Religious Freedom’s Meaning and Application for Contemporary American Society, Part 1

Introduction

The Problem Posed by Christian Nationalism

Not so long ago, I wrote about how American history should be taught. In that post, I discussed the importance of presenting a variety of perspectives rather than trying to use history teaching as a method of indoctrination.

History is more than a collection of facts. It is how we interpret those facts that gives them meaning. However, there is no one right way to interpret history, and students need to understand that.

(copyrighted by marekuliasz and licensed from shutterstock.com

At the time, I was thinking about the controversy over critical race theory, but since then, I have been reminded that there are other efforts going on to use history (and probably other subjects) as a tool for indoctrination rather than as a study of different schools of thought. The one that most concerns me is the effort of the so-called Christian Nationalists. Closely examined, Christian Nationalism isn’t a good reflection of Christianity or of American values–but even if it were, I’d be suspicious of attempts to use an explicitly religious template as a guide for curriculum in public schools.

Classroom Implications

According to an articles in baptistnews.com, Ryan Walters, newly elected education secretary for Oklahoma, has said, “What we have to have is true history taught in schools. Our kids need to know about the founding. They need to know this country was founded on Judeo-Christian values. They need to know about the Constitution. They need to be inspired by heroes like George Washington.”

While there are certain facts on which we can agree, much of history depends upon how one interprets it. In that sense, there is no one true history, but several perspectives that a good history class would explore. Similarly, there are different ways to interpret the Constitution and George Washington.

Washington Addresses the Constitutional Convention (copyrighted by Everett Collection and licensed from Shutterstock)

The Constitution was a unique and important document at the time it was written, but it was by no means perfect, as its subsequent amendments attest. And many would argue that it is still a work in progress, as demonstrated by the disputes over its meaning in contemporary society. As for Washington, he was certainly admirable in many ways. Like all people, he also had flaws. If I were teaching history, I would include both.

But it’s the reference to Judeo-Christian values that I find most concerning. No one would dispute the idea that Judeo-Christian values played a significant role in the founding of this country. However, that statement  can easily be misinterpreted as meaning that those values aren’t shared by other religions. In fact, though different world religions have very different theologies, their moral teachings have wide areas of similarity. Judeo-Christian values were the ones involved in the founding of America because the vast majority of the population was at least nominally Christian, not because the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only possible source for good moral values.

It also appears that Walters wants to go beyond simply making a historical point. The Norman Transcript makes this clear:

“Ryan Walters, who is running as the Republican nominee for state superintendent, said ‘our history is our history’ and the founders believed ‘our rights came from God.’ He said public school students need to learn that they were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

‘It doesn’t matter if somebody else doesn’t believe it came from God,’ Walters said. ‘That’s what (the founders) believed so that was their belief and their intention.'”

There’s a fine line between saying that the founders believed our rights came from God and implying that our rights do come from God. And while some of our founders did certainly believe that, the founders actually varied quite a bit in religious beliefs, as I will explain in the next post.

The Norman Transcript also described Walters’s background. “He said he learned the foundation of America through self-study and reading primary sources. He said his students didn’t read ‘what a 1970s college professor said about the founding documents,’ but read the founding documents and did ‘deep dives’ into primary sources.”

The use of primary sources is a very important tool for historical study–as long as the context of those sources is part of the study. For example, one could find a fair number of political figures who don’t practice what they preach, and that was as true in the past as it is now. So reading about lofty ideals in a letter or speech from an earlier period may not by itself tell the whole story of that period. And reading religious statements intended for public consumption isn’t the same as reading those intended for a more personal audience.

The Gradual Merger of Religion and Politics

(copyrighted by Suzanne Tucker and licensed for editorial use from Shutterstock.com)

But, as you might guess, it isn’t Walters all by himself that concerns me. It’s the growing tendency to inject religion into politics in increasingly large doses. In recent months, we’ve heard candidates for office call the separation of church and state a “myth,” denounce their opponents as having a “Satanic” agenda or claim that they are demonically possessed, and call for a formal declaration of America as a Christian nation (which 38% of the population supported in a recent Politico poll, up from 15% in an October, 2021 Pew Survey). Michael Flynn even went so far as to say, ““If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God.” (The Hill). To be fair, Mr. Flynn walked back part of that remark later on, but that he even said it in the first place is troubling.

There’s always been some religious rhetoric in American politics, but adopting a world view in which political battles become epic struggles between good and evil, with the strong implication that the “good” are justified in doing whatever they need to in order to overcome the “evil,” including ending religious freedom as we know it, is troubling.

It’s time to take our own deep dive into primary sources, both Christian and American, to see just how damaging and how disconnected from history such perspectives really are.

(And yes, this post and the one that follows will deal with more than just the educational implications of religious freedom and church/state separation. At this point, what happens in the classroom and outside the classroom are closely linked.)

(I had intended this to be one post, but it’s apparent that there would be at least enough material for two, so this one will consider the biblical evidence related to religious freedom and related contemporary issues. The second post will consider the American historical evidence. Also, I ended up including some material that in a book would be explanatory footnotes or appendices. That isn’t practical in a blog post, so I indicated such material by using a slightly smaller point size and italics just like this one. If you aren’t interested in the details involved, it is possible to skip over those parts.)

Important Points to Consider

 There Is More Than One Way to Read the Bible

Reasons Why the Bible Isn’t Always Easy To Interpret

(copyrighted by hidesy and licensed from Shutterstock.com

It would be comforting if we could immediately know what God wanted us to do every minute of our lives. With regard to general moral principles, such as loving one’s neighbor, we can. But when we deal with more complex policy questions, particularly on issues which didn’t exist at the time the biblical books are written, it’s much more difficult to be sure.

Biblical literalism–the idea that the Bible should be interpreted literally–coupled with the idea that the Bible by itself has the answer to every conceivable question, is reassuring to many people. This is particularly true in combination with the doctrine of full plenary verbal inspiration, the idea that not only the message but even the specific words were inspired by God.

What I’m going to say next is not intended as an attack on the Bible. It is rather an invitation to approach the Bible with humility, to acknowledge that we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that our interpretation of the Bible is the only possible one.

I also want to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that biblical literalism always goes hand in hand with Christian Nationalism. There are many biblical literalists who are not Christian Nationalists. However, Christian Nationalists often cite an allegedly literal interpretation of the Bible to justify their positions. That’s why it’s necessary to address issues of biblical interpretation in this post.

Unfortunately, human language is inherently ambiguous. A lot of words can have more than one meaning. Interpretation is complicated by the fact that most modern Christians have no knowledge of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, the three languages in which the Bible was composed. That means that most of us aren’t reading the original words, but rather a translation of those words. And translation has certain inherent limitations.

If you compare several different translations, you will notice that the same verse is not always translated in the same way. Sometimes, the exact wording makes no real difference. Other times, it may change the meaning of the passage. Part of the problem is that some words and phrases have several different possible meanings, and translators don’t always agree which meaning is the preferable one in the context. 

We also don’t live in the same society as the biblical authors did. The original audience would have had a context for those words that we lack. Someone who spent a long time studying both the original language and the historical context of the books could conceivably come closer, but most of us will never take the time to do that.

Disputes in the Early Church

The Role of Jewish Law

Anyone with even a general knowledge of the Bible and church history will also know that Christians differed on their interpretations of the teachings of Jesus from the very beginning. The letters of Paul reveal some details about a number of early disagreements, including his famous one with Peter over whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity had to observe the Jewish law, with Paul writes about in Galatians 2.

“11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood self-condemned, 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the gentiles to live like Jews?’”

(Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard version of the Bible–Marc Z. Brettler; Carol A. Newsom; Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Peter and Paul portrayed in Ukrainian art (copyrighted by hramikona and licensed for editorial use from Shutterstock.)

If Peter, the rock upon whom Christ says he will build his church (Matthew 16:18), is afraid of the circumcision faction, then it must have been influential indeed. Keep in mind that Peter had been with Jesus throughout his ministry. James, though not originally a disciple of Jesus, was Jesus’s brother, had known him all his life, and afterwards became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. It’s apparent that James didn’t agree with Paul. Peter must at the very least not have considered the issue involved important enough to risk alienating his fellow Jewish Christians over.

Yet to Paul, that very issue was essential, “for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing,” (Galatians 2:20). According to the biblical account, what we have is three people, all of whom have a special connection with Jesus (Paul by revelation, Peter by discipleship and commission, James by close family relationship) taking three different approaches to one of the most important controversies in the early church.

However, Paul’s confrontation with Peter was not the end of the controversy. The Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 was called to deal with the same issue because “certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ (Acts 15:1). By this point, Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James are all on the same page and in agreement with Paul’s original position, though James insists and the others agree on retaining a few legal provisions. (15:20)

But, definitive as that settlement seemed, it was by no means the end of the dispute. There seem to have been Jewish Christians who persisted in requiring adherence to the Jewish law as a prerequisite for membership well into the Second Century, and perhaps much longer. Presumably, they broke away as early as the Council of Jerusalem (50 CE or so). Some went as far as to deny the divinity of Jesus, whom they considered a prophet similar to Moses. Even those whose views coincided more closely with the mainstream of the early church tended to regard James, rather than Peter, as the true leader of the movement. Some scholars believe that the pseudo-Clementine literature is the product of later Jewish Christian writers. Whether or not that’s true,  it’s interesting that the literature gives prominent roles to James and Peter, but it doesn’t mention Paul at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, Marcion, a Second Century Christian, argued that the original apostles had confused the teaching of Jesus, which only Paul had correctly understood. In Marcion’s mind, the Old Testament was inconsistent with the teachings of Paul and thus should be rejected by all Christians. He published what is sometimes regarded as the first attempt to collect Christian scriptures, a carefully edited version of the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. Marcion removed anything, such as Old Testament quotations, that contradicted his thesis. (He was sure that such elements must have been corruptions of the original text. This is a good object lesson about the danger of being too sure of oneself.)

Justification by Faith

As if all of that were not enough, Paul was involved in another major controversy that echoed centuries later. In Galatians and elsewhere, Paul argues strongly that salvation comes through faith, not through deeds people perform. This is consistent with his rejection of the Jewish law, but it troubled some people, perhaps because it could easily be misunderstood–and was by some later groups. After all, if we are saved by what we believe and not by what we do, why not believe but go ahead and do evil? What was really the harm in that?

sanctuary door image of James from Corfu, Greece (copyrighted by Storm Is Me and licensed for editorial use from Shutterstock.)

James is a letter often attributed to James, the brother of Jesus and initially an opponent of Paul, as we have seen. It takes up the issue of justification by faith, though whether in direct response to Paul or in response to someone perhaps misquoting Paul, isn’t clear. In any case, James says,

“2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

James continues this discussion at some length, so he clearly regarded it as an important issue. I doubt Paul, who often prescribes moral conduct in his letters, would disagree. But there is no denying a tension between the writings of James and the writings of Paul. Interpreted with ruthless literalism, they are, in fact, contradicting each other. This is a good example of the need to take the subtle nuances of language into consideration, as well as circumstances. We know little about when James’s letter was written, but he may have been responding to a specific situation, one different from situations that Paul encountered. If so, the difference between their writings becomes more understandable. But the tension between the two biblical authors also reminds us that context is important. Some admonitions may be intended as a rule for a specific situation rather than a universal principle. I’ll deal with that last idea in more detail later.

In any case, the antinomian disputes during the Protestant Reformation underscore how easy it would be for people to have differing interpretations of Paul’s teaching. Interestingly, the Reformation also brought out Martin Luther’s famous remark (in Word and Sacrament 1) that James was “an epistle of straw.” Though he didn’t advocate removing it from scripture, the German language Bibles printed under his influence did move James (together with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation) to a separate section at the end, in deference to Luther’s view that their status was disputed.

Which Books Belong in Scripture? (and Other Matters)

(copyrighted by Lakeview Images and licensed from Shutterstock.)

Yes, that’s right, even which books constitute the Bible was disputed, even in the early church. The books Luther segregated may have suffered that fate because he disagreed with them on some doctrinal points, but he wasn’t wrong that they were all four slow to gain universal recognition. Revelation is an odd case, since it was widely accepted early on but saw objections grow during the Fourth Century.

(Eusebius oddly classifies it as both accepted and spurious. It may have been omitted from Codex Vaticanus. It is omitted in lists from Cyril of Jerusalem, the Synod of Laodicea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom. Amphilochus of Iconium lists it as disputed near the end of the century.) 

 Marcion wasn’t the only one who disputed the boundaries of what constituted scripture. For example, the Alogi wanted to reject both the Gospel of John and Revelation, perhaps because the Montanist movement made such enthusiastic use of them. In addition, some works, such as I Clement and the Didache, were at times read in churches, a sign that they were regarded as scripture, though they didn’t make the ultimate cut. But the example of Luther illustrates that such disputes were not definitely settled in the Fourth Century but continued until much later. Some of them linger even today.

Many Protestant Christians are unaware that Roman Catholics have a more extensive Old Testament than Protestants do, and Eastern Orthodox churches have an even more extensive one. Very few people realize that the Ethiopian Church has two different New Testament canons, one of which is more extensive than the one with which most Christians are familiar. Very few people in the west realize that there are ambiguities in the Eastern Orthodox attitude to Revelation, which is in their Bibles but is not used in their lectionary.

Actually, early Christians argued about virtually everything. On most occasions, differing biblical interpretations were the reason.

Since even people who had known Jesus personally couldn’t always agree on the meaning of his teachings, and since Christians remain divided in their understanding of various texts, wouldn’t it be reasonable for us to accept with patience the fact that different people will interpret scripture differently today? Wouldn’t it also be reasonable to approach scripture with humility rather than insisting that only our own interpretation is the only correct one?

There Are Different Methods of Scriptural Interpretation

Biblical literalists like to claim that literal interpretation is the only way to understand the Bible. However, from the very beginning, biblical texts have been understood in various ways.

Use of Allegorical Interpretation and Allegory by Biblical Writers

Paul himself use allegorical interpretation as a way of interpreting the Old Testament. This is an interpretive method that claims particular passages have a symbolic meaning in addition to or even in some cases instead of its literal meaning. Consider what Paul writes in Galatians 4:

“21 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by an enslaved woman and the other by a free woman. 23 One, the child of the enslaved woman, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. 24 Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.”

It goes without saying that this interpretation would have surprised Jewish commentators before, during, and after Paul’s time. For centuries, people read the story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis without realizing that it had a symbolic meaning as well as a literal one. Nor are there any textual clues in the original passage or anywhere in Genesis that would lead one to assume that any part of Genesis is intended allegorically.

visual allegory in a detail from the Danza Macabra, Bergamo, Italy (copyrighted by ErreCh and licensed from Shutterstock)

Of course, allegories in the biblical text (and allegorical interpretations in other sources) go back long before Paul. For instance, the bridegroom and bride imagery in Psalm 45 is generally believed to be allegorical by both Jewish and Christian interpreters. Hebrews 2:9 implicitly interprets the image allegorically. Prior to that, Hosea  (1:2-8, 2:20-22), Isaiah (50:1, 54:4-8), Jeremiah (2:2, 32-33), and Ezekiel (16:4-14) all use the same imagery to represent the relationship between God and Israel. For Christians, the imagery is reinterpreted as representing the love of Christ for his church, as we see In Ephesians 5:25-32. Ephesians also applies the same idea to Genesis 2:24, which refers to husband and wife becoming one flesh.

The same allegorical thinking led to a similar interpretation for an entire Biblical book, the Song of Solomon, although some commentators, particularly in the Jewish community, defend its literal sense as love poetry. Like the story of Sarah and Hagar, there is nothing in the text of the Song of Solomon that demands an allegorical interpretation. The fact that such an interpretation has been so widely applied to it is noteworthy.

There are other instances, particularly in the New Testament, where the allegory is obviously intended. For example, John 15 quotes Jesus as saying,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”

In this case, the passage is self evidently allegorical with no literal component. No one would argue that Jesus was a grape vine. Many commentators claim that at least some of the parables are allegories as well. You can find an example here.

Why is any of this important? Because it demonstrates that the Bible hasn’t always been interpreted literally, even by some of the biblical writers themselves, and even when there is no internal clue that a passage is intended allegorically. Biblical writers also consciously use allegories to make their points.

Other Potential Uses of Allegory

Roman ruins in Alexandria, Egypt (copyrighted by Chris Andrews Fern Bay and licensed from Shutterstock)

This raises the question of whether or not there are some other biblical texts which  might be intended allegorically, even though they were not identified as such by other biblical writers.

What I’m about to say is going to be controversial. Some of you are probably already thinking, “But allegory could be used to attach meanings to scripture not intended by the original authors.” In order to avoid that problem, Christians would need some guidelines. Otherwise, we could be reduced to a situation in which any text could mean anything.

The scholar, Origen, who was head of the cathetical school in Alexandria, provided such a guideline in his work, On First Principles (finished by about 230 CE)

“This, however, must not be unnoted by us, that as the chief object of the Holy Spirit is to preserve the coherence of the spiritual meaning, either in those things which ought to be done or which have been already performed, if He anywhere finds that those events which, according to the history, took place, can be adapted to a spiritual meaning, He composed a texture of both kinds in one style of narration, always concealing the hidden meaning more deeply; but where the historical narrative could not be made appropriate to the spiritual coherence of the occurrences, He inserted sometimes certain things which either did not take place or could not take place; sometimes also what might happen, but what did not: and He does this at one time in a few words, which, taken in their “bodily” meaning, seem incapable of containing truth, and at another by the insertion of many. And this we find frequently to be the case in the legislative portions, where there are many things manifestly useful among the “bodily” precepts, but a very great number also in which no principle of utility is at all discernible, and sometimes even things which are judged to be impossibilities. Now all this, as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit in order that, seeing those events which lie on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to the investigation of that truth which is more deeply concealed, and to the ascertaining of a meaning worthy of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by Him.” (On First Principles 4:1:15)

 (Quotations from early Christian writers, unless otherwise stated, are from The Church Fathers. The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection. Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition. The translator is Philip Schaff.)

In the interest of full disclosure, Origen was later denounced as a heretic, but he was considered orthodox in his own lifetime and is often still regarded as one of the greatest scholars the early church produced. Aside from popularizing allegorical interpretation, he was also a pioneer in the study of biblical textual variations. His interpretation may be different from yours, but his devotion to ensuring the accuracy and preservation of the biblical text was second to none.

As you can see, Origen didn’t question the divine inspiration of scripture. But he did leave room for the possibility that some events described in the Bible may not actually have occurred and that some rules had no literal purpose. Origen wasn’t claiming that there were mistakes in the Bible. Rather, he was claiming that some discrepancies were placed in the text by the Holy Spirit deliberately to encourage the search for deeper meaning.

The point regarding legal regulations has been picked up by later writers as explaining the continued relevance of Mosaic law–not as a literal legal guide but as a symbolic spiritual resource (for example, here). The general idea that some scripture is intended to be interpreted allegorically also has its modern advocates, though they don’t usually credit Origen as part of the inspiration for their view.

(copyrighted by Hanna Leonova and licensed from Shutterstock)

Despite the controversies surrounding Origen, he offers Christians a way to maintain the view that the Bible is divinely inspired without having to tie themselves in knots trying to refute or explain away every single discrepancy that comes up. Even if one wasn’t a fan of traditional allegorical interpretation, at least one could argue that a particular discrepant story is in the Bible not because it it literal history, but because it is making a moral point, much like the parables of Jesus.

There are no long debates over whether the good Samaritan from the parable is based on an actual person. Why should there be such debates over whether or not Jonah was swallowed by the big fish? The point of the story is the futility of defying God’s will, a point that can be made equally well whether the story is fact or fiction. Does the world have to have been created in exactly six days to make the point that God planned all and created all? Does the world have to have been covered in a forty-day flood to make the point that sinful conduct leads to destructive consequences?

 You’re welcome to disagree with my assessment. That is, after all, one of the great things about America. But whether you disagree or not, at least you must concede that, even in ancient times, there was no one way to interpret scripture. The wide variety of Christian denominations today demonstrates that there is still no one way to interpret scripture. Nor is there likely to be in the future. That alone should make one suspicious of some of Christian Nationalism’s more dogmatic statements. Another reason for suspicion is that the typical Christian Nationalist view of scripture is based on inconsistent use of interpretive methods.

Literal Interpretation Is Often Applied Inconsistently

Before I go on, I should reiterate that not all biblical literalists interpret the Bible in the same way.  Some (but certainly not all) literalists support the worrisome attack on church-state separation. But advocates for literalism are as diverse as advocates for any other viewpoint. Not all of them want to abridge the religious freedom of others.

Anyway, it has been my experience that people have a natural tendency to see in the Bible what they wish to see. Literalists, being as human as everyone else, are as vulnerable to this as everyone else. This problem manifests itself in people being ruthlessly literal about passages with which they agree and figurative about passages they find more problematic.

Same-Sex Relationships

A good example is same-sex relationships. The literalists I know are all insistent on the literal meaning and modern applicability of passages condemning such relationships. Generally, they don’t want to consider the contexts in which those statements were made. But there is, in fact, a great deal of context to be considered. I’m going to address some of the major issues below, but for those interested in a more detailed treatment, I recommend What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality(Amazon affiliate link)

Camille Corot’s “Burning of Sodom” (copyrighted by Everett Collection and licensed from Shutterstock)

Genesis 19:1-11 (the story of Sodom) is often cited as a condemnation of same-sex relationships. The problem is that the potential attack on Lot’s guests also involves rape and a violation of traditions requiring hospitality. It is the last one that is explicitly described as the sin of Sodom, not only in the works of both Jewish and Christian commentators but also in the Bible itself.  For example, consider Ezekiel 16:

“48 As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

The poor and needy presumably include strangers covered under the tradition of hospitality, though they aren’t mentioned explicitly. But not mentioned at all is homosexuality. If it were the purpose of the Sodom story to condemn same-sex relationships, there would certainly have been some mention of them.

Similarly, Matthew 10 makes no mention of sexuality in the description of Sodom: “14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” It goes without saying that here Jesus is talking about inhospitality, not same-sex relationships.

(copyrighted by joshimerbin and licensed from Shutterstock)

The explicit prohibition of some kinds of sexual conduct is found in Leviticus, including the one in 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” That verse, though much clearer than the story of Sodom, is also problematic. For one thing, the section containing the prohibition is followed by “24 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves.” That, coupled with the fact that the 18:21 is talking about sacrificing children to Molech, has been taken to mean that the idea behind the prohibitions is to make a clear distinction between the Israelites and their Canaanite neighbors. If so, then that particular purpose no longer applies. Some, like the prohibition of child sacrifice, clearly do still apply, but that’s because they are supported by more general prohibitions, such as those against murder and idolatry.

In any case, the prohibition is part of the very law that Paul explicitly rejected. When the Council of Jerusalem endorsed Paul’s position, with a few qualifications, it didn’t include prohibition of same-sex relationships as one of those exceptions. It’s also noteworthy that Paul never quotes Leviticus in his discussions of same-sex relationships.

Of course, the Council of Jerusalem didn’t cite child sacrifice as an exception, either, but keep in mind that Jesus himself quotes with approval the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments against idolatry and murder. The members of the council were addressing the relationship between Christian converts and the Jewish law. They probably felt that moral principles in the teaching of Jesus, even if they overlapped with the Jewish law, as they frequently did, were still binding on Christian converts.

Some people are troubled by the fact that the author of Leviticus describes homosexuality as an abomination. However, he also describes the eating of meat offered in sacrifice an abomination if it is eaten after the second day. The same is said of eating unclean animals (which the Council of Jerusalem specifically allowed).

Some acts not specifically described as abominations are prohibited but clearly fall under Origen’s category of rules that serve no purpose. These include the prohibitions against wearing a garment made from more than one kind of fabric and sowing seeds of different kinds in the same field (Leviticus 19:19). Or perhaps there was a purpose at the time, but there is certainly no purpose now. Similarly, there may have been cultural reasons for a prohibition on same-sex relationships (for example, the ones detailed here) that no longer apply.

(copyrighted by VanHart and licensed from Shutterstock)

Some might be inclined to say, “But same-sex relationships are treated more seriously than these other examples. Leviticus 20:13 requires the death penalty for them.” While this is true, it’s worth noting that Exodus 31:15 says, “…whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.” You may recall that this is one of the provisions Jesus violated himself as well as encouraging his followers to violate. And though some Christian groups advocate Sunday as a day of rest, I’ve yet to see picketers carrying signs saying, “Work on the sabbath, go to Hell!” The fact that an offense was given the death penalty in Mosaic law is clearly not an indication that Christians today need to take the offense more seriously.

In other words, the texts may be clear on the issue of same-sex relationships, but the context is not. There is a good argument for regarding the prohibition on same-sex relationship as dead letter, just as Christians routinely regard most of the Mosaic law. If it has significance at all, that significance is symbolic, as Origen suggested many legal provisions were intended to be.

Some would argue that because Paul seems to endorse the prohibition, it still applies. However, references to same sex relationships in the Pauline letters have different but still weighty issues. In Romans 1:18-32, it is noteworthy that Paul describes homosexuality, not as a sin but as the consequence of sin. After describing acts of idolatry, Paul says,

“24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

It is true that Paul clearly is not a fan of same-sex relationships, but he speaks of them in terms of “impurity,” which has a ritual connotation in ancient Judaism. For instance, women were considered impure during their menstrual cycle, but menstruation wasn’t a sin. Nonetheless, Leviticus 18:19 prohibits sexual relations with a woman during her “menstrual uncleanness.” Leviticus 20:18 prescribes that a man and woman who violate the prohibition, “shall be cut off from their people.” In other words, there is both a rule and a punishment for its violation, even though the basis for the prohibition is ritual uncleanness, not sin. I suppose the sex under these circumstances could be considered a sin, but even if that’s the case, ritual uncleanness is taken in a more symbolic way by Jesus, as illustrated by passages like Matthew 15:11.

Aside from the issue of purity, Paul also calls the behavior “shameless,” implying that those involved should be ashamed. I won’t go into all the details here, but shame was attached to penetrative sex acts between men in ancient Judaism because it was thought to place a man into a woman’s role. It was one punishment commonly imposed upon prisoners of war because it was considered so degrading. That may partially explain both Leviticus’s and Paul’s concern with anal sex. Both of them were working within a very different cultural context which gave those particular sex acts a different significance than they have in modern society.

When Paul discusses other consequences of idolatry at the end of the passage, he no longer talks about impurity or shame. Instead, he uses terms like “evil” and “wickedness,” clearly placing these other acts in a different category.

A modern representation of the golden calf (copyrighted by James Steidl and licensed from Shutterstock)

At most, we could infer from this passage that homosexuality that comes about as a result of idolatry is wrong, though it’s the idolatry that’s the actual sin in that case. Paul even says that, “27b  Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” This language reaffirms that homosexuality is more the consequence of sin rather than the sin itself by describing it as a penalty for error.

In a case like this, it could be argued that Paul’s statements have no relevance at all to a situation in which idolatry is not an issue. Some might raise Paul’s statements in I Corinthians and I Timothy to counter that argument.

My response to those passages is highly technical. Those interested in all the details should consult a source like the one I referenced earlier. Suffice it to say that the whether or not Paul is saying what a lot of English translations claim he said is  based on two Greek words, one of which Paul may have coined himself, and both of which aren’t entirely clear. The words occur in a list of other sins, only one of which is sexual in nature (adultery), and to the extent that the words may refer to homosexual behavior, they have a predatory connotation.

In other words, there’s no evidence that Paul is condemning a loving relationship between equals. At most, he’s condemning a predatory interaction in which the passive partner is presumably a victim–a very different situation. That Paul might assume all same-sex relationships are predatory or at least dishonorable isn’t a great surprise. Even in Greek culture, where the attitude was more accepting of same-sex relationships, it was considered disgraceful for a man of higher status to be the passive partner. We can see this in Greek literature, in which the passive partner is always of lower social status–and sometimes a slave, in which case lack of consent becomes an issue. There are few if any examples in Greek culture of the kind of a loving relationship between equals such as those which are advocated by modern proponents of same-sex relationship. Those proponents would doubtless agree with Paul about predatory relationships. But most such relationships are no more predatory than most heterosexual relationships.

Once again, it’s clear the situation Paul is addressing has little or no relevance to contemporary society. However, that doesn’t seem to prevent literalists from arguing that it does, ignoring the context in the process.

For those of you who may be wondering, I’m a big believer in distinguishing biblical regulations that are rooted in particular situations from general principles. “Love your neighbor,” for example, is a general principle. In my judgment, it should normally be given precedence over a regulation designed for a far different environment than that in which we live.

Some people may be uncomfortable with the idea of biblical principles being outdated or irrelevant. But Christianity is built on the assumption that some regulations (like a large part of the Jewish law) are irrelevant now, except perhaps in a symbolic sense. It shouldn’t be a surprise that is it possible for a regulation to serve a purpose in one context but not in another.

To get back to my original point about the inconsistency of some literalists, we’ve seen that the Bible’s treatment of same-sex relationships is much more complicated than a simple literal reading accounts for. But what about situations in which the Bible is clear–but unpalatable to those same literalists, for one reason or another?

Treatment of the Poor

Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 19.

“16 Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ 18 He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these;  what do I still lack?’ 21 Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.’ 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 25  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ 

Painting of the Jesus feeding the 5000 from the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Lepoglava, Croatia (copyrighted by Zvonimir Atletic and licensed from Shutterstock)

In my entire life, I’ve met many literalists, but only one who took that particular passage literally and owned nothing except the clothes on her back. Everyone else clearly had possessions–some of them had quite a lot. Not one went out and gave all they had to the poor.

Some people might try to use the last few verses as an escape hatch. The disciples, not much happier with what Jesus has said than the unnamed inquirer, want to know how anybody can be saved this way. Jesus offers the proverb, “For God all things are possible.” I can see someone thinking that the last statement might mean that through faith in God (as Paul’s writing suggests), someone who was rich might be able to enter Heaven.

The problem with that response is that, as we’ve seen, Paul does advocate salvation by faith, but he seems to regard having faith as including certain moral principles.  For example, in I Corinthians 6:9, Paul writes,

“9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers— none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”

(The observant among you will notice the reference to sodomites, but the Greek word Paul uses, arsenokoitai, seems to be a word he coined. The NRSV translators identify it as being related to pederasts. As I mentioned earlier, the connotation is dominant and predatory–likely the only kind of male/male relationship Paul had ever heard of. In any case, the language suggests that the condemnation refers to those kinds of same-sex relationships, not all kinds. Similarly, male prostitutes is the translation of malakoi, literally “soft men,” which doesn’t necessarily refer to literal prostitutes and which the KJV translates as effeminate. It has been argued that it refers to passive partners, so that Paul is condemning both active and passive partners. That’s unlikely, though, since he is viewing the active partners as predators. Also, ancient writers had pairs of words to describe active and passive male sexual partners. No surviving uses the word pair Paul uses here. See this article for a more thorough discussion of the issue.)

In the passage above, Paul doesn’t abandon justification by faith. Rather, like James, he assumes that people who have faith will avoid the sins he speaks of. So Paul’s letters do not provide an escape from the meaning of this passage in Matthew.

Other people might quibble about what the word perfect means in this context. Is it necessary to be  in order to reach heaven? In other words, would Jesus’s original response before the inquirer kept pressing have been sufficient to obtain salvation? If perfection is supposed to be interpreted that way in the passage, though, it’s odd that’s not the response Jesus gives to his concerned disciples.

(copyrighted by LeaDigszammal and licensed from Shutterstock)

Another common approach is to assume that Jesus is referring to an alleged needle gate in Jerusalem through which it was difficult to get a camel through but not impossible. This viewpoint seems to me to be well-refuted by this article.

Is it possible that Jesus was speaking figuratively? Could some degree of rhetorical exaggeration be involved? Yes, absolutely, But for a literalist to take that position illustrates my exact point. “Read the Bible literally when you like what it says and figuratively when you don’t,” isn’t really literalism. It would be more consistent to acknowledge that in general, God communicates truth in different ways, all of which are not literal, rather than making artificial distinctions not supported by the context. 

Could there be a context that makes Jesus’s statement less absolute than it appears? In this case, what context there is seems to work in the other direction.

First, Mark and Luke also include versions of the same story. The different gospel writers sometimes have different priorities, but they agree on the importance of this part of the tradition.

Second, Luke is if anything more emphatic about the corrupting effect of wealth than Matthew is. For example, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is much more focused on literal wealth than Matthew’s is. Matthew portrays Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke portrays Jesus as saying, “Blessed are you who are poor,” which is both more personal and much more clearly a comment on economic status. Matthew writes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” while Luke writes, “Blessed are you who hunger now.” To the blessings, Luke also adds woes to the rich and to those who are full now. It’s Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes that is most often quoted, but a literalist would have to accept that Jesus used both versions, which are portrayed as being spoken in different circumstances by the different gospel writers. In any case, there are only so many ways to spin a statement like, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” (Luke 6:24).

Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, a Gustave Dore engraving from a German bible (copyrighted by Nicku and licensed from Shutterstock)

Nor does Luke drop the issue at that point.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man seems to be denied heaven because he is rich, while the poor Lazarus gets into heaven because he is poor. I’d be the first to agree that there is probably a figurative element here.  But the straightforward explanation–that rich people can’t get into heaven–is stated verbatim by Abraham: “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony,” (16:25). So, while I might argue that part of the problem is how the rich man handled his wealth–after all, he left Lazarus starving right outside his gate–I’m not sure how easily a literalist could do the same, particularly considering that Matthew and Luke are not unusual with regard to their attitude toward wealth. There are numerous examples in both Old and New Testaments of instructions to care for the poor, sometimes coupled with criticism of the rich. But the real test in terms of context is how early Christians responded to these passages.

Guess what? The very earliest church organization followed the general idea of giving up property for the common good. According to Acts 2,

“43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Peter and John are mentioned by name, but it’s probable that all the apostles were there during this period. Certainly, James was there as well. Unlike the question of whether or not Christians had to follow Jewish law, there didn’t seem to be any dissension on this point at all.

Subsequent Christian communities in other cities didn’t by any means follow this early Jerusalem model. It’s not clear how long Jerusalem followed it. After all, it’s an extreme level of commitment. Paul and other missionaries seem to have left how much people gave to the poor mostly to the individual conscience. But there don’t seem to have been many questions raised about what the ideal established by Jesus was.

Inclusiveness

(copyrighted by BlueDesign and licensed from Shutterstock)

There seems to be  a disturbing tendency from some proponents of so-called Christian Nationalism to fall into the even worse error of White Nationalism, though fortunately, not all of them do. Needless to say, a perspective that sees one race as superior to others is completely contrary to the Bible.

The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, whether one takes it literally or not, represents the basic truth that we are all part of one human family. Yes, God chose the Jewish people for a specific purpose, according to both Jewish and Christian thinking. Christians believed that they replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen people–but Christianity is not tied to one race. Most of its early adherents were Caucasian, but I doubt most white racists would have considered them white. And if by some miracle, early Christians had traveled in time to contemporary America, their appearance might have caused some people to fear that they were terrorists.

 (Having worked for years with many students of Middle Eastern background, I can tell you that the number of people who were shockingly rude to them was surprisingly high. Many of them were told to “go back home” many times. Well, Jesus and his early followers were all from a Middle Eastern background as well.)

There is a multicultural element in the story of Christianity from the very beginning. It’s disguised somewhat by the translation of the Greek magi into wise men, which is a more general term. The magi were Zoroastrian priests. Yes, they weren’t Christian (since Christianity didn’t exist yet). They weren’t Jewish, either. They were also from the Parthian Empire, a revived version of the Persian Empire The Persians had frequently tried to conquer the Greeks before being defeated by Alexander the Great. the Parthians were at war on and off with Romans and for decades.

In other words, though the Jewish people had fond memories of the Persians allowing some of them to return from the Babylonian Captivity and begin to restore the Jewish population of Israel, the Greek and Roman officials in the area wouldn’t have been that happy to see Parthians roaming around. And all groups native to the area would certainly have thought of them as foreigners.

Fresco of the three magi in the Cathedral Sant Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (copyrighted by vvoe and licensed from Shutterstock)

It was risky for the three magi to make the trip, but they did, anyway. Mary and Joseph were far from being horrified by the appearance of such foreigners so soon after the birth of their son. As far as we can tell, they graciously accepted the magi’s homage and gifts.

Perhaps they had a feeling for what it was like to be a stranger in a foreign land. If not, they certainly learned quickly enough when they had to flee to Egypt with the baby Jesus to escape Herod. (It was a good thing Egypt, by then a Roman province just like Judea, didn’t have the same attitude toward foreigners and refugees that some Americans, including Christian Nationalists, have today.)

The visit of the magi was a fitting early event for a gospel that ended with the resurrected Jesus commissioning the apostles to  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19). You don’t have to be a biblical literalist to agree that “all nations” is clear, and that it definitely isn’t the same thing as “all white nations.”

The other gospels share a similar spirit. Though Matthew at one point has Jesus tell the disciples to go first to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Matthew 10:6) all of the gospels record some interaction between Jesus and non-Jewish people, a clear indication that Jesus was to be the messiah for all people, not just for the Jewish community. One of the gentiles in the gospel account, the centurion’s servant, is one of the people Jesus resurrected (Luke 7:1-10).

Luke is also the gospel writer who uses the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), prefaced by Jesus’s summary of the law as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (10:27). When the lawyer questioning Jesus asked who his neighbor was, Jesus responded with the parable, one of the points of which is that everyone is your neighbor.

The good Samaritan (copyrighted by FRANKSTAN and licensed from Shutterstock)

The choice of a Samaritan would have made the point vividly. Samaritans considered themselves Jewish but had differences with the Jewish community farther south that led to mutual hatred. A Samaritan is absolutely the last person the lawyer would have expected to call a neighbor. But Jesus makes clear that we are all each other’s neighbors.

Luke continues this thread in Acts as early as the first part of Pentecost story (2:1-2:12) during which Jewish people from “every nation under heaven” felt the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire, after which they could all understand each other. Their language barriers had vanished, a sort of reverse Tower of Babel event. While it is true that those involved were all Jewish, the mention of proselytes suggests that some of them were so by conversion, so that the assembled crowd could have been multiracial. At the very least, it was multicultural. 

Just to make his point abundantly clear, Luke also includes the story of how Philip, one of the first deacons of the church, preaches to the treasurer of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, who happens to be traveling in the area of Gaza (Luke 8:27-40). Luke doesn’t make a big deal out of this, since his central focus is getting the gospel to Rome, not Ethiopia, but he knows the story is noteworthy. The treasurer already seems to be familiar with Judaism and was probably a convert since had gone to Jerusalem to worship and is reading Isaiah when Philip found him. Conceivably, he could have been a Jewish person from the Diaspora who happened to be living in Ethiopia (though the reference to his being a eunuch makes that highly unlikely). But whether or not the official himself was black, certainly the people of Ethiopia in general were, making a black kingdom the first place beyond the immediate area of Jerusalem to officially receive the gospel when the treasurer returned to it. (The Pentecost group apparently stayed in Jerusalem, at least for the time being.)

Navarro Perez Dolz’s painting of Pentecost in the Santuario Nuestra Senora del Sagrado Corazon, Barcelona, Spain (copyrighted by Renata Sedmakova and licensed for editorial use from Shutterstock)

Paul makes the same point more directly in Galatians 3:28: “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.” With one stroke, Paul proclaims that differences in race and ethnicity, social status, and gender are eliminated by unity in Jesus Christ. Some might argue that Paul couldn’t have meant that literally, particularly about gender, because of the restrictions that he places on women in other places. But remember what I said earlier about general statements taking precedence over more specific ones, which usually turn out to be situational if one examines them closely.

(Note on Paul’s discussion of the role of women) Aside from this declaration in Galatians, Paul elsewhere mentions Phoebe, who is a deaconess and a benefactor of the church, implying that women can have positions of authority in the church (Romans 16:1-2).  Immediately after commending Phoebe, Paul greets people who play an important role in the Roman church. He starts with Prisca, who is mentioned before her husband Aquila. Later on, he mentions another couple, Andronicus and Junia, who were “prominent among the apostles,” (11:6). In I Corinthians 7:4, Paul has this declaration, very egalitarian for its time: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

It is true that I Corinthians 11 begins on a much less egalitarian note, with Paul comparing the relationship between men and women to the relationship between Christ and Christians. On the other hand, Paul refers clearly to women prophesying and praying in church during his discourse on the differences between male and female head coverings and hair (I Corinthians 11:5). He also writes, “11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man [when Eve was created from Adam’s rib, to which Paul alluded earlier], so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.” So a man is the head of a woman, and women should cover their heads, but then he goes out of his way to emphasize a kind of equality between men and women. Let’s face it–Paul likes paradoxes. Women are subservient, but then again, they aren’t. The tension between the first and second part can be alleviated to some extent by the fact that Paul is often speaking figuratively here, switching between literal heads and figurative or symbolic heads to make his point.

However, that isn’t quite the end of the twisting and turning on this subject. In I Corinthians 14, Paul seems to contradict himself by writing, “As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)”

painting of Mary Magdalene from a Gothic altar in Bratislava, Slovakia (copyrighted by Adam Jan Figel and licensed for editorial use from Shutterstock)

In a very short period of time, Paul has moved from stating that women can prophesize in church as long as their heads are covered to saying that women should be silent in church. I can’t see how a literalist can reasonably reconcile these two statements, since there is no way to prophesize in silence. If both are literal and generally applicable, then they are a contradiction, pure and simple. And the second one seems clearly to contradict Galatians as well.

If, however, they are situational, then the difference is understandable. We know from history that Corinth was a center of prostitution associated with the temple of Aphrodite. (See here for a good discussion of the facts.) As a consequence, some scholars have suggested that Paul’s advice to the Corinthians on this point is not intended as a general principle but as a specific exception to the general principle proclaimed in Galatians. But it’s still hard to see why Paul would give the Corinthians inconsistent advice in one letter,  first requiring that women be veiled if they speak, then requiring that women not speak at all. Wouldn’t it have been clearer to address the issue once, rather than twice in different ways?

There is also the possibility of a textual explanation. The NRSV translators mention that in some manuscripts, verses 34-35 follow verse 40. All ancient manuscripts contain the verses, but the fact that they don’t always appear in the same place may be evidence that they are a later interpolation. Since there are no manuscripts in which they aren’t present at all, we can’t be sure that they are interpolated.

It’s also possible that Paul is talking about two different situations in the Corinthian church. His original audience might have been aware of a context that has been lost to us. Whether one is a literalist or not, I think it’s better to assume that at least some of the statements in I Corinthians are intended to apply to particular situations. That certainly makes more sense than assuming that Paul went out of his way to contradict himself or that he changed his mind as he was writing, neither of which would be palatable to a literalist.

I Timothy2:12  poses the same problem as I Corinthians 14:34-35.  In I Timothy, Paul writes that, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;  she is to keep silent.” Unfortunately, unlike the context of I Corinthians, we have no idea what the specific circumstances were, if any, that influenced Paul’s approach in this letter. But it contradicts every statement he makes about women in church excepts perhaps I Corinthians 14:34-35. Because of issues like this and the very different vocabulary of I and II Timothy and Titus, many scholars support the theory that they were not written by Paul, but perhaps by a later disciple of his. But it is possible to assume that Paul was reacting to a different set of circumstances rather than rejecting his own position from earlier letters.

It’s also worth noting that Paul in I Corinthians sometimes distinguishes the source of his advice. In 7:10 he says his words to the married are from “not I but the Lord” and then cites Jesus’s teaching about divorce that is familiar to us from the gospels. But in 7:12, he says his words to the unmarried are from “I and not the Lord.” This is an odd distinction to make if Paul believed his own words to be divinely inspired. In 7:25, he writes, “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” If ever there were a good spot in Paul’s letters to expound the doctrine of full plenary verbal inspiration, this would certainly be it, but instead, he settles for calling  himself trustworthy, which isn’t the same thing.

painting of Mary Magdalene as first witness to the resurrection in Basilica di San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini, Rome, Italy (copyrighted by Renata Sedmakova and licensed from Shutterstock)

Paul doesn’t make this distinction in I Timothy, but he doesn’t indicate that his regulation on this point is from the Lord. In fact, his use of first person pronouns would suggest the opposite. He does mention again that Adam came before Eve and that Eve was the one who was deceived. But remember that he also presented the first part with different nuances in I Corinthians. If we don’t assume some kind of context to explain these seeming shifts in perspective, we are left with a lot of potential contradictions and no easy way to reconcile them.

Since Paul’s wording is sometimes a bit cryptic, it would be possible to argue that Paul’s distinctions between his own word and the Lord’s word are not necessarily Paul denying himself divine inspiration but perhaps Paul making the same distinction between general principles and specific applications that I argued for earlier. The parts that come from the Lord (via the oral tradition and later the gospels, as well as from the personal revelation Paul laid claim to) are perhaps general principles in Paul’s mind. Those parts he presents explicitly as being from him or does not refer specifically to Christ may be intended as advice for specific situations only, not necessarily without value in other situations but not as universally applicable. Some might say this is a stretch, but I think it’s less of one than trying to explain away all the verses on one side or the other.

It may be fair to say that Paul was a realist. His statement in Galatians was the ideal for him, but he seems to have understood that society couldn’t be reformed overnight. He makes it clear that all are one in Christ. But he doesn’t demand legal freedom for slaves, for example. At that point, there was no nonviolent way of achieving such a thing. Keep in mind that Paul and many early Christians believed that the second coming of Christ and the end of the world were both imminent and encouraged Christians to be on the lookout for it (I Thessalonians 5:1-11). John 21:20-23 seems to have been written at least in part to indicate that the end was not quite as imminent as people had thought at first.

It’s not a stretch to think that Paul, who advised people to maintain their current slave or free status and their current marital status in I Corinthians 7:21-25 was operating on the unspoken assumption that the world as he knew it would soon end. If we understand the regulations about women in a similar way, they could be seen as Paul’s realistic assessment of how much society could be changed in a short period of time. Getting people to change their religious perspective was more doable than having society reordered completely.

But, as we know, the world didn’t end in Paul’s generation, or even the one after that. More than two thousand years later, the world is still here, as are we. Paul made clear that equality in Christ was the ideal, and many societies have moved in that direction.

As the specific details in many of his letters show, Paul’s responses were often conditioned by local circumstances His realistic assessment that a Christian utopia couldn’t be achieved in just a few years and that he had to work with the world he had is not an excuse for us to assume that we also have to work with the world he had. We live in a very different world, and it’s hard to argue that Paul’s specific prescriptions (as opposed to his general principles) were intended to be applied centuries later when he believed the world as we know it would never last that long.

(copyrighted by Take Photo and licensed from Shutterstock)

Despite his claim to special revelation, Paul knew that his knowledge was still partial. Consider his words in I Corinthians 13: “9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, a but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Paul is admitting here that he doesn’t have all the answers. His use of first-person pronouns makes clear that he is wise enough to see and acknowledge his own limitations. One could argue that his instructions about the role of women in the church were the best he could do under the circumstances in which he worked. That doesn’t mean that they are the best we can do. In one looks at the biblical texts in that way, there is no contradiction among Paul’s various statements–some are universal, but others are situational. Paul himself knew that he could not give guidance for every possible situation.

Conclusion of Part 1

Many other examples could be cited, but you get the point–so-called Christian Nationalism is not really a good reflection of Christian values. That doesn’t mean that Christians can’t be loyal to the country in which they live. It does mean that a hyperpatriotic approach, particularly one which assumed that one’s own country is innately superior to all others and has a right to put its own interests ahead of all others, is contrary to the Christian spirit. One cannot believe that all are one in Christ and also believe Americans hold a privileged position in the divine order. The Christianity of Jesus and of Paul, though it began in the traditional Jewish homeland, then located in the Roman Empire, was at its heart an international movement.

Christianity Today makes some other excellent points about Christian Nationalism. The article, which is well worth reading in full, concludes with this statement:

“Christian nationalism is, by contrast, a political ideology focused on the national identity of the United States. It includes a specific understanding of American history and American government that are, obviously, extrabiblical—an understanding that is contested by many historians and political scientists. Most importantly, Christian nationalism includes specific policy prescriptions that it claims are biblical but are, at best, extrapolations from biblical principles and, at worst, contradictory to them.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at how Christian Nationalism distorts American values. You can find that post here

(The featured image is copyrighted by cbies and licensed from www.shutterstock.com)

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