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How to Read the Bible When Thinking about Sex

Written by: on April 5, 2018

“The Bible is clear on this.” How many times have you heard that statement, or one similar to it? Growing up in a church that took the Bible literally, it was common to hear, “just read the Bible and you’ll understand.” I heard these declarations in light of women preaching, leading communion, or baptizing (we weren’t allowed). I heard it in the natural order of humans dominating and using creation for our own benefit (rather than stewarding the natural world). And I heard it even occasionally when discussions arose about poor people—“if a man doesn’t work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10)—“The Bible is clear that poor people are lazy and irresponsible people.” The Bible was also “clear” on the way God created the world and the occasional justification of war. One topic that never received this “the Bible is clear” treatment was homosexuality. That topic never even made it past the derisions and fag jokes of our youth group, often led by our youth minister. Meanwhile, I studied the Bible thoroughly, ranked nationally in the Bible Bowl quiz, and memorized entire chapters and books of the Bible so I could defend it and use it to defend the faith.

It was in college where I majored in Bible and anthropology, that I was introduced to scripture in a way that allowed me to love it, lay it down as a weapon or tool, and pick it back up as the Holy Spirit-inspired text of a people interacting with the God who loves them.

As I delved into Adrian Thatcher’s God, Sex and Gender, I repeatedly thought of these two selves of mine. While the thrust of Thatcher’s text is an exploration into how Christians understand gender and sex (primarily same-sex), on a deeper level it challenges the concept of Biblicism, or biblical literalism, “the Bible is clear on this” mentality. Thatcher approaches how we understand what God desires of us (the will of God) using the image of stools, with one to four legs, beginning with Scripture (one leg) and adding Tradition, Reason, and Experience to make a four-legged stool (Thatcher’s preference).[1]

[As a long aside, a significant gap in Thatcher’s argument is his lack of recognition of the extent of the “one-legged” approach within churches (especially Evangelicalism). Thatcher introduces it briefly—almost in passing—but spends no time wrestling with its problems or strengths, as he does with the other three “legs.” This “one-legged” approach drives much of the biblical literalism of my church movement, and many others. While Thatcher appears to completely discount this image as unfeasible—“this appears to be a one-legged stool!”[2]—I imagine sitting comfortably on a solid tree-stump and have seen this approach regularly practiced by churches claiming that we don’t need theology, only scripture.]

And yet, throughout his text, Thatcher suggests that “traditional” ways of reading scripture are simply that: traditional; and that there are other possible ways of understanding the scriptural text. For instance, looking at Bible passages traditionally understood as opposing same-sex sexual activity, Thatcher submits, “the conventional interpretation of the biblical passages remains a possible one. But the claim that it is the right one seriously exceeds the biblical evidence available. The churches should be more honest in admitting the difficulties of the traditional case.”[3]

Thatcher wants his readers to recognize that we are always reading scripture with a lens (or lenses), whether we recognize it or not. Even our “traditional” reading of scripture is still only “traditional” in a particular context. We would do well to approach the development of a theology of sex with Stephen Bevans’ Models of Contextual Theology in hand along with Thatcher. Bevans reminds us “a theology that is not somehow reflective of our times, our culture, and our current concerns—and so contextual—is also a false theology.” [4] And again, contextual theology “takes into account the faith experience of the past that is recorded in scriptures and kept alive, preserved, [and] defended… in tradition” and that “while theology needs to be faithful to the full experience and contexts of the past, it is authentic theology only when what has been received is appropriated, made our own.”[5] Thatcher would agree: “the Church’s beliefs and values must transcend time…. Just because the Church is a trans-historical body, it spans more than one cosmological world: indeed, it spans all of them. Now for the Church to span all historical or cosmological worlds, it cannot identify its teaching with any of them!…. How the Truth of Christ is understood and expressed across time and place will be varied.”[6]

It is this recognition that is so challenging for many churches and Christians today: a recognition that the Holy Spirit continues to work through tradition and experience (our own and others’) in our discernment of God’s way. When it comes to our understanding of the “right” or “wrong” of same-sex activity (or the appropriateness/inappropriateness, or sinfulness, etc.), and our understanding of gender and male/femaleness, we have to recognize that we are wearing glasses of our own biases and background, tradition and feelings, [7] and our context may bring different conclusions as we read scripture.

So much of what I regularly conclude after our reading assignments is a sense of the importance of epistemic humility, that what we know or think we know is so very limited. As we seek to understand ways to faithfully respond to challenges in relating to our cultural contexts, specifically sex and gender, it seems appropriate to land where the early church did as they wrestled with incorporating non-Jews into the Body of Christ: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).[8] We read scripture, pray, trust the presence and work of the Holy Spirit within our expression of the Body of Christ (the church), and move forward with humble confidence.

 

 

[1] Adrian Thatcher, God, Sex and Gender: An Introduction, (West Sussex, Eng: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 33-40.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 171. Emphasis mine.

[4] Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), 5. Thatcher would agree: “Relevance is not simply a requirement in accounts of Christian faith. It requires a creative weaving of past and present, of internal and external stories, and this process inevitably brings about change in doctrine and ethics.” (Thatcher, 177).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thatcher, 177.

[7] David Brooks’ thesis that our unconscious emotions of “love and fear, loyalty and revulsion” are what ultimately shape us would be helpful here. David Brooks, The Social Animal, (New York: Random House, 2011), x.

[8] The caption for this image is “Ecclesia pays attention to the Holy Spirit”; page doesn’t format correctly when caption is included.

About the Author

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Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

8 responses to “How to Read the Bible When Thinking about Sex”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Wow, Katy, this is good stuff! I admire and I’m more than a bit jealous of your ability to think critically and express it in such a meaningful way. I appreciate your connecting the importance of the past, the church, and our present context. I think you present a well-balanced postion. I also agree that the lens through which we look is an important component of our theology. I’ve often considered the way the various “sides” use the “tool” of the lens metaphor to support “their” side of the argument. We’ve all seen it: I’m right because you are viewing through your lens! No, I’m right because you are viewing through your lens! You have, however, brought in the tempering aspect of the “tool”–It seems good to us and the Holy Spirit. This for me is a strong point that brings balance to difficult theological quandaries. Thank you, Katy!

  2. Mary says:

    “So much of what I regularly conclude after our reading assignments is a sense of the importance of epistemic humility, that what we know or think we know is so very limited.” Thank you, Katy. My constant feelings as well.
    I definitely think this book could be used for a whole semester course!
    I agree with you – a balanced approach in life combined with humility and strong desire to love others more would do a lot in our churches today.

  3. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Good reminder Katy, to read the scripture within context and that we are reading it through our own lens. No wonder there is so much conflict within the church and among Christians! We all have our different lens on when we read the Bible. All the more this requires the unifying power of the Holy Spirit.
    Yes, learning is a humbling experience as it is a constant reminder of how little we know and how little we truly are certain of. My sensors will always be up when a theologian is quite certain of his/her theology giving little room for opposing views. There is a relief that despite our education, we can still say and need to say, “I don’t know.”. Thanks, Katy for your thoughtful post.

  4. Katy,
    Great as always….. once again saying well what I was struggling to get at.
    I think you have coined the term that should serve as a core value for this program and our lives of theological discernment and discussion – ‘epistemic humility’. Just brilliant.
    Beyond that, the other really important piece you bring up is the prevalence and feasibility of the ‘one-legged stool’. Your description of how this works as ‘someone sitting comfortably on a tree stump’ is absolutely perfect as it sums up the situation perfectly – resting on something cut off and dead (bearing little resemblance to the beauty and life it once did), but none the less doing so comfortably….. There is a essay there, for sure.
    Thanks.
    Also, I loved two other aspects – one, your treatment of ‘the Bible clearly says’…. and the casual reference to you being a nationally ranked Bible bowl quiz player…. because of course you were! 🙂

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      Ha! Well, to be fair, I would attribute “epistemic humility” to Socrates. But I do run into this theme over and over again, that the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.

      I’ll have to “sit” with the tree stump theme a bit more– thanks for the idea of expanding it into an essay of a lifeless, though comfortable stool.

      Finally, I do admit I feel embarrassed when talking about Bible Bowl– why? I think at that age, I felt more pride in what I could do (memorization was easy) than thankfulness I could embed scripture into my mind. Maybe embarrassment that I was so competitive with Bible knowledge.

  5. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Katy I just commented on contextual lenses in response to Stu’s post. We often forget that we see and experience life from our own context. In order to change our lens we must be willing to experience something new and/or different. Even our definition of “Tradition” is contextual. Great post Katy! ?

  6. Lynda Gittens says:

    Thanks for the post Katy and the sharing of your experience.

    What is that thin line between understanding the scripture and refusing to be a part of the world’s view versus accepting the world views and reinterpreting the scriptures to justify my acceptance?

    We must be careful with it all. We all can interpret the scriptures to justify our beliefs. But we must depend on the discernment of the Holy Spirit and not every scholar who stamps themselves with the term “Christian”. They may not be trustworthy.

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Gosh, Katy, Bible Bowl quizzing – those were the good times, yeah? (so many hours memorizing those quiz books!)
    You bring up a really good point about the lenses through which we look at these topics. Reading your post, I visualized the Holy Spirit putting those clip-on sunglasses over my own lenses in order to help me better focus. The whole idea of epistemic humility is to know that I don’t know and be willing to be wrong. Gender, sexuality, and even biblical understanding are topics that require this of us. When we slip into absolute certainty, we have probably veered away from the Holy Spirit.

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