Friday, April 30, 2010

My Friend, So Long -- Part 1

News broke three weeks ago, in an interview, that celebrated Christian music artist Jennifer Knapp had come out. She announced that she'd been in a long-term same-sex relationship. The most conflicting element of this admission was that she still considers herself a follower of Jesus and a person of faith.

There have been all sorts of reactions. Mean-spirited comments have been broadcast where some believers have denounced her for using Christian music as a platform to make a name for herself. People outside the Christian faith have risen to her cause, no doubt seeing her as a political football to trounce the Evangelical movement. Both types of people not seeing a person I'd say; rather, seeing an icon that they could impersonally use to raise up their particular brand of vitriol.

Mostly the reaction has been sadness. From the people I've spoken with, to the blogs I've perused, to the buzz I've seen on Twitter, the general feedback has been grief. Not bitterness. Not ill will. Not even resentment or spitefulness. Just sadness. Some disappointment that such a high-profile believer would let people down. But mostly just grief at her decision.

I was proud of the Church at large in seeing that. I find it appropriate.

An endless amount of questions are raised with such a revelation. Larry King asked some of them when Jennifer appeared on his show. BTW, you can watch that interview in full RIGHT HERE (it is in a series of 4 videos on YouTube. You can catch the link to the next part of the interview at the end of each video.).

A sampling of the most salient questions:

- Is this her choice?
- Was she born this way?
- Does Jennifer still call herself a Christian artist?
- What does it mean to be homosexual? Are you already in sin if you're just attracted to someone of the same sex?
- Can you be both Christian and gay?
- Written in Greek, is the New Testament all that clear that homosexuality is a sin?
- Why highlight this issue over other issues? Scripture says so little about it, compared to other issues. Why make so much about it?
- What does it mean for kingdom people to dwell with Jennifer Knapp? (raised by Scot McKnight)

To me, the latter questions are the most interesting, and the ones I want to spend the most time with here. I can't answer the questions about Jennifer's sexual nature. I don't believe Scripture speaks clearly enough about it. What is there might tilt in favor of one perspective, but it doesn't give us definitive answers on this issue. So I'm not going to pretend to have them.

But what is in Scripture always provides a way forward. So I hope I can point in that direction for the questions that are most important.

First, why make so much of this issue? Jennifer said it this way in the Larry King interview:

"If I am a sinner and homosexuality is a sin -- let's go on that premise for a moment -- then what separates that sin from maybe, I'm angry, or mad, or I cheat....what separates that as so grievous to you that we have to sit here and have this conversation?"

There are so many different sins in the Bible. There are so many other verses in the Bible talking about so many other issues. Why do Evangelical Christians put a magnifying glass on this one?

The questions are accusatory in nature, and they are two-fold. First, that we're making a mountain out of a mole-hill. And second, that we're being selective about who/what we show contempt for.

If I may, allow me to start with 1st Corinthians 6:9-10...

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

This is just one list, among other lists and other passages, that highlight lifestyle choices that are incompatible with life in the kingdom of God.

On this list are sins that get a lot of social attention (e.g. sexual immmorality, homosexuality, greed, etc.) and some that don't get as much (e.g. idolaters, slanderers, etc.). And all of them should get attention. Paul spoke about how he strove to deliver "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). And so should we. We should not shrink back from declaring how we fall prey to idolatry even in the 21st century, or how we slander public officials when we forward along E-mails rife with lies & mis-truths. Every single one of those issues should be given attention by people of faith.

But that doesn't mean that each of them should get the same amount of attention. Because we unfortunately don't live in a vacuum. We live in a culture. And that culture intersects with our faith in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. And because of those intersections, some topics require more attention than others. Even if Scripture doesn't treat such issues as often as it treats topics like love or faith or money, the context of this world warrants their consideration. I happen to think homosexuality is one of those topics.

And of the sins on that list, there aren't a lot of them that a person of faith would succumb to and still maintain that they were sinless in the sight of God. Maybe greed. Greed is one of those sneaky sins that you can justify with words like, "Well I'm just good with money." So maybe people pass off greed; and we need to speak louder about that. I'll grant that. But I'd say that not even the greedy brush it off as matter-of-factly as Jennifer did in her various interviews.

Why is this sin of Jennifer's capturing our attention? Because it's not often that one of our own turns against what is written. It is not ordinary for a lifestyle choice that is clearly outlined as being unacceptable when under the reign of God to be shoved upon the Church to be accepted. It isn't run-of-the-mill for someone to be open about sin and yet staunchly maintain that she is in fact still in communion with God. I'd call this issue unique enough to be deserving of the attention it has raised.

But what about those words there in 1st Corinthians 6? Is it really homosexuality, or some other 1st century practices, that Paul was condemning when he originally wrote in Greek?

Jennifer raised this question in her Larry King interview. It's a question that has garnered more scrutiny in the last half-century as homosexuality has sought social acceptance.

The first word is malakoi, or malakos in it's singular form. The second word is arsenokoitai, or arsenokoitns in it's singular form. Paul chose two expressive & explicit words when he chose them, as they are descriptive of the dominant and passive roles in a same-sex engagement. Exactly what sort of same-sex engagement is what is at issue. "Both terms have received intense lexicographical scrutiny," says Anthony Thiselton. Some argue that Paul might have referred to male prostitution in general, or sacred male prostitution in religious service at Corinth. Or perhaps Paul was referring to the the practice of pedophilia when young boys were forced into temple service in Corinth.

On one side, we have the argument of the late Michael Vasey, who cautions that (in the society of imperial Rome) 1st century Jews & Christians saw a "form of homosexuality [which] was strongly associated with idolatry, slavery and social dominance. It was often the assertion of the strong over the bodies of the weak." On the other side, we have the argument of Richard Oster, who insists, "The historical record is quite clear that homoerotic activity was not confined only to pederasty in the classical world."

That's just a glimpse, but deeper and deeper the debate burrows into scholarship. And I suspect most of my readers will side with the their teacher from Harding Grad School. I do, too. In the words of Richard Hays, "The New Testament will not permit us to condone homosexual behavior."

(BTW, I fully endorse that book by Hays. If you're looking for a full, comprehensive, and compassionate treatment of the subject, I can't imagine anything out there beats his chapter on homosexuality in that book. The whole chapter is framed around his homosexual friend Gary. For that matter, the whole book is excellent for figuring out how to engage all sorts of social hot-button topics & be faithful to Scripture. Just buy the book.)

The substance of an argument against malakoi and arsenokoitai is frankly weak. In her Larry King interview, even Jennifer's mention of the alleged ambiguity in terms is weak. She can't bring herself to say that the Bible accepts the behavior; the strongest thing she can say is, "I don't know." That's a pretty flimsy fulcrum on which to rest one's faith.

What disturbs me is that, by all appearances, it wasn't Jennifer's study that led her to doubt the weight of scholarship-accredited Scripture. She leaves the overwhelming impression that it was her own feelings and personal passions that swayed her thinking. Certainly experience enriches our perspective on Scripture and life. But personal experience doesn't re-write the text.

To be continued...


James Jones said...

I think I was saddened more by how unfamiliar she seemed to be with the subject from scripture as a whole. I caught her mentioning of the Greek, but did not seem to really understand how it related to the context, especially with Romans 1. I am glad you pointed that out, and I am looking forward to your other posts on it.

her music is great, and I still appreciate her messages in them. I pray she will look to the Lord for direction. Maybe, just maybe, she will receive more insight to help her in her path. I want her to grow in the Lord, and to be able to be more of a blessing to her loved ones by living in His way.

Emily :) said...

This is great and I am really looking forward to the next part. This is such a relevant and difficult subject for the Church right now.

It is always difficult when we start asking why we focus on certain sins or don't we all still sin. Because of course we all do. But I think it like you pointed out, it is the difference between grieving over our sin and celebrating it.

I have been a huge Jennifer Knapp fan and I remember when she first started as an artist and hearing that she was a new believer. I thought it was so great how she fleshed out the journey her faith was taking her on, but I always wondered how hard it was to be put in the spotlight as a leader as such a new Christian.

Katherine said...

While I respect your beliefs; I deeply disagree with the basis of condemning people on mis-interpretations of various Greek words that have been translated to reflect modern terms. While I believe the Bible is written down by man and inspired by God himself, I believe newer translations of the Bible are to enhance one's relationship with God and not be combined with popular commentaries which are then foundation of dividing God's Believers. For example in the verse you cited, NIV states homosexual offenders, while the KJV does not use this language.

I am not fluent in Greek, however, I will be doing more research and will gladly send you my findings. I am not looking for a large debate, simply stating your message has been read, and will be reflected upon.

As a Christian lesbian, my goal is to serve and honor God. I know I fail and struggle. But imagine how pleased and overjoyed God would be if all of His believers could worship together, rather than have this huge divide.

Phillip, as I have told you before, I believe God will use my life as a way to reach others; perhaps it is through the upcoming research that I may be answering His Call. Thank you for writing this post. Please continue to pray for me as I pray for you. I also pray that we may each have the gift of discernment as we research such a relevant topic.

James Jones said...

An interview with Jennifer from Relevant Magazine's website

III said...

@ Katherine

I'm glad you made it all the way through part 1, and that you're open. I again urge -- if you can only read one article or chapter -- seek out that "Moral Vision" book by Richard Hays. He doesn't dive into the lexicography as much as the commentaries and theological dictionaries do. And he has a personal connection, as I alluded to, so he isn't speaking simply from an ivory tower. If you're determined to seek truth, and not simply just to fortify your own position, you should seek out that book.

As for the phrase "homosexual offenders"... it might seem imprecise, but it's at least more accurate than the KJV rendering you referenced. The latest NIV translation (TNIV) renders it "practicing homosexuals," which is also imprecise, but slightly better.

(I'm no expert either, but I have put in 5 semesters worth of Greek at the undergraduate & graduate levels of study. FWIW...)

I should caution that a bit of humility is in order -- for both of us -- if this conversation is going to continue & remain a conversation. I haven't had homosexual urgings or longings, and so I can't pretend to understand what that's like. And since it seems you haven't had training in ancient Greek, seems it would be difficult for you to stand in prudence over a committee of translators (made up of the world's foremost linguistic scholars) that collectively translated the NIV.

N.T. Wright says that it's this lack of humility on both sides that prevents the conversation from happening...

Dan said...

These are excellent thoughts, Philip. Thanks for sharing on a sensitive topic these days. I agree with you for the most part.

For me, on one hand, it's hard to say that an entire category of people is essentially living a sinful lifestyle, but on the other, the Bible seems fairly clear on the issue, textual criticism aside. I also find it interesting that, at least as far as I can think, there are no Biblical examples of homosexual behavior in a way that glorifies God. It's just hard to get around it, IMO.

Another verse that stands out to me in this discussion is Hebrews 10:26, which states that "if we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice of sins is left." You can say that homosexuality is no different than any other sin. If so, then to continue in these actions seems like it would deliberately be continuing to sin, and as continuing to practice any sin isn't good, neither would practicing homosexuality.

I didn't see the interview here, but as I understand it, Jennifer Knapp is actively practicing a homosexual lifestyle? If so, that may be the hardest part for me to accept.

Also, it's interesting that the word "homosexual" didn't come into the English language until the late 1800's, and wasn't common until the early 1900's. So, if we are looking to translations before that time, they are likely not going to include that word. But I guess that beg the question of what they did use to refer to homosexuality.

Looking forward to the next installment.

Rachel said...

Philip, as you know, we disagree often, but one of my favorite things about you is your willingness to discuss matters humbly and openly, and to consider the viewpoints of others. This makes it very easy for me to respect and consider your opinions. So, thanks for that. It's rare, these days.

That said, I'll weigh in a little on the situation with Jennifer, acknowledging up front that this is a very confusing and complex issue that I haven't totally made up my mind about yet.

I'll agree that the church as a whole has not responded as poorly as I expected. But traditionally, church has been very unkind to homosexuals. Even in this situation, while there has perhaps been less condemnation than usual, there has still been some backwards thinking, in my opinion.

If Jennnifer had announced that she was a compulsive liar, or that she'd been sleeping with her boyfriend, I gurantee you that people would be responding differently. Why? Because those are things most of us can relate to. I, like you, Philip, have never wrestled with homosexual feelings. I have been friends with many who have, and after talking with them, can ALMOST taste, just a little, the bitterness of dealing with such a thing in a Christian environment. I can't imagine.

I believe that, as Christians, are job is to give people every opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ living in us. What they do with Jesus once we introduce them to him, well, that's really up to them. I believe that he's too compelling to ignore. If Jennifer believes that she has really encountered Jesus Christ, and that she can serve him with her whole heart as a practicing, monogomous (sp?) lesbian, I'm not sure I have much to say about that. And I disagree that the issue is clear in Scripture.

I've known some practicing homosexuals who have, they believe, encountered Christ, and continue to practice the homosexual lifestyle. I've also had some friends who've encountered Jesus, and believe that they must, as a result, disregard their homosexual feelings.

Be assured, I'm not saying that we never stand up against sinful behavior. I'm just saying that someone who identifies themselves as a homosexual should not be treated any differently than someone who's sleeping with their boyfriend before they're married. To be honest, I can't find a clear enough part of Scripture that totally condemns either.

Okay...go ahead...let me have it...I'm bracing myself!

Katherine said...

You are correct in that I do not have the training you have. Perhaps while I am in law school at Faulkner I will have the opportunity to take the bibical classes that will enhance my research findings.

I'm not setting out on this to prove a point, but to earnestly seek out HIS Will. A couple semesters ago I had to do a research project and learned a great deal. I will use what I learned from that class and provide a lengthy, scholarly analysis of the topic.

I know in my heart that I through my monomogous relationship with the woman I first had feelings for in 9th grade art class should not be grounds to be looked upon so poorly by the church. I would LOVE to find a church that would embrace me as a sister in Christ and accept that it is not their place to judge my love for Becky. God did not intend for His people to be alone. He wants fellowship among those who love Him, yet the church as a whole has hurt their witness and given the world the image that Gays are going to Hell and have essientially made the church and its members unapproachable. I would guess that most Christian Gays are people who were exposed to Christ before realizing their sexual identiy. What does that imply? That there are mllions of people the church is pushing away and not sharing, nor exhibiting God's forgiving love.
In all actuality, it was my struggle with hearing from the church that my inner feelings were sinful that contributed to years of immoral sins where I tried to come to terms with who I am. I know I had free will throughout everything I did, but the internal conflict of knowing you are gay versus the condemnation of homosexuals youth learn about at church can be so overwhelming.

I tried to be straight. I prayed for years for God to take the feelings I had away from me, yet he did not and has not. Why? I can not count the number of prayers, tears, or hours at the alter where I prayed. I earnestly sought Him and His healing, yet here I am;
still loving Him,
still a believer,
still seeking Him,
still having the same spiritual gifts,
still gay.

I'm sorry I do not have a well prepared response, but I will down the road.

III said...

Just wanna say that I appreciate everyone's feedback so far. Especially you, Katherine. I recognize that it means way more to you than it does to most others.

And, Katherine, you don't have to apologize for not having a "prepared" response. I've been sitting on this blog entry for over a week -- wanting to think, and stew, and read -- and here in the middle of it I don't feel anywhere near mastering the subject. The subject should unsettle us, and make us challenge our assumptions. Scripture should do the same.

Hope you guys hang on for the rest. Coming "soon."

Julie said...

I think that all of us have an area in our life where we struggle to give into the desires of our flesh and turn our back on the heart and nature of God. We all do that on a daily basis. It is our human struggle and our spiritual fight. If we are to be like God "with ever increasing glory", what do we do with all of this humanity? It calls for "working out our salvation with fear and trembling." It is a very personal process. It is so hard not to judge others and it is very hard not to "rank" sin. We must continue to encourage one another to keep God and His love our focus. He meets us where we are...and he expects us to meet each other at the same place. We all struggle, but we must all continue to lay down our own desires and sinful nature at his feet. This world and what we want and our momentary happiness is not what it is all about. God bless us all as we continue this life journey toward the greater end!