Ted Grimsrud—May 24, 2016
I tend to think it is a good thing that the North American Christian debate about whether churches should be inclusive or restrictive in relation to LGBTQ folks has generated so much literature. The sheer mass of writing is too much to keep up with, but out of this ferment have come some good materials. One of the very best books I’ve yet read on this theme is by a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and theologian, Mark Achtemeier.
The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart (Westminster John Knox, 2014) has many strengths. It’s of manageable length (131 pages), clearly written, based on solid research, a nice mixture of personal engagement and theological reflection, and coherently argued. I would recommend it as a solid book to help those already in the inclusive camp to understand better how the Bible is actually a positive resource for faith communities that have already made a commitment to be inclusive. I would also recommend it for those who aren’t sure what they believe and would like to check out the best advocates for inclusion. And, as well, I would recommend it for those who are confident of their restrictive convictions but would like better to understand the strongest arguments for inclusion. I believe it will contribute to a more accurate and fair-minded conversation going forward.
An evangelical’s change of heart
Part of the appeal of this book is that Achtemeier himself used to affirm the opposite point of view. He cites an article he published in 1996, “The Upward Call of God: Submitting Our Sexuality to the Lordship of Christ,” that was written in support of the movement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to forbid ordination to openly gay and lesbian ministers. Not long after that article, though (which did contribute to the formal reinforcement of restrictive denominational policies), Achtemeier began to change his view. In time he became an advocate for overturning the restrictive policies concerning marriage and ordination—which happened in 2011.
It would have been nice to learn a bit more of Achtemeier’s heart and mind as a restrictive advocate, but he keeps the book focused on his constructive argument for affirmation of same-sex marriage—which is a strength of the book. Achtemeier uses his thinking process in his emerging affirmative view as a device to drive the narrative. This makes the book more readable, though at times it may feel a little contrived.
Overall, though, the book reads well, the argument unfolds in a careful and attractive way, and most of the key bases are covered. Part of Achtemeier’s implied argument here is that he started out as an “evangelical” (maybe not the most precise term for a person holding a high view of the Bible and loyalty to the Presbyterian tradition) and changed his view because of those “evangelical” convictions. As with several other recent books (e.g., Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian; William Stacy Johnson, A Time to Embrace; and James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality), Achtemeier establishes that fairly conservative biblical and theological convictions may be compatible with affirming same-sex marriage. That is, he overthrows the assumption that the only way to be inclusive is to dismiss biblical authority.
The role of human experience
At the same time, Achtemeier’s approach (also as with the approach in the books just cited) does start with human experience as a catalyst to revisit the biblical and theological tradition and to question received interpretations. His first chapter, “The Harvest of Despair: Why Traditional Condemnations of Gay Relationships Can’t Be Right,” recounts how his change in thinking was stimulated by his friendship with a non-straight woman he calls “Kristi.” He realized that Kristi was a wonderful Christian woman who had not chosen her affectional orientation and who would be required to submit to unfair suffering should she submit to the churches’ expectation that she forego all intimate relationships.
The catalyst for Achtemeier’s path to change was his openness to consider the strangeness of the restrictive view when applied to a person such as Kristi. “The spiritual fruit I saw in the lives of devout gay people who were trying to follow the traditional teaching was the exact opposite of what the Bible says will be the results of conforming our lives to the will of God, instead of love, peace, joy, and closeness to God I was seeing bitterness, brokenness, and spiritual alienation. It was only when Kristi and others gave up trying to follow the traditional teaching that I saw the spiritual fruits emerging that would normally be associated with obedience to God’s will” (p. 15).
While Achtemeier will keep Kristi’s experience in mind in the rest of book, his approach is to use the experience as a catalyst to re-examine the tradition. He ends up validating the teaching of the Bible (as he interprets it) and draws heavily on the theological tradition of his Calvinist ecclesial location. He uses experience not as a rival source to the Bible but as a resource for his reading and affirmation of the Bible.
So, he offers a direct challenge to restrictive views on the level of the reading of the Bible—not on the level of questioning the applicability of the Bible as many of those making inclusive arguments do. This approach not only challenges those holding restrictive views to recognize where the differences actually are—and in doing so possibly opening possibilities for a conversation that does recognize a shared commitment to the centrality of the Bible, it also can provide comfort and encouragement to those who don’t want to have to choose between affirming the Bible as central to their faith and affirming LGBTQ Christians.
I appreciate Achtemeier’s approach. I think it is only honest and self-aware to recognize that our experiences shape how we read the Bible. This is true for people on all sides of our issue. It is not possible, or desirable, simply to let the Bible provide our direction without recognizing that we read the Bible as human beings who are shaped by our own “horizon” (to use Hans-Georg Gadamer’s term in his reflections on hermeneutics). Our challenge, if we are to take the Bible seriously, is to engage in an interactive process where we allow our experiences to shape the questions we ask of the Bible while at the same time making every effort to listen to what the Bible actually says. This is what Achtemeier seeks to do, and he is largely successful in my view.
On not being misled by the “seven fragments”
The bulk of this book is made up of careful interaction with biblical materials. It starts with a discussion of why we must not place too much weight on what Achtemeier helpfully calls “fragments,” scattered cryptic texts that seem to allude to some kind of same-sex sexual activity. He refers to other issues, such as slavery and the subordination of women, where Christians have also appealed to isolated scriptural fragments in order to establish some kind of hurtful interpretation.
Achtemeier articulates an approach to using the Bible for ethical guidance that emphasizes the big picture of the Bible’s affirmation of human wholeness. Only after discussing this big picture and applying it in a general way to sexuality will Achtemeier return to a more careful examination of the “fragments” in later chapters. He will not dismiss the fragments as wrong; in fact he tries to argue for their truthfulness when properly understood. But he will make a case for why the fragments are secondary and that we have other guidance from the Bible concerning sexuality that is more central and more life affirming.
“I realized it was not enough simply to recognize that traditional condemnation of homosexuality was mistaken. Such a recognition wouldn’t carry much credibility unless it was accompanied by a truer, better reading of the Bible that showed in a positive way how gay people were recipients of God’s blessing” (p. 25).
The “good sense principle”
Achtemeier begins his appropriation of biblical materials for his pro-same-sex marriage argument with a key point about how to read the Bible for ethics. He calls it the “good sense principle,” which is basically the idea that the guidance we get from the Bible should make sense to us; it should fit with our experience of life. He opposes this to the idea that the Bible’s commands don’t have to make sense, they can be arbitrary, we simply follow them because they are in the Bible whether they actually makes sense to us or not.
The good sense principle is crucial for being able to use the Bible in ways that actually enhance life. “If we treat even the noblest moral teaching as an arbitrary rule and fail to consider the reasons and purposes that underlie it, our attempts at obedience will likely produce distorted and damaging results. Any adequate interpretation of the Bible’s moral teaching will include not just rules or principles for guiding behavior, but an understanding of the reasons why such principles make sense” (p. 31; Achtemeier’s italics).
An important element of this good sense principle is that it looks at biblical commands s having a “sensible purpose” (p. 33), not being autonomous absolutes dropped from the sky and equally valid for all times and in all contexts. We may assume that the biblical commands did make sense in their original context, and our task as interpreters is to try to understand that context. When we do so, we do not threaten the truthfulness of some commands by analyzing the sensible purpose of other commands in ways that cause us to see how those commands are directly applicable for us today (Achtemeier’s examples is the distinction between commands versus male/male sex in Leviticus and commands versus bestiality—the applicability of the latter is not compromised when we question the applicability of the former—p. 33).
“Though there are times when God’s commandments seem mysterious to us, God is not an arbitrary tyrant who makes capacious demands to text our devotion. God does not set up meaningless hoops for us to jump through. God has lovingly created and fashioned us in God’s own image, and the reason God provides us guidance in the form of commandments and divine wisdom is because God loves us deeply and wants our lives to flourish. God gives us the commandments for our good (Deut 10:13). For this reason, we stand on solidly biblical foundations when we say that a good test of whether we have understood the Bible’s teaching correctly is whether or not we can discern the loving reasons that stand behind it” (pp. 34-35; Achtemeier’s italics).
The application of this line of reasoning is obvious. A person such as Achtemeier’s friend Kristi did not experience the anti-same-sex relationships “commands” from the Bible as life giving. Those commands did not make sense in her life. Therefore, the validity of such commands is appropriately questioned. Kristi’s experience does not determine Achtemeier’s reading of the Bible, but it impacts the questions and doubts he has about received interpretations. It does not make sense to him that the Bible would lead us to affirm what seem like arbitrary commands that lead to people’s unhappiness rather than their thriving.
Another way to understand this approach is to say that Jesus is the center of the Bible’s moral teaching. “If an interpretation of biblical Law fails to have Jesus as its central reference point, that is a sure sign that we have misunderstood the Bible’s teaching. Christ is the focal point of God’s intention for human beings, and so his life and ministry and example must figure prominently in any interpretation of the Bible’s guidance for our lives” (p. 38).
God’s plan for love, marriage, and sexuality
Achtemeier approaches the Bible’s message concerning sexuality as if it could be applicable to all human beings. Even if the message is mainly couched in terms of male/female relationships being assumed, its meaning does not necessarily require an exclusively heterosexual dynamic.
The Bible sees human bodily existence quite positively. Sex comes from God and is a good part of both our spiritual and material existence. “Humans are created for deep communion with a partner, and because we possess both bodies and spirits, this communion is all-encompassing; it involves our physical, bodily natures and our emotional and spiritual capacities” (p. 46).
The New Testament commonly uses the imagery of love and marriage to convey the dynamics of our relationships with God and Jesus. “The love that binds people together in marriage is like the love that exists in the heart of God…. The biblical writers can describe God’s love for us as married love, because human marital love is itself an image of the love that has existed from all eternity in the heart of God” (p. 49; Achtemeier’s italics).
Achtemeier then argues that same-sex marriage offers “the same or very similar opportunities for growth in love and grace and mutuality and for learning to give the whole of oneself to another person” as opposite-sex marriage (p. 58; Achtemeier’s italics). So, to forbid church-blessed access to this way of growing in faith is to quench the Holy Spirit.
While acknowledging that for most people, opposite-sex marriage provides the context for covenanted intimacy, Achtemeier points to other biblical dynamics in asserting that same-sex marriage can be a valid and life-giving “outside the norm” expression of the godly love marriage is meant to be the context for. “From Genesis 3 on, the entire Bible is the story of God repeatedly bringing redemption, blessing, and salvation to a fallen world that stands firmly outside the plan and pattern of God’s original intention. So claiming that God blesses only the standard pattern that appears in the creation stories in Genesis would require us to dismiss almost the entire witness of the Bible, from Genesis 3 through the very last chapter of the book of Revelation!… Over and over again the pages of Scripture witness to a God who delights in confounding standard expectations and conferring blessing outside the conventional, majority ways of doing things” (pp. 66-7).
Back to the “fragments”
After establishing the general biblical for affirming same-sex marriage, Achtemeier returns to the “seven fragments” in an attempt to show that those scattered texts are not speaking to our current situation of same-sex marriage. He wants to show that the issue is not about affirming the importance and truthfulness of the Bible, but simply about correctly interpreting the texts that are misused to justify discrimination against LGBTQ Christians.
His account of the texts in Genesis, Judges, and Leviticus that generally come up makes good points in contextually them in ways that challenges the standard account. However, he makes an added point in discussing positive accounts of close same-sex relationships—Ruth with Naomi and David with Jonathan. He does not suggest these two relationships were covenanted partnerships analogous with our day’s same-sex marriage. However, he does note the “depth of love and devotion described in each instance” that has many “features in common with modern-day gay marriages….The Bible contains not the slightest hint of a negative judgment about either of these relationships” (85).
Likewise, Achtemeier makes the case, well-argued and persuasive in my view, that the New Testament “fragments” also refer truthfully and helpfully to dynamics that we should still today be critical of (promiscuity, coercion, exploitation)—but that they do not speak to the reality of our same-sex marriages.
“Paul’s logic on Romans 1 [makes] perfect sense; if you remove the one true God from the center of your life and worship, your sexual life disconnects from God’s purposes as well…. But it [has] no bearing of the faithful gay Christians I [have] encountered in the present day: There [are] not people who [are] disconnecting from God’s purposes; they [long] to have God at the center of their lives. Their faithful, covenanted relationships [are] fully capable of embodying God’s purposes for love and marriage. Paul’s justifiably negative view of the idolatrous and exploitative same-sex activities of his own time clearly [have] no bearing on my conclusions about the ability of these modern-day, covenanted, same-sex relationships to align with God’s loving purposes” (p. 95).
Paul’s use of the term aresnokoites (literally, “men-lying,” often translated as “homosexuality”) in a condemnatory vice list in 1 Corinthians and the use of the same term in a similar vice list in 1 Timothy are valid but non-applicatory. “These vice lists are referencing same-sex behaviors that are totally different from the mutually loving, committed, gay relationships that are possible in today’s society and culture. We can fully agree with the author of 1 Timothy in viewing human sex trafficking as a terrible form of exploitation that is utterly contrary to God’s will. But affirming this has no bearing on our previous conclusions about the ability of loving, committed gay relationships to fulfill God’s central purposes for love, marriage, and sexuality” (p. 101).
Part of what impresses me with Achtemeier’s book is how he presents the Bible as a positive resource, not a problem to overcome. And I believe that he does this in generally a responsible and non-idealistic way. He’s not trying to fit the Bible in an overly optimistic way into his experience-oriented affirmation of the relationships of his LGBTQ friends. More so, in a careful and coherent way, he gives an account of the actual teaching of the Bible on love, sex, and marriage—and shows that this teaching, in the big picture, is indeed life-affirming for all who participate in committed, mutually-edifying intimate partnerships.
And then he goes on, without simply excising the problematic fragments, to counter the claims made by restrictive thinkers to be offering the most accurate reading and application of those texts.
However, it is the case (and this is to Achtemeier’s credit), he does not approach Christian ethics as simply a matter of interpreting and applying biblical teaching. The lives of people such as his friend Kristi—and the rest of us—are a crucial part of interpreting and applying the Bible. It’s not simply a one-way street, moving from then to now. It’s a conversation where we rightly insist that the Bible’s moral teaching make a large amount of sense and be applied in ways that enhance life. We could say, after Jesus, that the Bible is for human beings, not human beings for the Bible.