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.

Hearing God, listening to others

As I mentioned I had a meeting with my Superintendent Minister this evening.  This was a follow-up meeting to the one one we had about a week ago where we looked at a project application.  I don’t think I articulated myself very well in this one (which I would argue is unusual, others probably see me as incoherent most of the time).  I went into the first meeting unsure and a little bit afraid of his reaction to my ideas, the ideas, which on some level, I think might be inspired by God, (see musings on personal experience) but came out of it quite pleased (I went into more detail last time).  The same cannot be said of this meeting, although I am not very surprised.  The tone in which the meeting was arranged was not particularly optimistic.

So what was said. Alf was never too keen on the whole campervan thing, and that came up again, so that I was sort of expecting, although it was expressed far more plainly this time.  We may be saying goodbye to Mwyndeg before I even knew her.

The other thing that came up arises from an awkward disconnect between what I want to do, and the most likely way of doing it (being an OPP).  The OPP Project needs to be in a specific local setting, and Alf things “North Wales” won’t be specific enough to secure the funding.

So … he’s proposed a new project.  That I have to work out if I am happy with.

It will be in Bangor and Holyhead Circuit, where I am now, mainly focusing on helping get a junior church/youth group/sunday school running in one of the chapels and supporting the work of Methsoc and building links between Bangor and other places such as Aberystwyth and Wrecsam, the the possibility of talking about the youthy stuff at places too.

This is obviously very different to the original plan, Mwyndeg is gone (that might have happened anyway!) and I lose the regional and peripatetic nature of it.  It doesn’t quite match up with the idea I had of working in a big area supporting lots of different groups.  It will be far more focused.

I could get really stroppy at this point.  “Why aren’t people letting me do what I want” “Why won’t they understand my calling” but to do so brings out the worst of our theology that emphasises a personal relationship with Christ, becuase it implies that our personal relationship is to the exclusion of others, whereas we actually have a personal relationship with Christ in order to bring us into community with him and others, namely The Church.  To expect everything to go as I envisaged it also borders on the messy end of allowing Personal Experience to be a source of authority.  It can be used far too subjectively.

So now comes a time of trying to discern.  Did I hear God wrong?  Am I supposed to be based in this one circuit?  Did I hear God correctly? If so, how do I now go about trying to follow that call?  There are no quick answers to this, I need to spend a lot of time mulling it over, asking these questions of God, trying to listen for an answer, a feeling, an inkling of how to proceed.

One thing seems clear to me, it seems wrong to apply for this project if, as lovely as it sounds, it is not what I think God is asking of me.

So to the listening I go, awkwardly, uncomfortably; it has never been something I’ve been very good at!  I often let other people do it for me (e.g. I didn’t hear God calling me to train to be a Local Preacher until nigh on half my church told me to!), I ma sure I often miss “God’s voice” and when I do “hear” it, then it is ambiguous; it tends to be gut feelings, reaction, little inklings, a feeling of being more comfortable with one path or another.  I do not like this time of discernment, but I owe to to God, the Connexion, myself to enter into it.  It seems to me that it is a reality of following God that we must go through these periods.

A Dream

This post is not about a dream as in “I have a dream …” or “last night I had the strangest dream”.  Not some desire or bold vision.  Just the mundane sort of thing that happens in sleep. I can barely remember it now, but I know I woke up mulling over such things as balancing vocation and a sense of call, with testing that and this apparent need to sell yourself.

“I feel called by God to do this, therefore you must give me the job” some how doesn’t cut it in interviews these days.

And nor should it!. As much as I would love it to be that simple I don’t think it should be.  It has always been part of our Methodist understanding, and I would argue this is the best model across the Christian tradition, that an individual’s sense of call is tested.  It starts with the informal chats with the close friend to see what they think and progresses up to the more formal testing by the Church, through applications, interviews etc (the exact way a call is tested depends on the call) but if someone is offering for ministry within the Church, be it lay or ordained, be it a short term thing (like me at the moment) or sense of life-long call it is right that the Church has a say.  It is right that they are involved in testing that call.

This position comes not only from our understanding of calling and ministry but also from our understanding of “authority”.  The Methodist Church is unusual in having four sources of authority during decision making.  There are some that claim to have only one; “the word of God” (how accurate this claim is I shall leave up to you)  or others whereby what I think God is saying to me is key.  Our Anglican comrades have three (which leads to lots of analogies about stools) namely scripture, Tradition (the recieved teachings of the Church; not habit!!) and reason/logic.  To this, Methodism adds personal experience.  We then try to balance these together.  The importance one person places on each, or how they hold them in tension will vary, but the point of this is that personal experience is a source of authority for me and my Methodisty types so on one hand “I feel called by God” is a very good starting point (in fact I would say if one doesn’t feel called by God in one form or another then we need to be asking questions of that) but at the same time we balance our personal experience, so it is just as important it is tested.  In short, the Methodist understanding of authority means we should respond and test senses of call.

I knew all this when I woke up (I have a surprising amount of love for the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” – the geeky name given to the four sources of authority) and yet I still felt un-easy.  I haven’t written my bit of the OPP application yet, that comes later on, but I know that I will have to “sell myself” close friends are applying for jobs they feel called to, and are having to “sell themselves” to the employer.  I think I felt uneasy not because I cannot justify myself as a viable candidate, but because it somehow runs the risk of cheapening the process.  Does me following what I believe to be God’s call rest on how well I can talk up my transferable skills?  Other, bigger, questions also arise. What if this isn’t God’s call but I write such a good application I get it?  Then what?

There is a little more that could be said, I know the answer to some of those questions, but they require a much more systemically structured blog post.  One which no doubt will appear at some point.  But I set to writing my dissertation this morning more with a sense of tension and lack of resolution, but a general feeling that it was OK, and so I shall leave my blog here, and hopefully it will convey some of that too.

Finally, I am actually quite excited that I have written an open-ended post.  It was inevitable, but I can now add “written a post with more questions that answers” to my list of first-time experiences!