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Context

Context matters.

It really matters.

And when interpreting the Bible, it matters even more.

Why? Because the Bible matters… and getting our interpretation correct matters for those of us for whom the Bible is both formative and authoritative.

An example:

Many years ago, when I was a Young Life area director working with leaders at the local university, we had a great faith community together. We enjoyed vibrant worship, discipleship, ministry and mission together. But the group of leaders was young and needed some strong direction in certain areas. I created a rule for our leaders (and staff) about drinking.  No drinking in public in the same town you did ministry in.  There were lots of reasons for that rule. But to be clear, I am not a Christian who believes that drinking is wrong — but as a leader in that context I sensed that it was important to lay out that ground rule.  

Now if someone else happened to read the memo I wrote to our leaders (outside of the discussion we also had), they might have concluded that I was opposed to all drinking or that the application of what I was teaching/saying is that we should never drink in the town we live in or minister in.  Out of context, they would probably misunderstand and over-apply the principle.  You see, in context and given the specific people and community involved — and a specific context of ministry — this rule made sense. But it was only a statement about that particular context and time.  In fact, several years later, I lifted that rule because context had changed.  It was no longer needed or necessary.

I have just started to study again Paul’s Letters to the Corinthian church.  And I am reminded that understanding context is critical to exegesis.  Paul lays out many rules, wisdoms and strong suggestions.  But these are all contextual.  They are based on Paul’s understanding of the community, his relationship with them, the particular issues and players involved, cultural assumptions and biases, etc etc etc.  The technical idea here in hermeneutics (that is, the art of interpreting a text) is to determine whether a particular text is general/universal — that is, true and applicable in all times and all places irregardless of context — or specific — that is true and applicable within a specific context, perhaps with broader implications by principle, but not necessary “binding” or true in all times and places.

For example, when Paul writes “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) or that it is better to stay single (1 Cor 7:8) … or that women should be silent in church (1 Cor 14:34)… or we should drink some wine with our water (1 Tim 5:23) … before we assume that these are universally applicable, we need to look at the context.  And when you begin to understand what was going on in the Corinthian church (or with Timothy’s stomach) it becomes clear what Paul is saying and why.  And there are applications and implications for us today — we should never ignore these texts.  But to interpret these texts as being universal — for all times and all places — is not just silly, but unfaithful to the text.  

And this is why context matters… whenever we read, interpret and apply scripture, we must always consider the context of both the author and audience in our exegesis. We do this not to dismiss or ignore passages, but to faithfully understand and learn from them.  The right and proper reading of the scriptures is critical to the vibrant Christian life. When we ignore context, the text becomes irrelevant to us because we are reading it wrong.  When we take the time to seek out and understand context, the text becomes alive, vibrant and effective — life a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:!2) and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Tim 3:16)

THOUGHTS?

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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A Good Example of Preaching on a Tough Subject

My friend and seminary classmate Pastor Richard J. Lee gave a sermon entitled “FAQ: Is Homosexuality a Sin” at his church this past week.  Richard is a great guy, talented pastor… and more conservative on this issue than I am.  Richard holds a pretty traditionalist position on homosexuality and argues for that position in this sermon.  I disagree with his exegesis, but totally understand and respect where he is coming from.

Given that I disagree with him on the topic, you may be wondering why I am posting it here and why I am recommending it?  It is because I think this is a great example of how traditionalists can preach on this topic with grace, respect and without falling into many of the “anti-gay” traps that are so common (e.g. Louie Giglio’s sermon from 20 years ago that got him uninvited to the Presidential Inauguration) or the more extreme bigotry of people like Lou Engle or Bryan Fischer.  In other words, Richard gets the tone right: pastoral, graceful, but pulls no punches on what he believes.  He addresses the tensions and gives people space to disagree, explore, etc.  As a gay Christian who disagrees with him, I felt totally respected and would be comfortable going to his church, worshiping there, etc. — which means he got it right.

If you are a traditionalist pastor or church-goer, this is a great example of how to tackle this issue in your church.  If you are a progressive on this issue — or a gay seeker or gay believer — I hope you listen to it… and then let me know, while disagreeing with him, did you feel respected?  How would you have felt sitting in the pews listening to this?  Any other thoughts?

Here is the link… check it out:

http://www.bethanywell.com/2013/06/06-23-2013-is-homosexuality-a-sin/

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Bin Laden & Bad Hermeneutics

In the immediate aftermath of the historic announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Military personel, Facebook and Twitter erupted with reactions — including from many pastors and Christian leaders.

For example, some posted this from Proverbs: 

‎”When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” – Proverbs 21:15

And others posted this:

“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown.” — Proverbs 24:17

Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it?  Or at least you could say “see… you can make the Bible say anything you it to!” — true, but only if you use flawed hermeneutics. (I have written a lot more about hermeneutics and good interpretation of the Bible here.)

Here is we an important and basic hermeneutical principal at work: the difference between DESCRIPTIVE WISDOM and PRESCRIPTIVE WISDOM.

Proverbs 21:15 is an example of DESCRIPTIVE WISDOM. That is, it describes what happens in a given situation.  It says, in this case, that when justice is done, certain things happen.  There is not a judgement made whether these things are good or bad; it is merely a descripotion of what is. And one of the things about WISDOM is that it accurately describes reality.

On the other hand, Proverbs 24:17 is PRESCRIPTIVE WISDOM — it tells us what wise people SHOULD DO.  The grammar in the sentence tells us this.  It is in the indicative case.  “Rejoice not…” — almost a command.  It is PRESCRIPTIVE.

So in this case, bother verses are saying different things and both are true.

But here is the important point: when it comes to building a Biblical worldview and a Biblical ethical paradigm, it we remember which is descriptive and which is prescriptive.  As Christians — and even more, simply as wise people — we should follow the advice of Proverbs 24:7, not fall into the pattern described in Proverbs 21:15.

As you can see, good heremeneutics really does matter.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Inerant? Infallible? Inspired? Authoritative?

Nehemiah

I am an evangelical Christian.  I also align myself with historic, orthodox (lowercase “o”), catholic (lower case “c”), Christianity (upper case “C”).  This means that, among other things, I affirm the innerancy, infallibility, inspiration and authority of scripture.

But what does that mean?

Whatever it means, it should mean the same thing no matter what parts of the biblical canon we are talking about.  

Last Sunday, I preached a message at my church out of Nehemiah 1-2.  I also preached out of this section of chapter 7.

Here is my question:

IF THE BIBLE IS INERANT, INFALLIBLE, INSPIRED and AUTHORITATIVE… what does that mean in terms of these two passages?

In other words, in what ways are these passages AUTHORITATIVE?  Or INERANT? etc?

For this discussion, I am particularly interested in those willing to allow for the “if” assumption above… but of course, all are welcomed to comment!

So comment away…

 

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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What the Bible Says (& Doesn’t Say) About Homosexuality Series

I meant to post this summary a few weeks ago when I wrapped up the series. It is a 12-post series. Also, to really understand the process I went through to study these passages, it is worth reading through this 9-part series on Biblical Hermeneutics here.

WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS (& DOESN’T SAY ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY

  1. Those 7 References
  2. Asking Questions of the Text
  3. Genesis 19
  4. Judges 19
  5. Leviticus 18 & 20
  6. Romans 1, Part #1
  7. Romans 1, Part #2
  8. Romans 1, Part #3
  9. 1 Cor 6:9 & 1 Tim 1:10
  10. The 8th & 9th Reference
  11. Some Additional Principles & Wisdom to Consider
  12. Conclusions

BONUS Post: When Jesus Confronted Homosexuality in the Gospels

BONUS POST: The Logical Flaw in the Anti-Gay Hermeneutic

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Conclusions

[Part #12 in a series looking at the what the Bible says about homosexuality.]

I have been praying through and studying in-depth the 7 references to homosexuality in the Bible for the past few months. I have also been looking at what the Bible says beyond those references — about sexuality generally, about marriage, about grace, about sin, etc.

Here are my conclusions as of today… and I say “today”, because they are (as I am) a work in progress and always developing. My goal here is not to lay out a systematic theology of homosexuality or to teach authoritatively on the issue or even to try and convince anyone else that I am right. This is simply a snapshot of my best take on what Jesus is saying to me about these issues…

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I start with an acknowledgement that we are all living in Plan B — that is, we live in a world terribly marred by sin and brokenness. No area of our lives is untouched nor uncorrupted by the reality of sin and brokenness in the world. This includes our sexuality — both for heterosexuals and for homosexuals. There is no one on earth for whom their sexual orientation is not corrupted by sin and brokenness and is not a full reflection of God’s intended purposes for sexuality.

So the challenge for all of us — whether straight or gay — is to live out our sexual orientations with as much integrity and faithfulness as we can.

Marriage and sexuality as we know it are both temporal. Neither exist into eternity. But both are also fundamental to what it means to be human. In sexuality, we have the essence of mutual love and submission, loving service, deep intimacy and connection. We are created for these kinds of relationships.

In the Bible, sexual relationships are primarily about two things: (1) reproduction, and (2) intimacy/connection. This is God’s primary design for sexuality. Also, I think the scriptures are clear that, in God’s primary design, marriage is a life-long, loving, covenanted, committed, mutually submitted heterosexual institution. It is also, I believe, undeniable that there is a strong bias against homosexuality in the Bible. 

So what is the gay or lesbian follower of Jesus to do? What are the viable options?

I see them as potentially three:

A. Marriage

B. Life-long Celibacy

C. Orientation Change

While the scientific evidence is scant on the success of therapeutic change, I don’t think it should be dismissed or belittled entirely. We should neither discount the ability of God to do the miraculous, nor should we discount the fact that sexuality is a continuum and that people who experience same-sex attraction may also experience opposite-sex attraction and be able, with the help of prayer and therapy, live a happy heterosexual life. But while we should not deny this possibility, we should also not force it on anyone or pretend that it is guaranteed. But I do think it is a valid option for some people to pursue.

Celibacy, as taught in the Bible, is a spiritual gift that some people — both gay and straight — have. For those who have this gift, it should be celebrated, supported and valued. It is an important gift within the Body of Christ and one that unfortunately Protestants have ignored or denigrated. Again, I don’t think a gift can be forced on someone or compelled. Nor do I believe that simply being gay means you have the gift.

To be clear, those who have the gift see celibacy as a blessing, not a burden to bear. Celibacy as understood Biblically is not “bearing one’s cross”, but a profoundly deep and beautiful gift of the Holy Spirit. I believe that Protestant churches need to do a much better job of creating environments where people with the gift of celibacy can flourish and live vibrant lives. For gay people with the gift, there are additional challenges. To successfully live a life of celibacy, one must be in a community that affirms and celebrates the gift, provides strong fellowship and community, and is a place where the person can be fully known (including their sexual orientation). I have not experienced or seen very many Protestant churches that do this well. For example, I think that even if I had the gift of celibacy, the community/church I was in was not a healthy community to live out that gift. The gift was often ignored or denigrated (though never by the teaching staff… it was strongly affirmed in things like the SHAPE spiritual gifts class), singles (especially older singles) were considered “projects to marry off” instead of creating an environment of discernment; and it was not a community where one could openly identify as gay, even if celibate.  For celibacy to be a real option, churches need to be proactive in their teaching about and support of celibates.

The term celibacy is often confused with the term chastity. I have written about this elsewhere, so will not do so here again. But I believe that every follower Jesus — gay or straight, married or single — is called to a life of chastity, which is sexual purity.  This kind of sexual purity is a commitment to sexual integrity and faithfulness to Jesus in our sexuality. Celibacy is a life-long positive commitment to not be sexually active (though are still sexual). These are very different.

Some churches offer as the only real option for gays and lesbians a lifetime of single chastity — this is the “Cross to bear” approach to the issue. While some have found success in this (generally those with lower libidos or libidos diminished by age) many have found this formula one that reinforces shame, hiddenness and emotional/relational stagnation.

So what about marriage? Or what I have come to refer to as life-long, loving, covenanted relationships?

It is my belief that such a covenanted relationship is for many gay and lesbian Christ-followers the best available option. If change is not possible or likely and one does not have the gift of celibacy, then the pursuit of a committed and covenanted relationship may be the best answer and the one that most glorifies Christ and leads to a flourishing life. While a gay marriage will never be able to reproduce (one part of God’s design for sexuality), it can fulfill the other part of God’s design in terms of relationship/intimacy/connection.

I don’t think that gay marriage is necessarily the same as heterosexual marriage — but I do believe that it can be the best available option for many people. It is certainly a better option than hiding and pretending or depression or promiscuity or suicide or any other number of options that sadly are very prevalent among gay men and women. 

I know that in many respects this conclusion will be disappointing to “both sides” of the discussion. Many traditionalists will feel like any conclusion that permits any same-sex erotic behavior is sinful and wrong. And I fully expect that many of these traditionalists will send me nasty emails and tell me I am going to hell or have walked away from the faith or have lost my salvation, etc. Of those who have chosen to stay in contact with me, many will stop. For them, the entire integrity of the Gospel rests on rejecting all homosexuality and homosexuals. And therefore, this conclusion will be a disappointment to them.

On the other hand, many from the affirming camp will be disappointed that I have not gone further and affirmed gay marriage as an equal institution to heterosexual marriage. And they will conclude that this leaves gays and lesbians as second-class citizens.

First let me say that I think the discussion of gay marriage needs to be a bit more nuanced that it usually is. What I am talking about here is a Christ-centered covenanted relationship recognized and celebrated by the gathered faithful community. This has nothing to do with civil marriage. I think it is p
ossible to affirm the equality of civil marriages without doing so in the church. To me, these are fundamentally different issues (and, for the record, I fully support civil marriage equality and always have — both publicly and privately.)  

Second, I simply don’t think there is a way to say that gay marriage (as a religious institution) is fully the same as heterosexual marriage. I think the Biblical texts do not allow this. That said, I believe that it often is the best available option for gays and lesbians and that as such God blesses and honors those commitments and families. As we all navigate through a Plan-B world, I don’t think that any of us are living the perfect option as God designed and that we all must do the best we can with what we have. I don’t think this makes gays and lesbians second-class members of the community. 

So now that I have managed to offend everyone… where does that leave me?

Oddly, pretty much exactly where I have been.

I am a gay follower of Jesus Christ. While I have been through some reparative therapy, I do not believe that change is likely for me. (And the counselors I have worked with generally agree). I also do not sense that I have the gift of celibacy.

But I am a single gay follower of Jesus Christ… so I embrace chastity as I would encourage all followers of Jesus to do. And if I was in a dating relationship, I think the same standards would apply to me as would apply to a straight couple in terms of sexual integrity and wisdom.

And in terms of the future, what will it hold? I honestly don’t know and I am comfortable completely surrendering that to God. I believe that all marriage is vocation and based on God’s calling… so it is his deal, his timing, his decision… and I am 100% okay with that.

For people who want me to be more specific, what does this mean in terms of things like dating and pursuing relationships?

I am not currently dating nor actively pursuing relationships. To be honest, I don’t think I am very dateable at the moment.

I have been on a pretty hellish 9 month journey that comes after a 17 year journey of hiding and pretending about who I am. One of the consequences of that hiding and pretending is that my emotional self got pretty much shut down — mostly out of necessity. And that “shut down” allowed me to do things that I shouldn’t have done, that were contrary to my own values, and contrary to Jesus’ call on my life. While emotionally and sexually I am in a healthier place than I have ever been before, I still have some work to do — or more precisely, God still has a lot of work to do in me. And until that stuff happens, I would be a lousy boyfriend/partner — though I am a fabulous dinner date! (I’m just saying…)

One of the things I have always taught — and has been reinforced for me by some important mentors in my life — is that, within the church, healthy dating happens in community. That can’t happen until I am really in a community that knows me, loves me, values me, and is okay with who I am. In that context, there can be honest and real accountability, feedback, etc. 

So, in short…

– I am fully surrendered to Jesus Christ in every area of my life — including my sexuality.

– I think that options A, B & C (from above) are all valid and viable for followers of Jesus.

– For me, I don’t see option B or C as being realistic nor where I am called.

– That said, there is certainly no guarantee that God will ever call me into marriage — and married or not, I am called to a life of purity and integrity (chastity).

– In all things, Jesus is first and foremost in my life… he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings… and I follow Him no matter the cost nor consequence.

So that is where I am today…

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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