Several recent conversations (online and face to face) in my circles involve applying the Bible to contemporary social issues. The latest is a very long-standing one in Western churches if there are particular roles for men and for women in family and church to which we should conform.
This discussion is usually framed as between Egalitarian and Complementarian approaches. As I have said elsewhere I think this framing is false – almost everyone I talk to is egalitarian (affirming they believe women and men are “equal”) and complementarian (they believe women and men complement each other and that for example in a marriage each partner brings qualities and so the whole is more than the parts). The key difference (I think) revolves round whether this complementarity is through defined gender roles to which we ought all conform regardless of our personal skills or gifts.
Sadly much of the discussion in Christian circles has for decades disolved into either each side bashing the other with “verses” that are believed to support/teach their view, or sometimes into a “literalist” – “liberal” ding dong. My beef with the “literalist” approaches, and with the “liberal” ones is that they each end up discarding a lot of the Bible. They differ in which parts of Scripture can be ignored or removed, and in the excuses they provide to justify their anti-biblical stances.
Some “liberals” discard Scripture honestly. Some openly say that this or that passage1 “is old fashioned”. Others dismiss some Bible teaching as “cultural” and so no longer binding in this enlightened age.
“Literalists” (and often ex-literalists, like many Baptists today) often do it covertly – with their lips they pay tribute to the whole Bible, but a slippery slope starts with the laws in the Pentateuch. No one I know avoids clothes made of mixed fibres. The excuse they offer if challenged is either “it was not confirmed in the NT” or “it’s only a ritual law”. Both of these excuses leave the Old Testament without authority! Only following Old Testament teaching that is confirmed in the New makes the Old Testament superfluous and effectively Apocrypha, valuable as spiritual reading but without authority. This ignores Jesus’ clear teaching that:
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:19)
Even if we could allow such tentative first steps down the slope, dismantling Scripture as Marcion did we have not solved the problem. Jesus also said
Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. (Mark 6:8-9)
But when such “literal” Christians pack, even for a mission trip, there are plenty of spare clothes! The response if they are challenged is “Ah, Jesus was talking to his disciples there, not us.”
Quite right, if you set aside Jesus’ words you are not his disciples!
Rather than either the “liberal” or the “literal” dismantling of Scripture we must (because every part of the Bible is socially and culturally contextual (that is incarnate in ancient places and times) look for the understanding of God and the world (theology) that the passage is teaching or applying. That is what we apply. It’s hard work, it risks us getting it wrong… in short we cease to “master” Scripture, but we (have tried to) allow it to master us.
For more explanation of that last important section see the last three sessions in my Reading the Bible Faithfully:
- Or indeed the whole of the Bible. [↩]