By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
In the last few essays I have gradually sought to reveal why traditionalist ways of connecting the biblical dots on the LGBT issue no longer are compelling to me.
It could seem as if I am arguing that my whole process of rethinking this issue has been nothing other than a matter of biblical study. I once studied the Bible and it read this way to me; now I study the Bible and it reads a new way to me.
But my own ethical methodology has never been that naïve. In Kingdom Ethics, we offer a four-box diagram originally developed by Glen Stassen related to how moral discernment happens. We say that basic convictions, loyalties/trusts/interests/passions, ways of perceiving reality, and ways of moral reasoning are complexly interconnected, and that this involves head and heart, not just rational cogitation on scriptural exegesis. The final few essays in this series will mainly be working at this level.
I was doing my devotional reading while on vacation last summer — I make sure to say both of those things so readers wondering about my salvation are at least aware that I still read the Bible devotionally, even on vacation — and I was utterly dumbstruck by something I had never noticed before about the Emmaus road story of Luke 24.
In the story the two heartbroken disciples are discussing with a stranger the shattering of their dreams. Jesus had just been judicially tortured and murdered, but they “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21). It turns out that the person they are talking with is Jesus himself, but they “were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16). They tell the story as they now see it, and then the mysterious stranger says, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” The text goes on to say, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (vv. 26-27). Finally, after a mysteriously sacramental meal with the stranger, “they recognized him” (v. 31), and he vanished.
No biblical scholar argues that first-century Jews expected a crucified Messiah, an undelivered Israel and an untransformed world. This was not how they read their Bible. Nothing in the birth narratives of Luke (Lk. 1-2) shows anyone anticipating that the baby to be born to deliver Israel would do his deliverance by dying naked and derided on a Roman cross. In Jewish-Christian dialogue the point was made very clearly by my dissertation advisor Rabbi Irving Greenberg when he said Jesus could not have been Messiah for “the overwhelming majority of Jews … given the facts on the ground.” Jesus did not take the expected biblical pattern for a Messiah.
But for the early Jewish and then Gentile Christians, their transformative encounter with Jesus led them to a huge paradigm shift, so huge it is better to call it a paradigm leap. Despite the prior and still prevailing Jewish interpretation, they now believed that this Jesus actually was the promised Deliverer, Messiah and much more. The way they knew this was because their old paradigm did not survive their transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. Old paradigm + transformative encounter = paradigm leap to a new reading of Scripture.
Jewish Christians were those who initially made that paradigm leap after their transformative encounter with Jesus, notably the post-resurrection Jesus. Non-Christian Jews were those who did not, perhaps because they had no such opportunity. It was the birth of a fateful schism, a huge fork in the road if ever there was one.
Or consider another really important biblical text.
Many who have been wrestling with this LGBT issue, especially in increasingly “orientation-integrated” congregations, have found themselves returning to Acts 10. I won’t retell the whole story but just the punch line. Peter is taught by God through his divinely arranged encounter with the converted Gentile centurion Cornelius that “God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him …. Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36).
Peter had operated from a biblical paradigm rooted firmly in widely attested Jewish scriptures and tradition that God favors the Jewish people through election, and that Torah-mandated purity regulations meant that “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” But: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (v. 28). Biblical paradigm + divinely arranged transformative encounter with newly converted Gentile believers forges a huge paradigm leap leading to a new reading of Scripture. Any student of the New Testament knows how very difficult this paradigm leap turned out to be for the early church, including for Peter himself. The church would now welcome Gentiles on equal terms with Jews, and Jewish law would be largely set aside. Some were able to make this change; others were not. Another fork in the road.
On that same vacation I started reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was floored by how much of that classic abolitionist work is about white Christian arguments related to what Scripture says about slavery. Countless scenes reveal the heartless use of one or more of the scores of slavery-affirming biblical texts by slave-owners, traders and many others to stiffen the slaveholding spine and also to suppress slave resistance. But in numerous places those quoting these quite clear sentences of Scripture like “Slaves, obey your masters … fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22) are challenged by transformative encounters with actual slaves — their humanity, their suffering, their dignity, their love for their families — which end up shattering their old ways of reading Scripture.
The same thing has happened time and again in the best moments of Christian history. An older or inadequate way of connecting the biblical dots gets shredded by transformative encounters with real human beings, often with real suffering human beings. In precisely these encounters many attest to the experience of God’s transformative Spirit, leading to a return to Scripture with fresh eyes.
It happened when Spaniards and Portuguese were quoting Scripture to justify the conquest and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of Latin America — but some among them, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, could not accept these readings after transformative encounters with the affected, suffering human beings.
It happened — at last, mainly after the Holocaust — when large swaths of the Christian Church finally stopped quoting biblical texts that grounded a centuries-old tradition of teaching contempt for Jews. This terribly destructive “teaching of contempt” essentially disappeared in a single generation. Check out Rosemary Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide for one essential retelling of that story.
And it happened when centuries-old teachings about women’s spiritual and moral inferiority essentially collapsed in the face of Christian feminism, and transformative encounters with women’s spiritual gifts, that made the older paradigm implausible. Even traditionalists on that issue edged away from most aspects of that tradition other than some (contested) limit on women’s ministerial leadership offices, functions or roles.
Some of us believe that in our time an older, destructive paradigm based on a particular way of connecting the biblical dots has not survived the transformative encounters we are having with LGBT fellow Christians, encounters in which we experience regular and astonishing reminders of God’s presence.
If such transformative encounters are so important in looking at Scripture and today’s moral issues in a new way, it must make moral conflict tragically inevitable — because not everyone experiences such transformative encounters, and some people reject their significance in any case. But for others of us, these transformative encounters provide a new angle of vision on long-settled paradigms of biblical interpretation and application, making the old approaches no longer seem plausible or compelling anymore. And conflict erupts.
Those of us who are in the process of making a paradigm leap toward full solidarity with LGBT Christians are sometimes accused of “abandoning the gospel.” This is a very serious charge. Are those who level it saying that the Good News that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19), and that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes him may not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16) is compromised when Christians rethink the interpretation of six passages about sexual ethics, or move forward other texts for deeper consideration? That’s quite a claim!
Transformative encounters with God, and with the humanity and suffering and dignity of those made in God’s image, especially those previously marginalized or rejected, more especially those so mistreated by God’s own people, often lead to paradigm leaps — but sadly, never for everybody. Paradigm leaps divide, at least in their first stages, and those who make them are often accused of abandoning sacred scripture. But I strongly reject such a claim, or any accusation of having abandoned the gospel.
The absurdly wonderful Good News that a crucified Jewish carpenter is the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the entire world, and has come to rescue us, was the first such paradigm leap in the history of Christianity. I believe we Christians actually call it “the gospel.” It transformed the world.