The oft-repeated mantra “Scholarship has spoken, the homosexual case is closed” can bring great pressure to bear upon the Christian who seeks to be faithful to the Word’s moral imperatives.
This is surely the case when the issue of homosexuality and the abiding relevance of God’s moral law in our lives is under discussion. Many struggle to understand how scholars can know the Word with such depth, understand its backgrounds and its languages, and still conclude that behaviors such as homosexuality are viable alternatives for the believer.
A compilation of articles by scholars at Princeton Seminary on the subject of homosexuality appeared in 1996, titled Homosexuality and Christian Community. The work was edited by Choon-Leong Seow, an Old Testament scholar and author of the widely used beginning Hebrew grammar A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Seow authored a chapter titled “A Heterosexual Perspective.” We have chosen to examine his conclusions as a very helpful example of how it is that scholars who study the Christian Scriptures can come to such widely divergent conclusions on the issue of homosexuality.
The argumentation presented in the bulk of Seow’s work includes—“Some Personal Observations.” Unlike so much of the literature that is available today, this section provides a vital and important personal insight into the factors that determine how a scholar determines what kind of weight to assign to Scripture, personal experience, and cultural issues.
The sages recognize that neither human observation nor experiences can be absolutely reliable. There are some risks when one turns to them. Yet it is necessary for people to live with risks; we have no choice in the matter, for there are still many things in creation that are not revealed to us.
That is quite true, but the nature of our own beings, our sexual expressions, and our moral behavior are not included in the “mysteries” that are not revealed. Appealing to “mystery” when the Word is clear and sufficient in its statements is unnecessary, and always dangerous.
God is in Wholly Other, but we are mere mortals. We cannot be too sure that we know the ways of God
At this point we truly have to ask what role God’s work of inspiration by His Spirit plays in the giving of Scripture. Surely God’s ways are past finding out unless He chooses to reveal them, and when we speak of His will concerning the behavior of His creatures, surely we must believe God is capable of making His will known with clarity.
We take the risks because we are human. Like the sages who gave us the wisdom tradition, we live knowing that what we see and experience often contradicts what we have always thought to be true. Since the wisdom tradition points us beyond texts to consider observation and experience, I want to conclude by telling of my own experience.
While wisdom literature may speak of observation and experience, it does not tell us God is not capable of revealing His will, nor does it tell us that God’s truth is mutable and changing. As we will see in the words that follow, the central issue will become “Which authority is final: my interpretation of my personal experience, or the revelation of God in Scripture?”
I used to believe that divorce is wrong under any circumstance, simply because that is what the scriptures teach. I could—and still can—quote chapter and verse from the Bible, particularly the words of Jesus.
Since Jesus allowed for exceptions based upon porneia, fornication” (Matthew 5:32), and the apostle Paul recognized that unbelievers might leave believing spouses, it is hard to understand exactly why Dr. Seow says “any circumstance.”
I have since learned from friends and loved ones what horrible traps bad marriages can be. People suffer enormously; some people even kill themselves because of bad marriages that they cannot otherwise escape. Some people suffer physical abuse in such marriages. Some are even killed.
A bad marriage can be a horrible situation. Suicide is a terrible thing. But it is surely without merit to connect an errant understanding of scriptural teaching (as noted above) with forcing people into situations of abuse or violence.
Unlike the friends of Job, I am not willing to uphold dogma at all costs, certainly not when I know that people are suffering and dying. I have gone back to reread the scriptures and I have heard the gospel anew.
What does it mean to “hear the gospel anew”? Does it mean “I realized that I had misunderstood passages such as Matthew 5:32 and 1 Corinthians 7:15, and that, in fact, God’s Word was not to blame for these things”? Or does it mean “I have chosen to override biblical imperatives in light of my own interpretation of experience and Scripture itself”? If the gospel is the message of God’s wondrous work in Jesus Christ, does it change to “fit” each passing generation’s “felt needs”? Or is it a timeless and unchanging message, one that calls us to obedience?
I also used to believe that homosexual acts are always wrong.
The parallel drawn here is clear: once Dr. Seow believed every instance of divorce to be wrong, but he has “heard the gospel anew” and has moved beyond “dogma.” And he once believed that homosexual acts were always wrong, just like all divorces were wrong. Of course, one could immediately point out that divorce and homosexuality are not parallel issues: homosexuality involves sexual activity, choices, and proclivities, while divorce can have any number of divergent factors that far transcend the choices involved in homosexuality.
Listening to gay and lesbian students and friends, however, I have had to rethink my position and reread the scriptures.
Do we read the Scriptures so as to hear what they say, or to hear what others are saying? Should not what we hear from the Spirit in His Word inform how we hear what others say, or should what others say cause us to “reread” the Scriptures? Which is the ultimate authority?
Seeing how gay and lesbian people suffer discrimination, face the rejection of family and friends, risk losing their jobs, and live in fear of being humiliated and bashed, I cannot see how anyone would prefer to live that way. I do not understand it all, but I am persuaded that it is not a matter of choice.
Sin harms human beings. It distorts and twists and destroys. And despite the consistent testimony of all humankind from the beginning, man keeps sinning, despite all the agony, alienation, fear, and pain sin causes. To conclude that homosexuality must be a part of God’s creative purpose, so that there are “gay and lesbian Christians” (the conclusion of this line of reasoning) is illogical. Pedophiles receive even worse treatment, yet they still practice their sin. Are we to assume they do not choose to do so? What of Paul’s direct statement that this is a chosen act, one reflective of the suppression of the knowledge of God and idolatry? We see here a clear opportunity for making a choice between whether we will allow the Word to determine our worldview and our conclusions, or whether we will subjugate the Word to our own feelings, our own thoughts. The ramifications of our decision are far reaching indeed.
Seeing how some gay and lesbian couples relate to one another in loving partnerships, observing how much joy they find in one another, and seeing that some of them are better parents than most of us ever will be, I have reconsidered my views. I was wrong.
For the one whose worldview is forged upon the revelation of God in Scripture, these words seem very foreign and almost unintelligible.
From the testimony of homosexual persons and from various reports, I have learned that there is an extraordinarily high rate of suicide among homosexual persons. People are dying every day because of society’s attitudes—indeed, because of the church’s stance.
Upon what basis does Dr. Seow conclude that his observation of a higher than normal suicide rate provides sufficient basis for an accusation against society in general and the church in particular? Did the possibility that the lifestyle itself—which requires a tremendous output of energy for the maintenance of the suppression of God’s truth and the voice of conscience—ever come to mind as the actual trigger mechanism? Is it possible that Dr. Seow has misinterpreted what he has seen, and that the “joy” to which he referred is in reality empty and shallow? The creature made in God’s image cannot truly enjoy the twisting of that image on a daily basis.
Further, are we to believe that the church’s stance is to be determined by continuous, emotionally based observation of changing social norms rather than upon an unchanging base of revelation? This seems the only possible conclusion from this kind of approach.
Many people hate themselves because of what society and the church say about them.
Is it possible that this self-loathing is generated by the lifestyle itself? Which forces a person to live contrary to God’s creative design, so that when such a person is reminded of their rebellion and their internal pain and misery by outside elements, whether by the church or society, they make an unwarranted connection?
I know of many homosexual persons in the ministry who have been very effective for the cause of Jesus Christ, but they suffer tremendous guilt because they have kept their secret from the church they love dearly.
How does one even define the “cause of Jesus Christ” outside of scriptural norms, the very norms being abandoned through the appeal to personal experience by Dr. Seow in these words? How “effective” is one in preaching God’s truth in Christ, who has confirmed the validity of the revelation of sin, punishment, and wrath (the very background of the cross of Christ) when one continues in a lifestyle that Paul identified as a past-tense experience in the life of some in the fellowship at Corinth (not a present-tense, ongoing lifestyle)? And if we love the church, will that love not cause us to seek to honor the Lord and all of His teachings?
I have met many students here at the Princeton Seminary who have a strong sense of the call and all the obvious gifts for it, but they cannot obey their call because of who they are. They are hurt by the church.
This kind of argumentation utterly overthrows any basis for meaningful moral standards in the church of Jesus Christ. It not only places the “call” solely in the human realm, making it a subjective thing that is separated from any objective standards (such as those laid out in Scripture in 1 Timothy and Titus), but it seemingly suggests that if the church is faithful to the Word and its imperatives, the church is placed in a position of standing against the work of the Spirit in “calling” such a person to ministry. This inconceivable contradiction is created solely by the insertion of Dr. Seow’s personal observations on a level above Scripture, so that the very idea of a “homosexual person” in the sense of one who is so in a morally neutral, or even positive, way is allowed to override the clear biblical norms we have already examined.
I cannot believe that we are called to perpetuate such pain and suffering in the world. I am compelled now to trust my observations and experience.
Does the church of Jesus Christ perpetuate pain and suffering through her fidelity to God’s truth, or do men and women perpetuate their own pain and suffering by continuing in their slavery to sin and in their suppression of God’s truth?
For me there is nothing less than the gospel at stake. I have no choice but to take the testimonies of gays and lesbians seriously. I do so with some comfort, however, for the scriptures themselves give me the warrant to trust that human beings can know truths apart from divine revelation.
We can surely agree that nothing less than the gospel is at stake here. But in the next sentence Dr. Seow tells us that he places as his highest authority not the Scriptures that give us the gospel, but the testimony of gays and lesbians.
White, J. R., & Niell, J. D. (2002). The Same Sex Controversy: Defending and Clarifying the Bible’s Message about Homosexuality (pp. 182–192). Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
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