The Trivialization of Scripture

How the Bible Was Abused at General Convention 2003

by Fr. David Handy, Ph.D.

The Bible was shamefully belittled and misused at General Convention.

As a biblical scholar who was present at the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, I find the most disturbing aspect of the sharp dispute there over homosexuality to be the way the Bible was so abused. It was distressing to see the biblical teaching on this controversial matter distorted by the liberals, and worse yet, constantly downplayed as irrelevant. Even the most thoughtful and careful statements from the liberal side (such as a major speech by the dean of the Atlanta Cathedral) displayed an appalling tendency to dismiss the scriptural teaching on homosexuality and marriage as simply obsolete. This is a travesty. It is unacceptable.

Time after time, in hearings and floor debates, I heard passionate but unsubstantiated claims that the clear and consistent condemnation of homosexual behavior in the Bible is so biased and distorted by cultural conditioning and ancient misunderstandings that it must be set aside as having no relevance for our modern debate. Again and again, liberal advocates asserted, without proof, that the biblical writers were only addressing something very different from homosexual practice as we know it today. That is, they repeatedly claimed that since the ancient writers did not realize that there is such a thing as an "innate" and "God-given" homosexual orientation, they were only condemning such obviously immoral behaviors as paedophilia (widespread in ancient Greece) or bisexual acts. Never mind, of course, that despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, there is absolutely no scientific proof that people are actually "born gay."

The point, liberals insist, is that the scriptural prohibitions which treat homosexual behavior as "an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) and condemn it as "contrary to nature" (Romans 1: 26-27) just do not apply to our modern experience. Their implicit assumption is that we should accept without question the testimony of gay men and lesbians who claim that they were born that way, and that if they are right, their experience trumps the mistaken assumptions about homosexuality made by St. Paul and the few other biblical writers who touch on the subject. Never mind, of course, that even if sound scientific studies should later show that there is some genetic component that predisposes a small minority of people to be attracted to the same sex (which may well be true to some degree, though it still hasn't been proven),1 it does not logically follow that this makes it "God-given" and right, anymore than a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, heart disease, or violence makes them OK.

(1 The strongest evidence yet for a genetic link comes from identical twin studies, but the findings are ambiguous. See the endnote at the conclusion of this article for details.)

Unfortunately, the truth of the bold assertion of the Bible's irrelevance was simply assumed by the liberal side, rather than being demonstrated by sound arguments and supported by solid evidence. In other words, they repeatedly begged the question. Of course, it's hard to make a compelling or sustained argument in just two minutes, the usual time allowed for personal statements at convention. The tragedy is that there was no serious effort at doing so by the progressive side. The liberals made surprisingly little appeal to the scholarly literature on this debate, despite the recent flood of published articles and books on all aspects of the subject.

This is strange because normally liberals like to draw freely on modern biblical and theological scholarship to buttress their positions. However, in this case it was the conservatives upholding the orthodox side who appealed much more prominently and emphatically to recent publications by such eminent scholars as Richard Hays, Marion Soards, Gerard Sloyan, and above all, Robert Gagnon. Gagnon, a Presbyterian seminary professor in Pittsburgh, has persuasively set forth the conservative case in his thorough 520 page study, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press, 2001). It is by far the most comprehensive and detailed study to date.

Of course, the liberals have their champions too, including such world class scholars as Victor Furnish, Robin Scroggs, and Luke Timothy Johnson. But the fact remains that the tide seems to have turned (though there is an inevitable lag before this filters down to ordinary clergy and thus to most of the laity). The burden of proof seems clearly to fall on the liberals now, to refute the arguments and evidence amassed by their foes. Gagnon's book, in particular, is rapidly gaining recognition as the best research done yet on this hotly contested subject. I believe that it will eventually become known as the standard work on the topic, a classic of meticulous and objective analysis amidst a spate of less complete, more speculative, and more biased writings. Ironically, though liberals like to boast of having scholarship on their side, in this case the conservatives do.

There are two ways that liberals misinterpreted the Bible at General Convention that bother me the most. The first is the often repeated assertion of a parallel between the Bible's toleration of slavery and sometimes oppressive stance toward women on the one hand, and its negative assumptions about homosexuality on the other. The conclusion liberals draw is that just as we have gradually evolved in our understanding of God's will with regard to abolishing slavery and freeing women to take their proper and equal place in ministry, so likewise those who are able to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches today now realize that it's time to grant gay men and lesbians full inclusion in the Christian community at all levels and to stop accusing them wrongly of being notoriously immoral.

Unfortunately, the supposed parallel is simply mistaken. The differences outweigh the similarities. The crucial point that liberals overlook is that the biblical evidence in the case of slavery and women in ministry is ambiguous, since there is Scripture on both sides, whereas the Bible is absolutely consistent and one-sided in its rejection of all intercourse between persons of the same sex. Namely, while there are obviously plenty of passages that assume the inevitability or even correctness of slavery and restrictions on women, there are also not a few that point in the opposite direction and have inspired the Christian attempt to free slaves and women from these outmoded forms of social injustice. But this is just not the case with homosexual behavior.

There is no ambiguity or tension in Holy Scripture on this point whatsoever. The biblical prohibitions on homosexual behavior (few as they may be) are completely consistent, and all the biblical narratives that mention it (even fewer) emphatically negative. Equally important is the total lack of any positive gay role models in the entire Bible. Furthermore, the complementary nature of the two genders as reflecting God's clear intention in creating us male and female and the way this underlies the biblical teaching about marriage as a divine institution is basic to the entire biblical narrative, from beginning to end. The presumed parallel is thus completely misleading. It is simply not true that because there are Scriptures that have been used in the past to oppress slaves and women that we must likewise toss out the Scriptures that condemn homosexual behavior too.

The second and more dangerously appealing way that Scripture was abused in Minneapolis was with regard to the frequent assertion of a similar analogy. I often heard people on the liberal side state that just as the first century Church was led by the Spirit to accept Gentiles as equal members of the Body of Christ along with Jews, despite the fact that this meant overturning the clear teaching of the Old Testament about the necessity of circumcision and keeping the dietary laws, so we also in the twenty-first century Church are likewise being led by the Spirit to include gay men and lesbians as equal members of Christ's Body, despite the few emphatic biblical passages to the contrary. Liberals often cited the familiar Cornelius story in Acts, where the Lord commands Peter in a dream to eat non-kosher food, saying, "What God has made clean, you must not call unclean." Or as the old abolitionist hymn goes, "New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth." Once again, however, this supposed parallel, attractive as it may seem at first sight, is actually untenable. Indeed, it is demonstrably false.

Once again, the liberal side has overlooked a crucial difference. In the case of the controversy over including the Gentiles, the New Testament makes clear (in Acts 10-15) that the decision to declare the law of circumcision and the food laws null and void was reached by a genuine consensus, not some dubious parliamentary move or a mere majority vote of Church leaders. Though Luke may indeed be idealizing the situation somewhat, Acts 15 pointedly insists that the decision reached by the Jerusalem Council was representative of all the leading apostles, including Peter, Paul, and James. The contrast with General Convention could hardly be starker. There was nothing like consensus among ourselves in Minneapolis, not to mention how wrong and offensive it is to our fellow Anglicans around the world. The unilateral action of the Episcopal Church flagrantly disregards the clear stand of the last Lambeth Conference (1998) and ignores the earnest warning of the Anglican Primates as recently as May. In addition, of course, our actions there are insultingly contrary to the views of the vast majority of other Christians outside our Communion. This impatient move to end three decades of fruitless and wearisome debate was actually the opposite of reaching a decision by consensus. This fact vitiates the supposed parallel with the radical actions of the Jerusalem Council.

Furthermore, the liberals have also overlooked another essential feature of the story in Acts 15 that Richard Hays (among others) has stressed. That vital point is that the Jerusalem Council did not simply overrule some Old Testament laws on the basis of their experience and what they took to be the guidance of the Spirit. Rather, the apostles and other leaders were driven by their experience and by the Spirit to re-examine the Bible and in the process discovered that the Scripture's central thrust had been to include the Gentiles all along. That is the point of James' quotation of the prophecy in Amos 9 (though many other more central passages, like Genesis 12:1-3, could have been cited). As in the case of slavery and women in ministry, the Scriptural teaching about Gentiles turned out to be complex, but, when properly understood, the most important passages headed in a direction that supported their inclusion. But this is precisely what is missing in the liberal case for overturning the biblical condemnations of homosexual behavior, because in this case the Scriptures are completely negative. There is no trace whatsoever of any change or inconsistency about this at any point in the entire Bible. There is no shred of biblical support for the pro-gay position. Zip, zilch, none.

As someone with a doctorate in biblical studies, I am by no means a fundamentalist. Of course, we don't have to interpret the Bible in a simplistic way. Of course, we don't have to take it as the full and absolute truth on every point. But we do have to take the Bible seriously. And that is just what was so lamentably lacking in Minneapolis. Instead, God's Word was constantly distorted in the futile attempt to find some biblical justification for declaring homosexual behavior not sinful. Worse yet, when the weakness of these rationalizations was admitted by some liberals, they merely went on to dismiss the Bible as simply wrong. The clear and consistent teaching of the Bible and the moral consensus of the Church throughout the ages was cavalierly written off as a product of human prejudice. Thus, the Bible was trivialized and even treated with contempt.

To paraphrase the first session of the popular Alpha Course, is the teaching of the Bible about homosexual behavior "boring, untrue, and irrelevant?" The statements I've heard from the liberal side imply the answer "Yes," sometimes with refreshing candor. But this is utterly unacceptable. I say a resounding "NO." As a biblical scholar and priest, I unabashedly affirm my complete confidence that the biblical teaching on this point is both true and relevant. It turns out that the majority of bishops at Lambeth were right after all; homosexual behavior really is "incompatible" with Holy Scripture. That settles it. End of discussion.

The notorious actions of General Convention 2003 will go down in history all right, but only for betraying the historic faith and order of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in a blatant way that is unprecedented in the Episcopal Church. The approval given there to homosexual behavior may be politically correct, but because it is completely contrary to both Scripture and Tradition, it will never be theologically or morally correct.


The strongest evidence yet that homosexuality may have a biological basis comes from identical twin studies. Since identical twins share exactly the same genes, we would expect that, if homosexual orientation were truly biologically determined, then both twins would either be heterosexual or both homosexual. So far, however, studies show that roughly half the time, when one of the pair is gay, the other is not. This is much more often than would be expected if genetic factors played no part at all in sexual orientation. That is, if there is no genetic predisposition to homosexuality and one of the twins was gay, the chance that the other would also be homosexual should be similar to the prevalence of homosexual orientation in the general population, roughly 2-5%. That is much less than the 52% reported in one study. But conversely, this same study also shows results that are much less than the virtual 100% match among identical twins that we would expect if people were actually "born gay." This clearly undermines the common assumption that heredity is destiny. Whatever role biological factors may play in influencing sexual orientation, there is no evidence to support the notion that a person's genetic code inevitably predetermines his or her orientation. Otherwise, identical twins would both be the same, either both gay or both straight.

-- The Rev. Dr. David Handy lives in Virginia.

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