I want to try to comment on a—what to call it? a trend? a mood?—I’m seeing in the ongoing Christian conversations and debates about same-sex marriage. I’d like to call it an impatience with biblical exegesis, and here’s what I mean by that:
When I go and speak in various venues about Christian faith and sexuality, I hear comments like the following with more and more regularity: “We know that both sides aren’t going to agree about what the Bible says. And we know that both sides already know which are their favorite verses and how they interpret them, so we’re not going to change each other’s minds. But what we can do is share our stories with one another. We can learn to understand each other’s lives better. We can gain more empathy for each other. So let’s focus on that rather than having yet another ‘debate’ about the Bible.”
I want to add quickly that I’m not immune to this mood either! As Robert Gagnon pointed out yesterday about my recent public conversation with Justin Lee in Grand Rapids, I talked very little about my reading of biblical texts and spent much more time “telling my story.” I share the temptation that many others of my generation face to believe that talking about the Bible won’t lead to any resolution and so we’re better off simply trying to understand one another’s hopes and fears and offer support where we can. Where the Bible is too divisive, sharing our Christian stories can be something that unites us.
But I am more and more unhappy with this mood or trend, and I’m determined to try to talk more about Scripture in future speaking engagements and debates that I participate in. Much of my thinking on this matter has been influenced by a letter that Rod Dreher posted on his blog awhile ago, from an ex-evangelical, pro-same-sex-marriage young person. Here’s an excerpt:
In all the years I was a member [of a Baptist church], my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM [same-sex marriage]. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.
When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left. In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse. It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms. Perhaps someday my fellow ex-evangelical Millennials and I will join other churches, but it will be as essentially new Christians with no religious heritage from our childhoods to fall back on.
What this letter shows is that this thoroughly Christianized young Baptist person had no idea what the biblical case against same-sex marriage is. It’s not that they had heard it rehearsed ad nauseam and needed to move on to encounter real gay people’s personal stories. Rather, it’s that they had been given no biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality to begin with. They had been given no sense of the coherent, interlocking architecture of why Scripture says what it says and thus were only equipped with a kind of emotivist argument against same-sex marriage—which, of course, collapsed the moment they met a gay person who wasn’t “icky.”
Reading this letter helped clarify some things for me. It reminded me that simply walking through the biblical storyline—
- pointing out that male and female are created similar (Genesis 2:23) and yet different (2:7 20) and that both these emphases are made in Genesis;
- pointing out that Jesus’ teaching about marriage presupposes that it is for procreation and thus depends on sexual difference (male and female) and complementarity (Luke 20:34-36);
- pointing out that Jesus, when teaching about marriage, doesn’t just emphasize Genesis 2 and the similarity of the spouses (Mark 10:7 quoting Genesis 2:24) but draws in Genesis 1 in order also to emphasize the difference and complementarity of the spouses (Mark 10:6 quoting Genesis 1:27);
- pointing out that Paul’s rejection of same-sex sexual behavior isn’t based on the fact that that behavior accompanies idolatry but is instead based on the belief that all of humanity is already idolatrous and that same-sex sexual behavior is the inevitable fruit (Romans 1:18, 24ff.);
- pointing out that the New Testament makes it possible for people to choose celibacy (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:8, 26, 32-35, 38) but still envisions one of the purposes of Christian marriage as procreation (Ephesians 6:1-4 following 5:21-33)
—can seem genuinely new to people, even to well-catechized believers. This is because, as Alastair Roberts has pointed out, many of us have heard conclusions from the Bible throughout our Christian discipleship. But fewer of us have been well instructed in the way of reading that leads to those conclusions:
[A]s many young people leave our churches, claiming that their questions were never taken seriously, it seems clear to me that the incompetence of church leaders when it comes to interacting with opposing viewpoints is a crucial dimension of the problem. Young people are less shielded from opposing viewpoints than their parents, especially given the role played by the Internet in their lives. They are more likely to realize just how incompetent church leaders are in their attempts to deal with critical and dissenting voices (to whom the Internet has granted a voice) and how heavily their credibility has formerly rested upon the absence of the right to talk back to them….
The teachers of the Church [should] provide the members of the Church with a model for their own thinking. The teacher of the Church does not just teach others what to believe, but also how to believe, and the process by which one arrives at a theological position. This is one reason why it is crucial that teachers ‘show their working’ on a regular basis. When teaching from a biblical text, for instance, the teacher isn’t just teaching the meaning of that particular text, but how Scripture should be approached and interpreted more generally. An essential part of the teaching that the members of any church need is that of dealing with opposing viewpoints. One way or another, every church provides such teaching. However, the lesson conveyed in all too many churches is that opposing voices are to be dismissed, ignored, or ‘answered’ with a reactive reassertion of the dogmatic line, rather than a reasoned response.
None of this is to say, of course, that we shouldn’t listen to the stories of gay people. I fully intend to go on offering my story to the church for reflection, and I want to go on hearing the stories of friends like Justin Lee with whom I disagree. Nor do I mean that talking about the Bible more will automatically lead to greater agreement. (It took the church hundreds of years to reach agreement about the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ, and even then agreement wasn’t fully achieved!) But here’s what I do mean: I, and perhaps others, need to believe that, in the words of John Robinson, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” Although it may seem futile, the effort to trace out the meaning of the Bible and talk about Scripture with others isn’t a vain exercise.
I love the way John Webster puts it:
[We must seek to foster] modes of public life in the churches which expect that the ministry and message of reconciliation will be borne to the communion of saints through the prophets and apostles [=Scripture!], and which do not let themselves be overcome by the anxiety that that ministry and message may mislead. Breaking the spell of that anxiety is not easy. To do so, we need to cease giving an account of ourselves as somehow located at a point in the history of human affairs where the usual rules of providence do not apply [as if God were now working by some other way than giving the church light through Scripture]; we need to be less compliant to the myth that exegetical authority suppresses rather than liberates; we need to learn that conflict about the teaching of the prophets and apostles is not abnormal or necessarily destructive in the Christian community, but may prove a way in which God keeps the church in the truth. (italics added)
Think about that last line: conflict about the teaching of the apostles may prove a way in which God keeps the church in the truth. Shying away from that exegetical conflict isn’t the right way for the church to go forward in our current debates.