2015 Talk Round-Up: Biblical Law

** This post is on the longer side, but I hope you find it interesting. I sure enjoyed writing it. 🙂 **

On October 24th, I spoke at the 2015 Pride In Education GSA ‘True Colours’ Conference. I have spoken at the annual PIE GSA conference for three consecutive years now, and I always write a follow-up afterward (I apologize to those waiting for the delay this year). The presentation I gave this year was called “Unwrapping The Law: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, And The Bible.” I had to think about this one more than any other talk I’ve given. I had to study harder, and I sat down with an Anglican theologian to ask some tough questions (my Dad, with whom I disagree on many things, but to whom I am forever grateful for his willingness to sit down and have the discussion). I wrote this talk because, like it or not, the church is still really powerful. The fight for equality is a testament to that. The system of laws and attitudes and cultural conventions that keep people down, are religious at their very core. Empiricism set the stage through conquest, and religion was the method to control and organize society. In the west, at least as I see it, we owe a lot to Christian doctrine – exclusion, hatred, fear – while the positive – ethical laws, morals, unifying ideas – are things that existed before Christianity, and have been consistently disregarded since the church began claiming them as their own. The question I wanted to address was: are Christians justified in condemning homosexuality as a matter of law; at least from a scriptural standpoint?

Now, I admit that adding Gender Identity into this was a tad pointless. Not because I have no defence against my opponents, but because the Bible really doesn’t say anything about it. I wrote an article on April 25 called “Biblical Justifications For Transphobia.” In it, I talked about Psalm 139 and Deuteronomy 22:5. These are really the only two passages I hear in opposition to Trans issues; short of those who use a ‘whole-Bible’ approach to make their point. There is also an argument involving the creation story in Genesis, but I find it insufficient, and that’s a discussion for another time.

In Psalm 139, it is said that God has known all of us since we were in the womb – kind of a weak argument, since that supports us being born the way we are, according to his will. It’s also not part of the law. Deuteronomy 22:5 is a law against cross-dressing. This is also weak, for two reasons. First, cross dressing back then basically meant adding or removing the belt from your dress. Second, you have a God who created the entire universe, has everything that exists to worry about, and he’s concerned with what you’re wearing? Come on. Not only is that petty, it’s suspiciously human. So the Bible has nothing relevant to say against Gender Variance, and those who use it to condemn Gender Variance are grasping at straws for a scapegoat to justify their fear. I didn’t go any further with that, because I just don’t find any more substance to it.

On to some biblical laws, of which there are 613 … most of which are not followed by the church, and the reasons for this vary. Some are re-interpreted – for example the law about helping your neighbour with his over-burdened ox can be re-framed to mean helping your neighbour with their broken down lawn mower. Some are thrown out – it’s pretty hard to live in today’s world and not wear blended fabrics. Some are no longer considered valid – methods for cleansing and refining animal meat have come a long way, so why follow the prohibition on pork? And most importantly, we have the doctrine of the new covenant. At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “not a jot or tittle of the law” would change until all had come to pass. He also said that he had not come to change the law but to fulfill it. The crucifixion is believed to have been the fulfillment of that, so many of the Old Testament laws no longer need to be observed. Still, though, most Christians agree that certain laws are valid while others are not.

So Leviticus 19:16 commands believers “not to slander.” In other words, don’t gossip. Churches teach this one, but does anybody really keep it? There are 13 laws related to helping the poor and less fortunate, and many churches offer help in this regard, but when was the last time the vatican put its money where the pope’s mouth is and used their wealth of resources to end world hunger?

Deuteronomy 23:18 says no sex before marriage. Leviticus 18:20 bans extramarital affairs. In Deuteronomy 24:5, a newly married man must be free from work or military service for one full year in order to celebrate with his wife. Leviticus 19:27 forbids men to shave their sideburns or beard. We are not to castrate a male of any species according to Leviticus 22:24 (so much for neutering your pets).

Then we have the subjugation of women. According to Deuteronomy 22:19, the punishment for defaming your wife, for destroying her reputation, is to be forced to live with her the rest of your life. This is framed from a male perspective, but what it boils down to really is that a woman is forced to live with a man who has destroyed her socially for the rest of her days. Deuteronomy 25:5 makes a woman marry her brother-in-law if her husband died childless. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29, an unmarried woman must marry her rapist. According to Exodus 22:18, witches are to be put to death … we all know how that one played out in our history.

My favourite laws are the dietary ones. I like them because they demonstrate why we shouldn’t be taking biblical law too seriously. Exodus 21:28 tells us not to eat the flesh of a bull that was condemned to be stoned. Leviticus 11:6 says not to eat rabbits because, although they chew their cud, they do not have a divided hoof … all kinds of wrong in that one. Leviticus 11:13-19 identifies the bat as a kind of bird. These examples are kind of silly, but they are there. If we were to take the dietary laws literally, and look at all possible definitions of wording like “creeping things,” there would be very little we could actually eat.

And now we get to the point. Leviticus 18:22 provides us with the all-important law, the currently argued law, the one that evangelicals frame as what I call the 11th commandment: thou shall not lie with a man as with a woman. And like numerous things throughout scriptural law, this is called an “abomination.” I like to simplify it, and say that the 11th Commandment is: “thou shalt not be gay.”

I think it’s fair to say that biblical law doesn’t stand today as it did when it was written. Then we see cherry-picking going on, and we see people trying to say that there is a difference between ceremonial, moral, and civil laws; but that’s a matter of doctrine. The Bible lays it all out there without making the distinction of which are more important. The only argument that makes any sense is the new covenant, and if the crucifixion fulfilled the law, therefore removing the burden, my response is “game over, then. If that’s the case, Old Testament prohibitions are no longer binding, and that includes homosexuality.” That should be the end of it, but this is where we find a problem.

Talking about the law and using the rest of scripture to explain it away is easy. If we only had to deal with that, it wouldn’t be worth our time to even talk about it. But scripture has much more to it, and if we choose to debate it we have to come prepared. So the problem we face is that prohibitions on things like shellfish aren’t mentioned anywhere but in the law. We don’t see Paul talking about washing your steak down with a glass of milk in his letter to the Romans. We do, however, find his thoughts on homosexuality. There are many laws that Paul talked about, and this is one of them. Since Paul wrote after the crucifixion, and since the church believes his words to be God-given, it appears at first that there is a relevant scriptural argument to be made … until we look at Paul himself.

So what do we know about this man? He used to be Saul of Tarsus, and as Saul of Tarsus, his job was slaughtering Christians. Then on the road to Damascus, God revealed himself and Saul became Paul – the newest convert to Christianity, who would become the most influential evangelist in history, and one of the founders of the church. This is the most important thing to know about him, because most converts have certain qualities that are relevant to this discussion.

When I was 16, I went to a weekend retreat called Teens Encounter Christ, TEC for short. The whole point of TEC is revival, to stir the holy spirit and mobilize an enthusiastic young base of on-fire evangelicals. We were moved to witness, to give testimony, to tell the world about Christ and his love for us. I was already a Christian when I went to TEC, but what I left as was a “born-again” Christian – a convert of sorts. And I had all the qualities, too – “on fire,” eager to tell everybody, loud, brimming with enthusiasm, unapologetically fundamentalist … annoying, overbearing, preachy, unwilling to listen to anybody who disagreed, because I was convinced that Christ had revealed absolute truth in my life. I was like Paul, and nearly everybody I know who has been to a revival, or converted for whatever reason, is like Paul; at least for a time. This context of conversion is vital.

If you read the letters of Paul and pay attention, you can see it plain as day. Paul was arrogant, obnoxious, bent on writing his version of what God wants and making sure everyone knew it. Paul was also educated. He could read and write, and he was a cultural Jew who knew the Torah inside and out. He knew the law, and he wrote “as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy;” effectively using God’s authority to assert what he thought should be included under the new covenant. Paul was, for all the respect he’s given within the church, the quintessential evangelical opponent of the LGBTQ+ community, a pioneering cherry-picker. He was Tony Perkins. He was Pat Robertson. He was Kim Davis.

So back to the question. Are Christians justified when they use Leviticus to condemn, when they use the law? I don’t think so. The new covenant argument still applies. We do find homosexual sex outside of the law, condemned in Paul’s letters, right beside women braiding their hair, and women holding positions of leadership. It’s pretty clear what Paul was doing, and it should be clear that he was wrong. This is all in the church canon, it’s just a matter of teaching that is conveniently ignored at times. IF the law had not been fulfilled on the cross, and IF the new covenant was not ushered in when Jesus took on the sins of the world, then ALL 613 Old Testament laws would still apply … every single one, including stoning your children, if the council of elders deemed it appropriate. Either Paul was right, and the LGBTQ+ community is a bunch of perverts, women need to step back from authority and stop adorning themselves with jewellery and hairstyles, or … Paul was wrong from the outset, and the Old Testament laws are in the past where they belong.

Jesus said he came to fulfill the law. He then fulfilled it on the cross. Either there is no new covenant and all 613 laws are still valid, or there is, and those laws are no longer binding … whether Paul said it or not. As the cliché goes, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too.’ The Bible just doesn’t stand in an argument against LGBTQ+ issues. People need to stop using scripture as a scapegoat to justify their dislike of others. That’s really all there is to it.

 

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