The Bible Tells Me What?


A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, Florida, July 1, 2018

6th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 13:1-10

Those of you attuned to such things will notice that Tip did not read the Epistle Lesson assigned for this day by the lectionary.  The lectionary is a useful guide and very often a demanding taskmaster, but it is not, as the children in the preschool would say, “the boss of me.”  There are very few decisions a Presbyterian pastor can make without consulting the session.  One of them is the selection of scripture to be read in worship.  (Another is the choice of hymns, but for that I’d be a fool not to work with that guy back there on the organ bench.)

To be perfectly transparent, it was not I, but my brother in Christ, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who prompted this departure from liturgical conformity.

As he was defending President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration, and as agents of the United States government were ripping children from their mother’s arms and sending them off to detention centers hundreds of miles away, Brother Jeff cited the opening verses of Romans, Chapter 13.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.  Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”[1]

Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated. “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” she said.[2]

Brother Jeff and sister Sarah, who are both self-professed Christians, are not the first to quote Romans 13 in defense of the status quo.  The supporters of King George did that back in 1776, and Presbyterian John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, was very much aware of that text.

Before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, Presbyterians in the South used Romans 13 to justify slavery, and a hundred years later, that passage was often quoted by those who opposed the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

Brother Jeff and Sister Sarah join a long line of public figures who have used Romans 13 to defend the laws they like, whether they be the divine right of kings, chattel slavery, or Jim Crow voting restrictions.  It’s not a new tactic.  Proof texting is as old as the Bible itself.

However, if you’re going to quote scripture in defense of public policy, it’s a good idea to look at the context of the passage you are quoting.  As a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, surely Brother Jeff knows the context of Romans 13.  I’m sure he won’t mind if we go over that just now.

The Apostle is writing to Christians in Rome – folks he has not yet met. The sitting Emperor is Nero (Yes, that Nero – the one who is supposed to have fiddled while Rome burned).  About five years earlier, Emperor Claudius had banned many Jews from Rome.  As Paul is writing, a lot of those Jews are coming back to Rome, and some of them have converted to Christianity.

Jews in the Roman Empire are already suspect because they don’t pay homage to the Emperor as a god, as the law requires.  To be a newly-minted Christian as well as a Jew in first century Rome is not a way to win friends and influence people.

So, if you are a Jew and a Christian as well, how should you behave under this new Emperor named Nero?  That’s one of the issues Paul addresses in chapters 12 – 15 of his letter.

Matters are complicated by the fact that Paul already has a reputation as a trouble-maker.  Remember how Paul’s preaching caused riots in Ephesus and Jerusalem? Paul needs to be careful.  His name is probably on a “no fly” list as he sits down to write.

With all this in mind, Paul advises the Christians in Rome:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good . .

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

            Not only is this admonition in keeping with the advice of other rabbis at the time.  It is also a good way for Christians in Rome to fly beneath the Emperor’s radar.

To take Paul’s words out of this first-century context and apply them to families fleeing for their lives in 21st century America is more than a stretch.  It’s a blatant misuse of scripture.  By using this passage to justify a policy which tears families apart and traumatizes little children, Brother Jeff reveals either a profound ignorance of scripture or a willingness to bend God’s word to his own political advantage.

Few concepts are clearer in scripture than God’s compassion for the immigrant, the sojourner, and the alien amongst us.  Leviticus 19 is but one of many expressions of God’s expectations of us.

 When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien . . .  shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 ).

            Brother Sessions left that bit of scripture out, didn’t he?  He also left out the rest of Romans, Chapter 13, where Paul moves from Nero’s law to a higher law, the law of love:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Our nation needs laws, beloved.  Of course it does.  Our nation also needs compassion.  It needs the love of neighbor that fulfills the law.  It needs the love of the alien who is our neighbor.

I wonder, does Brother Jeff Sessions really think that the Apostle Paul, whose ministry ended in a Roman prison, would sanction the confining of children in chain-length cages while their parents despair of ever seeing them again?  Does my brother in Christ really think that’s what the Bible tells us to do?

This Wednesday we will celebrate the Glorious Fourth.  When the signers of the Declaration of Independence put their names to that document, there were in clear violation of the opening verses of Romans 13 – at least that’s the way King George saw it.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrestled with this passage while imprisoned in the Birmingham jail, he concluded that it is the Christian’s duty to obey just laws and to oppose unjust laws, even if that opposition should lead to arrest and imprisonment.  Sometimes civil disobedience is required to fulfill the law of love.

Perhaps by now Brother Jeff has learned that applying scripture out of context is not such a good idea.  Doing so can prompt people to read beyond the verses you have quoted and to encounter the whole of God’s word in scripture. That includes God’s word made flesh in Jesus Christ, who welcomed the children, who blessed the children, who told us that it is to the children that the kingdom of God belongs.

God bless the children.  God bless our nation’s leaders.  And God bless America.


[1] Religion News Service, June 16, 2018

[2] Ibid.

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

Death Gurney My primary objection to the death penalty is theological. Killing for vengeance does not reflect the God revealed in the Bible. In Deuteronomy  32:35 God says, “To me belong vengeance and recompense.” Leviticus 19:18 adds, “You shall not take vengeance . . . but love your neighbor as yourself.”  Similar themes recur frequently in the Old Testament.

Jesus himself as asked to rule in a death penalty case.  His response: “Let one without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

For those who see capital punishment as a way of upholding the sanctity of life, I suggest that Christ’s death on the cross, itself an application of capital punishment, overrules the idea that shedding blood testifies to the sacredness of life.  Christ died that others might live.  He took the places of the guilty and of the enemy, including the murderer Barabbas.  Christ died for all.  “Unless we believe that every person, whether murderer or not, is redeemable and must have the chance to be redeemed, there is no real gospel” (Howard Zehr).  Reconciliation with God and with humanity is at the heart of Christian hope.  When the Sate executes, it kills that hope.

There are many other reasons why I oppose the death penalty. Here are a few:

  • Maintaining the legal machinery of death and carrying out executions costs taxpayers a staggering amount of money.
  • There is no scientific evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime any better than long prison sentences.
  • The very real possibility of executing the innocent exists – especially in Florida
  • Minorities and the poor are most likely to receive the death penalty.  As Florida Governor LeRoy Collins put it, “Most who are killed are poor and friendless.”
  • The death penalty is applied randomly and capriciously – influenced more by politics  and the  quality of legal counsel than by the even application of “justice for all.”
  •   The death penalty puts the U. S. in embarrassing association with the few countries that cling to it.  Only three countries execute more prisoners than we do – China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.  We belong to a notorious club of human rights abusers.  More than 128 nations have abandoned capital punishment in law or practice.
  • Life without parole is a sensible (and more economical) alternative to death.

There is no denying that most of the people on Florida’s Death Row have done terrible things.  Like familiar murderers in the Bible, Cain, Moses, David, and Paul, they deserve punishment.  God, however, did not sanction the execution of those offenders.  Instead God showed them the mercy that is one of the chief attributes of God.

 I don’t expect the State to change its laws to accommodate my theological objections, but I do plan to keep saying that the death penalty is morally wrong and terrible public policy.

Marriage for Whom?

wedding ringsI don’t usually reproduce sermons for this blog, but I’m making an exception.  Here is the sermon manuscript for Sunday worship at First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee on August 25, 2013. 

Marriage for Whom?
Luke 13: 10-17

This  Wednesday night I will be participating in a panel discussion at Faith Presbyterian Church.  The topic is “same-sex marriage,” and I will have seven whole minutes in which to state my opinion on the matter.  It seems only fair that you, the congregation I am blessed to serve, should hear what I plan to say this Wednesday night.

Most of the sermons you hear from this pulpit spring from the lectionary readings for the day.  This sermon will depart from that pattern.  I hope, at least, that what I say will be true to the spirit of today’s Gospel reading.  In this passage Jesus heals a woman who has suffered for 18 years from an affliction that keeps her from standing upright.  To use the language of the story, Jesus “sets her free” from her aliment.

Because Jesus performs this act of liberation in the synagogue on the Sabbath, the leader of the synagogue comes down on him like a ton of bricks.  Jesus replies,

“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”[1]

Among other things, this passage is about liberation, equality, and inclusion.  Jesus has compassion for this woman whose condition is no fault of her own.  He considers her a fully equal member of the covenant community, and sets her free because that’s what Jesus came to do.  He came to “set at liberty” the imprisoned and oppressed.

It is in the spirit of inclusion, liberation, and equality, and, most of all, in the spirit of the love made flesh in Jesus Christ that I offer these words for your discernment

First, let us not talk of “same-sex marriage.” The question before the church is not whether  to create some special kind of marriage for same-gender couples, but whether to include same-gender couples in the covenant of marriage.  Shall we continue to define marriage as “between a man and a woman,” or shall we revise the definition of marriage as a covenant between “two people,” regardless of their gender?

That’s the question – not “same-sex marriage,” but the inclusion of same-sex couples in the liturgical rite of Christian Marriage, in which, just like heterosexual couples, they would pledge to be faithful to one another “in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live.”[2]

Are those holy vows to be undertaken only between a man and a woman, or have we, as a community of faith, guided by scripture and under the lordship of Jesus Christ, arrived at a more inclusive understanding of marriage?

It is often argued that opening marriage to same-sex couples is “unbiblical.”  It is true that there is no Biblical precedence for this idea, but if you actually read the Bible,  you might be surprised to find that, Biblically speaking, marriage was not what you think.

Last May at a meeting of Faith Food Fridays, Rabbi Jack Romberg of Temple Israel put it bluntly. “Let’s face it,” he said.  “Basically, marriage in ancient Israel was a a contract to transfer female property from one man to another man.”

In Biblical times, marriage was part of a male hierarchical social system.  Men were allowed – indeed encouraged – to have multiple wives and concubines if they could afford them.  Women, on the other hand, were not allowed to choose whom they could marry, and lived under the authority of their husbands.  It is only in the later portion of the 20th century that we in the West have conceived of marriage as a fully consensual union of equals.

There is no single, consistent model of marriage that can be said to the biblical model. The Bible offers multiple visions of married life, and none of them resembles the bride and groom you find today on top of a wedding cake.

Through time, as culture has changed and our reading of scripture has changed, our understanding of marriage has changed, too.  When I preside at a wedding these days, I no longer ask the father of the bride “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” (as though the bride were a sack of potatoes), and I no longer ask the bride to promise to “love, honor, and obey” her husband (unless of course, the husband takes a vow to obey his wife.

To those who argue that the church must retain the Biblical model of marriage, I have to ask which one?  Abraham’s marriage to Sarah including  Abraham’s concubine Hagar?  Jacob’s marriage to Leah and to her sister Rachel at the same time?

“No,” you say, “Not those Biblical models,  I mean the Biblical model.”

Pardon me, but there isn’t one.  The Bible is not a book of definitions, but an unfolding story of God’s love, justice, and grace.

It is clear that Jesus was in favor of marriage.  When asked to justify divorce, he refused to do so, and instead invoked the second story of creation in Genesis.  God is the author of marriage, Jesus maintained.  “. . . what God has joined together, let no one separate.”[3]

As to the possibility of including same-sex couples in the covenant of marriage, the very notion was inconceivable in the cultural context of the Bible.  The Biblical writers knew about certain same-sex behaviors, but they had no concept of homosexual orientation as an unchosen “given,” much like left-handedness.

Our forbearers in the faith knew about same-sex rape, about consorting with temple prostitutes as an act of idol worship, and about Greek pederasty.  All of those practices they condemned, as we would condemn them today.  But they did not know about what we call “homosexuality.”  (The word itself was not coined until early in the 20th century.

The biblical writers simply did not consider the possibility that lasting, responsible, loving relationships could be possible for two people of the same sex.  They had no concept of “gay” and “straight.”  Within their frame of understanding, everybody had to be straight, and anybody who behaved otherwise had to be an idol worshipper, a reprobate, or at the very least “unnatural.”

Clearly the Apostle Paul believed that what we call homosexual behavior was unnatural.  He therefore lumped it in with all kinds of wickedness, including heartlessness, rebellion toward parents, slander, and gossip.  He then advised the Romans not to pass judgment on others because they themselves were guilty of the very same behaviors.[4]

Paul’s epistles are complicated, nuanced, even gender-bending.  Remember that he  insisted that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,[5] and advised married couples to be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ, [6] thereby undermining male hierarchy.

Perhaps, if we had him with us today, we could convince Paul that for some people, homosexual orientation is as natural as heterosexual orientation is for other people.  While we are at it, we could show him that the church is greatly blessed when, contrary to Paul’s advice, women don’t keep silent in the church.[7]

There is no biblical precedent for marriage between two people of the same sex, but there is biblical precedent for polygamy, slavery, for killing rebellious children, and for stoning witches.  Biblical precedent isn’t everything.

Some argue that same-gendered couples shouldn’t be married because they can’t have children.  If fertility is a requirement for marriage, then I have erred in presiding at the marriages of several couples in their 80’s.  The problem with that that objection is that it assumes that marriage is mostly about sex.

Is marriage for Christians mostly about sex, or is it mostly about lifelong commitment, mutual affection, kindness, forbearance, and the love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Isn’t marriage about love that does not insist on its own way, that is not irritable or resentful, that rejoices not in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Isn’t marriage about love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things?[8]

That’s certainly what Christian discipleship is all about, and marriage for Christians is an act of discipleship, a way of following Christ.

I have seen with my own eyes that kind of love between couples of the same sex.  I’ve seen it gay parents raising children.  I’ve seen it at the bedside of partners dying of AIDS in the early days of that terrible pandemic.  I’ve seen it in gay and Lesbian Christians whose lives of kindness and integrity put my own life to shame.  I wish I were as faithful a Christian as some of the gay and Lesbian members of this congregation.

I have seen as well the hurt and pain that is inflicted upon LGBT people by Christians who use the Bible as a bludgeon, instead of a bridge – Christians who construct  a weapon from seven texts ripped out of context and applied as though they were the sum and substance of the Bible’s entire witness.

I believe that marriage is a gift of God to all humanity — that, in the words of the Book of Common Worship, it is for “the well-being of human society and the ordering of family life,” that it is “a calling to a new way of life,” and that it is “a holy mystery.”  I count it an honor to preside at the liturgy in which a couple joins hands and pledges lifelong fidelity till death do them part.

What’s more, I now believe that the church should not deny this ordinance to couples simply because they are gay or Lesbian.  Sexual orientation is as much a mystery to me as is marriage itself.  I don’t know why some people turn out to be oriented toward people of the same sex.  I do know that all of us are made in the image of God.

I can’t see why we should forbid to gay and Lesbian Christians the blessings and challenges of Christian marriage.  I don’t see why those brothers and sisters in Christ shouldn’t be held to the same standards of fidelity and monogamy as straight Christians.

To deny the covenant of marriage to these brothers and sisters is to say to them, “You don’t really belong in the body of Christ.  You are too different from the rest of us.  You aren’t worthy to seek God’s blessings on your life with the person you love.  We will not give our “Amen” to your vows.  We will not sanction the love that brings you together.”

We used to say to black Christians, “You can’t sit downstairs here.”  We used to say to female Christians, “You can’t be ordained here.”  Yet we continue to say to gay and Lesbian Christians, “You can’t be married here.”

It’s a lot like that leader of the synagogue saying to that woman bent over in pain for 18 years, “You can’t be set free here.”

Jesus had other ideas.

I know it won’t be easy to change.  I don’t have all the answers.  But I have come to think that the time has come to broaden the definition of marriage and to rejoice in the grace of Jesus Christ – the grace that makes Christian marriage possible.

That, more or less, is what I plan to say this Wednesday.  I pray that somewhere in what I have said today, you will hear God’s word to you.

[1] Luke 13: 15-16

[2] Book of Common Worship, Christian Marriage: Rite I

[3] Mark 10:9

[4] Romans 1, 2

[5] Galatians 3:28

[6] Ephesians 5:21

[7] I Timothy 2:12; I Corinthians 14:34

[8] I Corinthians 13

Sad News

I learned recently of yet another congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has voted to leave the denomination.  This congregation is in nearby Thomasville, Georgia.  First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville has a special place in my heart because it was one of two spiritual homes during a sabbatical several years ago.

On Sunday mornings during my sabbatical I’d drive 30 miles north to Thomasville.  I’d join the congregation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church for their early service and then meander over to First Presbyterian for their eleven o’clock service.  I struck up a strong friendship with Bill Seel, who was pastor at First Presbyterian at the time.

Both graduates of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, Bill and I were not always in agreement theologically, but we shared a love of books and ideas.  Bill became a valued colleague and friend.  We shared the Reformed commitment to “the life of the mind in service to God,” but more importantly, we broke bread together and we prayed together.

It saddens me to learn that 83% of Bill’s former congregation have voted to leave the PC(USA).  I’ve always admired this congregation’s strong commitment to mission in far-away places.  I am not privy to the conversations and meetings that led to the decision, but I’m guessing the issues were the same ones Presbyterians have been wrestling with for decades – the ordination of homosexuals, gay marriage, and the “lordship of Christ,” – all grouped under the category of “Biblical authority.”

Along with all of the “mainline” denominations, the PC(USA) is declining in membership and contributions.  That decline has much more to do with cultural shifts, the loss of de facto establishment, and the failure of the church to retain and engage its own children than it has to do with squabbles over how to read Leviticus and Romans.

Despite the efforts of some brothers and sisters to frame the sexuality debate as one between those who accept “Biblical authority” and those who reject it, the issue is not, and has never been, “Biblical authority.”   The struggle is over how to read and interpret the Scriptures as they bear witness to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.  By and large, Reformed Christians have grounded the Scripture’s authority not in the words of the Bible per se, but in the Bible’s reliable witness to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

So-called “liberals” do not reject the Bible’s authority.  They simply read and interpret the Biblical texts differently from so-called “conservatives.”  Just like conservatives, liberals seek to live under the Lord Jesus Christ whom they meet in the words of Scripture.  Until Presbyterians are able to accept one another as sincere followers of the Living Word, they will continue to squander precious gifts of time, talent, and money on an unwinnable debate.

Schism is hardly ever the answer.  The answer lies in loving one another, hearing one another, and working together in mission – and, of course, “in the breaking of bread and the prayers.”