Gays in the Church Part 4: Scripture and Culture

The issue of gays in the church seems to have two major components to it. One component is the very practical side of how we deal with homosexuals and their participation in the church. The second component is how we deal with scripture and how we allow it to inform the way we view the world and live our lives. For Christians, it’s all to easy to forget the very personal, practical aspect of this issue while arguing over various interpretations of scripture and so on. So while wrestling with how scripture informs our thinking on this or any matter, it would be wise to always acknowledge the very personal ramifications for our fellow human beings.

At the heart of this issue is the always mysterious relationship between the culture we find ourselves in and the scripture we look to for guidance. One of the issues that this is easily seen from our culture today is the issue of women’s role in church. If we are to take Paul at his word, women must be kept from any kind of prominent leadership role in the Church. Despite Paul’s clear instruction, whole denominations are taking a different view in light of the culture we find ourselves in today. Women are being allowed to be clergy members, elders, and pastors over entire congregations. Whether or not this is appropriate is beside the point. The point I’d like to make is that those who are coming to this conclusion aren’t doing so solely based on their interpretation of scripture. Churches or denominations didn’t begin scouring the scriptures to find some objective theological basis for women leadership. Rather it was a response to the culture and the culture’s evolving view of women that prompted a search for a theological basis to justify women in leadership.

It is precisely because the women in our lives, the women who we experience on a day to day basis that we have side stepped Paul’s instruction to keep them from leading men. It has nothing to do with paper-thin, soggy hermeneutics like William Webb’s “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.” It is so simply because what Paul taught does not ring true today. The flaw with William Webb is his assumption that some instructions are “trans-cultural.” But the reality is that no idea, philosophy, or instruction transcends cultural influence.

I think only when we do away with this assumption can we begin to have an authentic debate on the issue of women and homosexuals. Once we come to the conclusion that Paul’s instructions do not all possess timeless truths, we can then open the can of worms.

4 thoughts on “Gays in the Church Part 4: Scripture and Culture

  1. Ok, I’m struggling with this one a little bit, and part of the problem may be that I’m not familiar with Webb’s work.

    Correct me if I’m wrong. What I hear you saying (and I realize I’m unpacking this backwards) is that these types of issues don’t evolve first out of theological issues, but rather cultural issues and understanding and that we have to move away from a “literal” interpretation of the scriptures (whatever that may mean, b/c no one actually takes it literally) if we are going to have honest dialogue.

    I think I’m hung at two places. One, while Paul does have the statement about women in leadership he also contradicts himself with the whole no longer male or female thing, and also in practice as Pricilla seems to have had prominent a leadership role. So, I’m struggling with what seems to be the assumption that no women in leadership was a hard and fast rule for Paul.

    Second, it’s the line, “But the reality is that no idea, philosophy, or instruction transcends cultural influence.” That’s pretty absolute, and from what I’ve encountered there is so much that we are about that is counter-cultural. I mean ideas like the third way and nonviolence, love God and others, seem to actually transcend transcend cultural influence as they are definitely not part of the culture at large.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I always enjoy reading what you have to say. I get the feeling that I’m not completely getting what you’re saying or have missed the point you’re trying to make. But, since I’m thinking I missed it I feel a bit like I’m groping in the dark to articulate what I’m struggling with. Maybe I’ve given you enough to clarify for me.


  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the comment. First, as far as Paul goes, you’re right. He does seem to contradict himself concerning women’s roles in Christian communities. Many scholars believe that the Paul in 1 Timothy is not actually Paul but Paul “remembered” through another writer or writers. Paul might have been “hijacked” here but maybe this is for another blog post. I’ve heard some interpret this apparent conundrum by parsing Paul to a ridiculous extreme in saying that Paul saw it fit for women to be leaders but not elders (whatever that means). I guess as a rationale it works but it’s pretty flimsy, to put it kindly.

    Second, you say, “…from what I’ve encountered there is so much that we are about that is counter-cultural. I mean ideas like the third way and nonviolence, love God and others, seem to actually transcend cultural influence as they are definitely not part of the culture at large.”

    But to be “counter-cultural” means you are reacting to something within the culture you find yourself in. Therefore, your reaction is influenced by the culture and cannot be “transcultural.” Yes, Jesus taught many wonderful things that we believe to be the ultimate set of instructions on how to live in the world but we must take those teaching and bring them into our own time and place. Otherwise the instructions are irrelevant. When Jesus’ teachings collide with our time and place, even within the conservative christian culture, Jesus tends not to fare to well. Jesus teaches to give away all possessions and follow him in order to inherit the Kingdom of God, yet many Christians, myself included, have found this impractical because of the our own cultural norms. Early Christians and the culture they created out of Jesus’ teachings seemed to take this teaching much more seriously…..but now, not so much. Another obvious example of this is that Jesus said to love your enemy yet over 50% of evangelicals polled in America approve of torture. In short, even the teachings of Jesus have become negotiable. This not only happens on an individual basis but on a grand scale with entire christian institutions.

    I’m not trying to label these kinds of negotiations good or bad. I’m just trying to point out that they take place all the time, even with the most self-protested biblical literalist. There very well may be biblical instructions that are ultimately (T)rue, but the (T)ruth cannot be discovered until the words on the page are expressed by our words and actions.

  3. Ok, that helps. Thanks for the response. I think I was mainly misreading you, which was what I expected. I completely agree with what you’re saying here – especially concerning the “Christian culture” and institutions, many are pretty messed up and even the ones who aren’t have to negotiate interpretations in it’s day and time. I’m not a big “timeless truths” type person in that I don’t believe all the things that are claimed to be timeless truths actually are. But, what I hear you saying is that whether there are “timeless truths” is irrelevant because even if they are counter cultural, the ideas came about within a time and place (within a specific culture) therefore even if they are a reaction against that culture they are influenced by it. Also, those ideas cannot be lived out outside of a time and place, therefore they must be lived out within a culture as well which is going to influence how they’re understood and lived out in that time as well.

    I think part of the rub for me was that I was mis-reading you. When I read there is no idea, philosophy, or instruction that transcends cultural influence I was hearing that there were no teachings that are applicable at all times regardless of culture, which would raise all kinds of questions regarding where we find authority for faith and life (which is a big part of the postmodern question, just as it was for every major transition period of church history). What I hear you saying now is that while things like the teachings of Jesus are for people in all times in all places, but they are always negotiated as to how to understand and live them out within the current context, therefore the culture is influencing it. Correct me if I’m still not quite getting you. Again, love the blog. Thanks.

  4. Jonathan-I enjoyed your comments a lot, and I think the question you brought on what can we take from scripture that is counter cultural now, and what is subject to cultural shift-that is a great question, because it brings the discussion around to show the difficulty in cherrypicking some cultural norms as trans-cultural, and some as subject to temporal considerations, and vice-versa.

    This is probably the difficulty many have who are trying to glean some authoritative pieces of scripture (without boiling them into neat propositional language when they are narrative or parable), and yet also consider scripture in a useful cultural light for what is germane to today’s issues.

    It highlights an odd but slowly coalescing trend in Christians to find some social abstractions to pull from text (such as non-violence, connection to the poor continually, contemplative worship, etc.) and then set aside some of what could be termed ‘holiness’ abstractions into something less than applicable today (there are the big fluffy ones like issues of sexuality, gender roles, and smaller, often easier to grab ones like prayerfulness and purity of speech, honesty, etc.).

    I say those as one of the persons who does that very thing, and finds it much easier to give away a chunk of clothes than to pray for a few hours straight, or to defend the honor of a gay friend than to really be able to place any diagnosis on my own spiritual health, so I am a part of this too.

    I simply enjoyed the thought that perhaps in this process we also ask ourselves where we do (if we do) actually submit to scripture, and can any norms be made from it, especially practically, in terms of sexuality as we are looking at it, and in terms of other pieces that still feel alien or counter-cultural now, but are more palatable to us in terms of their social impact.

    but i get off topic-thanks Zach for continuing the thoughts, and i am moving on to the new post.

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