Gender Equality: An Appeal for Honesty in how we Read (& Question) the Bible

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." (1 Timothy 2:12)
What do you do with a verse like this as a woman? If you feel a call from God to ministry does this mean you need to give up that calling and just "be quiet"? Does it mean that you can have no voice in the church? 

This is an issue that obviously has existential importance. It has to do with allowing a person (in this case a female person) to not be allowed to be who they believe they are called to be; it has to do with denying them a voice and a seat at the table. It's therefore understandable that lots of us struggle with verses like these in the Bible. We struggle because we find such passages morally objectionable and hurtful. We struggle motivated by compassion, motivated by what we have learned from our Lord Jesus.

A common way of dealing with such passages is to argue that Paul did not actually write 1 Timothy, the implication of this being that if Paul did not write it we are all free to ignore whatever it says. Now, there is indeed valid scholarly evidence that this is true. However many of those same scholars would also claim that Jesus did not actually say "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). So why is it that we latch on to the scholars saying Paul did not write 1st Timothy, but we are not questioning Jesus and forgiveness?

If we are honest, it's because we like the stuff about forgiveness, and don't like the stuff about telling women to shut up. We recognize that forgiveness is morally good, and that making women submit is morally problematic. The fact is, We aren't coming to the issue neutrally; we already have a problem with gender inequality, and when we hear that Paul may not have written 1 Timothy we are happy for an excuse to disregard it as "inauthentic."

We take a similar tactic with many verses that we find morally troubling. I'm sure you are familiar with many of these arguments. Let's take a look at one example:

"Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says... for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

Now no one doubts that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, however the argument that is often advanced here is to claim that this was a particular issue that Paul was addressing with certain disruptive people in the church of Corinth, and that we should therefore not take this as a general principle that would apply to all women for all time. In short: It's cultural.

Again, the point is not that this argument does not have validity. The point is that this is not where we actually begin. We actually begin by having a moral problem with this verse, and then use the scholarly argument (cultural context) to justify why we choose to see this verse as not being applicable to our lives, while we see other verses (like all that good stuff about "love is patient, love is kind" just one chapter earlier in 1 Corinthians 13) as being applicable for our lives, and not as merely cultural.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we shouldn't question verses like these. I think we are right to question them. In fact, I would say that it is imperative that we question religious commands that we recognize as being hurtful. This is precisely how Jesus approached the Bible. To instead read it unquestioningly is what the Pharisees did, and what Jesus condemned.

So I think coming to the biblical text with such moral questions is vital to healthy Jesus-shaped faith. Because I believe that, where I do want to challenge my progressive sisters and brothers is with being honest about what we are doing. We need to own and embrace what we are doing. When we make the argument that "Paul did not write that" or "that's just cultural" the assumption is often that we are coming at this objectively and simply going with what scholars and "science" says.

That is disingenuous. The real reason is that we come to the text with a moral perspective that causes us to stumble over them in the first place. We need to admit that, and we need to validate it. The reason many of us hide behind scholarship here (especially those of us who come from a conservative background) is that there is an implication that it would be bad to come to the Bible with a moral perspective. If we admit that, we will quickly be accused of "imposing our liberal modern sensibilities onto God's Word." We aren't supposed to impose our morality on the Bible, we're supposed to let the Bible teach us about what's right. Right?


When we read the Bible in an unquestioning way we are reading like the Pharisees, and as Jesus says over and over again, the error they made was that in reading Scripture in this unquestioning way they actually missed the entire point of Scripture which is to lead us to love. Instead it became a weapon used to keep people away from love and from life. That still goes on among many modern day Christian Pharisees, and the gender equality debate is an example of this.

If we truly understand the reason Jesus was so adamantly opposed to how the Pharisees were (mis)reading Scripture, we need to recognize that Jesus came to the Bible with a set of moral assumptions intact and applied these as he read. This lead him to do things like healing on the Sabbath which was breaking the law from the perspective of the Pharisees, but was fulfilling it from the perspective of Jesus because he was loving and caring for people in need.

When we likewise come to the text with the values of Jesus in mind, with compassion for the marginalized on our hearts, we need to see that this is a good thing which we need to affirm, rather than deny or hide.

That means when we find ourselves questioning verses that seem hurtful to us, the first thing we need to do is recognize that those questions are a vital part of a healthy Jesus-shaped approach to faith and Scripture. So let's own and embrace these questions and the moral assumptions behind them. Let's recognize that it's good to read the Bible morally, and bad the read it amorally.

Once we can do that, once we can be honest about why we are really questioning certain verses (because they are morally troubling, and not because of some scholarly argument about their authenticity or cultural context) then the next step would be to explore those moral assumptions:

What are the values we are bringing to the text? Are they inline with the values of Jesus? How do we know? How can we develop and grow in these values as followers of Christ?

These are the kinds of questions we need to explore as we learn to think morally, and develop what Paul calls "the mind of Christ." Rather than keeping them hidden and thus unreflected (and perhaps as a result undeveloped), let's bring our questions and moral assumptions into the light.

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An Apologist for Genocide? Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In this post I'd like to address a book that has received high praise and glowing endorsements from a host of conservative professors and pastors—Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? The endorsements from conservative professors and scholars on the back of Copan’s book hail it as “the book I wish I had written myself” and call for it to be “required reading in college and seminary courses.” This praise is not restricted to conservatives however. Several prominent moderate Evangelicals have also come out in support of the book. Two prominent examples are Scot McKnight and Frank Viola.

I can understand the motivation: There is a perceived attack from the New Atheists who accuse the God of the Old Testament of being a moral monster. However I would like to propose that the focus is completely in the wrong place here. That is, the focus is on defending the faith, rather than actually considering where there may be legitimate problems we should address. In other words, our response should be one of listening and where appropriate repentance, not one of seeking to justify things that we would in any other context condemn as being profoundly immoral. This is where I think Christian Apologetics has lost its way. Rather than being about articulating the faith in a thoughtful way, it instead echoes our culture's tendency to set up an us versus them situation where the result is to "win" the argument rather than the person.

More specifically, the assumption behind this all is that the Old Testament contains one single view of God that we can then deem to be good and seek to justify (as the apologists do) or bad and reject (as the New Atheists do), rather than recognizing the rather hard to miss fact that the Old Testament contains many conflicting perspectives of who God is. It is a record of dispute, and when we instead try to harmonize it into a single view, we completely misread it. Yet that misreading seems to be quite common, even among people with a PhD.

I'm all for a nuanced reading of the Bible, and getting away from pedestrian critiques that reflect a Sunday school biblical education (Bill Maher comes to mind here). The answer here however is to face the multi-vocal nature of the OT rather than to try and defend things that are clearly indefensible from a moral and ethical standpoint. The irony that Christians who are supposed to be champions of morality (helping to develop character and compassion) find themselves defending moral atrocity in the Bible reveals something very broken about our faith. We need to shine light on that brokenness.

So much for the preamble. Let's get down to addressing Copan's arguments in the book specifically: Dr. Copan offers a cornucopia of explanations which all seek to either minimize or make sense of the violence described in Scripture. The array of arguments he presents in defense of the Canaanite genocide can be summarized as follows:

Perhaps, Copan argues, the commands to “utterly destroy” foreign nations should not be seen as “ethnic cleansing” because the motivation was not racism, but that the Canaanites were a “wicked” and “morally bankrupt” people, and thus the only proper moral response was to kill them all (p 163–165. It is worth noting too that characterizing another people group as “wicked” and “morally bankrupt”—especially when this is used as a justification for “utterly destroying” them—reflects a casebook example of how ethnic cleansing functions). Then again, Copan's argument continues, perhaps the Bible’s claims that Joshua “left no survivors,” but “totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” (Joshua 10:40) was simply an exaggerated war rhetoric, typical of the ancient world, and not all of the population were slaughtered, so it was not quite as bad as it seems (pp. 170–173, 182). Perhaps we don’t take sexual sin seriously enough today, and value human life too much. Copan writes,

“We live in a time when we are very alert to racial discrimination and intolerance, but we aren’t as sensitized to sexual sin as past generations were. We live in a time that sees death as the ultimate evil. Perhaps we need to be more attuned to the fact that our moral intuitions are not as fine tuned as they ought to be.” (Is God a Moral  Monster?, 192)

Perhaps, Copan argues, because ancient people did not value life as much as we do, they would not be psychologically traumatized by mass slaughtering women and infants (189). Perhaps there were not any women or children present, and so they were not actually slaughtered as the commands declared (175–177). Even if they were, however, this too, Copan argues, would have been justified because “God is the author of life and has a rightful claim on it as its creator … If infants are killed by God’s command, they aren’t wronged, for they will be compensated in the next life.” (189, 194)

Regardless of one’s evaluation of the relative merit and accuracy of Copan’s above arguments (and from the point of view of scholarship, and in particular the proper application of archeological evidence, there is a great deal that one could dispute here), the above array of diverse arguments all boil down to this basic claim: It probably wasn’t as bad as it seems, and even if it was, it’s okay if God commands it.

Here again we see the profoundly dangerous claim that biblical commands should override our conscience. In other words: We should commit acts that we believe to be profoundly immoral and wrong (like committing mass-murder), simply because we think the Bible tells us to. Stop for a moment, and really let that sink in. As you do, consider that this is not simply theoretical. People have repeatedly throughout history used such thinking to justify mass murder and torture in God's name.

Copan, in fact, sees God’s commands to slaughter the Canaanites as the primary criteria legitimizing what he refers to as “a corporate capital punishment that could be carried out only with the guidance of special, divine revelation” (188) acknowledging that, “without God’s explicit command (and thus his morally sufficient reasons), attacking the Canaanites would not have been justified” (169).

Particularly alarming in this regard is Copan’s statement that “we should ask, what if there were some task that we would shrink from that could even psychologically harm us but that still needed to be done?” (190). This is said directly in the context of discussing the potential psychological damage done to those who were commanded to slaughter noncombatant women and children. So the implication is that even if it would traumatize you to participate in a massacre (he mentions the My Lai Massacre as an example), if God said to do it you still should. Wow.

To his credit, Copan stresses elsewhere that violence cannot legitimately be carried out in God’s name today with appeal to these commands, insisting that they were specific to a particular time and people and thus cannot be generalized (194). However, because Copan bases this on the criteria of God’s explicit command, the possibility is left open that if God were to command us to commit genocide today, we would be obliged to obey. Copan offers here no criteria for evaluating how one knows what God’s authentic voice is—whether today or in biblical times.

Copan further argues that because the ancient Israelites were “morally blunted” they would not have been psychologically damaged in the way U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were from their participation in the Mai Lai massacre. Copan writes,

In the ancient Near East, however, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival. Fighting was a much less grim reality back then. In the ancient Near East, combatants and noncombatants weren’t always easily distinguished. We’ve also observed that the hardness of the human hearts (Matt. 19:8), in conjunction with the existence of fallen, morally blunted social structures in the ancient Near East likely means that such actions would have been considerably less psychologically damaging for the ancient Israelites than for a citizen of Wester culture. There is no evidence that Israelite soldiers were internally damaged by killing Canaanites. (Is God a Moral  Monster?, 189)

There are several problems with the above analysis. First, according to this rationale, in order to carry out God’s commands one must be—in Copan’s own words—fallen, hard hearted, and morally blunted (189). This amounts to an argument against his position, rather than in support of it. Secondly, the fact that violence is common does not diminish the damage it does. If high mortality rates from gang shootings are statistically common in the inner city projects that does not mean that a mother living in the projects is any less heartbroken holding the lifeless body of her infant child caught in the cross fire of a drive-by-shooting. It would have been no different for a Canaanite or Israelite mother in Biblical times witnessing soldiers breaking into their home and slaughtering “everything that breathes” as they watched in helpless terror. No amount of academic subterfuge should harden our hearts to this reality or morally blunt us to the suffering of others. If this is what the result of “defending the Bible” looks like, then we need to seriously re-evaluate our priorities.

In the end, Copan's arguments, from a scholarly and scientific perspective, are filled with holes. If you are at all familiar with biblical scholarship this is very apparent, and I frankly find it a bit shocking that more people have not called him on this. He regularly misapplies evidence in a way that relies on his audience not themselves being familiar with what scholarship is actually saying. Maybe I'll return to this point in more detail later. However, I would say the larger point is the moral and ethical implications of his arguments which I have focused on here.

I do not question Copan’s motivations, which I trust are well meant. As with all apologetics, the motivation seems clear: It reflects an attempt to defend Scripture and defend the faith. The belief is that in doing so we are defending God's honor by defending the Bible—but at what cost? As well intentioned as these defenses may be, we ultimately need to ask what it does to our faith to believe that the very same God we are supposed to love and intimately trust is the one commanding such horrific violence. What does it do to our conscience to call such atrocities “good” or even “holy”?

What if instead of "defending the Bible" we learned how to read it in a way that focused on looking at our selves introspectively, in a way that was focused on cultivating compassion for the other and the enemy? What if we believed that asking hard quesutions motivated by compassion was an essential part of a healthy faith?

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