A Biblical Interpretation Can’t Take Away What It Gives: An Open Letter to Rev. Dan Collison and MF4i

An Open Letter to ECC’s Rev. Dan Collison and MF4i in Response to His Sermon “Why We Gather: Caring for Others through Social Transformation: ‘LGBTQ’” promoted on the MF4i website.

 

for Judy


But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.
— Psalm 10:14

Dear Rev. Dan Collison (Dan if you will allow me) and MF4i,

I realize we don’t know each other. And this open letter is an awkward introduction I admit. So at the outset let me ask your forgiveness for both the impersonal approach and the length of this letter. 

I am not a member of the ECC, but I am a professor in Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University. So I too have been deeply affected by the events of the last two months surrounding our dear friend and colleague Judy Peterson. I have a deep sadness for the circumstances that have unfolded for the Judy, the ECC and North Park. I have unanswered questions and concerns about aspects of the process from April to December. Still, I have attempted to reserve my judgment because I was not privy to the process.

What my friendship with Judy has taught me is that disagreement does not have to result in distance and suspicion between friends; our common ground, in spite of our disagreement has, actually, drawn us together.

So you know where I’m coming from: I am a devoted follower of Jesus who holds to a historic Jewish and Christian view of the human sexual body (I prefer to use the concrete phrase "sexual body" instead of the abstract term "human sexuality"). But this position is not the final word for me on the matter; it’s my starting point.

I resonate with the elements of David Gushee’s reflection on what led him to “cross the threshold” to fully affirming Gay Christians. He writes in this memoir Still Christian (pg. 137):

I crossed the threshold when I argued that the main biblical/theological issue was whether God’s created order could be viewed in a manner that did not require Christians to adopt a solely male/female gender and sexuality paradigm, in light of the genre of the creation stories, the evidence before our eyes in human life, and the fact that Christians have been seriously wrong before in the claims they derive from a theology of creation.

I have a deep sorrow for the way the church has dealt with those who have struggled with the “reality” of our sexual bodies and the historic teaching of the church, grief for the LGBTQ community as well as other sexual minorities. I have grief also for all of us who out of no wish of our own feel a deep contradiction between with the reality of our sexual body and the truth of the historic teaching of the church, what a friend of mine has labeled “Mere Sexuality.”

What is more, I have a deep sorrow for the way the church has dealt with those who have struggled with the “reality” of our sexual bodies over against the historic teaching of the church; I have grief for the LGBTQ community as well as other sexual minorities who have experienced harm and evil. 

I grieve also for all of us, who out of no wish of our own, feel a deep contradiction between the reality of our sexual body and the truth of the historic teaching of the church. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and the aftermath of that trauma has left me with a bent sexuality I never asked for, but I’ve had to suffer with, fight against and come to peace with. I’ve written about my story here on my blog and in print if you are interested. Most recently I published an essay called “Bent Sexuality and the Pastor.”

The “truth” of our sexual body in the kind of world we inhabit has been a significant reason for the call I feel to place myself in the borderland between the irreconcilable positions. I do hold to what I believe to be God’s wisdom for human flourishing, monogamous heterosexual marriage ; equally, though, I am determined to join arms with anyone on either side of the struggle who will help me create field hospitals in the middle of no man’s land where the people of God are hiding out in pockmarks and bombshell craters left behind by the warring sides.

I want to cooperate with those who desire to defend a gracious space where we can tell the truth and receive the assurance of God’s kindness no matter what that truth is and no matter what we do. This posture I believe is our “obedient and responsible action,” to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and toward all who have suffered because of a deep struggle with their sexual body.

The approach is secured by both the belief that God himself can defend his definition of the sexual body and by my growing understanding of God’s infinite kindness and empathy toward and inexhaustible patience for our human experience before he makes all things new.

This is the common ground Judy and I have shared. I trust it will be our common ground as well.

I am with you on the suffering and injustice the LGBTQ faith community; I’m with you on the ambiguity of the genre of Genesis 1—11; I am with you in hospitality, in gracious presence with gay Christians who love Jesus. Listening, attuning and lamenting together as we share our grief, our unfulfilled desires for love and our tenacious hope. But the stumbling block for me in “crossing the threshold” is Gushee’s first claim in the quotation above. I’ve yet to see an interpretation in favor of same sex marriage that does justice to the implied meaning of canonical Scripture in its early Jewish context and shape.

I am with you on the suffering and injustice the LGBTQ faith community; I’m with you on the ambiguity of the genre of Genesis 1—11; I am with you in hospitality, in gracious presence with gay Christians who love Jesus. Listening, attuning and lamenting together as we share our grief, our unfulfilled desires for love and our tenacious hope.

But the stumbling block for me in "crossing the threshold" is David Gushee’s first claim in the quotation above. 

I've yet to see an interpretation in favor of same sex marriage that does justice to the implied meaning of canonical Scripture in its early Jewish context, content and shape.

I remain willing to listen and to consider with an open mind a new theological hermeneutic that takes much more seriously our bodies as vehicles of revelation alongside Scripture. But canonical Scripture, its context, content and shape, must have primacy in discerning both Christian freedom and limit.

And again I took up the invitation today from the Mission Friends 4 Inclusion page on Facebook to listen to your sermon [linked to MF4i page] you preached on the LGBTQ inclusion this past year at your church, the First Covenant Church of Minneapolis, MN.

You are clearly a gifted preacher-communicator. I found myself immediately engaged by your style and subject matter. I appreciated your deep pastoral sensitivity and your attempt to live under Holy Scripture. I want to make clear, too, that there is much in your sermon - maybe in fact most of your sermon - with which I agree fully.

As a New Testament scholar who teaches and writes on Jesus, his Jewish context and the theological necessity of difference in the ekklēsia (church), much like your theme of the "sacredness of difference" I feel compelled to point out an inaccuracy in in your handling of Luke 11 and to address the deep structural problem it reveals. 

I do this in this open letter publicly because, for better or worse, you have been used as example par excellence for the position advocated by the MF4i. 

I remain willing to listen and to consider with an open mind a new theological hermeneutic that takes much more seriously our bodies as vehicles of revelation alongside Scripture. But canonical Scripture, its context, content and shape, must have primacy in discerning both Christian freedom and limit.

The point of my critique is not prevent you or anyone else from offering a fresh reading of the Bible from an alternative hermeneutic that advocates full inclusion. Trust me, if I could be convinced of one, I would willingly adopt the position. 

Instead my point is to challenge you and others to do better at handling the Bible in arguments for inclusion. If you want ultimately to convince opened-minded people like me that such a position can be supported by canonical Christian Scripture, you must do better, much better, than an interpretation formed from an inaccurate understanding of the ancient context, and one which in structure is identical to historical precedents that led to the exclusion of people from the church since the second century.

The crux of my problem with your interpretation is that you take back as you give; you exclude as you include. 

The crux of my problem with your interpretation is that you take back as you give; you exclude as you include. 

Dan, you make two claims about Jesus and Judaism in Luke 11:37-51 that serve as the foundation, the basis (to use language from your introduction), for your sermon's main claim about LGBTQ inclusion.

These two claims are common inaccuracies and, at best, tired caricatures of Jesus’ Judaism. In what follows I will describe your claims and then offer responses.

(1) Judaism was a religion; the religious and cultural practices of Jews at the time of Jesus would likely change over time. Jesus foreknew this religious variability and contested Jewish rule keeping which devalued people.

You say,

[In Luke 11] Jesus used the “Woe” word several times in direct confrontation some of the leaders and theologians of his religion of origin … generosity and forbearance, justice and love, are more important than policing religious and cultural rules and traditions that will likely change over time (p. 3).

This is significant misunderstanding of the ancient context still very common among Christians. Scholars of early Judaism, however, agree that "Judaism" was not a “religion” in the first-century CE as we would define religion today. This fact should affect how we theologize.

Judaism at the time of Jesus was not a religion, alongside others; rather Judaism was a culture, an ethnicity practiced alongside other cultural ethnicities. Judaism as culture included what we would speak of as religion of course, but it also encompassed many other things: mythical family heritage, language, literature, philosophy, geography, a unique calendar for marking time, and distinctive dress and diet. Jewish identity was demonstrated through a certain pattern of life.

What do these observations mean for Jesus and LGBTQ inclusion? Nothing really.

You were part of the Jewish ethnicity if you descended from a certain family group whose story was rooted in a mythical past and practiced a certain way of being in the world. While there was significant diversity of practice among Jewish groups at the time, there was, nevertheless, what could be called a “common Judaism.” We know this because outsiders unaware of the particular differences inside Judaism, saw and dealt with them as a people group across the Roman Empire. Though Egyptian Jews were very different than Palestinian Jews, their fate was tied up together. Judaism was not a religion; it was a culture.

To understand Jesus as rebuffing practices or rules because he knew they would change over time is to misunderstand Jewish Halakah and the way it worked. Again its worth restating that Jewish ethnicity was practiced. Jewish practices did change over time, that is true. But what changed was not the Mosaic Torah for Jesus believed, as all Jews did, that the Torah was an eternal covenant God made to Israel: the Torah created Israel as a distinct ethnic people.

The controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees were not over the question of whether it was right or wrong to perform practices, call them rules if you like. To be a Jew was to keep Torah; to keep the “rules” of Torah was to be a distinct people from others.

What remained necessary however was guidance on how Mosaic Torah instructions were to be put into practice. It is the practical interpretation of Torah instructions that came to be referred to as halakha. The later Mishnah was the literary product of halakahic interpretation. Jewish teachers in Jesus' day disagreed vehemently over the practical interpretation of the Torah. Jesus’ controversies situate him perfectly in the middle of those arguments. The variability of Jewish practice, then, was no disrespect or disregard for the Torah; it was rather a recognition of a Jew’s ultimate obligation to keep Torah in ever changing historical circumstances.

What do these observations mean for Jesus and LGBTQ inclusion? Nothing really.

So they should be left out of the debate. The controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees were not over the question of whether it was right or wrong to perform practices, call them rules if you like. To be a Jew was to keep Torah; to keep the “rules” of Torah was to be a distinct people from others. The debate was not about the Torah, but how Torah was to be rightly practice in order to maintain and preserve a distinct ethnic presence in the world against persecution and assimilation. Jesus was a fully Torah observant Jew. He came as the Jewish Messiah to redeem the Jewish people and the nations. As a Jew, he upheld the Torah and encouraged others to do the same (Matt 5:18-20). But his way of interpreting Torah, practicing the rules of Torah, were at odds with other groups like the Pharisees.

Jesus would have prioritized people over useless rules, of course [!], but this question was not at all the issue in the controversy stories when they are understood on their own terms in their first-century context.

Jesus saw no contradiction in an exclusive Jewish loyalty to God expressed in a rigorous Torah keeping and the priority of hospitality.

Jesus saw no contradiction in an exclusive Jewish loyalty to God expressed in a rigorous Torah keeping and the priority of hospitality. Dan, your framing of it in the dichotomy of “rules or people” is problematic because from this you want to put Jesus as over against the Torah. But Jesus didn’t do as you claim. This leads to the next inaccuracy.

(2) Jesus did not maintain complete loyalty to the Mosaic Torah because he saw it as unnecessarily burdening broken, fatigued and marginalized people.

You say:

We are to prefer others and be ever aware of that which needlessly weighs people down, and be compassionate sojourners with those carrying special burdens (p. 3 emphasis added).

Elsewhere you say:

Jesus disengaged and sometimes rebuffed rule keeping religion in favor of Covenant and principles all of the time (p. 10, emphasis added).

There can be no disagreement with the point that needlessly weighing people down with rules that don't reflect God's word is destructive. Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for adding additional burdens to Galilean Jews keeping them in fact from the rules God had given to Moses.

But your point goes well beyond what Jesus meant. 

You have taught that Jesus both disengaged and rebuffed rule keeping in general, and replace it with something called "Covenant" and "principles". Although you don't say it outright, your claim clearly suggests that Jesus was disloyal to the written Torah of Moses, at least where the Jesus believed the Torah unnecessarily burdened people. There are multiple levels of misunderstand in these ideas. First, the categories of “Covenant” and “principle” you see as Jesus' alternatives to rule keeping are abstract and untethered from Jesus’ own concrete context and concerns. Notions like these about the Torah would have been completely unknown to him in his time. There is something of a principlization in Jesus' answer to the Scribe's question "Which is the greatest commandment?" (Matt 22:36-40), but Jesus would was not principlizing to the negation of actually keeping Torah. Your categories are anachronistic retrojected onto the words of Jesus according to Luke. Jesus would never have thought this way.

Jesus was not disloyal to the Torah of Moses; he was not fighting against rule keeping; he didn’t espoused a principle that placed a higher value on people over keeping the rules of Torah. He believed to practice Torah was a blessing to people. The Torah taught justice, hospitality, grace, and care for the marginalized. Jesus’ imagination, his identity, his mission, were formed by the Torah. What the Torah taught, Jesus believed and lived. He and the Pharisees shared that commitment.

Rather than a protest against rule keeping in general, Jesus’ protest against the Pharisees in Luke 11 and elsewhere is against their progressive revisionist halakhic interpretations of Torah.

In Pharisaic attempt to guard the Torah and make it applicable to daily life, the Pharisees added new rules to those which were already written in the Torah. Their motive seems to have been in the right place out of their desire to be a faithful ethnic presence in the world as God had called them to be. What made the Pharisees distinct as a first-century Jewish party was their practice of two Torahs: the Torah of Moses and something referred to as the “traditions of their fathers.” The Pharisees believed in a written and an oral law.

Jesus blasted the Pharisees for these additions because, in his view, the Pharisees made being a Jew too difficult; out of reach for most Galilean Jews. In other words, the Pharisees asked their fellow Jews to do more than God had required of them. Their purpose may have been a noble attempt to preserve and safeguard Jewish ethnic identity in a prevasive Hellenistic world, but the result was a burden none but a few could bear.

Jesus was not disloyal to the Torah of Moses; he was not fighting against rule keeping; he didn't espouse a principle that placed a higher value on people over keeping the rules of Torah. He believed to practice Torah was a blessing to people. The Torah taught justice, hospitality, grace, and care for the marginalized. Jesus’ imagination, his identity, his mission, were formed by the Torah. What the Torah taught, Jesus believed and lived. He and the Pharisees shared that commitment.

So, Jesus neither introduced a new religion nor sought to reject Jewish religion as rule keeping. Jesus was a devoted, Torah observant first-century Galilean Jew who was Israel’s Messiah to bring God’s eschatological promises to their fruition.

So, Jesus neither introduced a new religion nor sought to reject Jewish religion as rule keeping. Jesus was a devoted, Torah observant first-century Galilean Jew who was Israel’s Messiah to bring God’s eschatological promises to their fruition.

The Jesus in your teaching appears to hover above his concrete world and addresses issues more familiar to the 21st century than his own. In order to argue for inclusion, you have created a Jesus little interested in the embodied and real concerns of his first-century Jewish milieu about identity. Your God-incarnate needs to hit the ground.

Jesus and the New Testament authors originated from an ancient Jewish context; the formation of the Christian canon in the fourth century, as well, was established and arranged to answer the Marcion’s anti-Judaism heresy. In its composition, its collection and its final formation, the New Testament is an early Jewish text from beginning to end. 

A Jesus little concerned with the preservation and restoration of a Jewish ethnic identity is not the biblical Jesus. The New Testament church is the church of both the circumcised and uncircumcised (Gal 2:1-10), not the uncircumcised only.

Finally, this leads me to observe a deep structural problem with the hermeneutic you employ to make your biblical case. Jesus and the New Testament authors originated from an ancient Jewish context; the formation of the Christian canon in the fourth century, as well, was established and arranged to answer the Marcion’s anti-Judaism heresy. In its composition, its collection and its final formation, the New Testament is an early Jewish text from beginning to end. 

Any convincing interpretation about gay marriage must do justice to the ancient Jewish conception of human beings that both Jews and Christians in the first five centuries CE shared and that gave rise to the Christian canon. Your hermeneutic has to get you from there to here! Preston Sprinkle has put it poignantly: “If we say that Christians should endorse same-sex relations, then we will need to recreate a rather un-Jewish Jesus and an un-Jewish New Testament” (People to Be Loved, pg. 67).

As a hermeneutical approach, we are free to say what Jesus and Paul believed doesn’t matter today; that we know now better than them; that the Bible’s ancient cultural biases can be disregarded for free floating principles of love and the like; that on an alternative theological reading of the Bible, taken as a whole, the its canonical shape reveals something about the sexual body beyond any of its individual parts. Any of these could be options for a modern person to take.

But what is impossible as far as I'm concerned is to make Jesus or Paul, and early Jews and Christians in the first five centuries say what they could not have even imagined conceiving as those traditioned by the Bible's canonical narrative.

The eraser of Jewish ethnic identity is the unfortunate logical endpoint of your understanding of Jesus. Consequently, your hermeneutic undermines your argument for inclusion. By arguing for the inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the manner you do, namely a disregard for the rules for Jewish ethnic identity, you, in fact, deny the inclusion of practicing Jews as brothers and sisters in Messiah.

If your biblical hermeneutic results in an erasure of a concrete Jewish ethnic identity in the church both ancient and modern, it can be no friend of an argument for LGBTQ inclusion because at its heart is a tragic exclusion.

Let me put it like this: if your biblical hermeneutic results in an erasure of a concrete Jewish ethnic identity in the church either ancient or modern, it can be no friend of an argument for LGBTQ inclusion because at its heart is a tragic exclusion.

I would have preferred to wrestle with these ideas in person and not in such an impersonal manner. But the current situation and the fervency of the discussion led me to take this action. Perhaps as a good result of this letter you and I (and anyone else in the ECC who would wish to come together) can create a safe space at NPU to wrestle together through Scripture, reason, tradition and experience. North Park should be the place the Evangelical Covenant church does its best thinking.

In the Messiah,

Joel