Andy Stanley and Our Problem with the Old Testament

Wesley Hill’s Post

Andy Stanley

Wesley Hill’s response to Andy Stanley’s sermon about “unhitching ourselves from the OT” is emblematic of a larger, systemic and long standing problem in the church. In order to understand the nature of the problem, one needs to be able to step back from the historical investment the church has placed in the OT canon, and try to look at church history more objectively. The problem, as I will describe, is not uniquely evangelical, but has marred the church’s understanding of Christ’s teaching for over 2 millennia. I apologize for perhaps over estimating the evangelical responsibility in the matter.

What Andy Stanley, in this sermon has done, is attempt to bring to our attention a certain problem within the church, that has historically hindered the church from truly grasping the nature of the Heavenly Father that Jesus introduces us to. Wesley Hill’s response that the various councils, the church Fathers, the Anglican Church, etc., have all revered the Decalogue is true. He is stating the obvious. But when you understand that the Decalogue is symbolic of and integral to the Jewish covenant alone, as Christians we must be careful how we appropriate it for ourselves.

Stanley has used the Ten Commandments as a sort of code word for the church’s attitude towards the OT as a whole. Marcion was not the only Christian leader to be troubled by the apparent dichotomy between the OT Jewish understanding of God and the new revelation of God’s character presented in Jesus’ teaching and in Paul’s theology. Origen and others in the early church tended to smooth over the difference by the use of allegory, that the Bible had spiritual meanings that superseded the literal meanings of the text. Unfortunately, the grace and unmerited forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ has been muddied by a literal appropriation of much of the legalism of the OT.

For Augustine of Hippo, AD 354-430, there was a “veil” over the OT. One had to get past it to understand the spiritual sense of the passages, even the more scurrilous ones. As a Manichaean, Augustine had spurned the OT scriptures as rather crass and uninspired, but with the influence of Ambrose, and his subsequent re-conversion to Christianity, he changed his mind. It is important to note that, like Origen, Augustine and other church Fathers were not unaware of the ethical problems inherent to the OT. They dealt with the tension by spiritualizing the passages. 

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and increasing pressure from Islam, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity grew further apart, until Catholicism, the Western branch, became dominant. During the Middle Ages, survival of the church relied on support from various monarchs, and the success of the monarchies relied, in part, on the approval of the Pope. While there were various reforms, and good Popes, there was a growing unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the secular state and the church. While technically not a theocracy, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between the secular and the divine.

The state’s use of violence, war and coercion had a parallel in the OT, and the church’s collusion with the state implicated the church increasingly with that same coercive, violent mindset. Abandoning the more allegorical interpretive understanding of the OT, treating the enemies of the church violently became a way of treating heresy, following the similar pattern of ancient Israel.

The die was cast. According to the Catholic Catechism, the church was the new Israel. Protestantism had similar parallels. As a result, what we have seen historically in the church, is a gradual departure from the Sermon on the Mount as descriptive of the Kingdom of God, to a church that uses much of the same playbook as earthly kingdoms do. Ask any atheist about the church’s ethical shortcomings. We ignore the past to our own peril.

Frankly, I am a bit shocked that a scholar such as Wesley Hill does not seem to understand, that for Paul the Law leads to death and failure. That you can never have enough laws, nor follow enough laws to merit favor. Stanley’s point that we do not “need” the Ten Commandments as Christians, while certainly controversial, is, at root, true. We have something better, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the example of Christ and the teaching of the apostles. The Decalogue is so incredibly obvious, why should we need it as a reminder? Does anyone here need to be reminded that murder, lying or sleeping with the neighbor’s wife is a bad thing?

Instead the author of John and the apostle Paul, repeatedly remind us to LOVE others. Why? Because it is far harder than keeping the Law of Moses. The Pharisees kept the Law fastidiously yet failed being loving. This is the draw of legalism. It lets you off the hook in the love department. This is why the church, in its efforts to keep doctrinal, legalistic purity, could burn people at the stake, or torture them to get them to convert. In their perversion of love, they saw it as a way of saving souls.

While we no longer burn people at the stake for heresy, witchcraft or being Gay (except in Africa), the same obsession with legalism and doctrinal purity ostracizes people and turns people away from Christ. It is the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra that fails so miserably. Like Paul in Romans 2, people instantly know hypocrisy when they hear it.

While Origen and Augustine may have understood the OT in allegorical terms or spiritualized difficult passages, today’s evangelical is not so sure. With the rise of the Princeton School of Theology and the pushback on Christian liberalism and the historical critical method, inerrancy and literal interpretation has become the defecto evangelical methodology of understanding scripture. In effect, it mires scripture down to the understanding of scholastics like Aquinas and legalists like Calvin. Unintended side affects are a gospel that is irrelevant today and a rigid doctrinal system that cannot be reformed. It cannot be reformed because in the declaration of an inerrant scripture, the defender becomes inerrant himself. Check out Roger E. Olson, “Reformed and Always Reforming, The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology,” for more on this matter.

The danger with understanding scripture this way concerns us most when coming to the OT. While the Decalogue is certainly a wonderful document, Christian appropriation of certain Levitical laws generally ends up backfiring by creating legalistic Christians. Instead of manifesting God’s love and forgiveness, they become harsh and judgmental. This, of course, can happen when using the NT as well. I think Wesley Hill’s comment are illuminating:

It is striking how frequently flirtations with Marcionism are aimed at revising Christian teaching on sexual morality. Though he doesn’t walk through it himself, Stanley’s sermon opens the door to this revisionism. He says that Paul tied sexual behavior not to the old covenant, not to the Ten Commandments, but to “one commandment that Jesus gave us: that you are to treat others as God in Christ has treated you.

For Hill this is simply not enough. The example that Jesus showed us in his life. The forgiveness he showed his tormentors on the cross, the admonition to love greatly by Paul and John…not enough. As he further states:

we Christians so often fail to discern what real love amounts to, and we need the Old Testament’s commandments to shine a spotlight on our slippery self-justifications. We may intend to treat a sexual partner as God in Christ has treated us, we may try to act toward them out of self-giving love, but the distorting effects of sin mean that we must be told what love looks like in action if we’re not to get it wrong. That divine telling, sadly, is what Andy Stanley’s sermon would keep us from hearing.”

So here we have the real reason behind the uproar: the need for Christians to monitor others sexual behavior. This is the slippery slope conservatives fear if the church “unhitches” itself from following certain OT “moral laws.” Heavens! Some one might interpret that as freedom to love someone else of the same sex! And as Hill has pointed out, the OT is such a stellar example of marriage and sexual relations, come on Wesley Hill! Really? We’ve all seen the Facebook mimes. OT marriage looked nothing like marriage today, even among Southern Baptists!

So here’s the deal. The human tendency to legalism, is a universal. We gravitate towards laws. When they are used to protect us from each other, they are useful. When used to exclude, marginalize or persecute others…not so good. When treated as absolute inerrant codes of conduct, and end up hurting people, it’s time to step back and reassess things. It is my personal opinion that the doctrine of inerrancy actually produces unethical behavior in the church. One of the things that has come out of the battle for marriage equality, that SS relations would destroy the family, the nation, would result in pedophilia, that it was immoral, were false. The claims were disingenuous, misleading and were fear mongering. In Biblical parlance, it was bearing false witness.

A rigid inerrant view of scripture “unhinges” the church from the love of Christ unconditionally for others and replaces it with a “performance minded” conditional Christianity, something Stanley obviously was critiquing. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it:

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase, ‘cheap grace.’ As far as I’m concerned, nobody can make God’s grace in Jesus any cheaper than it already is: it’s free”. “…But what I really object to is people who use the so-called danger of cheap grace as a way of browbeating others into thinking there’s some level of performance they have to achieve before they can be worthy of grace.”

“…I guess what I really don’t like is the way people start out by defining sin as ‘moral failure’ and then go on to think that if they commit ‘sins’ they will cut themselves off from grace. That’s all nonsense of course: ‘sinners’ are the very thing God gives his grace to —lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. As a matter of fact, the true New Testament opposite of sin isn’t virtue, or moral success, or getting your act together: it’s faith in the grace that takes away all the sins of the world. Paul says, ‘all that is not of faith is sin.’ And Jesus says, ‘the one who believes is not judged.’ We’re not on trial: ‘there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’”

“The Mystery of Christ and why We Don’t Get it.” p. 171-172.

I just don’t think Wesley Hill understands this, nor unfortunately, do many Christians.

Peace

When Your “Sincerely Held Religious Belief” is Not Ok

Hardly a week goes by when I run into someone who says its “ok” if they believe being Gay is “abnormal” or “sinful.” “You have your opinion and I have mine.” “What’s wrong with having an opinion?” As one gentleman recently told me “…nothing wrong with being of the opinion that it is abnormal. What would be wrong is insisting that everybody agree with that opinion. I don’t want anyone to insist that I accept homosexuality as normal, so I don’t insist that anyone must agree with me.” The irony of his comment was that he was Black. Talk about a lack of cognitive dissonance! The context for this particular discussion was on a conservative Christian English blog site, Premier, and the title was: “Cardinal says homosexuality is ‘abnormal’ and Church shouldn’t apologize for traditional teaching.” 

(https://www.premier.org.uk/content/view/full/901417)

So here’s the deal. Let’s not confuse normative human sexual behavior with what some Christians believe the Bible teaches about sexual behavior. Same sex and bisexual behaviors occur in about 10% of the human population, which is by all accounts, a fairly large group of people. I would hesitate to refer to 10% of the world’s population as “abnormal.” (*)

I would also hesitate to follow the Bible too closely, or literally, as a guide to sexual behavior, as that is not its purpose, nor does it do a particularly good job as a sex manual if used that way. Polygamy, slaves used as concubines, women taken as booty in war, male ownership of women, etc., kind of throws a monkey wrench in to the whole Biblical Marriage schtick.

Often when religious people fail to convince others that they “must” except their view they fall back on “I have the ‘right’ to my own opinion.” In this day and age there is a great deal of conversation and concern about individual “rights.” In most Western societies there is some sense of it being wrong to infringe upon the rights of individuals to live their lives free of discrimination, that everyone regardless of who they are, should be treated equally. Most people expect to be treated fairly.

Unfortunately, many religious people don’t see things that way. While expecting to be treated respectfully and fairly by others, they feel that the Bible gives them a mandate to do otherwise with those they deem “sinful.” When reprimanded for being discriminatory or bigoted, they claim they are being persecuted for believing what the Bible teaches. This type of thinking adds a sort of self-righteousness to bigotry and turns the oppressor into the oppressed.

Another tactic used by zealous religious folk is to dismiss arguments for equality and diversity as being “politically correct,” as catering to public opinion, or following “this world.” This is a cop-out, as getting to choose who we treat equally and who who do not, kind of negates the whole purpose of equality. It’s like saying all people are equal, but some are more equal than others. It also flies in the face of the “Golden Rule.”

I sincerely doubt the gentleman above would agree it’s “ok” to have racist opinions. Just what is meant by “it’s ok to have our opinions?” Is this a healthy attitude? Do opinions matter? Can opinions be hurtful and unChristlike? How has the evangelical adage of “hate the sin but love the sinner” worked out? Historically, not so well. And as long as religionists view Gays as abnormal and an “abomination,” they will continue to confuse hatred for acting loving.

All right, time to role up our sleeves and do a bit of research. One of the problems with patriarchal orthodoxy and its historical stranglehold on human sexuality is its blindness to sexual diversity in nature. In the OT Jewish canon, sexuality was defined solely in terms of a man’s dominion over the woman and the ability to pass on one’s “seed” in order to keep up one’s line perpetually. In other words, a woman was largely defined in terms of her ability to raise children, especially a male heir.

Anything, or behavior not fitting into that purpose was suspect. Women who were “barren” or didn’t produce a male heir were shamed or pitied, one of the reasons for multiple wives. Jewish laws before the Talmud, had no consequence for female same sex behavior, largely because it did not threaten men and women were not seen to be especially sexual in nature since there was no emission of seed. (1) On the other hand, male same sex erotic behavior circumvented what was understood to be the purpose of sex: to hopefully produce a male heir.

The Levitical prohibitions against SS behavior amongst males uses the term “toevah” which has a cultic meaning, i.e., pertaining to non-Israelite cultic practice. In this context homosexual temple prostitution is regarded as a “taboo” for Israel. “Abomination” in the KJV is a rather unfortunate and misleading translation of the word. For a good discussion of the use of the term toevah see the following footnote. (2)

“Now, if by “abomination,” the King James means a cultural prohibition—something which a particular culture abhors but another culture enjoys—then the term makes sense. But in common parlance, the term has come to mean much more than that. Today, it connotes something horrible, something contrary to the order of nature itself, or God’s plan, or the institution of the family, or whatever. It is this malleability of meaning, and its close association with disgust, that makes “abomination” a particularly abominable word to use. The term implies that homosexuality has no place under the sun (despite its presence in over 300 animal species), and that it is an abomination against the Divine order itself. Again, toevah is not a good thing—but it doesn’t mean all of that.” (3)

In the NT, it is Paul who non-affirming Christians most often turn to, and in particular, the first chapter of Romans. What is ignored in their proof-texting is the use of the vocative in Romans 2:1…

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever YOU are, when YOU judge others; for in passing judgment on another YOU condemn yourself, because YOU, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?” (4)

Rather than Paul condemning all SS activity in 1:26-27, he is quoting the ἄνθρωπος as saying such, then soundly rebuffing them in chapters 2 and following. Chapter 1 of Romans contains a typical Jewish diatribe against Roman culture, in particular its practice of orgies. What has occurred in the past is that theologians have concentrated so narrowly on the wording of Romans 1:18-32, assuming it is Paul speaking, that they totally miss the connection in chapter 2.

“Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.” (5) 

Wrapping things up, at best we can only claim that Scripture’s treatment of male homosexual activity is based on cultic prohibitions (OT), and that the practice of egalitarian, loving SS relationships are not addressed at all in the NT. Paul’s discussion in Romans hinges, not on the condemnation of SS activity, but on the hypocrisy of the Jews who do condemn it. Paul’s personal views on the matter are not really addressed. Even Preston Sprinkle, in his “A People to be Loved,” bases his anti-gay bias largely on an argument of silence on the matter. 

So, in conclusion, I think the use of the terms “abnormal” vs “normal” are unfortunate and misleading and do not reflect a medical/psychological analysis and ultimately result in marginalization and persecution of Gays and, in truth, and go far beyond what Scripture actually teaches. Opinions do matter. The church needs to do better.

* Those who identify as Gay in some fashion or another vary greatly from culture to culture, depending largely on the cultural understanding of what it means to be Gay. 10% is a ballpark figure representing Western Culture as a whole. As more individuals come out, percentages of those who identify as LGBTQ continues to rise. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_sexual_orientation

1 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_and_Judaism

2 http://religiondispatches.org/does-the-bible-really-call-homosexuality-an-abomination/

3 Ibid.

4 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2013/10/romans-126-27-a-clobber-passage-that-should-lose-its-wallop/

5 Ibid.

The Nashville Statement and Patriarchy

The recent Nashville Statement (1) on human sexuality is the latest attempt by the Religious Right to position male-female complementarianism, patriarchy and gender stereotypes as the Biblical norm for today, based largely on the ancient cultural norm in which male dominance and female subservience was the norm. One of the main problems with the belief that the Bible paints a clear picture of “one man, one woman,” is…that it does not. The truth is conservatives must carefully pick and choose their verses to support their thesis, conveniently overlooking the much more numerous passages that portray the ugly side of patriarchy and submission.

Contrary to most evangelical thinking, while the NT gives us excellent advice on loving our enemies and our neighbors as ourselves, the Bible, as a whole is a mixed bag on the issue of “Biblical Marriage.” With Biblical marriages involving polygamy, concubines, maid servants, spoils of war, sisters-in-laws, rape victims, etc., conservatives must do a lot of cherry picking to come up with a definitive view of marriage.

So, the basic quandary behind the Religious Right’s rejection of non binary human relationships and identity is the question of whether or not the “Biblical” model of sexual relationships is culturally informed and outdated, or whether strictly male-female complimentarianism and male headship (2) should be the cultural norm for moderns. As evident from the Nashville Statement, most evangelicals believe the latter, although headship is not specifically mentioned here. The traditionalist stance presented in the Nashville Statement is based, in large, on a specific biblical hermeneutic that is literal and believes the Bible is without error. But pushing for a literal, inerrant understanding of the texts poses problems for the definition of Biblical marriage. If one would follow the various examples of marriage in the Bible religiously and consistently, Christian marriage would differ little from that of Islamic fundamentalism. What conservative evangelicals have done to soften the hard edges of this fact is to couch male dominance in the language of “complimentarianism.” In other words, men and women have separate but equal clearly defined roles. We have heard “separate, but equal” used before and it never truly means “equal.”

This is not to say that all evangelicals hold to a strict male headship relationship of human sexuality and gender role. The minority model I grew up with was “mutual submission,” which is more egalitarian and follows a much more Christlike attitude of serving one another. It also follows the broad outline of Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5.

Behind the language of the Nashville Statement, is a history of a cultural shift from evangelicalism to fundamentalism within the Southern Baptist denomination. As David Gushee points out, fundamentalists within the denomination waged a fierce battle for control of the Southern Baptist convention between 1979 and 1993. What resulted was a decisive string of victories within the SBC that put fundamentalists firmly in control. In, turn, these men made sure that women and moderates were forced out of teaching positions within Baptist colleges as well as diminishing the role of women within the denomination. (3) Prior to 1979, Christian fundamentalism’s primary hand-wringing involved the Civil Rights movement and resistance to Black equality and the “mixing of the races.” But as Gushee puts it, “by the late 1970s, a different strategy was developed on the conservative side, focusing especially on traditionalist Christian discomfort with the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion…This proved a more appealing agenda for conservative Christian consumption than directly attacking progress in racial integration and black empowerment.” (4)

The shift from outright racism (which is still very much alive among fundamentalists) to “family values,” i.e., anti- feminism, anti-Gay, anti-abortion, is very much based on a traditional male headship model, as presented in scripture. One would wonder why evangelical and fundamentalist men would be so upset by Gay marriage, but the answer is simple: non binary individuals fall outside the control of male headship. They don’t fit into a patriarchal scheme of human sexuality. Which begs the question, in an egalitarian society, where an individual’s self worth and purpose is not based on their genitalia, exactly what value does male headship bring to the table? If divorce rates among evangelicals are any indication, the answer is, none, as the rate of failed marriages mirrors that of society as a whole.

The tragedy of the Nashville Statement is that it closes the door to dialogue about human sexuality, and attempts to rigidly compartmentalize gender stereotypes, ignoring the realities of gender and sexuality. It also closes the door to further understanding and reform amongst evangelicals. The door too has been shut on careful consideration of the Biblical passages themselves, preferring a inerrant, literal hermeneutic that does not take into consideration a great many things: culturally bound materials, story as opposed to historical facts, and a general inability to differentiate Kingdom principals from cultural mores. It has sadly become all too apparent that fundamentalists favor law over Grace, continuing over a century of vigorously defending indefensible attitudes towards race, women, violence and sexual minorities. This needs to stop.

1. https://www.scribd.com/mobile/document/357531494/The-Nashville-Statement
2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism
3. David P. Gushee, “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” see chapter 3.
4. Ibid., p. 32.

The Myth of “Biblical Marriage”

Someone who’s theological musings I have admired in the past recently announced on Facebook that he and his wife have decided to have an “open marriage.” That is, although they consider each other’s relationship as “primary,” they are open to new relationships outside their own marriage.

I was very disappointed to hear this, not because I am an arbitrator or authority on human sexual relationships, but because I believe it will diminish their own relationship and stymie the personal growth that occurs in a healthy, loving and respectful marriage.

Looking outside one’s own marriage for fulfillment or to make up for some kind of perceived lack in one’s spouse, sidesteps the healthy process of communication, compromise and problem solving that eventually ends up with an immensely satisfying relationship. In addition, the problem, or portion thereof, may be the one staring back at oneself in the mirror.

50% of all marriages end in divorce, that includes those in the church. Among Christians, progressive and conservative alike, are subtle (sometimes not so subtle), unrealistic expectations for marriage. In this consumer driven society, we often make bad decisions, then we decide we can’t live with those decisions, so we buy a new, better car, phone, job or a new spouse.

For many Christians the concept of marriage is drawn from the hodgepodge of examples given in scripture as to what marriage looks like. The problem is that those examples are drawn from foreign societies thousands of years ago. The Bible is not a particularly good marriage manual. It is outdated, at times misogynistic and simply did not deal with the same social pressures that a 21st century world places on relationships.

The trouble I see with the conservative view that there are Biblical “rules” to follow: headship, husband priest of the home, women subordinate to husband, etc., is that following those rules don’t seem to have any measurable success in avoiding divorce. The usual scapegoat is to blame the lure of modernism and sexual hedonism they see as prevalent in society. This is only partially true; the descriptives given in scripture were never meant to be applied to 21st century marriages. They are culturally bound.

Among progressives, the freedom from the Bible as a rule book, will, inevitably lead to experimentation, which can be a two-edged sword. If there is to be a “rule,” let it be that of love. Not the mushy, sentimental kind, or the seeking mutual satisfaction kind, but the true, Christ-like sacrificial kind.