A Gathering Voices post by Mark Achtemeier
In my own journey from anti-gay activist to advocate for LGBT inclusion, I found a lot of evidence early on suggesting there was something wrong with the church’s traditional condemnations of same-sex relationships. This puzzled me at first, because I had always thought the traditional case against homosexuality was based in a straightforward way on particular passages from the Bible. As I explain in my book, The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage, understanding, I had to learn how biblical arguments can go astray in order to take seriously the evidence I was seeing, which suggested the traditional condemnations were mistaken.
Surprisingly, I found a lot of practical help with this in the work of a second-century theologian named Irenaeus of Lyons. Sometimes it is tempting to think of church history as a musty, dusty academic discipline that is of interest only to scholars and antiquarians who enjoy that sort of thing. I was surprised to discover how fresh and relevant Irenaeus’ advice could be.
Irenaeus, it turns out, was grappling with challenges similar to my own. Faced with counterfeit versions of Christianity that nonetheless quoted a lot of Scripture, Irenaeus, too, was trying to explain how a particular teaching could be mistaken even when it was based on quotes from the Bible. His explanation of this phenomenon is brilliantly illuminating.
Imagine, says Irenaeus, that a skilled artist has assembled a mosaic picture made out of colored stones. All the multicolored fragments of this mosaic work together to form a beautiful portrait of a King. But now, he says, suppose that another artist comes along and disassembles the original mosaic, sorting all the stones into little colored piles. This person then re-assembles the stones into a new mosaic and travels around the countryside showing off the picture and saying, “Behold the King!” Except when you look at it, the stones in this new portrait have been re-arranged so that they now depict a crudely-drawn image of a dog. Every single stone in that new mosaic comes from the original portrait of the King. But that does not make it a true picture of the King!
This, says Irenaeus, is how Scriptural arguments can go astray. Like the individual stones making up a mosaic, we can take individual quotes from all over the Bible to support a particular teaching. But it is possible to pull the quotes out of their original settings and rearrange them in such a way that they no longer present a true picture. Faithful Christian teaching involves more than just stringing Bible quotes together. It requires us to understand individual quotations in their proper relationship to the “true picture” of God’s love in Christ, which is the overarching theme of the Bible’s witness.
In my book, I explore what happens to Christian understandings of same-sex marriage when we view it in the light of the biblically-revealed “big picture” of God’s purposes for love, marriage and sexuality. I was delighted to discover that the result is a wonderful, life-giving portrait—a true picture!—of God’s love and caring poured out on gay and straight couples alike.
Mark Achtemeier, Ph.D., is a Presbyterian minister, writer and theologian. He is the recent author of “The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart.”