Friday, December 4, 2009


Like many Christian denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to which I belong is undergoing its share of turmoil over the decision to allow the ordination of homosexuals who are in a life-long committed relationship. I support this policy, and continue to be somewhat simple-mindedly flummoxed by all the fuss. That is to say, I realize that this is at heart an issue of biblical interpretation; and that is my simple-minded point: We interpret away so many other biblical issues (many of them with far more biblical references than the seven passages that relate to homosexuality), why remain fixated on this one? If I’m going to split my church or deny ordination to someone, why not target those failings that have heavy biblical underpinnings: Divorce, greed, failure to work for justice, failure to give sacrificially to the poor, participating in a church pension plan that makes money from investments in which the poor are charged interest? (I should be defrocked for most of these things.) My theory: Because it has to do with other peoples’ sex lives, and we are as morbidly fascinated by this in our church communities as we are watching Tiger Woods’ affair unfold on CNN.

I am not being disingenuous when I say that I really don’t get it. There are no consistent biblical literalists. None. We are all pick-and-choose biblical literalists. If we find a literal passage that we choose not to apply to ourselves, we interpret it away. What's more, I will decide what applies to me and, apparently, I will also decide what applies to you!

What does it mean to apply the following passages literally?

Matthew 18:8-9 Jesus said: If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Where are all the one-eyed people?)

Luke 18:21-25 The rich young ruler replied, ‘I have kept all the commandments since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. (I have not sold all I own to give to the poor. What’s more, I continue to not sell all I own. I am persisting in sin.)

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Communism? Socialism? I once heard someone say of this passage, “Oh, that was intended for the early Christians. It doesn’t apply to us.” He interpreted it away.)

Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Well?)

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. (I’m glad I made it through adolescence!)

Luke 18:9-14 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (According to Jesus, justification has nothing to do with believing in Jesus.)

1 Corinthians 15:20-22 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (All.)

Luke 6:42 …How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye. (And when, exactly, have I successfully removed the log from my eye so I can have at that speck in yours?)

Every one of these passages holds profound truths, but the next time you hear someone say, “I believe the Bible is 100% literally true,” I suggest you respond, gently, “No, you don’t.”

1 comment:

Becky Ferguson said...

Thank you so much for this pastoral insight and commentary (with scriptural support!). The Law provides comfort for none of us, the Gospel for all.