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The clobber verses vs. ‘the only thing that counts’

The clobber verses vs. ‘the only thing that counts’ September 11, 2012

I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:12-14

So, yes, the anti-gay clobber verses are there, in the Bible. Open the Christian scriptures and, if you know where to look, you can find all six of them right there in the pages of the Bible that many Christians, rather unbiblically, call the “Word of God.”

Thus we have to ask two things: First, do these clobber verses mean everything that those who rely on them want them to mean? And, secondly, is there anything in the other 31,000 or so verses of that Bible that might lead us to a different conclusion?

Regarding that first question, the answer is no. Those who wield these six verses as weapons almost never cite them in a way that acknowledges or accounts for their textual or cultural context. We could, yet again, go through them verse-by-verse to rehash all of that, but the clobber-verse enthusiasts have ignored or dismissed every other such discussion, so I don’t see any point in trying to summarize a shelf-full of scholarship here only to have it, yet again, ignored or dismissed.

Instead, I think it’s more helpful to focus on that second question, because this whole argument is nothing new. It quite exactly parallels an argument that forms one of the dominant recurring themes in Paul’s epistles and, indeed, the entire New Testament.

Paul, in particular, dealt extensively with the question of Bible-as-rulebook and found himself embroiled in some very contentious arguments with those who wielded clobber-verses against him, accusing him of violating the authori-tah of scripture. That passage quoted at the top of this post summarizes Paul’s response: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

You may recognize that maneuver. It’s the same duplicitous, weaselly trick I’ve constantly employed here as an explanation for why “love your neighbor as yourself” trumps a half-dozen context-deprived clobber verses. I don’t regard it as duplicitous or weaselly myself, anymore than Paul did, but that’s how it always gets characterized by Team Authoritah — as a dodge, an evasion, a way of “playing fast-and-loose” with the Bible. Paul was quite familiar with that criticism because he was well acquainted with that team.

Actually, Paul was up against a much more formidable incarnation of Team Authoritah. The six-verse case against homosexuality is nowhere near as robust as the massive scriptural case for mandatory circumcision, but this modern reprise of the same clobber-verse argument takes the same form. The contemporary anti-gay argument is just a paler, thinner version of the anti-Gentile argument wielded by Paul’s sparring partners in the early proto-church.

That conflict involved the clear teaching of scripture — much clearer, in that case, and much more prominent. And Paul’s argument directly challenged — directly contradicted that clear teaching.

Then, as today, one side argued the brute authority of scripture and the other side responded with talk of love and essential principles that trumped particular rules, no matter how explicit.

Same argument. Same hermeneutic. Same body part.

The other similarity between that argument and this one, of course, is that both were intensely focused on the same body part. It’s a bit depressing that after nearly 2,000 years, the followers of Jesus are still cycling through the same arguments over rules, love, and the authority of scripture as pertaining most importantly to what must or mustn’t be done to that very same body part.

I’m trying to tread delicately here — more delicately than Paul did, actually, as the first part of that passage from Galatians shows. The apostle eventually got so fed up with all the but-the-Bible-says anti-Gentile arguments that he eventually just snapped and said that. Rules, rules, rules — “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” You want this to be about rules? Well, then, you don’t just get to spotlight the rules for other people’s genitals, if you want to make this about rules than you are “obliged to obey the entire law.” In that case, “Christ will be of no benefit to you” and you “have cut yourselves off from Christ.” Trust me, you do not want this to be about rules.

Oh, and speaking of cutting things off, here’s a suggestion …

One key to Paul’s argument there in Galatians — and the reason he could not have come to any other conclusion than the one he did — can be seen there in his colorful suggestion in Galatians 5:12: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!”

That right there is the huge difference between the argument Paul is making and the argument being made today by the anti-gay Christians conscripting Paul as a forger of clobber verses. “Those who unsettle you,” Paul says. Other translations render that “trouble you,” or “agitate you.” Paul was talking to the very people that the rules clearly taught by scripture demanded to be excluded. Nowadays, anti-gay Christians talk about those same people, but not to them. And that changes everything.

When people are an abstraction, it’s easy to exclude them, or to imagine that some holy text renders them intrinsically in violation of sacrosanct rules. But when you talk to such people, rather than just talking about them, they become real and it becomes impossible to pretend that they are less important than your precious rules.

Paul broke those rules and taught others to break them. How did the apostle respond when confronted with the clobber verses that directly contradicted his teaching? He said such clobber verses do not “count for anything.”

“The only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

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