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Viewpoint: Should Our Practices Go Beyond What the Bible Permits?


In my recent essay discussing homosexuality, I indicated that two crucial questions had to be answered before we can come to any conclusions. The first question had to do with what the Bible says about homosexuality. 

However, as I looked at the many comments on my April 5 blog post, I have come to the conclusion that what is more crucial to understand is how we should interpret Scripture. Here I am referring only to matters dealing with practices followed in the Bible when they differ from practices followed today in our church — such things as slavery, the subordination of women, polygamy, total abstinence, romantic love, etc.  

Questions will obviously be raised whenever we move beyond what the Bible describes as practices of its times.  It is clear that we have gone beyond what the Bible says in several areas — slavery, for example. 

Today in the Adventist Church we are discussing whether we should go beyond the Bible in the question of the subordination of women. Obviously, there will be differences of opinion. The basic question, however, is: How do we determine whether we should continue the biblical practice or go beyond it?

Obviously, just because the Bible mentions what is practiced is insufficient reason for continuing it, as in the obvious cases of slavery and polygamy.

The question of slavery

We are agreed that we should go beyond Scripture in regard to slavery.  I don’t believe there is anyone who would say that we should go back to slavery because that is what the Bible supports. But why and how do we make that decision? If we were living at the transition between slavery and the abolition of slavery, how would we have responded? 

In this respect, fortunately, we can actually see what Christians of that time said when the matter was up for discussion. John H. Hopkins, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Vermont in 1863, gave his answer. He says first: “It can only be settled by the Bible.” And adds:

“If it were a matter to be determined by my personal sympathies, tastes, and feelings, I should be as ready as any man  to condemn the institution of slavery; for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I’m solemnly warned not to be ‘wise in my own conceit,’ and not to ‘lean to my own understanding.’ As a Christian, I’m compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty.”

Then he begins to list where slavery is approved in the Bible. The first instance is where Canaan is cursed to be the servant of Shem in Gen. 9:25. The next proof that  “slavery was sanctioned by the Deity” is the case of Abraham’s 318 bond servants, who were born in his own house and those who were bought with his money. The next evidence he cites is the tenth commandment where a man servant and a maidservant are listed as those that one should not covet.  When he comes to the New Testament, he says: “I grant, of course, that we, as Christians, are bound by the precepts and example of the Saviour and his apostles.” 

“First, then, we asked what the divine Redeemer said in reference to slavery. And the answer is perfectly undeniable: HE DID NOT ALLUDE TO IT AT ALL. Not one word of censure upon the subject is recorded by the Evangelists who gave His life and doctrines to the world. Yet slavery was in full existence at the time, throughout Judea; and the Roman empire, according to historian Gibbon, contained 60 millions of slaves, on the lowest probable computation! How prosperous would our glorious republic be at this hour, if the eloquent and pertinacious declaimers against slavery had been willing to follow their Saviour’s example!” 

And then he moves to Paul and he quotes the passages commanding slaves to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1-8; Philemon).

If the Bible in both the Old and New Testament supports slavery why do we not continue with slavery today?

Notice that the same kind of approach is taken today by those who want to continue the biblical practice of the subordination of women and the condemnation of homosexual people.

We do not find any biblical statement that says slavery should be abolished.

Sin-accommodated ethics

We need to be aware that there is an ideal and a sin-accommodated ethics in the Bible. In Matthew 19:1-9, the Pharisees test Jesus with the question: “ Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” Jesus replied. “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So now are they not two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.” They said to him,  “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity and marries another commits adultery.”  Notice also that the decision to divorce was only in the hands of the husband.  This provision for divorce was instituted, Christ says, because of their hardheartedness. Because of sin, sometimes God permits something less than the ideal. This was the situation with divorce, slavery, polygamy, and the subordination of women.  

The question of alcohol

Especially when dealing with Scripture, one arrives with unconscious presuppositions. In some ways, some have equated their presuppositions with what Scripture says. For example, in regard to the matter of alcoholic beverages, we Adventists cannot help coming to the Bible with the presupposition that the Bible truly cannot sanction the drinking of alcoholic beverages, and thus interpret the Bible accordingly.  However if we study the Bible with an open mind, we find that there is no such strict prohibition, but its teaching is that of moderation.   

Roland Bainton, former Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School, who believes in total abstinence, nevertheless shows that the Bible teaches moderation — not total abstinence.  He refers to 1 Cor. 11.21, 34; Rom 13:13; 1 Tim 3:3; Tit. 2:3.  We are well aware that not being a drunkard is one of the qualifications of a church officer.  Bainton first shows that the situation today is greatly different from biblical times.

“First, the discovery of distillation has rendered possible an enormous increase in the alcoholic content of beverages. Secondly, an industry has arisen which depends for its existence on an expanding consumption of alcohol. Thirdly, the temptation to access has been increased by all the new strains involved in modern living, and finally menace of inebriation is greater in a society where any blunting of extreme alertness may result in serious accidents.” 

Besides these reasons he says that biblical principles must be brought to bear on this situation. The first principle he cites is mentioned in 1 Cor. 6:15 and 19 where it states that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the second great principle he gives is consideration for the weak brother (Romans 14).

Biblical principles override specific texts

So how do we go about dealing with slavery when even in the New Testament we have slavery mentioned without condemnation?  Here again we cannot look to specific texts but to biblical principles. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1818 accepted the view that slavery was a “gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature, awfully inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and totally irreconcilable with this. And principles of the gospel of Christ which enjoined that ‘all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them.’”  

We have also the Genesis account which declares that man and a woman were both made in the image of God. Such principles override the practice of slavery, as well as the subordination of women. The abolition of slavery, polygamy, moderation in drinking, subordination of women, arranged marriages, and the rod as a means of discipline for children, go beyond biblical practices but not biblical principles.

The argument of silence  

I had included the abolition of condemnation of homosexuality but omitted it because it needs explanation. I contended in my previous blog post that homosexuality in the Bible refers to a heterosexual having sex with another heterosexual over whom he has dominance. And that this is a terrible perversion not only because it is against the nature of heterosexual people but also because powerful people are taking advantage of powerless people. Openly gay people were not known until relatively recently.  Some people have criticized me for using the argument from silence. But in this case it seems to me that the argument from silence is the biggest argument one can use to prove that homosexuals did not come out of the closet in those days. My point here then is that we should abolish the criticism of homosexuals today on the basis of the biblical texts of yesterday that referred to perverted heterosexuals who practiced homosexuality. Here again we should go beyond what the Bible says because the context is different.  The homosexuality described is clearly a perversion, but our discussion of homosexuality today deals with people whose orientation is not self-chosen, but innate from birth or soon after.  Since only recently have we come to understand this definition of homosexuality, and as previously this group of people was closeted, the Bible could not be addressing them.  

The questions of polygamy and marriage

We have gone the beyond the Bible also in regard to polygamy. There are some groups who have reinstated it, notably the Mormons. However, we do not have a problem going beyond the Bible here. We can point to Genesis where God in the beginning established monogamy.  And Christ refers to the two becoming one flesh.

Another practice where we today have gone beyond the Bible is in regard to marriage.  Romantic love as a basis for marriage is also a relatively recent thing. In the Bible, marriages were arranged. Psychologists today state that there are three components required in love: Intimacy, passion and commitment, based on Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love.  Intimacy encompasses feelings of attachment, closeness, bondedness.  Passion encompasses drives connected to sexual attraction.  Commitment encompasses the decision to remain with another.   When all three are missing it is non-love, as is the case with an ordinary friend or stranger. If you have intimacy and no commitment but only passion, it is infatuation.  If you have no intimacy and no passion but commitment only, it is empty love. Many couples stay together for the children’s sake or economic reasons. This is empty love.  It is this last — commitment without intimacy and passion — that was the type of marriage in biblical times. In some places today, there are still arranged marriages. Should we go back to it on the basis that that is what biblical practice was?  I believe all of you would obviously say no.  But why?  Basically, the reason is that we live in a society where people are more independent and want to make the decisions where they are involved, whether it proves to be wise or not.  Biblically, I think we would point out that God gave us the freedom to choose, even if it meant we would reject him. That’s how important it is for God to give us the freedom to choose. Therefore, we would choose to pick our own partners on the basis of romantic love, rather than to have marriages arranged.

Therefore, we go beyond the biblical practice because the situations have changed.  In the past we not only had a patriarchal society where the father made all the major decisions but also where children were completely subservient to the father even when they reached marriageable age. Thus, in this case, we feel justified in going beyond the biblical practice. Changed situations require change in practices. 

This is somewhat true also in regards to homosexual practices.

Conceptions of sin

I would like to deal with two points that were made against my article on homosexuality. One of these was that because people are born with homosexual orientation that it should be no excuse for them to to live as homosexuals.  We are all born with the tendency to sin but that doesn’t mean we should sin, they say. So just because some people were born as homosexuals does not mean that they should live out their homosexuality. In other words, even though they were born as homosexuals they should live as heterosexuals because homosexuality is a sin. 

I would say to these commenters that they are defining sin by their standards and applying it to someone else in a different situation. Obviously to practice homosexuality as a heterosexual is a perversion. But people should not use their definition of sin to apply to a homosexual person. For a gay person, it is a perversion for them to cohabit with someone of the opposite sex. For them this is a perversion, against their nature, and that would be sin for them.  We cannot transfer one person’s conception of sin to another.

For me as a Seventh-day Adventist, it would be a sin to work on the Sabbath.  But for those who believe that Saturday is just a work day, obviously, it would not be a sin for them to do so.  A person who is born color blind will see the traffic light in different colors from a normal person. If he went by the colors that a normal person sees he would not stop or go at the right time because he cannot see red or green.Therefore he has to go not by the color but by the position of the lights, by what he sees rather than what a normal person sees. So a homosexual person has to be judged by his nature — not the nature of a heterosexual person.

Born that way

Another objection was made that God does not produce homosexuals. That is not what I said. What I said was that people are born with that orientation — or at least it is not a chosen orientation and that it is sin that produces those abnormalities. People are born blind. God is not the one who makes them blind. But it is because of sin and the havoc that sin has raised. What convinced me that homosexuality is an aberration caused by sin was my discovery of intersex people, i.e. people without any sex, male or female.  And it is clear that they are born this way.

Regarding intersex people, the ISNA [Intersex Society of North America] states that:  

“‘‘Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.”

Another objection was that God would not make a person a homosexual. God doesn’t make a person with a homosexual orientation.  This is the result of sin. God made people, male and female, and God made marriage between male and female.  However, sin came in and changed what was normal. Today, as I have indicated above, we have people who are neither male nor female but are intersex.  Some are homosexuals; and others are transgender. These are the results of sin. 

Moses wrote for his day and age. Paul did likewise, but even as they wrote for their day and age they also wrote for all time and, therefore, in their writings themselves we can find a higher morality than what they gave for their own age.  And it is in these total teachings, especially when they point to higher ethics and principles, where we should look for what is eternal, rather than getting hung up on the accommodations that God had to make for societies that were hampered by sin.  We look not simply for texts, but for principles enunciated in them.

So when we go beyond the practices found in the Bible we are not really going beyond what the Bible teaches, but going back to its highest ideals.  We are going beyond the sin-accommodated practices to its ideal teachings. 

Sakae Kubo, 88, has had a long career in the Adventist church, mainly in university and college administration. He taught at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, served as Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University, as President of Newbold College, and as Vice-President and Academic Dean at Atlantic Union College.

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