By Alan Bean
Pastor Curtis Knapp is probably a great guy. I have been a Baptist pastor in Kansas and I know the type: kind, gentle, fun-loving, infinitely polite. In a recent sermon, Pastor Knapp suggested that the government, if it understood its divine mandate aright, would put gay people to death. He wasn’t advocating vigilante violence, mind you; only the government is authorized for this kind of malice.
Now he says he was misquoted. Or quoted out of context. Or quoted by people who, were they as drenched in the biblical world view as his congregants, would have realized he loves gay people and wants them saved, not slaughtered.
On the other hand, Pastor Knapp still thinks God, if he had his way in this wicked world, would have gays massacred en masse. The Almighty said as much in plain black and white in the 20th chapter of Leviticus.
That passage (I call it the ‘killin’ chapter) also calls for the summary execution of adulterers, idolators, father-cursers, and sinners engaged in various kinds of incestuous coupling. Even sex with a menstruating woman is liable to punishment–for the man and the woman.
When people talk about “the angry God of the Old Testament” this is what they have in mind. You could spend a lifetime in most churches and never hear a single sermonic reference to Leviticus 20; but pastor Knapp ain’t no kangaroo preacher who bounces over the tough texts.
How should Christians interpret this kind of passage? The normal practice is to pretend the “texts of terror” don’t exist. If you don’t get around in the Bible much, that works pretty well.
But there are always folks intent on reading the Bible clear through. Some of them even make it to Leviticus 20. “Oh my God,” they say, “I’ll have to talk to the preacher about this.”
But the conversation rarely takes place. Parishioners fear, rightly, that the preacher won’t have a comforting or enlightening answer, so they try to forget about it.
Creative exegetes find clever ways to domesticate passages like Leviticus 20. Perhaps this is just hyperbole, the intentional overstatement of the truth. God doesn’t want us to kill homosexuals; He just wants us to know he hates them (and idolators, and adulterers and father-cursers, and . . .)
I’m not sure this helps much. If God thinks homosexuals are an abomination, why shouldn’t there be open season on the non-straight?
And if sexual orientation isn’t a choice, it must express the creative will of God. Does God make people gay and then hate them for it? Is this commendable, or even logical?
In all likelihood, the author of Leviticus believed that everybody is born straight because that’s the way God planned it. The perverse insistence on going against your natural inclinations constitutes a conscious rejection of God which must not be tolerated. This view of creation is then attributed to the Creator.
Unfortunately for adherents of the “biblical worldview,” this understanding of sexual orientation is just plain wrong. If some people are born gay, either God messed up, God isn’t in control, or God wants it that way. Either way, God must bear the ultimate responsibility.
This issue comes down to the character of God. Is God the perfection of love, as the Bible insists, or is God a weird alloy of love and hate, good and evil who must be obeyed even if he doesn’t make sense because . . . he’s God?
A proper understanding of incarnation is helpful here. According to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), Jesus was fully God and fully human, even if we can’t understand how that could be so. To be fully human, Jesus had to be born into a specific culture at a specific time, and the tenor of his teaching would reflect that fact. Jesus spoke and acted as a first century, Second Temple, Palestinian Jewish peasant because that’s what it means for God to empty himself of divinity and take on human flesh.
God speaks to us through the Scriptures. But here too the logic of Chalcedon applies. The Bible is utterly of God and utterly human. Being human, the Bible reflects the perceptions and thought processes of the epoch in which it was written. It is the product of a pre-scientific world. As an inescapable consequence, the Bible doesn’t give us a scientific take on creation.
To say that the Bible must be right because it is God-breathed is like saying that Jesus, although he appeared to be human, was really God wearing a clever disguise. We can’t have it both ways. Incarnation and inspiration are both self-limiting realities. God comes to us clothed in human limitation and yet is never less than God.
You aren’t suppose to understand this, and you certainly don’t have to believe it; but that’s what orthodox Christian teaching boils down to.
So, what if the scientists speak of evolution over billions of years and the Bible speaks of fiat creation over a six-day period? Which is right? Almost half of the American population believes that buying into evolution means giving up on God. But evolution is just another form of incarnation; a completely natural process that is entirely the work of God. God doesn’t just give the evolutionary process a nudge now and then; God inhabits the evolutionary process.
Which brings us back to texts of terror like Leviticus 20. A Christocentric (Christ-centered) interpretation of Scripture means reading Leviticus through the mind of Christ. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. Jesus counseled his disciples to forgive their enemies and wouldn’t back down from the hard implications of this teaching even when nailed to the rough wood of a Roman cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Jesus didn’t reference Leviticus 20 either, but he did address the death penalty.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
How would Jesus respond to Pastor Knapp and the twentieth chapter of Leviticus? “You have heard that it was said in ancient times, ‘hate the homosexual’, and ‘when a man lies with a male as with a woman they shall be put to death.’ But I say to you, love everyone. If you look down on your homosexual brother or sister, you are liable to judgment, and if you call your brother a ‘fag’, a ‘fairy’ or a ‘dyke’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Did Jesus really believe in hell? I don’t know, but he talked about it all the time and, inevitably, the hell-bound are the unforgiving, the uncompassionate, and the hard of heart. If the biblical worldview is the vision of Jesus (and I believe it is) there can be no place for sermons that pander to the worst impulses of the people in the pew.
God is good all the time. We are all helpless sinners, even the best of us. We are all saved by the infinite grace revealed in the eyes of Christ the Savior. Thanks be to God.