Negotiating a Positive Interpretation

Forest Fisk

Historically, Nazarenes have proved to interpret the Bible in loving ways. They can do it again for the LGBT+ community.

Nazarenes have proudly read between the lines of certain biblical texts and extracted an interpretation of God that, at times, goes against the plain reading of the text. And this practice is done with reverence, care, and love for all involved. It’s a skill that, once honed, can be used for good or for ill, but I believe Nazarenes need to put this interpretive faculty to work again to fully love and support the LGBT+ community.

Let’s begin with some commonly agreed-upon examples of this work. The Bible doesn’t say anything about overthrowing one’s own king and setting up a constitutional democracy. At the founding of the United States, the concept of defying the king was quite a difficult decision for many Christians at the time. John Wesley’s mother and father maritally separated for a time over their differences of opinion on the matter. Yet Christians found a way to sidestep clearly marked portions of Old and New Testament passages demanding fealty to monarchs and governmental rulers and found a different way. The Bible also says nothing against owning slaves, in the Old or New Testament. Yet many Christians in the early 1800s found a way to see the humanity in others, and out of love, reshaped society as a whole to end the practice, despite the many Christians who still read scriptures in a relationally hurtful way. And portions of the Bible clearly say women shouldn’t teach or hold leadership above a man in a church, yet Nazarenes proudly present plenty of positive biblical examples of how God equally loves and supports the work of ministry in both men and women. And so, the Nazarenes forged a new and better path in opposition to her peer denominations, and support the ordination of women. I am in full support of this interpretive work, and I believe these practices of negotiating with the text are exactly what work theologians in the church need to do to more closely align with the loving God we see in the life and ministry of Jesus. Let us not balk at the term “negotiating with the text” or shy away from it. We have done the work of negotiation with the biblical text a few times, and it is precisely this negotiation with the text in particular ways that makes Nazarenes distinct from other denominations. And I say, if we’ve done it for love’s sake before, we can do it for love’s sake again. I propose we negotiate with the Bible again, because as a culture we have learned a different perspective on how God made people, and in loving God’s creation in the newly evident ways we have discovered in the last few decades, we can learn how to accept and integrate our differences in the church, for the benefit of the world. But we must first negotiate with the text, and I will endeavor to give a few examples of how to do that.

The first step in negotiating a biblical text for the sake of love is to allow God to speak to us about the disconnects between God’s intent of love in every person, and the negative actions which prevent such love from occurring. For example, it seems reasonable that God’s intent in creating humanity is that we find fulfillment and love with Godself, and with others. The disconnect happens when we realize that within the theology handed to us, some people are asked to not be in a relationship with others with whom they find the greatest fulfillment. The arrangement between God and Adam did not suffice for Adam, as God said it was “not good” for Adam to be alone, even when Adam was walking face to face with an (at times) incarnated God in the garden. Read into that story what you may, but it doesn’t seem rational to say to the LGBT+ person in our church, “God made you like Adam in every respect, except you may not have, nor do you need a partner like yourself. God is enough for you.” No. That theology seems to go against the grain altogether of a relationally loving God. A theology that elevates the necessity of human-to-human relational companionship needs to be consistent for all people. What God made right for “Adam and Eve” must be made right for “Adam and Steve” in the same way. We have relational needs that God cannot (or would not) fulfill via the incarnation it explicitly mentions in Genesis. And as the body of Christ, we need to do better than to simultaneously tell LGBT+ people they may not have a partner, and then have as little to do with them to support their social needs as we have done. Yet we are handed this outdated theology, both in the Old and New Testament, that doesn’t recognize the new understanding of humans we’ve discovered in the last few decades. This concept of orientation wasn’t even a consideration in the ancient Near Eastern world.

We find the next step in negotiating with the text when we see how differently the biblical authors deal with the concept of same-sex attraction. The word homosexual was coined as recently as 1886 in Germany and referred to sexual acts as well as orientations. And that makes sense as those who perform the acts are more likely to be attracted to the idea of sexual interactions. However, this intuitive sense needs to be reevaluated with a more in-depth, logical analysis. As a biblical example, the townsfolk in Sodom wanted to rape the angels as a power play and a show of dominance against them, not to softly and romantically make love to them. Lot himself was an immigrant outsider to Sodom, and his presence was barely tolerated, just as many immigrants are barely tolerated in many modern societies today. Then add to the fact that Lot was being hospitable to more outsiders, and allowing them into town without being vetted by the community was anathema to the nationalistic and selfish peoples of Sodom (see Ezekiel 16:49-50). The theological trajectory of the story of Lot is not that penetration itself is bad (just look at Lot’s horrible response to the townsfolk to see that). But it is a story of how the Hebrew people were to be marked by radical hospitality in comparison to their neighbors. So not only do we need to decouple the idea that God detests same-sex acts, but we need to cleave apart the idea that same-sex attractions are somehow evil as well.

Because the word homosexual was coined as late as 1886, it wasn’t added to English scripture until 1946 in the RSV version of the Bible. So what word choice was used before that? The German translation had traditionally inserted (the German word equivalent to) “boy molester” in verses such as Leviticus 20:13 and 1 Timothy 1:10. And the German translations updated their Bibles as late as 1983 to change the word to homosexual for those same verses in direct response to the homophobic influence of the English-speaking Churches. Some have speculated that this older interpretation of the “boy molester” concept is due to an ancient Greek and Roman common custom of pederasty, where men used young boys as sex slaves. The concept of pederasty comes with a host of ethical problems on its own which we will not get into. Fortunately, pederasty was not a Hebrew custom. Pederasty might have been known about by a few of the biblical authors because of surrounding Greek cultural influence. However, the aversion to gay/lesbian sexual acts was most likely a cultural taboo for the biblical authors regardless, because most Near Eastern cultures consider it more “natural” for men to be the dominant/penetrative person in sexual intercourse, and any other position for a man was simply taboo and therefore sinful. This notion of sexual impropriety includes condemning even married straight couples if a man’s sexual position was “on the bottom” or in any submissive position. I believe cultural influences shaped the biblical author’s morality rather than a dictated, prescribed morality written straight from God which formed our biblical text, inspired by God though it may be. Because we do not share this hierarchical view of marital relations in Western culture, we do not share the same morals which concerned the biblical authors to view equality in sexual relations as sinful, and our theological views need to be adjusted on all sides to form a more loving narrative of equality among God’s creation.

If we can look in the Bible and not see a God who allows for slavery, or the subjugation of women as the “property” of men, then we have already negotiated with the text in a way to extract a better version of God than what is a common or plain reading of the scripture. And if we have done that work once, then we have all the tools necessary for negotiating a more positive interpretation of God in ways that respect all forms of humanity. Let us again take upon ourselves the idea that all people are created equal in God’s sight, and all people deserve to feel they may stand before God and humanity without shame for the ways they exist. To be accepted and not excluded from the community is a good first step, but a better and more loving step would be to allow full acceptance of marriage of LGBT+ people in the church, and even the ordination of LGBT+ people into ministry to match the current Nazarene understanding that God calls all men and women (and everyone between those sides of the spectrum) equally to ministry. So let our theology match up with that reality, and let the Nazarene church fully endorse marriage and ordination within the LGBT+ community.

Forest Fisk is a straight, fourth-generation Nazarene, NNU and NTS graduate with honors, and lives in the Kansas City area. Forest is in the process of deconstructing his Nazarene theology and is on his way out of the Nazarene Church for various reasons.

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