Interpretation of Scripture 2: Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals—13 Criteria for Distinguishing Transcultural, Normative Authority from Cultural Relativity
The previous post suggested a list of thirteen criteria to consider when discussing the interpretation of Biblical texts and weighing whether they should be accepted as transculturally normative or culturally relative. This concern arises for orthodox Christians, who take the Bible as God’s Word and seek to live under its authority. Yet Scripture was given within cultural contexts and must be interpreted within cultural contexts, and these simple facts raise the present issue for interpreters of Scripture.
The present post offers some discussion for each of the thirteen criteria around the issues of slavery, women, and homosexuality. There are still interpreters today who try to brush aside Scripture on the issue of homosexuality simply because of what Scripture says—or what they think it says—about slavery and women. This all seems very logical to someone who reads Scripture with the lens of ‘liberation’ or the lens of ‘love’, but the logic does fall apart rather quickly.
My hope is that the following discussion of the proposed criteria—meant as discussion points to add depth to the conversation as well as guidelines for interpretation—will be helpful to many.
Discussion of the Criteria
1. Criterion of Exegesis. A clear understanding of what the text was saying to the original audience may well indicate whether it is culturally relative or transculturally normative. Ask questions such as: Who is saying What to Whom? Why? When? Where? How? What was the broader context? What was the specific context? Etc.
*Slavery: The Old Testament bears witness to Israel’s practice of slavery as with its surrounding nations. One must ask, therefore, ‘in what ways was Israelite slavery different or the same?’ (And it was different in important ways.) Regarding the New Testament period, many slaves in Roman times were enemy captives (political or governance issues bear on the discussion); there were Roman laws governing the freeing of slaves; freedmen often continued in employment with the former household (economic concerns must be considered). Yet, according to the New Testament, Christians radically reshaped the relationships of masters and slaves, encouraged obtaining freedom if possible, and condemned the slave trade.
*Women: In all cultures of Biblical times, women were generally considered subordinate to their husbands’ authority; modesty for married women included covering the head and being quiet in public gatherings; women were very rarely educated and therefore almost never authors or teachers. In New Testament times, the Emperor Augustus tried to stop a new cultural practice of women dropping conventional restrictions and becoming sexually promiscuous. Contextual issues abound for careful exegesis of texts regarding women. For some interpreters, the use of the creation narrative in 1 Tim. 2.9-15 means a closed case: the text is transcultural. Yet there are good exegetical arguments to consider against this (the issues are complex, and my view is, in part, that Paul is using a chiastic argument such that not teaching is paired with the example of being deceived, whereas not domineering over a man is paired with the example of being created after the man--not teaching is not a part of the creation but the fall narrative).
*Homosexuality: Various forms of homosexual practice were known in Greek and Roman antiquity, including pederasty (an adult male with a teenager/young man), living together/marital relationship, bisexuality, lesbianism, transsexuality/gender dysphoria, cross-dressing, priests of the goddess Cybele emasculating themselves and becoming women, homosexuals living openly or ‘in the closet,’ etc. Also, there was considerable discussion about whether homosexual orientation was natural or a result of nurture. [Not knowing these things has led to misinterpretations of Biblical texts in order to revise the Church’s 2,000 years of teaching on the subject.]
2. Criterion of Contextual Dissimilarity and Traditional Consistency. A Biblical norm that is dissimilar to its cultural context and consistent with its own tradition will more likely be transcultural than a norm that complies with the culture of the day.
*Slavery: In a world where every culture practiced slavery and where it was an integral part of the political and economic realities, Christian households also continued the practice. The challenge was to reform the practice.
*Women: In a world where women were uneducated and where modesty included quietness in public, Christian teachers nevertheless included women in the teaching they gave, allowed women to explain the Gospel to others, allowed women to prophesy, and probably had women serve as deaconesses. Brief directives regarding women teaching and speaking pretty much follow the cultural context.
*Homosexuality: All Jewish literature from the time of Moses to the time of the Talmud (5th/6th c. AD) that mentions homosexuality condemns it, whereas there was considerable discussion about, say, divorce and remarriage. Naturally, then, we find Jesus interacting with questions about the latter but not the former. The situation changes as the Christian mission encounters cultures that did practice homosexuality. In a Greek and Roman world that saw every sort of homosexual practice, that did not associate sexuality with religion (except the gods’ dislike of incest—despite their own behaviours!), and that permitted most forms of any sexual indulgence, including homosexuality (except that free-born Roman youth were not to submit themselves to homosexual acts of others), Christians held firm with their Biblical tradition in opposing homosexual practice.
3. Criterion of Available Alternatives. Where no choice really exists for actions or perspectives in a culture or context, the point may be situational and not transcultural.
*Slavery: The release of slaves could be difficult, unlawful, and unhelpful for the slaves. In some cities, as many as 1/3 of the population might be slaves. The alternative more easily open to the first Christians was to reform the relationship within the slave system, as they did.
*Women: Very few women were educated, and they could well be susceptible to false teaching and the propagation of heresy if allowed to teach. There also seems to be some concern in the early Church about gender confusion and promiscuity (1 Cor. 11.2-16; 1 and 2 Timothy).
*Homosexuality: People did have a choice about their sexual activity. Sex was associated with the ‘one flesh’ act of marriage between a male and a female, and therefore all other sexual activity was declared sinful. Beyond a focus simply on sexual acts, the early Church believed that passions of the flesh also could be transformed through the power of the cross of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit: people could not claim that they were simply a certain way either by nature or nurture and simply had to be true to who they were (e.g., ‘soft men’ were transformed, and persons thinking lesbianism and homosexuality were normal for them were able to be transformed by the renewing of their minds).
4. Criterion of Repeatability. If something can be or was repeated in the same way under different circumstances, its authority may well be transcultural.
*Slavery: While slavery is found in both the Old and New Testaments, there is a considerable amount of change, as noted above, effected in New Testament writings that do not allow interpreters simply to say that the practice is transculturally normative.
*Women: If the focus is on gender distinctions, the Bible is consistently clear that there are distinctions. Yet the expression of those distinctions may be culturally relative: a woman having long hair or an unmarried woman having no head covering may mean different things in different cultures. In many cultures, teaching is not considered a criterion that distinguishes genders (although, in the West, affirmative action has, at times, made this a gender issue). If the focus is on whether women should be allowed to teach, one needs to reckon with the fact that most societies today now have women educated just as the men (unlike in the 1st century).
*Homosexuality: Homosexuality was condemned in the Old Testament over against Canaanite, Hittite, Egyptian, and Babylonian cultures and in the New Testament over against Greek and Roman cultures. It was condemned over hundreds of years by God’s people, as it was by the Church as Christianity spread from culture to culture for two thousand years.
5. Criterion of Multiple Attestation (‘Cloud of Witnesses’). The case for transcultural normativity is stronger the more we can demonstrate that there are multiple witnesses or proofs (different authors, different time periods, different types of literature [see next criterion]).
*Slavery: References to slavery by different authors, in different time periods, and in different types of literature naturally raises the question whether it is transcultural. Yet other criteria push against this, and the New Testament’s strong qualifications of slavery raise serious challenges for treating this as transcultural. Moreover, there are significant differences to note between slavery in either the Old Testament or New Testament and what most people today have in mind about slavery: one has to ask to what extent the same thing is in mind even if the label is the same.
*Women: Biblical material, while patriarchal, also gives us an interesting variety of perspectives on the role and status of women. If a woman is told to be silent and not teach in one text, we nevertheless find a woman (Priscilla) who knew the author (Paul) well and who engaged in teaching. Whatever one makes of the evidence in the end, there is not a unified testimony from multiple witnesses on the role and status of women—except that there are clear gender distinctions that the church affirms as part of the way God made the world.
*Homosexuality: Different authors (‘Moses’—Genesis, Leviticus; ‘Joshua’; Paul; Jude) state outright that homosexual acts are sinful. The Scriptures are consistent on this. The consistent witness remains through hundreds of years.
6. Criterion of Different Genre: The authority of a text is related to the genre, type of literature (e.g., narrative, laws, poetry, proverbs, history, prophecy, visions, apocalypses, letters, parables, etc.). A point made in different genre may also be transculturally normative, and some genre are more likely transcultural than others (e.g., a narrative may simply describe a situation, whereas a law is meant to fit different contexts).
*Slavery: While statements about slavery are made in different genre, the texts are assuming rather than advocating or affirming slavery. A cursory reading of Scripture—one lacking serious interpretation—may lead one to affirm slavery, as people have at various times. (This has been a serious error.)
*Women: What is said about the role and status of women is not wide enough in the Biblical literature to be relevant to this criterion. They key statements that people discuss are in Biblical letters.
*Homosexuality: The point that homosexuality is a sin is made in narrative, legal, and epistolary texts (in sin lists and in discussion).
7. Criterion of Uses of Scripture: There are different levels of appeal to Scripture. The more levels of appeal that are evident in Scripture, the more likely the matter should be taken as transculturally normative. (I would suggest four levels: specifying use (norms, rules), warranting (virtues, values, principles), witnessing (stories, examples, characters), and worldview (basic understanding of God, humanity, and the world).)
*Slavery: At the specifying level, norms regulate slavery but do not insist on it. At the warranting level, slavery is not treated as a virtue, principle, or value except insofar as it is a metaphor for Christian service. Nor is it seen as a value for Christian community, although slaves are seen as equally valuable within the Church as everyone else. At the witnessing level, Paul gives an example of the treatment of slaves in Philemon. At the worldview level, there is no creational view on slavery (as in the Babylonian creation myth); rather, human beings are said to have been created in the image of God.
*Women: At the specifying level, women are specifically told to be ‘quiet’—likely meaning not to be ‘disruptive’ in the meeting or to society. They are told not to lord it over a man and not to teach, with the disastrous example of Eve in view. Yet, at the warranting level, they are valued as equal members with men in the community, and husbands are to love their wives sacrificially. At the witnessing level, there are stories of female heroes of the faith. The husband/wife and male/female relationship is governed by an understanding of creation, while cultural distinctions may come into play as these understandings are practiced. At the worldview level, both males and females are created in the image of God.
*Homosexuality: At the specifying level, clear texts state outright that homosexual practice is a serious sin. At the warranting level, homosexual acts are considered ‘against nature’—not someone’s orientation but the way God made the world. One’s orientation is, fundamentally, sinful, and most humans struggle with sinful sexual orientations of one sort or another that attest to the power of sin that Christ alone overcomes. Much of the attempt to revise Christian teaching on homosexuality has stemmed from arguments at the warranting level. One argument sees ‘liberation’ as a Biblical warrant to be used to challenge various social matters. Apart from being reductionistic, there are many problems with so simplistic an approach to interpreting Scripture and doing Christian theology and ethics. Most notably here, such a reading requires reading against the Scriptures and the Church’s teaching. Another argument at this level attempts to redefine the matter around the value of ‘love’: relationships that are loving should be affirmed. Again, this reads against Scripture. Both of these values could be used to affirm incestuous marriage. Vague values, like ‘liberation’ or ‘love,’ are always given clarity from sources other than the values themselves. At the witnessing level, the stories of Sodom and Gibeah attest to God’s view of homosexual sin (and Jude 7 clarifies any confusion among interpreters as to whether the sin of Sodom was sexual). At the worldview level, the story of creation establishes that sex is to be within marriage between a man and a woman.
8. Criterion of Theological and Ethical Coherence. An argument is more likely transcultural if it coheres with other theological and ethical ideas and practices and can be shown to cohere with both theology and ethics.
*Slavery: Slavery actually coheres with no theological or ethical system—it is not ‘needed’ but is actually made irrelevant to the Christian life. It is describes Israel’s life in Egypt and captivity in Babylon, and it describes a person’s control by sin versus obedience to God. Its only value for theology and ethics is as a metaphor.
*Women: The distinction of genders, the affirmation of marriage, and the equal participation of men and women ‘in Christ’ means that there is a Biblical view of women that is important to understand. Yet this can play out differently in different cultural contexts.
*Homosexuality: The Biblical view on homosexuality fits into a more comprehensive view of sexuality. It is one example of a sin against nature (cf. bestiality). God created male and female—two genders—as part of his plan for his creation to be fruitful and multiply. As idolatry is a turning away from the creator, so homosexuality is a turning away from the way the Creator made the world.
9. Criterion of Rhetorical Exigence or Contingency. A response to a specific situation might be a culturally relative or situational response.
*Slavery: This criterion is not particularly useful in this case.
*Women: When Paul addresses women’s silence in Corinth, he is addressing a host of other issues that divide this particular church. When he address the issue of women’s silence, not teaching, and not domineering over men, he is addressing a situation of false teaching in Ephesus (1 and 2 Timothy) that is complicated: women are being told not to marry, and they have proven to be susceptible to the false teachers. The rhetorical exigence in these churches weighs into our interpretation of the texts.
*Homosexuality: Despite attempts to find some contingency in texts speaking against homosexuality, those advocating this do not agree among themselves (offering conflicting suggestions of temple prostitution, pederasty, unloving and impermanent relations, and so forth). Yet these are contemporary attempts to overturn the consistent view held by God’s people in Biblical times and the Church’s 2,000 year history. The texts are quite clear that homosexual practice is a sin. Paul is not trying to address a situation peculiar to this or that church but correct a cultural practice that opposes God’s purposes for sex.
10. Criterion of the Author's Emphasis. The more the point is emphasised by argument, authority, and emotion, the more likely the conviction is crucial and therefore transcultural.
*Slavery: There is no Biblical advocacy for slavery. There are texts pressing in the opposite direction (note the emotion in Paul’s appeal for a runaway slave in Philemon).
*Women: Why is Paul emphatic in 1 Timothy 2 about women not domineering over a man, not teaching, and being ‘silent’ (not troublesome) in the church? He is dealing with a heresy affecting women and attacking marriage.
*Homosexuality: Genesis (Sodom) and Joshua (Gibeah—also involving rape and murder) see homosexual practice as worthy of God’s destruction. Jude appeals to the story of Genesis to warn of deserved punishment. The Mosaic Law declares homosexual practice as worthy of the death sentence. Paul declares that those who continue to practice this will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.
11. Criterion of Church History. The Bible is foundational for the Church and the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice. The history of the Church’s interpretation of Scripture should be studied to see how the Church has understood the text in different ages and cultures as a way to check present understandings and to hear the Biblical text clearly.
*Slavery: The history of the Church offers a rich variety of views on this issue, addressing different aspects of it. There are terribly bad examples of Christian practice and interpretation of Scripture, and there are inspiring examples of how various forms were opposed. There are also lessons to be learned about the Church itself on this issue: where the Church as an institution compromised on Christian values and practices so as to relate to the State and its economic structures. Significantly, the insistence in the 19th century that slavery is ‘Biblical’ is an example of cultural interpretation: reading the text in order to affirm the present practices of a culture.
*Women: There are diverse witnesses in Church history regarding women, wives, and their roles in the Church. Again, the history of the Church gives both good and bad examples. Confusing the discussion today is the fact that reconsideration of the role and status of women has largely been associated with a variety of other social changes in Western society.
*Homosexuality: The Christian Church has maintained a consistent witness throughout its history that homosexual practice is a sin. Only in the past few decades have some mainline, liberal denominations in the West begun to question this witness. All of them have been declining in numbers since the 1960s and maintain other views that the Church has rejected through the millennia—such as their denial of Scripture as God’s authoritative word in matters of faith and practice.
12. Criterion of Meaning, Implications, Significance, and Applications. The greater the interpreter can establish a relationship between the meaning of Scriptural texts, their theological and ethical implications, and the significance they bear on a given situation, the greater one can argue that the application has transculturally normative authority.
*Slavery: Biblical texts that explore the meaning of slavery further primarily do so in terms of its implication for Christian ministry. While the social evils of slavery are opposed, the devotion and service of a slave becomes an example of the work of Christ and the character of a minister (over against, e.g., discussing ministry in terms of ‘leadership’ or ‘servant leadership’).
*Women: Paul’s discussion of women in the church, as noted, is part of a concern for implications in the church—its unity and heterodoxy—and part of a concern for gender distinctions (there is still a role for marriage and bearing children even if the Kingdom of God has come!).
*Homosexuality: What Scripture says about homosexuality has theological and ethical implications regarding creation, marriage, sexuality, and gender.
13. Criterion of Central and Peripheral. What is arguably central in Scripture is likely transculturally authoritative. What we think might be peripheral may or may not be.
*Slavery: Scripture has no interest in advocating slavery. Whether one is a slave or not has no bearing on eternal salvation. While accommodated, it was not essential for Israel or the Church; rather, in both cases, certain evils of the system were argued against (Israel is to remember they were once slaves in Egypt, and masters are to remember that they have a master; slaves are to render service to God).
*Women: As with slavery, whether one is a male or female has no bearing on being in Christ. However, gender distinctions, sexuality, and marriage are serious issues in the Church. The issue of women teaching in the Church is not handled as a matter of sin in itself but, in this particular case (1 Tim. 2), as a problem that could feed false teaching in the church (as noted, above). It is not so much a matter of Christian ethics as Christian polity.
*Homosexuality: Unlike slavery or the role and status of women, homosexuality is a matter of Christian ethics; it is a matter sin. Homosexual practice is specifically listed as a sin that will keep one from the kingdom of God, and so it is a central, not peripheral, matter.