Must Christians agree with every moral command in the Bible? Is it an all or nothing affair? Does the Bible settle the debate in the UMC on homosexuality? What should we do when a segment of the Christian community believes that what the Bible teaches about a particular topic is wrong? This talk explores the ways Christians in general, and Methodists in particular, have acted responsibly to revise and sometimes set aside specific biblical commands.
The paper is based on a chapter of the forthcoming book, Welcoming Prodigals.
Dr. John Sanders, Professor of Religious Studies, Hendrix College
The Bible is a text which nurtures Christian communities in the love of God and guides us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It is a means of grace that helps us participate in the work of God that seeks to transform people and societies to live in accordance with God’s gracious love. The Bible is extremely important to Christians, yet it contains some teachings that various Christian communities have found morally objectionable. Historically, Christians have disagreed about what to do about such texts. A contentious issue today, for example, is the biblical teaching on homosexuality. Some Christians believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality and so, in order to follow God, they do the same. Some Christians claim that the biblical texts are not about committed homosexual relationships but about abusive behaviors. This paper does not investigate the biblical texts in the debate about homosexuality. Instead, it asks the question whether there can be no further discussion if we conclude that biblical texts clearly condemn homosexual behavior. If the Bible is fundamentally opposed to homosexuality is it justifiable for the church to come to the conclusion that homosexuals should be granted full participation in church life? The following discussion does not tell you which stance to take regarding homosexuality. Rather, it helps us understand the options Christians have historically taken when dealing with biblical teachings they find unacceptable. Hopefully, this will lead to a responsible use of the Bible to help move forward on many issues, including homosexuality.
Some Christians like to preach that believing in the Bible is an “all or nothing” affair. If you do not follow all the teachings of the Bible, then you are not following God completely. Every ethical teaching in the Bible is valid for all time periods and can never be set aside. The rhetoric sounds definitive—no wiggle room; no exceptions. However, the people who make these grand pronouncements do not actually practice what they preach here (not even fundamentalists). From the time of the Apostles to today, Christians have found principled ways to revise or reject biblical teachings they found objectionable. The real debates were about which biblical teachings should be set aside and which ones should be practiced.
Using the Bible to set aside other biblical teachings.
Since I accept the Bible as a sacred text that shapes the Christian community, I want to pay attention to what the biblical authors say. It may surprise some folks that the practice of revising and sometimes annulling previous biblical teaching occurs in the Bible itself. For instance, part of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) is revised in Exodus 34:5-7. One of the Ten Commandments says that God’s love is conditional upon obedience—God will love us only if we obey. However, Exodus 34 makes several changes to this text. It removes the conditional element from the text—God is going to love no matter what. It also changes the word order so that divine love comes first and divine judgment comes last. This one of the ten commandments also says that God will punish grandchildren for the sins of the grandfathers. However, Ezekiel 18:20 says God will not do this. Biblical writers revised and even cancelled some of the Ten Commandments in order to more accurately depict what God is like.
Another example is the contentious debate that occupies many passages of the New Testament. The Old Testament lifts up some Gentiles (non-Jews), such as Zipporah, Jethro, and Naaman as worthy people. Yet, there are also a lot of nasty things said about Gentiles. They are not considered part of the people of God. The dominant understanding at the time of Jesus was that if Gentiles want to be accepted by God then they need to follow the biblical commands about male circumcision, which foods are permitted, and resting on the Sabbath. In short, they had to convert to Judaism. The early followers of Jesus, who were all Jewish, believed this as well. Those baptized into the original Jesus community were all Jews. But then something strange and totally unexpected happened. The book of Acts tells about Gentiles who heard the preaching of the Jewish apostles and who then manifested signs that the Holy Spirit had come upon them. The Gentiles who experienced the Holy Spirit asked to be baptized into the Jesus community.
At first, the apostle Peter was opposed to this but God informed Peter that Gentiles were no longer to be considered “unclean” (ritually impure). So, Peter baptized them and all hell broke loose in the fledgling church. Other Christians were outraged and used the Bible to point out to Peter that his innovation in doctrine and practice was against the clear teaching of the Bible. Those people don’t belong in the Jewish church. If they want to use our water fountain, then they need to adopt the Jewish religion first. God has laid out the rules for who is in and out and if they want to be included then they have to follow the rules like everyone else. God does not allow exceptions. To gain admission to God’s household they must live like we do and keep God’s moral order. They cannot be accepted into God’s community unless the males are circumcised, they practice the dietary restrictions, and keep the Sabbath. One cannot be a member of God’s country without these God given practices. This is the social order God established and who are you to challenge what has held our religion together for hundreds of years?
In the year 50 CE Jewish followers of Jesus held a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the matter. Acts 15 describes this meeting of Christians as one of “great dissension.” This was a heated debate about the widely accepted social order and traditional morality. The innovators, Peter and Paul, were going against what traditionalists took to be clear biblical teaching and hundreds of years of Jewish practice. They were attempting to set aside God’s commandments and this seemed obviously wrong to many Christians. This red hot topic was debated in churches throughout the Roman empire and threatened to split the tiny Christian community. Christians today fail to grasp the gravity of this dispute in the early church.
To defend his radical innovations Paul cherry picks texts from Old Testament texts that speak favorably about Gentiles and he sets aside biblical teaching about Gentile exclusion. He is convinced that God is moving in a particular direction and claims that the love of God displayed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means that the moral order governing how Jews and Gentiles related needed revision. Paul was convinced that God had fundamentally changed who was accepted by God. Tension arose because these are the very things that give religion stability. Paul jettisons a number of highly important symbolic components of the early Christian social order when he says that Gentiles do not have to keep the Sabbath (one of the Ten Commandments), males do not have to be circumcised, and they do not have to practice the dietary laws proscribed by God in the Bible. Christians today take these beliefs and practices for granted and have a difficult time understanding what the big deal was. But it was an earth-shaking matter at the time because Peter and Paul were setting aside biblical commands that governed how Jews and Gentiles related in everyday life and worship. They wanted to make momentous changes that many argued would tear apart the social fabric and destroy the proper worship of God. Serious stuff indeed.
A great deal was on the line at that meeting in Jerusalem. A common interpretation of the Bible was on the side of those who wanted to keep the traditional ways in place. Once you catch the magnitude of the situation, then it is utterly stunning that the people at the meeting decided to go with the innovators. The pages of the New Testament reveal that some Christians did not accept this conclusion and kept to the traditional biblical morality. Yet, it is astonishing that most Christians were willing to embrace the overturning of the social order they had been raised in. This decision set aside some biblical teaching on the topic while highlighting other biblical teaching. The choice they made fundamentally changed the moral order of society—the way everyone related to one another. It is by far the key reason for the amazing growth of Christianity over the next several centuries.
Six strategies to revise or set aside biblical teaching on a topic.
Christians throughout history have followed the lead of biblical writers in revising and setting aside biblical teachings they find problematic. They developed a number of ways to accomplishing this.
- The criterion of love.
Augustine (fourth century) was a very influential Christian bishop and thinker. He says that when we come across morally objectionable statements in scripture we should ask whether they promote love for God and neighbor. For him, a major teaching of the Bible is that God is seeking to inculcate love in people so anything in the Bible that goes against love can be set aside. For example, when the Bible portrays God acting in unloving ways then we have the right to say God did not actually do what the biblical writers said God did. Other Christians use a similar approach when they say that Jesus is the clearest and best example of what God is like. Jesus is the lens through which one reads the Bible and if depictions of God commanding genocide or irrational violence in the Bible are incompatible with the character of Jesus, then we can be confident that God is not like this. If the Bible teaches something that runs counter to Jesus, then Jesus wins—every time. This is so because Jesus is the very word of God (John 1:1), the exact representation of what God is like (Heb. 1:3) such that one who has seen Jesus has seen God (John 14:9).
We should note that Jesus himself was quite selective about which scriptures to use. He ignores the texts about condemning people and stoning them for various infractions. Out of such passages he selects only the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). When he announces his mission in Luke 4 he quotes Isaiah 61 about good news for the poor and release to the captives and then stops mid-sentence and deliberately refuses to quote the rest of the sentence about divine vengeance. Jesus did this because it did not fit with his view of God as “Abba” who loves us. The teachings as well as the actions of Jesus on the cross convey the central message that God loves us.
Proponents of this method sometimes speak of “master” texts in the Bible which guide the way we read the rest of scripture. Examples of master texts are Jesus’ two greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor or Paul’s assertion that in the church the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and freeperson, male and female are transcended (Gal. 3:28). Christians have used these texts to justify setting aside other biblical texts that fall short of these ideals.
- Jesus changes everything.
A second widely used principle has been to distinguish between what God expected before Jesus and what God desires after Jesus. Now that Jesus has come, all sorts of changes can be made to biblical laws. For instance, the followers of Jesus need not make grain or animal sacrifices in the Temple. Some Christians in the third-century said that the biblical injunction against husbands having sex with their menstruating wives (Lev. 15:19-24) was no longer in force after Jesus. In the eighth-century there was a huge debate over the practice of bowing and praying in front of icons (paintings and statues of Jesus and saints). Many Christians were appalled at these practices because this was clearly counter to one of the Ten Commandments which said you shall have no idols (Exodus 20:4). Some people were so upset that they went into churches with hammers and smashed the icons to pieces (which is how we got the word iconoclast). A major church council was held on the matter in the year 787 and it decided that the prohibition of icons was no longer binding now that God had come in the physical form of Jesus.
- Follow the trajectory.
One approach is to admit that there are teachings that are less than ideal in the Bible but one finds in the Bible itself change and development on such topics. It is claimed that biblical texts about slavery, genocide, racism, and sexism become less and less acceptable as newer texts are written. For instance, take the treatment of women in the Bible. Proponents of this tactic claim that one finds in the Bible an increasingly more humane attitude towards women. When this trajectory is followed, one can arrive at a position of full equality with males. Some abolitionists used this method to argue that the Bible moves from giving some protections to slaves to care for their well-being to treating them as equals in Christ. They said that the goal of this trajectory was the end of slavery.
- It is cultural and so was temporary.
Another popular maneuver is to classify as “cultural” any command that a Christian community considers irrelevant or objectionable. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:9 instructs Christian women not to wear braided hair, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes to worship. In America, women regularly do these in church and feel no shame in doing so. This explicit teaching is set aside by saying it was relevant to that cultural context and is not applicable to ours. Another example of this is that for over two-thousand years Jews and Christians believed that part of what it meant to “honor your mother and father” (one of the Ten Commandments) was to marry the person they arranged for you. American Christians definitely do not believe the Ten Commandments means arranged marriages. A final example is the prohibition of tattoos (Lev. 19:28). Though some Christians today believe that this commandment must be enforced, other Christians openly display tattoos despite the clear biblical instruction. Christian make these moves by designating these biblical morals as cultural. Hence, some claim that biblical prohibitions against tattoos, braided hair, and gold jewelry were ok for biblical times but we don’t have to follow them today.
A variation of the cultural manoeuver is to claim that behind each commandment in the Bible is a principle and it is only the principle that is obligatory rather than the culturally embedded command in scripture. Leviticus 23:22 says to not harvest crops at the edge of one’s field. One was to leave crops for the poor to harvest. A student once told me that his father, a farmer, faithfully practiced this biblical command. I asked the student how many poor people came to his dad’s farm to cut the wheat and pick the soybeans left after the harvesters went through. He replied that he did not recall ever seeing this happen. Some Christians would say that his father is to be commended for wanting to care for the poor but he should not do what the biblical command says to do. Instead, he should harvest to the edges of the field and find a way to care for the poor that makes sense today.
- The text was misinterpreted.
Another approach was to claim that though Christians traditionally interpreted a biblical text to teach something, in fact, it does not teach this. For instance, Joshua 10:13 says that the sun stood still, which Christians for thousands of years took to mean that the sun revolves around the earth and the earth does not move. Martin Luther used this text to argue that Copernicus and Galileo were wrong. God knows the truth and since the Bible is from God, the sun revolves around the earth. However, other Christians, such as John Calvin, argued that the biblical text had been misunderstood for centuries. Even though the Bible is from God, it actually does not teach a geocentric solar system because God communicates to us via ordinary human ideas such as the sun sets. The motivation for revising the age old interpretation of the text was, in fact, that these Christians were convinced that modern astronomy was correct so they read their Bibles in light of modern science.
- What we believe is true and moral today based on the best knowledge we have available.
A final way of dealing with problem teachings in the Bible is simply to that what the Bible teaches on a particular topic fails to align with the best knowledge we have on the topic. Even on moral teachings Christians have followed Augustine’s lead and revised or set aside biblical injunctions because they are incompatible with the moral vision of the society. For instance, Christians rejected the commandment that a non-betrothed woman who is raped has to marry her rapist (Deut. 22:28-29). They believed this biblical law was morally repugnant and set it aside. Another example is from parents who believe that corporeal punishment of children is important to make them morally strong. They usually defend this by appealing to the biblical commands to physically punish children. James Dobson and other evangelicals claim to carefully follow biblical teaching on this subject. However, other evangelicals note that they do not, in fact, follow the Bible and beat their children with a rod, strike children of any age, hit them up to forty times, leave welts on the back of the children, and punish in anger. These biblical practices are considered totally unacceptable and even illegal in our society so it not surprising that even those who claim to strictly follow biblical teaching on this matter do not actually do so.
One of the most contested moral issues in Christianity for centuries was slavery. Though the Bible does place some restrictions on how slaves could be treated it does not repudiate slavery. The New Testament orders slaves to obey their masters in everything (Col. 3:22-25 and Eph. 6:5-8) and to obey even masters who treat them badly (2 Peter 2:18). In America, abolitionists could not claim any clear biblical teaching against slavery so they had to resort to using the kinds of interpretive manoeuvers discussed here. The pro slavery Christians had a very strong case since they had both social custom as well as the straight forward biblical commands on their side. Exodus 21:20-22 says, “When a slave owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is his property.” Prior to the civil war, a Baptist minister in Virginia cited this passage from Exodus and said that the Bible is “the divine authority” given by God and to reject, not just slavery, but the right to severely beat slaves with a rod that results in the death of the slave, is to reject God’s authority. It hardly needs to be said that Christians today find this biblical teaching morally reprehensible and so set it aside. Christians argued about slavery for centuries and both sides appealed to the Bible but they did so in very different ways.
Methodists have used the Bible to justify moral stances and then later changed their minds to say the previous stance was immoral. Here are a few examples.
- In 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church rejected slavery but then exceptions were made. Southern Methodists said slavery was a God-given right according to the Bible. Northern Methodists used the strategies discussed above to argue that the biblical texts sanctioning slavery should be set aside. Eventually, separate Disciplines were published representing the north and the south. In 1844 the MEC officially split over slavery. In 2012 the UMC officially repented of its history of racism.
- Women’s ordination. At one point, the Methodist Church believed that the Bible clearly excluded ordaining women. However, disagreement on the matter continued for decades. Eventually, enough Methodists were persuaded that the New Testament texts about women not speaking in church should not be enforced today. The UMC changed the Discipline and began ordaining women.
- Interracial marriage. Biblical teaching was used to justify forbidding Methodist pastors from marrying couples who were not of the same race. This was the policy in the Social Principles during the 1950’s. However, this policy was overturned and the biblical texts used to support it have been set aside.
- From 1884 onward the MC said, “No divorce, except for adultery, shall be regarded by the Church as lawful; and no minister shall solemnize marriage” of a divorced person. Again, this was based on biblical teaching. There was much disagreement in the church for decades and in 1972 the UMC Social Principles were changed to say, “we recognize divorce and the right of divorced persons to remarry.”
- It is interesting that the moment the UMC allowed for divorced persons to marry a statement was added to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. Once again, it is biblical texts that are the key reason given for this stance.
These examples show that Methodists have vigorously debated issues with one group claiming to have clear biblical teaching on their side while the other side used the strategies mentioned above to claim that the Bible sanctioned a different moral stance. The exact same forms of argument have recurred in the Methodist Church for the past 230 years. The issues have changed but not the way the issues are argued.
Throughout history Christians have used these six (and other) tactics to revise or jettison biblical teachings they found unacceptable. Some Christians like to proclaim that the authority of the Bible is an all or nothing affair. They talk a mean game but they do not actually walk the talk. Augustine and most Christians in history have followed God’s leading even while repudiating the all or nothing approach. They have developed judicious ways to sort through biblical teachings. They have acted responsibly when picking and choosing which biblical teachings to follow. The debates were not about whether it was legitimate to amend or set aside some biblical instructions. No, the debates were over which teachings should be received, which ones needed to be revised, and which ones must be rejected. Christian communities have repeatedly asked “What would Jesus do?” in order to decide which texts to adopt, which to adapt, and which to abandon. They looked to the center of the faith to figure out what it means to practice love regarding contentious issues such as slavery. Churches would be better off if they just fessed up and admitted that such debates are an inherent part of the Christian life. Being up-front about this matter would help Christians make sense of what we actually experience when disagreements arise about whether a biblical teaching is loving or just. The debate over Gentile inclusion in the Jesus community as well as debates over slavery, divorce, interracial marriage, and women’s ordination help us understand it is normal for Christian communities to have contentious debates which may take decades to resolve—particularly those that involve changes to traditional practices.
What is being suggested here is to value both the Bible as a means of grace able to transform people into the likeness of Jesus and also value new truths we find from science and cultural learning (general revelation). There must be a dialogue between the major themes, virtues, and values taught in the Bible and what modern Christian communities think is true and loving. The narratives of the Bible are to shape the vision of the contemporary community while that community also takes seriously the idea that biblical teachings are inescapably enmeshed in human languages and cultures which took particular values and beliefs for granted. It is a conversation, not a one-way street as some claim. Christian communities rightly regard the Bible as a sacred text that shapes their identity. Yet, they also see that the Bible contains teachings they consider out of line with the best reasoning we have available on a topic. So, we need to acknowledge that it is a two-way street and honestly face the situation.
We need to follow the lead of folks such as Paul and Peter who reflected on what the gospel of Jesus meant for their day and age. We should imitate their practice of using Jesus as the focal point to think about how to follow God in our day and age rather than simply mimic what they said. They brought about a religious and social revolution regarding how Gentiles were treated. After centuries of dialogue, Christians renounced slavery. Both of these involved setting aside biblical teaching and transforming social traditions of the day. These changes were difficult but they did not abandon biblical authority or destroy society as some claimed would happen. The debates are painful and it may take a long time to reach general agreement. Today, we debate the biblical injunctions regarding homosexuality. These are in the Bible, our sacred text, so we take them seriously. Yet, we just surveyed an array of other commands, such as slavery, that are in the Bible as well. We know that Christians debated these and finally developed good reasons to set them aside. Today we are having a conversation about whether or not following the Bible means to enforce the injunctions against homosexual behavior or whether following the Bible means we must set these particular teachings aside.
 Nearly a third of millennials who left their religious upbringing did so because of negative treatment of gays by churches. Public Religion Research Institute, “Survey: A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of change in American Attitudes About Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” February 26, 2014, http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/02/2014-lgbt-survey/.
 For more details on how Christians revise and set aside biblical teachings see Sanders, Theology in the Flesh (2016), 129-138.
 There were also debates about how biblical ethical teaching should be applied in new historical situations but that will not be discussed here.
 See Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 71-86, 413.
 See Norman Wirzba, The Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity (Harper One, 2016).
 See William Webb, “A Redemptive Movement Model,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Gary Meaders, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), 232-234.
 For the biblical texts used by each side see Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
 The following discussion is based on Darryl Stephens, Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness. (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2016).
 See Methodist Morals pages 149-155.