The United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States , voted on Tuesday, February 26th, to affirm its official stance that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not all Methodists agree with this view, of course, as is detailed in an article on the vote in The New York Times. Many do, though, hence the outcome of the vote. And Methodists are not the only “Christians” who consider homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. People who hold this view usually justify it by pointing to specific passages in the New Testament that appear to support it. The question is: Does the New Testament unequivocally condemn homosexuality?
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is inerrant. What are the implications of that? That means, it would appear, that the Bible can’t be wrong in either descriptive or prescriptive terms. What does it mean, though, to be “right” in those terms? Is the primary purpose of historical narrative to present an accurate reconstruction of past events, or is it to guide readers, or listeners, to teach them something about human folly, human weakness and frailty, with the aim of making humanity’s future better than its past? Is an “accurate” historical narrative one that gets the facts right or one that presents them in a way that will be optimally instructive?
My concern here is not so much with the descriptive nature of biblical narrative as with its prescriptive nature. People who believe in biblical inerrancy often do so because they believe the Bible is God’s speaking directly to humanity and that that message contains rules for how we are to behave. Even if it were the case that the Bible was God speaking directly to humanity, it would not solve the problem of determining what God meant in a particular instance because all communication is meaningful as such only after it has been interpreted, and any interpretation undertaken by people who are assumed to be marred by sin is going to be problematic. “Love your neighbor” seems fairly uncomplicated and yet for some people that means forcing their neighbor to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, while for other people it means positively assisting their neighbor in his efforts to stand on his own.
The idea, however, that the Bible is God speaking directly to humanity is foolishness. God speaking directly would be God speaking directly and not to some specific people who are then tasked with recording the divine message and passing it on to the rest of humanity. The Bible is, by definition, God speaking indirectly to humanity through the agency of specific individuals (and many more individuals, it appears now, than was originally supposed). That, in itself, does not mean the Bible cannot be inerrant, but it does complicate the task of determining what God’s message is.
Add to this the fact that much, if not all of the Bible was undisputedly written long after the events it records and in many instances in a language other than that of its source. Jesus communicated with his followers in Aramaic, so even ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ώς σεαυτόν, let alone “love your neighbor as yourself,” are not Jesus’s original words. Imagine for yourself the potential for alteration that is unavoidably associated with the translation of a message from one language to another and then the passing down of that translation orally from one generation to another for thirty, forty, fifty, or even a hundred years before it is actually written down. Anyone who has ever played a game of “Telephone” knows how badly a message can be mangled even over the course of a single evening, to say nothing of a period that transcends a generation.
Add to that the fact that it is now clear, as Bart Ehrman and others have argued, that portions of the texts of the New Testament were not merely inadvertently changed when, of necessity, they were copied by hand, but deliberately changed to make them more unequivocally reflect evolving church doctrine. Such a practice might seem sinister at first, but it is merely a result of the fact that even the earliest copyists of the writings that eventually became the New Testament realized that the texts they had inherited were themselves interpretations, products of other human hands, inevitably marred by mistakes and misinterpretations that they, with their changes, endeavored to put right.
Paul is now widely believed by scholars not to have said that women shouldn’t preach, that that injunction appeared in a letter that he didn’t even write, but which was erroneously attributed to him. In fact, quite a number of writings that have traditionally been attributed to Paul are now widely believed not to have been written by Paul but by later adherents to the new Christian faith.
But assume, for the sake of argument, that we have the original texts of the New Testament in their pristine and unadulterated form. Even that would not relieve of us the burden of interpretation. Even that would not eliminate all possibility of error in our interpretations. Take, for example, Matthew 13:12: “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Revised Standard Version).
To him who has what? What does that passage mean? Is it a reference to how wretched is humanity that it would so order itself that the rich get would get richer and the poor get poorer? That’s how Billie Holiday interpreted it. Does it refer to love, so that it means the more love a person has, the more love that person will receive? That’s how I used to like to think of that passage. It makes sense to me that loving people would tend to be more loved than those who were less loving.
But then one day I became curious and decided to find out what the Greek term was that was translated as “has” in that passage and learned to my surprise that among the many meanings of that term, ἔχω, listed in the online edition of the Liddell-Scott dictionary of ancient Greek, was “to possess mentally, understand.” So the passage might actually mean something like “to him who understands more understanding will be given,” etc.
That meaning actually fits best both with what appears to be the meaning of the preceding passage where Jesus talks about the importance of having “ears” to hear his message, as well as with the line that immediately precedes it (i.e., Matthew 13:11) where Jesus says to his disciples “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” That is, because they understand Jesus’s basic message, they will understand his individual parables and hence gain more understanding with each new parable.
Of course it is possible that the passage means all three of these things at once. That’s part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to as “the genius of language,” that the same combination of words can have multiple meanings.
What, to pick a passage that is more apposite to the recent decision of the leaders of the United Methodist Church to continue to condemn homosexuality, is the meaning of Romans 1:26-27.
Therefore God gave them to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
The Oxford Annotated Bible says
[a]lthough widely read today as a reference to homosexuality, the language of ‘unnatural’ intercourse was more often used in Paul’s day to denote not the orientation of sexual desire but its immoderate indulgence, which was believed to weaken the body (the due penalty).
That makes sense because it sounds like the Greek position more generally, or at least the position of many Greek philosophers and Paul was an admirer of Greek philosophy. Passion, they believed, was suspect because it led to excess and excess is generally bad. Moderation, the Greeks believed, was to be aimed at in all things.
So what does the passage mean? Does it refer damningly to a lack of restraint? Does it mean that excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh is “unnatural” and “shameless”? Does it mean such unrestrained physical passion is bad. Or does it mean only heterosexuality is pleasing to God?
I’m inclined to the former interpretation because a lack of restraint and excessive indulgence in almost anything tends to be self destructive. God’s creatures have a sacred duty to preserve and protect themselves. The main crime, according to Paul, of the people to whom Romans 1:26-27 refers was that they had turned away from God. They did not see themselves as God’s creatures. “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking” (Romans 1:21).
A creator that loves its creatures would not want them to engage in self-destructive behavior. By the same token, however, a creator that is defined as love would presumably approve of the love its creatures had for one another. It seems not only bizarrely arbitrary, but directly counter to what most people like to think of as the core message of Christianity that God would condemn love because it was directed at a purportedly inappropriate object. Such a view doesn’t seem divine. It seems, on the contrary, all too human.
Unfortunately, much of what goes by the name “love” is not genuine love, but actually the instrumentalizing of one person by another, the use of one person merely as a means to another person’s sensuous or egoistical gratification. But that sad practice has no direct relation to sexual orientation. It is as pervasive in heterosexual relationships as in every other purportedly loving relationship including those between friends, siblings, and even parents and children.
Of course it is possible that Paul really did mean to condemn homosexuality as such. Human beings throughout history have condemned certain things as “deviant” simply because they were not the norm. That is the origin of the pejorative connotations of “sinister,” a Latin word that simply means “left.” There was a time when purportedly good, God-fearing Christians believed left-handed people were in league with Lucifer.
Fortunately, few Christians believe that now. They abandoned that view, presumably, because someone actually thought about it a little and decided that it would be inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings to condemn people simply because they were different.
So if Paul actually meant to condemn homosexuality as such rather than simply to condemn unrestrained physical passion, that would appear to be a place where he erred in his understanding of Jesus’s teaching. We don’t have to assume that’s what he meant, though, at least not in that passage. It isn’t actually all that clear what he meant. We have to try to figure that out for ourselves.
Even for those who believe in biblical inerrancy, the Bible is very far from a comprehensive set of specific rules for how to live. Human existence is just too complex; novel situations are constantly springing up. No set of rules for how to live can cover every conceivable situation. What is needed in order to give human beings instruction in how to live are not specific rules, but general ones.
“Christian revelation was intended,” asserted John Stuart Mill way back in the nineteenth century (Utilitarianism, chapter 2) “to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it is.”
I’m inclined, sometimes, to think of Biblical inerrancy as consisting in the inexorable quality of scripture to reveal what lies deepest in people. My mother, whose parents were both ministers in the Assemblies of God church, once said that in her experience religion made good people better and bad people worse.
Don’t be quick to judge the meaning of scripture. Even if the truth is always there somewhere its substance is arguably rarely obvious. One must look deeply into any text in order to divine its true meaning and nowhere is this more true than with the Bible, hence James’s admonition that one must “persevere” when attempting to understand it (James 1:25). Even people who believe in biblical inerrancy must look long and hard into the “mirror” of the New Testament if they want to divine God’s message to humanity there.
So look long and hard into the mirror of what you assume to be God’s word. If what is reflected back to you is anger and condemnation, then look again. Look again and keep looking.
Persevere in your looking until what is reflected back to you is love.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the March 11, 2019 edition of Counterpunch under the title “On Biblical Inerrancy: Some Reflections for United Methodists and Other “Christians.”)