Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 1

Rogers_review_06162015Jack Rogers. 2009. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality:  Explode the Myths, Heal the Church.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Goto Part 2).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA; PCUSA) approved ordination of homosexuals in 2012 and gay marriage in 2014. As moderator of the 213th General Assembly in 2001 and in other leadership roles, Jack Bartlett Rogers was an important advocate for these changes[1]. In his book, Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality, he lays out the argument for why he believes that:

“We need to give people who are LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] full and equal rights within the church and work for their rights within the broader society. That means that marriage, ordination, and every other right necessary to bring people who are homosexual into full equality with people who are heterosexual.” (107-108)

Because this book was published in 2009, it anticipated changes in the policy of the PCUSA by several years and played an active role in advocating for these changes. As such, readers interested in the genesis of these changes will want to be familiar with the arguments in this book[2].

Who is Jack Rogers?

Rogers is currently Professor Emeritus of Theology  at San Francisco Theological Seminary. While he is the author of numerous books, I am most familiar with his book, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (2001), a study both in church history and dogmatics. Dogmatics is: “the study of the arrangement and statement of religious doctrines, especially of the doctrines received in and taught by the Christian church.”[3] Rogers describes himself as “evangelical theologically” which makes sense for a former faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, but probably not for a faculty member at San Francisco Theological Seminary (6).

Outline of Book

As advocacy, Rogers’ Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality can be described as a work in the field of dogmatics. Rogers writes in 8 chapters:

  1. Studying Homosexuality for the First Time.
  2. A Pattern of Misusing the Bible to Justify Oppression.
  3. A Breakthrough in Understanding the Word of God.
  4. Interpreting the Bible in Times of Controversy.
  5. What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say about Homosexuality.
  6. Real People and Real Marriage.
  7. Recommendations for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
  8. All are One in Christ Jesus. (vi)

Before the chapters are 2 prefaces and acknowledgments. After the chapters are an appendix, a lengthy study guide, notes, and a topical index. Missing is a scriptural index.

Rogers Requires Careful Reading

For example, one of the problems with the term, evangelical, is that the meaning has changed dramatically over the years and is often criticized as being a meaningless term. In chapter 1, Rogers defines an evangelical as:

“someone who accepts three propositions: (1) People can and should have a personal relationship with God through trust in Jesus Christ. (2) The Bible is the final authority for salvation and living the Christian life. (3) God’s grace in Jesus Christ is such good news that everyone should hear about it” (6).

So far so good. Rogers then goes on to distance himself from “fundamentalists” whom he describes as “more politically monolithic and more theologically conservative than evangelicalism.” (7) Fundamentalists have attempted over the years to give theological substance and voice to the evangelical movement.  Yet, Rogers uses them primarily in his book as a foil for criticism.

Rogers as Artful Politician

Chapter 2 is a case in point. Attorneys often cite this old saw:

if the facts support your case, then argue the facts; if the facts don’ support your case, then argue the law; if the facts and the law don’t support your case, then stand and shout.

Here the chain of reasoning is:  homosexual conduct is medically risky (fact) and it is a sin (law) [4], but it is also okay by Rogers (stand and shout).  If biblical interpretation provided a strong case for mainstreaming LGBT persons in the church, then one would expect chapter 2 to lay out the case for homosexuality—it does not. Instead, chapter 2 focuses on how biblical interpretation was misused to oppress blacks and women in the past (17). The art of politics lies in using innuendo—an indirect rather than a direct assault—to make an emotional point (standing and shouting) supporting your case. In this case, he argues that the Bible was misused in the nineteenth century to support slavery and oppress women—now, it is being misused to oppress homosexuals.

The problem is that evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century also successfully led efforts to abolish slavery and promote women’s rights [5].  The fascinating part is that in making these arguments[6] he both lionizes 2 key constituencies (blacks and women) and, by inference, defames his opponents as being in the same league with racists and misogynists from the past who misused the Bible. While this is artful politics, one does not expect this line of reasoning within the church and it does not suggest a strong biblical case for homosexuality.

Rogers’ interest in Christology and his background in neo-orthodoxy are also fascinating. Troubling was the way that he split (much like the earlier split between evangelicals and fundamentalists) Jesus Christ from the scriptural witness—we understand Jesus Christ only from scripture and direct revelation (52-53).   The tradition of the church primarily represents scriptural interpretations rendered over time.  Consequently, because Rogers does not claim a new revelation of God [7],  it is highly misleading to separate Jesus from the scripture witness.

Rogers Departs from Reformed Interpretation

His proposed interpretative technique is laid out in 7 guidelines:

  1. Jesus Christ is the center of scripture.
  2. Focus on the plain text in grammatical and historical context.
  3. Depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Be guided by the consensus of the church.
  5. Let all interpretations be guided by the rule of love—love of God and neighbor [8].
  6. Establish a best text.
  7. Seek the whole counsel of scripture (65).

A key problem with this list is item 6—establish a best text—which is in direct tension with item 7—seek the whole counsel of scripture. Picking a favorite text and reading the rest of the Bible in view of it allows complete freedom to read the text anyway you like—or, if you are a church leader, to control the interpretations of the church with your particular theology in view [9]. In fact, item 5 is an example of a best text (item 6) and an attempt to control interpretation [10].

Missing from this list is a key interpretative technique that Rogers employs repeatedly throughout his book.  He argues that the biblical homosexual prohibitions exist primarily to establish male dominance.  For example, he writes:

“The hosts [in Sodom and Gomorrah] do not seem to think of the attackers as primarily homosexual, or they would not offer women for them to abuse.” (67)

No doubt Moses employs this argument to show the depravity of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah; Rogers employs the argument to defame the hosts as misogynists and to divert attention away from homosexual sin.  Rogers employs this sociological argument repeatedly (e.g. 74-75) which has the unfortunate consequence of undermining the authority of scripture in the eyes of those reading Rogers text—especially women.  How can church unity follow from interpretation techniques that by their nature divide and conquer along gender lines?

The Protestant reformation was launched along with a new interpretative method—John Calvin’s—which focused on the authority of scripture[11].  Without saying so, Rogers discards the interpretative standards of the reformed tradition by substituting his own standards.  The irony of Rogers’ proposed changes in church polity and biblical interpretation follow American culture much the same way as he criticized the church doing in generations past.  The difference is, however, that American culture today is overtly secular, atheistic, and post Christian.

Assessment

Jack Rogers’ Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality is likely to be debated for years to come. It is easy to read and hard to understand. The target audience is broadly the LGBT community, woman’s groups, and minorities within mainline denominations. Rogers may, however, be remembered more widely as re-energizing interest in the study and practice of dogmatics, but perhaps for reasons he may not want to own.

In part 1 of this review, I have summarized of Rogers’ methods of argumentation and interpretation. In part 2, I will take a closer look at the biblical texts which both focus on homosexuality and at the biblical texts which Rogers’ highlights in his final chapter.

Footnotes

[1] Comments supporting this assessment are found on a website:  www.DrJackRogers.com.  Anyone doubting Rogers’ position on this issue will want to read the first blurb on the first page by Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.  Early in chapter 1, Rogers also discusses a group called More Light Presbyterians who have a: “ mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.” (www.MLP.org).

[2] Readers interested in the debate over scripture with Robert Gagnon (author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice) can find this online at:  http://bit.ly/1GrGVvz.  Read part 1 of my review of Gagnon at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-15F.

[3] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dogmatics

[4]  Read part 1 of my review of Gagnon at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-15F.

[5] See:  Dayton (2005).

[6] At the heart of his argument is a weak analogy.  In fact, the Bible’s arguments about slavery and role of women evolve between the Old and New Testaments in a way that is not true for homosexuality. The weakness in this analogy was the focus of a recent book by Webb (2001).  Read my review at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Bn.

[7] Rogers’ revelation is more political than spiritual.  He writes:  “I worked through how the church, guided by the Holy Spirit in understanding the scriptures, reversed our prohibitions against ordination to leadership of African Americans, women, and divorced and remarried people.” (15)  The argument goes 1 then 2 then 3 then 4, therefore 5.  The Bible never promoted slavery, even if it acknowledged it; women are clearly in leadership in both the Old and New Testament, although not as frequently as today; and divorce is a sin in the Bible, except in the case of adultery, yet the modern church has mostly looked the other way.  He is confusing what some people in the church have done with a mandate from the Holy Spirit and drawn an inference that cannot be made in scripture, but is now politically popular.

[8] At the heart of this debate over homosexuality is the proper definition of love.  In the Greek, Rogers is using a principle based on the Agape love (ἀγαπάω; love of neighbor) to excuse a sin based on type of Eros love (ἔρως; passionate love).  At a minimum, this argument is mixing apples and oranges.  It is certainly not an inference that could be drawn from Matthew 22:36-40 which is based on Old Testament law (Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18) which also prohibits homosexuality (Lev 20:13).

[9] The usual way that Protestants seek to interpret scripture starts with a focus on the intent of the author which is clarified by the whole counsel of scripture.  Then and only then is the reader’s interpretation brought in.  See for example:  (Vanhoozer 1998).  See my review at: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yq.

[10] The double love command (Matt. 22:36-40) is certainly important and much beloved among Christians. However, how can a general statement about love overrule specific guidance on the sinfulness of homosexuality?

[11] Thompson (2004, 58-62, 67, 71) viewed Calvin having 4 interpretative principles, including:  1. understand the author’s intent, 2. communicate effectively, 3. consult the original texts, and 4. consider the text and its application in the context of the canon of scripture.

REFERENCES

Dayton, Donald W.  2005. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Gagnon, Robert A. J. 2001. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Rogers, Jack. 1991. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Thompson, John L.  “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter.”  Pages 58-73 in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin.  Edited by Donald A. McKim.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Webb, William J. 2001. Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic.

Rogers Advocates for LGBT Equality, Part 1

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