Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It has been the busiest of few days and I am now drawing breath and looking forward to end of the week, which, in addition to being my birthday, is also mid-Autumn Festival and National Day. This means that people around me get to celebrate the birth of China and of me all at the same time!

3. Using the Bible in Ethics: Inconsistencies

Can I stress that in this post I am not arguing for or against a position on any of the issues mentioned (slavery, women's ordination, homosexuality) rather I am trying to look at how the Bible is being used at arriving at decisions on them as well as looking at the process by which we reach a decision.

Let me begin this post then with three simple statements:

1. In the past, some Christians led the campaign to abolish slavery, even though the text of the Bible seemed to support it.

2. In the past, some Christians accepted the ordination of women even though the text of the Bible seemed to be against it.

3. Today, some Christians, who support the abolition of slavery and accept the ordination of women, even though the text of the Bible seems to be against it, are opposed to homosexuality because the text of the Bible seems to be against it.

Isn't there an apparent inconsistency in this last statement that at the very least requires some explaining on the part of those who hold it?

In fact, the text of the Bible seems to have far more to say in support of slavery and against the ordination of women than it does about homosexuality. Now I am not here arguing that the Christians concerned are wrong in their convictions on any of these issues. I totally accept the sincerity of those involved in the campaign against slavery, for women's ordination, and against homosexuality. What I am trying to do is understand how the Bible is being used and interpreted and in what way it is authoritative for making decisions today about what is right and wrong.

A question I am also trying to answer is, if it is alright to ignore specific texts when it comes to slavery and the role of women in the Church, why must they be rigidly adhered to when it comes to homosexual behaviour? Quite simply, I suspect that the decision about all these issues is being made by all the parties concerned on grounds, possibly perfectly valid ones, other than the Bible and before the Bible itself is brought into the debate.

In using the Bible in ethics, there is amongst Christians of all varieties, a liking today for an approach that seeks to understand and follow the implications of the bigger theological message of the Gospel rather than being bound and limited to individual verses in the Bible. Themes then which emerge from the Gospel are more important and authoritative for helping us decide what is right and wrong than specific texts. So the theme that 'all are one in Christ' is more important and determinative for the Church than 1 Timothy 2 which says women shouldn't teach.

Furthermore, it is argued that, simply because the New Testament writers didn't work out the logic of the themes that they themselves teach, doesn't mean we shouldn't. There may have been all manner of reasons why they couldn't see the logic of what they preached: human weakness, a lack of time or occasion to do so, cultural limitations, prejudice, opposition and so on. It is the Gospel that we are bequeathed in the New Testament firstly, by Jesus himself, and then by his apostles that serves as our authority. Yes, of course we can learn from how the apostles and their followers applied this in their own setting and, yes, we should listen to what they themselves have to say, but we are not bound to their interpretation and practice and, indeed, sometimes we must do the opposite to it.

Now I can see the attraction of this 'themes versus texts' approach, but I remain unconvinced about it as the basis for using the Bible in ethics. I will return to why in future posts, but for the moment two problems come immediately to mind:

1. I am suspicious that the significance of these themes, in two of the areas we have considered, weren't spotted for a very long time. (18 centuries for slavery and the best part of 20 for the role of women in the Church.)

2. And, seriously and logically, is it true, for example, that the theme of 'equality in Christ' means that women should be ordained?

Isn't the truth rather that trends and themes in society at large have led Christians to take a different stand now on some issues than they did previously? Now this isn't a problem for those who believe that this is how God speaks to us today. It is a problem, though:

1. For people who, knowingly or unknowingly, have accepted that this is how he has spoken to us on some issues, but won't let him speak to us in this way on others.

2. And it most certainly is, I suggest, a problem for people who think that the Bible should be our guide and authority in these issues and not values and ideals which originate outside of it.

As an observation, I think those who accept slavery, think women should not be ordained, and reject homosexual relationships have ON THE SURFACE OF IT the greater claim to being both Biblical and consistent.

Even if I don't personally agree with them myself.

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