"Sexuality and Ordination (Part 2):

The Church as Interpretive Community"

by Robert G. Bruce

from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas

April 27, 1997

[Moderator's Note: This is Part II of a three-part series of sermons on "Sexuality and Ordination." The third - and final - was given on May 3, 1997.]

Romans 1:18-23


Last week was part one of a three part series of sermons intended to give us a basic theological and biblical framework within which to continue the PCUSA discussions about sexuality and ordination. Last week was the theological framework of who we are in the eyes of God; today is the interpretive context in which the church works with the Bible. Both of these sermons are framed around the real human and faith question, can a person who lives out his homosexual orientation do so with the blessing of God?

This question: > is personal in the extreme, so much so that it is almost painful to raise it in church. > it is also an oversimplification of the complexity of the personal and social situation in which we live. > and it is a question that some of us are tired of having to discuss. But the question remains as real as the child that we will baptize in the 11:00 service today; as real as the persons each of us are this morning. So, today we run at this again because it is important to us. We run at it - glad for a congregation in which we can be honest about this; glad that our purpose in church is not so much to convince the other person of our position as it is to engage in a dialogue in which we learn from one another and learn to appreciate one another.

Last week I suggested that the deepest reality of any person's life is the theological and spiritual reality that all are created in the image of God; that all are loved by God; and that all are called by God in Christ to a life of service. This call of God tells us that our chief end is to glorify and love God and to serve our neighbor in love. As we do this - as we glorify God and serve God and neighbor - we discover who we are and why we were created. And is so doing we find our happiness, not as the primary goal of our life, but now rightly understood as a by-product of this service of God and neighbor.

Moreover, the really critical human question, which we see vividly in baptism, is this: how shall the person who is created in the image of God and loved and called by God - how shall this person live? Understood in this way every person, regardless of race, gender, physical condition, national origin, sexual orientation, job, or wealth - every person stands at the same place before God as a loved and forgiven child who is called to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. In worship and baptism today everyone of us has a renewed opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us.

But as the people who are so created, loved and called how are we to know how to live? Who will teach us? Only God, of course. But how will God teach us?

Over the centuries Christian people have answered that question in these basic ways: (1) partly we know how to live from the nature of creation itself. Built into the very warp and woof of creation is the hand of the Creator God; as we learn about and from creation we learn something about the Creator and the created ones. Creation teaches us something about who we are and how we are to live because it teaches us something about God.

As we have learned form our Reformed theology, this knowledge of God and of ourselves from creation is not complete; it is partial and fractured by sin, but it is real and every human being has this light from God in creation.

Partly we know how to live from the nature of human history and culture. Simply put. we human beings have the capacity to learn from one another, to learn from the experiences - the joys and heartaches - of prior generations. And we continually see the truth that "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." This knowledge of self and God is also real, but it too is incomplete and what we learn from history is often contradictory and amoral. For culture and history are an ever-changing scene of competing powers and ideologies, where more often than not might makes right.

But mostly as Christians we know how to live on the basis of our life in a particular community called the church, as the church engages in dialogue with Holy Scripture. We know how to live because the church teaches us how, sometimes to our great good, and sometimes to quite a mixed bag. Some of you here today grew up in churches where you learned some bitter things that you have spent adult years trying to unlearn: messages of profound and debilitating lack of worth; of a God who judges far more than beckons in love; of a Christian way rooted in guilt and requirement; or rooted in a grace that is cheap because it requires nothing significant of a person. But, for good or ill, it is within the community of the church and a given congregation that we learn how to live as God's person.

Thus, when we approach an issue like our sexual identity before God we incorporate these three ways of knowing how to live. But mostly, in the church, we do this as a community engaged in dialogue with the stories and poems and prayers and history and letters and teachings that compose the Bible.

If we choose to answer the question of our sexuality apart from the Bible we may certainly do so - after all, as we say, it's a free country and we're free moral agents. But if we do so, we have ceased to be the church, at least in the way the Presbyterian and Reformed church has understood itself from the very beginning. The church exists only where there is an interpretive community which is in conversation with the living God through scripture. There is no church apart from this. We may be a like-minded community apart from this, but apart from this we are no longer church.

In this understanding of what the church is and how it teaches us who we are, there is an implied call to submit ourselves to the teaching and guidance of scripture as God's Word to and for us. In this sense the conservatives and evangelicals in church and society have been very much on target in what they have said about sexual practice being submissive to the teaching of scripture. I was interested that in the Time magazine article that featured Ellen DeGeneres' coming out sequence of a popular TV program. Camille Paglia, scholar and author, had this to say about that coming out and some of the objection to it by the Christian Coalition and other groups: "As an open lesbian, I say that the entertainment industry has been exploiting the artistic talents of gay people throughout the 20th century without ever giving them their due. [But] the objections of conservative Christian ministers who believe in the Bible are well founded. People on the left have got to accept that it is not simply bigotry that causes believing Christians to object to this kind of element in the popular culture."

I don't know Camille Paglia's relationship to the church, but she has profound insight into the nature of the church. If the church is rooted in scripture, the church has to listen to scripture in order to be the church and not simply a liberal or conservative thinking gathering of people.

Just so the Presbyterian Church; we will have to listen to scripture if we are to remain the Presbyterian Church. We will have to continue our role as an interpretive community engaged in dialogue with the Bible. I have no question about that.

The single most important thing we can do as a congregation is to be an interpretive community and teach our children how to do the same. This is the primary task of preaching and Christian Education and pastoral care and of a sermon like this. Moreover, we Presbyterians have run at this from a particular theological perspective: "The whole counsel of God... may be deduced from scripture:... Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word;..." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.006).

Or to say that in a little plainer fashion, we come to the study of scripture in the trust that the Spirit of God will open the meaning of scripture to us and that we will be encountered by the living Word of God in Jesus Christ; Christ will meet us through the scripture. And then it is that those of us who interpret scripture begin to be interpreted by it.

Thus, our interpretive hope is not simply that we will come to understand an ancient text - we do hope that - but, more than that, we hope and trust that as the interpretive community engages scripture, God will meet us; we will be in dialogue not simply with a story, but with the living God. Or as we say that in our mission statement, "[we will] be brought into the transforming experience of Jesus Christ." Since we will be in conversation with the living God and not solely with a written or oral story, then our interpretation will be more in the nature of a relationship than of an academic exercise in interpreting ancient texts. The living Word will meet us, as the hymn says, "beyond the sacred page."

In this sense the interpretation of scripture is not something that happens once upon a time for all ages; the interpretation is not something that can be delivered to us by some outside authority. And from time to time we have clearly seen this at work. For instance, there was a time in the Presbyterian Church when, believe it or not, people used the Bible to justify the practice of slavery. As we continued to be the interpretive community, God led us to a deeper truth.

More recently, we have been witness to the interpretive movement from the place where divorced people, which in the plain sense of scripture are excluded from leadership, to an interpretive emphasis on forgiveness and grace as a deeper principle than law for worthiness to be a leader in the church. That interpretive move from judgment to forgiveness is the only reason that I, as a divorced person, am able to be preaching this sermon today.

Interpretation as a living and moving relationship between God and the church happens as the community of faith brings itself - with all its human experiences and knowledge; with all the light shed from the creeds and confessions of the church, with what we know of the literary and historical context of a passage; with what we know of the whole canon of scripture; with the Christ-event offering us an interpretive principle - we bring all this to the interpretation of scripture, trusting that God will open to us its meaning. In this manner interpretation as a relationship, rather than as an academic exercise, happens.

That leads me this morning to the text in Romans 1, and I am freely quoting Jack Rogers, a Presbyterian-Evangelical theologian who teaches at San Francisco Seminary. Since Romans 1 is the biblical text most frequently thought to be most explicit about the issue of homosexuality, Rogers says that it deserves our special attention. The basic message of Romans is that we all need the grace in Christ. In Romans 1 :18-20 Paul "declares that everyone knows God, but that everyone has suppressed the truth... and Paul concludes that all are without excuse. Then in the rest of the chapter he makes it clear that since we know the true God, to worship any other so-called gods is idolatry and worthy of death (death as separation from God)."

What Paul then does is illustrate this idolatry with the worst possible example he can think of. I am quoting Jack Rogers directly: "I have been to Greece and visited Corinth. I have stood on the spot where Paul stood when he was tried by the Roman authorities for creating a disturbance about religion. When you stand at that spot you are looking up at a mountain called the Acrocorinth. On top of the Acrocorinth was a temple to Aphrodite. This god/goddess had both male and female sex organs. Aphrodite's temple was staffed by 7,000 prostitutes. They worshiped this idolatrous god/goddess by engaging in same sex intercourse with each other and their clients. Paul was revolted by this gross idolatrous worship."

Rogers continues, "Having begun with the worst example he can think of, Paul then widens the range of the sinful consequences of not worshiping the true God. In w. 29-31 he lists 15 sins, including envy, gossip, and foolishness. The point of this list is made in v. 3: 'those who practice such things deserve to die.' That covers all of us. Paul's plea comes to us in the opening verse of ch. 2, 'Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the same things."'

The basic meaning of this message is clear: in Christ God accepts each of us as individuals; God forgives us in spite of the fact that none of us deserve to be forgiven. This is the basic meaning of Christian grace. And all of us who are accepted by God and called to God's service are also called to submit all of our relationships, including our sexual relationships to God, for only God alone is capable of judging and leading us. Note, carefully, that God accepts us and deals with us individually, not as a group or class of persons.

Though the net of the recent Amendment B was cast wide to include us all, whatever our sins and sexual lifestyles, we all know when we are honest that primarily it was aimed at one group of persons - persons whose affectional orientation is to persons of the same sex. In doing this, in using literalism and legalism toward one class of persons we have violated our fundamental biblical and evangelical principle of interpretation that God deals with us not as classes of persons, but as loved individuals. Thus, we have one principle of interpretation at work for divorced persons, and another for homosexual persons.

We shall have to be more honest than that as we interpret scripture. Either we shall have to be legalists and defrock those who have been divorced, or we shall have to be evangelical and say that everyone is an individual before God and that no class of persons can carte blanche be excluded from God's call of leadership.

It is a compelling argument that Rogers has used.

In conclusion let me return to the body of what we have been saying. In the congregation and denomination let us continue to do what we are called to do: to be an interpretive community, engaged in dialogue and relationship with the living God through our dialogue with the Bible. As we do so, God will lead us to the truth and will lead us to one another. Everything we discover on the path of this relationship may not be to our fancy or in accordance with our previous understanding, but then the truth is of God and not of ourselves.


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