Category Archives: Bible

Bothered about slavery in the Bible

If you know someone who doesn’t trust the Bible because it seems to accept slavery (Paul told slaves to obey their masters and didn’t tell masters to free their slaves), here are thoughts that might help them.

● When we evaluate something, we look at the direction it is moving—toward or away from the ideal. The movement is what matters. And clearly Paul and the early church were moving away from slavery. roman slavesWe see Paul urging Philemon to treat the runaway slave Onesimus as a brother (Philem. 1:15-17). And Paul viewing slave and free as having equal worth: all are one in Christ (1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11); masters are not higher in God’s eyes and should not threaten their slaves (Eph. 6:9). And this change Paul asked Philemon and the others to make was sufficient to, in the end, change everything. As F.F. Bruce said, in moving persons toward a master-slave relationship where the master does not threaten slaves and sees them as sisters and brothers, Paul was creating “an atmosphere in which the institution of slavery could only wilt and die.”

● This analogy has helped me. Suppose a good friend moved into a rough neighborhood to befriend the people there. When I stop in to visit, I see ashtrays in the house. I wouldn’t conclude that my friend views smoking as good. Rather, I would assume that the ashtrays are part of a commitment to relate to neighbor, that my friend knew that some would stay away if they couldn’t smoke. In the same way, Paul did not advocate slavery’s elimination because then he would have become so far ahead of his culture that persons like Philemon might no longer relate to him and hear him. Highly regarded historians (such as Kyle Harper) say that not even the “enlightened observers” in that day “could imagine a world without slavery.” The friend was willing to sully his reputation with the ashtrays; Paul (the Spirit of God within Paul) was also willing to stoop to meet people where they were at, in hopes of moving them further. Wise coaches and mentors know that it’s not wise to confront everything that needs changing all at once, for that would overwhelm and alienate those they’re trying to help.

● From my (limited!) understanding of history, Paul had 2 options:

– Insist that Philemon and other Christian slave-owners measure up to the highest ideal (“free all your slaves immediately”), almost certainly straining his relationship with them beyond what it could bear, losing opportunity to continue to influence them; or

– Aim for the highest response he could realistically hope for (“treat your slaves as brothers and sisters”) so he can continue to relate to Philemon and the others, shaping how they relate to their slaves.

Historians give data that suggests that scenario as accurate. If so, it would have been wrong for Paul to choose to be the idealist who insisted on all or nothing and ended up with nothing. If Philemon had perceived Paul as too impractical, too radical, he would have rejected Paul’s letter with its revolutionary counsel about his runaway slave. Interestingly, Onesimus may have gone on to become bishop; at least one by that name followed Timothy as bishop at Ephesus.

Conversation wrap-up (Bible and same-sex)

A group of eight Mennonite pastors in the Harrisonburg VA area met from April to November for a series of conversations on the Bible and same-sex intimacy. conversation around Bibles (View schedule. Read two of my previous blogs on it: June 26, Sept 27.)

For our final session on Nov 22, we each shared two things: 1) what we feel is important to tell our congregation about our time together, and 2) what reflections we would offer in a broader church setting (eg., an MC USA Workshop). Below is a form of what I shared.


To my congregation (Trissels):

Even though our group of pastors represented the full spectrum of beliefs on the issue, showing strong disagreement at times, we clearly loved, enjoyed, and respected each other. All of us were quick to listen and slow to speak. All of us are deeply committed to follow Jesus. All of us love the church. There was also a passionate love for Scripture across the spectrum, though I felt that some of us did not squarely face the exegetical question that is at the heart of the issue (more below).

I poured much time and energy into our sessions because there is a possibility that our conference (VMC) will join some of its sister conferences in changing its policy on same-sex relationships. [Currently if a credentialed person in VMC conducts a covenanting ceremony for a same sex couple, their credentials will be immediately suspended.] My concern is not because same-sex marriage (two persons committing to love each other!) is so bad. My concern is rather: does our church trust Scripture? or trust our own discernment of what is best? I feel that we cannot change on same-sex relationships without also changing our stance on Scripture (i.e., no longer honoring and submitting to all the Spirit’s movement in the Bible, specifically the theme of ever-deepening moral obedience). So I invested much in this conversation, thinking I could help prevent this shift and thereby spare us as a congregation from the trauma of needing to work through how to respond if our conference would change.

Our series of conversations definitely helped us understand each other more. But I don’t believe my input had much effect on anyone’s position. So after writing this piece and sending it to a few conference leaders, I’m going to stop being an activist to try to prevent this change in our conference. (I will do other things if asked, but I will not initiate anything. Also some things I wrote during the summer might still be published.) I pray that God will raise up others who will help our conference remain true to Scripture (or else help us as a congregation see how VMC can change its stance on same-sex relationships and still be honoring and obeying that specific theme of Scripture).


To the broader church (Virginia Mennonite Conference):

Why would eight pastors meet all those times to discuss the Bible and same-sex relationships?

A main reason: We are welcoming same-sex couples into our congregations. May this increase. We should welcome these couples in grace and with pastoral care. But when we call them to walk with us “on the way,” following Jesus, which way are we calling them? There are two opposing answers. Are they going to hear mixed messages, a wrong message?

Thankfully we have help in Scripture, our “fully reliable and trustworthy standard” for life (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective).

Here is what Scripture says, things that we in VMC agree on:

– We agree that Gen 1-2 presents male-female unions as divinely designed.

– We agree that same-sex relations are mentioned in a list of sins in Rom 1 and a list in 1 Cor 6.

Conservatives go on to say that the strongest, most natural reading is that Paul is referring to all same-sex relationships known in the Greco-Roman world, including those that enjoyed a marriage-like commitment (such as we see today); a moderate in our group spoke of the strength of the traditional understanding of 1 Cor 6 (see the presentation to our group at interactingwithjesus.org/1cor6).

Progressives in our group spoke as if these lists do not apply to today’s same-sex relationships, though no textual reasons were given to support that interpretation. A moderate suggested that maybe progressives use a new hermeneutic here.

– We would agree that Scripture never affirms same-sex intimacy. There are no biblical passages saying that same-sex intimacy is good in God’s eyes. At most, texts can make room for the possibility that such intimacy is good.

That one uncertainty— how we read Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6—makes all the difference. Our stance on same-sex relationships depends on how we read those texts.

– Yes, a major biblical theme is welcome and hospitality, and a church that fully includes persons in same-sex marriages is following that biblical theme. However, if Paul had all same-sex relationships in view when he wrote Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6, then the church will not bless same-sex marriages or credential the pastoral gifts of persons in such marriages. We are not to welcome the marginalized in a way that blesses what Scripture calls sin.

– Yes, Paul said that in Christ there is neither male nor female. But if he views same-sex intimacy as sinful his statement about “neither male nor female” would not be saying that male-male, female-female, male-female marriages are all equivalent.

– Yes, the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of LGBT individuals. But does that presence show affirmation of same-sex intimacy? Or does it show grace? It cannot be affirmation if Scripture calls such intimacy sin. But it can be grace, just as the Spirit on the centurion Cornelius was grace.

– Yes, the church is to show tolerance when brothers and sisters have differing consciences regarding “disputable matters.” But something is not “disputable” because a lot of people question it but because Scripture is not clear on it.

In other words, though there are biblical arguments raising the possibility for change in our stance on same-sex marriage, none of them work if the texts which specifically address same-sex relations say that all such relations are sin. It always comes back to what those texts say. We as a conference have not yet done study showing how they are not clear. (Nor have other Mennonite Church USA conferences. For instance, Central District Conference’s lengthy statement, Human Sexuality: A Biblical Perspective, omits any discussion of Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6.)

By the way, we do not have to agree on how to interpret those texts. That would set the bar too high. Our goal should be that we see each other respecting and valuing the biblical text, squarely facing the texts that might prohibit same-sex marriage.

Honoring Scripture is an essential. Even if our conference is a centered-set (focusing on a common center) rather than a bounded-set (drawing boundary lines to show who is in and who is out), surely part of that center is trust in Scripture. If we decide to accept same-sex marriage without doing this Bible study, it will appear that we are not honoring and trusting Scripture. And how can we be confident that we are giving the “fully reliable and trustworthy” message to the sexual minorities in our midst?

I believe God is using this issue for the church’s good. It is forcing us to sort through the role of Scripture. Do we trust it enough, give it enough authority? It is “enough” when we are willing to let our discernment “be tested and corrected” by its light (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective). May our faith and life ultimately rest on Scripture, not on what seems best to us.


The group’s response:

The main response was a pastor cautioning me that just sitting down and studying Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 with progressives won’t resolve the disagreement. I was told that I would not be able to discern whether the progressives are truly honoring those Scriptures until I live with them and walk with them in their daily lives.

This might be that “new hermeneutic” mentioned earlier. But as I told the group, it leaves me puzzled. It’s true that our life experiences affect what we see in the text. But once progressives see something new in the text, if it’s really there won’t they be able to set forth some historical-grammatical evidence for that reading? It’s true that a close relationship helps us hear and understand another. But, though difficult, surely many constructive conversations about the meaning and application of a text have taken place between two persons who don’t live and walk with each other in their daily lives.

I can think of only one reason for why I would not be able to feel any weight in another’s interpretation of a text until I spend time with them. That reason would be that a text’s meaning is that which is most plausible and natural to the readers in their context (rather than the meaning which would have been most plausible and natural for the biblical author in their context.). Yet I don’t think our group members would say that. I think all would say that historical-grammatical interpretation (that tries to help us understand what the original author intended to convey to his readers) is necessary. So, as I said, I’m puzzled. If progressives are being thorough in their historical-grammatical work on Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6, isn’t it possible for them to set forth that work in writing or in conversation? Surely they can at least begin to set it forth. Again, progressives don’t have to get conservatives to agree on how to interpret those texts. They just need to show why their interpretations of Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 have weight.


Blogs on this pastors’ conversation:
2016-06-07 – God’s help (Bible and same-sex)
2016-06-28 – Ambiguous “No’s” (Bible and same-sex)
2016-07-12 – Like an urban legend (Bible and same-sex)
2016-09-27 – The main argument (Bible and same-sex)
2016-12-13 – Conversation wrap-up (Bible and same-sex)

The main argument (Bible and same-sex)

The farm on which I grew up had a “pole barn”—a building resting on poles stuck into the ground. For about fifteen years during our denomination’s conversation on homosexuality, I was trying to identify the foundation “poles” for those who want our church to fully include those in same-sex marriages. What arguments do they build on? What is the reasoning that this group views as the most solid and secure?

The last three years I have plainly seen their foundation many times. It is primarily one “pole.” conversation around BiblesMy most recent sighting was in the conversation on the Bible and same-sex which eight of us area Mennonite pastors are having. We’ve discussed eleven passages with two more to go and then some wrap-up sessions.

A key moment came in the session when we looked at Romans 1:18-32, a passage specifically referring to same-sex relations. We had just heard a presentation that listed common interpretations of the passage and showed that the historic understanding of the passage is the one with the most textual support. In other words, we had just seen that the strongest, most natural reading—the one most plausibly intended by Paul—is the view that all same-sex intimacy is sin. Then just a moment later the progressive pastors were sharing heartfelt feelings that the church needs to fully bless and affirm persons in same-sex marriage.

Some of us expressed confusion: doesn’t it matter if the Bible views same-sex intimacy as sin?

During our next session a progressive pastor explained:

When the church names all homosexual behavior as sinful, we witness trauma, pain, division, and death as a result; in contrast, when persons accept same-sex desires as part of God’s good gift to them, we see it being liberating and life-giving; and surely the Spirit of God leads us toward resurrection rather than death.

In other words, the pastor was saying that our experience shows us the right interpretation of Romans; the right one is not the one that is the most plausible and natural reading of the text but the one that has Paul saying what we, from our observation, think he should say.

As I said, I have seen this many times. When progressives are faced with the prospect that their interpretations have weak textual support, they retreat to arguments from experience. That is their main “pole.” Their stance finally rests, not on Scripture, but on their sense of what seems best.

But this is a tenuous foundation! So often when we “observe” something, our pre-existing ideas and assumptions—how we want things to be—affect what we observe. We see what we want to see. Also, the full impact of some choices can only be seen from the vantage point of multiple generations.

This is also an unorthodox foundation. It elevates experience over Scripture as our authority for faith and life. None of our confessions of faith teach that. If our conference or denomination would change its teaching position on same-sex marriage based on an argument from experience, surely many congregations would feel the need to find a new church home. It deeply grieves me to even think of this.


Blogs on this pastors’ conversation:
2016-06-07 – God’s help (Bible and same-sex)
2016-06-28 – Ambiguous “No’s” (Bible and same-sex)
2016-07-12 – Like an urban legend (Bible and same-sex)
2016-09-27 – The main argument (Bible and same-sex)
2016-12-13 – Conversation wrap-up (Bible and same-sex)

Like an urban legend (Bible and same-sex)

Did you hear that atheists are still petitioning the FCC to ban religious broadcasting? And that Facebook now owns the copyright to any media posted on their site? Hopefully you didn’t! Each of those seeming news items are only “urban legends”—rumors that keep circulating even though they are false. I repeat: those opening lines are false!

Why do such stories (and many, many others) continue getting told and retold? Simply because they say what people already tend to think is true. They confirm what persons want to believe, so they repeat them.

I realized the other week that this concept of urban legend might help explain a new understandingconversation around Bibles that has rapidly spread through the church: “When the Bible speaks against same-sex sex, it’s not talking about loving, committed same-sex relationships.” Persons are believing and repeating that narrative because they want it to be true, not because it is.

Here’s an instance. Paul has a list of sins in 1 Cor. 6:9-10, including two references to same-sex behavior. In recent years many persons have said that Paul is only referring to forms which are abusive and violent, not to loving, committed unions. Last year Matthew Vines summarized this view for The New York Times:

The predominant forms of same-sex behavior in the ancient world were sex between masters and slaves, sex between adult men and adolescent boys, and prostitution. In all those cases, men used sex to express power, dominance and lustfulness, not self-giving love and mutuality. Committed same-sex unions between social equals represent very different values than the types of same-sex behavior Paul would have had in view in 1 Corinthians 6.

When our pastors conversation group discussed this text, my impression was that most of us found the traditional interpretation (that Paul had in view all forms of same-sex intimacy) as the straightforward and natural one:

One word Paul lists in 1 Cor. 6 is “male-bedders” (arsenokoitai), a word so rare in the Greek world that Paul probably coined it. Its rarity makes it likely that it refers to all forms of male-male sex. Why? Because the word had no chance, through use, to develop a meaning other than the general idea which “male-bedders” suggests: males choosing same-sex sex.

Another word in the list is “soft ones” (malakoi), a common word in Greek for the passive partners in male sex. If Paul was only thinking of abusive same-sex relations, why list these partners, the ones being exploited, being sinned against? Including these persons in his list of sins makes it likely that Paul was thinking of something consensual, chosen by both partners. (Consensual forms were known in the Greco-Roman world as well as the more common, abusive forms.)

Vine and others have many things they can say for the view they hold. However, it’s my impression that their view never rises above about a 20% probability of being right (which is very weak, even as a vote by that percentage is weak). In contrast, the traditional view that 1 Cor. 6 refers to all forms of same-sex sex, even loving, committed relations can be shown to carry much weight of certainty.

So what Vines is saying is like an urban legend. And I do understand why he would want to believe it and repeat it: he highly values the Bible, and also he is highly certain of the rightness of same-sex unions; so of course the Bible would leave space for those unions. But it’s not true; he only wants it to be true.


Blogs on this pastors’ conversation:
2016-06-07 – God’s help (Bible and same-sex)
2016-06-28 – Ambiguous “No’s” (Bible and same-sex)
2016-07-12 – Like an urban legend (Bible and same-sex)
2016-09-27 – The main argument (Bible and same-sex)
2016-12-13 – Conversation wrap-up (Bible and same-sex)

Ambiguous “No’s” (Bible and same-sex)

Words are often unclear. Take this instance.

A girl asked a guy if he thought she was pretty. He paused and said “No.” She asked him if he would want to be with her forever. He said “No.” She then asked him if she were to leave would he cry. Again he replied “No.”

She had heard enough. As she walked away, tears streaming down her face, the boy grabbed her arm and said, “You’re not ‘pretty’, you’re beautiful. I don’t ‘want’ to be with you forever—I need to be with you forever. And I wouldn’t ‘cry’ if you walked away, I’d die.

Awww! We romantics are glad she finally learned what he meant!

What do we do when persons tell us that we are misunderstandingconversation around Bibles what God means by the “No’s” to same-sex intimacy in the Bible? These are persons I respect—ones who love Scripture and love neighbors sacrificially—so I talk with them and read what they write. Do they see something I’m not seeing? Can they show that God would allow us conservatives to change on same-sex marriage? That would make life simpler—it’s always easier to move with society around us!

These good-hearted brothers and sisters give two basic lines of argument.

First, they say that Bible scholars are not totally sure what some words mean in the passages which refer to same-sex intimacy as sin. Those words, they say, may refer only to sex that is exploitive or excessive, meaning that the Bible is only condemning such forms of same-sex behavior, not loving, committed forms.

I respond to this line of argument by pointing out that ambiguity by itself is not decisive. Almost all words have ambiguity—as the young woman in our story learned. (Anyone clever and motivated can come up with alternate readings for almost any statement, especially one from an ancient text.) Yet we don’t let that stop us. Especially when we care about someone and what they have to say, we don’t ignore their words just because there is uncertainty about their meaning. Rather, we mull over those words until we have a sense of what the person was probably trying to say. When I weigh the various possible meanings of Rom. 1:26-27 and 1 Cor. 6:9-11, I see a very strong (80%?) probability that the church’s historic understanding of those passages is the most natural and straight-forward understanding. As I mentioned in my previous blog, eight of us area Mennonite pastors are meeting to discuss Bible passages bearing on same-sex partnerships over the next months. This series of conversations will be a place to test whether those texts are as clear as I think they are. Is there indeed strong probability that they refer to same-sex eroticism in general, including loving, committed same-sex relationships? Stay tuned.

Second, these brothers and sisters tell us to note other things God says. The young woman in our opening story was 80% sure (or more!) that the young man didn’t love her—three apparently-decisive “No’s” were enough. But then additional words by the young man revealed that her understanding, no matter how strong, was wrong. Perhaps there are additional passages which show us that the “No’s” on same-sex intimacy are not the Bible’s last word. So our pastors group is also looking at passages like Isaiah 56, Matt. 19:1-30, Acts 15, Gal. 3:23-29, and Rom. 14-15. Stay tuned.


Blogs on this pastors’ conversation:
2016-06-07 – God’s help (Bible and same-sex)
2016-06-28 – Ambiguous “No’s” (Bible and same-sex)
2016-07-12 – Like an urban legend (Bible and same-sex)
2016-09-27 – The main argument (Bible and same-sex)
2016-12-13 – Conversation wrap-up (Bible and same-sex)

God’s help (Bible and same-sex)

Some would say what happened last week was mere coincidence. But to me, God was acting.

I was scheduled to give a crucial presentation on Wednesday. As Monday began, I had a lot of preparation to do. But I was sick, using more tissues for my nose than perhaps any day in my life! Tuesday, my cough deepened and I added a couple-degree fever.

This presentation was part of a series of conversationsconversation around Bibles by eight area Mennonite pastors who are meeting to discuss Bible passages bearing on same-sex partnerships. This is a great group: all are good-hearted and, remarkably, all of us have an inner peace that makes it as easy for us to be silent as to speak; and we cover the spectrum on the issue. We plan to meet maybe 12 times between April and October. I believe we will come to understand each other. Will we also come to disagree less?!

I was to talk for 20 minutes on a Scripture text which the church has historically interpreted as showing that all same-sex intimacy is sin. I wanted to clearly present why I believe that that understanding of the text is strong: that it’s 1) a natural, straightforward reading and 2) part of a main theme of Scripture rather than an isolated text. My goal was not to trumpet my view but to test it. Would this group help me see that I’m wrong? Or would it become clear that progressives have not fully grappled with the passage?

But what if I was too sick to fully prepare? Or even go to the meeting? On Monday and Tuesday I kept doing bits of preparation as I could, without anxiety or panic, due to my sense that God wanted me to do the presentation and due to a confidence that God’s strength can be shown in our weakness (2. Cor. 12:9-10).

Somehow I woke up Wednesday still weak but no longer sick. And my preparation seemed enough. The presentation had a lot of power. As the group discussed it afterward, no one seemed to attempt a counter-argument. A moderate in our group, whose voice carries a lot of weight, noted the strength of the traditional understanding of the passage.

Was it mere chance that I was strong enough to make that presentation? Well, I have seen a pattern over the years as I write and relate on this issue. I can tell other anecdotes far more dramatic, stories of “coincidences” too amazing to be merely accidental. It genuinely seems that God is rooting for these conversations on sexuality, helping arrange them, encouraging them.


Blogs on this pastors’ conversation:
2016-06-07 – God’s help (Bible and same-sex)
2016-06-28 – Ambiguous “No’s” (Bible and same-sex)
2016-07-12 – Like an urban legend (Bible and same-sex)
2016-09-27 – The main argument (Bible and same-sex)
2016-12-13 – Conversation wrap-up (Bible and same-sex)

Trusting the Bible—with eyes wide open

I grew up with total trust in the Bible. I soaked up its stories as a boy. God was at work in the world and the biblical heroes and heroines got to join in! And I heeded its teachings. rural mailboxes-davidtripp.wordpress.com My parents modeled this: I remember my father greeting with a “holy kiss” the other ordained men in our district churches and my mother always wearing a “prayer covering.” Both behaviors were done because they read Scripture passages teaching those things.

As I grew older, I realized that this was a naïve, simplistic view of Scripture:

  • Many commands in the Bible are written to specific situations and might not apply to us who live in a different situation. For example, the intent or spirit behind the holy kiss is “show warm affection to fellow believers.” In our culture, that is best achieved by a holy hug or firm handshake.
  • Second, I realized that the historical accounts in the Bible don’t always match our standards of historiography but seem to be in error. Many examples could be given, but here are two: Exodus 9:6 says “all the livestock of the Egyptians died”; but “all” seems clearly wrong when we compare it with vv20-21 and 11:5. 1 Chron. 22:14 says that David, to prepare to build the temple, amassed 3,400 metric tons of gold. Even commentators who are theologically conservative call that “glorious hyperbole.”
  • Third, I began to admit that many Bible texts fall short of the ultimate ethic God has in mind. For instance, some passages instruct slave-masters how to treat slaves rather than telling them to liberate their slaves.

After years of working through this, I still have a full attitude of trust in the Bible. After my initial naiveté as a child and then a stage of questioning, I now have a “second naiveté.” I again have total trust in the Bible—but now with my eyes wide open.

Yes, the Bible’s historical accounts contain “glorious hyperbole,” non-chronological narration, imprecise quotation, etc. But we need not label those as errors any more than we need to say a movie like Selma is untrue when it “adjusts” some dialogue or chronology. We expect the film writers to do that to make the film memorable and accessible; we still call it historically accurate. Also the Bible can still be seen as historically accurate when its writers “adjust” facts to give its passages more impact. It misled none of the original readers; it was what they expected.

Yes, there are biblical passages that are sub-par, texts seeming to affirm slavery, women being silent, etc. But those texts are not God giving instructions for all time. They are God instructing the people of that time, God accommodating to what those people could receive and do—something every good parent does. What if God, to partner with humans without violating their wills, truly had no other possible choice? (The experience of us seeing sub-Gospel instances in the Bible could be analogous to us seeing a friend set out an ashtray in their home and invite a chain-smoking neighbor to use it. Perhaps that ashtray is not our friend encouraging smoking but is part of a commitment to relate to this neighbor who would stay away if he or she couldn’t smoke. This would be confirmed if we later saw our friend nudge and encourage that neighbor away from smoking.) When we see Scripture as the story of God slowly moving humanity toward an ultimate ethic, then those sub-gospel instances of accommodation are no longer important. Scripture’s trajectory is what is important! Reading the Bible can be a series of discoveries that fill us with joy as we see beautiful glimpses of God giving people nudges toward the ethic of the Age to Come!

I have high trust in the Bible. With eyes open to its difficulties and complexities (to many of them, at least!), I still say that all its words are inspired by the Spirit of God who only speaks truth.