This is the fifth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” See my four previous posts for more.
In my previous post on fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s blog post, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” I began analyzing Rev. Purdue’s words about the three passages of scripture in Paul’s letter that directly mention homosexual practice. Purdue devotes a single paragraph to them, saying that he’ll “leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars.” As I said, if he’s sincere about that, then he’ll accept the verdict of these experts: that Paul (and the rest of scripture) condemns homosexual practice per se in the strongest terms possible.
At the end of this paragraph, he writes: “[W]e must not ignore or proof-text Paul’s teachings on homosexuality. We must consider the three passages in their context and in light of the entirety of Christian teaching.”
I agree, and I expected him to engage these scriptures in this way. Instead of doing so, however, he spends the next five paragraphs ignoring these passages—writing words such as the following:
Friends, we now see some of Paul’s teachings in newer non-literal light. In 1 Timothy 2:12-15, Paul writes, “ A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. … Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing.” What do literalists do with these verses? Can we build our theology of women around them? Was Adam not deceived? Are women saved by childbirth? An honest literalist theology must explain what Paul means by child-bearing salvation.
We now see some of Paul’s teachings in newer non-literal light.
No, we don’t! Purdue doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the world “literal.” When we read Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2, we don’t imagine that Paul is speaking figuratively. We aren’t reading these words as if they’re poetry. We read these words, which Paul intends for his readers to take literally, in a literal light only. Otherwise, we’re reading them incorrectly.
By introducing the concept of “literalism” here, however, Purdue can begin attacking every progressive Methodist’s favorite bogeyman: the biblical “literalist.” “What do literalists do,” he asks, “with these verses?” Since I’ve been accused by at least a couple of clergy colleagues of being a literalist myself, I suppose I’m qualified to answer.
But do you see what he’s doing? He’s questioning the character or intelligence of people like me, who believe, in good faith, that homosexual practice is a sin, by lumping us with “those darn literalists.” He doesn’t have to engage our arguments; he can just call us names. We’re guilty by association, just a notch or two above (I hope!) the late Fred Phelps. We can’t have well-principled reasons for defending the church’s traditional doctrine: either we’re not well-informed students of the Bible—or we’re not good people.
I’m tempted to ask him if he believes that Wolfhart Pannenberg, the great German theologian who died last year, was also a “literalist” because he believed in the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality.Be that as it may, when he says that we should read Paul’s words about women in a “non-literal light,” he means to say that we shouldn’t take Paul’s words about women (or slavery) at face value. I agree! Obviously, when Paul says in one part of 1 Corinthians that women should “keep silent” in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), we can’t take it at face value. Why? Because he’s already approved of women prophesying in church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Women aren’t simultaneously keeping silent and prophesying at the same time. So we have to resolve what, on its face, is a contradiction.
But do I think Paul was contradicting himself? Of course not. Believe it or not, the apostle Paul was one of the greatest thinkers and writers in the history of the world. We are not smarter than he is; we are not morally superior to him. Can we give him the benefit of the doubt? Unlike his original readers and listeners, we have no access to the original context of his words. We’re eavesdropping on one side of a two-sided correspondence. We try our best to reconstruct circumstances in the Corinthian church, but this still involves much speculation.
Purdue says that we Methodists, when we began ordaining women in 1956, “clarified or perhaps set aside some Pauline ideas in obedience to the teachings of our Lord.” Clarified, yes. “Set aside”? By no means! (At least we shouldn’t have—I wasn’t around back then.)
We don’t “set aside,” I hope, any part of God’s Word! But we do interpret scripture that’s less clear in in light of scripture that’s more clear. This is a sound interpretive principle. Purdue himself does this when he defends Paul’s view of women in the following way:
In Romans 16, Paul writes “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon …receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house.” (Romans 16) The great Apostle seemingly bans women leadership, but starts a church in Lydia’s home, works with a clergy couple, and sends a female deacon to help lead the church in Rome.
We could say much more about Paul’s exalted view of women in ministry than this. For one thing, Paul entrusted Phoebe with his Letter to the Romans, his magnum opus. She wouldn’t have merely delivered the letter like a mail carrier. She would have read it to the churches in Rome and answered questions about it. She was the letter’s first expositor.
The point is, even Purdue understands that we must interpret Paul’s words about women first in light of everything else in Paul’s corpus—and then the rest of scripture—and when we do, we understand that Paul can’t be ruling out women’s important roles in ministry.
How is this analogous at all to Paul’s words about homosexuality?
We know, for example, that Paul condemns homosexual practice without qualification in three places in his letters. If the analogy to women in ministry holds, there should be other passages in Paul that qualify, clarify, or even contradict (on their face) Paul’s blanket judgment against homosexual practice, right? Where are they?
They’re not there—neither in Paul’s letters nor in the rest of the Bible. The analogy doesn’t hold.
Purdue tries to make a similar point regarding Paul’s words about slavery (emphasis mine).
Before we simply embrace Paul’s three verses [regarding homosexuality] at face value perhaps we need to examine Paul’s teachings on slavery. The Apostle speaks of equality before the Lord but also upholds slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5) Surely no one anywhere, any longer quotes Paul’s words to justify slavery. Today, we stand firmly with John Wesley and our General Rules in rejecting slave holding. We have not always done that. The 1889 cornerstone of my current appointment reads “M.E.C.S.”! A good portion of our church stood with the right to own another child of God. We now name as sinful what the Levitical law and Paul accepted. Could we embrace a new understanding of homosexual persons just as we now accept a new understanding of slavery?
My questions to Purdue are these: Does he believe that the Bible writers, including Paul, were mistaken to write what they wrote? Was Paul wrong? Would Paul fail to understand, as we do today, that the involuntary, race-based, chattel slavery practiced in the few centuries leading up to the American Civil War was evil? Are we morally superior to Paul? What do we understand about sin and evil that he didn’t? Worse, did the Holy Spirit fail to properly inspire and guide the writers of scripture to write what they did about slavery (as practiced in the ancient world)? Does God’s Word endorse or promote sinful behavior?
Purdue says that he “stands firmly” with John Wesley. I do even more so because I “stand firmly” with John Wesley in believing that Paul wasn’t wrong to counsel slaves to “obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” For one thing, what alternative did they have? For another, as many others have pointed out, slavery in Paul’s day wasn’t the same as African slavery of our American experience. It was usually voluntary; it was usually for a limited duration, not for life; it was usually bonded or indentured servitude in order to pay off a debt, after which the person was manumitted; it didn’t usually separate slaves from their families; it was often the only thing separating someone from starvation or financial ruin.
More importantly, as surely Purdue knows but doesn’t say, if all Christian slaveholders took to heart Paul’s counsel to slaveholder Philemon regarding his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery wouldn’t long survive, at least among Christians. Read the whole letter (it’s very short), but here’s one poignant part:
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
And let’s not forget Paul’s radical, liberating, oft-quoted words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
My point is that the Bible’s treatment of slavery, like its treatment of women in ministry, is not at all analogous to its treatment of same-sex sexual behavior. If it were, we should expect to find—again—some word from Paul or the other Bible writers that mitigates the unqualified condemnation of the practice of homosexuality. It’s not there.
(For more on this argument about slavery and women, see this post, which includes a link to a fine article by Timothy Tennent.)
Purdue’s words about slavery and women in ministry are a red herring, anyway.
Here’s why: While I utterly reject the premise that Paul and the Bible writers were wrong about slavery and women, let’s follow Purdue’s logic for a moment: Because Paul can’t be trusted in the case of slavery and women, Purdue argues, he therefore shouldn’t be trusted in the case of homosexual practice. Or, because the church was wrong in its interpretation of Paul’s words in the case of women and slavery, it’s therefore wrong in its interpretation of Paul’s words regarding homosexual practice.
For one thing, as I’ve shown, these things are not analogous. But even if they were analogous, Purdue doesn’t reject everything else Paul teaches—even what he teaches about sexual sin. In other words, I doubt Purdue thinks that Paul got it wrong on incest in 1 Corinthians 5. I’m sure he agrees with Paul that incest is an intolerable sin for which there is no room for compromise. I doubt that Purdue thinks that Paul got it wrong on prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6. I’m sure he agrees with Paul that Christians should not, under any circumstances, have sex with prostitutes.
And those are just two examples, of course. I’m sure Purdue agrees, in general, with much of what Paul says about sexual immorality. Nevertheless, if Paul got it wrong on slavery and women in ministry, then on what basis do we say he got it right on incest or prostitution?
I’ll keep plugging along through the rest of Rev. Purdue’s post later.