“Did you know that Jesus helped his friend come out?” That’s how one pro-gay theology activist starts his video. Then he shares a New Testament passage in which Jesus supposedly tells LGBT people to come out of the closet and show their true selves, implying that Jesus affirms living a life satisfying LGBT desires. Before we get to the passage, we need to unpack how to interpret an important literary device: the idiom.
An idiom is a phrase whose meaning can’t be deduced from the individual words. For example, if I say, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you know I mean it’s raining hard, not that felines and canines are falling from the sky. Notice the meaning of the phrase doesn’t emerge from the words “cats and dogs.” Rather, the combination of words has an established usage that’s understood by modern English speakers.
Idioms, however, lose their meaning when they are translated into another language, moved to a different culture, or transported to another time period. If I translate “It’s raining cats and dogs” into Russian, the phrase will lose its meaning. You would have to use a different group of words that carries the same meaning in Russian. It’s also possible that in 2,000 years (assuming the English language remains), the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” will no longer be understood to mean it’s raining hard.
That’s why it’s important to remember the Bible was not written in English, in our culture, or in a remotely similar time period. Biblical languages have their own figures of speech, and, most relevant to my point, idioms don’t time travel. Words used to create idioms back in the first century don’t mean the same thing today and vice versa. Sometimes, though, a reader today will see a group of words in Scripture and interpret them through the lens of modern English when the biblical author neither used English words nor meant to communicate the idiom they have in mind.
Popular pro-gay theology advocate Brandan Robertson made this mistake with a passage from the Bible. I’ll admit, though, it’s understandable given his position. If you identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and want to follow Jesus, you have two options. The first is to obey Jesus. That means you must pick up your cross daily and follow him, a command that requires you to no longer satisfy same-sex sexual desires. There are many men and women in the church, like my friends Christopher Yuan and Becket Cook, who have done just that. They mortify their same-sex sexual desires and abide by Scripture’s sexual ethics.
The second is to reinterpret Jesus and twist the meaning of his word. That’s what pro-gay theology advocates do. They recognize the church has a 2,000-year historical precedent of interpreting Scripture to teach that marriage is about one man with one woman becoming one flesh for one lifetime (Matt. 19:4–6). They also recognize the church has interpreted the Bible to prohibit homosexual sex (Lev. 18:22, Rom. 1:26–27, etc.). That means same-sex sexual activity is sin.
Since this pro-gay theology advocate doesn’t accept the first option, he’s forced to reinterpret biblical teaching on sexuality and put words in Jesus’ mouth. Robertson cites John 11:43 (ESV), where Jesus brings Lazarus back to life and calls on him to “come out.” He argues that Jesus is encouraging Lazarus to “step into the light…be who you are…come alive.” In similar fashion, this is also what he claims Jesus is calling current-day LGBT persons to do: “Come out of the tomb of shame, take off the chains that have bound you up, step into the glory of who God made you to be…just as you are.”
Notice the problem? “Come out” is an idiom for publicly announcing you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. It is, however, an English language idiom and has only been understood in that way since the end of the 20th century.
Gay idioms don’t time travel. You can’t take English words that have a specific meaning today and map them onto a biblical passage. Not only did Jesus not speak English, but it’s anachronistic to impose a modern cultural meaning on a 2,000-year-old text.
If that were a legitimate way to interpret Scripture, then one could also argue that Jesus considered homosexuality a demonic disability. Notice what happened after Jesus healed a demon-oppressed woman: “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your disability.’ And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God” (Luke 13:11–13, ESV). Did Jesus heal a woman from being gay and make her “straight”? Of course not. That’s because being “straight” is also a modern idiom that can’t time travel to the first century. Because we recognize this interpretation is mistaken, we can also dismiss the “Lazarus, come out” interpretation because it uses the same faulty interpretive method.
Pro-gay theology advocates have tried to undermine the historic Christian teaching on sexuality for decades. The problem with their approach has often been their inability to follow commonsense interpretive rules that help determine the meaning of any text, not just the Bible. When they violate these rules, they can make Scripture say anything, as evidenced by their unsubstantiated claim that Jesus encouraged LGBT people to come out of the closet.