Reading the Bible: Week 2 of Whatever Happened to the Church

BibleI love to read a well-written mystery novel. Often my mystery-reading friends will recommend one I haven’t yet read, but they don’t tell me the end. It wouldn’t be much of a mystery if there was nothing to find out. The Bible is quite different. It has become so much part of Western culture that there are references to it all over the place. It is impossible to read the Bible as though you are reading it for the first time because everyone, even those who didn’t go to Sunday School, have some idea of what the Bible teaches.

When we read the Bible, we bring to it the ideas we already have about what it says, however incorrect or slanted they may be. It’s difficult to correct our ideas because it’s not like a mystery novel where you start at the beginning and read through to the end – maybe peeking ahead from time to time or going back to check something out – the Bible is more like a library of books which are all connected to one another. It isn’t written with a central plot to hold your interest and it doesn’t have neat collections of teachings.

When I was a teenager I read it straight through several times – but I was still dependent on other people to teach me what it said, because I couldn’t see the big pictures for being stuck in the details. So when people say they know what the Bible says about something, they are probably telling you that they know what someone has told them the Bible says. If a lot of people say something over and over again very loudly then we tend to believe them. So most people think that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, even though they have never read it.

Most people don’t realize that the Bible is not just one voice; sometimes there are different perspectives, and there’s no chapter entitled “Homosexuality”. In fact there are seven short passages which talk about some kind of homosexual activity. None of these are talking about the kind of gay identity and committed relationship we have today, because those just didn’t exist in the same way thousands of years ago when the books of the Bible were written. So some writers talk about the clear Biblical mandate for monogamous heterosexual relationship, drawing from a verse in Genesis about how a man leaves his parents and joins his wife and they become one flesh, and the fact that Jesus quoted this in his teaching against divorce. But there are also many stories about polygamous families, and adultery in the Bible. King David had an astonishing number of wives and concubines in his harem.

There is no Biblical passage which endorses gay relationships. We wouldn’t expect to find one, because as I have said, gay relationships as we know them didn’t exist. The closest you can get is David and Jonathan’s deep and abiding friendship which may have had a physical element. When Jonathan died, David gave a lengthy eulogy in which he said that Jonathan’s love “surpassed the love of women”.

Yet when people began to advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT (lesbian,gay,bisexual,transgender) people in the church, those who were opposed said that gay activists were going against the clear teaching of the Bible. They went on to say that it was a symbol of the secular humanism which was gripping the culture and was now being brought into the church. From their perspective, full inclusion for LGBT people was denying the teaching of the church and the teaching of the Bible and in fact creating a new religion. So they fought it, tooth and nail.

Questions for conversation:

Some people say that the Bible is the instruction manual for our lives and that what it says is firm and unequivocal and we should submit to it. What do you think?

Most Christians and most Churches are no longer adamant that divorce is wrong – so did Jesus’ teaching change? Did the Bible change? Or did our understanding of it change? On what basis can we decide to read the Bible’s moral statements in a different way?

Has your understanding of the Bible changed over the course of your life?

What is so valuable to you that you would fight for it (politically if not physically)?

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