We are in the midst of the Easter season. Christians everywhere continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. We have heard the Gospel stories about the crucifixion and the empty tomb and continue to hear with gladness words like, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Preachers preach enthusiastically that the Bible is a dependable witness that all these things are true.
This confidence in the Scriptures is held by most Christians, many of whom would also add that the words in the Bible are God’s own words. For these Christians this means that every word in the Bible was given by God. For them the words of the Bible are authoritative for shaping Christian belief and practice.
Unfortunately, there may be some reason to doubt this belief. Not that the Bible contains God’s words—doubt arises over whether those words actually give shape and substance to Christian practice.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Many believers in America have made opposition to homosexuality the hallmark of their Christian faith. They do this because they claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and that it does so with dramatic and incontrovertible language. These Christians believe that the practice of homosexuality is such a significant transgression that our failure to condemn it will result in the downfall of our country.
But does the Bible actually justify the claim that homosexuality is a transgression above all others, so egregious that it could bring down our entire civilization? Well, it turns out, that it does not.
The book of Leviticus features the most graphic language in the whole Bible regarding homosexual practice. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, it does in fact state that those who do such things should be killed.
But Leviticus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21 also directs parents to kill their rebellious children. Obviously we don’t allow that anymore. Parents who kill their children in our country go to prison.
When and how did we decide that this particular commandment no long applies, yet the teachings about homosexuality still do apply? What is the interpretive method that allows this to happen?
And while we are at it, what about all those prohibitions in Leviticus 11: 9-12 against eating shrimp and catfish? How and when did we decide that we can ignore these commandments but dare not ignore the ones about homosexuality?
The New Testament also seems not to be as concerned with homosexual behavior as we are. Jesus does not mention it at all. When the Apostle Paul deals with the matter in the opening chapter of his letter to the Romans, he presents a long list of behaviors that he states comes from a “debased mind.” Included along with sexual practices are behaviors such as greed and gossip.
Greed and gossip? If the Christian moral compass is shaped by the Bible, why don’t Christian groups condemn greed and gossip with the same passion they condemn homosexuality? Paul seems to think they are all of a piece.
These inconsistencies leave believers open to the charge that certain Christian moral issues are not really shaped by biblical teaching, but rather by provincial cultural prejudices. The Bible is then gleaned for “proof texts” that support these preconceived judgments.
Is that true? Does the Bible only have authority for us when it is saying what we want it to say?
Let’s take another test case. In addition to defining what is clean and unclean, Leviticus also has some interesting ideas about economics. In Leviticus 25 we read that we do not own the land, God owns the land. We are merely tenants or aliens or migrant laborers on land that belongs to someone else.
If this is the biblical teaching about the way we should see ourselves in the world, why are we not more welcoming to the aliens and immigrants who come to live among us in our land. The Bible says we should welcome them as if they were members of our own family, because as far as God is concerned, they are.
Furthermore, since God owns everything, no one should profit from the land at the expense of others. God directs that every 50 years all debt is to be cancelled and the land returned to its original owners.
If the Bible is the source of our morality and values, why don’t we practice this debt release? And even if a literal enactment of the 50-year program is beyond practical possibility, we ought to at least honor the sprit of the Bible by finding ways to ensure that people in our communities are not trapped in poverty generation after generation.
In the book of Deuteronomy we hear God saying, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'”
Now I’m not suggesting that we launch a full-scale assault on tabloid newspapers–they are, after all the fount of all things gossipy. Nor am I suggesting that we boycott the Gulf Coast Shrimp festival or picket outside the local catfish house.
What I am suggesting is that we take a close look at what is motivating our moral concerns. Given the context in which the Bible places homosexual practice, it appears we have made it much more of an issue of it than the Bible ever does. Also, given what the Bible says about social justice and community economics, it also appears we have made far too little of our responsibility to the weak and vulnerable in our midst.
My purpose is not to make light of the significance of the Bible as a tool for informing personal and social ethics. On the contrary, I take that role of the Bible seriously. What I am concerned about is using the Bible selectively in order to build an exclusionary and condemning morality.
Using the Bible in this way, to justify a narrow and judgmental ethic that may have more to do with our own prejudices than with the passion of God, ultimately diminishes the credibility of the Bible and hinders the work of authentic Christian witness.
The message of the risen Jesus is that God is in our midst and desires that we love God with all our being, and that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus said doing that is the whole point of the word of God.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.