Picking and Choosing, and Letting the Bible Interpret Us

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” (I Timothy 2:12) This little verse has made big waves in the evangelical culture, and all my life I've heard it used to enforce restrictions on the positions women can hold in church leadership. And yet, just three verses before this one, Paul says, “I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works…” (I Timothy 2:9) 

When I was a little girl, I was told I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, except for a pastor. However, I was never discouraged from braiding my hair or wearing nice clothes to church. Why was Paul speaking specifically to the first century church at Ephesus in one breath and then to all women at all times throughout all cultures in the next? 

This is just one illustration of many that reveal our tendency to pick and choose which passages of scripture we interpret as being culturally specific and which passages we interpret as being trans-cultural, applying to all people at all times. Another that comes to mind is Paul’s suggestion that Christians avoid getting married. 

I bring this up in order to introduce our next book club selection for the month of July: Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, by William Webb. This is a pretty comprehensive book on the subject of cultural hermeneutics. Although I disagree with some of Webb’s reasoning, I think he really raises some interesting issues, and does so in a very humble and accessible manner. In the book, Webb seeks to employ what he calls a redemptive-movement hermeneutic to help distinguish between cultural and trans-cultural biblical values, specifically applying this method to slavery, gender issues, and homosexuality. (I’ll let you remain on the edge of your seat wondering what his position is on each.) 

As I was looking through some of the biblical passages analyzed in the book, I was surprised by how verses generally deemed culturally specific often appeared in close proximity to verses generally deemed trans-cultural. 

For example, Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” You hear this one quoted all the time. And yet just three verses before we find the command, “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness during her menstrual impurity.” You don’t hear that one as often. Then, just a few verses later we find the strange command, “You shall not breed together two kinds of cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.” This is followed  by a strict warning against getting tattoos, which is followed by the admonition to care for foreign immigrants as neighbors. 

Within just a few paragraphs are warnings against homosexuality, bestiality, mixed fibers, and tattoos, followed by clear instructions to revere the elderly, care for immigrants, and sacrifice animals. 

I also noticed that right after Paul talks about homosexuality in Romans 1:26, he refers to greed, envy, arrogance, and gossip as sins punishable by spiritual death. It is quite appropriate that Chapter 2  begins with the statement, “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself.” 

As we discuss passages like these over the next few weeks, I think it’s helpful to focus some attention on letting the Bible interpret us a bit. What does it say about us when we make much ado about gay marriage, but neglect the needs of the immigrant population? And what does is say when we “discipline” church members who commit sexual sins, but not the ones who gossip? Too often the passages we choose to apply literally or universally…(or at least the ones that we emphasize most passionately)…are the ones that do not require us to change our behavior, but require other people to change their behavior. 

I’ve often marveled at the fact that Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler to sell all of his belongings and give to the poor are rarely applied universally (because we interpret them as being spoken to a specific person in a unique circumstance), while Paul’s instructions to Timothy are often applied to all women at all times, (despite being written to a specific person in a unique circumstance.) I think it may have more to do with not wanting to sell stuff than most of us would care to admit. 

Let’s keep that in mid as we discuss Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. 


P.S. Webb does a great job of grabbing his readers’ interest at the beginning of the book by asking them to look through a list of a few dozen verses and mark which biblical instructions are “still in force for us today exactly as they are articulated ‘on the page.’” The following caught my eye. Let me know if you have any thoughts on them or if you would like to discuss certain ones further. 

1. “God…said to [Adam and Eve], ‘Be fruitful and increase in number.’” (Genesis 1:28)
2. “Women should remain silent in the churches.” (I Corinthians 14:34)
3. “Heal the sick, raise the dead,…drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8)
4. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12:33)
5. “A woman should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head.’ (1 Cor. 11:6)
6. “If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him.” (1 Cor. 11:14)
7. “Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5;42)
8. “Slaves, submit to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (1 Peter 2:18)

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