Obedient Slaves, Silent Women and Understanding Biblical Literalism

Obedient Slaves, Silent Women and Understanding Biblical Literalism May 30, 2012

First off, this picture is courtesy of a Tony Jones post. The comment thread on this post is worth the price of admission. Never a dull moment over there.

Last week William Reeser left the following comment on my post, The “Marginalization of the Christian Right. While that post was not directly about marriage equality, because it was the focus of both pastors’ sermons, this is a fair comment.

You can “nit pick” at words all you like, (marginalization v. losing influence, etc. ) but the sadness of the matter is, to say the Bible supports homosexual marriage or that Jesus would think homosexual marriage is a good thing, is just Biblically WRONG!  Please read Romans Chapter 1.

And my response was as follows . . .

Okay. the whole Scripture passage fight usually leads nowhere, but I might be willing if you can help me understand how you approach Scripture. I do not know your tradition so what’s your perspective on the Hebrew Bible versus the NT? How do you take historical, contextual, text, authorship etc. issues into consideration?

For example, please let me know how you look at these two passages:
Colossians 3:22, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” and 1 Corinthians 14:34, 34, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission,as the law says.”

Heaven knows that I am no Biblical scholar. I am a pastor with a seminary education who believes that Scripture holds God’s inerrant truths, hopes and intentions for humanity. That said, I do not believe we get to that Truth by interpreting Scripture literally. Scripture holds authority over my life, not only guiding how I live and love, but how I believe God acts in the world. Make no mistake, however . . .  as a progressive, sometimes liberal person, I take Scripture very seriously.

I know that some believe that those of us who use various critical methods of Biblical study are taking something away from scripture, that by looking at the context of the day or examining its literary strcuture, we are somehow eisegeting (reading our own views into the text) rather than exegeting (hearing what comes out of the text absent of our own views). In other words, there are some who think that by examining the text from multiple viewpoints and lenses we are twisting and turning Scripture so it will say whatever we want it to say.

Fair critique. I’ve def seen it and have probably done it myself. At the same time, I also think it is impossible to read ANY text without doing so through the lens of one’s particular life . . . but that’s a post for another day.

The alternative for those of us who to believe that the Bible should not be read literally is to believe that context, structure and other variables have had no impacted what is written and how it has been interpreted over time. After studying Greek and Hebrew in seminary, examining many different translations of the Bible and seeing how different people communicate, there are simply too many variances in scripture for me to take it as literally as others do. But yet, I do know that when it comes to some passages, especially the ones many call the “Clobber Verses” around homosexuality, the “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” mindset is strong.

As of this posting, William has not responded to my response, so if you are one of these folks who resonates with William, I would love for you to take a stab at it responding to my response. I hope that others will listen, maybe challenge a bit, but remain respectful all the while.  Again, help me understand how you look at scripture, how do you interpret these two passages and then maybe there can be more fruitful conversations. Again, here are the two passages . . .

22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.- Colossians 3:22 (TNIV)

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. – 1 Corinthians 14:34 (TNIV)

I look forward to your response and please to pass this along to any folks who you think might fit AND claim the “Biblical Literalist” position and might be willing to engage.

In the mean time, if you want an excellent resource about the Bible, Church and Homosexuality, please see Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church by Jack Rogers. His chapter where he unpacks the  Clobber Verses is right on, though the entire book is solid.

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24 responses to “Obedient Slaves, Silent Women and Understanding Biblical Literalism”

  1.  You make an excellent point about fundamentalist convenience.  I was in a college Sunday school class with a visiting Seminary professor who was promoting the Old Testament and Paul as the Literal word of God.  I asked him about a chapter in James and he told me that wasn’t literal but needed interpretation

  2. If I may?

    I used to be a fundamentalist. Over a period of many years that perspective has changed — almost forcibly. I am still a Christian. I am a liberal. And I no longer subscribe to Biblical Literalism as practiced by fundamentalism.

    Let me be entirely clear. Fundamentalism does not approach Scripture with any consistent principles of hermeneutics. Fundamentalism has created “doctrines” out of fragments of verses stripped from their contexts from Scriptures widely scattered in time, topic, context and application. As a fundamentalist you are taught to find a verse here that “is referenced by” another verse in Scripture, as if they were somehow intimately connected. In that way, strings of unconnected thoughts are put together into impressive sermons having little to nothing of actual Scriptural meaning in them.

    Does this sound harsh? I wish it were not true.

    The fact is that Scripture supports slavery. Under the Law of Moses, a slave could be beaten to the point of death, and if he survived a couple of days before dying, the abusive slave owner could not be punished because the slave was his money.

    I have read people commenting that slavery under the Greco-Roman system was somehow different from slavery in the US. That is patent nonsense. Yes, people could sell themselves into slavery in ancient times, under a contract. People did that in the US, too. But slavery was not somehow benign or simply contracted. Persons born as slaves were slaves. People captured were enslaved. Slaves could be killed, starved, beaten, raped, tortured at whim and will, without any legal recourse. Some slaves had it better than others, some had better masters or mistresses. But slavery was always cruel. There was no equivalency to employer or employee as the application today is made.

    And the Scripture tells slaves to be obedient, not only to good masters but also to the worst of them. They are admonished not to resist unjust punishments, but to be as Christ.

    Women in the Bible were generally considered less than men. Women were generally uneducated, ignorant in the Scriptures and segregated in the synagogues. Paul said women were not to speak. The Biblical Literalist, if he is honest, must admit that Paul gave no loophole for the command, but commanded it period. He also commanded that women who would not cover their hair during prayer should be shaved (as a prostitute).

    So why don’t fundamentalists pay much attention to those passages. The fact is they used to. The passages on slavery were ardently preached both to slaves and slaveowners in churches before slavery was defeated in the US. And until late last midcentury churches regularly preached against women preachers and enforced headcoverings. It is not culturally fashionable for fundamentalists or literalists to acknowledge the clear support for slavery in the Bible, and the men realize their women would revolt if they were told they had to wear head coverings. Bob Jones University once required women to wear head coverings in their Sunday services. They preached that as a Biblical command. They no longer do so.

    In other words, literalists are literalists of convenience. They do so if it suits them. They claim exceptions otherwise. At one point they say the Scriptures and its commands are written to all cultures, then at other points they claim that a particular command is cultural. Can it be both at the same time? At one time they quote from the Old Testament to express God’s disapproval of homosexuality, then at another time they insist that we are not under the law, but under grace.

    As I said, fundamentalists do not approach the Scriptures with any consistent hermeneutic. Is there any wonder that in the United States there are 25,000 different “Christian” denominations and sects, most of them single churches marketing their own brand of interpretation?

    Please understand, I have been married 29 years to my wife, have loving faithful children, and I am active in Church and faith. But from my perspective, this whole anti-gay movement is a foil to distract fundamentalists from looking at their own sins so that they may focus entirely on the sins of others.

    I apologize for anything here that might be offensive or out of line. But I certainly cannot throw stones at sinners Jesus would have eaten with. Jesus saved His harsh condemnation for the religious leaders who lifted themselves up by putting everyone else down.

  3.  And yet there were women in ministry among early Christians.  i find that in reading history pushing women behind the rail was a male thing that wasn’t originally there.  Paul after all never met Jesus who appeared first to women not men

  4. Okay, I’ll bite. I’m a little unsure of how you’re applying the term “Biblical Literalist,” but if you’re describing a hermeneutical position that says the original author’s intent (i.e., what the author literally meant) = the truth of the passage in question, I guess that’s me. That wasn’t elegantly stated – sorry.

    Colossians 3:22. I think Paul was telling household servants to be obedient, even if they had to do unpleasant things or were not being directly supervised. This is the kind of attitude Joseph had in Egypt. It doesn’t speak to the institution of slavery as much as it does to the Christian’s responsibility to behave in a manner worthy of the gospel. If the concern is that Paul is validating slavery (or failing to challenge it), I think that his instruction to masters in 4:1 indicates his understanding of how this relationship should operate: with justice, fairness, and awareness of Jesus’ lordship. In other words, Paul is describing something analogous to a positive employee-employer relationship, though one more firmly entrenched in social structures than it is today.

    1 Corinthians 14:34. I think Anthony Thiselton’s exegesis of this text is superb: Paul is telling wives to stop interfering with the examination of their husbands’ prophecies. This is the subject of the immediately preceding verses. Not only women, but tongues speakers (v. 28) and prophets (v. 30) are told to be “silent.” This is clearly circumstantial. 

    Bruce, if I may turn the question around, how do you read these texts? Are you suggesting that they teach something offensive and should not be taken literally? What would that mean if, say, one of these texts came up in the lectionary when you were teaching?

  5. Mark – Thanks for this. Exactly the kind of thoughtful argument i was looking for. May not agree, of course, but thanks for offering in the manner with which you did.

  6. A  couple of things.  First, I am Phd Candidate writing on the abolitionists and many of them used the Bible to make their case.  See Mark Noll’s Civil War a Theological crisis.  It is next to impossible to support LGBT from the Bible the way the abolitionists supported their positions from the Bible.  The Webb book is a great resource. We must always keep in mind that first century Greco-Roman slavery or slavery in Ancient Israel was nothing like American Chattel slavery.  American Chattel slavery violated the Bible once the Africans were stolen.  Second, About Rogers, Rogers does not have the same view of the authority of scripture as you do.  See John Woodbridge Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal.  After reading this you may be able to better understand how Rogers deals with the text.  Third, I agree that we should always read the bible in light of context.  But too many people from the LGBT side of the fence use the arguement from silence which is not a solid argument.  see
    Historians’ Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
    by David Hackett Fischer
    It is at best a conjecture that Paul did not know about homosexuality as it is practiced today.  And it is bad reasoning to say LGBT is ok because Jesus did not mention it.  Jesus did not mention many things that are Biblically considered sinful. For a well reasoned understanding of Hermeneutics and the LBGT issue see Robert Gagnon’s two books. A warning, Gagnon does not support LGBT. Fourth, as a Church Historian I am always leery of new ideas popping up in the church.  Sometimes we need a fresh perspective.  Yet when the church has had an interpretation on an issue that has held firm for 1900 years we need to move with caution as we consider revising that.  Fifth on the issue of women remaining silent, we must use scripture to interpret scripture, and we can use passage from Paul to demonstrate that when he tells women to be silent in church he must be addressing a specific issue because there are other times in the Pauline letters where he encourages women to speak. Finally, if Paul got the homosexuality issue so wrong is it possible that Paul got other things wrong on sexuality?  I think that before the church moves away from a literal interpretation on Paul on this issue they better be careful that they are not asking for more.  It is possible that people will argue that Paul got everything wrong on sexuality like monogamy  which is exactly what people like Dan Savage are already saying.  The Church softened their interpretations on divorce and now the state of marriage in the church is horrendous.  Let us use history as our guide.

  7. Jennifer, that’s a present-day APPLICATION that you can make from the passage, but it was addressed to slave owners of that particular day and time because that was prevalent in the society.  It was not written as an endorsement for slavery or meant to be an endorsement for the continuation of the practice.  

  8. So I was made aware of a sermon the other day that talked about Colossians 3:22 and made the assumption that master stood for employer and slave for employee.

    As for women being silent in church I’ve always been led to believe that meant they were not allowed to be pastors, elders, etc. They could teach a class, but it probably wouldn’t be wise if they taught a class where there were male students.

  9. I think that whenever someone is interpreting scripture they must take historical context into account. For example, when reading 1 Corinthians 14:34, one must understand that in that period of history it would have been a capital crime to be Christian, and speaking in public about it would have been considered revolutionary incitement. So in effect this is could be seen as an attempt to protect women from persecution. In my opinion there are reasonable explanations to most of these seemingly misogynistic references. What is most important is to ask the Holy Spirit to guide you whenever you are interpreting scripture, and once you are in the Spirit, if it doesn’t appear to be inclusive, tolerant, and loving then there must be a logical explanation. Then either historic context or translation must be taken into account.

  10. Normally, I don’t like to comment, nor post any response on anyone’s writing, but I find this one different; you seem to be far more open minded, as well as addressing a core issue that many of us either don’t see, or ignore altogether.  Before I go any farther, I want to point a few things out on my own; regarding the Bible, much of the original context would have been lost through translation (literally), for starters; Ancient Hewbrew (Aramaic, the specific dialect I believe), and Ancient Greek (which I have no idea what or which dialect(s) would have been used).  It doesn’t appear many people will this into account; literally translations between languages may not have the same meaning from one to the other, or the language it’s being translated into may not have a corresponding word (and vice versa).  I am not a scholar, I have next to no knowledge of the Bible, and a I rarely read it.

    I’ll start with Colossians 3:22: It’s saying “slaves”; it’s possible that the original meaning of the word would have been more along the line of “contracted service”.  Think about it; yes, slavery was legal, and yes, there where slave traders, but it’s also possible that “contracts” where what was actually being bought, and sold, rather than people – the people/slaves, could have had contract that they offered… in today’s day, and age, the closest thing I can think (in principle) of would be buying/selling, or sub-letting of contracts; phones, apartments, building, supplies… but, I’m probably completely wrong on this.

    Now, onto  1 Corinthians 14:34: Simple head of house-hold.  We have to remember that A) It was barbaric, and primitive times that the Bible was constructed in (though there was law, order, and a level of social acceptable, and unacceptable behavious, along with “civilized” and “uncivilized” behaviours), B) Head of house-hold; keep things simple, in-line, “the same”, and perhaps “standardized” across many areas, it’s possible to say that the man was to be head of house hold, and women where only allow to speak when permitted (or spoken) to… which brings me to C) Nature, and the nature of human beings.  If we reflect upon nature, we find males as the dominate ones, and the females doing what the males wish.  The difference between humans, and non-humans, are simple; non-humans, the dominance is either male versus male, or female versus female, not male versus female (or reverse).  In the human world, there are always fights for dominance of positions; male versus male, female versus female, male versus female, and male versus female; it’s simply possible that the whole point was to simply prevent “such an issue” from occurring.  Take that as you will, but think about this; consider all the details of what happened since feminism has been about (I’m talking about extremist specifically, not people who support women being respected equally, while being treated fairly).Peace.

  11. Bruce you have written very well as you do so often.  Thanks for helping tackle the difficult but important questions, and asking good ones too.

  12. I have always been confused by the use of the word “literal.” It’s as if there are no metaphors in the bible at all. As if all of Jesus’ parables really did happen exactly as he said. It sounds overly dismissive of another view even though its internal logic is skewed. To the literalist I ask if it is they who are twisting Scripture since, if we take the word literal literally, it would be rooted in a wholly subjective framework. With that said the Bible does condone slavery in certain circumstances and does not allow for homosexual acts among the Jews. The real question is what to do with that information now.

  13. Bruce, I am probably not a capable enough Bible scholar to respond to your post either. I consider myself a literalist but in reading the Bible literally (for what it actually says) I believe you take into account context, structure, historical situation, literary devices, ect. in order to read it accurately.  I also agree that there is a danger of eisogesis, and our intepretation of Scripture can be flawed, and thus we need the Holy Spirit to reveal and to guide our reading of Scripture.  I would need to think about this particular issues (women and slavery) with more depth.  I do think as the Westminster divines encouraged when we struggle to understand one passage of Scripture that may not be as clear, we search for other passages that speak more clearly. “The infallible rule of intepretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (WCF 1.9). But in relation to slavery, I think with the above in mind, Scripture as a whole does not approve of slavery but it recognizes slavery as reality in the world.   1. I think the letter to Philemon, while sending Onesimus back, he encourages Philemon not to simply receive Onesiumus back as a slave but as a beloved brother.  In Jesus Christ, Philemon’s relationship has fundamentally changed with Onesimus. 2.  Galatians 5:1 demonstrates that in Jesus Christ we have been set free and we are not to submit to the yoke slavery.  Specifically, this refers to the works of the flesh produced by sin.   But Christians ought to work for the freedom of others as we know a greater spiritual freedom in Christ. 3. In terms of your specific passage, I think it is also important to remember that slavery, while brutal and inhumane in our perception and in the reality of slavery we see in the world, that there were forms of slavery in the Roman world that were voluntary for certian purposes.  For instances, in my reading of the historical setting, I have read that one may voluntarily put oneself in slavery to learn a trade or to pay off debts.  There is apparently evidence of those who voluntarily became slaves to learn a profession, like a medical doctor.  I am not sure this is much different than today’s student loan programs, where people become hugely indebted financially to major financial institutions, in order to become medical doctors.  But another point that Paul is encouraging is for the slaves to remember that their work is a witness to the Gospel. If you look at the context of Colossians, verse 17, it encourages disciples of Jesus to do everything unto the Lord Jesus Christ, and Paul simply further instructing slaves to do their work not for the pleasure of their masters but to do their work as service to the Lord. This is affirmed in verse 23, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”  For Paul to have encouraged slaves to do otherwise could have meant that severe punishment and even death for slaves. 4.  I am not ashamed, with the Apostles and other saints, to be called a slave (servant) of Jesus Christ.  Jesus calls believers to be servants one to another.  This is  certainly another form of slavery radically different from the brutal slavery we know of today, for to be a slave of Christ Jesus my Lord is to be set free from all forms of brutal slavery that I may be free to love God and love my neighbor.

    My only other note is that you seem to be working off a sterotype of what it means to read the Bible literally or you are using the worst examples as you template for what a Biblical literalist looks like.  I have taken the opportunity to read the best of the Liberal Biblical Scholars, like Bultmann.  I encourage you to take time to read the best of those who are committed to reading Scripture from a conservative perspective, like B.B. Warfield or J. Gresham Machen.  It amazes me often how they speak to the 21st century issues of the debate on the Bible.  I am disappointed that my seminary professors had us read crap by people like Pat Robertson as an example of Biblical literalist, instead of serious thinkers and people faith like Warfield and Machen.

  14. Since you reference the comments thread, you’re probably already aware of this, but it should be made clear here that the image was (ironically?) NOT actually design with the Bible in mind, but rather was part of an Australian advertising campaign intended to get people to write letters (hand-written letters, not e-mail) more.

    It has since been co-opted by a certain branch of Christianity.

  15. I’d invite people to respond not just to those verses but to the overwhelming scriptural witness that has slavery as an acceptable part of a Godly society.

    To reuse the commenters words with one change:

    “You can “nit pick” at words all you like, (marginalization v. losing influence, etc. ) but the sadness of the matter is, to say the Bible condemns slavery is just Biblically WRONG!”

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