Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Bible, Jack Rogers, and Gay Rights

Here is my letter to a very special gay friend:

Thanks so much for Jack Rogers’ book (Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality). I read it with much interest, trying to understand how an Evangelical would come to the conclusion that the Bible doesn’t forbid homosexuality, at least for today. Although I’m still confused about this, Rogers did provoke me enough to write a short rebuttal:

Central to Rogers’ position are the methods by which we interpret the Bible:

• I saw a clear picture of a shift from a literalistic method of biblical interpretation to one that looks at Scripture through the lens of the redeeming life and ministry of Jesus Christ. (16)

This statement is very confusing to an educated Evangelical. This is because we also try to understand the Bible contextually. This means that it’s important to take into account the type of literature we are trying to interpret. Some are highly literal and some figurative, like the sayings of Jesus.

We also are quick to make use of the “lens of the redeeming life and ministry of Jesus Christ.” We too want our interpretation to conform to the reality of His work and teachings. The Apostles certainly did! Whatever distinction Rogers was trying to make, one thing was clear – he didn’t approve of the way that Evangelicals had been interpreting Scripture.

Rogers then began to cite various instances where Evangelicals had historically been dead wrong in their interpretations – the use of tobacco disqualifying ordination, the justification of slavery, and the role of women. He then asks the rhetorical question,

• How could certain theologians and pastors be so confident that they understood the Scriptures, when we now believe that they were so wrong? What were the primary philosophical and theological resources of early America that directed people to think in ways that we now can hardly comprehend? (29)

Indeed, seeing our past mistakes – both personal and church-wide – should make us more self-examining. However, Rogers intends this lesson to be broader in scope:

• What is instructive about these examples is that a similar pattern is emerging today regarding people who are homosexual. Those who oppose homosexuality claim that (1) the Bible records God’s judgment against the sin of homosexuality from its first mention in Scripture; (2) people who are homosexual are somehow inferior in moral character and incapable of rising to the level of full heterosexual “Christian civilization”: and (3) people who are homosexual are willfully sinful, often sexually promiscuous and threatening, and deserve punishment for their own acts. The church is once again repeating the mistakes of the past. (34)

Rogers is not fair in his assessment. Those of us who regard homosexual practice as sin do not regard homosexuals as “inferior in moral character and incapable of rising to the level of full heterosexual…” This statement is blatantly mistaken. Although there might be extremists who think this way, this is not a position that can be honestly extracted from the Bible. Instead we believe that we are all sinners who are desperately in need the Savior.

Although it is true that some sins are more destructive than others (1 Cor. 6:18-19), it is also true that any sin can damn us. Consequently, we do not have the right to regard any as “inferior.” On the contrary, we are reminded that God chose this worlds rejects and low-life for salvation (1 Cor. 1:26-29), among whom I gladly number myself.

Roger’s characterization of us is lamentable, especially since it is found among so many championing gay rights. It is also hypocritical. While they show such exquisite sensitivity towards gays, they find nothing inconsistent about heaping unfair abuse upon those who don’t agree with them.

Roger’s position is also logically problematic. He argues that since Evangelicals have been wrong in the past, they are now wrong about homosexuality. To apply this logic further, it means that we can’t be right about anything – not Jesus, not the Cross, nor anything. However, I’m sure that Rogers has also been wrong about many of his past beliefs. According to his logic, wouldn’t it them mean that he is also wrong about homosexuality? Of course not! However, it’s important to recognize that his logic rules equally against him!

Rogers then inveighs against “rational analysis” in favor of “personal encounter,” suggesting that the former is rigid and dangerous:

• Fascism in Europe demonstrated the danger of a rigid worldview that did not allow for diversity of opinions. (38)

While it is true that a “rigid worldview” can be dangerous, it depends upon what one is rigid about. Rogers is rigid about gay rights, and most gay advocates have little use for the “diversity of opinions.” Instead, he credits the neo-orthodoxy of Barth and Brunner with substituting the rigidity of “rational analysis” with a more humanizing perspective:

• They did not view the Bible as a collection of inerrant facts, but as a very human document that reliably recorded a very real encounter of real people with a real God…The influence of neo-orthodoxy and the biblical theology movement enabled the church to take a fresh look at oppressive social institutions. (39)

Of course, if the Bible isn’t a “collection of inerrant facts,” then it has errors, and it’s up to us to recognize which parts are inspired and which aren’t. This means that we (and consequently our cultural conditioning) become the final arbiter of truth. It is no longer then a matter of Scripture judging us, but instead of we sitting in judgment over Scripture. If we really have that level of insight, then Scripture becomes irrelevant. If we have the capacity to judge Scripture, then we also have the capacity to produce the equivalent of Scripture.

According to neo-orthodoxy, Scripture then is merely “a very human document that reliably recorded a very real encounter.” If this is all that Scripture is, then why should the “encounters” of middle-eastern folk two thousand years ago be any more revealing and authoritative than my own encounters? If it’s just a “very human document,” then it shouldn’t be so! Only if it’s entirely God-breathed and thus inerrant is it worthy to govern my life.

Rogers slips between one point of view and another. Sometimes, it’s the fallible Bible that is at fault for our “oppressive social institutions,” and sometimes it’s the fault of the interpretation of the hated Evangelicals. However, most of the time, Rogers wants us to understand that our principles of interpretation are at fault. Consequently, he endorses the principle of love in contrast to a strict adherence to Scripture. Rogers inappropriately cites:

• He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:6)

Rogers wrongly concludes that the killing “letter” of the law pertains to Scripture. Therefore, if Scripture kills, we have to be very tentative about it. However, read contextually, the “letter” pertains to the Covenant of Moses, not to Scripture:

• Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was (2 Cor. 3:7)

Rogers sets forth “seven guidelines for interpretation.” (54) On the surface, they seem to be sound, but the devil is in the details. Number five reads:

• “Let all interpretations be in accord with the rule of love, the two-fold commandment to love God and to love our neighbor.” (62)

This is a sound and central Scriptural principle. However, Rogers explains:

• When we interpret Scripture in a way that is hurtful to people, we can be sure that we are not glorifying God. (62)

What does Rogers mean by “hurtful?” To explain, he cites his denominational report of 1983:

• “No interpretation of Scripture is correct that leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons either within or outside the church…Any interpretation of Scripture is wrong that separates or sets in opposition love for God and love for fellow human being.” (62)

What does “contempt for any individual or group” entail? Any refusal to accept homosexuality as Biblically acceptable represents “contempt.” Well then, can we ever interpret Scripture as condemning any sin? Must we then not censure those who steal and lie because this would represent “contempt?” Should we also be accepting of adultery, pre-marital sex, polygamy, pedophilia, and prostitution? And isn’t Rogers demonstrating “contempt” for those who disagree with him and the historical interpretations of the church?

Does the prohibition against showing “contempt” for certain behaviors also rule out Jesus’ teaching in support of church discipline? He instructed the church to avoid those who refuse to repent:

• If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)

Wouldn’t the exercise of church discipline violate Jesus’ teaching? Wouldn’t this embody “contempt?” Rogers reinterprets “love” in terms of indulgence of various sexual lifestyles. He cites New Testament professor, Walter Wink, approvingly:

• “Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country…” (63)

It seems that Rogers and Wink are very ready to invoke the “love principle” of the Bible, in a way that supports their politics. However, once the Bible disagrees with the prevailing practices, then “Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow.” Very convenient! Why then even cite the Bible, if the true authorities are ultimately Rogers and Wink, drawing from the Bible what they find agreeable and discarding the rest?

Rogers is able to use his “love principle” to justify any form of self-indulgence. He applies this principle to the question of divorce and remarriage. In support, he cites his denominational statements:

• “Whenever free Protestant churches are studying this problem today in the light of Jesus’ total teachings on human relations, the trend is unmistakably away from a strictly legalistic approach to one more finely and fundamentally spiritual.” (43)

Sadly, this “fundamentally spiritual” approach can be used to justify just about any divorce:

• “Infidelity can be spiritual as well as physical and it manifests itself in many forms. It is therefore unrealistic to hold that divorce is permissible only when marriage has been broken by one or two forms of infidelity, both of which are physical acts.” (43)

Well, of what do “spiritual” grounds for divorce consist? Just about anything! If you don’t find your marriage romantic or spiritual enough, this newly discovered spiritual principle of “love” is enough to set you free from spouse and children or any commitment. Hence, the virtue of commitment is made to bow before personal fulfillment, now construed as a “spiritual” right.

It is pointless to examine how Rogers interprets the various texts that prohibit homosexuality. Clearly, he doesn’t regard these texts as authoritative. For him, what is authoritative is his contemporary understanding of “love.” Instead of trying to contextually understand a passage, he has already committed himself to imposing his doctrine of “love” upon it. However, I proceeded out of curiosity to see how he would explain them away.

Rogers firstly deals with the sin of Sodom (Genesis 19; also Judges 19:1-30):

• The central idea in these passages is the sacred obligation of hospitality for travelers. (70)…The sin of Sodom is mentioned several times elsewhere in the Bible, but never in connection with homosexual acts. (71)

It is most-likely true that Sodom had committed the sin of inhospitality. However, Rogers is mistaken that the Bible never mentions Sodom’s sin “in connection with homosexual acts.” The prophet Ezekiel cites numerous sins:

• Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

It wasn’t just that Sodom had been “arrogant…not help[ing] the poor and needy…haughty,” it also did “detestable” things – the very word (toebah) used to describe homosexuality in Leviticus 18 and 20. However, the Letter of Jude is more specific:

• And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home--these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 6-7)

Rogers’ other attempts to explain away the Bible’s injunctions against homosexuality are equally unconvincing. Sadly, Christians have often proved themselves hasty to justify contemporary fads and to subtly introduce them into the church. Let us therefore pray that we might remain faithful to our Lord through His Word, a Word that is able to

• Build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

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