So it comes down to five Bible verses.
The argument that homosexuality is wrong, that homosexuality is sinful, has no other leg to stand upon – if it has any at all – than these five verses: two from Leviticus, one from Romans, one from First Corinthians, and one from First Timothy.
Some want to argue that homosexuality is wrong because it is harmful to others, but there simply is no evidence that homosexuality causes harm to others. The allegations made on this score are in error, and are offered only out of ignorance or sometimes malice.
Some want to argue that homosexuality is wrong because it is “unnatural.” And yet beyond a shadow of a doubt, homosexuality (a sexual attraction to those of the same sex) arises frequently in human beings and frequently in hundreds of other animal species. Nature is far from homogeneous; nature is given to variety and diversity. It is only out of ignorance (or, again, malice) that one would try to argue that homosexuality was unnatural. And is the naturalness of something our test of its morality?
The Indiana Yearly Meeting Minute on homosexuality says that “We believe the Holy Spirit and Scriptures witness to this” [homosexual practices as contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind], but I hear in our discussions only appeals to Scripture, not appeals to the Holy Spirit.
No, the only argument that might have any standing is the claim that there are five verses in Scripture that supposedly proclaim homosexuality to be sinful. Some people have come to call these the “clobber texts” because they have been repeatedly used to clobber gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people as sinful.
And so it matters how we read the Bible. The Bible is really a complex collection of books, some histories, some prayers, some letters, some imaginative stories, some poetry, some prophecy. Some of it is written in Hebrew, and some in a 1st century conversational Greek even though Jesus spoke Aramaic. So translations have to be worked through. In the face of this complexity, we need a consistent approach to reading the Bible: we cannot read some passages one way, and some passages another. How we read the five clobber texts has to have some consistency with how we read what the Bible says about war, adultery, the role of women in the church, what foods we should eat, what we should do about wealth, what we should do about our desires, or hundreds of other questions.
At an Indiana Yearly Meeting annual session a year or two ago, the Bible came up in one heated session, and a pastor said “God-breathed” in the midst of the discussion, and others murmured, “God-breathed” in agreement. They were quoting 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
“God-breathed.” Yes, useful to remember. But what does it mean? What was “Scripture” when the author of 2 Timothy wrote these words? 2 Timothy was likely written towards the end of the first century C.E. There wasn’t yet a New Testament to which he could refer. Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels. The various manuscripts that are compiled into our New Testament were written and circulated in various collections over the first two or three centuries C.E., and weren’t accepted as an authoritative corpus until the late 4th century by action of various gatherings of bishops (the Synod of Hippo, 393, the Third Council of Carthage, 397).
And who wrote 2 Timothy? The letter begins “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” But there are a good many reasons to doubt that it was Paul who wrote this letter. It doesn’t match the style of his other letters, and we can’t fit it into the sequence of his known travels as reported, for example, in Acts. Most Bible scholars take it to have been written by a follower of Paul, someone trying to copy his example. But what are we then to make of a letter that begins by telling us something that probably isn’t true?
2 Timothy is a letter with a good deal of holy wisdom in it. It is worth study and reverence. But we can hardly take it to be absolutely the literal, end-all truth because the not-Paul who wrote it, claiming he was Paul, tells us that other Scripture (not specified) is “God-breathed.”
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5-17). Jesus uses the Scriptures, which like his Jewish compatriots he would have considered holy but neither complete nor inerrant. More importantly, He invariably turns the meaning towards a new teaching. And his teachings often come in parables, the meaning of which we are led to puzzle through. His disciples were often confused and on the wrong track – the Bible tells us repeatedly. The parables do not yield their meanings easily.
So how come we to think that the Bible gives us its meanings easily and plainly to us? How can we grab a snippet of text and say “there, that’s clear,” especially when the snippet runs against the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount or the two Great Commandments? Especially when the snippet runs against the srong current of Jesus’s good news.
George Fox knew the Bible by heart as did many other early Friends. He already knew it by heart, however, when he was in his time of seeking and despair – and yet it did not suffice. When he had his epiphany on Pendle Hill, he didn’t say, “I see, the Bible is all we need. It’s a finished revelation that is utterly sufficient in all ways.” Instead he said, “Jesus has come to teach His people Himself.” We need the Holy Spirit to help us understand the Bible, a treasured book of incomparable wisdom and instruction. But to substitute the Bible for the Holy Spirit is not what Jesus has in mind when he tells us to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37), reaching back to Deuteronomy 6:5.
Revering the Bible doesn’t mean thinking it an easy look-up reference, a closed book of act-by-rote-rule instruction. Jesus came to breathe a new spirit of love into the old law.