First mistake: assume our culturally-specific words and concepts map directly onto the Bible
The phrase "identity mapping" is used by Roy Ciampa to describe what happens when contemporary English readers "map" an English word and all its connotations onto a word used in Scripture. For example, when Paul talks about "slaves," what do contemporary readers think of? If you're American, you likely think of slavery as it existed in the antebellum South. I once heard Doug Moo make a similar point by asking how many in the American context think of a white person when they hear the word "slave." Ciampa points out that the term "homosexual" is a relatively recent English word that has been used in English translations of the Bible, but does not exactly map onto the Greek terms used in Scripture (I've addressed this elsewhere as well). In other words, when we're using terms for people groups--even groups like "husbands" and "wives" --we need to be attentive to how the words and world of Scripture is different than our own. Otherwise, we're likely to have a "naive" view about how the Bible speaks into our context today. So we should NOT simply assume that the text has in mind precisely what WE have in mind when we hear certain words. It is relevant to consider, then, what same-sex relationships looked like in the 1st century and WHY Scripture would speak against them (what James Brownson refers to as the "underlying moral logic" of the text). This exercise is something that all good biblical interpretation should do on any topic, not just questions of human sexuality. This is something that the more conservative side of the same-sex debate needs to acknowledge and be clear about.
But people on the 'progressive' side of this issue engage in this kind of "mapping" as well. For example, when President Carter was in Grand Rapids a few weeks ago, he stated that "Jesus wouldn't discriminate against anyone," a statement that was received with a round of applause. I get what he's trying to say. But this is a classic example of mapping modern identities or concepts back onto the Bible. The concept of "discrimination" is fundamentally linked to modern notions of human rights, especially the rights of the individual. It's anachronistic to say that Jesus either did or didn't discriminate; it would be like asking if he drove a Ford or Chevy. Of course, Christians have to think through how to wisely and pastorally address various issues of rights in the modern world. But we're not helped by naively mapping our concepts of rights and justice onto the Bible's. If by 'social justice,' we mean something like "making sure everyone's individual rights are upheld," we need to acknowledge that's not what the Bible means when it talks about 'justice.' It can't, because the concept of human rights doesn't exist in biblical times.
Second mistake: assume that if our culturally-specific words and concepts don't map directly onto the Bible, then the Bible does not really speak to the issue
Some conclude that unless there is exact one-to-one correspondence between the biblical world and our world, then the Bible has nothing to say on the topic. For example, some commentators argue that monogamous, committed, long-term same-sex relationships didn't exist in ancient Israel or the 1st century Roman world. Nor did the modern concept of sexual orientation. If they are right, the question is precisely what impact this observation should have on our biblical interpretation. With a text like Romans 1, some will note that Paul's use of the term 'natural' is connected partially to procreation, but also partially to gender roles in sexual intercourse and to issues of honor and shame woven into ancient patriarchal culture. So some will argue that unless we bring ALL of these aspects forward into our time, then we shouldn't bring ANY of them forward into our time. Or others will say, more simplistically, that because there's neither monogamous, committed, long-term same-sex relationships nor the concept of sexual orientation in Bible times, then the Bible doesn't speak one way or the other to the issue.
There are a couple reasons that thinking is flawed.
First, this doesn't follow the pattern within the Bible itself. Take the concept of human sexuality. In Leviticus, human sexuality is not only a moral issue but also tied to the ceremonial practices of purity and impurity. The Jewish writers of the New Testament assume that human sexuality is indeed a moral issue even though it is no longer tied to the ceremonial purity laws of the Old Testament. In other words, bringing SOME aspect of the Old Testament text forward doesn't require bringing ALL aspects of the Old Testament text forward. Indeed, this is why we distinguish between civil, ceremonial, and moral law in the Old Testament: as the story of Scripture unfolds, it is clear that some elements of the law are universal and transcultural, whereas others are not.
Second, thinking about other examples helps us to recognize the complexity of biblical interpretation. In many cases, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between our moral, cultural issues and their moral, cultural issues. Nuclear war didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on the issue of nuclear war? Capitalism didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on the issue of capitalism? The idea of social justice--conceived especially in terms of human rights--didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on the issue of social justice? Egalitarian marriages--where husband and wife are considered equal in terms of being, function, personhood, and legal standing--didn't exist in Bible times; does this mean the Bible has nothing to say on marriage?
Here's the kicker: most Christians who hold that Scripture prohibits same-sex sexual relationships and most Christians who hold that Scripture gives us good reason to advocate for social justice are using a complex path of interpretation to get there. I'm increasingly convinced that the biggest issue in numerous debates (including dialogue surrounding same-sex relationships) is not that we fail at the practice of biblical interpretation; rather, we are not very good at explaining to others and to ourselves the principles that do (and should) guide our biblical interpretation.
So, on all these issues, how do we interpret the Bible? For starters, we...
1. Pay attention to the historical-cultural context of Scripture to understand the communication of the biblical authors within the context of Scripture.
2. Pay attention to the literary genre of the text.
3. Pay attention to where this text falls within the unfolding drama of redemptive history.
4. Interpret Scripture with Scripture. Whether Leviticus, Revelation, or anything else, we interpret these texts within the entire canonical context so that we see similarities and differences throughout the entirety of Scripture.
5. Pay attention to the surrounding context so that we don't pull verses or paragraphs out of context.
Once we've done our best to put on the ears of the original audience and examined the totality of Scripture, then we're prepared to think through how the message originally written to a different audience is still for us today. My point here is not to solve all issues relating to the complex question of same-sex relationships. But we need to avoid (a) thinking that our words, concepts, culture, and circumstances map directly on to the world of Bible times, and (b) thinking that if our words, concepts, culture, and circumstances DON'T map EXACTLY on to the world of Bible times, then those texts are irrelevant to contemporary discussions.