’m not saying that we don’t seriously need to understand the historical and cultural context of Paul’s words when it comes to women in leadership (like for 1 Timothy 2) or gender and sexual minorities (like for Romans 1). Please, for the love of all that is holy, understand the context! But what I am saying is those arguments shouldn’t be the whole picture when we approach more “controversial” parts of the Bible.
We shouldn’t isolate particular passages in order to defend our positions. Every verse, chapter, and book of the Bible needs to be understood in relation to the whole. None of our interpretations should be inconsistent with how the Trinity and its relation to us on earth is portrayed throughout the scriptures.
So how is God and that relationship portrayed? Ask any modern theologian and they’ll probably start talking about “kingdom language” or something to that effect. Basically, God’s relationship to us is defined as “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven,” and the structure of that kingdom ends up defining our relationship with the Most High. If you look up various theologians, you’ll get fairly similar answers along this line:
“Since God’s purpose for the world is to save a people for himself and renew the world for that people, his kingly rule implies a saving and a redeeming activity on their behalf. This is why the coming of the kingdom in the New Testament is called good news.
“In and through Jesus, God, the king, is coming in a way — a new way — into the world to establish his saving rule. First, in the hearts of his people and in their relationships by triumphing over sin, Satan, and death. Then by the exercise of his reign, gathering a people for himself in congregations that live as citizens of a new allegiance of the kingdom — not of this world. Then Christ comes a second time and completes the reign by establishing a new heavens and a new earth.”
“It’s like bringing other people into this army, you know, I’m gonna add to this, you know, that’s the discipleship picture. It’s like God wanted His kingdom expanded, like ‘Man, I want people from every nation as a part of this army, you know, me as the king, me as the ruler.’
“And so we too, you know, we’re supposed to distinguish ourselves, like you said, the world isn’t thinking that He’s the king, so we as the people of God, we’re supposed to live differently. You know, we don’t live that way, we recognize there is a king, in fact, He’s returning and we’re busy doing this and this is how we stand out…”
So what does it mean to be a citizen of this kingdom?
I mean, do I really need to define it for you? I feel like the above quotations kinda summed it up and… ugh, ok.
It means you love God and follow the commandments we’ve been given through the Law of the Torah and the Tanak as well as the teachings of Jesus, which are meant to fulfill that law (Matthew 5: 17-18). By doing this, we become citizens of a never-ending reign of God which is defined by peace (Isaiah 9:7), equity/justice (Psalm 9:7-8; Isaiah 32: 1-2) and the fact that other nations and kingdoms will declare it’s, like, way better than their nations and kingdoms (Jeremiah 3:17, Daniel 7:14). Although this kingdom was initially believed to be intended for the Jewish people, the disciples of Jesus began preaching that it’s actually open for everyone (Acts 10:34; Galatians 3: 6-14).
So everything we read in the Bible should relate in some way to this understanding of God wanting us to live in the kingdom, following the teachings of the law, which is also the teachings of Jesus. Cool? Cool.
So what is this law / what are those teachings?
OK, are you seriously asking, because like, this is pretty straightforward stuff… it’s like, sunday school, plus like every pastor and theologian out there has written a response to this question and I feel like you don’t need a layman like me to run you through this again and to be honest it’s like
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:17-18) All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Some guy said that. I don’t want to look it up.
The point is the kingdom is actually kinda cyclical. It’s a place of peace and equity that is open for everyone who practices peace and equity towards everyone else. I mean, it doesn’t mean that if you’re a generally loving, peaceful, equitable person, you’re basically in. At the centre of all descriptions of the kingdom and the law about the kingdom is God. Even the above summary still emphasizes that you gotta love God, like, as much as you possibly can with your entire heart, soul, mind.. basically your whole being. But who is this God?
Please don’t make me answer this, you should know this, everyone knows the answer to this. Like, it’s not even sunday school because you don’t even have to go to church to give a pretty educated guess on this one so really
GOD IS LOVE.
So again: it’s entirely cyclical. This kingdom is a place of love that is open to everyone who loves everyone else and also loves the person who invented love and who also IS love who also loves them and also loves everyone else. If you love everyone and love the person who IS love you get to be part of the love kingdom. It’s pretty basic stuff, really.
What does THAT mean for when we’re reading verses in the Bible that we believe call us cast people out from roles in the church?
Romans 1 is the classic example, with Paul’s list of sexual sins, including women and men “giving themselves” over to “shameful lusts” used as justification for the church refusing to acknowledge marriage of non-heterosexual couples and removing LGBTQ folks from positions within the church body.
By itself, Romans 1 comes off pretty straightforward as a condemnation of sexual activities outside the boundaries of marriage between a man and a woman.
“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
But does that reading make sense in relation to the rest of the Bible. Well… uh, no. Definitely not. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense in relation to the rest of Romans.
Later on, Paul calls on the people in the church of Rome to “welcome one another as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7), right before going on a long rant about the important of reaching out and accepting the gentiles. You know, the people whom the early church had refused to accept for many, many years because they weren’t Jewish.
And unless you have a lineage dating back directly to Israel in the first century, you need to recognize that without this call to action in accepting gentiles, you would not be reading any of these verses or this blog about it. Christianity would have stayed a smaller sect of Judaism.
But that’s not the case. As Francis Chan said in that quotation above, “It’s like God wanted His kingdom expanded, like ‘Man, I want people from every nation as a part of this army.” I myself am a Christian because the early Christians understood and acted on a call to extend the invitation to God’s kingdom to everyone else. I can claim Jesus as my king because the early church was reevaluated as not just a new thing for the Jewish people, but a kingdom for everybody, including whatever ancestors of mine converted way back in… I honestly have no idea, CE.
So I can’t start putting limitations on who *I* think should and should be allowed in this kingdom of love because the only reason I’m in it in the first place was because those limits were abolished. I need to welcome others into this kingdom as openly as my ancestors were invited, otherwise I’m not following the law/teachings of this love kingdom and I may as well leave.
“Well that’s all well and good, but what if the people we invite refuse to give up their sinful ways? What if they continue living in sin? They can’t be part of God’s kingdom then, right?”
You’re talking about not letting LGBTQ people attend church/be church members/take on leadership roles in the church because they pursue activities we deem sinful, yes? This is the position a lot of people of faith get stuck on and a position I held for years and years. This is the “love the sinner, hate the sin,” doctrine, where we try to demonstrate how loving and welcoming we are as a church but still put limitations on who can enter in. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” sounds good in theory, but hating the sin should not place any limitations on the love you extend towards any other person, no matter what their sin (and yours) may be. If your “hate” towards one person’s sin means you refuse to invite them in to your home or your church, it means you are placing limitations on how much love you you show to them. You are still hating the sinner because you are still casting them out.
Inviting people into the church is not separate from inviting people into the kingdom. As John Piper said above, God’s kingdom is made manifest in two ways, the first being “in the hearts of his people and in their relationships by triumphing over sin, Satan, and death.” When we join in loving relationship with other people here on earth, particularly as God’s people, that’s acting out the reign of the kingdom. Likewise, when we restrict loving relationships with other people, we are ignoring the law/teachings of the kingdom. There are no limits to God’s love for us God and God alone determines citizenship in the kingdom. If we are to “welcome one another as Christ welcomed [us],” then we need to remember there was no limitation placed on our own acceptance.
When I committed my life to Christ and when I became an official member of my church, I was asked to make a commitment towards restraining from sin and following the teachings of Christ. I don’t know what it was like for others, but I had to say “I will” or “I do” to a few different proclamations including “Do you renounce sin and the devil?” and “Do you commit your life to follow Jesus?” and things of that nature.
So yes, we are called to renounce our sinful ways. Did I stop sinning? I don’t think I could find a font big and bold enough to express the way I want to yell “OF COURSE NOT.”
We all know sin isn’t something that just goes away, no matter how much you try, because the point is we are fallible and only Jesus can wash away our sins and yadda yadda yadda it’s all basic Christian 101 stuff I’m not using the tiny font again but you get the idea.
So both you and I do not become perfect just because we enter into the kingdom. And our failure to do that does not preclude us from being both accepted in and re-accepted in again and again no matter what choices we make.
BUT I know you’re gonna say, what if you actively choose to do something others declare is a sin but you personally continue to do with wild abandon? What if you continue pursuing “sexually shameful” acts and refuse to apologize for them or ask Jesus for forgiveness???
Well, that is if we believe that pursuing relationships with humans who are the same sex, or identify outside of the gender binary, is sinful.
Oftentimes, even in the book of Romans, same-sex relationships appear to be described as “unnatural.” Or, at least, that’s the English word we use for it. This translation has been used by modern Christians to condemn not only homosexual relations, but all of the sexual orientations and gender identities that fall under the LGBTQ+ banner.
But is this right? Is “queerness,” or rather, falling outside of the cishetero “norm,” inherently unnatural?
Well, uh, no. We know for a fact that sexuality and gender are much more complex than the original writers of the scriptures understood. More than a few studies have shown us that homosexual attraction is related to a myriad of factors, including genetics and early development. That is to say: being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is not a choice anymore than being straight is. The L, G, and B of LGBTQ+ are just as natural as any other genetic and behavioural variations you see in population groups on earth.
So what about the T and the other letters?
Science tells us that biologically, gender gets more complicated than simply being born with this or that genitalia. Humans can be born with an array of chromosome arrangements outside of an XX/XY binary.
As well, humans can be born with what is referred to as “ambiguous genitalia,” but it’s easier to think of genitalia on a spectrum. See, while in utero, the average fetus starts to form genitalia that, if left alone, develops into a clitoris and a meatus (also known as a urethra opening or “pee-pee hole”), but if testosterone is present, those genitalia will form into a penis, scrotum, and testes. If the human is born with genitalia that doesn’t directly fall between what is traditionally defined as “male” or “female,” that person would be known as intersex. Although these type of formations have long been classified as “abnormalities,” in truth, intersex people make up just under 1.7% of the population on earth today. For comparison, red-haired people make up somewhere between 1-2% of the population.
We also know that transexuality, which is to say, identifying differently than the gender you were assigned at birth (more than likely based on the appearance of your genitals). Many Christians have traditionally balked at this kind of thinking because if you were born with certain genitalia, you must automatically be one gender or another. To say otherwise would be to deny the way God created you, right?
Well, no actually. Through a better understanding of both the body and societal influence (nature and nurture), we’ve been able to learn that gender is far more complex than what the shape of one part of your body. Studies have shown that trans women have brain structures that are more similar—in certain ways—to cis women than cis men.
So although a person may have been born with certain parts of their body matching what we typically associate with one gender, their brain patterns might align more with another. There is still a lot that we don’t know about prenatal and postnatal development, but the evidence we do have clearly indicates trans identity, in whatever form it takes, is not simply a choice.
So although there is still a lot about the development of sexuality, gender, and orientation we don’t understand, we know now that calling any LGBTQ+ person “unnatural” is completely inaccurate, not to mention incredibly dehumanizing.
So was Paul wrong? At least based on what he would have understood then versus what we know now… yes. But that’s still operating off the assumption he was condemning homosexuality (and all other non cishetero identities and orientations). And the truth is, if we read Romans 1 both in its original as well as in relation to the Bible as a whole, we see that the Pauline approach to non-heteronormative relationships is not so black and white.
For one thing, in Romans 1: 18-32, Paul is not simply listing off sins to be condemned. At the beginning of this section, he starts talking about idolatry, which is to say, loving and praising something more than God. In the time Romans was written, idolatry was, quite often, more literal (ie, people would praise literal idols), but the emphasis of this section is meant to be applied to all Christians as a warning against any one item or person or practice taking precedence over love of the Creator. Adam Nicholas Phillips, taking inspiration from Steve Chalke and James Brownson, argues Paul was specifically addressing “misguided over-sexualized spirituality” present in the Roman church at the time.
By “worship[ing] and serv[ing] created things rather than the Creator,” the men and women Paul is referring to not only “exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones,” but also “bec[a]me filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents…”
These “unnatural” relations are not only portrayed as an effect, rather than a cause of sinful behaviour, but James Brownson believes Paul was using language that, to his audience, would be immediately recognizable not as condemning non-heterosexual romance, but condemning the type of Caligulan and Gaian orgies which were all the rage at that time. Emperor Gaius claimed he was a god and orchestrated sex-based rituals with unconsenting parties. Brownson claims “Gaius Caligula graphically illustrates the reality of which Paul speaks in Romans 1: the movement from idolatry to insatiable lust to every form of depravity, and the violent murderous reprisal that such behavior engenders.”
These practices eventually played a role in Gaius’ untimely demise: “a military officer whom [Gaius] had sexually humiliated joined a conspiracy to murder him, which they did less than four years into his reign. Suetonius records that Gaius was stabbed through the genitals when he was murdered.” This explains Paul’s somewhat odd choice of stating the men who “committed shameful acts with other men” ended up receiving “the due penalty for their error.”
In addition to understanding the historical context, we need to look closely at the grammar Paul uses throughout the end of Romans 1. For one thing, Paul typically, although not always, tends to use “you” and “we” phrases, focusing on the church members he is addressing and reminding them of the necessity of unity within the community of believers.
Yet Paul uses “they,” “them,” and “their” more often in Romans 1: 24-32 than in the rest of the letter. He starts by talking about how the “wrath of God” is being levelled against people who are steeped in “godlessness and wickedness,” going on to list a series of actions that “they,” these godless people, do. The whole list is bookended with mentioning that these people know better than to go against the will of God: “God has made it plain to them” in verse 19, “For although they knew God” in verse 21, and ending with “Although they know God’s righteous decree” in verse 32.
The “they” Paul is referring to (whether its Gaius like Brownson says or someone else) is not just in deep trouble because they’ve done some bad stuff, but because they should have known better. “They” were given the gospel and the right directions, but “they” still ignored what was laid out in front of them.
This may seem well and good, but this whole section is actually incomplete on its own. Want to know how I know this?
Seriously. Ask me how I know this. This time I really want you to ask cause I’m gonna do a thing here and I’m really excited for
You know, the verse that comes right after the end of Romans 1, which is made up of verses people use to cast judgment on those who participate in “sexually shameful” acts?
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”
In a classic “Nathan-talking-to-David-about-the-whole-Bathsheba-thing” twist, Paul turns the tables on his audience. He has lulled them into a false sense of security by listing off all the sins of this “they” group before hitting them hard with a truth-bomb: you too, church of Rome, should know better than to cast judgment on others when that same truth that was laid out for them was laid out for you!
This whole section was never about just listing sins you’re supposed to stay away from. It’s actually about calling out people for focusing too much on the perceived slights of others when you are making the exact same mistakes they are: ignoring the truth of the gospel that is right in front of you.
And that truth is what I’ve been talking about this whole time, what the whole of Romans and the New Testament has been talking about: God’s unconditional love and acceptance in His kingdom.
We do not get to judge who does and doesn’t enter into the kingdom of God. We’ve been forgiven and accepted despite our numerous and oftentimes predictably consistent failings. So even if you think that someone’s choice when it comes to whom they have sex with, whom they marry, or how they interpret the overall “sinfulness” of those actions, you don’t get to judge or decide whether they are “in” or “out” of the kingdom of love, which is made of loving people loving everyone else because they too were loved and invited in to the kingdom of love… which is made of loving people loving everyone else because they too were loved and invited in to the kingdom of love… which is made of you get the point.
Rejecting someone else’s acceptance into that kingdom is the exact opposite of what the kingdom is all about. Everyone is welcomed in because God is love. To deny people acceptance into that kingdom, which is made of “people from every nation as a part of this army” here on earth as it exists within the church, the “hearts of his people and in their relationships” is to deny the very structure of the kingdom. Rejecting people from our relationships and the church body is to reject God’s love for everyone. We are called to continually invite people in as Christ invites us.
And those “sins” we seem to be obsessed with? Well, neither Paul nor the rest of the Bible casts any real condemnation on homosexuality outside of when it’s practiced in relation to thoughts and actions that put idols in front of God. The Bible has no condemnation for healthy, non-heterosexual relationships that are carried out in the light of the knowledge of the kingdom. So long as those relationships are consistent with loving God with all your being and loving your neighbours (ALL OF THEM) as yourself, they cannot be sinful because they do not detract from these two commandments on which the law and the prophets hang.
The kingdom does not look like what a lot of churches currently look like. We keep letting bad interpretations of the law get in the way of the truth of the law, which is Jesus (who is God, who is love, which makes up the kingdom, and on the cycle goes). So many Christians, including myself, have worked tirelessly to create a community of believers that rejects those whom God loves, leaving the makeup of the body of Christ looking bereft of key parts.
“To choose a spiritual community that denies the incredible gifts [of] women and LGBTQ folks is to choose to live in a spiritual poverty of our own making. Provision happens when we recognize the gifts in our neighbor and offer them our own.”
We need to go back to scripture and read it as a whole. We need to recognize what God’s kingdom should truly look like and become a reflection of that in our lives and in the life of the body.