Reading our prejudices into the bible

The last time I wrote about same-sex relations, and in particular the C4M petition I tried to remain neutral in relation on attitudes to same-sex relations in general, for that post my views on the matter were irrelevant.

In this post I shall address more closely my feelings on the matter.  In fact…

I do not think same-sex relationships or practices are wrong.  I do not think that heterosexual relationships are the only way God intended for couples to exist.

Now I’ve gone on record with my opinion on the matter.  You can all hold me to it if you want.

One of the common objections I experience to my view is that “But, but … but, the bible says they are wrong”.  And it is to this that we now turn our attention.

Yes, there are a few verses, in both the Old and New Testament that come out against same-sex relationships/practices.  I could go through and explain how in each circumstance I do not think they categorically condemn anything, but I don’t want to get into that game of proof-text tag.  Instead I want to look at the wider issue of why it is that people use the defense “But the bible says so” and some inherent flaws with this.

Firstly, living our lives by the authority of the bible, I believe, is a good thing.  So trying to work out what the bible says is a good thing, and using it to justify our opinions, in principle is a good thing.  But it also leads us into tricky water.  The bible is not monolithic or straight-forward.  It is multifaceted and contains many different opinions, even on the same matter.  Rachel Held Evans has been blogging about this issue too, (why not check out her series) and often concludes that there is not “a biblical view” on a subject, but a range of them.  This is inevitable for a Canon that is a collection of texts that have been written over such a long period, by some many authors in different cultures.  What qualifies them as Canonical, and what gives them authority. however, is their inspiration by the Spirit.

Given this what defines our understanding of “what the bible says” must be us.  We all share the same scriptures but reach different conclusions, so the thing that determines that, has to be us.  We all read different things into the text.  I read liberal and Arminian   values into texts, others read conservative and charismatic messages into the text.
Why do some people think  the bible is against gays, bisexuals, etc?  Because they are against gays, bisexuals etc?  They read their own prejudices into the text.

And it isn’t just in how they interpret verses, because if it was some verses might be inescapable, it is how we deal with the scriptures as a whole.  We are all guilty of selective reading.  I tend not to mention verses that talk about God pre-destining people.  Those who use the bible to suggest homo-sexuality and/or bisexuality are wrong do exactly the same, they give greater priority to the “anti-gay” verses and claim it as a biblical mandate.

There are 5 instructions in the NT to greet one another with a kiss (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12,  1 Thes 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14) and yet those who tell me that my views on sexuality are unbiblical have never kissed me when we’ve met.

For the sake of ease, let us focus on one book to further illustrate this point.  1 Corinthians works well.  The following verses are all taken from this one letter, of Paul to the church in Corinth.

Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (4:5)
I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. (5:3)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (6:9-10)
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. (7:8)
Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,  (11:14)
All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (16:20)

A command against judging, but an admission the author judges, commands against homosexuality, a command against marrying, a condemnation of men with long hair and an instruction to kiss each other.

People often take objection to same-sex relations and trot out this verse in their support, very few people have sincerely objected to the length of my hair (which now sits just above my shoulders) based on that verse, no-one has told me that I should be celibate, but they have said my non-hetero friends should be and no-one has greeted me with a kiss. Their reading of even this one book (and don’t get me onto slaves elsewhere) is selective.  Because we all read selectively.

The question then must be “why?”.  It is necessary for us to consider what leads to this selective reading over any other.  A suggest a number of reasons.

Generational
A bit of me feels uncomfortable writing this blog-post, I know a number of people whom I love and respect deeply disagree with me on the matter.  I am wary of sounding too overly-critical, for example I have written, and then deleted the word homophobic a number of times [I stand by my decision that it is an unhelpful label in this particular branch of the discussion].  Many of the people I hold in high regard are older than me.  I think in some cases, the prejudice comes from their generation.  As they grew up opposition to LGBT was the norm, to some extent they are unaware of their prejudice and the hurt they cause, and it is that upbringing and societal influence that affects their readings of these texts.  It fits with everything else they have been told, so they accept it.

Faith Tradition
There are plenty of churches that actively preach against same sex relationship and preach ardently on the virtues of marriage, how it is a God-given ideal for society and family life.  There are, therefore members of those traditions who have been conditioned to read the passages condemning same-sex relationships favourably, without much thought to their own conscience.  They have seen no need to question the verse because their is a clear teaching on it from their church.
There are, of course, the majority of people who have read the passages and heard their church’s teaching on the matter and have knowingly accepted or rejected it.  Making our own decisions on these matters is always favourable.

Wider Society
Wider society is better now than it was before at accepting orientations that aren’t straight, as valid and normal, or as no different to straight orientations, but there is still a horrifically long way to go.  The stats in my previous blog highlight that in a very painful way.   This does not help, it possibly tips the reader towards thinking that condemnations of same-sex relationships are acceptable, or normal, and therefore limits the critical thought that goes into the texts.  Again, this is not always the case.

Upbringing
This merges all of the above, church, society, parental attitudes etc all affect our reading of the scriptures.  If we are brought up in homes where heterosexuality is favoured, or where same-sex relationships are seen as wrong this can affect our reading.

Personal Conviction
So far it may sound as if I believe that anyone who opposes same-sex relationships has been conned or hoodwinked into the position.  This is far from the case.  The majority of my adversaries in this matter, most of whom are very close friends hold their views because of a personal conviction in the validity of principle.  As much as I bitterly disagree with these people I cannot help but respect that they have reached a conclusion based on their weighing of the evidence and which sits well with their conscience, much as I have.

However, when we boil it down, personally I do not think the bible condemns same-sex relationships, and people will have to do better than “because the bible says so” as their reasoning.  By all means disagree with me, but have a better argument than a prejudiced selective reading of our authoritative scriptures.

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3 thoughts on “Reading our prejudices into the bible

  1. I’m somewhat sympathetic but I don’t think you’re argument is strong enough. I’d like to know where the Bible has “mixed opinions” on homosexuality. It also seems like you’re assuming that there are no deeper exegetical/hermeneutical principles in play when someone condemns homosexuality but not long hair. Do you think one can condemn one and not the other only be exegetical arbitrariness?

    • The second question is easier to answer than the first, so I shall start there. Not at all. I think there are other good reasons that someone could provide for their still opposing homosexuality and not hair-length, although I think it would draw them into a murkier middle ground than they would be comfortable with. This is what I was trying to talk about under the “personal conscience” heading. I think, for example, they could point to the bible’s teachings on heterosexual marriage and the emphasis they put on that, and that might help strengthen their position beyond the simple “the bible says so”. But so often all people use to justify their position is that, and a set of proof-texts.

      I would concede that I don’t think the bible has “mixed opinions” on non-straight orientations, however, I think were we to conclude that the anti-same sex relationships stuff matters as little as hair-length then the situation becomes far more ambiguous. I think the bible then seems very hetero-centric and has a strong emphasis on marriage. From here I think it is possible to say that this because the texts were written in, and for hetero-centric, and patriarchal contexts and so the emphasis on straight relationships is not the exclusion of welcoming same-sex relationships.

      I now this sounds like a lot of ifs and presumptions, and one one level it is. But I think it makes as many presumptions as someone taking the proof-texts and saying they must define our attitudes to human sexuality.

  2. I stumbled across your blog and I applaud you! Very nicely written, balanced and productive. Thank you for your support!

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