As I begin the third installment on this topic, I remind the reader that these entries are written to give guidance to the church. While the rights of homosexuals (and of all people) are legitimate issues, marriage in the church and in civil society are two entirely different matters. Christians should not fall prey to the notion that civil society must operate from the same set of beliefs, practices, standards, and morality of the Christian community. Scripture reminds us that being a follower of Christ means choosing not to be “enslaved by the elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3, ESV). In many areas of life, we should expect to be out of step with common culture.
I ended my last blog raising the issue of women and slavery in the Bible. The roles of women in today’s culture and today’s church are significantly different than the more restrictive roles women had in biblical times. Likewise, slavery was an acceptable norm in common culture during biblical times. Given these considerations, the question has been asked, “Shouldn’t the cultural dimensions of women and slavery in the Bible inform our understanding of and acceptance of homosexuality?” In his book, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, William J. Webb makes a critical examination of the trajectory of scripture regarding women and slaves. The trajectory of scripture, or the “direction of movement,” is a key criterion for interpreting scripture that often gets overlooked. The direction of movement in the Bible for women and slaves is constantly moving toward greater freedom, greater responsibilities, less restriction, and less discrimination. Here is a smattering of examples:
- Deborah served as a judge of Israel leading God’s people to freedom (Judges 4-5).
- Esther became the Queen of Persia and her boldness saved her people from annihilation.
- Mary was chosen by God to bring the Savior into the world (Luke 1:26-38).
- Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection and the first evangelist of the good news of the resurrection (John 20:1-18).
- Lydia was the first convert on the continent of Europe and most likely the first church on European soil met in her house (Acts 16).
- The runaway slave, Onesimus, was not seen as a slave by Paul but as a brother in Christ (Philemon 16).
- Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28; see also, Colossians 3:11).
Bill Arnold, an Ordained Elder of the United Methodist Church serving as a biblical studies professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, suggests that we imagine ourselves sitting at a roundtable discussion with several notable people from the Bible, such as Moses, Jeremiah, Luke, John, and Paul. The conversation is rich and meaningful. Of course, on topics like the incarnation, resurrection, eternal life, the Holy Spirit’s work, and the church Luke, John and Paul have an advantage. Moses and Jeremiah rejoice because Jesus and the church, through the work of the Holy Spirit, have brought fulfillment and deeper meaning to their writings and proclamations (Seeing Black and White in a Grey World 105-06).
Arnold asks us to imagine the conversation turning to women in culture and ministry. Moses and Jeremiah describe that the influence of the patriarchal culture of the ancient Near Eastern world limited the roles of Israelite women. However, at times, women rose into leadership positions, such as military roles or prophetesses, which were revolutionary in the ancient Near Eastern culture. Luke, John, and Paul then pick up the conversation and explain to Moses and Jeremiah that through the ministry of Jesus even greater advances came about for women. John tells the story of Jesus having a conversation with the woman at the well, which would have surprised Jeremiah and Moses. John and Luke tell of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha. With excitement, Paul tells of women that were allowed to worship with men and that women were a key piece of the growth and leadership of the early church. If you and I were a part of that conversation, we would say that the trajectory, which they described, has made it possible for women to share in leadership for the church in lay and clergy roles, as well as being elected as Bishops to guide the church. We would confess to the group at the table that we still have work to do to provide greater equality in many areas of society (ibid.).
One important note must be made here. It is crucial to take into account cultural considerations when reading and interpreting the Bible. In his book Scripture and the Authority of God, theologian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright says, “The Bible describes many things, tells a great many stories, and sketches a great many characters that are not intended to be examples of how to behave. That ought to be obvious” (184). In other words, the books comprising the Bible were written from within particular cultures, but they are not necessarily promoting those cultures. So yes, women in biblical times were seen as useful primarily for their ability to produce children. Yet the unseen God of the Old Testament, the incarnate God of the Gospels, an the Apostle Paul consistently elevated the status and role of women within the patriarchal cultures in which they lived. Again, there is a direction of movement to greater status and roles for women.
The same upward movement would be seen in a roundtable discussion on slavery. Moses would begin by describing how slavery was a part of the ancient Near Eastern culture. He would painfully describe how his people were enslaved for 400 years, often under brutal conditions with no breaks. He would also tell of how God’s people were to be different in their treatment of slaves. Their slaves would join in resting on the Sabbath and being offered the chance of freedom following their sixth year of service (see Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:12-15). Moses would also describe how God often reminded his people that they were once slaves in Egypt. Paul would chime in at this point and talk about how, through the Messiah, all those who have faith in Christ Jesus are one in Christ Jesus and there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free (Galatians 3:28-29). Also, Paul would tell about his Philemon’s runaway slave, Onisemus, whom Paul considered not as a bondservant but a beloved brother in Christ Jesus. F.F. Bruce writes that Paul’s letter to Philemon “brings us to an atmosphere in which the institution [of slavery] could only wilt and die” (Paul: The Apostle of the Heart Set Free). If we were again allowed to add to the conversation we would talk about the Methodist impact on abolishing slavery, including John Wesley and William Wilberforce. We could share of John Woolman, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their impact to abolish slavery and to create greater civil rights for all people. Scott Sauls, pastor of Christ Presbyterian in Nashville, Tennessee, makes an important point in saying these men “opposed racism and slavery not in spite of their belief in the Bible, but because of it.” They brought a needed corrective to those who twisted scripture to justify their own sin of greed. Moses, Jeremiah, Luke, John, and Paul would all celebrate the continued upward trajectory regarding slavery. Still, we would admit that we have much more work to do with regard to race relations, as well as continuing to battle against slavery and human trafficking.
Next, imagine the topic of conversation changes from the role and status of women and slavery to the topic of same-sex practices. Again, Moses begins the conversation explaining that in contrast to the surrounding cultures, Israel viewed same-sex practices as an affront to God and his mighty act of salvation in bringing them out of Egypt. The reason being, same-sex practices were a part of the Egyptian culture from which they had been rescued. Furthermore, same-sex practices were a part of the Canaanite religious rituals, which included same-sex practices with male prostitutes. God’s people were not to be like the Egyptians or Canaanites, but to be a holy people set apart for God (see Leviticus 18:3-5; 19:2; 20:26). As Jeremiah listens he would nod his head in agreement. He might also add how he witnessed God’s people failing to live holy lives in many ways, including same-sex practices. Luke and John would share the Messiah’s conviction that God’s design for marriage is male and female. Paul would speak about the similarities of the Egyptian and Canaanite practices with the Greco-Roman world and how he had to address this (see Romans 1). Instead of an upward trajectory in the conversation, as seen with the role and status of women, we witness a flat-line consensus and consistency (Seeing Black and White in a Grey World, 105-09).
Where does this leave us? We cannot affirm a movement in scripture toward the acceptance of same-gender marriage or same-sex practices. Furthermore, the comparison of homosexuality in the Bible with women and slaves in the Bible is comparing apples to oranges, not apples to apples. The prohibition against homosexuality is transcultural. Wright correctly observes, “the original creation was good and the creator God is in the business of remaking it … the original creation, with the male-female pair as the crown of that creation, and their bondings in the story, including ultimately heaven and earth itself” is good and to be reaffirmed (190).
There are two other things that I feel I must say before ending this blog. The first comes from theologian and professor of missions Howard Snyder who reminds us “the biblical command to love is a higher-level truth and ethic than the prohibition of homosexual practice” (Homosexuality and the Church: Guidance for the Community Conversation 7). All followers of Christ are called to show “unbounded love toward homosexual persons, while not accepting homosexual practice as acceptable in the context of Christian holiness and discipleship. This is consistent with the example of Jesus” (ibid.). Second, contrary to the belief of many, I do not believe that homosexuality is the threat to marriage and families. In my estimation, the threat to marriage in our day is that we’ve turned marriage into a commodity instead of living into God’s design of covenant marriage. I will pick up with this theme in my next blog.