The other day I was sitting in front of the TV pondering the gravity of the recent Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage. In the interest of trying to listen to all sides, I began to explore several different channels. Some were celebrating the decision and others reflected the rather grave concerns of the minority opinion. The take of one of the commentators caught my ear. He spoke passionately saying, “The Bible subjugates women, supports slavery and prejudice, advocates for capital punishment, and encourages violence against other religions, but we managed to get beyond those things. Now we’ve overcome yet another thing the Bible promotes: prejudice against gay people.” The message was clear: the Bible is not only antiquated as a source for ethics but is an oppressive holy book. Without commenting on the specifics of the Supreme Court decision or on same-sex marriage, it seems as one who belongs to a church that confesses the Bible as the source and norm for faith and life,” I need to respond to this negative portrayal of our scriptures. Clearly people in some rather powerful places are taking this latest opportunity to advance their anti-Bible agenda.
First let me say that I understand the anti-Bible agenda on a certain level. We’ve all heard the people shouting over sound systems in front of concerts and sports events. The “bull-horn” guys who bellow condemning words out in front of the Mariners or Seahawks games confirm for many the Bible’s judgmental and oppressive reputation. At the last Mariners game I attended, a bull-horn guy was going at it and another man was screaming at the top of his lungs at the bull-horn guy to stop his hate speech. He was pleading with the bullhorn guy to stop turning people off to Jesus. Even though I sympathized with the guy shouting at the bullhorn guy, it was a horrible and sad sight to see. Talk about a turn off to Christianity! However, perhaps more concerning is the frequent conversations I have with Christians who have acquiesced to the idea that the Bible is old and antiquated and of little use for us today when it comes to how we live. A passage from Leviticus condemning mixed fabrics or about food laws is quoted as an example that we can’t take the Bible seriously anymore when it comes to ethics, etc. Thus the Supreme Court decision raising the issue of who can marry who, the negative portrayal of the Bible’s message in the media, and the confusion among the faithful on how the Bible gives direction to our lives, all converge to create a teaching moment! So here goes.
Unfortunately today, when it comes to interpreting the Bible, the pendulum often swings between simplistic flatfooted approaches to basically giving up on the Bible. The way we apply the Bible to modern life is called “hermeneutics.” We have principles to guide us and help us properly apply scripture to our lives. Let me say from the outset—applying the Bible to today’s issues requires some effort. Here are some of the things we think about when it comes to hermeneutics.
The first and perhaps most important principle is that “scripture interprets scripture.” We don’t just take one verse but rather we try and look at the whole witness of scripture on any issue. The Bible is actually a library of books and not one single “book.” We try and consult the whole library. The next principle is that we strive to understand the passage in its original context before we apply it to today. We first work with what the passage meant before we go to what it means. To accomplish this we try and understand the ancient culture, historical circumstance, and literary genre of a particular passage and as much as possible, the intent of the author. We also give primary weight to the New Testament. For example the NT explicitly says we do not have to worry about the food, civil, and ceremonial laws of the OT—which would include the prohibition of wearing blended fabrics! (Acts 10:9-16, I Corinthians 10:25, Colossians 2.16) However, Christians haven’t complete discarded the OT laws, and they have tried to distinguish between civil and ceremonial laws vs. moral laws – the “moral” ones confirmed by the NT have continued on into the life of the church (Acts 15.29). Christians of course have given primary importance to the actual teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Finally, we also look to fundamental core teachings like love of neighbor and passages like Micah 6:8 that call us “to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.” As this is only a general and brief overview of hermeneutics, here is a link to some more in depth material on hermeneutics from my Basics Class and other sources.
This is the essential error in today’s anti-Bible agenda: the abuse of a thing does not negate the thing abused. That is, just because Christians and others have perverted or misunderstood the Bible’s message, doesn’t mean we should abandon the Bible. I suspect there is a deeper motivation to this anti-Bible rhetoric. What we have to understand is that when someone wants to get rid of religion or the Bible from public life, they want to replace it with something else; no one is neutral in this struggle. Yes, Christians quoted passages in the bible to support slavery in the south. However, isn’t it interesting that the Negro spirituals about freedom all come from verses of the Bible? The very book the slave owners quoted became the source of liberation for those slaves! Isn’t it interesting that Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the Bible when it came to his civil rights work? Yes, some passages in the Bible have supported limiting leadership of women but isn’t it remarkable that Jesus’ respectful, dignified, and empowering treatment of women was an essential source of the women’s suffrage movement? Yes, there is capital punishment in the OT, but the OT and certainly the NT hold up the sanctity of individual life and condemn violence and murder. Yes, promiscuous, exploitive, and cultic homosexual behaviors are denounced in the Bible, but do those prohibitions apply to our modern context where some gay couples want to be in a lifelong monogamous relationship? Is there any basis in scripture to apply the term marriage to a same-sex couple? The debate continues on these questions. Nevertheless, I believe, regardless of one’s convictions about same-sex relationships or marriage, Jesus’ reach to the marginalized and our understanding of the Gospel lead us to be concerned about the welfare of those who are gay and welcome them in God’s family. Finally, when we look around, it seems most organizations caring today for the poor are motivated by the Biblical story. Bottom line, I’m going to fight hard to not let the Bible be demonized and tossed out of our public and private ethical discourse as I believe the consequences are too grave.
Of course we will have disagreements on the right meaning of scripture for our day. That debate and conversation will go on. But I pray it will go on! It must! Ethical deliberation is healthy and essential in our quest for truth and I pray as a society we will not discard the Bible as an important authority for our quest—if we do, with what or by whom will it be replaced? Even more so, I pray for us as a church, that even though it is complex and difficult—even messy at times, we will not let go of scripture as the source and norm for our faith and life. “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Psalm 119:105