According to the Bible, only those people who repent from sin and ask God for forgiveness will receive eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus. In obedience to this standard Christian obligation, the church hierarchy routinely encourages its congregation to seek divine forgiveness for their sinful thoughts and behaviors. In order to facilitate this pastoral objective, modern theologians consult the scriptures and church history to help them identify precisely which thoughts and behaviors qualify as sin. For the most part, relevant scriptures in the Biblical texts have historically provided Christians with satisfactory guidance in this regard. Unfortunately, though, some of the critical words and phrases which define and describe a small minority of these divine proclamations written in the earliest and best Biblical manuscripts do not precisely translate into modern languages.
To further complicate matters, it is impossible to know if the traditionally accepted interpretations of these contested scriptures reliably reflects their originally intended meaning since Christianity evolved from an amalgamation of various competing theological perspectives. In fact, Orthodox Christianity did not reach its present form until sometime between the 3rd and 8th century while Protestantism did not emerge until the 16th century. Nevertheless, each existing Christian denomination has elected to affirm its own theological perspective over all others in order to establish official doctrines. Ironically, what has emerged from this pious effort to guide Christians away from various sins and towards a single infallible God are seemingly incompatible sets of fallible yet non-negotiable church doctrines.
With the establishment of an official doctrine, a church congregation may only be exposed to a single theological perspective on any given issue to the exclusion of many equally plausible alternative theological perspectives. Consequently, the average Christian views pastoral guidance from their church leadership as prescribed law rather than a subjective interpretation of the law. In many instances, average Christians are unaware that diverse interpretations of contested scriptures are available for their consideration. Whether it is deliberate or unintentional, minimizing or restricting the availability of diverse theological interpretations in this way helps church leaders maintain control of the prevailing perspective held by the congregation.
It is easier to persuade Christians to adopt a single interpretation of scripture endorsed by the church when they believe it to be the only viable option. Obedience to doctrine is further reinforced by the churchâ€™s authority to assign punitive consequences for the heresy of developing unauthorized alternative theological interpretations. In most modern churches, the most extreme form of discipline is expulsion from the membership. Since the church is a primary source of community for its congregation, the threat of excommunication is a strong incentive to dogmatically accept only the authorized interpretations of scripture and remain in compliance with established doctrines.
At the same time, there are diverse perspectives on matters which are not essential for salvation that the church allows individual Christians to decide for themselves. In 1577 A.D., the Lutherans settled on the â€œFormula of Concordâ€� that declared insignificant theological issues as â€œâ€¦neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God.â€� The Anglicans also developed a similar perspective during the 17th century when they determined that God really only cares about the moral state of a Christianâ€™s soul and is indifferent to things like proper church governance. However, the problem of multiple plausible interpretations exists here as well and is exposed when theologians consult the scriptures to distinguish nonessential matters from matters essential to salvation. Different theologians arrive at different perspectives on what is and isnâ€™t essential to salvation based on their diverse interpretations of Biblical texts. Meanwhile, none of them have an objective method for ruling-out competing interpretations or even their own interpretation.
Occasionally, an issue emerges that is divisive enough to cause a significant number of Christians to risk challenging established church doctrine. For these Christians, it is no longer a simple choice between obeying or disobeying God as the church might have them believe. Instead, many of these frustrated Christians find themselves having to contend with several choices; each choice claiming obedience to the true will of God. Of course, Christians on all sides of these debates will articulate logical arguments and point to Biblical support for why their particular interpretation of the scriptures should define church doctrine more than any alternative interpretation. What they all fail to understand, though, is that an ability to demonstrate a theological justification for one interpretation does nothing to disprove any of the competing theological interpretations.
When faced with various unfalsifiable interpretations of Biblical texts, theologians have no objective standard by which to mitigate for confirmation bias or other conscious and subconscious prejudices which may influence personal preference for one perspective over another. The historic consequence of this impasse has been the fragmentation of Christianity into thousands of competing denominations. Even within a single Christian denomination, unresolvable doctrinal disputes continue to divide the churchâ€™s congregation. In fact, some critics have argued that the Bibleâ€™s ability to justify almost any theological perspective has produced as many versions of Christianity as there are Christians.
A potential compromise could be achieved by adopting a â€œDoctrine of Theological Diversity and Inclusionâ€� that reveals rather than conceals plausible alternative interpretations of contested scriptures. To imagine the functionality of this, consider how diversity and inclusion (D&I) awareness programs in the workplace contribute to increased employee satisfaction, improved productivity, and above average employee retention. For instance, if two diverse groups of employees each submit an equally viable proposal for achieving a shared goal, their creativity is rewarded when the leadership permits each proposal to proceed rather than arbitrarily demanding the implementation of just one of the proposals. In other words, the leadership assumes an agnostic position towards each viable proposal since they have no way to justify choosing one over the other. As a result, employees from both groups are willing to contribute more innovative ideas when their diversity of thought is not discouraged in the workplace. More importantly, inclusive workplaces that welcome diverse perspectives exceed their competition in recruiting the most qualified and talented employees which leads to even more innovation.
The Christian church would equally benefit from D&I awareness by soliciting various theological perspectives and openly disclosing where contested scriptures have multiple plausible interpretations. Adopting a doctrine of theological D&I will better position the church to facilitate compromise by remaining agnostic in situations where Biblical guidance is ambiguous rather than arbitrarily enforcing a single interpretation. Instead of feeling compelled to dictate which interpretations of scripture are authorized, the church leadership may simply encourage their congregation to seek direct revelatory guidance from the Holy Spirit. After all, if Christianity is true, the burden of directing people towards the proper interpretation of difficult scriptures should resides with the Holy Spirit and not with fallible theologians. As such, the Christian theologianâ€™s responsibility should not necessarily be to speak for God but merely to facilitate someoneâ€™s introduction to the Holy Spirit as the mechanism by which God may speak for himself.
A doctrine of theological D&I compels theologians to have faith that God will guide each unique Christian towards an appropriate interpretation of a difficult scripture regardless of whether it aligns with church tradition or not. In this way, the existence of contradictory interpretations is rendered inconsequential because it may be the case that God does not intend for every Christian to live by the exact same interpretation of an ambiguous Biblical text. Rather than being an unfortunate byproduct from the utilization of fallible human authors to communicate his words, the debatable language which comprise select Bible passages may have been deliberately designed by God to be ambiguous in order to facilitate personalized plans for a diverse population of Christians.
It must be clarified that a doctrine of theological D&I does not restrict theologians from conveying their own personal interpretations of ambiguous scriptures even if the church as a whole assumes an agnostic perspective. To the contrary, a doctrine of theological D&I encourages theologians to communicate their individual perspectives. However, their pastoral obligation would also compel church leaders to disclose plausible alternative interpretations for consideration. Otherwise, a failure to reveal all the theological options could potentially deprive a valued Christian of a Biblical interpretation God intends for that individual.
Furthermore, the church must not abuse its authority by discouraging Christians from accepting an equally plausible interpretation of a contested scripture which does not conform to the majority perspective since there is no objective method for resolving such disputes. Therefore, theologians must resist the compulsion to impose their fallibly biased interpretations of imprecise Biblical texts on a diverse congregation for the sake of establishing or reinforcing arbitrary church doctrines. In fact, such authoritarian practices have been observably and unnecessarily destructive to the Christian community. Instituting a doctrine of theological D&I will help the Christian church to recover from the damages caused by fallible yet non-negotiable doctrines.
A prototype doctrine of theological D&I can be tested by applying it to a highly controversial issue like that of homosexual marriage. First, the theological problem of homosexual marriage as it currently exists within traditional Christianity is described as follows:
Traditional Christian theology asserts that homosexual thoughts and behaviors are sinful and must be prohibited by God in the same manner as other sinful activities such as murder, adultery, and perjury. This would be in accordance with the Christian worldview which holds that an unrepentant sinner will not be permitted to enter the kingdom of God. However, while the language in the scriptures instructing humanity to repent from sin is precise, the earliest and best Biblical manuscripts alluding to homosexuality are limited in clarity and scope. Unresolvable translation issues and an incomplete understanding of the historical and cultural contexts make it impossible to responsibly determine if all homosexual activity is considered sinful or just specific types. Despite this significant information deficit, the precedent to dictate doctrine on such matters compels church leaders to develop any sort of theological justification to either accept or reject homosexual marriage regardless of the impacts it will have on their congregation or the larger community. As such, it seems likely that fallible and uniformed prejudicial opinion has traditionally dictated the churchâ€™s doctrine on homosexuality rather than an unbiased assessment of the facts, logical reasoning, or divine inspiration.
The observable effect of this self-imposed obligation to rule one way or the other on homosexual marriage is a divided congregation. Homosexual Christians and their supporters certainly benefit when their denomination rules in favor of homosexual marriage, but this sometimes comes at the expense of vilifying Christians in the congregation who still believe it is sinful to engage in any form of homosexual activity. When this occurs, most of those Christians depart from the congregation because they no longer feel comfortable or welcome within their own church community. Conversely, as is currently experienced at most traditional Christian denominations, the decision to prohibit marriage between consenting same-sex adults satisfies the traditionally accepted interpretation of the scriptures but with serious emotional and psychological impacts to the well-being of homosexual Christians and their supporters. Consequently, many of these Christians are demoralized and demonized to the point where they feel compelled to depart from their church home and seek spiritual guidance elsewhere at a more welcoming congregation. In many instances, some of these Christians abandon Christianity altogether after failing to reconcile what they feel in their hearts with what doctrine dictates. So, regardless of which position on homosexual marriage a church hierarchy endorses, the standard practice of instituting a non-negotiable policy on the matter has obviously been disastrous for everyone.
To be fair, though, it must be acknowledged that more measurable damage has occurred to societal health as a consequence of the prohibition against homosexual marriage than it would have experienced if marriage between consenting same-sex adults was permitted. The resulting negative impacts to Christians and Christianity from this seemingly arbitrary proclamation against homosexual marriage contradicts every theological claim about Godâ€™s omnibenevolent intentions for his precious human creations. Granted, this inconvenient truth does not invalidate the possibility that the traditional interpretation of homosexuality in the Bible may still be correct, but it does have sinister theological implications. Therefore, it warrants further investigation.
An examination of the more clearly understood moral laws described in the Old Testament such as the prohibition of murder, adultery, and perjury reveals that adherence to such codes of behavior produces tangible benefits to the well-being of everyone in the community. According to the New Testament, Jesus expanded the moral laws by commanding Christians to behave altruistically through unconditional love for their neighbors including those who might do them harm. Obviously, this insightful message has served Christians by encouraging cooperation over selfishness to produce thriving communities. It is logical, then, for Christians to abductively infer from this outcome that the reason an omnibenevolent God declares certain patterns of human behavior to be sinful is because submitting to such behavior consistently impedes human flourishing. Similarly, it shouldnâ€™t be unreasonable to expect the prohibition of homosexual marriage to serve in the interest of maximizing well-being and minimizing unnecessary harm in the same way. However, rather than aligning with this Biblical trajectory towards human flourishing, the prohibition against homosexual marriage only serves to increase objective harm to the community.
While some Christians express loving intentions when they articulate their opposition to homosexuality, negative impacts to well-being from this fallible belief are nonetheless manifest in the form of emotional, psychological, and even physical abuse. Regardless, loyalty to a fallible religious conviction is apparently a sufficient enough reason for many Christians to justify their maladaptive behavior towards homosexuals despite the fact that the observed outcome contradicts their intended goal of maximizing well-being. If it were not for dogmatic belief in the traditional interpretation of imprecise Biblical texts, most Christians would acknowledge that permitting marriage between consenting same-sex adults does not detract from human flourishing. In fact, Christians can clearly observe that the objective consequence of exhibiting support for homosexual marriage where it is permitted to occur has been improved well-being for society as a whole. Without the self-imposed obligation to stubbornly support a fallible yet inflexible church doctrine, there would simply be no reason to classify loving monogamous homosexual relationships between consenting adults as sinful. The absolute failure of the prohibition against homosexual marriage to produce any kind of tangible benefit for humanity generates a fair amount of cognitive dissonance which is not easily resolved or ignored by Christians.
One theological argument is that, if the traditionally accepted interpretation of scripture is true, the potential for the prohibition against homosexual marriage to inflict harm on Christian homosexuals and their supporters during their lifetime here on Earth will be mitigated in the afterlife by eternal salvation from God should they repent of their sins. Otherwise, the failure of church leaders to actively enforce the prohibition could potentially lead to the disqualification of Christian homosexuals and their supporters from eternal salvation. Thus, homosexual Christians must remain celibate and hope they never fall in love with someone of the same gender. The rationale is that any actions which ultimately secure eternal salvation for homosexual Christians are actions that maximize well-being in the long term even if unintentional harm is experienced in the short term.
The problem with this view is that the argument arbitrarily asserts the traditional perspective is more valid than any alternative perspective and assigns it a greater value based on the speculated severity of a feared consequence that cannot be observed or verified. It also mischaracterizes God as a deity who will show no mercy towards married homosexual Christians who genuinely but mistakenly believed the Holy Spirit had guided them towards an appropriate interpretation of the scriptures. Such a ruthless depiction of God contradicts the omnibenevolent nature Christians have ascribed to him. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that some portions of the Bible do describe what at least appear on the surface to be disproportionately harsh punishments for finite crimes.
If it is the case that misinterpreting homosexuality in the Bible is a disqualifier from eternal salvation, then the same should apply to the misinterpretation of all highly controversial scriptures. Every Christian who misinterprets any scripture regarding a nuanced issue essential to salvation and then fails to act accordingly should also be denied eternal life in heaven according to this perspective. Under those conditions, almost no Christian would be justified in presuming their eternal salvation is secured on account of the high probability that a misinterpretation of some unclear scripture has led them to unknowingly commit at least one unforgiven sin. Therefore, if homosexual marriage is indeed a sin, it is probably more likely that God would acknowledge where it was impossible for fallible human beings to rule-out the interpretations of scripture which mislead some Christians into believing it was not a sin. However, this justifiable logic doesnâ€™t rule-out the possibility that the less favorable argument might still be the one that is correct.
Alternatively, because a doctrine of theological D&I would acknowledge where it is irresponsible and dishonest to arbitrarily promote one interpretation of homosexuality in the Bible over other equally unfalsifiable interpretations, it permits the Christian church to adopt an agnostic perspective on the issue of homosexual marriage. Accordingly, theologians would then be obliged to inform their diverse congregation of the various unfalsifiable interpretations of ambiguous scriptures available for their consideration. Once the congregation is appropriately educated on the matter, the church leadership must have faith that the Holy Spirit will guide each unique Christian to an interpretation of homosexuality in the Bible appropriate for their individual spiritual needs.
Since none of the competing theological perspectives on homosexuality can be falsified, the church hierarchy must encourage Christians who remain opposed to same-sex marriage to lovingly worship alongside those who believe they have been led by the Holy Spirit to support it. One way this can be achieved is by reminding Christians that God created humanity to be diverse and has a customized plan for each unique individual. It is possible the Holy Spirit leads one Christian to an interpretation of the scriptures that compels him to resist any homosexual desires because God knows the well-being of that individual can only be maximized through a heterosexual relationship. At the same time, it may be the case that God knows the well-being of a different Christian can only be maximized through a homosexual relationship and guides her to an interpretation of the Bible which supports same-sex marriage. For yet another Christian, maybe God knows the well-being of that person can only be maximized through a lifetime of celibacy and customizes interpretations of the scriptures to help guide the individual accordingly. As long as all Christian beliefs align with the central message of Christianity, there is enough interpretive flexibility in the scriptures for God to accommodate the spiritual needs of a beautifully diverse Christian community.
Obviously, a doctrine of theological D&I is not designed or intended to ensure everyone in the congregation consistently operates from the same interpretation of homosexuality in the Bible. Applying D&I awareness to church doctrine in this way does not promise to conclusively resolve the dispute between Christians who oppose homosexual marriage and Christians who support the LGBTQ community, but it doesnâ€™t facilitate further division either. Church leaders and congregants who are opposed to homosexual marriage would not be obliged to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. However, rather than discouraging homosexual Christian couples from seeking holy matrimony, the church will nonjudgmentally refer them to the appropriate theologians on staff who are comfortable serving them in that capacity. Ideally, a doctrine of theological D&I will encourage Christians who have been led to believe that all forms of homosexual activity are sinful to understand their conclusion may only apply to their own individual circumstances and not to the lives of other Christians for whom the Holy Spirit may have led in a different direction based on their individual circumstances.
In closing, the establishment of a theological D&I doctrine would not only function to unify a congregation divided by the issue of homosexuality but facilitate a compromise for almost any other internal theological dispute regarding the interpretation of ambiguous scriptures. From arguments over the Theory of Evolution to decisions about Planned Parenthood, a doctrine of theological diversity offers church leaders an ability to satisfy their pastoral obligations in way that fosters compassion rather than division. As long as the core components of Christianity are maintained, there doesnâ€™t appear to be any logical or theological reason to reject the application of D&I awareness to church doctrine. If Christianity is a relationship and not a religion as many Christians assert, then adopting a doctrine of theological D&I will serve to grow that relationship by encouraging congregants to seek direct revelatory guidance from God. Otherwise, this self-imposed obligation to support non-negotiable but fallible
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual discussion
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