Script Out Passages: Script Out Principles

Hespeler, 22 November, 2015 © Scott McAndless
2 Timothy 3:10-17, Romans 1:26-32, Psalm 19:7-14
T
oday we come to the end of what I think is the longest series of sermons that I have ever preached. Since the beginning of September we have been looking at what I call the Script Out passages of the Bible – passages that we love to hate and often wish weren’t there in the Bible at all. I’m going to confess that I am kind of glad to bring this series to a close on this, the last Sunday in the church year. It can be a little bit difficult to spend all that time focusing on Bible passages that you don’t really like. Next week, the first week in Advent, I am going to be very happy to turn to some more traditional themes of the Christian gospel.
      But I hope that you have picked up that, even if it is hard, I do think this kind of work is important. If we are people who believe in the Bible and take this book seriously, we have to be willing to invest the energy to struggle with those parts of the book that may make us feel uncomfortable or that we just plain don’t like. You cannot pick and choose which passages to follow.
      But even more important than that, I think that we need a better general understanding of how we can approach this book that we say is so important to us. One of the reasons why I felt I had to tackle the Script Out passages of the Bible was because I was hoping to develop some basic principles that we could use to apply whenever we come across passages that challenge us or give us trouble because this
is just something that is going to keep happening and we may even find that, as times goes by, there will be more passages that we stumble over for various reasons.
      A perfect example is a request that comes to us this year from the highest governing body of our denomination: the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The General Assembly has asked the congregations and sessions of our church to discuss and get back to them on a somewhat thorny social issue of our time. They want us to talk about how we include (or perhaps fail to include) LGBT people in the church. Just to be clear, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. So it is simply a reference to a group of people who for various reasons, don’t quite fit into what might be called the traditional approach to how to live out sexuality.
      This has been a discussion that I and many people have resisted not because it is unimportant but because it seems likely to be divisive. No matter what answers we come up with, we will almost certainly not all agree. And if we tend to avoid the discussion, we are also going to avoid the passages in the Bible that have anything to say on the subject.
      But the reality is that, if we are going to be Christians who take the Bible seriously, we have to grapple with what the Bible says even if the discussion is uncomfortable. There are only a few passages that speak directly to these questions and I want to look at how we are going to approach them. I don’t mean to do this in order to tell you how you need to understand these passages or what you ought to think about the question in general. I just want to offer you some helpful approaches to keep in mind.
      But before we look at any particular passages, I want to start with some basic Biblical assumptions. You have heard the argument made (seriously by some, ridiculed by others) that the Bible does not support same-sex marriage because, and I quote, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” There is actually a valid point in that, at least when you understand what it is saying, and we need to take it seriously.
      What it is saying is that there is a certain assumption about what is normal or common in human relationships and specifically about the relationship between men and women in the Bible. This isn’t just something that we see in the creation story but an assumption that runs through much of Scripture, that the male/female relationship in marriage is normative and that it is the kind of relationship, from the perspective of Biblical society, that everyone is simply expected to engage in. And of course that was true. Everyone in Biblical times was expected to participate in so-called traditional marriage.
      Of course, what they called traditional marriage (as we saw a couple of weeks ago) was a little bit different from what we are used to. It included things like arranged marriages that had nothing to do with love, polygamy, female slavery and concubinage, rape victims who were forced to marry their rapists and all kinds of other things that we would never find acceptable. But there was an expectation that, one way or another, everyone would fit into the basic male/female marriage relationship somewhere and that was really whether they wanted to or not and whether they desired that kind of relationship or not.
      So it is true that the Bible takes male/female marriage relationships for granted and, indeed, as the basic foundation of society. And I see absolutely no problem with that. Even today, such relationships represent the norm in the sense that it is the kind of relationship that the majority of people will fit into in one way or another. What’s more, such relationships are very good and even foundational to society as a whole.
      But just because the Bible only sees one kind of relationship and calls that relationship good, that doesn’t mean that it is the only kind of relationship possible or the only one that can be good. I mean, just because the Bible assumes that everyone wears tunics and sandals doesn’t mean that such a mode of dress is the only one that anyone should wear today. Sandals and tunics being good doesn’t mean that a suit and tie is necessarily bad.
      One of the principles that we discovered during our discussions over the last few weeks had to do with something called proof texts. Proof texts are short Biblical texts that clearly lay out some Biblical policy. We saw, for example, that there are a few verses that, in former times, were regularly used to defend the practice of slavery. But the fact that there were a few verses in the Bible that clearly declared that slavery was an acceptable practice did not stop many Christians from using the Bible to argue against it. They discovered that, despite those few proof texts and despite the fact that the Bible took the institution of slavery for granted throughout the whole text, the overwhelming narrative of the Bible was about a God who was committed to bringing his people freedom from slavery and all oppression and that that story was more important than a few proof texts.
      Does that principle apply to the discussion of the place of LGBT people within the church? It is true that there are a few verses that are clear proof texts against homosexuality – six verses by most people’s count. Their meaning is not really open to a great deal of interpretation though we can look at them. Does the existence of those proof texts (assuming we are correctly understanding them) mean that any sort of conversation about how to include LGBT people is already over – that there’s nothing more to say?
      Well, I would say, given where we stand on slavery, we cannot possibly say that. We can never say that a proof text is the end of a conversation. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of what the overall narrative of the scriptures is. Is it one of including outsiders or is it one of judgment of people who don’t fit in. That is another discussion and one that you need to decide on for yourself as you read the Bible.
      Now, turning to those so-called proof texts, the clearest one is found in Leviticus chapter 20: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” It is, like many proof texts, a passage that doesn’t seem to leave much room for interpretation and many would point to it as the clearest Biblical rejection of LGBT people.
      But here again, another of our Script Out principles does apply. Way back when we started this series and looked at the Biblical prohibition against people getting tattoos, we noted that that law really doesn’t apply to today because it was part of a particular law code that was intended to set the people of Israel apart from their neighbours by forcing them to have a distinct culture.
      And when we looked at that ancient law against tattooing, I made this note: “We have to be consistent. If we don’t worry about one verse that we don’t like for a good reason, but then find another verse that we maybe do like that has a lot in common from the verse we rejected, be can’t just choose to dump one and keep the other. We have to think it all through critically.”
      The law against tattooing and the law against men lying with men are only one chapter apart in the Book of Leviticus. The two laws have a great deal in common and seem to have the intention of setting the people of Israel apart from their neighbours culturally. The tattooing law seems to reject the funerary practice of the Israelite’s neighbours and the law against men lying with men is likely rejecting the cultic prostitution practices of their neighbours but neither one is really reacting to cultural practices that are part of the world today. This leaves the question of whether either one really applies today at all open.
      There are only a few passages in the New Testament that touch on the question at hand. There is nothing at all in the Gospels. Jesus himself never said anything on the subject, possibly because the issue just never came up for him. At the very least, this seems to indicate that the matter wasn’t really a big concern for him. We have said before, in connection with some of the other Script Out passages, that Christian doctrine teaches us that God’s ultimate revelation of Godself to the world is not in a book like the Bible but is to be found in the living person of Jesus the Christ. Jesus’ lack of attention to this issue may be an indication of where it lies on God’s priorities. Something to keep in mind.
      The issue does come up in the letters of the New Testament: in Romans, in 1 Corinthians, in 1 Timothy and in Jude. We don’t have the time to go through those passages one by one now. People have certainly differed down through the centuries over exactly what they mean. And I am not going to tell you what you ought to do with them. You are smart people. You have seen some of the various principles that I have been talking about that help us to deal with those parts of the Bible that we don’t like or that we often avoid. I would like you to encourage you to apply them for yourself. We will also offer an opportunity in the New Year to study these passages and the larger issues in discussion.
      But I want to be clear here – I’m not trying to tell you what you should think of these passages. I’m trusting you to come to your own conclusions and understandings. I do expect that, though we will agree on some things, we will not agree about it all. But I think that is okay. In the history of the church it has happened too often that a majority (or sometimes a powerful minority) have imposed their thinking or their Biblical interpretations on everyone else. It is past time for that to stop.
      I don’t know exactly where this whole discussion will lead us in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. My hope and prayer, though, is that we find a way to create an environment where everyone feels the freedom to act according to their understanding and convictions and where we can respect the understandings and convictions of each other.
      In the Second Letter to Timothy, we are told that All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” If we really believe that – that all scripture (both the parts that we like and the parts that we don’t like) are given to us by God for our good, we will not be afraid to struggle with the scriptures, to question them and find some way to embrace them. What is at stake in these discussions and in other difficult discussions that may come is that we are a people who take all scriptures as a gift of God – sometimes especially the parts that we struggle with.

      

Passages referred to in the sermon:
Leviticus 18:22, 29; 20:13
Romans 1:26-27
1 Corinthians 6:9;
1 Timothy 1:10;
Jude 7.

Script Out principles:
  • Be consistent. You can’t just pick and choose which verses you like. Apply the same critical thinking to them all.
  • Pay attention to what is actually being said.
  • God never intended for us to turn our minds off and just take our moral truths from proof texts. You must never take your eyes off of the overall narrative of scripture.
  • God knew that the Bible would always be limited by the humans who transmitted it. So God chose to reveal himself in a way that could not be corrupted by human transmission. God revealed himself in a person: in Jesus the Christ. The living revelation of God in Christ always comes first.
  • Is this God’s final word on this subject or does the Bible have more to say elsewhere?
  • Understand the intentions of the people who first used this story.
  • Understand what the underlying assumptions are.

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