Sunday, May 20, 2012

So What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality?

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.
In the press coverage following President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage last week, reporters gathered reactions to the president’s words.  In the coverage I heard, people opposed to same-sex marriage uniformly said they opposed it because the Bible condemns homosexuality.  I wondered how many of them actually knew what the Bible says—and more importantly what it doesn’t say—on the many issues related to sexuality.  Furthermore, I wondered how many people who support civil rights for LGBT people really know what the Bible has to say or not say.
During FCC’s process of becoming Open and Affirming to all people, we studied what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality.  Not all FCC members were present for those discussions, however, and we have had many new additions since that time.  So I feel like it’s time for a brief refresher on the subject.  I suspect some FCC folks are tired of all of the media blitz on same-sex marriage this election year.  If so, just skip this column and file it away until you have energy to spare for it.  For those who can read this brief overview now, I hope it serves as a primer on biblical interpretation in general and the Bible and homosexuality in particular. 
Genesis 19 and Judges19In these two horrific passages, a stranger or strangers arrive in a town and are threatened with gang rape by the male inhabitants.  Male-on-male gang rape, however, is nothing like the kind of loving and committed relationships that many LGBT people have today.  The Genesis 19 story is infamous, because it tells the story of Sodom’s destruction.  The terms “sodomite” and “sodomy” have a long and convoluted history through centuries of church tradition and western law quite apart from the Biblical text itself, so a careful reader of the Bible should make sure that linguistic and legal history is not read back into the text.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13These two verses prohibit male to male sexual relations, but the problem with all arguments from the Levitical laws is determining their relevance for today.  There are some laws in Leviticus that match up with contemporary cultural norms, but there are many laws that do not.  How does one fairly determine which, if any, of these laws are relevant for contemporary cultural debates?  The Jewish religion, for which these laws are central, has a complex history of interpretation of them.  Within the different sects of Judaism, there are a number of groups who affirm same-sex relationships.  Given the divergence of belief with in Judaism, perhaps Christians should be careful with their interpretations.  (There is also the issue in 20:13 of capital punishment for male to male sexual relations--do we really want to go there?)
1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10Although the terms in these two verses which are often translated as “homosexual” or “male prostitute” are clearly negative in the view of the author, scholars differ regarding their translation.  The 1 Corinthians verse uses the Greek term “malakos” which generally means “soft.”  Although English translations tend to interpret this term as the “passive” partner in male homosexual acts, comparisons with how the term is used elsewhere in Greco-Roman literature reveal a variety of meanings.  The term could mean an “effeminate” male or even some other slang word with a less clear meaning.  The term “arsenokoites” is used in both verses and has been variously interpreted as “male prostitute,” “pederast,” “homosexual,” etc.  Elsewhere in Greco-Roman literature the term seems to point towards economic exploitation sometimes with a sexual connotation and sometimes not.  Given the lack of clarity on how to translate these terms Bible readers should be cautious in their own interpretations.
Romans 1:26-28If there are Bible verses directly relevant for the contemporary debate, then they are found in Romans 1.  Here Paul writes about homosexual acts to illustrate how human beings have distorted God’s original created order.  He indicates that heterosexual relations were the original norm of God.  Yet, it should be noted that he does so in service to a larger point, namely that all people have fallen short of God’s original intentions lest any decide to judge others.
Given that the verses from Romans are the only ones that really can be considered relevant for the contemporary debate, what do we do with them?  It’s worth considering briefly a few more factors in interpretation.
  • ·       Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
  • ·       The Biblical authors presuppose that everyone is heterosexual.  The concept of a sexual orientation or that people could be born homosexual or heterosexual developed only within the last 150 years or so.  As far as the Bible is concerned, there are no homosexuals just heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts.  Like many concepts of science, psychology, neurology, genetics, etc. a concept of being born gay or lesbian was completely unknown to ancient writers.
  • ·       There are at most seven references to homosexual acts in the Bible.  Compare that number to the hundreds of verses on greed.  Why does homosexuality get so much attention when we pay so little attention to our use of wealth?  There are many verses that condone slavery in the Bible, yet we view slavery as abhorrent.  Why do we reject some verses but not others? 
There is MUCH more to say about sexuality and the Bible, but at least this column provides some basics.  As you hear various views on sexuality this election year, consider the source and ask yourself if that person has really bothered to know what the Bible says or has considered what it means to responsibly interpret it.
Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The End of Church

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

“Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church. The United States is fast-becoming a society where Christianity is being reorganized after religion.”

With these words, Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of American Christianity, began a recent on-line column.  These words are the thesis of her new book: ChristianityAfter Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  She is naming what people who pay attention to the contemporary church have been saying for the past several decades: the church as we have known it is dying.  Despite the way religion is used to bludgeon people in the political sphere and despite the large number of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” now even people in the pews at all kinds of churches recognize the big change that is happening in American churches.

The so-called mainline Protestant denominations (non-evangelical Protestants such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, etc.) have been in steady decline since the 1950’s.  In fact, First Christian Church of St. Joseph pretty much fits the national model of this group’s decline.  Our sanctuary, built in 1918 to hold almost 700 people was packed into the Fifties on Sunday mornings, but from the early 1960’s forward our numbers have declined.  Today, although our sanctuary remains beautiful and deeply cherished by our members, it is many times larger than what we regularly need.  Although this decline in numbers is due to many factors including changes in our community and decisions made or not made by First Christian, one factor among others is that our church building and many of our church practices and events were made for a different time.

We are not alone, however, Catholics and conservative Protestants are also seeing significant declines in membership.  One recent study revealed that 1 in 10 Americans considers herself or himself an ex-Catholic.  About twenty years ago, it was common for evangelical churches to gloat that they were growing and mainline Protestants were not, because they were preaching the truth rather than a watered-down Gospel.  Today, they are no longer gloating.  Sure, there are exceptions; every town has one or even several large evangelical churches, but for every one of them, there are tens or even hundreds of other similar churches in free fall. 

It is easy to look at society’s rejection of church and judge it as a sign of our nation’s godlessness, but Bass offers a different perspective by pointing to people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”  "’Spiritual and religious’ expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one's relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches -- and temples, synagogues, and mosques -- that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world. Americans are not rejecting faith -- they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions.”

In another on-line column, Bass argues that churches are offering answers to questions that people no longer ask anymore.  “Religion always entails the ‘3B's’ of believing, behaving, and belonging. . . For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)”

Do these questions sound familiar?  They should, because they are the questions that most churches are designed to answer—including First Christian Church, even though we would rather not admit it. 

Bass says that the questions people are asking and that churches should be trying to help them answer still have to do with the “3 B’s” of believing, behaving and belonging, but they have a decidedly different focus.  “Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:

1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?) 

3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)”

If Bass is correct (along with many other writers and scholars), then churches that help people answer this new set of questions will not only survive but live on to help shape the Christianity of the future.  Churches that exist only to try and answer questions people are no longer asking will find themselves to be living anachronisms—assuming they are still living at all.

The good news is that God is bigger than any church and even bigger than any idea of church.  God will still be at work in our world and in our society; just not in the same way.  Love will still be love.  Grace will still be grace.  But the church. . . who can say?  A community of believers that remains faithful to God rather than to a past way of doing church, however, will still be around for whatever ways God will work next.

Grace and Peace,

Why Go to Church? Really, Why?

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

            This past Sunday morning I was part of one of the most important discussions I have experienced in my five-plus years at First Christian Church.  It was a discussion about why we go to church.  It’s my job to inspire people to come not to a building but together as a community in order to grow in their faith and worship God, but I have to confess that it’s often a mystery to me  why people come or don’t come—especially here at FCC.  Some people come every Sunday, but others come once a month or once a year.  Some whom I had expected to get involved and become committed have not done so; others who were involved and committed have stopped coming.  Sometimes people stop participating in the life of the church due to a dispute with another member or a disagreement over theology or practice, but more often something undefined (at least to me) occurs in their life and church does not hold the same priority for them.  Others whom I was sure would never truly commit to a church like ours have done so despite my expectations.  Maybe I’m just really lousy at determining who will be involved and stay involved.  In any case, I was very interested in what people would say about why they come to church.
            Before I share the answers of the 20 or so people present, I should explain the context of our discussion.  We are using a study by the religion writer Phylis Tickle called The GreatEmergence.  Tickle’s thesis is that every 500 years the church goes through a dramatic change in terms of authority.  500 years ago it was the Protestant Reformation which was, among other things, a debate about whether authority for the church should be found in church tradition or in scripture alone.  1000 years ago was the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches.  1500 years ago was the fall of the Roman Empire and its enforcement of the state church.  She argues that now we face another such radical shift, but now the shift in authority is moving (or maybe already has moved) to the individual’s experience and choice. 
In other words, now when it comes to Christianity people are in general no longer concerned with what a particular denomination says (they will either go to a different church or just do what they think is right anyway—think of American Roman Catholics and birth control). They no longer subscribe to the idea that the Bible is their sole authority (if they care about the Bible at all, they shop for a church that interprets the Bible in a way that suits them).  They may not even care about a traditional understanding of church at all (they may patch together their own religious practices).  Technology, especially the internet, has made it possible for people to connect with others outside their own community who share their beliefs—even people on the other side of the world.  (Tickle is not alone in pointing out these changes.  For example, Diana Butler Bass’ new book Christianity AfterReligion says much the same thing.)
Folks in our Sunday morning study all pretty much admitted that their religious authority was their own experience.  No one claimed that they held to a particular belief because the Bible or a religious official said so.  All said that their life experience including their individual experience of God was their ultimate authority.  Granted they made these honest admissions with humility; no one claimed to have a monopoly on truth to the exclusion of others.  Frankly, I wasn’t surprised to hear people at FCC St. Joseph express such a point of view.  When it comes down to it, I would say that more or less I feel the same way.
So, I asked, if you do not believe you are going to hell for missing church on Sundays and if you do not believe attending church is the only way to know God’s truth, why come at all?  Here are some of the answers they shared:
·       “The relationships at church matter to me.”
·       “We can hold each other accountable so we’re not off on our own believing something crazy.”
·       “I find support for difficult times.”
·       “We can learn from each other and grow.”
·       “It pleases God when we come to God’s house.”
·       “We are all so busy that it’s nice to just come and make time for God.”
·       “I experience an intimacy here that I haven’t found at other churches.”
·       “Meeting with others face-to-face is more meaningful than e-mail or social networking.”
·       “It’s an essential part of my week.  When I can’t come, something is missing.”
·       “We experience God through our relationship with one another.”
·       “God is everywhere, but I experience God in a special way at church.”
Given that you can choose to be elsewhere on Sunday mornings (plenty of folks make that choice) and given that at FCC we do not declare “You must come to church or else!” why do you come to church?  (A more appropriate question for some may be “Why don’t you come to church?”)  I, as your minister, would love to know.
Grace and Peace,