The Biblical Witness/Invitation to an Alternative World: A Reading Strategy for the Journey
Ron Sider’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, is a hard-hitting critique of North American evangelicalism. Sider joins a long list of “whistle blowers” and “culture despisers” who have issued similar “wake up calls” at strategic points in the history of Christianity. Sider asks a simple question: Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world? With lots of polling data, he analyzes the troubling disconnect between the biblical vision traditionally associated with Christian living and the reality lived by many Christians today in North America. Whether the topic is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, or spousal abuse, the depth of the scandal is frightening.
Sider’s invitation represents an old-time evangelical “altar call” to the “lost” (yes, even among us!) to reconsider the biblical witness and to embrace more fully the “resistance movement” that is gathering around Jesus.
IN THE COMPANY OF CULTURE DESPISERS
Years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche also wrote a scathing critique of pious religion that was popular in nineteenth-century Germany. He referred to Christianity as a toxic religiosity that poisoned the masses and numbed them from experiencing authentic life (see Genealogy of Morals, 159-63). At the American Academy of Religion’s 2005 annual meeting (Philadelphia, Nov. 19-22), the ninety-year-old renowned German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, credited Nietzsche with playing a key role in his own spiritual pilgrimage. How so? By the age of fifteen, the young Pannenberg, not yet a confessing Christian, had read all he could of Nietzsche’s works, fascinated by the intoxicating mix of theology, philosophy, politics, and history. It served as a foil for what would later blossom into a vibrant and vital Christian faith.
Pannenberg’s enthusiastic high school teacher, Dr. Lange, modeled a different sort of Christianity, one that profoundly turned his interest to God. Why? Precisely because it did not fit the critique raised by Nietzsche. In his teacher’s life, Pannenberg saw an engaging and rigorous Christianity that was attractive and that would go on to become central to his own life and work. While Nietzsche’s critique may well have been true to a certain extent, it was not necessarily true of all Christians.
Unlike Nietzsche, Sider’s critique comes from within the Christian tradition. Sider’s words are focused on challenging the religious establishment and status quo of evangelical Christianity. Why are North American Christians living just like the rest of the world? The question deserves a response! Jesus reserved his most probing questions and harshest words for religious insiders, not because he disliked them, but because he, like they, shared a common desire to be faithful to God. Jesus challenged the religious folk evidently because he felt many were “embarrassing God” or “getting in God’s way” by their unreflective life and abusive behaviors. Whether critique comes from outside the faith tradition (Nietzsche) or from inside (Jesus), social critique including Sider’s can be used by God to prod the church from its complacency.
In this essay I respond to Sider’s second chapter where he argues that the biblical vision is in stark contrast to contemporary Christian behavior. Sider asserts that while the quality of the early Christian community life attracted people to Christianity, today, “our hypocrisy often drives unbelievers away” (Scandal, 32). Sider backs up this assertion by surveying New Testament (NT) material showing that in many cases Jesus’ ministry and mission is at odds with contemporary Christian behavior.
Jesus was known to forgive sinners and then expect them to live justly and uprightly, mimicking his own faithful life of welcoming others and inviting them to live lives fully-devoted to God’s way of peace and justice. Jesus challenged the materialistic character of the religious status quo, exercising decisive judgments against materialism. Why? Because materialism is really a form of idolatry in that it detracts from our worship of God. Instead, the early Christians were known for their sharing and communal ways, and for beginning to abandon racial, ethnic, and class prejudice. Empowered by the spirit of the risen Lord, they creatively imagined an alternative world—one where the resources of the future were brought to bear in the present, regardless of appearances to the contrary.
The contrast, as Sider reminds us, between Jesus’ vision for God’s people and the one we often see represented in the North American church is all too clear. Yet I do have two questions. First, why not a stronger challenge to the way that evangelicals have become enmeshed with “the destructive empire” and “the domination system”? Sider is right to point out the inconsistencies and scandalous behavior of evangelicals as individuals—high divorce rates, materialist tendencies, disregard for the poor, sexual promiscuity, racist behaviors, and spousal abuse. But more could be said about the ways evangelicals participate in our society’s collective hunger for power, prestige, and status (see 20-22; 73-83). Such desires draw us to participation in the domination system with its predisposition to unquestioning patriotism, oppressive foreign and trade policies, triumphalistic nationalism, swaggering militarism, casual sexual expression, autonomous living, and use of violence or coercion to hold it all together.
In an earlier essay, Sider challenged Mennonites with matters such as the following:
If a few of our thinkers have flirted with modern theological themes that undermine historic Christian belief, many of our people have embraced individualism and materialism. Many of us live the same kind of materialistic lifestyles as do our neighbors. Many have adopted, often unconsciously, the culture’s individualism that undermines Christian community and accountability in the church. (Sider 1995, 3)
Sider’s well-placed challenge to Mennonites in 1995 is equally appropriate today for North American evangelicals because it invites reflection on how we unknowingly participate in the domination system and mute the biblical witness/invitation to an alternative world. The real scandal of the evangelical conscience is that it has become so comfortable in mainstream North American life (sharing entertainment interests, fashion choices, leisure activities, political goals, business plans, consumption patterns, etc.) that the empire is no longer “them” but “us,” and we do not even know it!
The activism and missionary vision that launched the evangelical movement a couple of centuries ago has ironically been “converted.” No longer is the traditional evangelical call to abandon allegiance to the destructive imperial powers of sin, evil, and domination. Now the call is one of “protecting our freedoms and our way of life” (e.g., constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, defense of the pledge of allegiance, and rejection of protocols to reduce environmental impacts). Since when did the protectionist goals and aspirations of the state become some of the primary goals of the children of God and the reign of God?
Thankfully, Sider’s invitation represents an old-time evangelical “altar call” to the “lost” (yes, even among us!) to reconsider the biblical witness and to embrace more fully the “resistance movement” that is gathering around Jesus.
THE BIBLICAL VISION
My second question relates specifically to Sider’s use of the category of “biblical vision” in chapter two. Sider is careful to highlight the ways that the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and other NT writings call Christians to exhibit lives of moral excellence in contrast to the norms of the pagan society around them. But what about the Old Testament (OT) foundation from which the NT writers worked? Texts from the OT are found elsewhere (e.g., 77-79) but are strangely absent from chapter 2.
Even more importantly, we need help to know how to move from the ancient world of the biblical text to present-day ethical reflection. We cannot simply read these ancient texts as if there is no “temporal gap” between then and now. In the 1995 article cited above, Sider asked,
How can we call our people to costly discipleship—whether in our sexual practices, our marriage covenants, our economic lifestyle, or our peacemaking—if we think that clear biblical norms are not necessarily finally decisive for our lives today? (1995, 2)
Here Sider put his finger on the problem—the link between Bible reading strategies and ethical discernment. How can Christians “bridge the gap” and still be shaped by this ancient witness called the Bible? What kind of reading strategy will help construct a biblical vision for today?
FINDING A READING STRATEGY
My interest in this review essay is to pursue the challenge to make explicit the “reading strategy” that will strengthen the link between the biblical vision and ethical discernment. Sider’s failure to come clean on his reading strategy is not unique. This is a classic problem for all who take the Bible seriously and authoritatively as evangelicals generally do. While the relationship between biblical reading strategy and the discernment of appropriate behaviors is complex, it is foundational to Christian discipleship.
So, in order to move this conversation along, I suggest we review common reading strategies used in appropriating the Scripture and that these be illustrated using the topic of “sexual disobedience” that Sider himself raises (22-24, 76). To be very specific, how can Paul’s references to same-sex relations be read constructively today in our western world?
SAME-SEX RELATIONS IN PAUL’S LETTERS
While the challenges of militarism, nationalism, materialism, and racism are arguably more sinister in terms of their global impact, contemporary sexual practice is a particularly challenging issue for the evangelical church in North America because it touches us at the level of personal identity. Some call sex the “drug of choice” for Christians. Premarital sex and extramarital sex (heterosexual and/or homosexual) are common among North American Christians (24). Our highly-sexed culture provides an excellent occasion for assessing the various reading strategies used by Christians to locate themselves in relation to the dominant culture and its growing acceptance of same-sex sexual relations.
There are three NT texts—1 Cor. 6:1-11; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Tim. 1:3-20—which make explicit reference to same-sex sexual relations in the NT. While these biblical texts do not “address” homosexuality as a topic, same-sex sexual relations are used as illustrations in Paul’s argumentation. Before considering the various reading strategies that Christians use to interpret Paul’s argumentation, some background information is necessary.
These three NT texts referring to those who practice same-sex sexual relations are located within stock lists of wrongdoers that most Jews would have classified as “outsiders.” Such lists are not exhaustive catalogues or even measuring sticks. They represent a list of traditional non-Jewish behavior that circles around two issues: idolatry and immorality.
Why idolatry and immorality? For Jews, these two issues are primary distinguishing characteristics of those living in rebellion against God (Num. 25:1-3). This is how Jews thought of pagans (Sanders 1991, 105). Paul, however, is convinced that these ex-pagans in Corinth, Rome, and elsewhere could now be part of God’s family. They are now “insiders” and part of God’s newly reconfigured people gathered around Jesus. However, Paul does not expect them to become ethnically Jewish; the ethnic “identity badges” of circumcision, food regulations, and holy-day rituals do not transfer to the new global form of God’s end-time people (Rom. 2:29; 3:21-31; 14:1-23; Gal. 2:11-21). Still, Paul does expect these former pagans, now “insiders,” to assume Jewish ethical behavior and abandon idolatry and sexual immorality, as they are grafted into Israel (1 Cor. 10:1-22).
Turning our attention to Paul’s references to same-sex sexual relations in these three texts, we encounter two words that are often mistranslated. The two words are euphemisms for the two roles in male same-sex intercourse. Why use euphemisms? Because there are no Greek words to define a male’s identity based on these behaviors. Malakoi means the “soft one,” referring to the passive partner, as in the one penetrated. Arsenokoitai means the “hard one,” referring to the hard penis of the dominant and active partner, as in the one penetrating.
THE ROOT ISSUE
Paul is not using the stock list of idolatry and immorality to say that these are the cause for human alienation from God. Instead, he goes to the root problem—radical rebellion of creature against Creator. This is the heart of the issue. The moral perversion that follows is a consequence of God’s judgment, not the reason for it (Hays 1996: 385). God’s “wrath” takes the ironic form of allowing human beings the freedom to have their own way, “turning them over” to their own devices. The refusal to honor God is allowed to play itself out through creation’s tendency toward self-glorification, ending in self-destruction. The refusal to honor God as Creator leads to the blind distortion of the created order. Idolatry manifests itself in allegiance to possessions, prestige, passion, power, pride, etc. God lets humanity become so shameless in its behavior that social order disintegrates. Given this context, Paul draws on same-sex sexual relations to illustrate the rebellion and alienation.
Why does Paul assume same-sex sexual relations are contrary to the created order? At least two reasons can be deduced and both are rooted in his Jewish identity: (1) Same-sex sexual relations indicate rebellion against the Creator, leading to alienation from God’s design for humanity. Israel’s creation stories (in contrast to its pagan neighbors) stress the dual character of being human in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). Same-sex sexual relations illustrate a perversion of the sexual distinctions that are fundamental to God’s creative design, as evidenced anatomically by the “hand-and-glove” fit of male and female sexual organs in human beings and in the animal kingdom.
(2) Same-sex sexual relations undermine the healthy provision for “otherness” in male-female relations, so well understood by Hebrew covenantal thinking (Gen. 1:27; 2:23; Eph. 5:29-33). The coming together of a woman and a man into a covenantal unit represents a “mystery” of creative space-making (both in relation to a distinct other and to the potential of creating offspring) that is characteristic of God’s way of being for others.
By way of contrast to Israel’s covenantal and other-oriented partnering ideals, the Greco-Roman society of Israel’s neighbors tended to devalue women to a larger degree. Sexual intercourse of males with males was often preferred as a higher, more sophisticated form of sex than intercourse with one’s wife. Sex with one’s wife was not about intimacy; it was limited to the production of children, a family responsibility to ensure household and generational stability. However, sex with a prostitute (male or female), close friend, or tutor was for pleasure, enrichment, education, and intimacy (Sanders 1991, 110-113). For Jews, such disregard for the other-oriented character of sexual intimacy between husband and wife reflected paganism’s general disregard for God, the “wholly other” who desires a deep and intimate relationship with creation (Lev. 18:2-3).
Some things have changed since Paul’s time and some things remain the same. At the time when Paul drew on same-sex sexual relations as an illustration for human alienation, there was no distinction between same-sex orientation and same-sex sexual behavior. Sexual orientation is a relatively new category. There was no way in the ancient world to define oneself by sexual orientation. There was not even a word for homosexual or heterosexual, as the text makes clear by the circuitous way that Paul must use to describe these behaviors. The terms homosexual and heterosexual are only about one hundred and thirty years old (Swartley 2003, 31) and coincide with the western understanding of personality, which is now individually constructed, no longer collectively defined.
Still, the question remains: How can we be sure that Paul’s comments regarding same-sex sexual relations reflect God’s desire for creation? After all there are many aspects of Paul’s exhortations to young churches that most have concluded are culturally bound (e.g., dietary laws, circumcision, slavery, proper clothing, Sabbath regulations, holy days, etc.) and therefore not necessarily applicable today. Could Paul’s assumptions regarding same-sex sexual relations simply be a product of Paul’s first-century Jewish heritage and therefore also not necessarily applicable today?
APPROACHES TO THE ISSUE
This question has been answered in various ways (see Alison 2003; Boswell 1981; Gagnon 2001; Hays 1996; Holben 1999; Swartley 2003; Toews 2004; Webb 2001; Wink 1999). Most have recognized that it is not possible to make the case for same-sex partnering from the biblical texts (Swartley 2003, 95). However, some have chosen ways to move beyond or transcend the biblical texts, asserting that it takes “courage” to imagine other ways of partnering than those previously thought possible (see Alison 2003). While this kind of honesty must be admired, it raises the fundamental question that I have posed to Sider earlier: What kind of reading strategy will best serve the church on its journey? Whether we like it or not, the temporal gap between the biblical world and our own only continues to widen.
While contemporary western societies move to accept same-sex covenant unions as “marriages,” the Christian community is once again confronted with a cultural challenge to its core values and practices. This is not a new challenge. Since the dawn of time, God’s people have been propelled and energized by the task of relating their vision for God’s world to the world in which they live, work, and play. For the last two thousand years, Christian communities have confessed the biblical witness to God’s reign which culminated in Jesus as authoritative and normative. But how so? The temporal gap between the ancient world of the biblical writers and the contemporary world is large. How is this distance to be negotiated? Christian communities generally choose one of four interpretive reading strategies to deal with the gap between then and now.
The Literalist Approach
This strategy seeks to appropriate the biblical text literally, regardless of context. It recognizes a temporal gap, but dismisses its significance for biblical interpretation. Because the text says, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, . . . They are to be put to death” (Lev. 20:13 TNIV), then anyone practicing homosexual sexual relations is detestable and liable for punishment, exclusion, and even execution. The text must be applied literally in each and every context. The gap is recognized, but not credited with any value, since the biblical text is a timeless written code.
The literal reading strategy is favored by those called fundamentalists. For these interpreters, individuals who self-identify as homosexuals have no rights, should be excluded from the church, and could even be condemned as abominable and perverted (see Lev. 18:22-30; 20:13). A literalist reading strategy tends to be selective and arbitrary because only certain texts are followed literally—what about the prohibition against planting fields with two kinds of seed or wearing clothing woven of two kinds of material? Furthermore, these interpreters deny the basic Christian confession of discerning the living Word within the community of the Spirit gathered around Jesus, the living Lord.
The Principle Approach
This strategy searches for a principle in the biblical text to apply directly. It claims to be more sophisticated than the literalist reading strategy used by fundamentalists. Instead, these Christians look for the biblical principles that can be extracted from a survey of all the various biblical genres (narratives, letters, poetry, etc.) and then applied to each and every context. This group would not insist on executing homosexuals—that’s too literalistic!
However, it might argue that there should be a constitutional ban on same-sex unions and that homosexual people should not benefit from the same civil rights as heterosexual people. Why? Because this reading strategy understands the principle of the biblical texts to say that persons who practice same-sex sexual relations are detestable. The issue is that the principle of the text (not necessarily the literal commands) must be applied without concern for cultural developments and changes. Many evangelicals would fit in this category and many of the pitfalls of the literalist reading strategy also apply here.
The Transcendence Approach
This strategy seeks to transcend the biblical text toward its ultimate goal. It recognizes the temporal gap and interprets it as evidence of the ongoing evolution of humankind. These Christians see the task of interpretation as one of following the direction of the text. The initial hints found in the text are developed further by moving forward in ongoing transcendence toward what is perceived as the ultimate goal, even if the affirmations, assumptions, or prohibitions of the text are left behind.
So, if the text speaks negatively about homosexual sexual practices, then a transcendence reading would say that since these biases are no longer relevant or politically correct in the western world, those particular texts no longer have any real meaning for the church. Why? Because the biblical texts point to the ultimate goal of promoting covenantal unions, today these can now be realized regardless of the sex of the partners. In other words, the church ought to move beyond culturally located texts of the ancient world; they may well be interesting museum pieces testifying to an age now obsolete, but either they must remain on the museum shelf or be radically updated to be relevant. They no longer carry a normative bearing on contemporary Christian living. Many theologically liberal Christians would argue along these lines.
The issue for transcendence reading is continually to let go of cultural taboos and inhibitions in the ongoing development of humankind toward liberation, autonomy, tolerance, and freedom. Therefore, individuals who self-identify as homosexuals should be affirmed as leading another legitimate “way of life” regardless of what the biblical text says and only encouraged to partner in covenant unions. Besides severing the theological link between the church and the biblical witness to Israel, a transcendence reading tends to put the focus of human identity on sexual expression instead of on our relationship to the Creator.
However, are these the only three reading strategies available? Must we choose only between variations of a narrow condemnation response (strategies 1 and 2) and a broad acceptance response (strategy 3)? No. I believe there is a fourth reading strategy which takes seriously the realities of homosexuality without muting the biblical witness/invitation.
The Analogical Extension Approach
The fourth approach seeks to construct an analogical extension of the biblical text. Such an extension allows the text to continue to norm contemporary practice. Who are the extenders? These are interpreters who take seriously the shaping influence of the biblical tradition, finding ways to extend its witness in culturally appropriate forms (see Childs 1992; Hays 1989). Not only do extenders value the link to the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1); they attempt to speak truthfully about the sexual confusion and deception of the domination system; at the same time they refuse to abandon those who desire to take the long and often painful journey toward sexual purity (see Ferguson 2005).
This reading strategy also recognizes the temporal gap, but confesses that the impact of God’s reign witnessed in the ancient text is reproducible analogously within contemporary reading communities. These Christian communities are not limited by literal readings; they are not constrained by a set of timeless principles; nor are they disconnected from the “cloud of witnesses” reaching back to the dawn of time and forward to the completion of all things. Instead, these Christians look for imaginative ways to carry on the effect or impact embedded within the biblical witness so that contemporary faith communities can continue to be shaped by God’s kingdom rule for the glory and purposes of God.
An analysis of these four reading strategies shows that the first three (literalist, principle, and transcendence readings) are really very objective. The biblical text is treated as an object to be applied directly to another context or as an object to be left behind. Only the fourth strategy has an additional subjective component. Here the biblical text is an object; yes, it does record the impact of God’s self-disclosure in a particular time and space. However, the biblical text is more than this—it is also a living subject, shaping reading communities in successive generations of God’s people, as they find analogous ways to reproduce its impact/effect.
While reading communities across time may not discern identical extensions of the biblical text, there ought to be a recognizable “familial” similarity that genetically links these interpretations. Sometimes an extension reading may even go against the apparent principle of the text, while still tapping into the deeper structure of the text in order to carry forward the embedded theological norm. For example, it is possible to extend a restrictive text like “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:35) in a nonrestrictive way (see Isaak 1995).
Talk of extending the impact does not suggest that we can improve on some previous revelation, as if the previous was deficient in some way. Rather, talk of extending the impact reminds us that while God’s creation enterprise is not yet complete, we have a glimpse of its final form in the risen Lord. The Bible narrates God’s ongoing relation with creation, where God’s purpose remains to bring the whole enterprise to completion.
Jesus’ invitational message is the same for all of us—gay or straight: seek first the kingdom of God. Then all the other concerns of life will find their appropriate significance in relation to this theological center (Matt. 6:33). This is the task of discipleship for all of God’s people across the millennia—to move from an anthropological center to a theological center. The gospel continues to challenge and frustrate our “natural” desires with glimpses of what is not yet the case and what is yet to be. Paul captures this thought by speaking of all creation groaning for the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). Creation is not groaning for acceptance, but for transformation. This may be a long journey, perhaps even life-long, but it is one that people should not need to travel alone. The church must be there with support, love, discipline, accountability, counsel, and teaching.
Sider’s challenge to link the biblical vision to ethical discernment remains as appropriate now as ever: “Can we keep doing some of the things we are now doing in our sexual lives and our spending patterns if constantly we look intently into [Jesus’] face and ask him, ‘My Lord, are you pleased with how [we are] living, or does it make you weep?’ ” (Sider 1995, 4).
Thank you, Ron, for your tireless efforts to expose church practices that mute the biblical witness/invitation to an alternative world. May we continue to be transformed and drawn into the world which is taking shape among us for the glory of God.
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