Monday, October 26, 2009

Churches, politics, and sex

The longer these debates go on the more I realize that no matter what congregations decide about their affiliation with the ELCA, ministries will be decimated because of this debate. There is no good way to talk about church, politics, and sex when people are so divided. I'm really looking forward to a day (please God let it be soon) that this blog can go back to focusing on what it means to follow Jesus.

At the moment, though, there is a deep debate about what is authoritative in the lives of those who want to follow Jesus. And people are making claims about Jesus that have to be tested -- so how do we test these claims when people have radically different ideas what Jesus stands for? If we cannot seek to know Jesus through the Bible, we have no access to him. Don't get me wrong, I believe that Jesus is present as I am typing and you are reading; I believe his Spirit speaks to our hearts and reveals him to us. But I can't trust the impressions of my heart and you can't trust the words I type unless we have some greater authority that allows us to test the truth. Many people today want to elevate scientific studies or their personal experience to the level of absolute truth. But those things are no more trustworthy than a person's own emotions. Science is too often skewed by our lack of understanding, by agenda-driven studies, or by people selectively reporting what the actual "findings" are. Personal experience is just that, personal, and while it may be compelling, without interpretation that relies on something absolute, experience cannot rise to the level of truth. The Christian church for centuries has driven a stake into the ground of scripture and says, "Here we will stand. This is authoritative. This is trustworthy. This is the word against which we will test our belief and our practice."

So on to the next set of biblical passages and what they mean for the current debate about biblical authority and the ELCA's decisions regarding homosexuality.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 comes in the middle of Paul's first letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. These Christians were divided just about every way you can think of, and this letter deals directly with those divisions. Finally in some exasperation Paul, after talking specifically about some of their unsavory behaviors, tells them what they should not be doing -- and then proceeds to instruct them on the Christian life and what it ought to look like. Right in this transition we find two Greek words that have been the source of much argument in the debates about homosexuality. (These words are also used in 1 Timothy 1:10.) The two Greek words are "malakois" and "arsenokoitai". The root word "koi" refers to sexual intercourse -- we get the English word "coitus" from this root. But Paul says that these two behaviors are things that can exclude people from God's kingdom. What do the words mean?

Scholars have gone round and round about exact translations. Mel White claims that the words refer to dirty old men abusing soft young boys; other scholars have more generalized opinions.

What saddens me is that each "scholar" in the debate seems to spin these terms in a direction that will bolster his or her argument, whatever it is. At the baseline, at the very least these terms refer in some sense to the two partners in a male-to-male sexual encounter. These two passages of scripture include both the active and the passive activity of homosexual intercourse as actions that have the potential to keep one out of God's kingdom, according to 1 Corinthians 6.

1 Timothy 1:10 is an intriguing passage for another reason. Many who favor the ELCA's changes have argued that the condemnation of homosexual activity is a purely Old Testament thing. (I'm not sure how they deal with these two New Testament passages, let alone Romans 1!) But Paul in 1 Timothy 1 is not at all willing to set aside the Law. Though he does not seem so concerned about ritual requirements about food or fabrics, this list of activities is serious. He says that these activities (take time to read the whole list) contradict "the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God." In other words, these activities stand over against the gospel itself. The Apostle Paul would totally reject the claim that those who follow Jesus can now reject and ignore the law.

The only way we can get around the law is to claim that some parts of the Bible don't apply in this debate. Nearly all the arguments against the biblical condemnation of homosexual activity rest on this basic idea -- the Bible doesn't apply to this situation. What we need to do is read the Bible carefully and understand what to do with that law. It is not a baseball bat for us to use to condemn each other. It is not something for us to throw away and ignore. We need to dig into the Bible and learn how to deal with this law just as Jesus does -- graciously, mercifully, recognizing that heaven and earth will pass away before the least stroke of the pen in the law begins to fade.

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