Two churches were disfellowshipped this week by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee for “affirming homosexuality within their memberships.” I have ties to at least one of the churches — friends, colleagues and former students and seminary and Sunday school classmates — so I take it a little personally.
I admire their courage and the thoughtful reflection that brought my friends to their stance, and I grieve with them this final indignity from a convention that long ago cast me out as well.
Over the years, I’ve chosen not to dwell on the loss of relationship to my Southern Baptist heritage, but one aspect of the present dust-up demands a response.
The ‘clear’ meaning of Scripture
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, took the action as an opportunity to once again assert his particular understanding of Scripture as normative for all Christians. “Anyone who argues that the Bible — OT and NT — is not clear about the sinfulness of homosexuality is either very confused or deliberately dishonest about the structure of biblical theology and the clear meaning of the texts,” he tweeted.
I have opined elsewhere in the past on the disingenuousness of Mohler’s and others’ claims about the “clear” meaning of Scripture. But the damage his words do to the LGBTQ community compel me to take another swing at it. The use of the Bible to “clobber” Christians whose gender identity and/or sexual orientation fall outside the experience of a cultural majority is a longstanding and persistent plague in our Christian communities.
It’s been nearly 30 years now since the founding coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship made similar claims about the clear meaning of Scripture, accusing supporters of same-sex relationships of “twist(ing)” Scripture, characterizing them as “poor interpreters of Scripture who are more into American culture than they are into Bible intention.” I responded then in a letter to the editors of Baptists Today, so I hope I won’t be seen as partisan for responding now to Mohler’s claims.
When one view becomes all-knowing
But Mohler’s powerful tweet-rhetoric must be unmasked as the sophistry it actually represents. He has set himself — and his tradition — as a monolithic and all-knowing fount of correct biblical doctrine. And yet it becomes more and more evident every day that the tradition he clings to and asserts as infallible is deeply shaped by generations of white, male, straight perspectives in an American experience that has privileged those views.
Mohler’s recent public stance rejecting Critical Race Theory is an example of his insistence that the lenses through which he sees Scripture and theology afford him an unbiased, unambiguous view of pure truth.
“He has set himself — and his tradition — as a monolithic and all-knowing fount of correct biblical doctrine.”
Biblical scholars know better. The very Bibles we read are shaped, whether intentionally or not, by the worldly understandings of the translators and editors and publishers who put them into print. And the translators, editors and publishers of American Bible editions have been overwhelmingly white and male throughout the history of the nation, and beholden to a market hostile to non-normative gender identities and sexualities.
For example, with the exception of Romans 1 (which has its own complexities), every passage in the New Testament that is translated to refer to “homosexuality” is marked by the translation of Greek words for which the meaning is uncertain even in the ancient contexts. Yet most translations reflect clear language condemning particular modern same-sex sexualities.
Mohler can hardly be unaware of the danger of bias in translation; confessing his initial lack of excitement about the SBC’s new Holman Christian Standard Bible translation in 2002, he explained that he was finally convinced “that in the end this is an important thing for Southern Baptists to do — if for no other reason than that we will have a major translation we can control.”
The actual translation of the biblical text is not the only influence editors and publishers have on printed Bibles, of course. The cross-reference notes, section headings and especially the commentary and study aids present in study Bibles also provide powerful influences on interpretation. Cross-references in the margins alone have sustained traditions of interpretation over the years such as “the curse of Ham,” a theological rationale for racism, and various dispensational schemes.
About the ‘structure of biblical theology’
The “structure of biblical theology” Mohler refers to is a structure erected over generations by overwhelmingly white and male theologians, scholars, editors and publishers, reflecting cultural majorities hostile to non-normative expressions of gender identity and sexualities.
Within our communities of faith, we necessarily construct “structures of biblical theology.” These theologies are frameworks for sharing our understandings of who God is and how God works in our world and in our lives. But erecting those theologies always means weighing priorities, instructions and laws from various parts of the biblical witness against each other.
“None of us as individuals or even communities of faith are infallible, and we all are influenced by cultural understandings and self-interests.”
Even Jesus had to make such decisions, as when he determined that meeting certain human needs for satisfying hunger or healing outweighed commands of sabbath observance. And Jesus instructed the church to be about the business of “binding and loosing,” perhaps referring to this kind of discernment. (Mohler’s own tortured weighing of biblical priorities in choosing a presidential candidate perhaps demonstrated this kind of discernment.)
But none of us as individuals or even communities of faith are infallible, and we all are influenced by cultural understandings and self-interests. We must not let broad agreement within our own homogenous (and often privileged) communities lull us into perceiving our theologies as ultimate.
Biblical scholar A.K.M. Adam notes that “interpretive agreement indicates … the convergence of interpreters’ priorities and sensibilities,” and he points out that “agreement arises most readily among readers who learned about the Bible from the same teachers, who share interests, whose theologies (or lack thereof) converge and so on.”
Binding and loosing biblical texts
While specific laws and instructions throughout the Bible often seem to offer “clear” teaching, the repeated demands of Jesus and early Christians conveyed by the New Testament writers to “love your neighbor as yourself” weigh heavily in the binding and loosing of biblical texts.
When I, as a biblical scholar, examine the (few and far-between) biblical passages that refer to same-sex sexual encounters and behaviors, I find a very unclear message about how these passages relate to contemporary LGBTQ issues. On the other hand, I see throughout Scripture themes of mercy and justice, concern for marginalized persons, the crossing of traditional and ritual boundaries when the well-being of persons is at stake, and a radical message of love. My own testimony and interpretive stances are deeply influenced by these themes.
“Mohler and his cronies do not hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, or the singular authority to bind and loose.”
To be blunt, the “clear” meaning of biblical texts and the “structure of biblical theology” that Mohler references are not inherent features of the Bible. They are the contingent meanings and structures he and like-minded persons have discerned from their own engagement with the texts within their own cultural world of meaning dominated by white, male, cisgender authority figures.
By the grace of God, the power of the gospel may well be evident in some of the actions and commitments of that community. I do not begrudge Mohler, also a former schoolmate of mine, the sharing of his own personal testimony about the biblical meanings he and his tradition of interpretation have constructed out of their own experiences of faith. That is all I can claim to do myself. But Mohler and his cronies do not hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, or the singular authority to bind and loose.
Listen to the prophets
A warning from the prophecies of Ezekiel (34:1-4) comes to mind, directed at religious leaders and echoed in the teachings of Jesus: “The Lord’s word came to me: … The Lord God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice.”
As we bind and loose the texts of Scripture, as we shape our structures of biblical theology, may we always give deference to the powerless and allow our vision to be shaped by themes of mercy and justice, and by all means humility. For in the kingdom of God, the first shall be last, and the last first.
Dalen Jackson serves as academic dean and professor of biblical studies at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, where he has served since 2002. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Samford University and a master of divinity degree and Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.