“There are many ways to perish, or to flourish.”
A brief backstory:
I grew up in the Deep South, and with my grandparents, played in the river made famous by the eponymous funk sound of Muscle Shoals.
A few miles from my childhood home, my friends and I would climb the freestanding monolith in Georgia, recalled in Dr. King’s speech–a rock once a sacred site for Native Americans, then a gathering place for the klan, and, by the time of my childhood, carved up with visages of confederate soldiers, brought to life nightly with a laser show and fireworks coordinated to the strains of the battle hymn of the republic.
I went to school in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, learning to drive my roommate’s stick-shift in strip-mall parking lots and on winding river roads. And in these places, I learned to read the Bible and sing gospel songs.
My family was a part of the Assemblies of God –a denomination of churches that, on the whole, are fairly conversant with broader evangelicalism. However, we were in the southeast, and with the rotation of people through the various churches in each town, there’s a long history of influence from the Wesleyan Holiness strains of Pentecostalism which developed in the late 1800s from lower Appalachia to Florida, that filtered over into the churches of my youth.
Now, I didn’t go churches that forbade makeup and jewelry, but some of them had in decades past, and I knew folks who did worship in such places.
And no, we didn’t handle snakes–though I did get my undergrad at a university in the one denomination to ever officially endorse the practice (albeit, only for a short period).
And yes, I have actually been in a snake handling service (but that’s another story).
So, one of the hot debates in a lot of these Pentecostal churches was whether or not sanctification happened with salvation, as a part of baptism in the Holy Spirit, or as a distinct third event. For the uninitiated, sanctification is a word that literally means to be set apart. Another way of thinking of it is, to be made holy.
There was even a sub-debate over whether or not sanctification was ongoing or complete (meaning once it happened you no longer sin). Thankfully, whether from intellectual honesty or the legacy of charlatan evangelists throughout the 70s and 80s, most folks had abandoned the notion of complete sanctification by the time I joined the conversation.
Why have I given this backstory? Because it’s the doorway through which I entered a conversation that gets thrown down most any time Christians of different stripes try to sit down at the same table.
What to do–if anything–with the thing called sin? Or, framed in the positive, what is holiness and why does it matter?
For those Christians who put weight on the usefulness of scripture for understanding what God is up to and what that has to do with us, this sin/holiness question is complex.
In philosophical terms, there’s the issue that’s known as the Euthyphro Dilemma–a Greek question that goes like this: is a thing virtuous/good because the gods say so or do the gods say so because they recognize the thing to be virtuous/good in its own right?
Early monotheists altered the question to a singular God. And I like to remember it through the lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella–“do I love you because you’re wonderful, or are you wonderful because I love you?”
What does this have to do with bickering Christians? Well, it comes down to what shapes our thinking as we read the Bible–that fantastic collection of fragments of ancient texts, spanning thousands of years and dozens of cultures, that we confess as essential to how we understand the narrative of God’s relationship to the world and humans in particular.
So, when we read these stories we see people interacting with God, and we see the category of something called sin (connected to evil) which is sometimes seen in opposition to righteousness/justice and sometimes seen in opposition to holiness/purity and sometimes seen in opposition to healthy relationship (with God, other people, and land & animals).
And when we read about sin, we can generally agree that it is portrayed as a bad thing. Where the Euthyphro Dilemma comes into play is in this question: are the ways of living proscribed in the Bible good because God says so or does God say so, because they are inherently good? The opposite question also applies–are things labeled sin bad because God says so, or are they inherently evil and God just points that out?
Why does this question matter? Well if something is good or bad because God says so, then God is preserved as God, the source of everything–but we run the risk of a capricious deity, and we have to always wonder if we are in favor or not. But if a particular thing has inherent goodness or evil and God is just pointing that out, then God is subject to a greater governing principle and thus, not God.
Pro tip: this is why they call it a dilemma.
And this is where Biblical theologians annoy the philosophers in the room by deferring to a literary answer. We look to the narrative and ask if the dilemma we’ve created seems to be the narrative point of the text or not.
That is to say, what claims does the story make about the character and actions of God in relationship to this whole good vs. evil — holiness/righteousness/relationship vs. sin thing anyway? What do God’s actions reveal about the nature of God’s character and relationship with humanity, and what does that tell us about how God might be interacting with us around good and evil?
Now, there are lots of people who believe that the Bible tells us precisely how to live; that it clearly and definitively spells out what is sin and what is holiness.
In order to live and navigate our contemporary world and whatever culture they live in, these folks have to make some judgments and abstractions–otherwise they would simply remain neutral about modern birth control, stock market regulations, race relations, masturbation, genetic engineering, water boarding, and about a bajillion other things the Bible doesn’t even come close to mentioning.
And even though the Bible was written in a variety of completely different cultures in vastly different time periods than our own, there’s enough narrative data along with a rich legacy of interpretation, that we can make inferences about the character of God and the general shape of what makes good or evil.
But, the real question is whether or not we are doing this work 1) consciously and honestly, 2) unconsciously, thinking we are just reading the Bible and doing what it says, or 3) we are following someone else (usually our churches, authors, pastors, and media personalities) who says that they know what is right or wrong on either the first or second basis.
No matter which of the three ways we are doing this work, we are doing it within our own particular languages, cultural systems of meaning making, personal biases, and communities. I guess it’s obvious that I distinctly favor at least attempting option 1 (being honest about how we are doing this) rather than insisting on “a plain view of the text,” which I see as tantamount to the Olympics of self-deception.
And right smack in the middle of this conversation is where the conversation about LGBTIQ sexualities lands in the church.
We’re talking about culturally defined categories and identity politics that involve relationships and sex acts. And we’re trying to navigate these contemporary issues using a play book of text ranging in age from 1800 to 6000ish years old.
And so, we have to be honest and say that no one “just reads what the Bible has to say on the matter.” The fact is, there is no singular Bible to read.
We all read translations that are compilations of thousands of fragments selected by highly skilled humans on committees (selected by biased publishing houses) making decisions about which fragments to go with, and how to convey ideas behind words that they know have multiple possible meanings.
The word homosexual didn’t emerge in English until the last 200 years, and it didn’t show up in English Bibles as a means of translating a few different untranslatable concepts until even later. There are many books written about the few verses into which we read the word homosexual in some contemporary English Bibles. Anyone who wants to make a claim condemning to hell (or endangering lives and/or limiting the civil rights of) a few hundred million people on the basis of six-ten verses should probably do some research first.
What is clear is that these verses talk about sexual acts and relationships between humans who were considered the same gender in whatever cultural understanding surrounded those things in their ancient contexts. These relationships and actions, as they were understood in their own time were certainly at least as different from modern western ideas about LGBTIQ sexualities, as contemporary sexualities among people of same genders in various cultures around the world are understood today.
That said, I think that these few verses, along with long church histories prohibiting same-sex activities and relationships in many cultural expressions rightly justifies the need to seriously ask the question: what is good and what is evil when it comes to contemporary LGBTIQ sexualities?
Rather than running from the question my conservative Christian siblings ask, I am moving towards it with them. I actually want to intensify it by taking it back to the question of holiness–when it comes to any expression of human sexuality, what do the character and actions of God, revealed in the person of Jesus and written about in scripture, tell us about what is good and what is evil?
Rather than a heinous conflict tearing apart churches and families, I want a rigorous con-frontation–I want us to sit down and face with one another the deeper question, the question that pulls us back into the whole arc of the Biblical texts and points us back towards the person of God.
So, I come back to the narrative of holiness from my childhood.
I grew up in a context that communicated about holiness, largely in terms of sanctification–of being “called out” and “set apart” for God. What was less clear to me was the answer to the follow up question: set apart, to what end?
The doctrine of sanctification/holiness–of living free from sin–seemed to have two main goals–1) getting into heaven and out of hell and 2) holiness brings glory to God.
Under point one, God is captain of team holy and sin is kryptonite. God can’t stand sin because it makes God super mad, or sad, or jealous and God literally cannot keep himself from either annihilating us or punishing us for eternity for sinning.
This view can also lead to some of the creepiest atonement theology options out there. So in this one, God seems to be held hostage by sin, only capable of one option, destroying the ones he loves. Penal substitution theory steps in here to suggest that God does come up with the solution of killing Jesus so he doesn’t have to kill us, but most adherents say he still will kill us if we don’t practice holiness, because, darn it, sin is just so powerful that God can’t take it.
Okay, so you know what I think of that option–it’s resolved the Euthyphro dilemma by saying God is subject to a higher principle–thus not God.
Under point two, where holiness brings glory to God, the Euthyphro dilemma could go either way, but tends toward a capricious God who calls certain things good, tells us to do them, we do them, and God goes on a power trip.
Here’s the snag with both of these problematic understandings of holiness: they aren’t baseless. An argument can be made for each based on Biblical texts.
The question remains, what do these interpretations say about the character of God in relationship to humans and does it make coherent sense of the bigger arc of biblical narratives and particularly the gospel stories.
Another way of tacking into this wind would be to go back to those churches I talked about before. What’s going on there, that holiness could be defined in hairstyles and handling snakes?
Well these high-walled communities are defining who is in and who is out based on practices rooted in the biblical texts. Their definition of holiness is different in degrees but not in direction from the ones explored above.
Where glorifying God (and/or staying out of hell) is defined by pleasing God through appropriately holy behaviors, it matters very much which side of the line you stand on. If you do the right things (whether it’s on your own or the result of God’s work in your life) you are in. If you do the wrong things, you burn (or in more gracious theologies, God annihilates you, or, even better, God’s not happy with you, but shows grace anyway, because, ya know–Jesus).
As I’ve intoned before, this view holds God hostage to sin. God’s holiness is either like the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, furious over sin, or God is a cosmic bubble-boy who must be protected from the weakest of all contagions.
If holiness is defined by what it is not–defined merely in terms of being called out or set apart from something–it ontologically requires the presence of evil in the world. This doesn’t appear to hold up to the narratives we have.
The very first story mentioning sin in scripture is immediately followed by God coming to look for and commune with the people who sinned, with God providing a way for them to live and be cared for in the midst of the fallout of the consequences for their actions.
The creation narrative is a theological text making a claim about who God is in relationship to people who do things that aren’t good. The story tells so little about the nature of good and evil, but tells much about the character of God.
If holiness is rooted in the nature of God, what does it say about what is holy when God moves toward and provides for those who have done what is wrong?
What follows is my attempt to show how I am trying to make sense of the question of sin/holiness in the narratives of Christian scriptures.
The Pentateuch invites us to follow the stories of a people that grow out of God’s covenant with Abraham–a covenant to constitute a tribe of people who would become a blessing to every people group on the planet.
It’s a narrative that begins right after the origin story of the flood and the Tower of Babel–a story that can be read as God cursing humans for avarice or as God responding to avarice by blessing humans with diversity of cultures to increase their differences and develop contexts for greater interdependence. And there are ways we can follow the arc of the Pentateuch and reimagine what holiness might look like, had the people taken God’s covenant with Abraham seriously.
The holiness codes and the sacrificial system of law come after the people refuse God’s invitation to meet with all of them on the mountain–instead sending Moses in their place. Their elaborate legal system for bringing about holiness reads like a sectarian response to the ten words offered by God on the mountain–ten words traditionally understood as being about loving God and loving neighbor.
Should we assume their theology was always sound, and trust their versions of history, claiming God ordained the massacre of children so that they could take their land? Or could we not also read that God was faithful to them in spite of their bloody ethnocentrism and genocide?
And shouldn’t we interpret the holiness codes through the reforms of the prophets who said God detested the sacrificial system and found it worthless–instead desiring hospitality for the poor, disenfranchised, and immigrants?
And, at last, what do we make of a God who comes to live with sinful humans? It certainly seems like Jesus can stand to be in our presence, not only without annihilating us, but with genuine love, kindness, friendship, and blessing.
Again, there seems to be something in the character of God, where God moves towards those on the wrong side of the Bible’s own holiness codes. This gets repeated at Pentecost when God’s Spirit begins the relentless movement of blessing towards all nations. Mirroring the blessing of confusion originating at Babel, there is a further blessing of every nation when the good news of Jesus–God with us–is heard in every particular language.
Of course, this move by God threw the early church into chaos about how the law applied to those outside the law; those hellions from Romans 1 with their categorical sexual immorality–the Gentiles.
So what does all this say about God’s holiness? Is holiness actually less about policing our borders and more about moving past our own boundaries to bless those not like us with love? What seems apparent is that God’s holiness, when played out in our lives, looks like the fruit of the Spirit–that laundry list of relational categories that lead to blessing others rather than separating ourselves from them.
God’s holiness appears to be transgressive, offending our definitions of holiness.
Instead of being a pure sample that must be preserved, holiness as blessing acts like yeast, inoculating everything it touches. Holiness makes holy; calls things that are not as though they were; steps into places where people need connection and offers fullness of relationship. Holiness is not proscribed by a code, it is recognized by it’s fruit.
In this accounting for the texts, we don’t resolve the Euthyphro Dilemma. Instead, we two step with it. We say that the stories we hold sacred tell us that, far from being capricious, God is relentless, moving towards those who do wrong, forgiving and making holy through a relationship of blessing.
So, what is holy is what is made holy by the faithfulness of God’s love for those who do wrong. Or, like one biblical writer said, God credits us with righteousness.
In some sense, we might imagine God getting fed up and saying, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” But apparently, God has a thing for all creation and moves towards us with love–offering holiness that makes holy in relationship.
So what does this tell us Christians who are tied up in knots over gay sex?
I think we need to pay attention to how we have been shaped by our culture. We call weapons peacemakers. We are more offended by being called racist than we are by our own racism. We use politeness to deliver discrimination. We blame victims for the crimes perpetrated against them. We treat abominably those we accuse of abominations.
In short, our imagination of holiness appears to be shaped by our own impulse to be viewed as blameless.
While we use the Bible to justify our stance on holiness, we need to renew a biblical understanding of holiness rooted in what the narratives tell us about the character of God–as revealed in Jesus–as a movement towards us of blessing.
When we catch on to what the Holy Spirit is up to, we might realize that holiness is not about us getting it right to please God, but that it is God’s pleasure to bless us with relationship. In this paradigm holiness is measured in fruit, not compliance.
This shifts the conversation.
For those who view gay sex as sin, their work is not to be separate, but to offer the blessing of holiness through loving relationality. The requirement of holiness is to join the activity of the Holy Spirit, to transgress our notions of holiness in order to bless and make holy–to be evident through increased love. In this view, God’s grace and holiness are sacrament–those gifts that make sacred– freely given in relationship through Jesus.
And the work for LGBTIQ Christians and their allies is the same–to bear fruit in keeping with repentance–to grow in our capacity to move towards otherness in relational posture of blessing.
If, indeed, God is like Jesus–moving towards us where we are trapped in the competitive, zero sum game, where we demand death to preserve the purity of our system, then holiness is not about separation, but about blessing that is offered in relationship to those we see as wrong.
Jesus’ parable of the yeast is genius because it speaks to the viral spread of holiness-suggesting that holiness is not diluted or polluted, nor does it displace what it encounters–instead, holiness works with whatever it encounters and finds a way to bless and name goodness–this is the movement of a creator towards their creation.
In this interpretation, we are faced (both turned towards and given faces) by a prodigal God who is consistent in character, bringing provision and feasting with those who are on the wrong side of holiness codes. This God’s project is to bless, making good and complete until all things are brought into completion, reconciliation with God and made holy.