(Second post on same-sex and the Bible.)
Thankfully the Christian tradition (now) is that slavery and the slave trade are incompatible with the Gospel message. Although there is still, in some quarters, a divide between male and female roles that is defended and as a result certain leadership roles are barred from women, there has been a great move toward a view advocating egalitarianism. With both examples of slavery and women there are ‘difficult Scriptures’ that anyone moving in an egalitarian direction faces. In the former situation (slavery) those Scriptures are effectively ignored;;1 and with the male / female situation there is such a strong internal critique and dialogue (disagreement?) that for writers, such as myself, there is an overwhelming movement toward an egalitarian position. Yes there are challenging Scriptures, ones that can be explained by the historical context and culture, but in reality those Scriptures are simply not relevant to us today. They were for ‘then’ and ‘there’ not ‘now’ and ‘here’. I am very happy to accept that the Bible is patriarchally biased, and that we do not need to submit to that bias, indeed we have to reject that bias… and do so to be faithful to the ‘story’ that is being told..2
Slavery → narratives that do not condemn slavery, laws that regulate but do not condemn etc… But: slave-traders critiqued; Onesimus to be viewed as a brother; and the overall message from Creation through Redemption was of the equal status of all human beings; ownership of another was not sustainable.
Women → many Scriptures place their position in society / home as being at a subservient level; Paul’s ‘household codes’ seemed to give ‘leadership’ priority to the husband. But: there was an underlying egalitarian basis to the Gospel (Gal. 3:28 being central to this); all the household codes can be seen as apologetic in nature rather than representing an eternal order; all of Paul / Pauline texts that seem to restrict women can be understood in a way that brings them into line with egalitarianism – by looking at the cultural background; and finally whatever might be claimed to be representing a subservience of women from creation becomes irrelevant as eschatological humanity in Christ (not humanity in Adam) has to be the basis for any understanding.
But same-sex relationships? The above two examples seek to track with a trajectory in Scripture and also seek to pick up on the intra-canonical debate / dialogue where there might be conflicting messages. Is that present in this third example? It seems not.
With respect to same-sex activity we do not have that same internal dialogue and that was a factor for me when I wrote that former paper. Without that internal dialogue / disagreement we accept the witness of Scripture as giving the final word, but… any final word also has to include a trajectory that would take us beyond the pages of Scripture. Any such trajectory would not be in disagreement to the story line, but could be seen to disagree with specific texts.3
1. With an effective response of ‘that was then in that culture, but we now know that there is something wrong at the core of slavery, of owning people’. Effectively those Scriptures are given no weight.
2. By accepting that the Scriptures have a patriarchal bias is not to take away its authority, but to push us beyond the various texts. The authority of Scripture is in the story being told, and in its unique witness to the revelation of God that was Personal in and through Jesus.
3. Beyond Scripture does not mean we can assume an authority to continue to add books to our canon, but that there is a very real sense in which the story being told is unfinished. There is a gap between the end of the New Testament and the parousia. We are not authorised to write what fits in this gap but it is important that the gap is filled through followers of Jesus who live out faithfully in line with what has gone before. Perhaps those Christian traditions that emphasise the tradition of the church have grasped something that those such as myself have not, but I note that too often the tradition does not simply inform but restrict any new path being discovered.