The Problem with Biblical Authority

The Problem with Biblical Authority July 9, 2013

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 …

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