Biblical Interpretation and the “homosexuality” debate

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2016 Lee Karl Palo

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Romans 1-26&27

The following is a brief handout I made for my Sunday-school class at Coupeville UMC after we discussed Romans 1:26-27 the previous Sunday as a part of my series on the authentic letters of Paul. There are differences of opinion on the topic in my class, so this was an attempt to help people understand where each side is coming from. I myself have been on both sides of the debate at one time or another (I would currently consider myself to be on the progressive side). I was never a Biblical literalist or fundamentalist when I considered myself a traditionalist on the issue. It wasn’t that I ever found the traditionalist position I developed to be wrong, so much as I eventually found the progressive position to be more persuasive and loving. As a result, I am very good at playing “Devil’s advocate” on either side of this issue. Hence I am fully aware of the best both sides of the debate have to offer, and since I like to encourage dialogue, I also try to discourage “ad hominems” and “straw men arguments” that are so often used by one side against the other.

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          The United Methodist Church, being part of the Wesleyan tradition, holds scripture up as the primary spiritual authority (along with the rest of Protestantism). What can set the Wesleyan tradition apart is the acknowledgement that the Bible doesn’t interpret itself, but is interpreted through “tradition, reason, and experience.” Some mistake this as a “how-to” for interpreting scripture, but it is rather an honest acknowledgement of how everyone reads the Bible.

There are, of course, many differences of opinion as to how a given text from the Bible is to be interpreted. Sometimes this can lead to people concluding that if a text isn’t understood the way they think it should be understood, the people responsible for the supposed misinterpretation are assumed to either not hold scripture as authoritative, or be incompetent at interpretation. This is plainly false in many situations.

Currently the biggest challenge the church faces with regard to Biblical interpretation is the issue of homosexuality. The reality many people face is when those they know who self-identify as LGBTQ (friends, family, or themselves) do not conform to the “sinner” archetype. If the most central ethical claim of the Bible is to be found in Leviticus 19:18b, then its corollary is that sin is what does not love one’s neighbor. In the past, the Bible has been understood to condemn homosexual practice. However, this causes many to question if they are reading the Bible correctly when they do not see LGBTQ persons as exhibiting sin by virtue of being LGBTQ. In a similar fashion in the past, the development of science has called into question how parts of the Bible should be understood. We don’t assume that we live in a tiered universe where God’s realm of Heaven is just above the clouds, or that there are waters both above the dome of the sky and below the earth. We today read these texts authoritatively, but not scientifically.

The basic traditionalist position on homosexuality is that there is no contemporaneous evidence that warrants questioning the validity of what is assumed to be the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual practice. The progressive position is that the Bible does not condemn the contemporaneous reality of LGBTQ person’s self-experience as LGBTQ, but that it may have had validity at the time it was written (it is assumed the context in which homosexual practice took place was not the same as it is today, and the work of French philosopher and historian of sexuality, Michel Foucault, is instructive here). To be sure there are some traditionalist folks who toss around texts like the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as if they are relevant to the condemnation of homosexual practice while being ignorant of the Bible’s explicit statement on the reason for the destruction given in Ezekiel 16:49. There are also progressive folks who, seeing that LGBTQ persons don’t appear to be sinners for just being LGBTQ, dismiss the Bible’s authority on the subject altogether. In any case there is a considerable diversity of opinion within either side of the debate. People see what they want to see all the time regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

The hard work of Biblical interpretation doesn’t ignore contemporary realities, but tries to be self-reflective through the lens of tradition, reason, and experience. In any case it is unavoidable to read the Bible that way, even if one is not consciously aware of this. But the more one is aware of how interpretation is done, the better one can get at doing it.

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© 2016 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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