Here’s a radical idea, a heartfelt plea to my fellow Christ-followers. No matter what we think the Bible says about a particular group or category of people, could we agree that we will issue no blanket criticism or condemnation of that group until and unless we have a personal relationship with at least two or three people who are members of that group or fall into that category? Not just a passing acquaintance, mind you, but an association that has produced meaningful conversation and a genuine attempt to empathize and see life from the “other” perspective.
I’ve come to the place where I don’t really want to hear any more exposition of “what the Bible says” about, for example, divorce, single parenthood, women’s ordination, etc., from teachers, preachers, or writers who don’t know people in those groups well enough to have coffee with them. Same thing is true regarding gay and lesbian Christians.
Speaking from personal experience, what I am describing here is potentially life-transforming. I’ve yet to meet anyone whose perspective and attitude have not been affected, often dramatically, by a personal relationship with someone in a category they had previously regarded as forbidden or under the judgment of God. I’m not suggesting that biblical interpretation ought to be slippery and altogether subjective. I am suggesting that it is important to read scripture through the lens of relationship and empathy. Jesus did.
I’m also not suggesting that the cultivation of personal relationships should necessarily lead to a change in the way we interpret the biblical text. It will, however, always yield a greater sense of understanding, compassion, and, yes, empathy.
My perspective, and in some cases my convictions, changed when I became friends with people who had experienced divorce; when my daughter became a single parent; when I met women whose call to ministry and accompanying gifts I could not deny. As a result of my many years as a college instructor, I am personally acquainted with numerous gay and lesbian Christians, and for me those lives have put a whole different face on the current conversation around that subject.
On the other hand, personal relationships have not always produced a change in my convictions. I know many people who are or have been in the military. Some of them are members of my family. I love them, and I understand their beliefs, but I maintain my commitment to biblical nonresistance. I also don’t condemn them or judge them because they have not adopted my point of view.
Nothing would be more effective in reversing the increasingly negative opinion of evangelical Christians in our contemporary culture than a willingness to embrace the proposal I have made in this post. Perhaps the time has come when, for the sake of the gospel and the kingdom, we soften our defense of “what the Bible says” in favor of what the Spirit may want to teach us. Let’s stop spouting platitudes and start listening more. Let’s curb the talking and do a little more walking—preferably in the other guy’s shoes for a while.
Soli Deo Gloria.