(3) Nothing should ever be taken out of its whole context. Dr. Dana says, “No single sentence or verse should ever be interpreted independent of its logical connections. Interpretation should deal with whole sections, each section being considered from two angles: its connection with… and its contribution to the general progress of thought.”A-2 If we ignore the context, for example, then couples would not marry unless one of them “burned with lust,” then it would be OK to marry so the lust could be satisfied in a legal way (I Cor. 7:9)! And that is as ridiculous and repulsive as many of the ways “proof-texts” have had cults built around them. Paul thought Christ would return very shortly, so he was saying that since marriage would last for such a brief period, it was just better, if you were single, to stay as you were. When the time came that it was no longer so certain that couples would have only a brief time for marriage, Paul’s (scriptural) admonition was no longer considered applicable. It was not an eternal rule; it was for the conditions described in the context.
(4) A single passage should be interpreted in the light of the Bible as a whole. Peter said that if we believe and are baptized for the remission of our sins, we shall be saved (Acts 2:38). This says rather clearly that faith and baptism are the way to salvation. Baptists don’t believe he meant literally what the words say, for we know from the whole New Testament that baptism in itself has nothing to do with salvation. So now we know what he really meant and didn’t mean.
(5) The Bible is not a rule book. Grievous errors are made by those who believe it is. The Bible is a record that gives us a revelation of God by the writers’ having recorded their experiences with God, things that happened in the first and preceding centuries. I regret it now, but I’m sure I have said it a thousand times — you’ve heard me — “Jesus commanded us to do” so and so. Louise, I lied — well, it was at least misleading and careless of me. Jesus didn’t command my hearers or me to do anything; We weren’t there. But I contributed to the mistaken idea that any statement found in the Bible is a rule for us to follow today. What we need to do is find the eternal, central truth behind the “rules” and apply that truth to our 21st century circumstances. Many rules are eternal, but that is because of the eternal truth in them, and it is that truth we follow, not the rule that contained it. For example, Jesus didn’t command me to go into all the world; I wasn’t in the group that heard him that day. But when I read the record of that event, I understand God’s plan and that if I want to do God’s will in my age, I must do all I can to go into all the world, not because that is a rule to follow as a child follows a parent’s rule, but because it is my mature understanding of God’s plan and my place in it. We follow the fundamental truth, not a first century rule. If the Bible is a rule book, we should stone to death anyone who eats a cheeseburger (see below)!
Jesus and Paul made it clear that the rule of law was in the past and now we live by grace and the spirit, not the letter of the law. The Christian Jews stopped observing the Sabbath and worshipped on Sunday; one of the Ten Commandments was no longer a commandment for them! God himself told Peter that the laws regarding what food is clean and the law about not associating with Gentiles were no longer in effect (Acts 10:13-15). One reason the Jewish leaders hated Christ so much was his constant violation of the Sabbath laws. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for following the letter of the law in tithing every little thing but having “neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23). Paul has lengthy discussions about the laws of circumcision being useless to the Christian. This is his strong word about trying to obey law: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal: 5:1) Instead, he says, we live by “faith working through love” (v. 6). Rom. 6:4 tells us we are “not under the law but under grace,” and Rom. 1:14 that “Christ is the end of the law,” and II Cor. 3:6 that “The letter kills, the spirit gives life,” and Gal. 5:14 that “The whole law is fulfilled in one word, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Legalism has no place in Christian living today, but much of it is already in our churches and it should be rooted out. Actually, the “law” of the spirit is the broader law. Consider how Jesus so greatly broadened the law against adultery. Now we see it is not only a lustful act but also a matter of a man’s thinking of a woman as a sex object rather than as a person (Matt. 5:28). Our wonderful Bible is a revelation of God through records of God’s experience with people of some centuries ago. It is not a book of rules for our lives today to be imposed on us from the outside; it is a book of spiritual principles from which we build our lives from the inside out. It is not a rule book.
(6) How do we move from the first century Bible to today? We have talked about principles, but applying the principles is not always easy. The Bible has nothing to say about much that we encounter in the twenty-first century, for example, innate homosexuality.
To begin with, we remember that we have the Holy Spirit promised to us for this task; we must always ponder the text and/or the subject in the posture of prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance.
Because the Bible does not speak of many things we encounter today and yet we believe God wants to lead us in our decisions today, we realize that revelation did not end when the Bible was completed but is “living,” “dynamic,” meaning that each age or circumstance has new revelation for the new challenges. All our spiritual growth through learning more about God means the Holy Spirit has given us a new revelation.
Bible commentators still follow John Wesley’s pattern for finding God’s new revelation for the current time: consider (a) scripture, (b) tradition — how Christian churches have interpreted and applied scripture through history, (c) reason — Wesley thought religion and reason went together, that any irrational religion was false religion, and (d) experience — what produces Christlikeness in individual lives.
Then there is the final test. Christ is the perfect revelation of God, and he is the final and supreme criterion by which our concepts are to be judged and shaped. The principles he taught and exemplified as unchanging and eternal have to be met by our conclusions about the Bible’s message for our lives. Commentators agree, “We must constantly hold the interpretations…up against the person of Christ, who is the final criterion for valid understanding.”A-3 Our (1963) Baptist Faith and Message Statement says, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
An excellent example for seeing this “living” revelation is in our concept of slavery. The Bible supports slavery, mentioning it frequently with acceptance. Philemon was not told to free Onesimus. Slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22, I Tim. 6:1, Titus 2:9). Our revelation today is that in order to be Christian we must ignore the Bible’s approval of slavery. We also know that we have to ignore tradition, for our churches supported slavery, at least in the South, until it was finally destroyed by a great civil war. By our reason/wisdom and our personal experience of seeing right and wrong and being a part of it, we came to recognize that the spirit and principles of Christ are found in the abolition of slavery. Most of us now recognize the same about segregation, but it took a civil war and congressional laws in this century to bring about the reason and experience to make us see the Christian truth about slavery and segregation. How sad! Why didn’t our churches destroy slavery before it ever started in America? And why didn’t our churches do away with segregation long ago? And where are our churches’ blind spots today? (I am convinced that they include homosexuality and sexism.)
Another example of “living” revelation is in divorce, for our current beliefs go against Jesus’ clear statement (Matt. 5:32, 19:9; Mark 10:11,12) that divorce and remarriage after divorce are adulterous. With this condemnation by Jesus, why do we sanction divorce and remarriage today? Conservative ethics professor Stanley Grenz summarizes the thinking of most scholars:
Situations arise in which God’s ideal for marriage is being effaced and human failure and sin are causing great suffering…. At this stage, the principle of God’s compassionate concern for the persons involved, God’s intent to establish shalom (peace) or human wholeness, must take precedence over the concern to maintain the inviolability of marriage…. The church, as the redemptive community [has the] opportunity to model the compassion of the God of new beginnings.A-4
We believe God blesses and uses many of those remarriages as he could never use the original marriage. I think many Bible principles go into our current belief about divorce and remarriage: love, forgiveness, the ideal of freedom for every individual, the value of God-given talents and the responsibility to develop and use them, etc. Psychological principles also are involved, which, if true, are God-given.
(Some would accept divorced people in the church but never ordain them. Dr. Grenz has an applicable word about this.
The past of every believer is marred by sin and failure. There are no righteous ones in the church. The disqualification of a believer from an office solely because a divorce is found in that person’s past elevates this one expression of sin and failure to a status of sinfulness beyond all others….The texts that set down guidelines for the selection of officers focus on three basic prerequisites – giftedness for leadership, spirituality and character, and public reputation (e.g., I Tim. 3:1-13)….These criteria give central emphasis to the importance of one’s present life of faith.A-5)
By our thinking about slavery and divorce are we ignoring the Bible? No, we are searching for its eternal principles and the best understanding we can have of Jesus Christ. This incredible, priceless Bible is not God’s final revelation. Christ with his life and principles is the authentic revelation to be applied to every new age. Just as the Old Testament and its laws were reinterpreted by the New Testament, so the New Testament’s applications to the first century are reinterpreted by Christ and his principles in the centuries after the New Testament.
The relative importance of the Bible to the life of Christ is indicated when we realize that those Christians who were said to have turned the world upside down for Christ in the first century (Acts 17:6) did not have a New Testament; it had not been written. They had only (!) a life-transforming experience with Jesus Christ and were living like him to the best of their understanding of him. (Do you suppose if we didn’t have a New Testament to wrangle over and had only such an experience with Jesus Christ that we would do better at turning our world upside down for him?) Surely we can see that the important thing is to weigh every understanding of revelation — scripture, tradition, reason or experience — in the scales of Jesus Christ.
Interpreting scripture is surely one of the most glorious and rewarding privileges we have. It is worth making every effort we can to learn what eternal principles God was trying to give for all ages when he inspired writers long ago to write to their contemporaries.
Louise, let me preach a moment about a related evil. Failure to observe these principles of interpretation is so sad and damaging to the Kingdom not only regarding homosexuality but also regarding the ordination of women. The kingdom of God is denied the ministry of great women who have gifts for preaching the Word in a world that needs the Word preached every way possible. I am sure Satan laughs; he doesn’t have to do a thing; he just lets God’s church keep half of its members from preaching and ministering as pastors.
Those who so restrict women make the great and far-reaching mistake of ignoring the first century’s culture [(1)(b) above]. The eastern half of the Roman empire had been infused with Greek culture following the conquests of Alexander the Great. Here women could not be in public without their husbands and should never speak with another man; the only woman who did talk with a man in public would be the man`’ paramour. Paul told the Christian women in this culture to submit to their husbands and not to talk in church, or they, presumed by unbelievers to be immoral, would make a Christian church appear to be a brothel. Every such injunction for obedience and silence was to a church in this culture. In the western half of the empire (and in Roman colonies in the eastern half), Roman culture prevailed; women had legal rights, could operate their own businesses and could converse freely with anyone in public without being considered a prostitute. Paul rejoiced that the women in the churches in this culture contributed so much to spreading the gospel. In Romans 16 he speaks of several, calling Phoebe a deacon (using the same word he uses elsewhere for men) and saying that Junia is “prominent among the apostles.”. He tells of Pricilla’s “expounding” the truths of Christianity to a man (Acts 18:26) and of two women in Philippi (a Roman colony) who labored alongside men in helping him in his work (Phil. 4:2-3). It is significant (and disheartening) that even in the Greek culture, since the church did understand that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28), women could pray and prophesy (often meaning “preaching”) for that was not conversing with men, and so they were not considered immoral characters when they did this (e.g., I Cor. 11:4; Acts 21:9)!
The failure to ordain women in our culture is unbiblical, and it is hindering the kingdom of God. The humble following of basic principles of interpretation would eliminate this evil.A-6
In our treatment of homosexuals and women are two great mistakes from misinterpretation of the Bible. How many minor ones are there in our churches and in our individual lives?
APPENDIX B THE BIBLE AND HOMOSEXUALITY
As stated above, until 1869 there was no written idea of homosexuality being an innate part of one’s nature. Until that time it was believed that all people were heterosexual, but some were so perverted that they engaged in same-gender sex. When the Bible writers talked on this subject, within their culture and understanding, that is what they were talking about — that kind of heterosexuality.
Nevertheless, there are Bible passages used by some people today to condemn homosexuals. I want to discuss each passage in some detail to show that not only is there no statement about homosexuality, but also that there is no statement applicable to homosexual sex if that sex is not lustful. Many authors write on this subject, and I am indebted to many of them.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 1-2, The Creation Story
Critics of homosexuality enjoy saying, “The creation story is about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Those who say that marriage can be only between a man and a woman argue that God’s creation of Adam and Eve as heterosexuals shows that this is what he intended all persons to be; anything else is outside His will and therefore sinful. Dr. Gomes responds,
[As] Jeffrey S. Siker has pointed out in the July 1994 issue of Theology Today, to argue that the creation story privileges a heterosexual view of the relations between humankind is to make one of the weakest arguments possible, the argument from silence….It does not mention friendship, for example, and yet we do not assume that friendship is condemned or abnormal. It does not mention the single state, and yet we know that singleness is not condemned, and that in certain religious circumstances it is held in very high esteem. The creation story is not, after all, a paradigm about marriage, but rather about the establishment of human society.B-1
One can read anything one wants to into the creation story but cannot read anything about homosexuality out of it.
Genesis 18:20 to 19:29 — The Sodom Story
Some consider the sin of Sodom to be same-gender sex, although we are not told in Genesis what Sodom’s sins were, only that they were so great that God determined to destroy the city. On the evening before its destruction he sent two angels, in disguise as men, to the city to lead Lot and his family out early the next day. Hospitable Lot invited them to spend the night at his house. During the evening the men of the city surrounded the house and demanded of Lot that he bring the two men out so that they could [19:5]
King James Version: “know them.”
Revised Standard Version: “know them.”
New International Version: “have sex with them.”
When Lot refused to bring his guests out, the men of the city were about to break his door down when the angels struck them all blind and the mob dispersed. The next day Lot and his family were led out of Sodom, and the city was destroyed by fire and brimstone from heaven.
The Hebrew verb used here, “yadha,” “to know,” is used 943 times in the OT and only ten times clearly to mean “have sex,” then it always means heterosexual sex. The word normally used for homosexual sex is “shakhabh.” Many scholars believe that in Gen. 19:5 yadha means “know” in the sense of “get acquainted with” (the city’s men may have wondered if these were enemy spies or they might have sensed the city’s impending doom and been concerned with what these strangers were doing there) and have several arguments for this, including Sodom’s being used as an example of great sin numerous times in the Old and New Testaments with nothing ever said about same-sex sex, and the context of Jesus’ references to Sodom (Luke 10:10-13) which seems to imply lack of hospitality as the sin.
Other scholars think it was the common practice of showing dominance over and humiliating outsiders by forcing them to take the part of a (an inferior) woman in a same-gender rape.
Others think it means “have sex,” and point to Lot’s offering his two virgin daughters to the crowd if sex is what they want, if they will just leave his guests alone. If this is the right interpretation, it is clearly about violent, criminal, gang rape, something always condemnable.
Another thought is expressed by Religion Professor David L. Bartlett: “This story is certainly an unlikely starting point for a `biblical’ understanding of sexual ethics. While the attempted homosexual rape by the men of Sodom is explicitly condemned, the offer by Lot to hand his two virgin daughters over to the violent and lecherous inhabitants of Sodom is related without a word of judgment.”B-2
Conservative theologian Richard Hays says, “The notorious story of Sodom and Gomorrah — often cited in connection with homosexuality — is actually irrelevant to the topic.”B-3
There is nothing in this story applicable to our consideration of homosexuality.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
Revised Standard Version:
22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination.
13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death…
The King James and New International versions say virtually the same thing.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are the only direct references to same-gender sex in the Old Testament. They are both part of the Old Testament Holiness Code, a religious, not a moral code; it later became the Jewish Purity Laws. [“Abomination” is used throughout the Old Testament to designate sins that involve ethnic contamination or idolatry. The word relates to the failure to worship God or to worshiping a false god; it does not relate to morality.] Professor Soards tell us, “Old Testament experts view the regulations of Leviticus as standards of holiness, directives for the formation of community life, aimed at establishing and maintaining a people’s identity in relation to God.”B-4 This is because God was so determined that his people would not adopt the practices of the Baal worshipers in Canaan, and same-gender sex was part of Baal worship. (The laws say nothing about women engaging in same-gender sex; probably this had to do with man’s dominance, and such acts by the subservient had nothing to do with religious impurity.)
God required purity for his worship. Anything pure was unadulterated, unmixed with anything else These Purity Laws prohibited mixing different threads in one garment, sowing a field with two kinds of seed, crossbreeding animals. A few years ago in Israel when an orthodox government came into power, McDonalds had to stop selling cheeseburgers. Hamburgers, OK. Cheese sandwiches, OK. But mixing milk and meat in one sandwich violated the Purity Laws — it had nothing to do with morality. These were laws about worshipping God, not ethics, and so have no bearing on our discussion of morality. Helmut Thielicke remarks on these passages: “It would never occur to anyone to wrench these laws of cultic purification from their concrete situation and give them the kind of normative authority that the Decalogue, for example, has.”B-5
Another reason they are not pertinent to our discussion is that these laws were for the particular time and circumstances existing when they were given. If you planted a fruit tree, you could not eat its fruit until its fifth year, and all fruit the fourth year must be offered to the Lord. A worker must be paid his wage on the day of his labor. You must not harvest a field to its edge. We readily dismiss most of them as not applicable to our day and culture, and if we dismiss some of them for any reason, we have to dismiss all of them, including the sexual regulations, for that same reason.
When we add the fact that these laws were talking about heterosexuals, it makes three reasons, any one of which would be sufficient, why they have no bearing on questions about homosexuals or homosexuality or on the morality of same-gender sex by homosexuals today.
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© Bruce W. Lowe, 2001
Bruce Lowe is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (1936) and of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (1946). He married Anna Marie in 1944; they have two sons and two grandsons. His ministry included the chaplaincy during World War II, pastorates in Louisiana, and teaching Bible at Louisiana College, Pineville. He left the ministry in 1966 and worked until retirement in the Office for Civil Rights of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Anna Marie Lowe is a graduate of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia (1946) and attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She has been the church organist or pianist in churches and missions since she was eleven.