For over two thousands years the majority of Christians have believed the Bible to be very clear in its teachings on homosexuality (although the Bible says nothing about bisexual or transgender people, this has always been implied). It hasn’t been unanimous (as we’ll see in later posts), but it has been the accepted position. If Christians are going to change their position, we have to first deal with whether God’s instructions can change.
There are two ways to respond to this. The first is that it is possible for us to misunderstand God’s instructions and then adjust our views as we learn more or gain more insights. The second is that God might not change in principle, but His instructions to us can adapt over time.
Note: There is debate in Christian circles about a so-called open view of God, which claims that God Himself changes and adapts over time. This is an interesting conversation, but not a prerequisite for the view I am proposing. An open view of God is not required in order to accept that God’s instructions to us can change over time.
There are many examples through history of our misreading Scripture, or of imposing a deficient knowledge of the world onto Scripture. For example, ancient societies thought of the world as flat. They were able to point to the Bible to back this up. Genesis tells us that the sky is a dome that stretches to the edges of the earth. We read in Job and Psalms and elsewhere that the sky is held up by pillars. And we read in many places that the sun rises and sets (rather than the earth rotating). It was on the basis of these verses and the related theological belief that we must clearly be the centre of God’s creation that led the church to so vehemently oppose Galileo and Copernicus. Both scientists were essentially forced to recant their heliocentric worldviews. Galileo was condemned and lived under house arrest, and an apology and “release” only issued in 1991.
We’ve had to make similar adjustments to our beliefs on all sorts of issues, including the divine right of kings, the validity of war, preferred economic systems, the morality of child labour, female leadership, evolution, young earth creationism and women’s suffrage. Most of these changes have come due to advances in physical and social sciences, and advances in our knowledge of the world.
In each of these cases (not all of which have been resolved nor are universally accepted by Christians even to this day), we have realised that it was not God or the Scriptures that have changed. Rather, as our own understanding of the world we live in has advanced, we realise we had misinterpreted or just misrepresented what Scripture had been saying all along. It most typically boils down to a misuse of a particular Biblical genre – for example, reading a poem as if it was intended to be science or history.
God Engages Us Where We Are
More controversially for some, there are examples of God updating and adjusting His instructions to different people over time. Reading the Bible in chronological order, you can’t help but see these progressions in many issues.
The easiest example, possibly, is in worship practices.
It appears that until the time of Moses, sacrifices were ad hoc and not mandatory. From Abraham to Moses, we have very few details of formalised worship practice. During the desert decades after the Exodus, a system of Tabernacle worship was instituted. It was fairly elaborate with a mobile Tent as its focal point. A system of sacrifices and offerings was established at this time and continued as the Israelites entered and settled in the Promised Land. Then, God switched them to a Temple based system of worship, focused on Jerusalem, at the time of Solomon. By the time of Jesus, they were on their second Temple, with some adjustments of the rituals and a myriad additional rules and requirements added. Soon after Jesus, during the lifetime of most of His disciples, just as Jesus predicted, that model of worship was destroyed. Jesus had changed it anyway, but in 70AD the Temple itself was destroyed to reiterate this change.
Through church history, we’ve seen multiple changes in worship forms, and sit today with myriad options from Pentecostal to Orthodox, free church to liturgical. Each option finds its roots and formulations in the Bible, although many are mutually exclusive. It wasn’t just a shift from the Old Covenant to New Covenant that we can see – there were many moments of adjustment through Biblical and church history.
Look at another example: national leadership. Initially the young nation of Israel was led by tribal leaders – the oldest son of the oldest son of the family head. This shifted to specially appointed leaders in Moses and Joshua, and later to Judges. Then the people demanded a king. In 1 Samuel 8, God makes it clear that this was not His choice (see also 1 Samuel 10:19 and Hosea 13:11), but He grants their wish and a period of kings follows (God gave instructions for such a king in Deuteronomy 17, showing He anticipated this request, even though He did not approve of it – although these instructions could have been edited in Deuteronomy later, of course). By the time of Jesus, Israel had a Roman appointed puppet ruler, with the real leadership being with religious leaders. Today, Israel is governed by a democratic Parliament. There is no “once and for all”, “right for all time” national leadership structure given by God.
The Redemptive Arc of History
Most theologians agree that we are to interpret these changes not as a sign that God changed, but rather that God is prepared to meet us where He finds us, in our levels of development and societal advancement. God hasn’t changed in Himself, but He may allow something today that He didn’t allow before, and vice versa.
Let’s look at the example of slavery.
Some people try to claim that the Bible never condones slavery. It’s pretty tough, though, to argue away Leviticus 25:44-46:
- Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
Or Leviticus 22:11, instructions specifically to priests:
- But if a priest buys a slave with money, or if slaves are born in his household, they may eat his food.
Or Deuteronomy 20:10-14:
- When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.
So, the Bible condoned slavery. How do we interpret these verses today? You cannot simply take the verses about slavery and say that they can be applied to the boss-employee relationship.
In Exodus 21, male slaves are to be set free after six years. If they were married before they became a slave, their wife can go free with them. But if they have had children during the six slavery years, the children remain slaves. And if they get married during the six slave years, the wife remains a slave (Exodus 21:1-6). You can see how this provision would easily be abused. Female slaves were never set free (Exodus 21:7). You are allowed to beat your slave, but only to an extent that he does not die immediately – if he lives for two days and then dies, there is no punishment, “because the slave is your property” (Exodus 21:20-21 – note that the NIV changes this to say if the slave “recovers” within two days there is no punishment. This is slightly better, but not by much). In Luke 12:46-47, Jesus Himself seems to tacitly condone the fact that a master can beat his slave “with many blows” for not doing what he was supposed to do. There’s no analogy here to boss-employee relationships. When slavery is abolished, these verses are irredeemable.
Why did Jesus and Paul never condemn slavery? We’ll look at this in more detail later, but for now it’s enough to say that they just took it as a given in society. Paul even uses it as an analogy for our relationship with God. It was not yet time in history for God to deal with this societal evil. He’d wait another 1700 years or more before using men like Wilberforce to push through abolition.
The way to understand these verses is that they are part of a development of moral codes over time. The instructions about slaves were actually redemptive for Israel, in the sense that they mandated better treatment for Israel’s slaves than the slaves of that day would have found anywhere else.
The same is true for the issue of women in society, in everything from the rights of women to own property to their treatment during divorce. We might read some of these Biblical statements in horror, but they’re actually creating a much better environment for women and slaves than existed in the prevailing culture.
William J. Webb, in “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis”, calls this “redemptive movement”. He believes we can see this clearly with slaves and women, but believes that the Bible is against affirming homosexuals. I disagree with him on his conclusion around same sex marriage, but agree with his concept of “redemptive movement” or “ultimate ethic”. I’ll come back to this concept later and explain why I disagree with Webb. For now, I simply want to establish the concept of what others have called “the redemptive arc of history”.
Simply put, God doesn’t ask society to jump forward twenty steps. He takes us one difficult step forward at a time. But He is always pushing us forward, and asking His people to take a lead in bringing about more justice, more fairness, more love and more righteousness in the world. God appears progressive – always ensuring that Israel and His people are “ahead” of the surrounding nations in their moral development. God is counter-cultural. We see this in instructions on how to treat slaves, clean and unclean foods, the role of women in society, the role of national leaders, treatment of prisoners of war, treatment of the poor, the death penalty, the nature of the Sabbath, divorce and many other issues.
I am not saying that God is moving to an “anything goes” society (some people use Paul’s statement that “everything is permissible” in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23 to justify this). I will still need to deal with creation ordinance issues and the fundamental morality of God to prove my point about same sex marriages, but for now I want to show that instructions God may have given in the past can change under certain conditions.
God is not finished with us. He continues to teach us new lessons, and continues to push His people forward, and through His people to move society forward.
This might be most clearly stated in Matthew 19:3-10. The Pharisees came to Jesus, attempting to trap Him with questions about the Law. They asked: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” Jesus told them that divorce was not in God’s plan from the beginning. Thinking they had trapped Him, the Pharisees pushed further: “Why, then, did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?” If it was in The Law, they were saying, then it must be God’s ideal will. But Jesus’ answer stopped that line of thinking:
- “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The point was clear: some things permitted in the Old Testament did not necessarily represent the ideal or God’s will. Due to the hardness of ancient Israel’s heart – due to their societal and moral stage of development – God tolerated (and regulated) some things under the Old Covenant Law that He did not endorse. It’s important to see, though, that as He did so God progressively revealed His divine will to humanity, clarifying His will more fully through Christ. And He has continued to do this work throughout history.
Change is not bad
Conservative Christians seem to be opposed to change by default. This is not how it should be. Our religion has adapted and changed many times and in many ways over the centuries. The Reformation has not been mentioned yet, but it is one of the best examples of the value and importance of changing our view of God, our view of ourselves, our theology and our Christian practice.
In fact, it might be that change is part of the foundation of our religion. It is the constant adjustments to changes in society and history (which is distinct from being shifted BY society), the relentless march of science and human knowledge, and the ebb and flow of faith conversations across a variety of traditions, that all work together to define our beliefs and practices.
Such changes to our faith tradition should always be done slowly and with deep introspection. But we should not be scared to do so. The process might be difficult for some people to accept. Some Christian traditions teach that everything we need for faith and life have already been worked out in the past, and our task is to find this truth and cling to it. To discover that actually the vast majority of Christians through the ages have been in traditions that emphasize change and development can be quite a shock.
But we see this throughout the Bible and church history, as I have outlined above. And it is time to change again.
I believe that we should make a change with regard to our acceptance of homosexuality and affirmation of same sex marriage. Not because the Bible has changed, or God. But because it is an obvious progression of the radically inclusive message of Jesus, and because we’re discovering that we were wrong.
Next in the series: How we interpret the Bible.
The first part of the series, including a full index is available here.
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