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Interpreting through reason, tradition, and experience

Posted: May 2 2019 at 12:44 PM

On March 30 and 31, about 1,000 people gathered in three different settings across our conference to talk about what happened at General Conference 2019 and what it means for our local churches. My presentation was videotaped and can be viewed at vimeo.com/327864947. In the course of the presentation, I indicated that while I believe in a “traditional marriage” between a man and a woman, my own interpretation of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience leads me to a more inclusive understanding of marriage; that of a same-sex relationship of two consenting adults who lead a monogamous, lifelong, loving, and committed relationship.

A few people (maybe more than I had a chance to talk to directly or have heard from since) wanted to know: “Then do we just throw out the Bible?” A few Scripture references were given and the implication was that some of our church leaders —clergy, laity and even the bishop—don’t “believe in the Scriptures.”

So while it’s difficult to conduct a Bible study in a monthly column, I want to raise a few points about how I understand Scripture, with a final statement about my experience as a pastor over the last 40 years. Six passages address same-sex behaviors in the Scriptures—three each in the Old and New Testaments, respectively: Genesis 19 and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. In addition to these passages, there is the underlying concept of “gender complementarity,” or the concept that God created man and woman for each other alone. I’m not going to parse these all out, but suffice to say that the passages and concept each have a cultural context. Genesis 19, for instance, is the threat of gang rape against Lot’s angelic visitors. That has to do with humiliation and domination and is about mutual caring relationships as was Abu Ghraib!

But the others all speak to various sexual practices of their times. The Leviticus passages are in the Holiness Code, which prohibits any sexual practice that does not result in procreation. I encourage you to read through all the chapters surrounding those passages and you will find that you—yes, you!—commit some unlawful acts.

The New Testament passages, written by Paul, describe same-sex behavior in the first century Roman Empire. They also weren’t about mutually loving and committed relationships, but about culturally accepted practices (which we do not accept today), such as sex with young boys, prostitution, and sex between slaves and masters. These passages don’t refer to the kind of same-sex relationships we all know in our families, communities, and churches.

Other cultural and ecclesiological battles over the Bible are worth noting. Consider slavery, for instance. Whenever I read about the exodus from slavery, I celebrate with the Hebrews that they were free at last! The 10 commandments given in Exodus 20 are immediately followed by chapter 21, which includes instructions about how slave owners are to treat their slaves. In the New Testament times, we know that a high percentage of the population was entrenched in some form of slavery. There is no sense that slavery is wrong; it’s simply something to endure. Paul says, “Slaves obey your masters” (Ephesians 6:7). Slavery is embedded in the cultural contexts of the Scriptures.

Or consider “one man and one woman.” Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, marriage is referenced as between a man and a woman, but how many women? Jacob, David, Solomon, and other “patriarchs” of the faith had multiple wives at the same time. Polygamy was the cultural context of the day.

Or consider women and the Bible. How often have people quoted Paul when he said, “Women keep silence in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34). Yet the context actually seems to be about bringing order to worship. Were there a couple of women who were busy gossiping and talking, disrupting the service? As a worship leader or preacher, I have also desired for some women or teenagers or ushers at the back of the room to keep silent!

Or consider the earth as the center of the universe. I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Galileo, a courageous observer of nature who promoted the untenable reality for his time that the earth is not the center of the universe. Imprisoned, threatened with torture, and condemned for heresy, Galileo maintained his devout faith even as he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. I always think it’s ironic that he was condemned for saying humanity isn’t the center of the universe!

Or consider divorce. Jesus was pretty clear about divorce (Matthew 19:1-12). Until the 1950s, divorce was rare in the U.S., especially in “Christian” families, due to its economic context. But it became more common in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as marriage was defined more in terms of love than economics. Not only members but clergy and bishops are among the divorced and remarried. Imagine, if you will, if over the last 40 years that we have been arguing about homosexuality, we would have said that no divorced person could become a clergy in the United Methodist Church and no clergy could conduct a marriage ceremony for anyone who had been divorced! Again, people began to interpret the Scripture in a way that acknowledges the sadness that comes when a marriage ends but provides for remarriage.

These are all arguments plucked from the not-so-distance past that caused people of faith to fight each other, condemn one another, and insist that those with whom we disagree are without faith or respect for the authority of Scripture. And yet, we can also see that, at least with these examples, time (mostly) told the story that the Scriptures are, need to be, and even must be interpreted from within the cultural context.

I want to close by briefly giving my own experience that has led me to study the Scriptures in light of this “battle over the Bible” in our time. LGBTQ persons have been a part of my life since I was in high school. We all knew without even the words to describe it that the very talented, younger brother of one of my best friends was gay. During the 1980s he died and I would guess that he died of AIDS. Over time I came to realize that some of my good friends from high school (even my church), college, graduate school, first church and beyond were LGBTQ persons. Because of my love and respect for them, I was compelled to seek understanding in terms of Scripture, reason (science)—even what’s truly traditional—and my experience.

I know that many of you will disagree and may even be upset by this interpretation of Scripture and (pastoral) experience. I mostly want to assure you that your religious leaders, including your bishop, don’t dismiss the Scriptures but have studied them and concluded something different than you may have been taught or, for that matter, many of us were taught.

I commend to you God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, who tells his own story of exploring what the Scriptures say (and don’t say) with his father, who really struggled with his “coming out” in light of their deep, evangelical faith. If nothing else, read the story to appreciate (or resonate) with those who have come to an understanding of their own loved one.

~Bishop Sally Dyck

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