When the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling that no state in the union can bar people of the same sex marrying, there were two reactions. One involved celebrating with rainbows and flags. The other involved wailing and the gnashing of teeth like a crowd of spectators whose team lost on a questionable last minute penalty kick.
Regardless of which side you are on, it is the court’s job to make the call. The US Supreme Court exists as one of three branches of US government. Its job is to ensure that the other two branches (and by extension the States) don’t pass laws or take actions that are either outside of their constitutional powers or which infringe the rights of citizens.
The US Constitution is a written document which is precise in some places and imprecise in others. It was written and amended at set points in history but intended to be a dynamic document which would be the foundation for the nation for all time.
This “for now and always” status required the constitution’s authors to entrust its interpretation to a court who could maintain it as a living document over time in greatly changed circumstances which the authors could never imagine.
Interpretation is the key word here and it sheds much light on use of the Bible as a similar living document. In the UK the debate about whether someone can be “actively gay” (which makes them sound like a yoghurt rather than a person) and also be a full participating member of a church comes down to two interpretation laden questions:
a) How authoritative and prescriptive is scripture (in order for me to “submit” to it)
b) Who gets to decide that and control the dialogue?
Many would want to say the bible is clear on certain behaviours; you only have to read it for yourself. The problem with this “clear as day” argument is that it is possible to read scripture in a faithful way and yet come to a conclusion that it is clear as mud.
In constitutional law, this is the bread and butter for professors, lawyers and commentators. In most cases where there is an argument about whether rights have been denied or not, it is rare to read the constitution and say “Ah, here is the answer”. Take for instance the second amendment, the one about owning a gun:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Okay, clear as day. So can a law be passed regulating gun ownership? What does infringed mean? If you aren’t in a militia can you own a gun? Can ownership and militia membership be separated? Can you stop certain people from owning guns? Who are they? Why them and not other citizens?
To answer these questions Justices listen to debates, apply their own biases, apply their own understanding of constitutional law, read scholarship, debate with each other, look at precedence…it’s a pretty subjective process. The court then votes. It doesn’t have to be unanimous, just majority.
What limits this court is that they can’t go back and ask the authors what they meant and what exceptions they assumed. They have to use the tools at hand and interpret the document. In this way they submit to its authority but they still have to come to a conclusion about how elastic this fixed document is within the dynamics of human development and history. The process is the same no matter which side you are on.
And once they rule they haven’t added to the constitution. There is no amendment which says “same sex marriage is here to stay”. This issue may come up again one day and they may choose to rule on that too.
Appealing to the bible for answers is the same. We might ask a precise question and get a precise answer: “Was Paul a Roman citizen?” Yes he was. “Did Paul believe women couldn’t be church leaders?” “Well, you see it is a bit more complex than appealing to a couple pieces of scripture that might suggest that is the case”.
We can’t go back and ask the author of Leviticus or Paul or even Jesus what exactly they meant on a given subject. Instead we take the tools at hand and try to work it out the best we can. What one generation says is the final word often isn’t and the church’s history bears that out. Add to that the plethora of protestant denominations it is hard to work out exactly who gets to draw the line in the sand and say, “no further”. It doesn’t mean that scripture is wrong or flawed, but rather that we can be limited by what we know, expect and are willing to recognise. We are a people gaining understanding rather than just memorising the facts.
Scripture is not a list of FAQs. It is hard to pick up a bible and honestly say “God said it and I believe it” without using an extra-biblical filter. It is easy to forget that the earliest church spread across the near east didn’t have access to a canon of Paul’s letters or the gospels or their own personal copy of the Old Testament. It is easy to forget that personal ownership of a good translation and interpretative tools is a development of the mid to late 20th century. Everyday christians have been working with scripture for a short amount of time and discovering a lot of stuff that makes sense to them.
We do ourselves, and the world, a disservice in any conversation about scripture where the outcome is the intentional exclusion of others when we forget what a human infused task interpreting scripture is. Jesus is the supreme sign from God that broken fragile human beings are loved and worthy to be called into his midst. When I ask someone else to be excluded or to make massive sacrifices because they are not deemed holy enough, I forget that God included me. I can never be holy enough to make the cut. I rely on Jesus being the author and completer of my faith. I rely on his grace to cover my shortfall as I try to follow him. So I have to tread carefully about seeking others to label as “unholy”.
We do need to guard against a faith based on “I want it so give it to me”. And we need to guard against a faith that doesn’t talk about what makes for a good relationship in keeping with the purposes of creation (like the importance of fidelity, mutuality and love). However, God has given us brains and wisdom and the Holy Spirit. We can spot an abomination a mile off. It just takes courage to see that two people mutually pledging themselves in love to each other isn’t one of them.