The Bible says some unpopular things – many of them true and important, necessary for us to live better, more Christ-centered lives. Many of them go against the grain of our culture, calling us to reject, for example, materialism and greed and to embrace generosity and compassion. These are difficult, and they are often unwelcome, but they are right and most Christians accept them, even if they do so reluctantly or with personal struggle.
But not every unpopular thing the Bible says is so clear-cut. And this leads to some acrobatics that I feel might not only be unnecessary but may actually be damaging to the way we read these ancient texts we value so highly.
Of course, I speak about two topics much discussed on this blog: women and homosexuality.
There are two big passages, in particular, both of which happen to be attributed to Paul.
On homosexuality, Paul provides the one and only clear-cut New Testament condemnation of homosexual behavior by both genders, in Romans 1:18-32, specifically verses 26-27:
That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies.
And on women, 1 Timothy 2:11-14 provides the strongest and I’d wager most cited admonition about the role of women in the church:
A [wife/woman] should learn quietly with complete submission. I don’t allow a [wife/woman] to teach or to control [a man/her husband]. Instead, she should be a quiet listener. Adam was formed first, and then Eve. Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather [his wife/the woman] became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived.
These are uncomfortable passages; not only do they cut against the democratic grain of our culture, in which we believe all people are created equal, but they are so over-the-top in their statements that they can be – and have been – used to propagate all sorts of unChristian behavior, from bullying and misogyny to murder and slavery. We rightly recoil at the way these verses have been used by the powerful to maintain their hold on the powerless, so we look for a way to provide these verses proper context.
But that leads to what I feel are some unconvincing attempts to contextualize these passages culturally.
For example, in an article about 10 lies the church tells women, Charisma writer J. Lee Grady writes:
In their book I Suffer Not a Woman, Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger explain that certain cultic worship practices involving female priestesses of Diana had invaded the first-century church. These priestesses promoted blasphemous ideas about sex and spirituality, and they sometimes performed rituals in which they pronounced curses on men and declared female superiority.
What Paul was most likely saying to the Ephesians was this: “I do not allow a woman to teach these cultic heresies, nor do I allow them to usurp authority from men by performing pagan rituals.”
Similarly, Justin Lee, president of the Gay Christian Network, argues that Paul in Romans 1 is addressing pagan temple prostitution in his condemnation of homosexual behavior.
Both of these are not uncommon positions, and they represent an effort to maintain the literal truth of the Bible’s moral admonitions while acknowledging that times have changed in the centuries since. That is admirable, but I think it might be wrong.
To take it further, I don’t think either of these really bolsters the credibility of the argument. It’s certainly possible that the writers in question were addressing a specific situation, but wouldn’t they have said so? And neither letter seems to be like a 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians, which root their contexts in very specific circumstances where such an argument would make more sense.
That’s not to say I necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed in Romans 1 or 1 Timothy 2. My question is: What if those passages are simply wrong?
What if we stop trying to make Paul into a superhero, writing down timeless moral instruction with the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear – which is the notion even these efforts to contextualize his statements attempt to preserve? What if we accept that the writers of the Bible spoke within and to a cultural context that no longer exists? What if we acknowledge and account for the fact that this context came laden with a set of assumptions, some of which may no longer be acceptable in our cultural context?
What if Paul and the author of 1 Timothy were simply wrong?
“Wrong” is a tricky word and maybe a little inflammatory. It doesn’t mean the New Testament writers were wrong about everything, or even most things. In fact, given their cultural assumptions, it’s not even accurate to say they were wrong at all. Given what they knew about the way the world worked, their arguments might have been exactly right for their time and place. But knowledge changes, and with it, so do the moral assumptions based on that knowledge.
So in Romans 1, Paul simply assumes that homosexuality is wrong. Not even that gay sex is wrong, but that the attraction itself is wrong. Not only that, he speaks in terms of what is clear simply by looking at the natural order: “That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other.”
I’ve bolded the key phrases that clue us in to what assumptions Paul is working with, and those assumptions are problematic given what we now know: that homosexual attraction is born from a constellation of causes, including genetic, environmental and biological factors over which a person has no control, and that homosexuality is in fact prevalent in nature. Paul made a pair of assumptions that are simply not workable anymore, yet these undergird his argument about the nature of homosexuality, itself a label Paul did not know. Note also that Paul considers these lusts and actions the consequence not the cause of idolatry. He’s not trying to convince anyone of their sinfulness because everyone involved in the conversation assumes that right off the bat; in fact, they all agree it’s such a shameful and horrific activity that it’s actually the punishment for the less obvious, more prevalent sin of idolatry.
Similarly, in 1 Timothy, the author (who I do not believe was Paul) uses the order of creation and Eve’s role in the primal sin as the reason for the hierarchical structure he defends. It’s certainly possible this is some reference to a practice in Ephesus, but the text gives no indication of it, and I’m leery of trying to simply place that kind of specific cultural marker into a passage that doesn’t call for it. The argument simply loses credibility, in my opinion, and damages the credibility of the entire effort to equalize the roles of men and women in the church.
Rather, a simpler, much easier-to-prove argument is that the Greco-Roman culture in which 1 Timothy was written was heavily hierarchical. The roles of men and women were entrenched, and subverting them was tantamount to a treasonous effort to overturn the society itself. We could go on for quite a while about the causes and effects of these assumptions, but they existed, they are documented, and the secular Roman beliefs about men and women line up exactly with the beliefs expressed in 1 Timothy. Those beliefs, of course, are no longer tenable in our own culture.
These are uncomfortable arguments for many to make and many more to hear because they open up a wide swath of scripture to being written off as culturally conditioned. I acknowledge that danger. But if we are to truly respect the Bible for what it is, we must engage with what it says in the terms of the culture in which it was written. Many times the simplest argument is best, and in these two cases, I believe the simpler arguments are better – even if they are scarier to contemplate for many people.