I was so encouraged to get this message for a pastor friend of mine recently. He recently reached out with such an open heart and mind, that I wanted to share his questions and my responses. He actually asked a couple other questions as well, and I’ll be mentioning one of those later. I know he’s probably not the only one who’s asking, so that’s why I made it a post. His statements were framed in grace and understanding. I edited for brevity.

How big of a role does experience play in your journey, vs hermeneutics and solid biblical data? Now, just to clarify, I have not been keeping up with your blog, so I’m not implying you don’t have hard hermeneutical data (in fact, it seems that you do have at least some), I’m just asking, from your view, is your journey mostly founded on experience or hermeneutics? I also don’t want to bash experience, as we all have those mystical experiences in Christianity, separate from our intellectually religious pursuits. But I ask because anyone can say they had an experience or a feeling or an impulse, but most critics will care more about the data (scientifically modern people as Adventists tend to be these days).

The short answer is “yes!” I wouldn’t ever have come to the view I did if scripture didn’t allow for theology that affirms LGBT sexuality and gender with a solid, conservative hermeneutic. I don’t think experience would ever have been enough for me in the absence of good biblical “data,” as you say. I was utterly unwilling to go against scripture in favor of my experience. I’m also not sure I would have asked the question as seriously as I did without experience of the reality of non-affirming theology.

I used the hermentutics (the way of interpreting scripture) taught to me at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I applied the approaches I was taught to test affirming theology, test non-affirming theology, and examine the text for myself. Non-affirming theology fails the test. Affirming theology makes all of scripture make sense, not only the texts applied to LGBTQ people, but the major themes and promises of scripture as well.

In looking at the texts that are usually seen as prohibitions (Gen 19:1-5, Lev 18:22; 20:12, Rom 1:24-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10, 1 Tim 1:9-10), if you focus on the author’s intent it’s not hard to see what they authors themselves had in mind. Applying these texts in ways that are out of harmony with the author’s intent is not sound hermenutics. That’s what non-affirming theology does.

Non-affirming theology also relies on the argument from absence. This argument says that since there are no same-sex relationships or alternate gender identities in scripture they are sinful now. But just because something didn’t happen then doesn’t mean it’s prohibited now.

These are the basic arguments that non-affirming theology are built on, and I don’t believe them to be hermeneuticly sound. In fact, according to what I was taught in my conservative seminary, they are not sound principles.

When I think about the way I thought before this theological shift, my biggest regret is that I relied too much on my social context, a type of experience. Everyone around me seemed in agreement that same-sex relationships are wrong and scripture was clear. Even those who weren’t didn’t speak publicly about their disagreement.

My conclusions at the time did not come from hermeneutics. I never had studied it carefully and prayerfully, because my social context was uniform in this belief. I didn’t realize this until later, but the signs were all there.

Unfortunately, my social context came from an organization that doesn’t base its theology on hermeneutics, at least not in this instance. It has never once in its history made a serious biblical inquiry on the topic, neither have most non-affirming theological organizations. Non-affirming theology has been assumed and scholars have worked to support it.

This is clear from the fact that each time they gather in the Adventist denomination to discuss theology as related to LGBTQ people they begin by saying they already agree on non-affirming theology. You cannot be a professor at the Adventist seminary or a scholar at the Biblical Research Institute if you dissent from the accepted position.

So how can you accept a position as scriptural without ever undertaking to study it with integrity and objectivity? Not based on hermenutics and scripture.

So my shift towards affirming theology is a shift towards greater integrity in my interpretation of scripture. It’s away from a purely experiential perspective towards one that relies on sound hermeneutics.

My ability to move forward on this issue also came from my Adventism and the values of progressive revelation, justice, and reliance on scripture rather than creeds or tradition. In order to move forward, we need only reconnect with these core Adventist values. We need to again think of ourselves as a movement and not an organization.

I could see how someone could read this particular post on hermeneutics and think I’m not using a conservative hermenutic.

I add a caveat. When our theology seems to be causing harm, or when a minority group claims it is harming them, we should be willing to re-examine our theology.

I’m not advocating changing theology to match what we think is compassionate. I’m advocating a humble approach and a willingness to seriously re-examine scripture with integrity and an open heart and mind.

Scripture itself teaches us that we should pay attention to the fruits of our theology and care about the lives of others (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 7:12, 16, 23:4; Luke 6:31, 11:46). Scripture also makes promises about the results of following Jesus (Matthew 7:9-11; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:7).

Good theology produces good fruit.

In that sense, I’m not sure hermeneutics and experience are ever supposed to be divided. One is the study of inspired words, the other is the study of God’s creation. If we understand correctly, they will be in complete harmony.

I don’t see the authors of scripture burying themselves in the text and failing to look at the world around them, and neither should we.

Neither do I see them using scripture to make excuses for doing whatever they want, and neither should we.

The Bible is not a closed book, and our understanding never arrives at perfection. We need to be more humble and keep searching, praying, and learning until we get it right.

My heart beating and my hands shaking, I read Romans 1:24-27. Aware that I am attracted to other women, knowing that my commitment to the authority of scripture meant I wouldn’t be willing to shrug or explain these verses away, I was afraid of what they meant for my life, and what they said about me as a person.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 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 themselves the due penalty for their error.

Do these words apply to me? I’m in love with a woman, does that mean I’m experiencing shameful, unnatural attraction? Has God me up to the “lusts of [my] heart to impurity”? And if I ever were to follow my inclinations and have a romantic relationship with a woman, no matter how committed and caring I am, would this relationships be shameful, unnatural, and would I receive in myself some type of “due penalty for [my] error?

Many believe these words are the most damning in scripture for those who would dare affirm LGBT sexuality. For many, though it’s easy to see how the other passages of scripture are unrelated to love between people of the same gender, Romans 1:24-27 is the exception.

My conclusions are different. After much prayer and study, I found the good news in these verses. I believe it has nothing to do with loving and romantic care between people of the same gender, but that they still have an important word to speak to all of us—gay straight, and bisexual alike.

It’s About Consumption Not Care

Let’s start with verse 24, because that is the verse that first introduces the conversation about sexual acts:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

Too often Romans 1:24-27 is read backwards, with the same-sex acts mentioned at the very end in verse 27 read into verses 24 to 26, but that’s the wrong way to read. The first introduction is that lust and impurity with groups of people who are dishonoring their bodies not with private intimacy between two, but “among themselves.”

Paul is talking here about the same thing he addressed later in the same book. Romans 13:13 says, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

Paul is writing to Rome. In this passage he is specifically speaking about Gentiles to a Jewish audience living in Rome. So he was speaking about Romans. We know that wealthy Romans sometimes had orgies, often involving slaves and inferiors. This behavior is referenced in scripture and there are extrabiblical accounts as well. Read Browson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality for more information. These men would have had wives waiting at home with no say in the matter while they indulged in orgies.

This is Paul’s introduction to the topic and should not be separated from the continuing discussion in verses 26-27 which only expand on verse 24.

To say that these married Romans were a group of gay men would be to read into the text in the service of a point that one is seeking to make, but not the point Paul was making. To say that these relationships between people of the same gender involved fidelity and care is unfaithful to the text. The wives would certainly disagree.

It’s a Result of Idolatry

Perhaps the first part of this passage I noticed did not apply to me at all was when it spoke of this same-sex eroticism as being the result of idolatry. After describing idolaters who abandoned their creator for images and objects of created things, they “therefore” were given up to “lust of their hearts and impurity” (vs. 24).

Just in case that word “therefore” isn’t convincing enough. Paul made it explicitly clear in verse 25, stating that this is happening “because” of their exchanging worship of God for worship of images. He then returns to further explain the nature of the sexual sin in verses 26-27.

I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I certainly hadn’t abandoned worship of God. I was at seminary pursuing full-time ministry as a vocation. I wanted to be faithful to God, serve God and my church in ministry, I was fully committed to serving God and my church for the rest of my life, whether or not I was offered a job to do so.

What was I doing wrong? Why was I experiencing something that was the result of idolatry?

Maybe it hadn’t. Maybe my sexual orientation is something different. Surely what was happening to me didn’t fit what Paul was describing as a continued falling away from God that began with idolatry. If the first part didn’t fit, maybe this part didn’t fit either.

The Theme of the Passage is About Objectification

Stepping back and looking at the big picture of this passage made it make more sense. Paul does make this context clear.

  1. Worship of God is replaced with images; their fidelity to God is replaced by objects that look like created things.

  2. Honorable sexual relationships were replaced with dishonorable; their fidelity to their spouses also broke down and was replaced by sexual objectification of others.

  3. Righteous treatment of others was replaced by exploitation, malice, hate, and harm; their fidelity to humanity in general broke down.

I’ve written an in-depth explanation of how this works in the context of the passage if you would like to understand it better.

Same-sex sex is an especially useful example in this case precisely because in their society it never happened in the context of love and fidelity. There was always some level of exploitation whether it was sexual assault, pederasty, or orgies as in this case.

Same-sex sexuality wouldn’t serve as such a good example if Paul were writing today and not 2,000 years ago, because two men or two women who are married, share a mortgage, and raise children would be completely out of place in this passage.

For those who object, saying that what’s important is that Paul says “men committing shameless acts with men” is speaking not to context but to the specific acts, I have two things to consider.

First, we don’t treat all of Paul’s writings that way. When he says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 “it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head,” we certainly don’t take this as a commandment or a matter of church discipline. It’s the context of their day that men have short hair and women long hair, and violation of this cultural standard is shameful.

Second, this verse does occur in a context. Paul is talking about specific people who go from idolatry to sexual consumption to generally consuming other human being in their hateful and selfish conduct.

Same-sex eroticism only and always occurs in such contexts in scripture. Perhaps there is a reason for that. Maybe that’s the only context the biblical writers ever considered? We certainly have no evidence otherwise.

Vocabulary of Unbridled Lust

In his description of the behavior of the Romans, Paul scours the dictionary for every word he can use to describe their behavior in terms of consuming and exclusive lust, often stacking them on top of each other for emphasis.

In the course of three verses (24,26-27) Paul uses the words epithumia, pathe, exekauthesan, and orexei, all synonyms for lust. Some of these words individually are used elsewhere in the context of marriage, but taken together, with no context or indication of care and love, Paul has something else entirely in mind.

He is emphatically communicating his point. This isn’t the healthy sexual appetite in the context of care and fidelity, but lust, passion, desire, and craving unbridled and immoderate.

No Meaning for Same-Sex Couples

So what makes people willing to apply a verse about orgies in the context of idolatry, adultery, and objectification to same-sex couples? Same-sex couples do not belong in this passage. They wouldn’t fit. That much should be obvious.

One reason is probably that people are looking for a direct answer from scripture to their question about whether same-sex relationships are wrong. I understand that desire. But we shouldn’t try to force scripture to answer directly questions it never asked directly. When we are asking a question that was never asked in the Bible, we shouldn’t expect a direct answer.

Paul answered the questions of the churches in Rome in the 1st century. Not the questions in Ireland in the 5th century. Not the questions in China in the 14th century. Not the questions in modern Western cultures in the 21st century.

Some things are timeless. There are basic questions about love, the worship of God, and the treatment of others that are asked by all people at all times. The questions about sexual orientation do not fall in this category, and there are many other questions in our modern society that aren’t answered directly in scripture.

God must trust us to apply his principles. God must expect us to do the same thing Jesus did in Matthew 5-7 and understand the heart of God’s word and how it applies in our lives.

The other reason this passage is often applied to LGBT people is less innocent. The reason someone who does understand the context would think this passage is appropriate to same-sex couples is if they believe such relationships are inherently selfish and characterized by uncontrolled lust, objectification, and the breakdown of basic fidelity.

In other words, they believe LGBT people are inherently inferior and that when we make loving commitments to each other we aren’t motivated by love and care like those who make commitments to people of the opposite gender. They think we belong in Romans 1 with idolaters, people consumed by lust, hateful, arrogant, and foolish people who despise righteousness.

When you encounter such interpretations, you can be sure the willingness to apply these texts to people like myself are not based on a careful reading of scripture. Sometimes what’s really happening is a misunderstanding of who LGBT people are. It’s a misunderstanding of the type that once landed same-sex couples in prison in America for expressing affection (and still does in many countries), that leads to accusations of LGBT people being pedophiles for no reason but their orientation, and that fosters disgust, hate, and sometimes violence against sexual minorities. This understanding has no place in the heart of a Jesus follower.

Beloved LGBT readers, when you find in yourself love that is holy and good, the desire to give to another person all the beautiful ideals given to us in 1 Corinthians 13, and the desire to unite yourself with another human in such love, I hope you can see that your love is not what is being described by Paul. I hope you can learn to embrace the queer and beautiful love you have been given by God. I hope you can embrace the truth that is in Jesus, that love is worth sacrifice.

William J. Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals is a fantastic book for understanding how to interpret Biblical commands that will be especially satisfying for anyone who loves organization and precision. He outlines a precise rubric in a field of theological study that sometimes seems nebulous.

The hermeneutic he has developed and outlined in this book is a designed to reveal not only the intent of the scriptural teachings on various topics, but their movement. He argues that there is a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” in scripture. Though the individual texts may at times seem unjust, within the framework of the overall teachings of the Bible and in comparison to surrounding cultures a picture emerges of God moving people closer to the ultimate goal: redemption.

Three specific topics are explored in order to demonstrate how Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic works. They are of course the three groups in his title: slaves, women, and homosexuals. The title itself is an indication that Webb will not be sympathetic to LGBT people. The term “homosexuals” is almost exclusively used by those who have negative attitudes towards LGBT people or their sexuality.

On the topic of slaves and women Webb shows how the nation of Israel had greater permissiveness than the surrounding cultures, how there were moments of exception to the rules that devalued women and enslaved people, and how scripture would occasionally have “breakout” passages which undermined both slavery and the subjugation of women. He sees the topic of homosexuality, as he refers to it, as an unequivocal “no” in every instance, with Israel being more restrictive than surrounding cultures.

Reading though his book, it becomes quickly apparent that he spends very little time talking about same-sex sexuality in comparison to the other two topics. This underscores the reality that scripture speaks very little to the topic while there are scores of verses supporting slavery and the subjugation of women. Today, I imagine there would be a number of considerations brought up by James V. Brownson, Matthew Vines, and others which would demand Webb’s consideration. But since Webb’s book was published in 2001, those books hadn’t been written yet.

It’s also worth noting that Webb’s publisher was InterVarsity Press, the publishing wing of an organization that just last year (2016) decided to fire all people who believe that God affirms of same-sex relationships. In an environment with so little academic freedom, the conclusions are worth serious scrutiny.

I have the same problem with Webb’s work that I have with many books of non-affirming theology, they begin with modern questions about sexuality and read it back into the text to see if it affirms or condemns. The best approach to understanding scripture is to first be clear about what the text is talking about and why. Only then can we go about applying the meaning of that text to the modern situation. A flawed approach begins with the modern question instead of the ancient one.

Webb’s categories would also benefit from considering principles that can be drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in which Jesus described the Kingdom of God to which Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic is reaching. In his teachings, Jesus names love as the foundational concept scriptures. He reinterprets Old Testament laws in light of this principle.

Since Webb was addressing same-sex marriage, it would also have strengthened his book to look biblically at the concept of marriage. At some point, anyone who is engaged in the questions of the biblical morality of same-sex marriage must ask if such marriages are best informed by the many passages of scripture which speak at length to marriage, or the six which refer briefly to same-sex sexuality.

If we are to understand the biblical concept of marriage and the redemptive arc to which it is moving, would that arc be progressed or regressed by opening marriage up to couples of the same gender? That’s a question Webb never even feigned to ask.

Despite these limitations, I highly recommend this book. His underlying concepts are excellent, even if they aren’t always applied well to same-sex marriage. And it’s easy to see how these concepts can strengthen the case of those of us who believe in affirming theology.

Hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret the Bible. I love hermeneutics. For a long time I believed good hermeneutics would save us in the end. That hope has had a slow and painful death. We have lofty ideas of how we can learn to interpret scripture and clear up all our controversy, but that isn’t the way it happens historically. In the real world, hermeneutics are usually the way the church justifies itself after the fact.

Revolutionary Telescope

Take for example the telescope that changed the world. When Galileo looked at the solar system through the telescope he invented, what he saw demanded a new understanding of the universe and our own part in it. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time Galileo’s claim that the earth rotated around the sun and not the other way around was an existential crisis for the church. At least they thought so.

These new theories about the universe were contradicted several passages of scripture. Making way for Galileo’s theory meant making way for new ways of understanding scripture. In other words, new hermeneutics.

Galileo was a deeply religious man and advocated for new approaches. He suggested that passages speaking about the sun standing still in the sky could be understood figuratively instead of literally. The church rejected this idea as undermining the authority of scripture.

They didn’t reject it because of strict literalism, but because for many centuries the church taught a cosmology that conflicted with the heliocentric model.

They believed in concentric circles above and below our world, traveling deeper into hell below and higher into heaven above. The sun was in one of the heavenly levels. If you’re familiar with Dante’s inferno, you’ll recognize his description of levels leading deeper into hell. They believed the universe was best represented by layers, not orbiting planets, and they believed the Bible taught this. And taken literally, they have a pretty good point.

Changing cosmology seemed like a threat to more than just their current way of doing things. It was a threat to scripture itself. If they were to accept that the earth rotates around the sun, where would it all end? Would all credibility be stripped from the Bible?

But they were wrong. Christianity and the Bible turned out to be more resilient than they thought. Their attempts to protect and defend the scripture did more damage in the end when the church lost credibility.

History On Repeat

Again and again this pattern repeated through history. Political ideas about the equality of all people lead to freedom for slaves. Women were given the right to vote as the understanding that they are equal to men in intelligence and capacity as human beings became undeniable. All these changes were hailed by traditionalists as threats to the authority of scripture. They were wrong, though.

It continues in our day. There is a steady erosion of patriarchy and some traditional churches are try desperately to maintain some vestige of the fading system. They say that men are still the leaders, and women are still the followers. They claim the Bible teaches this, and that if we stop believing it, we will no longer have any trust in the Bible. But are they right? Have these claims ever been right?

We must stop this destructive pattern. It is unacceptable for the church of God to continue standing in the way of the work of God in the world.

Things Change, and the Bible Remains

When it comes to specifics, the Bible has shown itself to be more flexible than we realize. After history marches on, God’s people accept new revelations. Then scholars come and explain why these changes were also hermeneutically sound. But hermeneutics don’t drive change.

Living as we do, confined to a moment in history, it’s hard to see it without looking back. And when we look back, we tend to look back from our point of view, and not understand theirs. We shake our heads at those silly Catholics, most of whom didn’t even look through Galileo’s telescope to see the obvious. We don’t do them justice. They were afraid these new understandings would undermine the faith itself. What looks tertiary to us seemed central to them.

By taking a compassionate view towards those who resisted change, we quickly learn the most important lesson there is to learn about hermeneutics: Hermeneutics are better at making room for the past than they are at making room for the future.

Stepping out of our time, and seeing through another vantage point shows us that what seems unchangeable isn’t. Things can change. Things must change. It will be okay.

It isn’t until after their inevitable changes occur that theologians look back, the quintessential armchair quarterbacks, and explain to us how the real problem all along was our interpretation of scripture. So they devise new hermenetics. They teach us new ways of interpreting the scriptures that make way for the changes that have already happened without undermining the authority of the scripture.

But did Galileo do what he did because his interpretive strategy was better? Or because of his insatiable desire to see and understand God’s creation? Did abolitionists in America work to free the slaves because they had a superior hermeneutic? Or because they excelled in compassion? Was any of this really a theological debate at all? Obviously not.

Real Faithfulness to Scripture

Traditionalists are concerned with loyalty to what the church has always taught and believed. They focus on protecting these beliefs against any change that might be threatening. New ways of living and thinking pose a threat to the system, so they defend the old ways. But by defending against these fresh invasions that seem so central at the time, they miss out on what really is central in the teachings of scripture.

In all these cases, the church in its fear of change allowed a rigid understanding of a few Bible verses to undermine the most important principles of scripture. They lost their way. They lost their heart. In their desire to defend the scriptures, they ignored them.

The only reason we have a church to defend is because of people like Galileo, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, MLK, and so many others who were heretics and radicals in their day. Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 23 that though they venerate the prophets now, they would have killed them, and nothing has changed.

The radicals and reformers harmonized with the Bible all along. Motivating these social changes was a deeper understanding of the true principles and values of scripture. Love. Justice. Compassion. Hope. Truth. The creation of all people in the image of God. What are our petty fears in the face of such as these?

Hermeneutics can’t save us from our fears. Only love can. Because love is the true heart of the Bible. A biblical approach to any topic must be drenched in the uncompromising love of God.

If you’re paying attention, you might realize that I just pulled a switch on you, because what I’m proposing is not no hermeneutics, but new hermeneutics. What motivates our understanding of scripture shouldn’t be a desire to defend it’s credibility, but a desire to live out it’s core principles. Religious leaders of old should not be our models in understanding scripture. Prophets, radicals, and reformers should be.

How do we keep from using hermeneutics to serve the status quo, ignoring the pain our theology causes and stubbornly insisting that our rigid interpretations are correct?

We reorder our hermeneutical priorities around compassion and justice. We think long and hard about the lives of people who will be impacted by our theology. We stop getting caught up in the weeds of literalism and reach instead for the principles of scripture that were prioritized by Jesus. This is biblical hermeneutics. We get so caught up in love, compassion, grace, and truth that we forget we were ever afraid.