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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond


THE BIBLE AND MORAL CHANGE

THE BIBLE AND MORAL CHANGE

by The Rev. Warner White (Ret.)
St. Stepen's Episcopal Church
Middlebury, Vermont
August 31, 2003

Introduction. What do we do when there are so many contradictions between ``what the Bible says'' and what our Church says?

``Hear now, O Israel'' - it's Moses speaking - ``Hear now, you Episcopalians, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe. ... You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it.''

Woof! That hits us in the belly doesn't it! The Bible is full of commands we don't even know, much less keep! And we've been busily making changes. We've been adding and taking away at a great pace!

Last week, for example, in the regular set of lessons we had the one from Ephesians about how wives should relate to their husbands. Remember that one?

Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22)

We don't believe that, do we? Here's a clear biblical text we don't follow and don't intend to follow.

So what do we make of this situation? How do we make sense of the fact that the Bible teaches one thing - or at least plainly seems to teach it - and we do and teach another?

And it isn't just the status of women either. We've made a lot of changes in the last two hundred years that conflict or seem to conflict with the Bible.

Slavery. In the 1800s the bishop of this diocese, John Henry Hopkins, adamantly defended slavery on biblical grounds. And he wasn't alone. And he had plenty of good ammunition. The plain fact is that the Old Testament regulated slavery. Jesus never condemned it. Paul sent a slave back to his owner and gave advice to slaves and masters about how to get along. There's a strong biblical case for slavery. Yet we universally condemn it.

What's going on here? How can this be?

Divorce and remarriage. I've lived through this one as a priest. When I was ordained the Episcopal Church did not recognize divorce. You couldn't get remarried in the Episcopal Church after a divorce unless you could find some way to get the first marriage annulled.

And there are very strong New Testament texts - words of Jesus - condemning divorce.

What's going on here? How can this be?

Of course, what I have in my mind today are the actions a few weeks ago of General Convention with respect to homosexuality. They appear to involve another of these contradictions between what we're doing and biblical teaching.

So today I want to talk about the Bible and moral change. I'm going to try to give you some guidelines for understanding all this.

1. The Old Testament and moral change

The first guideline is this. You can't just quote the Old Testament for or against any particular practice. The Church long ago decided to interpret the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ. For example, despite what Moses said, we simply ignore the detailed rules of the Old Testament about food and clothing and disease. We don't keep kosher households. And we've either dropped or revamped many of the moral teachings.

This happened wholesale in the very first council of the Church. You can read about it in the Book of Acts.

The controversy, you will remember, concerned the admission of gentiles to the Church. The first Christians were Jews and as Jews they were obligated to keep the rules of the Old Testament. But when we began to admit gentiles to the Church, these rules became a matter of controversy. In order to become a Christian, did you have to take on the Old Testament law?

It was a question of how salvation occurs. Are we saved - made whole - by keeping the law? Or are we made whole by grace through faith in Jesus Christ?

In Acts 15 the Church decided once and for all that the road to wholeness with God is not the road of law-keeping, but the road of faith.

So at one fell swoop the council of Jerusalem, somewhere around the year 50, decided to throw out Old Testament law as a binding Christian code.

But they also made an interesting little compromise. They threw a bone of law to the conservatives. Gentiles do not have to take on the Old Testament law, they said, but they must abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from whatever has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20, 28-29)

We Christians, it says in the New Testament, are not supposed to eat blood or anything strangled! That was laid down by the first council of the Church. You can find it in our Christian Scriptures!

Did anyone ever teach you that? Was that in your confirmation class!

Here are some New Testament commands that we just ignore. How can we do that? How can we just ignore a plain commandment of the New Testament?

2. Reinterpretation of the Bible by the Church

The simple answer is that when a contradiction between Christian practice and biblical text takes place, the Church reinterprets the text. Sometimes we say, ``Oh that shouldn't be taken literally.'' Or ``Jesus didn't mean that to apply to all situations, just the situation that existed at his time.'' Or, ``The text has been mistranslated or misunderstood.'' And so on.

You may find this disturbing or even shocking. Isn't this playing fast and loose with Holy Scripture? I think it often is - in the hands of individuals bent on forcing their own meaning onto the text. But when it's the mind of the Church, when it reflects the tested spiritual experience and insight of Christian people over an extended period of time, that's another story.

That's what we see happening in Acts 15. The Church of the first years took a breath-taking step in the reinterpretation of sacred text; it made a breath-taking claim to authority. ``Old Testament law will no longer be binding on Christians, because law is not the way to salvation. Faith in Jesus Christ is the way.''

So my second guideline is this: Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we, the Church, are responsible for interpreting and reinterpreting the Bible.

3. How have changes in the moral teaching of the Church taken place?

How do we do this? How, in particular, are we led to adopt a reinterpretation? How do we Christians change our minds?

I think what happens is that we begin to experience a contradiction between our vision of Christian life and what's happening around us. With slavery, for example, Christians began to feel a deep contradiction between their vision of life in Christ and the reality of slavery. Paul had joyously proclaimed his vision of the Church - ``There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'' (Galatians 3:28) Christians looked at slavery and could not reconcile it with that vision of Christian life.

Vision - I think that's what makes the difference. The vision given us in Jesus Christ - I think that's our authentic guide.

Our controversies often don't look this way. They look like controversies about words, about the meanings of biblical texts. Opposing sides trot out opposing interpretations of the Bible and try to prove the other side wrong. But I never see anyone convinced by these arguments. Somehow the sides stay pretty much in place.

I see change take place, not by biblical argument, not by doctrinal argument, but by our experiences. We see or hear of slaves being mistreated, and are appalled. We see our daughters have restricted opportunities because of their gender, and we become supporters of women's rights. We see our friends and relatives get divorced and then be treated by us, the Church, in narrow-minded ways. These are the things that change minds.

The biblical arguments are not so much persuasions, as they are possible interpretations being offered to us. If I am inclined to side A, then the interpretations for side A are the ones I will choose. If I'm inclined to side B, then the interpretations for side B are the ones I will choose.

I know what happened with me and remarriage after divorce. My change of mind was essentially a matter of vision and feeling. Following the rules of the Church at that time made me feel mean and narrow. I looked at the human search for love and companionship, I looked at the vision given me by Jesus, and I could not put our practice together with that vision. It wasn't biblical texts that changed my mind. It was biblical vision. It was sacramental vision. It was my ideal of Christian community. That's what led to my change of mind.

And I think that's the way it works. The encounter between our experience and our vision shapes our convictions.

When we Episcopalians changed our minds about divorce and remarriage, our vision of what it is to be a loving community today overrode a rule intended for different people in different circumstances. We decided to see Jesus' clear prohibition of divorce and remarriage not as applicable to all times and all circumstances, but as intended for a particular set of circumstances - for the protection of women in a world where they were treated as property, a world in which only men could seek divorce, a world in which divorce meant a woman's destitution or prostitution.

Today we face another question. Should we now change our minds with respect to homosexuality as we have done with slavery, and the status of women, and divorce?

4. A quick look at biblical texts about homosexuality

In a moment I'm going to look at some biblical texts about homosexuality, but before I do that, I want top make one general comment about rule-giving. Jesus didn't do it. Jesus was not a rule-giver. Moses handed down rules. Mohammed handed down rules. But Jesus did not. The only exception I can think of is his prohibition of divorce and remarriage.

So I don't look to the Bible for rules, but we need to get some perspective on possible interpretations.

First of all, the relevant texts are almost all in the Old Testament, and Leviticus 20:13 makes its stand very clear, ``If a man lies with [another] male as with a woman...they shall be put to death.'' I don't think we're prepared to do that. So for this reason and the reasons I've given earlier, I think we can't look to the Old Testament for guidance here.

In the New Testament there are three references to homosexuality. Two of them are in the lists of sinners -

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says, ``Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, [and] sodomites ... none of these shall inherit the kingdom of God!''

And 1 Timothy 1:9-10 identifies as ``godless and sinful ... murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders'', and so on.

.) It's a matter for scholarly debate.

The one text in the New Testament that clearly condemns homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27 -

[Before their conversion to Christ] God gave [the gentiles] up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The question we have to decide is this - is this prohibition universal, applying to all people at all times, or is it local, applying to particular people at a particular time? Thirty years ago the Episcopal Church decided that Jesus' prohibition of divorce and remarriage is local, that it applied just to his time and place. Are we to do the same thing now with respect to homosexuality? That's the question. And it's a question for us, not scholars. Only Christian experience can tell us whether this prohibition is universal or local. Only after we have had experience throughout the Church with committed homosexual couples will we be able to give this text an authoritative interpretation.

Conclusion. General Convention's ratification of the election by the Diocese of New Hampshire

I want to conclude by making clear what General Convention did and what the people of New Hampshire did.

General Convention did not put its seal of approval on homosexual relations. It did not say that it thought that the sexual behavior of the bishop-elect of New Hampshire is good or bad. What it did do was ratify the judgment of the people of New Hampshire.

I can well imagine being in doubt about homosexuality and yet voting yes to ratify this election. I imagine many bishops and lay folk did exactly that. Many probably said to themselves, ``I don't know whether homosexual relations are right or wrong in the eyes of God, but I do know that as a Church we are in doubt. So I'm not going to override the judgment of the Diocese of New Hampshire.''

So the judgment of General Convention on homosexuality is still up in the air.

But not so the judgment of our neighbors. They have spoken clearly. They have said to us, ``We believe this man is fit to be our bishop and to take his place in the council of bishops.'' They have known Gene Robinson for 28 years and on the basis of their experience have come to a conclusion. I take that very seriously.


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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