On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 5: Slavery, women, and homosexuality

June 10, 2015

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.

Pannenberg and me—two peas in a "literalist" pod.

Pannenberg and me—two peas in a “literalist” pod.

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.

18 Responses to “On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 5: Slavery, women, and homosexuality”

  1. Josh Says:

    Yeah, that’s some pretty lame stuff. What gets me is that these arguments are so old and they’ve answered so many times . . . why is this stuff still being put out there like it’s valid? In whatever seminary/college they attend, are lib./progs not being introduced to both sides of the arguments? Are they not being challenged to work through these things with some critical thinking and objective criteria?

    Some of these arguments are so unbelievably lame and untenable . . . I guess that’s why I get so frustrated. Whenever I see these SOS arguments presented, I just want to look at people with a blank stare and say “really?” I mean, it’s one thing for Joe Schmoe who comes off the street to fall for these things but clergy trained in graduate studies . . . c’mon man. I think I would be asking for a refund if I didn’t receive any better education than that.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Then I should ask Emory for a refund. They don’t teach critical thinking skills. I got that from Georgia Tech. 😉

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think Purdue is saying, “If I can find one passage in the Bible that no one believes is ‘valid’ anymore, then I can argue that no one is bound to believe any OTHER passage is still valid, and I choose as my favorite passages to not believe those on homosexuality.” You do a good job of refuting this by saying (I think): (a) the passages Purdue points to as no longer being valid in fact WERE valid in the context they were written, and to the extent we don’t practice them anymore, we are doing so based on OTHER passages which show a more controlling general principle, not just because we “reject” the limited passages; and (b) in any event, the only basis to find some passages passé is due to other passages on the same subject which support that conclusion, whereas with homosexuality there are no such other passages. (Right?) I agree with this. My only point about this is that in fact it does seem to be a difficult exercise to see what passages are “no longer binding” due to application of the general to the specific (and particularly so as to those passages dealing with women in worship services). But the difficulty is still one of holding to the entire Bible as inspired and correct, and acknowledging there are some difficult passages to interpret, not throwing out passages which are clearly NOT difficult when it comes to “reconciling.” Such as homosexual practice.

    (I will be out for a celebration of my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary from this evening through until next Wednesday, and I don’t “remote access,” so don’t take any lack of responses in the interim to show lack of interest!)

    • brentwhite Says:

      That’s right. In the case of slavery and women, we have these other passages in scripture that support alternative interpretations. There are none for homosexual behavior, so the analogy doesn’t hold. The Bible isn’t “wrong,” as Purdue implies, in its original context. And finally, if you’re using a faulty argument to discredit what Paul says about homosexual behavior, you’re discrediting everything else he says. “I think Paul was wrong about what he said concerning incest!” Why not?

    • brentwhite Says:

      And when I say “alternative” interpretations, I don’t mean that we’re trying to wiggle our way out of what scripture plainly says. As I said, if Paul approves of women prophesying in church, then he can’t simply mean that all women must remain quiet at all times.

      Southern Baptist churches like yours don’t ordain women, but they certainly (in my experience) let women offer testimonies, give announcements, etc.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yes as to the last. My Mom used to sometimes speak in “missionary reports” in church (but did not preach a sermon). (Although not necessary to resolve to address your post here, most Baptist “theologians” get the “no ordination of women” rule from the criteria for pastors in Timothy and Titus, as opposed to “don’t speak.”)

      • brentwhite Says:

        Right. Thanks.

  3. Josh Says:

    The BIG problem in these arguments is that proponents are not looking at the BIG picture. These ethics are not willy-nilly rules but ethics that flow out the grand metanarrative of Scripture . . . being created as a male and a female, sex as a means for spreading little “images of God” throughout a good creation, a man leaving his family unit and becoming one with a woman and thus creating a new family unit. Sexual ethics in the Bible begin in a positive light. The later prohibitions are just reactions to humanity’s rebellion and subsequent transgression of God’s design for human sexuality and marriage. That’s why Paul links paganism and homosexuality in Romans 1. Turning away from God and God’s proscription for sexuality and marriage go hand in hand.

    And that’s why these arguments that “we need to change the definition of marriage so homosexuals can live in committed relationships of marriage. We don’t want them to live sinful life styles.” Well, if you don’t want that, then tell people the whole story: that the homosexual relationship in itself is wrong and hurtful for the people who practice such things.

    Anyways, the whole thing is goofy in my book. I do not have a whole lot of sympathy for clergy who push this junk. They should know better.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Ah, says the gay-affirming pastor, but it _isn’t_ hurtful for the people who practice such things. Aside from “the Bible tells me so,” we have no reason to have a problem with it. Response?

      • Josh Says:

        It all boils down to assumptions and the authority of Scripture in our lives. How do we define what is “good” for a person and what is “bad” for a person? Do we put out surveys asking people if they “feel” that having homosexual behavior is good or bad for them (gee, I wonder what the person who practices homosexual behavior will say?)? Do we ask the “professionals” if homosexual behavior and trust their judgment (because, ya know, they used to say that people who practiced homosexuality were crazy but now it’s changed). Do we look at a homosexuality from a purely teleological view and ask if two men or two women having sex produces anything good (besides gratifying sexual lust)?

        Or, gosh darn it, do we Christians just recognize that our faith is founded on divine revelation – God revealing Himself, His word, His truth to us? Or how about we spend some time observing the homosexual culture and see for ourselves that is not good for people? How about we recognize that the ideology that says that the urges and feelings that arise up from our genital organs define our identity (who we are) is a horrible, demonic doctrine?

        You’ve got to quit prodding me – I got work to do 😉

      • brentwhite Says:

        Robert Gagnon, whose 2000 book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, published by Abingdon, set the standard for a mainline Protestant defense of the traditional doctrine of sex and sexuality (not that the mainline listened to him), devotes a section of his book to health problems—diseases, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, sexual abuse, suicide, and life expectancy—among gays and lesbians and argues that just in terms of statistics, “being gay” (now we might say “being LGBT”) is a public health problem.

        As you can imagine, no one is less popular among our gay-affirming friends than Dr. Gagnon. So they—like Matthew Vines—publish their gay-affirming books without any effort to interact with Gagnon’s arguments. Dr. Gagnon told me that the gay-affirming side is no longer willing to debate him on the subject, even though he’s made himself available. They know they won’t win.

        He’s a New Testament at PCUSA-affiliated Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Far from being a crackpot, he’s better credentialed than any of the gay-affirming voices that are being so often quoted.

      • Josh Says:

        There’s a book out there called “Jepthah’s Daughters” that is written by a child that grew up with a homosexual parent and in the homosexual community. It is a fascinating read. He speaks of how the homosexual community is not monogamous and really doesn’t want to be that way (why marriage?). He notes the impact upon children and other things such as how special interest groups are seeking to give the homosexual community more than what they want. It presents a whole new aspect to all the debates. I highly recommend it and it would be good to give to a fellow clergy or someone else who needs a paradigm shift (and not the SOS arguments).

      • brentwhite Says:

        I’ve seen the statistics. Most of our clergy colleagues have no idea. They’re really naive! Most gay “married” men (> 90 percent according to some peer-reviewed research I’ve seen) do not practice monogamy and have many times more sexual partners before “marriage” than their straight counterparts. Lesbians, meanwhile, get “divorced” at much higher rates than straight couples. What’s missing is the God-designed complementarity of male and female. That complementarity creates stability. Meanwhile, the children suffer.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    You are so right; Paul is one of history’s greatest thinkers and writers. And, Romans is the greatest letter ever written.

    Apart from the words of our Lord (particularly in the Gospel of John), I have learned more about God, and his relationship with man, from Romans and Ephesians, than anywhere else in the Bible.

    Ditto Josh on the shallow level of critical thinking being taught in so many seminaries. Wesley, Edwards, Gill, Whitfield and so many others probed the deep mysteries of the trinitarian God of creation. Debate and disagreement must be intellectually sound, or it’s a waste of time.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    Bottom line is that we are going to get same sex marriage in all 50 states. What it does to the church is yet to be seen, but it’s likely to bad.

    • Josh Says:

      I’m with others in believing that this current crisis will help us in the long run. It’s easy to look at Christianity in America and see how our libertarian culture has slipped into even the most conservative groups. For example, Christians will watch films and T.V. series and read books and magazines that display people having casual, non-marital and pre-marital sex and won’t think nothing about it. I was a youth pastor and I know that many Christian parents do not have serious talks with their children about sex or connect things theologically. Many Christian parents even expect their children to have pre-marital sex and shack up. As long as nobody gets pregnant and they eventually marry, it’s all good. Gosh, I saw some of the screwed up crap in Christian homes. Yeesh. The church in the West needed a huge shakeup.

      In fact, my devotional readings from Reuben’s “A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People” this week featured Hosea 6:1-6 that says that “he has torn us that he might heal us.” We may go through some tough times but it will be good for us.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    This can lead into a whole other subject. That most churches see themselves also as a business. They have expenses, overhead and the like. They want to “grow the business”, which means getting more people into the pews on Sunday. My church is considering a major building program, which might run $10 million. They can’t afford to lose membership, but that’s likely to happen under the circumstances that will result from the stance they take on homosexuality and marriage. Like I said, it’s not going to be pretty.

    • Josh Says:

      They ought to just plant a church instead of growing their empire . . . I mean business . . . I mean church ;).

      Right now, I am really attracted to the ACNA model. Their philosophy is not to build bigger buildings and invest way too much money in property but to just plant a new church when their congregation gets too big (usually over 200). I know other churches with this same philosophy that just give away trained workers to go and plant church . . . and the Lord always provides more.

      If a church gets so invested in a property or debt that they’re afraid to speak the truth and live in the truth . . . well, it’s their own damn fault. Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head . . . have we become that deaf to the words of Jesus? Like I said, in the long run all this will be good for the body of Christ. We need an exile so that we can be confronted with our idolatry and hard hearts.

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