The Problem with Biblical Authority

So Rachel Held Evans wrote a post titled If My Son or Daughter Were Gay. By our standards it’s a painfully moderate post in which she argues against bullying and encourages Christians to recognize the basic humanity of homosexuals.

People freaked.

David Hayward has a couple of examples of Christians getting huffy because the Bible and sound theology and other such tired appeals to authority.

Evans has now responded to her detractors by pointing out the obvious problem of falling back on Biblical authority, Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony:

Heck, you could make a pretty good biblical case for gluttony being a “lifestyle sin” that has been normalized by our culture of “Supersized” portions and overflowing buffet lines, starting with passages like Philippians 3:19 (“their god is their belly”), Psalm 78: 18 (“they tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved”), Proverbs 23:20 (“be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat”), Proverbs 23:2 (“put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”), or better yet, Ezekiel 16:49 (“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”)

Yet you don’t see weigh-ins preceding baptisms or people holding “God Hates Gluttons” signs outside the den of iniquity that is Ryan’s Steakhouse.

And we haven’t even touched on materialism, or the fact that on the day I stuffed my face with froyo, 30,000 kids died from preventable diseases and many more went hungry.

It seems the more ubiquitous the biblical violation, the more invisible it becomes.

So why do so many Christians focus on the so-called “clobber verses” related to homosexuality while ignoring “clobber verses” related to gluttony or greed, head coverings or divorce? Why is homosexuality the great biblical debate of this decade and not slavery, (as it once was) or the increasing problem of materialism and inequity? Why do so many advocate making gay marriage illegal but not divorce, when Jesus never referenced the former but spoke quite negatively about the latter?

It’s really, really nice to see someone other than Fred Clark pointing out this kind of thing.

In the past, Clark has suggested that homosexuality is the perfect sin; preachers can pound the pulpit about it without fear that they’ll alienate most of their audience. They certainly can’t do that with divorce, greed or gluttony, any of which would have most of their congregations headed for the door.

Evans adds to that by suggesting that the focus on homosexuality is a defensive maneuver that allows believers to ignore their own failures to live up to the Biblical example. It’s not just a problem with the preachers, it’s the whole congregation playing the game of self-righteousness.

All of this points to the problem of relying on a text to be a moral or spiritual authority. Perhaps the Bible is the perfect book, but that does us no good because there are no perfect readers. Everyone is prone to highlighting the commandments against the wrongdoings of others, while ignoring those parts that suggest that we give up our comforts or surrender some of our privilege.

Evan’s detractors will tell us what the Bible says. But the Bible doesn’t say anything. It’s a book, it just lies there. To convey information someone has to pick it up and read it, and it’s the reader that is the active part of the sentence. Falling back on claims that “the Bible says” is just a distraction and an appeal to a non-existent authority. The focus should be on what the reader is doing, and how the reader is selecting passages or interpreting commands.

And once we’ve acknowledged that it’s the reader that is doing the work and not the book, then perhaps we can discuss why we need the book in the first place …

  • Makoto

    Until the readers of the bible denounce those who wear blended fabrics with the same vitriol that they do gay couples, I can’t take them seriously. Or really anything else in Leviticus, much less the rest of their own bible. There’s plenty to choose from, really.

    • Pofarmer

      I actually ran into a guy the other day that wouldn’t buy a t shirt that wasn’t 100% cotton, so they are out there.

      • The Other Weirdo

        So what? I don’t buy any shirt that isn’t 100% cotton, either, and I’m an atheist. There are perfectly valid non-religious reasons to not wear <100% cotton shirts.

  • Red_Ruffensor

    I like her. My mother-in-law would write something similar. She’s a Biblical scholar, knows it forward and back, yet she says things like “I don’t understand how someone would be so stupid as to not believe in evolution.” When my son became my daughter she was extremely supportive. My bro-in-law (who used to be cool) married an extreme fundamentalist, and became one himself, and they’ve since had the nerve to tell my MIL that she’s not a Christian. What bullshit, she’s 1000x the Xtian they are, in the sense of good works etc, and if more religious folks were like my MIL our society would have to contend with a whole lot less idiocy.

  • BobaFuct

    I think the hand-wringing over gay marriage is tied, at least in part, to the rise of premillenial dispensationalism. Christians today are convinced they will see the end times are are looking for any sign to confirm that, and since increased acceptance of homosexuality is a relatively “new” phenomenon, they are convinced that’s the sign they were looking for. So not only do they rail against homosexuality, they secretly cheer its acceptance because it’s a harbinger of the apocalypse. I can’t tell you how many times I was told in my Christian school that the fall of Rome was directly tied to its acceptance of homosexuality, and the US was heading down the same road and that meant Revelation was true….of course that’s batshit insane and a flat-out lie, but it just shows how Christians associate homosexuality with the (big T) tribulation/rapture/end times.

    • Yoav

      Did you suggest the alternative hypothesis that the fall of Rome was tied to the adoption of Christianity, as state religion?

    • Hitch’s Apprentice

      There are plenty ways to commit suicide, Christians…. if you’re truely seaking the ‘End of Times’ for yourselves….. Hurry up, Geebus is waiting with open arms……. I won’t stand in your way.

      • The Other Weirdo

        Truly. Seeking. There, done with that.

        They don’t want to commit suicide, they want to make sure we all suffer an eternity in hell.

        • Hitch’s Apprentice

          Well, I’m going to try to disappoint them for as long as I can.. How sad it is, that people live their lives in preparation for suffering eternally in Hell. The practice of Christianity is actually a degenerative ‘mental disease’…

  • Rain

    Basically it amounts to her not making any sense out of her religion except for the parts she likes. Which pretty much makes it literally “her religion”. Literally! Thank goodness for the cherry pickers that only pick the good stuff (I guess.)

  • Hitch’s Apprentice

    Aaaaah yes, the Bible…… Made of the right paper, an Excellent alternative to toilet paper!

  • Hitch’s Apprentice

    Need a good laugh, anytime???? Just tune-in to any serious Christian… I dare you not to laugh!

  • The Other Weirdo

    It was explained to me once that the reason they focus on the homosexual-related verses rather than all those others ones is that when Jesus came he struck down the Law except the sexuality verses. When I asked why, then, they don’t stone women who are not virgins on their wedding night or require rapists to purchase their victims, I was banned.

    • gimpi1

      Another question for those offering this explanation would be, how do you know that? Seriously, just the laws governing sexuality? Was there a memo I missed? Do they have copies?

      It always seems that the laws they like are still in force, and the ones that would inconvenience them are struck down. What a coincidence…

    • Alice

      Ha-ha, fundie gymnastics is such an entertaining sport to watch.

      • The Other Weirdo

        They were Catholics.

        • Alice

          Oh well, same sport, different team. I should have said interpretative gymnastics.

  • Reverb

    There is nothing wrong with encouraging the acceptance homosexuality and bisexuality in society. It certainly won’t hurt anyone. It should be seen as normal and equal to heterosexuality, because it is! A huge benefit to society is that same-sex couples can adopt babies to give them a loving family.


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