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Science, the Bible, and the Vote to Ordain Gays

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My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently is engaged in a church-wide discussion about whether or not we will allow local congregations and regional governing bodies -- called presbyteries -- the freedom to ordain gay men and lesbians as lay leaders and as ministers. Our highest governing body, the General Assembly, has approved this proposed change but now it must be ratified by a majority of the denomination's 173 presbyteries in order to become church law. The last I checked, 15 presbyteries had voted in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in church leadership positions and 19 had voted to maintain the status quo.

On Jan. 22, my presbytery, the Presbytery of San José, voted for ratification. As we debated the issue, several people stood up and expressed what I think was genuine sadness at the fact that, while they know and love many gays and lesbians, they could not vote to include gays and lesbians in positions of church leadership. To do so, they contended, would be a rejection of scripture and would be unfaithful to the Calvinist tradition.

Some Presbyterians express this concern whenever we engage in conversations around the inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the life and leadership of the church. I want to address the issue as someone who seeks to have the roots of his spirituality deeply set in the soil of holy writ and as a pastor whose favorite theologian is John Calvin.

Part of what I believe, as a Presbyterian whose theological heritage is found in the Genevan reformation, is that when my understanding of what the Bible says is in conflict with science (or history, or archeology, or with any other way of knowing objectively what is true), the problem isn't science and the problem isn't the Bible. Instead, the problem is with me and with how I am reading and understanding the Bible -- and with what I am asking the Bible to do.

An example of this approach to understanding the Bible can be found in the first chapter of John Calvin's commentary on Genesis, in his comments on the creation of the heavenly bodies. In considering Genesis 1:16, which says, "God made the two great lights -- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night -- and the stars" (NRSV), Calvin notes that knowledge gained from the science of astronomy is in conflict with the description of the moon being the second great light in the sky. Saturn, after all, is bigger than the moon, so the moon cannot--according to science--be considered one of the two great lights. Yet, Calvin does not reject astronomy, rather, he writes,

...astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. (You can read Calvin's commentary on Genesis online here)

In the face of a conflict between science and the Bible, Calvin urged his readers not to reject science nor to ignore the Bible, but to understand the Bible differently, to read the first chapter of Genesis as a primitive person might have, for, as Calvin points out,

[The author of Genesis] wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. (You can read Calvin's commentary on Genesis online here)

I believe we need to allow our modern understanding of human sexuality to change the way we read and understand the Bible in the same way that Calvin allowed the science of astronomy to change the way he read and understood the Bible. For indeed, knowledge gained from biological and social science -- to say nothing of personal experience -- tells us that sexual orientation is not a choice but a given, and those who seek life-giving intimacy with same-sex partners are not immoral but are living as they have been created to live.

We must not reject what we know from science, and we who are Christians cannot turn our back on the Bible. We can, however, change how we read the Bible, which, in the case of welcoming our sisters and brothers who are not straight, is exactly what we should do.

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