Thursday, September 11, 2003

Sometimes the Bible should be seen anew

By Stephen Van Kuiken
Guest columnist

Why is it that some folks can't just disagree but need to condemn? I've experienced this within the church by being removed and defrocked by the Presbytery of Cincinnati. And now I've been judged "unfit" by newspaper columnist, Peter Bronson (Aug. 10). For the record, I have been temporarily "re-frocked" with a stay of enforcement while the Synod of the Covenant (Michigan and Ohio) hears my case against the Presbytery's action.

Mr. Bronson and others say, "The Bible is unambiguous." End of conversation. Don't let the door hit you on your way out.

Where have we heard this before? When Galileo audaciously asserted that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, he was condemned for heresy. "The Bible is unambiguous," they said.

Similarly, the Bible was "unambiguous" to those who supported slavery and racial segregation. Also, anyone who divorced, no matter how abusive or painful the situation, was "clearly" sinful and wrong according to the Scriptures. Theories of evolution and a universe more than 4,000 years old were "obviously" contrary to the Bible and rejected.

The Bible "unambiguously" says that women are not to teach or have authority over men. They must keep silent. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 an elder (or bishop) "must be the husband of one wife." In other words, he must be male.

Yet mainline churches decided to move beyond the literal level of those passages and ordain women. And when they did, they didn't call that ordination by a different name. They didn't use a second-class ceremony.

What happened? The words of the Bible didn't change, but our understanding of the world and women changed the way we interpreted those words. Women were considered less than men. They had lower status and derived their identity from the male to whom they were attached. They were property, the possession of the man. They were second-class. But this view has changed and so has our interpretation.

In the same way, the Bible refers to marriage as something between a man and a woman, and many feel it is time to move beyond the literal level of those verses. Just as women were considered second-class, so were same-sex relationships. There is a growing understanding today that the love between two women or two men can be just as real, just as true, just as faithful and just as good as the love between a man and a woman. It is not second-class but fully blessed by God.

Today, traditionally moderate denominations use broader methods of biblical interpretation on many issues, but they are still locked into a narrow and literalistic interpretation regarding sexual orientation. It is a double standard not to be able to use similar methods of interpretation when it involves our gay and lesbian members and their gifts for love and leadership.

Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has broken this double standard and enabled its members to be more consistent with the election of Bishop Gene Robinson.

By the way, I've noticed some things about those for whom the Bible is unambiguous. First, they are usually the ones who "know" what the Bible says. Second, they often do not experience the suffering inflicted by their view.

Jesus, himself, was accused of violating what the Scriptures "unambiguously" said. He set aside cultural, gender and ethnic barriers; he associated with the wrong kind of people; he didn't make the appropriate distinctions; and he challenged and replaced a religious worldview based on purity with one based upon compassion.

For his critics, Jesus had some strong words: "You have neglected the weightier matters of the law - justice, mercy and faith." You're missing the whole point, he said, "straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel!" He held out God's love and healing presence for all people. As the apostle Paul put it, "the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Jesus knew how the letter of the law could kill. He keenly felt the pain inflicted upon those in the name of Scripture. In spite of the consequences, Jesus followed the life-giving Spirit that is behind the words.

And in our own imperfect way, we're simply trying to do the same.


Stephen Van Kuiken is the former pastor of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church.

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