When "Biblical" won’t do.

Unpopular, yes.

Christians are no strangers to being unpopular. Often we don’t mind either, unpopularity is something to be expected, and even glad about. The gospel is counter-cultural, we say, it’s always been “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” So when it turns out that our society’s values start to shift, and as Bible-believing Christians we’re condemned as intolerant or homophobic (for instance), we shouldn’t be surprised. We certainly shouldn’t change the message, that would be bowing to cultural pressure rather than serving God.

Well, sort of… Those linked verses above do tell us to expect some persecution as Christians, some unpopularity, some opposition to the message. But that doesn’t mean that all of it is a good thing and to our credit! Importantly, Jesus says “blessed are you when people…falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” That doesn’t account for the times when those people might be right. It doesn’t mean that everything that we say which is counter-cultural or offensive is necessarily good or true! In particular, just because something we say is at odds with contemporary British culture, it doesn’t mean we’re avoiding being affected by cultural values – it might just mean we’re being influenced by different cultural values.
Here’s what I mean. My church had a guest service today, with a well-known evangelist preaching to a packed church. I like and respect him very much, and I know he has helped many people come to faith in Christ through his preaching and in his every day life, he’s a really gifted man. But I was disappointed today that in his talk, I felt him to equate “believing the Bible” and “Biblical values” with what I’d consider to be a particular cultural expression of those values, a particular set of social or political values that rightly or wrongly often go hand in hand with conservative evangelicalism. As a Christian who doesn’t share those same political views and doesn’t believe that particular cultural expression of the gospel is completely appropriate in our culture, I felt alienated, so I wonder what those who had come as ‘guests’ to Church made of it all. If they were offended, or put off, I’m not sure it would be the gospel message (which was also faithfully preached) which made them wince but these trappings that came with it, the values which are presented as “the Biblical view” but which I’m not sure are very much to do with the gospel message at all.
The particular example which featured in this mornings talk was marriage – the news that the Queen is expected to show support for gay rights was referred to as a saddening break away from the Biblical view of marriage. But it also extends to gender issues in general. I’m currently reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”, which is a response to the ‘Biblical manhood and womanhood’ movement. She seeks to show that the idea that there is a single, ‘Biblical’ model of how to be a woman comes less from the Bible and more from the elevation of cultural ideals, like the 1950s housewife. She looks at various women in the Bible who by no means fit that model, which renders the idea of the Biblical woman as fairly empty. She also begins to put into practice some of the other suggestions, commands and models for Biblical women which are not mentioned by those who claim to hold to the Biblical view on gender – such as  the example of Sarah, who called her husband ‘Master’, not a practice continued by many now (I hope).
Biblical marriage?
The same goes for marriage. The most common model of marriage in the Old Testament is for men to have multiple wives, as well as concubines and slaves with whom they have children (which has got to either challenge our view of marriage, or of sex outside of marriage!) This is the case for some of our Old Testament heroes, such as Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon. There is provision made for this in the laws, such as in Exodus 21:10. Some would argue that the commands in the New Testament that church leaders should be “the husband of but one wife” suggest that polygamy was still practised by some in the Church, but was only prohibited for its leaders.
I hope you won’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting polygamy as a good model for marriage. I’m not saying we’ve picked the wrong ‘Biblical’ of marriage and we should switch to that one. I’m just trying to suggest that if we take the Bible seriously as a book written over a period of centuries, in many times and places, in a number of cultural contexts, it would be strange to expect it to produce a single model of gender roles, relationships, marriage, or a whole manner of other things actually. When we stop looking at the Bible as if it should offer us a single, coherent picture of these things and allow each part to speak in its own cultural context and for its own purposes, we see a lot more diversity than we thought. It probes us to consider our own values for gender and marriage and so on as our attempts to apply the values we find in the Bible, but not to hold them as the Biblical ideal. In the same way, when it comes to considering the questions of our society today – questions such as reproductive rights, or sex education, or same sex relationships, the idea that there is a clear, obvious, Biblical view on these questions just doesn’t make sense to me. For all the many cultural contexts that the Biblical texts were written in, Britain in 2013 was not one of them. What we do when we try to think about how to answer these questions as Christians is to try our best to apply what we know about the character of God and the kingdom of God to a new situation – and we’ll probably differ on the best way to do that.
That’s fine, and I’m all for more conversation, listening to each other and getting constructive dialogue going. I’m all for people coming to their tentative conclusions while being willing to listen to others who are equally trying seek God’s will and consider their responses as Christians. What I’m not okay with is the use of the word “Biblical” to apply to a social or political view which simply didn’t exist when the Bible was being written. I’m not okay with “Biblical” as a description of a cultural ideal of the nuclear family, complete with “stay-at-home Mom” and breadwinning, emotionally distant father as the only model for family life. Or Biblical as a perception of masculinity as active or dominant and femininity as passive and quiet. It’s not helpful for our culture, it puts people off the gospel, but most importantly, I’m convinced it does a great injustice to the diverse, complex, sometimes difficult but often amazing men and women and their rich variety of experiences depicted in the Bible. It won’t do to reduce them to an easy, cultural ideal, whether it’s counter cultural here and now or not.
Sometimes unpopularity isn’t a cause for rejoicing at our suffering for the sake of the gospel. Sometimes it just means we’re getting something wrong.

About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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7 Responses to When "Biblical" won’t do.

  1. Matt says:

    Hey Claire! I hope it isn't too random me posting on here. I've been doing my own blog recently so have been shamelessly devouring things on the blogosphere by anyone else I know, and this has been an interesting one to drop in on occasionally. Hope you're having fun in Oxford!

    Can I come back at you on some of the implications for things being 'Biblical'? I think you've got some top stuff here about unpopularity, culture and context. You talked about viewing the Bible “as if it should offer us a single, coherent picture of these things”. Where does the idea of authority come in there for you? The way I see things, having a Biblical canon at all means that we'd expect Genesis to have just as much to say as the New Testament about a particular given issue. So there might not be a single 'Biblical' position on topic x. But then there might be. Whether it does or not will vary from issue to issue but surely we have to be open to the Bible having an authority to speak into these situations as well? Divorce might be an example of a counter-cultural issue which Biblical texts are relatively clear on. For every issue like that which Scripture talks about you can bet there’ll be 100 that it doesn’t. But isn’t interacting with relevant Bible passages a vital place to start?

    (P.S. I don’t have an ideological axe to grind on marriage – I’m just interested in talking about approaches to the Bible!)

  2. Claire Jones says:

    Hi Matt, great to hear from you – I'll definitely have a nosey on your blog (if you don't mind that is!)

    I think you're right to raise the question – sorry I don't have an immediate answer..! I'm not sure I'd agree that we'd expect every book of the canon to have an equal say on an issue, because each book was written with its own particular purposes. One of the great things about having 66 books is that they're so different and complement each other in their concerns and so on, right?

    I think the key is, as you say, interacting with relevant Bible passages – but that means doing it honestly, rather than coming with our assumptions (which I know I'm as guilty of as anyone!) I don't think I'm saying that all interpretations are equally valid, that we could come to any conclusions on issues and claim them all as Biblical somehow.. I think its about the methods we use and the attitude we do it with, and the acknowledgement that its rarely as simple as “the Biblical view on…”

    With divorce as an example then, some might point to Deuteronomy 24 and say that men can divorce their wives for being displeasing. Others might go to Matthew 19 and say divorce is only okay in the case of adultery, while others could go to Luke 16 and say its never okay.
    Still others could go to 1 Corinthians 7:15 and say either men or women can divorce their spouses if they don't like that their spouse has converted.

    All of those could accurately be described as Biblical, so already there's a conversation to be had. Then comes the question which I think almost always needs to be asked about how Christian ethics, whatever they might be, should be applied to in a secular context – is this just for Christians or is it for everyone?

    I guess I think authority is about our attitude to the Bible rather than having clear answers – what do you think?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good thoughts. But I have to confess I jarred with what you were saying, and have been trying to work out why this is. I think it's this: for me, there is always a tension in the Bible (as in life?) between the ideal and the temporary solution. The Law is a temporary solution, the 'ideal', complete solution comes with Christ. But even there, the 'ideal' is the New Creation and our 'redeemed' lives now are in a sense 'temporary'. (Ok, terminology is letting me down here, but do you see the general thrust?)
    And it seems to me that we find this sort of thing at every juncture in the Bible, so that polygamy is definitely a temporary thing, as is slavery etc. Is there anywhere we can look for approaches or principles that seem to be more or less emphatically presented as if they were/(are) Biblical? I would argue yes, both in many parts of the NT where Jesus or Paul or John speak unequivocally about something (some stupidly obvious examples would be John 3:16 or Romans 10:9) and with regards to this particular issue Genesis 1-4.
    (But only, in my view, if we free Genesis from a stiflingly literal reading….but that is of course another topic).

    Another thought: this kind of problem is a peculiarly modern, evangelical protestant one. Christians historically have had little problem with the idea of continuing revelation (NT displaces Old in some ways) and most of God's people down the years have been quite happy with the idea that the Spirit has been leading the Church in keeping the main thing, the main thing and in interpreting scripture. I am well aware of the huge dangers of going down this road, but I think we cannot ignore it….

  4. Matt says:

    Sorry for the delay in replying. It's been a bit of a full-on week! Yes, by all means nosey away. 🙂

    I guess, with canon, the word that I'd emphasise is 'potentially'. You're absolutely right to foreground context and suggest that we shouldn't force texts to say things they don't want to say. But I think that it's crucial that we're open to any bit of the Bible POTENTIALLY (sorry, can't find a less aggressive form of emphasis!) speak on an issue. Yep, they complement one another with their different genres etc. but all share an ability to speak beyond the time in which they were written. You didn't exhibit this in your post, but I think there's a danger when people sometimes only look in the New Testament when thinking about an issue and right off the Old Testament as old-fashioned/barbaric. I think it's vital that we acknowledge that, within a whole load of unpalatable cultural customs, God was revealing His unique way of doing things.

    I agree, there's definitely an aspect of meaning which is to do with 'our side' of it – reading humbly and intelligently. There are undoubtedly dodgy ways of reading which end up saying more about us than about the Bible! I guess I'd be concerned that our interpretation doesn't swallow up the potential of the Bible to produce authoritative meaning. So you, rightly I think, said that it's not just solely down to personal opinion so that all interpretations are equal. But I think there's also a danger that, in our attempt to (perhaps sincerely) apply the Bible to our current situation we let the situation speak to the Bible rather than the other way around. So authority is about letting the text shape us, and by extension our culture, so that we can recognise God's position. There are caveats, sure. The Bible might not say anything about the issue, in which case we have to pray and look at God's character elsewhere in the Bible on other issues. Or it might not be clear, in which case I think it's absolutely fine to disagree. But that's us carrying God's authority in the Bible to different 'end points' rather than just blindly holding personal positions.

    I realised pretty quickly that divorce really wasn't the best example I could have chosen! You're right, of course. There's lots of places you can turn to. For what it's worth, I think that there is a way of resolving the divergence through context, although maybe it's not worth getting into the nitty-gritty of that particular discussion. Perhaps a more clear-cut example would be adultery, something which (as far as I'm aware) is condemned uncategorically throughout the Bible. Maybe that isn't counter-cultural but I think it demonstrates that the Bible CAN have a unanimous view on an issue. Wouldn't it be fair to say, “The Biblical view on adultery is that it's wrong”? Like I say, not all issues will be as clear-cut but the principle of the Bible, potentially, having a single authoritative position is, I think, important.

    By the way, I think that we're probably both in the same camp with how we use the word 'Biblical'; in other words, confusing what some people did in the Bible with an ideal of how all people are meant to live forever. If you're really, really keen you could read a post I wrote pretty-much saying the same thing: http://thetippingpointblogspot.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/bible-say-bible-do.html

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