The Bible and Same Sex Relationships, Part 3: How we interpret the Bible


  • The “plain reading” of the Bible is impossible, if you’re not reading it in the original language and cultural context it was written in.
  • My approach to Biblical interpretation is informed by conservative, evangelical exegesis and hermeneutic traditions.
  • The Bible is God’s Word.
  • The Bible is not a Constitution or legal document.

  • For Christians who believe that the Bible is God’s Word, and therefore key to guiding their lives, the issues of homosexuality and same sex marriage are almost entirely issues of Biblical interpretation.

    I realise that some people reading this series of articles on homosexuality may find it strange that the debate revolves around an ancient set of books. For those who don’t see the Bible as inspired by God, it’s easy to explain away the references to homosexuality as outdated, mere cultural artefacts and/or irrelevant for us today. I do not take this view. I believe the Bible is God’s Word, and that it is God’s Word for us today. But, as I stated in the previous section of this discussion, I believe that it is possible for us to have been wrong in our interpretation of God’s Word, and also possible for God to adjust His requirements for us over time.

    My approach in seeking answers on any life issue is always to go back to Scripture and what God has already said to His people and the principles He has laid out for our lives. And so we now focus attention on the Bible as we attempt to find out what Christians should believe about homosexuality and same sex marriage today.

    What ‘The Word’ Is

    The Bible has been different things to different people over many centuries. There are many different ways that Christians have interpreted the Bible – and continue to do so even to this day. From completely allegorical approaches to completely literalist interpretations, no tradition has ever been able to definitively “prove” their tradition to be without fault – each has some element that is open to debate and causes people to attempt to study further and try and refine it. Or replace it with something else.

    I believe that part of the reason for this is that only in Jesus Himself is complete Truth to be found. Jesus claimed this for Himself, when He claimed to be The Truth, and John especially refers to Him as The Word. Finding truth then is about having a relationship with a person and a deity, not merely about putting a series of facts in the right order. And, as I said in the previous entry, it might be that the whole point of our faith journey is that we continue to develop and grow throughout each of our lifetimes.

    Let’s be honest, if God really wanted to write a rule book or Constitution which would have very little room for negotiation, He could have done so. But He didn’t do that. Or, to be slightly irreverent, if God intended to give us such a rule book, He really hasn’t done a good job at all.

    What I Believe About ‘The Word’

    I know that people can be God-honouring Christians and have a variety of different views on the Bible. I also know that you don’t have to be a conservative evangelical in order to take the Bible seriously. But that is my tradition. It is also the tradition out of which much of the Biblical opposition arises. It is therefore the approach to the Bible that I am going to follow. I consider myself to be an evangelical.

    To be very specific about what I believe the Bible to be:

    • I believe everything the Bible claims for itself,
    • especially that it is the words God intended us to have, recorded, translated and preserved by human authors in human language,
    • that it is ‘God-breathed’ and that it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
    • I do not believe in Biblical literalism, which thinks that it can take every part of the Bible literally, and attempts to treat the Bible as a modern day text on science, geography, history and ethics. This separates me from many Reformed Christians.
    • I do not believe that everything God has ever said or done is recorded in the Bible.
    • I do believe that God continues to speak to us today, but I believe that God is completely internally consistent across the eternity of time, and that God will not now reveal Himself to be something other than what He has previously shown Himself to be (in other words, God’s instructions to us might change, but they will always be consistent with His character).
    • I believe that the ultimate expression of God’s will for us is found in Jesus Christ, who is The Word of God made flesh,
    • and that everything we think we see in the Scriptures must ultimately conform to what we know God to be through Jesus.
    • I believe the Bible requires careful interpretation, not least because the original documents and languages in which they were written are no longer directly accessible to us.
    • I believe the Holy Spirit continues to help us interpret, understand and apply the Bible.

    How We Interpret Scripture

    My hermeneutical method to interpreting Scripture is theologically conservative and evangelical (informed by nearly a decade of formal graduate and post-graduate theological and seminary education within the Baptist and Dutch Reformed traditions), and can be summarised as follows:

    • Ensure the translation is accurate – this is done by using multiple English translations, technical commentaries and, where appropriate, doing original language word studies.
    • NOTE: While I accept and take into account Historical Biblical Textual criticism, I accept the 66 books of the Bible as the received canon, and my starting point is to take them at face value.
    • The next step is careful exegesis – “the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning”. The goal is to discover the meaning the original writer and readers would have placed on the content. This involves (at least):

      • Understanding the historical context, including the culture of author and readers, the occasion of the writing, the personality and context of the writer and original readers, and other such factors.
      • Looking at the immediate literary context – the sentence, paragraph, section, book and other writings of the same author, the Testament and the whole Biblical context are important.
      • Systematic studies – what other passages of Scripture say about the same issue.
      • Tradition – what other writers have said, from those in Biblical times, but not part of the canon of Scripture, throughout the ages to recent scholars and specific/formal church doctrinal statements.
      • Looking at the myths, stories and legends of the surrounding cultures – things that would have been in the minds of the original readers, and would have been influential in shaping the thoughts and word usage and idioms of the writer.
      • Considering carefully the genre of the passage, and understanding the forms and uses of that genre in its original cultural and historical context.
      • In particular, understanding that the Bible is not intended to be God’s Legal Constitution. It was never designed to be parsed one word at a time, or to be approached as lawyers might approach a contract or legal document. We can study it deeply – and should, but always remembering that it is a collection of books, covering multiple genres and literary styles, primarily designed to record the encounters that various different people and groups of people have had with God, in different places and different ways over a period of centuries, and to lead us to Jesus and God (John 20:30-31 is a nice reminder for us about the purpose of the whole Bible).

    • After establishing the meaning, the next step is application. This primarily means deciding whether the content is applicable to today, and how it should be applied. The criteria for this would be:
      • That the context today bears a reasonable similarity to the context of the passage in Scripture.
      • That the content lines up with the whole witness of Scripture (this is to avoid proof texting, or using isolated verses out of context), and theology (the beliefs of the Church in general), our understanding of the character of God especially as revealed in Jesus, and the church’s evolving teachings over the ages. Where a major departure from this is made, clear reasons must be shown for what has caused the shift.
      • That the teaching aligns with the character of God, specifically as revealed in Jesus.

    • All of the above processes are to be completely immersed in prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit‘s illuminating (assisting us to understand what was written), teaching (assisting us to apply what is understood) and guiding (giving us new insights as required by new eras, per John 16:12ff) roles.

    I would highly recommend Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” as a starter text for anyone wanting to develop their skills to do these steps themselves.

    Using the above well accepted conservative, evangelical interpretation principles, we will now begin to work through a few key verses that talk about homosexuality and have significance for our main question of whether Bible-believing Christians can affirm covenantal, monogamous same sex marriages.

    Previous article in this series: Do God and the Bible change?

    Next article in this series: Sodomites in Genesis (and Judges)

    Click here to see the index of the full series of blog posts on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality.

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    9 thoughts on “The Bible and Same Sex Relationships, Part 3: How we interpret the Bible”

    1. One can of course be properly Christian while having alternate approaches to that of Conservative Evangelical Christianity, (which is just 1 approach amongst many).
      For example, while I take the Bible very seriously and also believe it is God’s Word, I myself am not convinced about this sentence: “especially that it is the very words of God for all time…”

      I don’t think God ensured each specific word be written down exactly so. It comes down to how one understands the concept “Inspiration”. In the days before camera’s, imagine a superb painter sees an amazing sunset. He feels deeply inspired to paint it, to capture as much of the beauty as he possibly can. And he paints a stunning picture. Was the painter inspired? Yes. Was he doing his very best to capture what he was seeing in all honesty and using the best skills at his disposal? Yes. Is there a strong likeness between the painting and the actual sunset? Yes. Can we say the painting is inspired? Yes. Is the painting a perfect replication of the actual sunset, without any flaws? No. Nor does it have to be to still communicate the essence of the sunset. Same with the Bible.

      Whatever our specific beliefs about inerrancy, I do think you have done an excellent job of capturing how Christians should go about interpretation.

    2. Graeme, I think that another important study alongside this one is how the church have interpreted the scripture over the years. So the church hasn’t always taken scripture literally. I am doing some reading on this and think it is an important issue in this debate.

    3. Gavin, thanks for the reminder of the various different traditions. I am going to adjust the post above to mention this.

    4. Anne, I am going to make sure I do that study, but with specific reference to the issue of homosexuality.

      The best book on this is: John Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century”.

      I agree with your statement about how we’ve interpreted the Bible over the years, though, Anne. I am going to include it above.

    5. Karen Armstrong’s book, The Bible is also helpful though it doesn’t deal with specific issues.

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