I’ve been reading through the gospel of Mark, chapter 7, and I came upon this passage (verses 6-8):
He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
What’s going on here: in verses 1-5, the Pharisees and scribes noticed that Jesus’ disciples don’t follow all the traditional rules of Israel, in particular rules about ritual washing before eating. Jesus says this, and then in verses 9-13 chastises them for some particular traditions they follow which end up breaking God’s commands.
The gospels present an ongoing controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, and it’s easy to think that the Jewish leadership and religious elite were all of one mind. The truth is, there were several schools of thought within Judaism in those days, even without Jesus thrown into the mix. (Google “Hillel and Shammai” to see more about one of the bigger arguments.) Each side tended to use scripture against the other, which of course continues to this day in the church. (I would guess this also happens in modern Judaism, but I do not know.)
So I was thinking about the arguments and dissensions in modern church bodies and congregations. It seems to me that people on both sides of such arguments tend to think the above passage refers to their opponents, particularly “teaching human precepts as doctrines, abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human tradition.”
I think of the argument about welcoming LGBTQ people into the church. Some people on one side of that argument say things like: God’s word is clear that such behavior is sinful. The church ought not be persuaded away from this, just because the currents of thought in our country about LGBTQ people are changing. Don’t abandon the commandment of God!
And some people on the other side of that argument say things like this: God’s word is clear that love and hospitality trump everything. The church ought not be persuaded away from this, just because the church and society had narrow opinions for a very long time. We are understanding things differently, so our love must expand. Don’t abandon the commandment of God!
I actually have a theory that the debate about LGBTQ welcoming all comes down to the interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19, in particular the nature of the “depravity” of Sodom. In this story, God (in the guise of three men) tells Abraham,
“How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”
No description of what that sin is. The three men go to Sodom, and are welcomed into the home of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Then we see their sin, their depravity, at work. Here is how it is described:
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
One traditional reading of this is that Sodom’s sin is that the men of Sodom wanted to have sex with other men. However, another traditional reading (that’s gained some new traction in recent years) is that Sodom’s sin is that the men of Sodom wanted to treat outsiders with disrespect. One reading claims homosexuality is the sin; the other claims lack of hospitality is the sin. To me, the lack of hospitality reading is by far the more compelling, but this isn’t the place for me to make that case. Perhaps I’ll do that in another post one day.
My point here is that within the debate about welcoming LGBTQ people, people on both sides of the debate are convinced that scripture is clear. It’s so hard to have a productive discussion about this, if people on both sides are convinced that they are the ones following God’s command, and their opponents are “teaching human precepts” instead. And let me assure you: people will not change their mind about this simply because their pastor gives them some new information. These opinions, like so many others, are so deeply entrenched in us.
I don’t know how to have productive conversations about topics like this. I don’t even know if anyone really wants productive conversations about topics like this. Perhaps we’re willing to listen and talk about topics like tax cuts and military spending. But when it comes to certain things, like LGBTQ rights, or gun control, don’t we all want the other side to just shut up?