“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Acts 8: 30-31 NIV
Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world. God is the primary agent revealed in the biblical narrative… Scripture discloses the word of God, a word that calls into existence things that do not exist, judges our presuppositions and projects, and pours out grace beyond our imagining.
…I cannot understand how people who have studied Biblical languages, interpretation, methods of canonical process, etc. could be Biblical literalists. We either have to take everything literally (i.e., support of slavery, silence of women in worship, celibacy for clergy) or we must be secure enough in our relationship with God to allow ourselves to be critical of the text. Essentially everything written, though it may work in principle, it is not culturally appropriate for this time.
-Bishop Yvette Flunder, Presiding Bishop, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, Senior Pastor, City of Refuge United Church of Christ, Oakland, CA
I. “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the Book for me…”
I was taught from a young age to read the Bible as a daily Christian practice and to trust it as God’s holy Word. When I was seven, my late maternal grandfather, who was my first pastor, baptized and presented me to the congregation with a copy of the New King James Version of the Bible. I don’t remember his exact words but I recall the sincerity of his admonition to practice daily Bible reading as a nascent Christian. Both my grandfather and my mother taught me that, in some mysterious way, reading the Bible would bring me closer to God and God closer to me. To read the words of the Scriptures was to read, and, perhaps, “hear” the voice of God. This lesson was reinforced through Sunday school and Vacation Bible school attendance. As a child, I sang ditties like “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” and “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the Book for me….” I also pledged allegiance to the Bible. My mother bought me Bible-themed coloring books. Moreover, my brothers and I were encouraged to memorize the names of the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon (we knew nothing of the Catholic Bible). Sadly, I lost my first Bible in the shuffle of life. I didn’t read the Bible as much before I was a teenager. I remember as a young boy that I refused to read the Book of Revelation because it allegedly foretold the total destruction of the world. Upon hearing this, I cried, “I don’t want to die!” Despite my grandmother’s advice to start with the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, I found other books more interesting to read, like those of Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies. Reading the Greco-Roman and Norse creation myths actually gave me an appreciation of the Genesis narrative. They also made me question the “uniqueness” of the Bible. In addition, science lessons on the origins of life also kept the questions of the Bible’s veracity to the forefront of my mind. At this point I wasn’t sure how the biblical Creation story was to be interpreted. Even my grandfather, who was a committed Baptist minister and biblical preacher, did not believe in a historical Adam and Eve, but interpreted them as symbols which represent all of humankind. Despite my unanswered questions and neglect of daily devotional reading, I trusted the Bible to “speak to me.” It wasn’t until I began developing same-sex attractions that I started my journey of serious critical engagement with the biblical text.
One weekend morning when I was eleven years old, I watched a sermon by televangelist John Hagee. He preached on the subject of homosexuality—and I was terrified! I was terrified because it recalled to my memory an earlier childhood experience: when I was living with my family in New Jersey at the age of six, my mother befriended a woman who also had two young sons. One of them was my age and the other was two years younger. One night the family came to visit us. The older boy (who I’ll call Tommy) and I went to go play in the bedroom. We entered the closet to play “house.” Tommy assumed the role of “Mommy” and I assumed the role of “Daddy.” In this closet I was learning for the first time what mommies and daddies actually “do” behind closed doors. We started kissing and then when Tommy reached down into my pants to touch my penis, I immediately reacted and ran out of the closet into the living room. I didn’t tell one soul what happened and I suppressed the memory. Now fast forward to more than five years later: on that weekend morning I turned on the television. Within a few moments of watching his sermon, Hagee condemned homosexuality as sin. Immediately I recalled to my pubescent mind that night with Tommy in the closet. I felt so dirty and shameful that I immediately raced into the bathroom, stripped off my clothes and took a cold shower. I wanted to wash the sin away. After the shower, I got down on my knees and I asked God for forgiveness. Interestingly enough, I felt better. Again, I suppressed the memory of that closet experience, thinking that it will never happen again. Homosexuality was condemned in the Book and I didn’t want to displease God. As time marched on, my attractions to males emerged as a youth enrolled in middle and high school. This time, I couldn’t suppress my emerging feelings, appreciation, and eroticization of male bodies—muscular male bodies. After gym period I couldn’t wait to get out of the locker rooms for fear that I was caught staring down my fellow classmates’ bodies. I also couldn’t wait to get home to turn on the Internet and explore the galleries of nude male physique models, bodybuilders, and, eventually, gay porn. I didn’t want to read the Bible since I knew what I was feeling and doing was sinful. I didn’t tell anyone about my desires. I kept them to myself. And I became depressed.
III. “Praying the Gay Away”
I tried to self-medicate or find some type of spiritual counsel in reading evangelical books catered to address men and young men’s spiritual and sexual development. From Stephen Arterburn to T. D. Jakes, I tried to get my hands on something that addressed my particular situation. On occasion, I would open up the Bible, struggling to read and hear a word from God. I started to attend church more regularly than I did. One Sunday I decided to attend church with my second cousin. Her executive pastor preached; in his sermon he condemned homosexuality in the most virulent and insidious way. Hearing his words with my fifteen year-old ears made my heart sink. I felt ashamed again and I kept my feelings to myself. Later in college, I gained more access to material that specifically addressed homosexuality in the Bible and what same-sex attracted (SSA) persons of faith “could do about it.” I was first exposed to “ex-gay” material and reparative therapy organizations that posited that my feelings were somehow connected to my psychological and familial development (i.e. youngest child of a single mother, feminine temperament, complicated relationship with father, my exposure to explicit sexual images, and my “house” experience with Tommy). Conservative religionists and psychotherapists contended that homosexuality was not only a sin but also a psychological disorder (a wounding of the “masculine soul”) that could be remedied through prayer and therapy.
Moreover, I encountered conservative virulent Christian condemnations of LGBT-affirming Christians. Conservative “ex-gay” Christian proponents like Joe Dallas and the Reverend D. L. Foster engaged in rhetorical violence against folks like the Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) and Bishop Yvette Flunder, former gospel singer and openly lesbian United Church of Christ pastor and founder of a fellowship of LGBT-affirming African-American churches. Despite my rejection of this rhetoric denouncing LGBT-affirming Christians, I still read the Bible in a conservative way. Granted, I remained deeply critical of those texts which subordinated women and legitimated slavery. At this point, I considered myself an evangelical who affirms women in pastoral leadership and equality in marriage and society. I also learned much from gay-affirming psychologists and sexuality researchers. I denounced the pseudo-Freudian psychology behind reparative therapy. Furthermore, I rejected the demonization of homosexuality by fundamentalist and Pentecostal/charismatic preachers of all races. Still, I remained quite conservative in my interpretation of same-sex acts, considering them a form of fornication (porneia). However, my interpretations, my prayers, and my fellowship with straight Christians didn’t change my sexual orientation. I labeled myself heterosexual although I knew that was a lie. I still trusted the Bible, even though I still struggled to reckon with the implications of traditional biblical interpretations. I continued to view gay porn in college. I struggled in silence and felt alone. And I remained depressed.
IV. Word of God or “Texts of Terror?”
My critical engagement with the Bible intensified when I began seminary in 2009. Studying at Duke Divinity School was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it was a blessing because my biblical studies professors were committed to the Christian faith and were unafraid to engage the biblical texts critically. They guided all of us students through the history of biblical interpretation, especially through the highly influential historical-critical method. They also assigned us to practice lectio divina, the ancient practice of “prayed reading” of the Scriptures and journal our meditations. One of my professors was influenced by the postliberal school of biblical interpretation which featured Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Brevard Childs as the pioneers. This school of thought engaged the Bible with both historical-critical eyes and a “second naiveté,” to use philosopher Paul Ricoeur phrase. In other words, a postliberal could rightly acknowledge and appreciate the historical, literary, social, cultural, and theological diversity within the biblical texts, acknowledge the tensions which lie therein, and yet affirm the texts as Scripture for the church and engage them with the “rule of faith.”
On the other hand, my seminary experience was a curse. My struggle with the biblical text intensified when I along with many fellow students brought up questions of same-sex blessings and LGBT inclusion to the forefront. My engagement with ideological critics of the Bible (feminist, womanist, postcolonial, queer, etc.) forced me to reckon with the fact that the biblical texts were written under patriarchal conditions and feature elements that have legitimated the historical and social oppression of women, blacks, the poor, indigenous peoples, the disabled, and LGBTQ folks. The testimonies of many lives, including my own, daily challenge me to adopt a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The so-called “texts of terror” (Phyllis Trible) found in the Scriptures have caused many to question the Bible’s revelatory value. “How can God be so petty, heartless, cruel, mad, jealous, vengeful, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and bloodthirsty?” many ask when reading the Old Testament literature. “How can I ever trust this Book?” I ask daily.
For many marginalized people, both believing and otherwise, to read the Bible critically means to question not only the authorized ecclesial interpretations of the biblical text, but the very authority of the text themselves. Many folks no longer trust their ecclesial communities to guide them into understanding the meaning of the Scriptures. Given that too many of these communities foster cultures of anti-intellectualism, bigotry, hatred, and dehumanization force many folks to exit the churches and engage the Bible, if they so choose, on their own terms. So how does anyone read the Bible faithfully when the Church which has shaped and is shaped by it is no longer deemed a trustworthy guide? How do I as an African-American gay man continue to read the Bible as God’s holy Word? How can I still trust the Bible? These questions require extensive treatment. However, I will make some attempt to share my convictions in the following.
V. Rightly Dividing the Word
As a disciple, an interpreter, and as a preacher, I read the biblical texts with a critical hermeneutic of trust. I read the human texts of Scripture believing that the living God, whose Word is beyond human words, still speaks in and through the canonical pages. As systematic theologian Daniel Migliore writes,
Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible. Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus into new relationship with others and with the entire creation. To speak of the authority of the Bible rightly is to speak of its power by God’s Spirit to help create and nourish this new life in relationship with God and with others.
When I critically and devotionally engage the texts of Christian Scripture, I anticipate encountering the living God. Given its diversity in genre, language, authorship, composition, editing, theology, and history, I do not believe that every word in the Scriptures is literally the words of God. In fact, I do not believe that many informed conservative evangelicals, or any so-called traditional Christian for that matter, believes this to be the case. We as Christians anticipate hearing from the living Word that comes to us through the testimony of the Scriptures, namely the Word of God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This Word, again, speaks in and through the Scriptures to us. Following the twentieth-century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, the Scripture is the Word of God only in a derivative sense, attesting to the preeminent, eternal Word of God. To risk circular reasoning, I trust the Bible because I put my trust in the God of the Bible.
In addition, I strive to read the Scriptures with both the rule of faith and the rule of love. The rule of faith or regula fidei is the interpretative principle of the Church us to understand the central message of Scripture. This principle is found in rudimentary form in the Scriptures themselves, the witness of the church fathers, and in the creeds and confessions of the Church. Moreover, Saint Augustine proposed that Christians read the Scriptures with the rule of love as an interpretive principle to foster the love for God and neighbor. For Augustine, both love for God and neighbor are inextricably linked. I believe the tragedy of the churches today regarding many controversial issues is the fact that these interpretive principles have been rent asunder into binary camps of “conservative” or traditionalist” (rule of faith?) and “liberal” or “progressive” (rule of love?). Conservative Christians truly believe that reading the Bible faithfully means that certain matters of faith and practice are simply non-negotiable like matters of sin—in this case sins of a sexual kind. For many liberal and progressive Christians, to continue to uncritically adhere to these sexual prohibitions which were rendered in cultural times and under certain conditions (namely ancient Near Eastern, cultic, patriarchal, agrarian, pre-scientific) considerably different than our own without considering the current knowledge(s) about human nature (i.e. sexual orientation and gender identity development), and the value and virtues attested in the lives of same-sex couples is to reject the rule of love when reading the Bible. Thus, conservatives fail to love God and neighbor.
Furthermore, because the Bible contains challenging, even repellent texts, and has been used to do significant harm to many people (including myself!), I strive to interpret the Bible with great care. The texts of Scripture contain very human words. God did not undermine the human faculties of the biblical authors and redactors. Their words incite great joy and great fear. They can both comfort and alarm. They repel us and they attract us. For wounded souls and bodies, they can heal or do more damage, all depending on the skill of the human interpreters. To discern the divine Word within very human words requires patience, exegetical skill, and careful attention to how the texts mean and function within the canon. What do the texts of Scripture do? How did the first readers hear or read them? I must always consider the fact we modern readers do not experience/read the biblical texts the same way as the early Christians readers did. Then again, it is quite difficult to discern this unless we engage the witness of the saints. In another way, modern Christians should consult the history of biblical interpretation concerning texts. So I read the Bible with and from within the Church—that very fallible, human institution that I still believe God has not given up on despite its many sins, synchronically and diachronically—across time and space.
Finally, I read the Bible prayerfully. I bring all my doubts, my fears, my struggles, my anger, my confusion, and frustrations with me when reading the Bible. My identities as an American, a Westerner, an African-American, and a gay cisgender man do not somehow leave me when I open the Good Book. The voices of crying, lamenting, and sorrowful people ring in my ear and in my soul when reading the Bible. Therefore, in a priestly way, I read the Bible on behalf of those who struggle to discern if the God of the Bible loves us all—even me. Being attentive to the presence of this living God is the primary posture of prayer. Yet prayer is not a one-way act. It’s a communicative act; a dialogue between two parties. As I draw near to God by wrestling with the biblical text, God draws near to me. God’s Word is confirmed through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit (John Calvin). I trust that the triune God who relentlessly seeks the liberation and salvation of humanity and the entire creation will guide me as an interpreter of the Scriptures into greater understanding of God’s saving will. I also trust that the Spirit provides the Church, as a community of interpreters, for me to share the burden of wrestling blessings from the Scriptures and test them according to the rule of faith and the rule of love.
VI. “Is there a Word from the LORD?” By way of Conclusion
Admittedly, my interpretations concerning homosexuality have significantly changed. Although I remain very traditional and evangelical in my “major” doctrinal commitments (Trinitarian, Christocentric, charismatic, etc.), I do believe that God does in fact bless those who are in committed same-sex unions and marriages. (How I came to this position, I will have to save for another essay). Furthermore, I’ve overcome the shame and self-hatred that I’ve experienced since childhood. I no longer view my existence as a problem to be solved. I will always wonder why the Scriptures say what they say about same-sexual acts, despite the paltry number of passages that mention them (seven). Daily I question their implications for my life and the life of others. However, a part of me finds the “traditional” Christian sexual ethic convincing, namely the emphasis on covenant faithfulness and exclusive monogamy as a model for Christian marriages. Nevertheless, ideological critics have provided their convincing reasons for me to re-examine or outright reject those “clobber texts” as the vestiges of a hetero-patriarchal system slowly but surely fading away. Much ink has been spilled and maybe wasted on denouncing and defending the legitimacy of homosexuality. Still, many people hurt and want to hear a life-giving, liberating word from God. They want to know whether or not God really loves all of us as we are and not for what we are not. Lamentably, many churches fail to speak and practice this word that will set many folks free to live abundant lives in Christ.
The biblical writers knew nothing of the modern concept of sexual orientation or the difference between gender and sex as social constructions. Perhaps, they would have cared about advances in modern sciences which illuminates the complexities of humankind. Of course, this betrays my bias for contemporary understandings of gender and human sexuality development which bears on my reading of the biblical texts. I’m ready to concede that earliest Christians may likely view us modern Christians who affirm homoerotic desires and relationships as betraying the Lord who delivered them from “inordinate passions.” Yet, they might also be wrong. As we are shaped by our social histories and contexts, we interpret the Bible as best we know how, trusting the Spirit to guide. Some of us will seek biblically-based affirmation for our non-heterosexual sexual identities and relationships. Some of us will not and, therefore, seek affirmation elsewhere. Others will view the traditional Christian doctrines and ethics as wisdom and rely upon the Spirit and the support from the community of faith to obey the Word of God. Others will reject the traditional doctrines as antiquated, oppressive dogmas and reconstruct Christian theology in light of their lived experiences as queer people of faith. Then there are others whose relationship with Christianity and the Church is too complicated to be placed in rigid boxes. I see myself as a part of this group.
The Church often fails at loving folks, especially loving those with whom it disagrees or fails to understand. So we all need to hear a word from the God who is love. We need a community of love who will guide us into reading the Bible in order for us to seek wisdom, pursue justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8). The Church as a community of biblical interpreters constantly needs to repent and be transformed by the reconciling and liberating love of God. The nature of this God’s love is inexhaustible, and its mystery woven into the very life of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the center of all the Scriptures. Ultimately, it is in him that I put my trust to guide me and God’s people by his Spirit into the truth. My theological position may be wrong, but I pray that at the heart of my convictions, whatever my theology and practice may be, lies the truth that “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
 The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture: Thesis 1,” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (eds.) The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 1.
 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 50.
 Richard S. Briggs, “The Bible before us: Evangelical possibilities for taking Scripture seriously,” in Tom Greggs, (ed.) New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology: Engaging with God, Scripture, and the World (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), 16.