The Bible is Clear?
“The Bible is clear”, he said as if it were perfectly true. I had heard that phrase more times than I could count, but I did not expect to hear it here, inside the liberal church to which I had defected because I could no longer stomach such trite platitudes. But, on this day, in my office, in this congregation, led by a woman who is married to a woman, this man continued without flinching, “The Bible is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
“Wait, where am I?” Blue walls, gray couch, messy desk, portrait of a civil rights leader hanging prominently. “This IS my office. I’m in the right place, but what is he doing here?”
It turns out that Sean* was walking with his friend Brandon that afternoon when they happened upon the church, and Brandon insisted that they come inside. I learned that Brandon was a gay man who had visited the church for the first time about a week earlier for a service we hosted to kick off Pride Week. Brandon was so moved by the service that when he and Sean, whom he described as a friend and ally, came across the church he just had to show him inside. The office volunteer on duty happily gave them a tour, and because I facilitate a weekly young adult group, she made sure my office was the students’ final stop.
After several minutes of chatting in the doorway, I invited the pair inside. Without prompting, Brandon started talking about his faith. As he spoke, his devotion and connection to God were evident. Faith flowed from his mouth like it was a part of his everyday vocabulary, and he spoke about his relationship with “The Lord” as if God was his best friend. He acknowledged his challenges as a gay, Catholic man, and expressed a sense of call to move the church forward "a little bit at a time" by simultaneously remaining engaged and living authentically.
Eventually, I turned my attention to Sean, who had been silent as Brandon spoke, and appeared visibly uncomfortable throughout the entire encounter. “What’s your background?” I asked, trying to understand why he seemed to be such a reluctant participant. He responded by talking about the importance of relationships and how Jesus calls us to love everyone. I was really into it until I realized it was a preamble intended to soften the impact of what was coming next. He continued by saying that he loves his gay friends, and, therefore, tries to discourage them from “giving in to those temptations”. “Oh, I know exactly what this is” I thought to myself. Sean was no ally, and I seriously question whether he was Brandon’s friend.
I discovered that Sean was a member of the kind of church that has a one-word name and really attractive millennials leading worship in skinny jeans. Where the people are extra nice, and the pastor is really cool. It’s one of those seeker friendly churches where if you look too hard, you’ll find the conservative theology you would have run from had it not been buried deep inside such sleek packaging. I’ve seen churches like this train people to befriend folks like Brandon and invest in relationships so that by the time they hear the kind of theology that negates their humanity, they’ll be open to listening because it’s coming from a “friend”. At some point we have to talk about how manipulative this kind of evangelism is and ask ourselves if fake “friending” people so you can get them to believe what you believe is what Jesus intended when he said “love one another”. But I don’t have time to discuss that here.
At the same time that I was giving Sean the side-eye, I also felt sympathy for him. While Brandon’s words flowed freely, and from a place of deep conviction, Sean’s monologue felt rehearsed. It was as if he was constrained to convey a message of which he was not completely convinced. I sympathized with him because I had been in his position before—regurgitating the “stance” I believed I had to take in order to contend for the true faith. I too had been a soldier in God’s army fighting against the liberal agenda that threatened to temper the church’s zeal, strip it of its power, and cause God to spew the abominable, lukewarm cocktail out of God’s mouth. When I was Sean’s age, I didn’t really know what I believed, but, like him, I knew what I was supposed to say. After all, soldiers don’t think, they just follow orders.
In some sense, Sean was a victim of a manipulative system that convinces people that God will eternally condemn them to a flaming pit if they believe anything different than what the church teaches. I felt bad because I know how laborious it can be to serve God out of fear rather than love and true conviction. But Sean was also a grown man who is responsible for his actions and the impact they have on others, like his so-called friend, Brandon.
Brandon’s faith demanded that whatever he was had to be by God’s design, so he believed that God had made him gay. But as they walked that afternoon, he and Sean had argued about the scriptures that are used to condemn homosexuality and define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Brandon admitted that he didn’t know how to refute these scriptures, but thought there must have been some contextual loophole that could help him reconcile his sexuality with his faith (or the church’s teaching). He was convinced that God accepted him as a gay man, without condition; he just couldn’t prove it in the bible. But he was hoping that I could.
I quickly informed him that I could not give him what he was looking for. Some biblical scholars argue that these scriptures Sean referenced were not meant to apply to the same gender loving relationships we see today. I’ve read these arguments, but I don’t subscribe to them in every case. In some cases, I believe that the biblical writers would have condemned same gender relationships even if they were loving and consensual in the same way I believe they would condemn a female pastor even if she was biblically literate and seminary trained. Yet, lots of people who believe in "biblical" church leadership have still found a way to affirm female leaders in the church. Many of them even use the bible to do it. How is this possible? Because the bible IS NOT clear!
The bible cannot be crystal clear because it is an ancient text, a lot of which began as oral tradition. You only have to play one game of Telephone to know that there will inevitably be differences between the first oral account and the one that would be written decades or centuries later. Then there’s the fact the version of the bible most of us read is a translation from the original languages to our own. That means there are some words and phrases whose meaning has been lost over time, some that simply don’t translate well, and others that are translated poorly. Because of this we can’t always understand the text as the author intended.
Speaking of authorship, the bible is written by people. People! The best of whom, according to the bible, were “born guilty (Psalm 51:5)”. People, of whom God the bible itself says, “the inclination of the human heart is evil (Gen 8:21)”. If we believe what the bible says about people, and most Christian churches accept some doctrine of human sinfulness, how do we so easily embrace the idea of biblical inerrancy? How do we accept that every single word written in the bible, by people, is God’s message clearly communicated to us? We would have to believe that somehow the biblical authors were able to set aside their sinful, human ways long enough to hear directly from God’s mouth with no error in interpretation or transcription, and no insertion of their own agenda. Forget Jonah in the whale or Jesus walking on water, biblical inerrancy would be the bible’s greatest miracle!
Finally, adding to the bible’s lack of clarity is that it is not a single, cohesive work. Rather, it is a compilation of 66 individual books of different genres, penned by different authors, over a long period of time. These authors did not always have the benefit of being in conversation with each other. And, when they did, they were not particularly concerned about agreeing with one another. They never envisioned their work being compiled with others in a volume that would be considered authoritative for every person, for all time. Therefore, Joel says, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy (Jl 2:28)” and Paul says women don’t have the authority to speak (1 Tim 2:12). God tells Moses that people must be repaid, “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (Ex 21:24)” while Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and forgive (Mt 5:39). In Leviticus, God declares specific foods unclean, but God tells Peter it’s okay to eat them (Acts 10:15). Now we can do all the apologetic gymnastics we want to “reconcile” these conflicting ideologies, but we would also have to suspend reason in ways that we refuse to do under any other circumstance.
Scripture contains multiple models of morality, some of which have been accepted in one era and shunned in another. So people who hold the bible as authoritative should be more than willing to embrace the idea that what is morally acceptable can shift over time and between different cultural contexts. And to a great extent, we have embraced this. That’s why polygamy, a perfectly acceptable marriage model throughout the bible, is illegal in the US today. It’s why most mainline Protestant denominations permit remarriage after divorce even though Jesus labels it perpetual adultery. Because it seems unreasonable, almost cruel, to prohibit people from enjoying the love and companionship of a partner just because they got divorced. Yet, we seem to have no problem enforcing this prohibition when people are gay.
The bible is not clear. Sometimes, it’s even contradictory. And it contains mandates and prohibitions to which most of us are unwilling to adhere. What is crystal clear is that Christian communities make decisions about which texts they will hold as authoritative for their lives. This is what we’ve always done. In fact, it’s how the bible was constructed. But if we are honest about the fact that all of us are picking and choosing the parts that we’re willing to be governed by, we will have to wrestle with the biases that influence our decisions. We will have to concede that, in many cases, those decisions are much more a reflection of our own will than God’s. We will have to stop claiming biblical immunity and start taking personal responsibility for vilifying the things and people we don’t like or understand. We will have to acknowledge our own sin.
Western Christianity has sinned against indigenous people, immigrants, women, people of color and LGBTQ people and the list will go on and on until we’re willing to tell the truth about the bible--its gifts and its limitations, its beauty and its flaws.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy