Abortion a fraught question for the whole community

Abortion is a fraught question, most (or at least very many) people have experiences and life commitments which invest the issue with deeply emotional resonances, and many have more direct personal experiences that intensify the power of the issue to hurt, shock, and anger. When we talk about the question we usually start from the wrong place. We begin with our commitments and targets. Since these are often opposite each other we end up faced off and opposed before we start. Soon since we all like to score points we are shooting at each other. Instead of shooting for the goal of laws that respect human life, protect young women whose lives are being turned upside down and are sometimes as a result of the storms around them traumatised, we battle to be ‘right’, or at least heard.

Surely a better place to start would be the principles and goals ‘we’1 can agree on, rather than those that commit us to fight?  Such agreed principles may be unobtainable, but should we not first see if some are possible?

As an example, can I suggest what might be a first principle, the value of all human life. Left like this it might sound as if I am closing the conversation, not opening it, of one side in the political debate has labeled themselves “pro-life”. However, such a thought seems to me to ignore the fact that the young woman at the centre of the storm is a human whose life should be valued and protected from hurt. It also prejudges the questions of whether, and if so how much, a fetus is already a human life.

This question may seem to end the possibility for conversation and return us to a shooting match, for two extreme positions are common. On one side human life is thought to begin at conception when a potential human life has been activated. On the other human life does not begin till birth and that first breath, before that life is potential rather than realised. Yet these hard and simple definitions of when humanity begins seem unrealistic. A friend of mine wrote on Facebook:2

[T]he fact that post conception only 75% [of fertilised ova] actually implant successfully was a big factor in my hard conception=life/soul/human changing.

There isn’t another binary moment in a fetus/baby’s development but we try very hard to come up with them.

Viability? – it varies with technology. The Hebrews waited until 7 days after birth didn’t they Tim?
Heart beat? – the cells that will become the heart produce a rhythm well before a heart is even present

The only other yes or no moment has been eliminated with the introduction of c-sections. Has the child been born? ‘Well, they will be if we help them out of there safely.’

In short, neither clean absolute rule works, there is no neat firm assured moment when a potential human becomes human. This quickly becomes very dangerous thinking, for we might need to take probability and perhaps degrees of humanity into account. This is a potential minefield, for if we accept degrees of humanity in the unborn (and perhaps even newly born?) why not in other ways? The slippery slope is almost a vertical cliff! Perhaps probability of becoming a human being is better?

Yet if we can agree that there is no neat firm assured moment when a potential human becomes human, then there are important and difficult conversations to be had, rather than merely a shooting/shouting match!

  1. Here I am using ‘we’ as a shorthand for the large majority of us, with sadly some outliers on both ends of the spectrum. []
  2. If you want to be acknowledged message or email me and I’ll do that, but you may prefer it to remain vague. []

Grace, election, and salvation

Salvation is by grace, therefore we cannot say Abraham (for example) lost his salvation when he failed to trust God’s promise but accepoted Sarah’s invitation to sleep with her servant Hagar and get a son by her. If salvation is thus bt grace and not at all merited then it is by election. Also since these Old Testament heroes are among the saved (and Jesus talks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob being at the feast in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 8:11).

But take another Old Testament hero undoubtedly elected by God, David can he have lost his salvation through the sin with Uriah and Bathsheba? By no means, or we speak of damnation by works!

Yet what then of Manasseh, son of Hezekiah? He also is elected by God as an ancestor of the Messiah, as David was (Matt 1:10), is Manasseh’s salvation lost because of his works (2 Kings 24:3)? If so we are back to salvation by works.

Does the Bible talk about homosexuals?

German Bibles mentioned pedophilia

Before we start: No the Bible does not talk about ‘homosexuals’. The word was only coined (in German) in 1869 and the collection of ideas if expresses in particular at of a sexual orientation may only have emerged a little earlier. Therefore, there is no way (in a simple straightforward sense) that the Bible writers could talk about ‘homosexuals’.

Enter Ed Oxford

Someone linked to a post by Ed Oxford, on the Gay Christian Blog Forge. His post has the title ‘Has “Homosexual” always been in the Bible?’ What interests (and perhaps incenses) him is the habit (beginning in the 1946 with the RSV) of Bible translators using this word to translate Hebrew or Greek terms. Ed is particularly taken with the translations in German and other Germanic languages beginning with Luther which render the term arsenokoites in two of the key New Testament passages (1 Cor 6:9-10 and 1 Tim 1:10) in ways which speak of the sexual abuse of boys.

Ed has a point, many Bible translators from 1946 onward have clearly allowed their own preconceptions to drive their translations in the search for relevance to say something the biblical authors would not have been saying.

Actually perhaps Ed could have (like Luther?) gone back to Jerome (4th C) Latin translation. Jerome rendered the key term in 1 Cor 6:9 as ‘masculorum concubitores‘. The concubitores bit poses few problems it refers to sleeping together (both literally and metaphorically). however mas = a man or male, the –culus suffix is usually some form of diminuitive, so (as Luther presumably assumed) the phrase could mean ‘those who sleep with little men = boys’. though masculus can refer to adult men, as Tyndale and others seem to have assumed.

What this information about English translations does is to warn us that the translation of these few key passages is far from simple and straightforward.

If you want a simple and straightforward presentation of the key passages from a gay affirming perspective you could do worse than the short post by Justin Cannon on GayChurch.org titled ‘The Bible, Christianity and Homosexuality‘. Personally I am finding the affirming case stronger and the ‘traditional’ case weaker as time passes. Maybe I’ll have to actually read Loader’s more solid work one day to convince me!

Purity and the Muezzin

Over a few years I have been watching with interest different friends’ responses to the various ‘hot button’ issues that emerge. The most recent, and one of the most interesting the NZ Government’s decision to call on the state broadcaster to transmit an Islamic call to prayer for the 2 minutes silence for the victims of the Christchurch tragedy.

While often people’s responses are predictable, sometimes people surprise. I have begun to think that a significant component in many of these examples is the question of purity. Among 21st C Christians the priority of concern for purity is probably correlated with respect for the text of Scripture, but that correlation is far from perfect.

This should be expected because the priority the Bible gives to purity (among the virtues) varies. In Leviticus purity ranks very highly, in the prophets it stands alongside social virtues. In the New Testament’s lists of virtues and vices purity seldom features positively – James 3:17; 2 Cor 6:6 and 1 Tim 4:12 are exceptions. On the other hand ‘impurity’ is listed as a vice in Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; and 2 Cor 12:21. Lists that seem to omit purity are Rom 12:9ff.; 13:8ff.; 1 Cor 13:4ff.; Eph 4:5ff.; 1 Thess 5:12ff.; 1 Tim 2ff., 6:3ff.; 2 Tim 2ff.; Titus 1:6ff.; and 1 Peter 3:8.1 In the NT too, as almost all these lists make clear, ‘purity’ is primarily associated with sex, while in the OT it more often has ritual connotations.

This prwho prioritise oves nothing, but does suggest that both Christians who prioritise purity and those who prioritise the way we treat others can support their position from the Bible. Purity focus is seen (I think) in my friends who objected or hesitated significantly over the Muezzin’s involvement in the recent two minutes silence.

I am not posting this with the thought that either those who prioritise purity or those who prioritise the way we treat others are ‘right’, of course both are important. However, it seems to me that if this difference in priority (and hence in knee-jerk reactions) were (to be true and) recognised then we might be able to have more fruitful conversations about such contentious issues.

  1. These lists are very approximate, produced quickly, but may give an impression of the presence of purity in these lists, but the extent to which it is not a positive focus. []

White privilege in NZ


White privilege is invisible to white people, just like water is invisible to fish. The case of some friends of mine is instructive. They are white as you like, Kiwi through and through (though whether Pakeha or plain vanilla Tauiwi I am seldom sure – I have an ‘English’ immigrant friend who did all his schooling in NZ, yet still does not have citizenship)1 when one has to attach labels race is complicated).

These friends are kindly folk, so decades ago they fostered ‘difficult’ children. Treated them as part of the family, I don’t know if they adopted them… Now, being difficult children one grew up to be a complicated adult. So CYPHS intervened to take their children from them. Being ‘part of the family’ my friends adopted the CYPHS children. Because they ‘adopted’ them rather than (like sensible white folks) simply ‘long-term fostering’ them they get little or no support from CYPHS and now beyond retirement age seek to give the kids as good a life as they can. Their problem is that our government and society are organised by and for white folks. The default assumptions are the capitalist individualist assumptions of white folk, not those brown folk make. Brown folk (almost all of them and of whatever race know the importance of whanaungatanga. My friends’ mistake was to learn this virtue too well. The system assumes that if you adopt chilkdren it is because they bring you satisfaction and pleasure, they help you flourish and feel good about yourself – so, of course, you should bear the cost each individual (or couple) is responsible for themselves and their own decisions. Whanaungatanga says those kids are family, we can’t leave them to be fostered and cared for by strangers, let’s adopt them and give them security and stability.

The system is organised by and for white folks – or at least people who think like white folks!

It’s nice that CYPHS has got a nice Māori name now, but when will they learn whanaungatanga?

  1. I put ‘English’ in scare quotes because though, I suppose faut de mieux his nationality is English his culture and speech are pure Pakeha. []

Changing our Mind

I’m reading Gushee’s book Changing our Mind.1 While reading, I posted a short quote on Facebook, which provoked interesting discussion, and happily no vitriol. One of the points made there, which was also made by Gushee’s main critic back in 2015 when the book was new, is that Gushee does not do serious exegesis on the key passages. I plan to think about that critique in this post. This post is not a careful presentation and analysis of Gushee’s writing, rather it summarises what he seems to me to be saying – that is, I may have got him wrong, or gone beyond what he says, but this is how his argument looked as I read it.2

The first part of the book (roughly half), after setting the scene, deals with the biblical texts and arguments most often cited in support of the traditional Christian ethical position on LGBTQ sexuality. As I understand it, Gushee is making the point that all of the passages that may directly address the issue are either seriously debatable (the story of Sodom, or what the terms malakos and arsenokoitos referred to exactly) or are not directly addressing our questions but are concerned to make other points (Romans 1).

On Romans 1 it seems to me that Gushee follows Loader in agreeing that Paul understood sex between partners of the same biological gender as abhorrently unnatural. This indeed tells us Paul’s attitudes, but the text does not address our questions, and aspects of sex are mentioned as illustrations rather than the main point. To me this implies that Paul is not teaching about sexual ethics here.3 Now, when we affirm Scripture as authority we are careful not to claim that everything the Bible seems to say is authoritative (thus when it is apparently describing the sun orbiting the earth, or a flat earth with corners, these are not things that Scripture is teaching and so are not authoritative). The fact (assuming with Loader, and I think Gushee, that it is a fact) that Paul perceived sex between same gender partners as disgusting and unnatural, and thus sinful, is not binding on us if this was not what Paul and the Holy Spirit was ‘teaching’ here – and I do not think it was the point of his teaching here.

Because these direct passages are weak (debatable, difficult to translate with confidence, or talking about something else), and certainly not addressing our questions, the main weight of the traditional case must rest on the doctrine of marriage derived (by both Jesus and Paul as well as us today) primarily from Gen 1 and 2. But these passages also are not concerned with the ethics of stable covenanted sexual relationships between homosexual partners. (Unlike the shepherd in Jesus’ parable their interest is in the 95%4 and not in the others.)

Thus the biblical case for claiming that ONLY heterosex is ethically acceptable under any circumstances (the traditional position)5 is weaker than most of us (e.g. Gushee, me, and probably you) assumed.

The conclusion from this is that this set of issues and questions around sex and sexuality cannot be answered responsibly by an appeal to our exegesis of a small set of texts – almost however we understand them after careful exegesis, they simply will not respond to our 21st C questions. We are therefore required to engage in some deeper and broader hermeneutics – as we have had to do consciously or unconsciously on many other issues. Gushee has not stopped being an evangelical ethicist who writes about and believes passionately in marriage as a lifelong covenant, though he has stopped believing that such a lifelong covenant ought necessarily to be restricted only to heterosexual couples.

  1. I was given a copy by friends who hope it will help me change mine. It is the 2017 edition – though the blog posts on which the book is based appeared first in 2014 and the main response to the book dates from that time. Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2017. []
  2. That is do not hold Gushee responsible for anything I say, and do not complain too much if I have not reproduced his thought closely enough. []
  3. Note this approach is not the same as the minority who claim that this passage does not express Paul’s own thought but rather the approach he is criticising – because that IS a minority position it does not seem helpful to depend upon it. []
  4. In this case, unlike Jesus’ sheep, it is far more than 1 in a 100. []
  5. NB even this heterosexual expression is only acceptable within the stable lifelong covenant relationship we call marriage. []

Biblical Studies in November

Biblical Studies Carnivals are like people, some are longwinded, others mercifully brief, some are careful or even careworn, others care less. Yet these month by month listings of posts on biblical scholarship, especially when they cast the net widely, but use a large mesh so that only the serious or seriously funny posts get included do us all a great service.

Bob McD has done a typically thorough and careful carnival for November 2018. If you are interested in the Bible and its scholarship, especially if you are interested to hear its scholars think aloud, then at least glance through the carnival. For as Bob demonstrates despite the dearth of commenting and cross referencing (features of this technology of publication we all anjoyed in ‘the old days’ and miss terribly) biblical studies online is a thriving and interesting common room of ideas, and in this carnival you will find treasure – I guarantee it.

The End of the World: important announcement

It must be such fun to be a literalist with an interest in End Times. The whole Bible becomes a playground, the smallest detail can be twisted into place. For such literalists Scripture becomes a sort of intellectual Lego set from which all sorts of fun and frightening robots can be made.

But, next time someone seeks to scare you with the imminent end of the world, if you read this post to the end, and totally free with no donation required, you too can have the answer. [No, you pagan, it is not ’42’.]

Reading a student essay on one of the less interesting (at least as this student presents it) books of the Bible, I found the key. No, not in the student’s work, that would be plagiarism, but in the simple literal meaning of Scripture. The text at issue is Deuteronomy 7:9, there we read:

Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…

The world will end in somewhere between 25,000 and 46,000 years from now (approximately and allowing nothing for errors). I need no longer fear each creative  but, oh so, literal reading of Revelation, or even from the mysterious apocryphal book of Revelations.

Why am I so sure? Well if a generation is between 30 and 40 years and Moses, the speaker of the words, lived about 4,000 years ago or perhaps quite a bit less, we have a yonk or three before this earth-bound promise ends. Namely, between 30 and 40 thousand years from Moses, or at least 25,000 years from now, though thankfully not more than 46,000, which would be far too long to wait.

Since I am not now, nor have I ever been, a literalist,instead I will continue to pray along with John ‘Come lord Jesus!’ and given the sad state of the world the sooner the better.

PS naturally there is plenty of room for minority opinions not only about the length of a generation but also about the timing and influence of ‘the millennium’.

Fifty years ago God called me to serve the church

God didn’t call me because the church (any church) was great and good. I was still almost a teenager, and I knew that was not true. (If you ever want to know what’s wrong with your church ask the teens, they have strong noses and weak stomachs for pride, conventionality, comfort-seeking, and hypocrisy.)

God didn’t call me because I was great or good. Let’s face it I am, and was even then, just as or even more likely than the next person to look for the easy way, to try to appear better than I am, and even to fool myself that I have succeeded and am better than I am.

God called me because like the church (my church, your church, every church) I am broken and twisted and not at all ‘up to’ the task we have been set. There is no task more glorious than the church’s calling: to declare the Creator’s glory in the world, to be Jesus’ witnesses here, there, and everywhere, and to set loose the power of the Spirit among dispirited people.

Those are not tasks for mere mortals, they belong to Wonder Woman or Superman, not you and me. Yet whenever my friends (or other overgrown teenagers) point out the sadness and hypocrisy of the church, or I read the latest idiocy from the US Christians, I am reminded: ‘You are part of the solution, because you are part of the problem.’

That’s the call God laid on the recently but no longer teenaged me, no more and no less, and I have tried to live up to it ever since. I AM part of the solution, BECAUSE I am part of the problem.