Thursday, September 13, 2007

What’s so disturbing about grace?

No. 49, 14 February 2007

by Peter Hobson

As a Uniting Church minister, conversations about homosexuality and biblical hermeneutics are beginning to seem a bit tired. Our denomination has wrestled with issues of wholeness (and holiness), biblical faithfulness, Christian witness, authentic discipleship, costly grace and prophetic leadership over the last ten years or so – but in particular, how these issues relate to sexuality (and in a more focused way – homosexuality). It is interesting to see how people from other denominations and faith traditions approach the topic.

I am currently completing a doctorate in theology, examining hermeneutics, discipleship and narrative theology. I am an evangelical, charismatic Christian who is passionate about following the way of Jesus Christ. I am also white, heterosexual, middle-class, married and male (which means that lying beneath the surface I battle with a formative narrative that is racist, homophobic, privileged and sexist). Understanding context is so important when dealing with hermeneutics.

In the end, the Biblical witness is nowhere near as clear-cut as we would like it to be. Anyone who has read their scriptures is aware that they can get the biblical text to support just about any argument on any topic they so wish (see, for example, “The story of Mel White”).

In this way, the Bible has been used and abused over the centuries to support slavery, oppression, violence, prejudice, greed and war. Texts from Romans, 1 Corinthians, Leviticus or Deuteronomy may seem to be pretty clear cut on the issue of homosexuality – but they are not. In fact, they have nothing to say about homosexuality at all.

Homosexuality, as we understand it – a sexual orientation, is a relatively new concept. The word itself was first coined in the late 19th century. At the time of Paul’s writings, Greek society viewed genital intercourse between two males to be of the highest order, but had no understanding of what we would call ‘sexual orientation’. Intercourse with women was tolerated because of child-birth – but sex between males was considered to be far superior in every aspect.

It is within this context that Paul condemns certain sexual acts – probably because of their dehumanising consequences. A sexual partner was seen as an object of gratification rather than a person who is loved and valued. Two people of the same sex who have committed their lives to one another, and as part of that commitment engage in acts of mutual affection and sexual love, are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible (notwithstanding critical, if somewhat creative, examinations of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan etc).

If, as a church, we feel we have something to say to the world regarding sexuality, violence, greed or prejudice – we had better do our homework. To say ‘the Bible says it, I believe it’ – just isn’t good enough. The Bible also gives me permission to sell my daughter into slavery (Ex 21:7) but I am sure that no-one participating in this debate would endorse this sort of behaviour.

If the church wants to recover its prophetic witness to the world with respect to its understanding of biblical fidelity and a desire for holiness – then let us recover the voice of Christ that calls us to the way of dangerous love. Love for the lost, love for the broken, love for the oppressed – love even for the oppressor!

To say we ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’ has become such a cliché I am not sure we have taken note of what it is we are saying. If we began to actually understand the magnitude of this statement, then I truly think debates about sexuality would not seem anywhere near as pertinent as they appear.

Perhaps we should concentrate more on the meaning and consequence of the biblical understanding of love. My suspicion is that if we engage with this practice with a little more enthusiasm we won’t have as much time to devote to the categorising of sins.

The Way of Jesus Christ necessarily offends us because it is the Way of Grace. Jesus said nothing about same-sex intercourse, or same-sex love recorded in the Biblical witness. He said a lot about how we spend our money, and how we treat one another. He spent the majority of his time with the marginalised and the outcast and advocated justice for those that the rest of society had either forgotten or despised.

In today’s world, same-sex couples do not have the same rights as heterosexual couples (whether they are married or not) and perhaps if we are to begin a conversation about homosexuality within our contemporary context, it should begin by advocating for justice.

I have a deep passion for the study of biblical hermeneutics. I believe the church needs to engage with its sacred texts with integrity, fidelity and compassion, and it also needs to bring to the table its best scholarship in relation to the study of context, language and epistemology (both ancient and contemporary).

We must also realise that the Bible is not God. Rather, we dare to claim that the Holy Spirit speaks to us and through us as we read our scriptures. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and listen rather than speak – lest we miss what the Spirit is saying to the church.

As an evangelical Christian, I would like to say to gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gendered and sexually confused people, that God loves you. I would like to repent on behalf of my fellow sisters and brothers in the faith for our ignorance, prejudice and insensitivity. And I would like to invite you to join us on an adventure of discipleship.

By following the Way of Jesus Christ, and surrendering to the grace of God, there is a life of love, forgiveness and wholeness just waiting for all who would dare to respond.

Rev Peter Hobson is the minister at Maroubra Junction Uniting Church and the Uniting Church Chaplain at the University of New South Wales. No more responses to Brian McLaren’s article will be published.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

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