Sunday, May 16, 2010

Interpreting the passages we don't like

We all have them: Bible verses we wish God had left out. Maybe for you it's the violent wars God sent the Israelites on in the Old Testament. Maybe it's homosexuality, the role of women, or divorce and remarriage. And over the years Christians have found many creative and (I believe) dangerous excuses to avoid having to follow those passages.

Today in our Bible class, we discussed a very difficult passage, and it was interesting to see the gut reactions of others in the class. The passage was 1 Timothy 2:9-10, which reads,

I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
For some inexplicable reason, this verse is like dynamite. Every time I've tried to have a discussion about this verse with another woman, it becomes an excuse fest. "God certainly couldn't have meant it like that."

Perhaps they're all right, but I would like to see a sound argument for that case rather than a knee jerk reaction without any substance.

Several of them said that it was a cultural thing. I admit to being a bit biased against cultural arguments. We present the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, a living and active document that applies today just like it did 2000 years ago... and then we want to throw out a paragraph or a chapter here or there because it "doesn't apply anymore". I think we need to be very careful when we throw out "culture" as a reason to not follow a passage... and I think in this instance the argument falls very flat. Those same people who think that verses 9 and 10 are cultural and therefore don't need to be followed would defend verses 11 and 12 (which say that women can't teach or have authority over men) to their graves. Yet how many modern denominations have decided that verses 11 and 12 are cultural, too? I think you have to make up your mind. Either the entire passage is cultural, or none of it is.

Another argument that someone brought up was that in a similar passage in 1 Peter 3, Peter doesn't mention pearls. The person said, in a somewhat ironic voice, that Peter apparently didn't have a problem with pearls. The implication was that because Peter and Paul couldn't agree, none of it applied. If that's the standard, we need to rethink our views of sin! Jesus' list of what makes a man unclean in Mark 7 differs from Paul's acts of the flesh in Galatians 5 and John's list of the sinners who are cast into the fire in Revelation 21. Jesus apparently approves of witchcraft, John and Paul approve of theft, and Paul and Jesus approve of lying.

Obviously, picking and choosing between different verses will get you into loads of trouble. Peter doesn't trump Paul, John doesn't trump Jesus, and just because Jesus doesn't mention something doesn't mean that we all get a pass from it when one of the Apostles mentions it in a subsequent letter.

My intent is not to pick on these people - all of whom I believe are honestly trying to live the way God desires - but I think that the discussion today is illustrative of the way many difficult passages are approached in modern Christianity, and it disturbs me. We need to decide how we will interpret the Scriptures and then be consistent in our application of those principles.

Have you seen Christians (or maybe you find yourself) making excuses for following a particular Bible verse? What excuses do we use? How can we fix this? Does it even need to be fixed?

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  • Alan

    Great topic! Obviously 1 Cor 11 on women's head coverings would be on the list, and 1 Cor 14 on women being silent in the assembly. Also husbands being the head of the wife (Eph 5). Notice the trend?

    I admit to being completely clueless about the objections to 1 Tim 2:9-10. Do the objecting women really want that badly to wear pearls? Or to braid their hair? Do they really want to wear expensive clothes? I cannot begin to imagine why. It seems to me that the passage sets women free from the rat race of dressing to impress. I just don't get it.

  • Harmony

    Daddy, I noticed the trend, too. I think it just shows how much harm feminism has done to our churches.

    I don't pretend to understand why most women object to taking this verse literally. As you know, for most of my life the only jewelry Mom ever wore was a simple, functional watch. She didn't even wear a wedding ring. And her idea of "designer" clothing was a sweatshirt she had decorated with puffy paint. ;-) So in many ways I don't have any problem with the verse.

    And yet, I don't want to take off my wedding ring. I like nice clothing. I think young girls look adorable in braids. And I make my own (reasonable or not) justifications:

    "The intent of the verse is to avoid flashy and expensive adornment. My wedding ring is simple, and serves a purpose in a way other jewelry doesn't."

    "The verse speaks to women, not girls. Moreover, the braids they were talking about were the lavish up-dos of the first century times. Surely Paul wasn't speaking of a simple braid! You can hardly get more modest than that!"

    And, of course, it's hard to believe that we'll still be as beautiful as other women without those adornments. The Bible says that beauty comes from a gentle and quiet spirit, that our adornment should be good works, etc... but I think most women today (myself included) have a very, very hard time believing that.

  • Laura

    Hmm, usually my complaint about how people view that passage is that they read "modesty" there and think it's talking about not wearing revealing clothing. Which I think is included in the "decency and propriety" but is not the whole story.

    I think it is a shame that across almost all denominations, Christian women believe that you are *supposed* to dress up in nice clothes, make-up, and jewelry when going to church. There is this belief that a "good Christian woman" looks polished, tailored, and dressy. I think this is a destructive lie that feeds women's natural vanity.

    In some circles I think it throws people for a loop that I wear jeans and a plain shirt to church. But if God does not look at the outward appearance, who would I be trying to impress by dressing up more?

    Other Scriptures that come to mind where people say "Of course God couldn't really have meant that":

    Luke 14:26 -- the "hate your father and mother" passage. I think other passages in the Bible can be used to make a good case that Jesus is not saying that we should hate the same people we are supposed to love and honor, but rather making a separate point.

    Mark 10 -- Jesus' command that the rich young ruler must sell everything he has -- does this apply to us? Perhaps we answer that question too quickly.

    These are probably not exactly what you were getting at, but they were the ones that came to mind.

  • Harmony

    Actually, the rich young ruler passage was one I thought of, too.