How I Learned to Appreciate the Bible Again: Implications for My Acceptance of Lesbian and Gay Intimacy among Church Members

Titus Bender

« Previous | Next »

Many people are concerned that a call for inclusion of lesbian and gay persons in the life of the church will have profound effect on how we interpret scripture. I do not dispute this. The question is whether this search leads us to a more mature understanding of scripture or the opposite. When Peter met Cornelius and opened his heart to greater inclusiveness, his faith was strengthened. For me this journey of finding a way to understand the Bible so that my faith can grow rather than be lost began long before I faced the question of God’s attitude toward persons of same gender sexual orientation.

The following witness is not intended as a systematic statement on divine revelation or the inspiration of scripture. It is the story, in extreme brevity, of my journey of seeking to understand the kind of God to whom I had promised my allegiance. I felt an urgent need to understand God in relation to the Bible. In some biblical passages, particularly parts of the Old Testament, I read of a God who sometimes seemed loving and sometimes seemed bent on revenge toward Israel’s “enemies.” At least those were the pictures I saw drawn by a variety of Old Testament writers. I recognize that some claim, with a sigh of relief, that God is not like that anymore; that love rather than judgement is the focus in our age. Has there been a radical change in God, or has Jesus enabled us to see God more clearly? A life and death issue for me was God’s relationship to persons: that it springs out of who God is, not out of arbitrary rules and the changing of rules. Otherwise there could be no trust. No one would be safe. I urgently needed to know the kind of God I serve so that I could have confidence in God’s relating with me and with all of us.

I came to realize that my understanding of the Bible had been deeply shaped by the faith community into which I was born, the Conservative Mennonite Conference. I had not chosen that womb. But it had shaped much of the lens through which I read the Bible and through which I heard ministers preach during my childhood and youth. I approached God because I saw “him,” (always “him”), as so powerful; I had no other choice. Within me was the need to reach out to a God who cares deeply about me and about all people on this planet. I needed a God who would draw, not scare, me into obedience, a God who would stir the deepest longings of my heart. I needed a God who would inspire me to help create on earth a planet that reflects the will of God as it already exists in heaven.

Here is a very abbreviated story of my search.

The Bible, Used and Misused

I came to realize that the Bible has been misused:

  • to fuel enthusiasm for the Crusades,
  • to fan the flames of “pride” in the Nazi movement,
  • to make slavery sound plausible,
  • to “keep women in their place,”
  • to provide justification for the extremes of wealth alongside poverty in the U.S. and throughout the world,
  • to explain the “righteousness” of every war our country fought,
  • to justify the death penalty,
  • to scare children into premature decisions because of fear of eternity and
  • to de-legitimize the struggle for freedom of ethnic minorities and other vulnerable populations.

The list could go on.

The Bible has also been used:

  • to convince vulnerable people that God loves them as much as God loves anyone,
  • to reveal Jesus who entered our world to reveal to us a God of love without revenge,
  • to provide Dr. Martin Luther King with the message that if we deny freedom to another, we are not free ourselves,
  • to help us understand how to treat each other with reverence in the family,
  • to call families to create an atmosphere of love and generosity in which children are enabled to discover that “God is love,”
  • to introduce Jesus who treated women as equals in a world and religious community that did not, and
  • to break down bigotry and exclusion based on fear of difference.

This list also could grow.

My Sometimes Exhilarating, Sometimes Painful Journey With the Bible

From pre-teenage years my life has been deeply affected by the Bible. Through some of its stories I learned to think of God as trustworthy and personal. With parents whose love I never doubted, belief in a heavenly parent made me feel safe and needed. This does not deny my mixture of fear and well being, particularly around “revival” time. About twice a year an evangelist “held a revival” that lasted for eight nights, usually beginning and ending on Sunday night. There were differences among these evangelists. I cannot see into their hearts to be certain what kind of God they meant to portray. But from their preaching I experienced the threat of a never-ending hell under the auspices of a God who intended to make us pay for our failure to walk to the front of the meeting place to confess our wickedness. I “went forward” quite a few times, just to be sure. I could not afford to take any chances!

These periodic episodes recurred through much of my teenage years. I will never forget one post-revival struggle in my late teens. I had “gone forward” again. This time the post-revival fear mushroomed. In the Conservative Mennonite Conference, the literal interpretation of every word of scripture was generally accepted. (Only later did I learn that this approach was profoundly shaped by the early twentieth-century Fundamentalist Movement.) I found myself clinging to bits of scripture, trying to find peace. One day as I read the First Epistle of John, the words hit me with cruel clarity: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” (KJV) I knew that the phrase “doth not commit sin” did not describe me. With a sense of terror I questioned my status as a “child of God.” Some readers may wish to rush in to rescue such a teenager with a bit of Greek or with more adequate exegesis. Now I realize that my problem with the Bible went deeper than technicalities of interpretation. My picture of Jesus and, thus, my picture of God was inadequate. In focusing on technicalities of interpretation, I had missed the meaning of the central incarnation event. Jesus had come to be one of us and to add a new dimension to our understanding of who God is and what God is like. Having a heavenly parent who cares deeply about us is incompatible with a God who consigns us to a life wherein God plays a game of “gotcha.”

With my emotional wellbeing and my faith at stake, I decided to get some distance from the Bible. So began a journey that lasted decades. I have been able to slowly return to the Bible with a sense of deep appreciation. I have come to believe that the Bible is always understood through a lens. For me, to deny this fact would be dishonest.

The Bible Always Experienced through a Lens

I have heard people say, “I accept the Bible just as it is.” I believe that we who look to the Bible for guidance each accept it as we understand it. Our lenses affect this understanding. Consider for a moment one example where people of good faith understand the Bible very differently. The commandment in the book of Exodus, “Thou shall not kill,” seems clear enough. Some say that this prohibits all killing of human beings. Others believe that it refers only to personal vengeance-related killing and does not speak to corporate killing like war or the death penalty. A third group might believe that this particular commandment refers primarily to homicide on the personal level but that Jesus took it farther. He was willing to give his own life rather than to take the lives of others. Why such diverse understandings of biblical teaching on an issue of life and death significance” The social and faith communities in which we grew up or chose as adults shaped our lenses.

I believe that we who look to the Bible for guidance each accept it as we understand it.

Sometimes our lenses are shaped by people whom we later discover to be people of faith. A significant enlarging of my lens occurred through my brief friendship with Michael Schwerner in Meridian, Mississippi in 1964. He was one of three civil rights workers who was murdered by the Klan when he and two friends went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a near-by African American church. He had gone to Meridian to be involved in “Freedom Summer” of 1964 in Mississippi. Mickey was one of the most gentle, fearless and caring persons I have ever known. Clearly, he had been touched by the hand of God. He was Jewish. One day, with a grin on my face, I said, “Mickey, since Jesus is the source of these things you are involved in, why don’t you just recognize it and get on with your work?” I’ll never forget his reply, made with a totally non-judgmental smile, “Think so?” Within several months, he was killed by Klansmen, some of whom professed to be “born again.” My theology would never be the same again. I had to return to the Bible for a new lens.

I remember when a group of Russian Baptists visited American churches, including Mennonite churches, in the 1950s. They were followed by a “watchdog group” led by Rev. Carl McIntyre. He tried to expose these visitors as pawns of the Communist government who were unaware of being brainwashed by their culture. Dr. McIntyre forgot that he and we too “breathe the air” of our American culture which borrows more from Adam Smith than from Jesus of Nazareth. We too have been shaped by the spirit of the culture around us, some of it positive and some of it misleading. Our culture has taught us to say “I.” “Look out for yourself; others will need to learn to do the same.” Jesus was concerned that we learn to say “WE.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I thank God that we need not be totally dependent on the wider culture around us. Families, peer groups, and faith communities also shape us, often in unnoticed ways unless we step back and ask God for grace to understand. We all need lenses, imperfect though they may be. God gave us families and faith communities so that our children are not totally vulnerable to every voice that claims to be THE TRUTH. We need to be part of a people to give us roots and lenses, even if imperfect. As Peter Berger said, “We choose our gods by choosing our playfellows.” The resulting lenses shape the way we read the Bible.

Not only readers of scripture have lenses through which God’s truth is filtered. Paul the Apostle, who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament, included himself when he said, “We see through a mirror dimly.” Surely other writers of scripture had lenses also, as they witnessed to truth from God while on their journey. Looking at Old Testament passages in light of the life of Jesus reveals that some passages depict God less perfectly as the caring heavenly parent than Jesus did. One example comes to my mind.

In II Kings the author pictures God as sending two female bears to kill forty-two young children who made fun of Elisha the prophet. I refrained from telling that story to our three children until I knew that they saw God in ways other than as one who sent wild beasts to ravage small children who made mistakes. Perhaps God’s message to the writer of that story, before it was filtered through his lens, was meant to underline the seriousness of dismissing God’s prophets, regardless of whether or not they seemed to be odd or obnoxious, or even if they appeared to be siding with Elisha’s adversaries who bore false witness to God’s truth. Having identified with Jesus of Nazareth, I could not pass on the idea of a God who smiles upon the massacre of mischievous young children. Dare we demand of biblical writers or interpreters of any age to have perfect lenses through which they hear the voice of God?

The above paragraph is not meant to suggest that God spoke falsehoods through biblical writers. But even Paul recognized that God’s truth was mediated through human beings who, like himself, “saw in a mirror dimly.” I thank God for these witnesses to God’s truth. We read their witness through our own Spirit-led lenses, in company with travelers of faith who find God’s way together.

So how do we make sense of the Bible? I will share the central aspects of the lens through which I interpret the Bible. Receiving this lens, I came to appreciate the Bible again. Readers need not adopt this lens; I bear witness to what, in the company of other people of faith, I have come to believe.

  1. From the beginning of biblical history the human family has witnessed bursts of light that have broken in upon our world. To understand scripture it is important to understand the significance of these “bursts of light.” Six important examples follow. (a) The creation story of humankind created in the image of God. (b) Abraham’s allegiance to “one true God” with a moral code that emerged through this God. © Movement from a kind of insider togetherness that made room for discounting “enemy people”who deserved destruction toward increasing recognition under the later prophets that God cares about everyone. (d) The “Year of Jubilee” ideal that saw Israelites as belonging to a community of faith and sharing. (Jesus fleshed this out in a fuller planet-wide sense of responsibility for each other.) (e) Some movement from the ability to overcome the “enemy” toward a suffering servant approach in the Book of Isaiah. (f) The coming of Jesus who threw a dramatic new light on the kind of God we serve and the ethic of love that defines followers of Jesus.
    The writer of the Gospel of John pictures Jesus as the light that “shines in the darkness.“John the Baptist proclaimed himself “not to be that light but to bear witness to that light.” The picture of God that we get from Jesus of Nazareth brings a whole new perspective to the experiences with God recorded by earlier biblical writers. While Old Testament writers bore witness to their experiences of God, writers after Jesus bore witness to Jesus’ life and teaching. This fact relates to another analogy of Jesus’ relationship with earlier (and later) biblical writings. John begins his Gospel by picturing Jesus as the Living Word of God. The Bible is written word.
  2. Jesus is the lens through which all biblical writings are to be interpreted by Christians in our day. I do not wish to denigrate the journeys of other faith communities. God will speak to and through whomever God will, without our permission. But for Christians whose primary allegiance is to Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus is the lens through whom we interpret all biblical content.
    If truth from the Bible comes to us in unrelated fragments, at best we experience seriously limited truth and at worst we accept “truth” that does serious violence to the message and spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. I have watched skilled artists create sandcastles in the wet sand at the beach. When winds dried them out and the beautiful structures fell to pieces, only piles of unrelated sand were left. The castles no longer existed. I believe that the Bible is dangerous in the hands of those who fail to see the relationship of small segments of scripture to the central messages of the Bible. Surely God does not call us to comprehend all the nuances of every verse and chapter of the sixty-six books of the Bible. The task is not to master them, one requirement at a time, to obey them as we might a book of law. That process would lead to theological and spiritual paralysis or perhaps spiritual arrogance.
  3. A careful study of the four Gospels will clarify the focal point of Jesus’ call to his followers: the central, two-fold commandment of God to practice love with our entire being. In Matthew 22:34-40 Jesus answered a lawyer who asked, “Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus’ answer was clear and unequivocal.
    You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. (RSV)
    Jesus did not quarrel with central moral precepts of the Law and the Prophets. In fact, he saw the truth that he represented as a fulfillment of them. He reaffirmed the importance of reverence for his heavenly parent and the need to nurture just and respectful relationships with all people. What he did cry out against was the use of power and the trappings of religious authority that steal from less powerful people their right to respect and their avenue for obtaining basic needs. He warned against those who interpret the Law in ways that demean those who are less powerful. He recognized that questioning official interpretations puts one at risk, especially if one lacks political power. He rebuked those who interpret the Law for their own selfish ends. Jesus lived and taught an ethic of love that tied together love for God and for each other. He enlists us in the movement to help make this ethic a reality on earth.
    I do not wish to imply that a caring heavenly father is absent in pre-Jesus times far from it! Two examples come to my mind.
    When Abraham felt the call to trust God without reservation, he heard that call in the context of the surrounding culture in which children were sacrificed as a dramatic way to reveal the power of the gods, and to appease them. When Abraham was about to take the life of his son, to prove his submission to the “one true God,” a new light dawned. He saw an animal nearby and recognized that God wanted him to substitute it for his son, to show his trust in God. He moved a giant step forward from his contemporaries.
    A second example of new light dawning, long before the advent of Jesus, regarding God’s nature appears in the book of Jonah. Jonah wanted the people of the city of Nineveh, “enemies of Israel,” to perish under the hand of God so that there would be one less enemy to worry about. God saved them. Jonah complained, “To die is better than this.” God rebuked him. Did Jonah not know that in Nineveh there were more than 120,000 children who did not know their left hand from their right hand?” Also, there were many cattle. To understand that God’s mercy extends to the children of the “enemies” of Israel and that God does not look with favor on needless destruction of cattle represents insight beyond that of the writer of the second book of Samuel. In chapter 15 the writer describes the charge of the prophet Samuel to Saul, King of Israel. He interprets how he believed that God wanted another “enemy” of Israel to be treated.
    Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, And spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
    I submit that the degree to which our love-oriented heavenly parent, as revealed by Jesus, is portrayed through scripture depends in part upon the clarity of lens through which those writers “heard” God’s truth. I thank God for the witness to their understanding of God throughout their journey. Their witness is valuable for us to hear and understand. I maintain, however, that the lens shaped by the life and teachings of Jesus creates the clearest picture of God that the Christian Church can find in the Bible. No doubt, Jesus’ picture of God challenges some previous biblical writers’ perceptions of God. Conclusions of writers of scripture need to be subjected to the new “burst of light” that came through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the price that he paid for this clearer picture of God. This lens is not in harmony with the selfish and exclusion-oriented side of any culture, including our own. To separate ourselves from those who are “different” (unless those “different” people represent attitudes and behaviors of exploitation) is based on fear rather than faithfulness, I believe. The movement to which Jesus calls us is a movement of love and faith - a movement of nurturing and healing for each other.
  4. People of faith need to travel the journey of faith together, to understand the scriptural account of God’s speaking to people of all ages. Jesus drew around him people who gradually caught the clearer picture of God that he came to share. He helped them to understand their new role in this movement, to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If the people who lived in the presence of Jesus for three years needed this discipline of seeking God’s will together with him and with other people of faith, so do we. Paul and Peter needed Cornelius and other gentile followers of Jesus (those they “had looked down on”) to open their hearts to new understandings of scripture. That is why I am able to bear witness here. As a gentile, I would not have been considered among God’s people. Previously excluded recipients of the grace of God need to be aware of the trap of spiritual arrogance. People of faith need to find ways to search and walk together. If we continue to meet to talk about, instead of with, same gender oriented people of faith, we cannot find God’s understanding of same gender intimacy. I believe that stance would be analogous to Peter’s waking from his vision of unclean beasts and meeting Cornelius by saying, “Forget Cornelius.” The church will self-destruct unless trusted Jewish members of the Faith and Life Commission of the Jerusalem Conference protect the church from those who would lead us down the slippery slope to impurity. We love Gentiles but not their uncleanness. Opening our doors and arms to those faithless people will destroy the purity of the church.

Implications of the Two Great Commandments for All Human Relationships

The command to love God and the command to love other people as ourselves - these two components are inseparable. The second commandment, to love others as we love ourselves, is the central basis for ethics. It is the central lens through which Jesus of Nazareth judged the rightness or wrongness of all human relationships. He developed relationships with diverse people; at times even his close friends struggled to tolerate them. Consider the range of human relationships that Jesus addressed and bathed in love:

  • Relationships between those with unshared wealth and those who lacked basic needs (the “Rich man and Lazarus” story),
  • Relationships between those socially accepted and those considered unclean (e.g., those with leprosy),
  • Relationships with women within a patriarchal society (See Luke 7. When a so-called sinful woman came uninvited to a supper for men and openly showed her love for Jesus, religious men were deeply disturbed. Jesus welcomed her. Such behavior could and did lead to his death.),
  • Relationships across ethnic lines (Jesus and the Samaritan woman),
  • Relationships with those who were considered less “whole” because they had physical infirmities (Jesus risked vengeance by healing people even on the Sabbath.),
  • Relationship of intimacy between husband and wife (Jesus called husbands to leave their parents and to cleave to their wives. The standard of loving others as oneself, especially in intimate relationships, is never an optional issue for followers of Jesus, be they same or opposite gender.)

Jesus never spoke to relationships of intimacy between people of the same gender. But in the four Gospels, he set a high standard for all relationships. We all fail his expectation at times. For all relationships the overriding principle is to avoid the sin of relating to anyone in exploitative ways. To obey Jesus’ call is to live in mutually nurturing and restorative relationships with each other. Jesus’ central criterion for ethical relationships is to love one’s neighbor (any person near by).

Implications for the Relationship of Deep Intimacy between Two Persons

What is the implication of the above as it relates to intimacy between two people, whether of the same or the opposite gender? I conclude that as God smiles upon sexual behavior between two people of faith who live in a committed relationship, all of the following characteristics are active:

  • Tenderness, instead of callousness,
  • Fidelity, instead of “cheating” on each other,
  • Sincere caring, instead of selfishness,
  • Taking pleasure in the well-being of the other as well as attending to one’s own needs,
  • Sharing power, instead of one person lording it over the other,
  • Reverence for God and each other, instead of honoring the self as the center of the universe,
  • Practicing the gift of forgiveness, instead of standing in judgment,
  • Being people-centered, instead of thing-centered in activities,
  • Conscious thoughtfulness, instead of taking each other for granted, and
  • Experiencing sexuality as a gift from God, instead of experiencing it with guilt or suspicion.

Regarding the work of God in same gender intimacy: Should sexual minorities be excluded from conversation about the nurturing and restorative relationships described above? What might be the consequences for the larger church if they are excluded? Would exclusion signal that, for the church, gender is the defining criterion for wholeness in relationships? Might exclusion strengthen the hand of those who believe that God cares more about the gender of intimate relationships than, whether they are exploitative or not? It troubles me that the two institutions in our country which are most adamant and influential in placing more emphasis on the gender of committed spouses/partners than on non-exploitative relationships are parts of the Evangelical Church and the military.

In contrast, can we envision a community of faith, willing to make the central core of each one’s most intimate relationship the call of Jesus to turn from exploiting the other, determined to live in mutual care for the other? Would the church not be wise to focus together on strengthening the characteristics of intimate relationships listed above, to agree on how they lead to mutually nurturing and healing relationships? Might Christians who are also sexual minorities provide deep insight for heterosexual people into friendship and loyalty and mutuality? Could we agree to call each other “sister” and “brother” while further dialogue continues?

Titus Bender taught social work in the fields of human behavior and social policy at Eastern Mennonite College/University from 1976 until his retirement in 1998. He remains active in one of the fields in which he had specialized- a program of working with men convicted of substance abuse-related crimes to help restore them and reconcile them with their communities rather than just getting even.

After graduating from Eastern Mennonite College and one year of seminary, he and his spouse, Anna Yoder Bender, spent eleven years, including the decade of the 1960s, in Meridian, Mississippi. There they led a Voluntary Service Unit. Titus’ work included pastoring Fellowship Mennonite Church, working at issues of racism, unemployment, literacy, homelessness, and poverty at the personal and institutional levels. When over seventy church buildings burned in the mid-60s he became a part of a state-wide church-related group, Committee of Concern, who raised money to rebuild these church buildings and to work alongside members of some of these churches to restore their sanctuaries.

Feeling the call for continued involvement at the community level, he earned his masters and doctoral degrees in social work at Tulane University in New Orleans. After four years of teaching at the University of Oklahoma he returned to Eastern Mennonite. In the early 1980s he became closely acquainted with lesbian and gay students who experienced rejection by the institution at which he taught. His and Ann’s choice became clear, walk with them or turn their backs on everything to which they had given their lives. They have learned to live with this choice.

« Previous | Next »