In Part One, I mentioned the intransigence of fundamentalists and evangelicals in terms of how they interpret Scripture, especially in the context of same-sex marriage. The thesis of Part Two is that fundangelicals will use the Bible to oppose same-sex marriage, but their interpretive method (hermeneutic) is deeply flawed or deeply dishonest, and as I write that, it occurs to me that oblivious is an option, too.
The fundamental issue is that Christians, by and large, do not read the Bible, not in its entirety, and not to understand it. Much reading is devotional, wherein readers look for God to address them via the text. Imagine a person struggling with an issue and coming across a passage in Proverbs that says “Lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.” That likely feels like the words are written just for their particular situation: “I’m relying too much on my own judgment. I should trust God.”
Unfortunately, “Trust God” is often a shorthand way of saying, “I won’t make a decision.” Worse, it’s an opportunity to ask someone what “God’s Word” says. This is where things can really run off the rails. Interpreting the Bible is not simply a matter of reading the text and accepting the clear meaning, partly because the meaning is not always clear, and partly because the text was written or compiled somewhere between 1600 and 4000 years ago, depending on the passage. Even if the words are clear, it is possible that the text is obscure. There is a passage in the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, called Old Testament by Christians) about a man who must marry the woman he rapes. It’s a horrific thought for us, but in the economy of ancient Israel, a non-virginal, unmarried woman would have very limited options, like begging or prostitution, so if a rapist took her virginity (yes, I hate that phrase, too), he was financially responsible for her.
For hermeneutics, then, the context matters immensely, but that is not even the biggest problem with applying Biblical texts to contemporary issues. I feel very comfortable saying to women that they should ignore Biblical sexual ethics about virginity because the passages were written when girls married upon menstruation. Most folks can keep their virginity that long, and the issue was women as property, not sexual ethics. That much of the Bible was written for a different context, both culturally and developmentally, is clear, but fundangelicals insist that much of it still applies, including sexual ethics. Mind you, most would say that victims should not marry their rapists, nor should people own people, let alone have sex with slaves, but they are hard-pressed to let go of same-sex prohibitions. They cannot seem to recognize that interpretation is largely preferential, not exegetically consistent (the process of extracting meaning from a text). Once exegetical consistency is applied, the whole book falls apart if you insist on reading it as authoritative, but that is not a point that can be acknowledged if you wish to remain securely fundangelical.
For example, applying exegetical consistency to the issue of women in ministry yields a wide range of Biblical opinions, but fundangelicals of various tribes choose the verses they prefer to shape their church polity (church governance). The texts are in clear conflict, so only preference or appeal to a particular tradition can yield a path forward. This is not the same thing as “thus sayeth the Lord,” obviously. That all of them appeal to different and equally dubious or equally reasonable ways of understanding “God’s Word” is lost on them, because they sincerely believe they are understanding it properly (rightly dividing the word of truth, in the jargon of Scripture) while the other tribes are missing a key point.
Another example. On the issue of care for the poor, there are hundreds of verses that address care for the poor, so many in fact that it was possible for liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez to preach that God has a preference for the poor. The difficulty in using such texts to support government-provided welfare is related to the text’s silence about the responsibility of the government. The individual is clearly instructed to do so, as is the church, but nowhere is the care of the poor seen as a governmental responsibility. It’s possible to argue that God literally expects individuals to care for the poor, but an inference is required to say God expects the government to do the same. Alas, not all inferences are created equal.
On matters of interpretation related to the life of the individual, the fundangelical impulse has been toward a mixture of allegorical, literal, and metaphorical interpretation. When God promises Jeremiah that God knew him from the moment of his conception, the statement has often been appropriated by individuals to assert that God cares about and knows every individual intimately, and so the subsequent promise that God had a plan for Jeremiah’s life is then applied to the life of other individuals. The text nowhere says this, and so a literal promise to one person is applied via inference to all individuals. (It creeps into the abortion debate, too, as a way of buttressing arguments from “life begins at conception,” thereby attempting to use it politically.) Allegorically, Jeremiah is all of us, and so the inference is based on the most tenuous of interpretive models.
But what of verses that seem to indicate God’s law or rule about specific actions or beliefs? Those would seem to be less open to interpretation, and this is where the intransigence makes itself most obvious. The Bible nowhere addresses same-sex marriage, but it does address same-sex sex. The prohibition against same-sex sexual contact is then extended to cover same-sex marriage. As such, the extension of the principle is completely reasonable, by which I mean it is logically and exegetically consistent, even as it might be completely false. And here is the problem. It is not what the text actually says or even what it means; the issue is what believers choose to do with the text, including ignore it, as in the case of slavery, divorce, and killing people who use magic.
The intransigence is based on a willful denial of how the Bible has been handled in the past, especially in areas where it speaks clearly and forcefully about an issue. In Part One, the issue of slavery was used by way of illustration. It works here, too. Any honest reader of the Bible is forced to conclude that God either approves of or tolerates the practice of slavery. That the Mosaic law contains regulations about appropriate sex with a slave is a hideous reminder that we are dealing with a Bronze Age text, and not a book with modern sensibility woven into its words. How do fundamentalists and evangelicals deal with the question of slavery?
The most obnoxious of them insists that God is fine with slavery so long as it is not race-based. Quite frankly, this is a very, very small minority and it pains me to even call them “Christians." Most just say that the “old law” has passed away, and in doing so, they ignore that the Apostle Paul gave instructions to slaves and masters after the “resurrection” of Jesus, and so Paul treated slavery as an acceptable practice after that “old law” had passed away. This is not terribly helpful for fundangelicals who wish to pretend that God is horrified by slavery. So horrified that God gave instructions on when and under what circumstances you could bang your slave.
It is clear that the Bible approves of slavery and condemns divorce, and it’s equally clear that fundangelicals ignore both these realities and insist that the text is consistent and authoritative even as they condemn slavery and allow for divorce. I’ve now used 1300+ words to say what is obvious; interpretation is always based on cultural contexts and tribal preference, and very, very rarely on exegetical consistency. In other words, as the culture goes, so goes the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage…eventually.
Co-published at Literati Press as Slavery, Divorce, and Same-Sex Marriage: Interpreting the Bible Gayly, Part 2