Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Ecclesiastical Promotion of Homosexuality and the Demise of Biblical Authority

By Mark Christopher

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

One would be very hard pressed to find a more contentious issue confronting the church and secular culture than that of homosexuality and its correlate same-sex marriage. To prove the point, the next time you read some internet headline related to a gay issue scroll through the comments section! Recently, when the controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in the US military was repealed by the US Congress, I archived a related article only to find the comment thread had over 2500 comments and that number was rapidly rising. Most of the comments were emotionally charged and resembled a slander-fest as each side took aim at the other.

Many mainline denominations are splitting down the middle as this one issue reveals the polar opposite views on homosexuality and its promotion through the institution of marriage. The Anglican community has been hobbled by the gay debate, which has led some congregations and dioceses to withdraw from Canterbury. The Anglicans are certainly not alone in this. Some churches have become strident promoters of homosexuality as long as it is qualified by the relativistic parameters of a “loving and consensual” relationship. Other churches have sought a more centrist position by not speaking out against homosexuality as a sin while simultaneously withholding any direct approval of the same. Yet, this vow of silence on the matter usually gravitates to carte blanche approval later on. Then, of course, there are those who have held the line of biblical authority on the issue refusing to concede to popular sentiment and transvalued culture.

What led to this? How did we get to the place where homosexuality has become one of the defining issues of the church of Jesus Christ? We didn’t arrive at this juncture in church history overnight. Incrementally, over time, certain critical assumptions, primarily philosophical in nature, were adopted and given credence under the guise of biblical scholarship. The advances of pro-gay biblical interpreters were relentless and many in the evangelical world were caught off guard and simply didn’t know how to respond to the onslaught of sophistries proffered by the pro-gay interpreters.

Of all the “progressive” assumptions that comprise the pro-gay methodology, the most notable is the pro-gay slant on biblical authority. The pro-gay variant on biblical authority forms the basis from which the pro-gay hermeneutic is derived. To understand the pro-gay method of biblical interpretation demands an understanding of how the pro-gay lobby within the professing church approaches the authority of God’s word. For this crucial presupposition of bibliology is both formative and determinative in the debate. Elizabeth Moreau, in the book Staying The Course, underscores the crucial link between biblical authority and pro-gay interpretations, “…the disagreement over homosexuality is fundamentally a disagreement about what or how much authority the Scripture is to have in the contemporary church … How do we understand and interpret the Bible depends upon how we understand the authority of Scripture.”[1]

It is true that all of us entertain certain presuppositions related to biblical authority and the subsequent interpretation of Scripture. But not all assumptions are equally valid. This is well illustrated by Millard Erickson[2] who underscores the vital interplay between the “nature of presuppositions” in relationship to the “nature” of the hermeneutical enterprise in an essay he wrote for the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy Summit 2: Imagine an airline pilot wrongly assuming the weight of his plane, the fuel load, wind speed, altitude, and air speed while relying on a very unreliable compass. Such a pilot would terminate his flight in a rather unexpected way in an unknown destination! Hence, the importance of beginning the hermeneutical process with valid assumptions, like a commitment to biblical authority, is critical to arriving at the right interpretational destination.

To highlight the importance of a high view of biblical authority in the homosexual debate, we want to briefly examine five considerations related to the demise of biblical authority and the corresponding acceptance of homosexuality in certain quarters of the church:

First, we need to consider the jaundiced view of biblical authority by pro-gay interpreters. The assumption of differing authorities is common to pro-gay scholars. Among pro-gay interpreters there is a good deal of suspicion about the issue of biblical authority. If the Bible is not the ultimate source of authority, than where is the authority located? William Countryman maintains that “Immediate practical authority is located in the ongoing Christian community”.[3] Feminist theologian, Phyllis Bird echoes the same sentiment when she concedes that the Bible is a “product of tradition and a part of the church’s ongoing tradition”.[4] Bird’s “ongoing tradition” necessitates a continual communal interpretational dialogue. In this scenario the weight of authority is shifted away from the past author (authorial intention) to the present community, as the community “continues redefining boundaries”.[5] In two different treatise, Bird further declares that “The word of God cannot be contained in any document”[6] and in keeping with communal authority, the Bible is “a conversation partner not an oracle”.[7] In other words, authority shifts away from the Bible to the interpreter(s) and is predicated on present day realities as the group democratically decides what the Bible means in the present day context. In this, interpretation is substituted for application.

Pro-gay interpreters Daniel Helminiak and Jack Rogers find agreement with the above assertions. Helminiak ad homenizes those who hold to a literal hermeneutic saying, “it is outrageous for any educated person to quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality”.[8] Helminiak casts further aspersion on biblical authority claiming it “does not provide the last word on sexual ethics”.[9] In Helminiak’s estimation, the authority of science has trumped the Bible on this issue.[10] Never mind that this so-called science is inconclusive.

For his part, Rogers rejects an inerrancy of the Bible which extends beyond religious matters and “addresses … science and history”.[11] Why? Because “It encourages a literal reading of Scripture”[12], which is unthinkable to the pro-gay theologians. To this chorus-line of pro-gay voices, George Edwards adds, “Biblical interpretation can never be divorced from other domains of human reflection and discovery”.[13] Edward’s claim equates the revealed truth of the Bible with the incomplete discoveries of humanity. The implication here is that the discovered knowledge of humanity trumps the revealed knowledge of God though His word. Clearly, pro-gay interpreters have an anemic view of biblical authority which has a pronounced influence on the trajectory of their subsequent hermeneutic.

Given this impoverished view of biblical authority, it is fair to ask what has contributed to the pro-gay denouncements of a high view of Scripture? This leads us to our second consideration, which is to summarize the bromides (corrosive agents) of biblical authority. Much could be said here, but for the sake of space only four primary streams of thought will be succinctly entertained:

1.      Undoubtedly the Historical Critical method (JEPD) has eroded the confidence of many in any notion of biblical authority, as the Historical Critical approach has sought to emancipate reason from divine revelation. The biblical fallout from this conveniently eliminates any thought of the miraculous and supernatural. The by-product of the Historical Critical methodology so complicated Scripture with the scholarly accretions of man, that any thought of the average Christian being a good Berean has been banished as the primary authority has become the Historical-Critical scholars.

2.      Another briefly mentioned bromide to biblical authority is Naturalistic-uniformitarian science which is wed to the concept of Darwinian evolution. By deferring solely to the scientific method, propositional truth could now be abandoned because truth is not revealed but discovered through the process of scientific method. This means that what is axiomatic today can be amended or overturned by tomorrow’s discovery, like the “gay gene”. So when “science” proves one is born gay, then the Bible must give way to such pronouncements of excathedra. But what if science could prove that no one is born gay? I don’t hear of many entertaining that notion.

3.      A third bromide that permeates western culture today is pluralism, which claims that all truth claims are of equal value. Therefore, value is found in a divergence of voices. We just all need to sit down, dialogue, and learn from each other. Dialogue can be beneficial, but when it is approached with the notion that there are no absolutes it can only lead to nonsense. From a theological perspective it tends toward a buffet approach to truth which, in effect, nullifies any claim to biblical authority.

4.      This fourth bromide is the most germane to the thesis of this article, existentialism and the corresponding rise of moral relativism. William Larkin Jr. defines relativism as the “view that beliefs and principles, particularly evaluative ones, have no universal or timeless validity but are only for the age in which, or the social group or individual person which, they are held.”[14] Thus, there are no binding absolutes. The moral and ethical goal post is fluid and always on the move. One might say that morally and spiritually, the relativist has his or her feet firmly planted in mid-air!

There are two pertinent components to relativism that are helpful in understanding the erosion of biblical authority in the last generation: The first component is historical relativism. In historical relativism the value of the text is limited to the time and culture in which it was originally written. A good example of this is seen in the current debate over the US Constitution. There are those who claim the constitution is a living document to be reinterpreted by each successive generation. While originalists maintain one must study the founding fathers and framers (authorial intention) of the constitution in order to uncover the original meaning and then apply it to present day realities. Those who see the constitution as a living document will always seek to interpret it through the lens of current context. By clipping the constitution free from the anchor of the past, they can then let present culture decide the meaning. In this, primary authority is in the here and now. One can easily see how this is applied to the Bible and homosexuality today.

The second component of relativism is cultural relativism. In this, to paraphrase Larkin, values and morals are relative to their socio-cultural context and are never thought superior to other value systems. This dictates that values and morals are culturally conditioned.[15] Here democracy reigns supreme as the majority arbitrarily determine what is right and wrong. Yet, this is an ever changing value.

Putting it all together, when historical and cultural relativism are embraced Larkin warns that “…the interpreter’s context is determinative … Scripture can never be viewed as absolute, universal, or binding.”[16] In short, everything is arbitrary and ambiguous as this relativistic atmosphere gives way to situational ethics and its dubious consequences. This is the essence of postmodernism and the cherished value of tolerance. So if two people of the same sex want marry, what is to stop them? Relativism dictates that as long as they “love” each other and their relationship is “consensual”, then it is nobody else’s business. Such is unavoidable when absolutes become obsolete. In this relativistic scheme of things where does one draw a distinct line? Are there any relationship combinations that are out of bounds? If so, how do you know? Who are you to judge?: Such questions represent but a few of the conundrums of moral relativism.

All four of these corrosive agents have simultaneously converged on the Bible in an unrelenting manner. It has produced a changing of the guard where authority is concerned as biblical authority has given way to cultural authority and the emotional whims and subjective fancies of the majority. Human reason has become the ultimate authority so the concept of truth can only be understood in a relativistic way. This is the recipe that results in the irrational fury that is now so prevalent.

The outcome of the four mentioned bromides to biblical authority is fleshed out in our third consideration of this topic — the creed of diminished biblical authority.  How do those who subscribe to a watered down variant of biblical authority phrase their skepticism? Well, Francis Schaffer in his classic on this topic, The Great Evangelical Disaster, gave some good examples of the weasel words that are employed by skeptics. Here is but one example from the 1974 Lausanne Covenant which illustrates the creed of diminished biblical authority:

“We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written Word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”[17]

The question must be asked, what exactly does the Bible affirm and what doesn’t it affirm? In the minds of biblical skeptics and pro-gay interpreters, the Bible only affirms that which is directly related to salvation while other matters related history, science, cosmology, and geography are deemed susceptible to errancy. The loophole here is found in the clause “without error in all it affirms”. This one statement gives many skeptics the latitude they need to justify the latest secular findings without having to suffer the academic embarrassment often associated with maintaining a high view of Scripture.

An example of this creed of diminished biblical authority was advanced by the Roger’s and McKim proposal. In 1981 Jack Rogers, a pro-gay interpreter, and Donald McKim published a tome entitled The Authority and Interpretation of The Bible: An Historical Approach. The thesis of the authors was to prove that the historically central tradition of the church emphasized a biblical infallibility that was limited to matters of faith and practice. Restated, biblical infallibility is confined to redemptive issues not to other areas the Bible mentions in passing like history, science, geography et. al.  This means the Bible carries little to no authority in matters outside the circle of salvation.

In close connection to this new creed on biblical authority, the fourth consideration summarizes the roots of diminished biblical authority by surveying one of the key contributors to this thinking: G.C. Berkouwer, of whom Rogers, above, is a disciple. Berkouwer was bothered by the dual authorship approach (human and divine) to inspiration. He held that human involvement necessitated partial annulment of the divine aspects of inspiration. So instead of talking about a God-breathed word, he substituted the word “witness” or “testimony” for the idea of inspiration.[18] Thus, the Bible is only the word of God by virtue of its witness concerning Christ. Scripture is witness to Christ crucified and risen — one can almost hear the echoes of neo-orthodoxy here. Regarding the cosmology and history of the Bible, Berkouwer would maintain there are unintentional errors. This begs the question of how one can be certain there are no unintentional errors in the realm of salvation.

This all leads us to the final consideration which culminates in the fruit of diminished biblical authority. The applications of this skeptical creed of Scriptural authority are multitudinous. Schaeffer rightly notes that “… compromising the full authority of Scripture eventually affects what it means to be a Christian and how we live in the full spectrum of human life.”[19]  When the standard of biblical authority is lowered it leads to the general worldview of the world infiltrating the church, to include the approval of ethical issues like homosexuality and its corollary same-sex marriage.

If anyone doubts that the abandonment of biblical authority leads to gross moral relativism just weigh the words of leading pro-gay interpreters Walter Wink and William Countryman: 

“The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand-year span of biblical history … The Bible knows only the love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominate in any given country, or culture, or period.”[20] (Walter Wink)

So, according to Wink, the moral bubble in the level is always fluctuating as the ever-shifting consensus of society morally mutates.

“To be specific, the gospel allows no rule against the following, in of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, bestiality, polygamy, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature. The Christian is free to be repelled by any of these and may continue to practice her or his own purity code in relation to them. What we are not free to do is impose our codes on others …Bestiality, where it is casual recourse of the young or of people isolated over long periods of time from other humans, should occasion little concern.”[21] (William Countryman)

In essence, Countryman is waving the green flag for Christians to pursue all that the sexual revolution has on offer, so long as you do not impose your dogma on others. But wait, isn’t that exactly what gay activists are doing (imposing their view) by legislating acceptance of their lifestyle and criminalizing all opposing views?

Another pro-gay advocate, Marvin Ellison, goes so far as to champion polyamory[22] (group marriage) in his “Christian” treatment on sexual ethics. In light of his callow view of biblical authority, Rogers pushes his creed to its logical terminus in his 2006 book Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality. Making use of his own Roger’s and McKim proposal, Rogers promotes the acceptance of same-sex relationships and unions inside the Presbyterian Church USA. It proves that when culture is supreme and the Bible is thought to be in error in non-redemptive texts, then any interpretation is not only possible, but is unavoidable.

The depreciation of biblical authority morphs Sola Scriptura into Sola Cultura. As Schaeffer put it, “The Bible is bent to the culture instead of the Bible judging our society and culture.”[23] Practically speaking this means that personal relationships are no longer governed by moral absolutes, so holiness is replaced with happiness as the chief goal and virtue of life. When relational happiness is the sum of life one can expect abortion on demand, easy divorce and remarriage, gender role reversal, homosexuality with its whole LGBT parade of pride, and euthanasia all marching right down the aisle of the church on the way to the altar. Those who disparage biblical authority and who then board the train of relativism, must ride that train all the way to its morally abhorrent end.

Unquestionably the deconstruction of biblical authority by professing evangelicals has swung the door wide open for the aggressive promotion of homosexuality within the church. In response to this, all confessing evangelicals need to ponder and act on Schaeffer’s poignant reminder: “We must say most lovingly but clearly: evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take the full view of Scripture and those who do not.”[24] Schaeffer would say this is to include not only the belief, but the accompanying practice (obedience) as well.

In order for concerned evangelicals to begin reclaiming some of the valuable territory lost in the same-sex debate, it is first necessary to unapologetically reassert a high view of Scripture while striving to consistently model the holy demands of Sola Scripture!

[1] MOREAU, E.  2003.  The real disagreement.  (In Dunnam, M. D. & Malony, H. N., eds.  Staying the course: supporting the church’s position on homosexuality.  Nashville, TN : Abingdon Press.  p. 97-98.)

[2] ERICKSON, M. J.  1984.  Presuppositions of non-evangelical hermeneutics.  (In Radmacher, E. D. & Preus, R. D., eds.  Hermeneutics, inerrancy, and the Bible.  Grand Rapids, MI : Zondervan Publishing.  p. 593-612.) 

[3] COUNTRYMAN, W. L.  1990.  Dirt, Greed, & Sex.  Philadelphia, PA : Fortress Press. p. 3.

[4] BIRD, P. A.  1994.  The authority of the Bible.  (In The new interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1.  Nashville, TN : Abingdon Press.  p. 63.)

[5] BIRD, P. A.  2000.  The Bible in Christian ethical deliberation concerning homosexuality: Old Testament contributions. (In Balch, D. L., ed.  Homosexuality, science, and the plain sense of Scripture. ed.   Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans.  p. 146.)

[6] BIRD, 1994: p. 63.

[7] BIRD, 2001: p. 144.

[8] HELMINIAK, D. A.  2000.  What the Bible really says about homosexuality.  New Mexico : Alamo Square Press. p. 13.

[9] Ibid. p. 19.

[10] Ibid. p. 26.

[11] ROGERS, J.  2006.  Jesus, the Bible, and homosexuality.  Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox Press. p. 7.

[12] Ibid. p. 7.

[13] EDWARDS, G. R.  1984.  Gay/lesbian liberation: a biblical perspective.  New York : The Pilgrim Press. p. 13.

[14] LARKIN, W. J.,JR.  1988.  Culture and biblical hermeneutics.  Eugene, OR : Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 18-19.

[15] Ibid. p.21.

[16] Ibid. p. 23

[17] SCHAEFFER, F. A.  1984.  The great evangelical disaster.  Westchester, IL : Crossway Books. p. 56.

[18] KRABBENDAM, H.  1980.  B. B. Warfield vs. G.C. Berkouwer on Scripture. (In Geisler, N. L., ed. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI : Zondervan. p. 413-446.)

[19] SCHAEFFER, 1984 : p.  44-45.

[20] WINK, W.  1999.  Homosexuality and the Bible. (In Wink, W. ed. Homosexuality and Christian faith : questions of conscience for the churches. Minneapolis, MN : Fortress Press. p. 44.)

[21] COUNTRYMAN, 1990 : p.  243-244.

[22] ELLISON, M. M.  2004.  Same Sex Marriage? : a Christian ethical analysis.  Cleveland, OH : The Pilgrim Press. p. 155.

[23] SCHAEFFER, 1984 : p.  60.

[24] Ibid. p. 64.