Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

Photo by Dennis Bratland

I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.

I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.

The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.

Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1

I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.

In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times)  in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.

Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.

I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!

[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]

  1. There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. []

Mothers’ Day

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Since Mothers’ Day is fast approaching, I’ve been delighted to hear of two pastors who are planning to make sure some of the motherly or other female imagery used in Scripture gets a mention.

Mothers’ day is always a sensitive occasion, so many women are not mothers who wish they were, or are mothers and wish they weren’t, or more often because of circumstances find it very hard and fear they are “not doing a good job”. And yet, we never think twice about using Fatherly language and pictures to talk about God…

All of us had fathers and mothers, our experiences and knowledge of either or both may be good, bad or even non-existent, they remain for almost all of us a deeply emotional part of our experience. Just as, used carefully, father is a powerful way to relate to God, so is mother. The writers of the Bible and the theologians of the church  (at least for nearly 1500 years) used this resource.

If you want some ideas try a guest post (last of a series) I wrote for Thalia a couple of years back or try the screencast version below. If you want a bit more academic grunt see my AJPS articles from Volume 17, Number 2 (August 2014) or here.

 

Demolishing Scripture (while claiming to be “biblical”)

Photo by Bob Hall via Wikipedia

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.

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For more explanation of that last important section see the last three sessions in my Reading the Bible Faithfully:

9: God remains faithful: the principle of the thing

10: Application: Where the rubber hits the road

11. Reading in the light of Christ

  1. Or indeed the whole of the Bible. []

Submission: repost from almost twenty years ago

Joseph Crawhall, 1884 "Pigs at the Trough"

Almost twenty years ago I wrote a series of short pieces for the NZ Baptist on gender roles and relationships. The issue remains a hot one. So I thought I’d repeat the article on “submission” here. I may give it context by repeating others but I’ll need to look and see how the decades have treated them…

Looking Sideways

Women and Children in Colossians

Old rules, new relationships

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

Submission is a problem. Well, it is for me. I do not submit easily. I’m a child of my time. I like to be in control – independent, that’s me. In the face of a culture that abhors submission, or worse enjoys and demands it, while despising those who submit, to discuss the biblical understanding of the roles of men and women in terms of submission is difficult.

Yet it’s there in the Word. Husbands seeking control of their wives have several favourite passages available. 1 Cor 14:33ff. and 1 Tim 2:11 are champion, as they ordain silence on the wife’s part – any discussion of the master’s will is therefore rebellion against God! (Dictators love laws silencing those they rule!)

For those with an open mind, when addressing difficult and contentious issues, it often helps to approach them sideways. That’s what the Master often did when the lawyers came to him with their conundrums and awkward questions.

Looking Sideways

“Where” and “when” the Bible discusses the submission of women to men is interesting. Although the cultures of Bible times were thoroughly patriarchal, the Two-Thirds Bible (Old Testament) seems silent on the need for women to submit. So, too are the Gospels. For the Gospel writers, focusing on Jesus life and teaching leaves no time for details of family organisation. (Can you imagine Jesus telling women to be quite and keep their place!) While in the centuries BC most women and men “knew their place” and so there was little to discuss. Discussion of submission in the Epistles is due to the growth of city life in the Roman empire, which challenged the old patterns of living and made the issue a live one, much as currents of liberation have reopened it in our world.

I spoke of the cultures of the Bible as “patriarchal”. This word deserves a second glance. In our culture patriarchy is a swear-word to the PC. In the ancient world, patriarchy meant that each household had one person whose job was to guide, protect and defend. The cultures of the Bible are family (= whanau, not the European style 2+2.4) and clan based.

One’s place in the world came from membership of a family. Even legal protection depended on having a family member to speak in council on your behalf. The Old Testament lists four groups who need special care and protection: widows, orphans, foreigners and the “poor”. Notice that two of these (or three if you count the foreigners) are those who are deprived of a “paterfamilias” – a household head to defend their interests.

In patriarchy each person has their role, women run the home, youths run the business or keep the flocks, each obeys the paterfamilias (including adult male family members) who must defend the interests of all. Men are no different from women in this obedience they owe. This is the context of talk, in the epistles, of “submission” as the role of children and women – it is no longer how we live.

Women and Children in Colossians

New Testament advice about family relationships, and the duties and responsibilities of members of a household is closely related to the advice found in Jewish and Greek authors of the same period. In all three contexts wives, children and slaves are encouraged to obey or “submit” to the head of the household (paterfamilias). But it is not these similarities that are interesting – it’s the differences.

On the surface the most striking difference in Christian advice (at least to husbands, wives and children) is the phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord”.

So in Col 3 Paul writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” And “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord”. (Col 3:18,20).

So, family relationships are governed by the same rules for Christians as for Jewish or Pagan households but with an added element. Wife and husband, parent and child are all “in Christ”. As fellow members of the “body of Christ” there is a new and different aspect given to the old rules. (No such phrase qualifies the advice to slaves, for their masters may not share this new relationship “in Christ”.)

Old rules, new relationships

In their families as elsewhere Christians are to abide by the rules and norms of respectable society. Here as elsewhere too, something new is introduced by the Gospel. In Colossians 3 Paul expresses the newness like this:

 

 Conventional Behaviour:
 Gospel Innovation:
8 Wives, be in subjection to your husbands,19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
20 Children, obey your parents in all things,21 Fathers, provoke not your children, that they be not discouraged.

The paterfamilias was “head” of the household. In many families of the ancient world this meant their word was law and their whims were obeyed. Christian “headship” is modeled by Jesus. I wonder what kind of paterfamilias copied the Lord who: “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil 2:7-8).

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

How sad sometimes to hear Christian women seeking “liberation” in ways that fail to reflect the creator’s dreams for humankind. Too often the cry for women’s liberation (even in the Church) reflects the low value of home and family inherent in our cash-is-king Western society. It echoes our society of piglets scrambling for a place at the trough, rather than the newness of life “in Christ”.

Even sadder watching men seek biblical mandate for overbearing bossiness that the pagans of our world have learned to reject! Do such men fear the wisdom and the strength of their wives so much that they forget the example of their Lord?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in Church and family, instead of scrambling for our place at the trough, we all discovered the innovations that the liberty of the gospel brings to our life together. If offers of mutual service in Christ (and in imitation of Christ) replaced, standing on our rights.

NB: This post first appeared online at Electric Angels as part of a longer series on gender and gender roles “Men & Women – Sex & God“.

The next best thing

The Bible Wasn't Written to YouRecently I pointed to the very best book offer ever, the Logos edition of Childs’ masterly Isaiah with all the added features of the e-edition quite free.

Today an offer that the next best thing, David Kerr is creative and provocative, but he’s not a scholar like Childs, his The Bible Wasn’t Written to You is a slim tome, Childs’ is massive. But the price is the same $0! And David’s little book is a good read and thought provoking.

Just use the code: YA52D

Incidentally David’s book came out of blog posts, and he was a cracking blogger. I do hope he does start again. If he does subscribe and comment!

Easter Saturday: Why did Jesus have to die?

Eccehomo1

If you don’t mind your scholarship mixed with faith, and some of us would have it no other way, George Athas is a blogger to follow. Hos latest post Why did Jesus die? is particularly good – and just right for this in between day. Do read it, his style is clear sharp and punchy, and the content mixes scholarship and faith into a fine blend.

Between the sadness and focus on death of Good Friday and the joyful exuberance of Easter it is a question worth reflecting on. And unless you are a NT scholar likely you will learn something too!

New commentary on the whole Bible

the-person-the-pew-commentary-series

Jim West has athe-person-the-pew-commentary-seriesnnounced a PDF edition of his Bible commentaries, all of them (including the forthcoming ones, assuming Jim lives to complete them, which is to be expected and hoped) for just US$199. As he says considering the work involved this is a slender price, he is not in it for the money. As the many and various reviews (including mine here) suggest this is a great resource for its intended audience (“the person in the pew” – and probably despite Jim’s opinions on Emergent churches and Pentecostals, also those in more up to date softer seating).

This extract from Gareth Jones recommendation of the works suggests why: “West couldn’t dodge an issue if his life depended on it” that is exactly the quality you need in a commentary.

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Fishing on Galilee

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Richard Bauckham (University of St Andrews) gave the 2014 Burns Lectures at the University of Otago. The podcast MP3 or MP41 Titled “The Sons of Zebedee: The Lives of Two Galilean Fishers”, the lectures (at least so far, I am finishing #2 as I write) provide careful and full descriptions of the geographical and social contexts of Galilee in the time of Jesus.

If you watch no more, watch the first few minutes of lecture #1! They alone will give you a fine sense of the little world of 1st Century lake Galilee and enrich your reading of the gospels out of all proportion to the time spent.

Here are links to mp4 (video) and mp3 files:
1) The World of the Lake of Galilee’ – Tuesday 12 August (video) (mp3)
2) ‘The Fishing Industry’ – Wednesday 13 August (video) (mp3)
3) ‘Zebedee and Sons’ – Thursday 14 August (video) (mp3)
4) ‘Called to Fish for People’ – Tuesday 19 August (video) (mp3)
5) ‘Sons of Thunder’ – Wednesday 20 August (video) (mp3)
6) ‘Jerusalem’ – Thursday 21 August (video) (mp3)

HT: Deane Galbraith

  1. The MP3s are excessively high quality, 160kbps, so are almost as big as the video, caveat downloador.  []

Humour in the Bible 1.3 Introduction: Locating humour

The simplest useful definition of humour has to be: “Humour is present when people laugh”.

However, this simplicity masks real problems. For a start as we saw people laugh for other reasons than just that something is funny, embarrassment and being tickled are obvious (and pretty cross cultural) examples. But also sometimes people ‘laugh at’ rather than ‘with’, laughter then is not a sign of humour. There is also unintended humour.

Worse still for us this definition is useless as a help for readers of ancient texts, since the audience is not available to test.

Perhaps though we might still say: “Something is humorous when its author intended its audience to laugh (or at least smile?) as they receive the text.” This avoids the ‘laughing at’ problem, but still the biblical authors are no more accessible than their audiences.

It also does not allow for unintended humour, or at least unconscious humour (that is humour that the author was not aware of generating, but which they would recognise after the event if it was pointed out to them).

Cutting a potentially long and complex discussion short perhaps we can agree that somehow, like ‘meaning’, humour exists in the interface of authors, texts and audiences. In the next post I’ll suggest a series of criteria that might be used to get an idea if a text is likely to be intended (author) to be funny, or at least recognised by an audience (at the time of writing) as funny. These criteria will come from both theories of humour (see Humour in the Bible 1.2 Introduction: Theories of Humour), recent scholarly writings on humour in the Bible, and in one case a suggestion from a reader that struck me as eminently sensible.

Did Jesus have a sense of humour?

Dr Jane Heath (Durham University) wrote a piece “Did Jesus Christ have a sense of humour?” In it she suggests that the question might be broken into two parts: “[o]ne about the way Jesus taught during his incarnate life, and another about the way it is proper for followers of Jesus, who seek to share in his risen life, to behave today.” I intend to respond here to what she wrote about the first of these.

Heath begins by noting that the synoptic gospels “[d]o not depict him making people laugh and they do not describe him as ‘witty’, let alone ‘funny’.” This is true, but then descriptions in biblical narrative is commonly sparse, perhaps less so in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible but nevertheless the gospels do not describe Jesus as ‘serious’, ‘sober’ or ‘solemn’ either.

In a similar way she erects another straw man to conveniently demolish. When those around him do something silly, she says: “Jesus does not make a joke of their silliness.” Well, no, but then to present Jesus as a sarcastic snob who makes fun of the mistakes of others would hardly fit with the Synoptic Gospels intentions in presenting Jesus. Even if the historical Jesus did make fun of such slips, the gospel writers might well not have reported this.

Moving beyond this trail of successfully demolished straw men, Heath has to admit that: “Some of the things he says in parables might seem to invite us to read them as if told with a twinkle in his eye.” She follows this with a couple of weak examples of such possibly humorous parables, but recognising the difficulty of accurately spotting humour accross cultures concludes: “In general, humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life. The evangelists were not writing satire.” The second sentence is true, but entirely irrelevant. Jesus might have been a stand up comedian and the gospel writers would still not have been satirists if they reported his jokes accurately! The question Heath posed is not, are the gospels satire (or even comedies) but rather, did Jesus have a sense of humour?

The other claim: “humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life” is more difficult to argue (either for or against). But I would suggest that the fact that it is difficult to picture Jesus’ parable of the man with the log in his eye (Mat 7:3-5, Luke 6:41-42) without smiling may provoke us to look to see if the signs of humour are present in these texts.

The criteria I have used in the past, are drawn from a number of previous studies by others, and most are present in these texts:

  • incongruity – surely evident!
  • lighthearted mood – this is a subjective criterion, but what do you think?
  • surprise – if you had not heard the parable before would you expect Jesus’ punchline?
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns) – this one may be missing here…
  • inferiority – the main point of the parable?
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else – the “friend” is pretending to be superior and helpful
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson) – perhaps not…
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory – oh, yes!

My conclusion: This saying seems evidently intended to be humorous. What do you think? On the basis of this saying alone1 The correct response to Dr Heath’s question is a clear “Yes, Jesus did have a sense of humour!” (At least the Jesus who is presented in the Synoptic Gospels did.)

PS: I omitted “hyperbole” which I earlier added to the original list at David Kerr’s suggestion – the hyperbole in this passage is obvious!

  1. Though I can’t help also remember Jesus’ fondness for camel stories! []