It's About More Than Just the Words: A Response to Albert Mohler

This morning Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky—a seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention—posted a commentary on a recent action taken by the church where I am the senior minister, Douglass Boulevard Christian ChurchWe voted without dissent as a congregation on Sunday, April 17 to speak a positive word to the LGBTQ people in our congregation about our commitment to treating all of our members equally, by refraining from signing civil marriage licenses until the state extends the rights and privileges of marriage to everyone—without regard to sexual orientation.  The implications of our disagreement concerns more than just words, but I'll offer a few words of my own as an initial response. The tone of Dr. Mohler's commentary, while generally fair, veers into dismissiveness when taking an apparent shot at the size of DBCC's membership.

For many years, I have driven by this church in its present location. The congregation was once much larger, with many families attending. This article indicates that the congregation has followed the trajectory of liberal Protestantism right down to the dwindling numbers of both worshipers and weddings from within the congregation.

Two thoughts struck me as I read this paragraph:

  1. Dr. Mohler's linking of liberal and decline conveniently ignores a particularly important statistic concerning his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has experienced a consistent decline of its own since 2007.  I raise this issue not necessarily to denigrate the efforts of my brothers and sisters who happen to be Southern Baptist, but to draw attention to, what I take to be, the faulty premise of drawing a bright line of cause and effect between liberal and decline.  As the membership decline among the traditionally conservative Southern Baptists indicates, there's more to decline than liberal theology.
  2. I also think that a linkage between faithfulness and the size of one's community is a presumption that fails the most basic of hermeneutical tests--that is, the life of Jesus.  Since the size of Jesus' community dwindled considerably the closer he got to the ultimate act of faithfulness--which is to say, his crucifixion--it seems an idiosyncratic interpretative twist to equate the crowd size of the approving with the doing of God's will.
I also had a few thoughts about his commentary as it related to my own thoughts on the subject.  Mohler writes:
To his credit, Rev. Penwell does not deny that the Bible condemns all homosexual behaviors as sin. Instead, he employs a trajectory hermeneutic that argues that new contexts require fundamentally different ways of understanding even what the Bible clearly addresses.
And whether I deserve any credit or not, Dr. Mohler is correct that I do not explicitly "deny that the Bible condemns all homosexual behaviors as sin."  What this observation fails to take into account, however, is that the homosexuality of which he disapproves as a modern arrangement (a mutually loving relationship between two people of the same gender, with a potential for lifelong commitment) bears little resemblance to the kinds of non-mutual sexual acts proscribed by scripture.   That defense is beyond the scope of this post.  But suffice it to say that it is possible to read scripture in ways that take into consideration the differences between temporal and socio-historical location as important for understanding "what the Bible clearly addresses."
Which assertion leads me to another thought: the issue of "understanding . . . what the Bible clearly addresses" is question-begging of a whole different magnitude.  The question of what the Bible addresses, as Dr. Mohler is aware, is never quite as "clear" as he leads his readers to believe.  If the Bible were as "clearly" self-evident as Dr. Mohler suggests, there would be no need for hermeneutics of any sort--his, mine, or anyone else's.  If interpreting scripture  were as simple as attending to "what the Bible clearly addresses."  Neither would there be a need for schools of theology in seminaries, like his own, since all one would need to do would be to open up the Bible and read it to get a clear, uncontroversial understanding of what the authors intended.
So, his argument is that the Holy Spirit may now be “revealing to us God’s true vision of the ways things ought to be with respect to homosexuality” — a vision very different from that actually found in the Bible.
Dr. Mohler also takes as significant to his critique of me to remark upon the fact that my argument about homosexuality is "a vision very different from that actually found in the Bible."  I take this not to be a particularly devestating criticisim, since it is the whole point of my article; which is to say, it is the point that the discontinuity between what the Bible proscribes and the modern practice of homosexuality is so large as to be actually talking about two different things.  Moreover, that the Bible reveals a vision of the world, parts of which we no longer recognize as relevant to us (insert your favorite stoning passage here), is a commonplace recognized in greater or lesser ways by everyone who seeks to interpret scripture.  The question is not whether we have to interpret the Bible in ways unanticipated by first centry Christians (we do), but which parts of the Bible make sense of our contemporary world in ways that reveal God's ongoing pursuit of those whom God loves.
Consequently, Mohler is right when he says:
And thus, the fundamental divide over biblical authority and interpretation is laid bare for all to see. The real issue is not same-sex marriage or even sexuality. The fundamental issue is the authority and interpretation of the Bible.
However, to keep it as a controversy over hermeneutics rather than as an issue of justice is to argue over jots and tittles at the expense those who are being kicked to the margins, all while being denied the loving hospitality of God's people.  I'm pretty confident that Dr. Mohler and I will not come soon to a meeting of the minds on how this issue ought to be settled, but it is important to say that Dr. Mohler represents but one way of seeking to interpret scripture faithully--a proud one his apparent dismissiveness betrays.