Open letter to traditionalist friends

By Dr. Dan Randall

“A tearful binding and loosing … ”

We’ve journeyed together for some time, my friends. I am grateful for your companionship. We come now to a fork in the road. We may choose different paths. If this is where we part ways, know that I honor our common humanity and recognize our many common ideals.

As we stand together, maybe for the last time, our guidebook in hand—the sacred texts, pieced together over a millennium by various authors in various styles, cryptic, ancient, full of dated cultural references, prone to contradictions and yet filled with profound truths—contemplating the path we will choose, I grieve the loss of a church family that has embraced a theology and an ideology that is inconsistent with my own.

I am also reminded of how often throughout the history of the Christian church we, the body of believers, have found it necessary to reconcile the words in our Bible with our emerging understanding of the human condition and our natural world.

Rabbis in the ancient world compiling the Talmud called this process “binding and loosing,” examining the sacred passages and determining exactly how that translates into action day-to-day as we go about our lives, what is permissible and what is not. The process was critical in determining how the original Hebrew laws were interpreted and enforced—everything from how many steps are appropriate to take when retrieving water on the Sabbath, to how much intermarriage is acceptable, to what foods to eat. The process continued into the New Testament era, resolving disputes over items such as whether new Christians needed to become Jews before they could become Christians. Would they have to be circumcised? Should Christians observe Jewish law?

We’ve generally come to accept that Christians don’t need to become Jewish, although our Bible still contains the Old Testament and its teachings. Consistent with human nature, we shamelessly cherry pick. We recognize and attempt to observe the Ten Commandments, but not most of the other laws. We cling to the Shema, but give mostly lip service to the sabbath. Some proverbs we like and some psalms strike a chord. We love to put Micah 6:8, “Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God” on T-shirts and our social media feeds, but we choose to ignore many of the Old Testament teachings on caring for the earth and its creatures.

Since the post-Civil War era, it is universally accepted that human slavery is an abomination despite not being specifically prohibited, likewise with polygamy except in a few rogue sects. It is also universally accepted that charging interest on loans is an acceptable practice despite being specifically prohibited, and divorce and remarriage has become commonplace. Many mainstream denominations recognize the role of female leadership and allow ordination of female pastors despite Paul’s words in the epistles. We frown on stoning people, especially for things like adultery, and we no longer assume disease, tragedy and low socioeconomic status to be a direct result of sin and God’s disfavor. Throughout human history, we have always had to engage our human judgment in making decisions about how to live and worship and serve in a way that is pleasing to God.

Jesus’ teachings helped provide great clarity in many of these areas. His ministry and actions demonstrated the compassionate nature of God and highlighted to us and to religious leaders of his day that devotion to legalism can transform over time into practices that violate the spirit of the law and obscure the more important aspects of living in community and living in relationship with God as God’s chosen people.

This process of binding and loosing continues into our current post-modern era through current practices of exegesis. Scholars examine Scripture, take into account the original historical context of a passage, the audience, any bias or agenda imparted by the cultural lens through which the author viewed the issue, Jesus’s teaching on the issue or related issues and, of course, the limitations inherent in a pre-scientific understanding of the world. Then, we apply our post-scientific understanding of theology, the natural world, genetics, human behavior, microbiology, medicine, meteorology, etc. Considering sacred passages in this way, we can make more informed determinations of how to apply biblical teaching when we “bind and loose” that are, hopefully, more consistent with the nature of God and more accurately reflect the intended message. 

Within the Methodist tradition we call this process the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, divining God’s will for our actions and our canons through consideration of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience. Pastor Adam Hamilton simply refers to this as reading the Bible “literately—not literally.”

In many instances with difficult Scripture passages, we in the faith community have been quick to achieve consensus among a majority without controversy. In matters related to human sexuality, that has not been the case. Debate has raged within the Methodist denomination since the General Conference of 1972, and it has led to the polarization we are experiencing today. All parties expressly agree with Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.” It is in the interpretation of six specific passages of Scripture related to human sexuality where views diverge into a more traditional and a more progressive perspective.

Traditionalists prefer a more conservative, more literal reading of the text and attempt to stake out the moral high ground, pointing out that the language in those six passages clearly prohibits homosexuality. However, the “binding and loosing” in regard to those passages seems arbitrary and motivated more by personal distaste and homophobia than logic when we consider the views held by this same group of traditional theologians on the interpretation of Scripture relating to food laws, charging interest on loans, using a rod to discipline children, stoning adulterers and divorce and remarriage. The traditionalist view on these issues aligns with the more mainstream view shared by progressives as no longer relevant to our current religious practices despite being expressly allowed and encouraged in Scripture. Similarly, traditionalists and progressives both consider the Bible’s permissive stance on slavery and polygamy as inappropriate given our modern understanding of human rights and marital ethics.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the double standard at play relating to human sexuality is the agreement in both camps on ordination of female pastors. Scripture passages referring to silencing women’s voices in the church and excluding them from leadership roles far outnumber those referring to homosexuality. Yet, despite clear wording to the contrary, the traditionalists are able to recognize that women have proven themselves to be capable, competent church leaders, both in biblical time and in the modern era, and allow for the ordination of female clergy. This undermines any rational argument for their conservative position on scriptural authority where it relates to the six passages in the Bible that refer directly to homosexuality rendering it not only hypocritical, but null and void.

This false piety and selectively mindless approach to reading of the Scripture amounts to a dangerous brand of kindergarten conservatism that is tailored to forwarding a specific agenda and designed to erect and defend artificial boundaries that marginalize an entire subset of believers while tacitly ignoring the fact that their own religious practices interpret Scripture in ways that contradict the original reading of the text when it suits their interest.

For progressives, “binding and loosing” with regard to human sexuality hinges on a number of issues. First and maybe foremost, our 21st-century understanding of genetics, the biological basis of behavior and human growth and development, have led us to a point where we can reasonably state that same-sex attraction and gender identity is not usually a choice. We can debate how much is biologically determined and how much is a result of early social and environmental influences, but for the individual, at the age of sexual awareness, it is not generally a choice. You love who you love, and you feel most comfortable occupying a certain gender role from an early age. Given the abundance of Scripture that speaks to all human beings as being made in God’s image, worthy of his love, knit together in the womb, fearfully and wonderfully made, going so far as to number the hairs on our head, there is generally no question about the sanctity, dignity and worthiness of the individual or of God’s overwhelming love for each of us.

There is also generally no disagreement on the matter of humans being created to be in a loving relationship with one another and with God, and that much of the human experience—the depth, breadth, purpose, personal fulfillment, emotional and spiritual health—depends on those healthy relationships. Furthermore, given that the individual is acting on natural inclinations imparted to him or her by creator God, can the individual be held accountable for attractions that seem unnatural to heterosexual individuals? Should individuals who experience same-sex attraction be denied the life-sustaining benefits of intimate relationships? Should they be discriminated against and denied leadership roles in the church because of how they are made? Can we be condemned or penalized if it’s not a choice?

Progressives believe not. Progressives have come to believe the six passages related to homosexuality reflect a pre-scientific paradigm that may have seemed appropriate to more primitive cultures, when slavery and polygamy, misogyny and infanticide were the norm, but not today.

Second, it is easy to embrace a conservative reading of Scripture when discussing the matter within a forum in an abstract sense. It is entirely different to sit across the table from an individual with whom you have a close relationship and discuss sexual orientation and gender identity. More often than not, the conversation is marked by angst, frustration, anger and desperation; stories of prayerful intervention to be delivered from their torment; confusion as to why they are the way they are and feelings of isolation, loneliness and exclusion. Suicidal ideations are all too common. To hear from a trusted spiritual advisor that you are perverted, sinful, willfully out of step with God’s plan for your life and sentenced to either a life of living in sin that will never be sanctioned by your church community or sentenced to a lonely existence devoid of an intimate relationship with another human being, is punative in ways inconsistent with the nature of God. The words of the Shema should ring clearly in our ears: “Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

When confusion, desperation, isolation has a face and name and sits among you at worship, it becomes our responsibility as a church to be for them the love of Christ and to help them live into the calling on their lives, regardless of whether or not we understand or agree.

We have had the occasion to sit around the table with friends and their children and share in this struggle. We have visited them in the hospital after suicide attempts. We have watched them eventually find their place in this world, overcome prejudice and discrimination and begin to thrive. I do not have grandchildren yet, but as I consider the choices before us as a denomination, it is clear to me that, regardless of my personal experience and my lack of understanding of all the issues at hand, I could never be a part of a church that would not fully welcome and embrace any future grandchild of mine that struggled with any of these issues.

Paul’s sentiment, “now we see in a mirror dimly,” seems very appropriate to us still today as we try to live into the true nature of God’s will for our lives and determine the canons we observe in our worship.

A thoughtful, informed reading of the Bible, considering all the influences of the cultural lens, audience, agenda and translation of the original author, as well as the example of Jesus and our understanding of the natural world, is the only way to reconcile the confusing, contradictory, sometimes violent and potentially misleading passages contained within. One day we will see clearly. In the meantime, when left to our limited human understanding, let us gravitate toward the example of grace, inclusion and reconciliation that Jesus set for us during his ministry. For if we get something wrong, let it be the theology part, not the “love your neighbor” part.

Randall is a member of Advent UMC in Simpsonville.

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