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).
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.