October 1, 2023
I have loved and studied the Bible for over 55 years. I was not raised in any church, and only began attending regularly while I was in college. After meeting my wife of 54 years, who was raised in a Methodist and then United Methodist Church, I began to see the beauty and value of church, so much so that I went to seminary.
I took Hebrew merely because it looked funny, and because I loved foreign languages. With that random decision my entire life changed. I loved the Hebrew language – its nuance, its antiquity, its astonishing power, its resonant wonders.
That love finally lead me to earn a PhD in the study of Hebrew and Semitic languages. After a two-year pastorate, I then became a teacher of Hebrew and the Bible in two institutions: Texas Wesleyan College and Perkins School of Theology, finishing my tenure there as Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics in 2012.
Taking the Bible seriously, not literally
During my teaching days, I was privileged to teach and preach in over 1,000 churches in nearly every U.S. state and 20 countries. On those occasions, I led studies of all 66 of the Bible’s books in one place or another. The Bible has been, and remains for me, the world’s most important book. Unfortunately, it is simultaneously the most frequently purchased, yet least read book in all the world!
When it is read, it is too often read poorly and dangerously. This is especially true when it comes to biblical texts that have been used to exclude LGBTQ+ persons from full lives in the church.
We United Methodists have long been lovers of and careful readers of the Bible. But we have also been guided to read our Bible along with a serious look at the long historical traditions of its readings, a careful use of our Christian experience, and employment of our God-given reason.
We are not biblical fundamentalists and have never been. Our founder, John Wesley, found the Bible crucial for his preaching and pastoral work throughout his ministry, but he at no time was married to the literal biblical word. He took the Bible seriously, but far from literally.
With these deep roots in the biblical text, we follow Wesley and his modern followers by reading our Bible with devotion, care and love. We also read with attention to every passage’s immediate context, its broader context, and its relationship to the love for all creation that God exemplifies – the same love that Jesus, God’s Son, made manifest in his earthly life. All Bible reading uses this touchstone of divine love to ground and context its meaning and purpose.
In the pages of the pastoral letter of Timothy, I have long found a powerful warning and an unforgettable personal call for appropriate Bible reading. That warning and call are for teachers concerning the content of their teaching, offering important advice to any who would dare teach the gospel, in Timothy’s day and in our own.
“But the aim of such instruction is love (agape), arising from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, wanting to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying, or the things about which they make assertions” – 1 Timothy 1:5-7
Focusing on the goal of love
I suggest that any of us who hope to become faithful teachers of the law, i.e. the Torah, the prophets, the writings, and the New Testament, should be centrally focused on the goal of love, lest we deviate from that into “meaningless chatter,” unaware that our full understanding is absent, and the assertions we draw from this flawed understanding are deeply in error.
Those who persist in claiming that LGBTQ+ persons are precluded from full participation in the life of the church by words of the Scriptures are thus in danger of deluding others into a false understanding, substituting half-truths for the goal of love for all God’s people. I want always to heed Timothy’s ancient warning and call, and I urge you to do so, too.
The Rev. Dr. John C. Holbert, Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics Emeritus, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.