Luke Timothy Johnson on Homosexuality and Scripture
Luke Timothy Johnson, the Robert R. Woodruff Professor of New Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has a very thoughtful essay on the current disputes about GLBT relationships. It is a long essay that is well worth a read. (There is a response by Eve Tushnet). Here are highlights:
Read it all.
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy-that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.
I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality-namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.
Implicit in an appeal to experience is also an appeal to the living God whose creative work never ceases, who continues to shape humans in his image every day, in ways that can surprise and even shock us. Equally important, such an appeal goes to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself-namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life.
Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?
The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience-through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.
Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists-and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts. To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.
For me this is no theoretical or academic position, but rather a passionate conviction. It is one many of us have come to through personal struggle, and for some, real suffering. In my case, I trusted that God was at work in the life of one of my four daughters, who struggled against bigotry to claim her sexual identity as a lesbian. I trusted God was at work in the life she shares with her partner-a long-lasting and fruitful marriage dedicated to the care of others, and one that has borne fruit in a wonderful little girl who is among my and my wife’s dear grandchildren. I also trusted the many stories of students and friends whose life witnessed to a deep faith in God but whose bodies moved sexually in ways different from the way my own did. And finally I began to appreciate the ways in which my own former attitudes and language had helped to create a world where family, friends, and students were treated cruelly.
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The challenge, therefore, is to discern what constitutes the positive and negative in sexual behavior. A start would be to adapt Galatians 3:28 and state that “in Christ there is neither gay nor straight”-and on that basis, to begin to ask serious questions concerning the holiness of the church, applying the same criteria on both sides. If porneia among heterosexuals includes promiscuity, violence, and exploitation, then the church must condemn similar forms of homosexual activity. If the church condemns the bath-house style of gay life, it must also condemn the playboy style of straight life. Similarly, if holiness among heterosexuals includes fidelity, chastity, modesty, and fruitfulness, we can ask whether and how the same elements are present in same-sex love.
Such discernment is difficult, but it is necessary. I believe there is the deepest sort of consonance between such an approach to God’s revelation and the witness of the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament compositions owe their existence to the struggle to resolve the cognitive dissonance between a set of sacred texts that appeared to exclude a crucified messiah as God’s chosen one (“cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,” Deuteronomy 21:23) and the powerful experience of Jesus’ new and exalted life as Lord through the Holy Spirit-an experience that empowered the first believers.
Read it all.
I have touched in past posts on the importance of experience in theology for one who believes that God still operates in the world today. This essay is a wonderfully detailed explanation for how experience has in the past, and should again, inform our decisions on issues.