Chapter 4: Interpreting the Bible in Times of Controversy
In the fourth chapter, Rogers draws primarily from the document put together by the UPCUSA (United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America) in 1982. I think the guidelines are extremely important and so I will simply list the guidelines that Rogers provides, and will share some of Rogers’s thoughts (and possibly some of my own commentary as well) on how the guidelines pertain to the issue of homosexuality and the church.
Guideline 1: Recognize that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the center of Scripture. The redemptive activity of God is central to the entire Scripture. The Old Testament themes of the covenant and the messiah testify to this activity. In the center of the New Testament is Jesus Christ: word made flesh, the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope, and the promise of the Kingdom. It is to Christ that the church witnesses. When interpreting Scripture, keeping Christ in the center aids in evaluating the significance of the problems and controversies that always persist in the vigorous, historical life of the church.
- Focusing on Jesus helps us to remain closer to the gospel found in scriptures. As we look to Christ and examine the way in which he interacted with the despised, the rejected, it’s not hard to imagine how he would interact with today’s outcasts, specifically the ones which the church many in the church are rejecting.
- Jesus Christ is the center of scripture – not prooftext verses pulled from the Holiness Code of Leviticus. Keeping Christ in the center helps us maintain a greater sense of the whole trajectory of scripture.
Guideline 2: Let the focus be on the plain text of Scripture, to the grammatical and historical context, rather than to allegory or subjective fantasy.
- This guards against eisegesis (reading what we want into scripture) – we want to avoid surface literalism, but we also want to avoid this “subjective fantasy” where we can try to create as many layers as possible in the text.
- Being faithful to the “plain text” of scripture means that we must work hard to understand the text in its context. It doesn’t mean that there will always be a 100% exact parallel between something mentioned in scripture and modern day circumstances and situations. In the Presbyterian Church in the United States’s Guidelines, they wrote “While a particular text may name a subject with which we are also concerned in the present, the assumption should not be immediately made that the contemporary subject is the same as that addresses in the biblical text or that the circumstances and conditions of the biblical writer and modern interpreter are the same.” It’s pretty clear that this has some important ramifications for using scripture in talking about homosexuality.
Guideline 3: Depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying God’s message.
- This guideline allows for the possibility that the Holy Spirit might be leading us into a new interpretation of scripture. It’s clear that the church has listened to the guiding of the Holy Spirit in the past as we have changed our minds concerning race and women’s issues.
Concerning the issue of the Holy Spirit, Rogers writes:
“It seems that the Holy Spirit is once again working to change our church – making us restless, challenging us to give up our culturally conditioned prejudices against people of homosexual orientation. As we come to know faithful, obedient Christian disciples whose sexual orientation is different from that of the heterosexual majority, we discover that they have been blessed by the Holy Spirit even as heterosexual people have been. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a change in our attitudes and actions can be a faithful response to God’s leading” (60).
Guideline 4: Be guided by the doctrinal consensus of the church, which is the rule of faith.
- Rogers does note that “At first glance, it might appear that the consensus of the church has been against the full acceptance of people who are homosexual” (61). However, he again notes that in the past, the consensus of the church has not always proven to be right. Rogers writes, “Past practice is not necessarily a recommendation for future faithfulness” (61). I think this is something important to note – especially for when people like to focus on this point – that the history of the church, the great thinkers of the past, have all been against acceptance of homosexuality.
- When we talk about doctrinal consensus of the church – we generally turn to the Creeds and Confessions of the church; for Presbyterians, this means opening up our Book of Confessions. However, as Rogers proceeds to detail in this chapter, “The Reformed confessions, properly translated, say nothing about homosexuality” (61). In addition, the rule of faith makes it clear that opinions about homosexuality are not essential matters of the faith. If our central documents of our faith and theology, our Creeds and Confessions, are silent on the issue of homosexuality, then why do so many claim that this IS a central and essential matter of our faith; one that has the possibility to derail the ordination of those who disagree with the church’s current stance on the issue?
Guideline 5: Let all interpretations be in accord with the rule of love, the two-fold commandment to love God and to love our neighbor.
According to Rogers:
“When we interpret Scripture in a way that is hurtful to people, we can be sure that we are not glorifying God…Whether our interpretations of Scripture result in love for God and neighbor is a practical test of whether our interpretation is correct” (62).
Sound a little simplistic? Perhaps; but if our interpretation of Scripture is causing us to hurt people, to specifically target a group of Christians and children of God (LGBT folks) and to use our “correct interpretation” to keep them out of the church and to keep them from living lives of integrity that honor both who they were created to be and their Creator, there seems to be something wrong there. The PCUS report in 1983 states, “Any interpretation of Scripture is wrong that separates or sets in opposition love for God and love for fellow human being” (62).
Guideline 6: Remember that interpretation of the Bible requires earnest study in order to establish the best text and to interpret the influence of the historical and cultural context in which the divine message has come.
The Westminster Confession writes, “All synods and councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or practical, may err, and many have erred…” (63). May err, and many have erred. That’s important. Whenever I have conversations with people about this issue, I’m very clear in saying, “You know – maybe I’m wrong about this….” But, I’m very clear that I’d much rather be wrong and have extended too much grace, too much acceptance, too much love, too much care – than to see that I was wrong and should have been loving people more, should have been welcoming more people.
Rogers really emphasizes the importance of learning about the context of certain biblical passages before jumping to conclusions on their meaning for Christians today. He uses as an example the emphasis on male gender superiority that was prevalent throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Sexual contact was expressly forbidden between two men – not because of an issue related to sexuality, but because it was a confusion of gender roles. Both men couldn’t play the “masculine, male” gender in sexual contact, and one would have to be the “soft” or effeminate male – which was degrading in that society. The same focus on gender roles continued into the New Testament. Focusing on the context caused Old Testament scholar Phyllis Bird to conclude, “In the final analysis, it [prohibition of homosexual behavior] is a matter of gender identity and roles, not sexuality.”
Guideline 7: Seek to interpret a particular passage of the Bible in light of all the Bible.
Scripture interprets scripture, right? Rogers writes, “We need to interpret the parts by the whole, the complex by the simple, the peripheral by the central” (65). Again, we need to look to the central theme of the Gospel message from scripture.
I’m going to include, at the end of each of these posts, a link to an article written by Real Live Preacher, on the issue of homosexuality. I’ve always loved his writing, and I hope you will too. In his post, “Olives, Wineskins, White Bread and Jesus,” he shares about churches beginning to think differently on the issue of homosexuality.
This post is part of an ongoing review of Jack Rogers’s book “Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality.” For more information about the series, you can read the first post here. Individual Chapter Reviews: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6 and Chapter 7. I also share some Final Thoughts about the book here.