Politicians and the Bible

LeadsomBut nevertheless my own view is that marriage in the biblical sense is very clear from the many, many Christians who wrote to me on this subject, in their opinion, can only be between a man and a woman.

These are some careful words uttered by a contender to be the UK Prime Minister, Andrea Leadsom. As a self-identified Christian in the House of Commons, she evidently has received a full post bag of opinions on the subject of gay marriage. If we look carefully at her words, we see that she is able to offer a partial identification with the opinions of the religiously conservative people who have written to her, while being able to avoid going all the way in making this her own opinion. In short she agrees with them up to a point but allows herself the freedom to take a different opinion when it might be politically expedient to do so. One way in which Andrea Leadsom does put herself firmly into the conservative Christian camp and their use of the Bible is through the implied assumption that choosing particular scriptural texts allows one to discover decisive moral teaching, binding on Christians and society in general. The Bible-believing letter writers evidently believe that Scripture is totally unambiguous as to what it says about marriage. It is believed to promote heterosexual marriage to the exclusion of any other pattern of sexual behaviour.

Provoked by this idea that the Bible is very clear in what it says about marriage, I went to my Bible and opened up at Deuteronomy. My Jerusalem Bible conveniently entitles one section of this book: ‘On Marriage’. Here we have a number of laws set out about marriage and how it was to be conducted in ancient Israelite society. From a modern perspective this section, chapters 21 to 22, is a thoroughly misogynist text. Not only does it allow men to marry more than one woman, it also allows a husband to stone a young wife to death if she fails to substantiate her claim to be a virgin. The horror of this act is enhanced by the fact that it is to be accomplished at the door of her father’s house. There is also no suggestion in this section of Deuteronomy that a woman ever has any real choice in the matter of finding a husband. Two scenarios for a man finding a wife are given. Neither speak of love or free choice. The first is a marriage after a woman is taken captive in war and the second is a relationship when a woman is a victim of rape. She is then expected to marry her violator. No doubt marriages were entered into without this background of violence, but the author of Deuteronomy here seems to have no interest in the idea that marriage could be a relationship between equals.

Before we try to bury these texts of Deuteronomy concerning marriage as being of no relevance to today, we should recall that key texts against homosexuality are cited from another law book in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Leviticus. It would seem wrong to claim authority for Leviticus on what it says about same sex relationships and then reject offensive passages in other parts of the Old Testament concerning the conduct of family life. How many conservative Christians would suggest that the solution to dealing with a ‘rebellious son’ is to take him to the gate of the city and have the inhabitants stone him to death? Clearly there are no Christians who would now want to follow such instructions over the way they manage their marriages and families.

When we read about King Solomon in 1 Kings 11.3 we discover that he had 300 concubines. It is easy to gloss over the impact of the institution of concubine, but we should realise that a concubine is simply another word for sex slave. The horror of slavery is found throughout the Bible, and Paul no doubt was aware of the implication of telling female slaves to ‘submit’ to their masters. The constant abuse by male masters of their female slaves makes a secure settled and committed gay relationship seem thoroughly innocent by comparison. The treatment of Hagar, Sarah’s slave, after she became pregnant by Abraham was cruel and unjustifiable. The Bible text records Hagar leaving the dysfunctional household on two occasions. The first time was when she ran away of her own accord after being treated badly by Sarah. The second occasion was when she was deliberately expelled from the family unit by Abraham at the request of his wife. To send Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert with some bread and a skin of water was tantamount to wanting her dead. The fact of her survival does not let Sarah off her vindictive and jealous behaviour. Such family dynamics were clearly extremely unhealthy and hardly offer us a biblical model for family life today.

It is obvious that I am bringing out from the text passages which show that family life and marriage in biblical times was quite often far from ideal. Choosing these particular sections to make my point is however no less legitimate than the extraction of passages which support the conservative view that there is within Scripture an ideal structure of marriage between one man and one woman. Once again I want to repudiate the idea that we can gain definitive wisdom about the will of God by choosing any single passage from Scripture to make a point of moral teaching. If we are to use the Bible to find some model or pattern for morality today, we need to have the honesty to say that there is there a variety of practices and understandings of relationships. The Bible does not have a simple formula. From my own perspective the dysfunctions revealed in Deuteronomy and in the book of Genesis, particularly in what they reveal about the mistreatment of women, are all about the abuse of male power. We can go further than that and say that the Bible contains plentiful evidence that men in past generations used their physical and social power to dominate and in many cases abuse women and children. Even if we claim that Jesus saw through this male dominance and reasserted the rights of women and children, we can only do this after acknowledging the horror of much of what went on before.

The trite claims of politicians as well as church leaders who tell us that the Bible teaches this or that must be constantly challenged. I somehow doubt that most of them have ever actually grappled with the text. What is true is that if we treat the Bible as a mine for pre-selected texts, then certain emphases and teachings for moral ideas can be found. A thorough study of Scripture will however reveal both light and darkness, particularly in the part which is known to us as the Old Testament. It is crucial that we read this part of the Bible with a sense of history together with a sensitivity for the social conditions of the period. Even when we read the New Testament we need to be aware of how Paul was himself a product of his age. A study of Scripture, a critical study of Scripture, can reveal to us what we believe to be spiritual insight. This insight has the power to transform the one who reads it. We must, nevertheless, always approach the text with a discerning and critiquing of what we find there. We must constantly be on our guard against becoming victims of a legalistic and fundamentalist mind-set in our approach to these texts. If God is truly to be encountered in the words of Scripture, he will be found in and through this kind of sensitive, discriminating and imaginative engagement with the text of the book we call the Bible.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

31 thoughts on “Politicians and the Bible

  1. Thanks Stephen. A good deconstruction. For my part, my heart sinks when I see someone as dishonest, reactionary, vain and shallow as Leadsom playing the “Christian” card like this in her bid to possibly become prime minister. Not to mention the “I’m a mummy” card as well.

    We live in more complex-gendered times where women are now both wielding and at times abusing power to a much greater extent and more openly than previously, when they were mainly confined to some power over children and servants, and trying to get their way through influencing and manipulating the actual/official male decision makers.

  2. This is great, Stephen. You never got stuff like this in the churches I was in oop north! Unsurprisingly. Just to argue, as is my wont. I do think some of these, “You must marry the girl” instructions were for the protection of the girl. Expectations were lower, but then as now, women were seen as polluted if they had been raped. If her captor married her, she had rights. Up to a point. But women didn’t have much anyway. It’s obvious that the authors of this part of the Bible had huge sympathy for Hagar. She had done what was required of her and produced an heir, and then they threw her out. But you can see why some bloggers on religious threads say that God is immoral if what they see in the Bible is supposed to be right.

  3. I’m OK with Leadsom. I don’t think she was necessarily playing cards. She was merely expressing her opinion. Since whatever you say is going to be scrutinised, you either shut up and live as a recluse or get on with your life which includes speaking. This does not mean I’m not ok with May. I haven’t decided yet.

  4. I find the cast iron certainties about ‘Gay marriage’ worrying. Is there no one out there who disagrees?
    There are reasoned arguments about how children will be affected by same sex parents, do we just pass on or do we at least talk about this?

    Surely there is at least one fundamentalist out there who can comment?

    I cannot make my mind up amid Ex Cathedra statements (Not just on this blog but in media and elsewhere)

    We do seem to be skipping off down the primrose path to unanimity at an alarming rate.

    1. When I was growing up, no-one was supposed to have sex! You got into trouble if your boyfriend was in the “girls'” half of the Hall of Residence. So I still get impatient with people who leap into bed as soon as they meet. In that atmosphere, gays who want to get married are a beacon of stability! Quaint and old-fashioned in fact.
      My thinking has changed I think, but I never really asked myself if people were gay, anyway. And I always had gay friends.
      The big things in my mind are:
      *Sex isn’t a big deal in some ways. It isn’t the only sin, and we need to stop obsessing about other people’s sex lives.
      *That goes both ways, I wish gays would stop banging on about it, too.
      *Love is the very essence of God.
      *Intimacy is the real point. Wiping your kids’ bums, clearing up sick and worse, nursing a sick partner. Sex is a way of developing that, but not the whole deal.
      *How can straights deny gays love and intimacy?
      *Gays may be are being called, reluctantly, to celibacy, who knows, but what would we do if they break the rules? We don’t throw out heteros who do.
      *Peter Akinola came across as a wholly repulsive character with whom one would not want to agree that rain was wet. I squared the circle of what do you do if someone you might agree with on some matters behaves appallingly badly ages ago. You learn to get along with those with whom you do not always agree! I didn’t want to be in Akinola’s team. It struck me as the very opposite of God’s love.
      *If you’re not careful, you (one, I mean) give queer bashers ideas. I don’t believe in beating up gays, I never did. But if I speak carelessly, someone who hears me might think I do, and go ahead and do it on the strength of that. Some Bishops managed to do exactly that.

      I’m not sure how much that helps, Chris. It amounts to, “It’s complicated and I don’t want to sound unloving”. Gay sex in Roman times was more about taking children as sex toys. No wonder Paul spoke against it. It is different now.

  5. Thanks E/A for the comment, to change the concept of heterosexual marriage I find a step too far for me.
    But if I have it wrong then, pray for the Holy Spirit to convince me.

    1. Marriage according to God’s institution is between a man (the giver) and a woman (the receiver), joined as one flesh, equal in power and partnership, bringing forth new life. You can be as nice as pie to homosexuals and love them etc., and I suggest we all should, but you can’t rewrite Genesis to make the union of two men or two women be representative of the union of Christ and His bride, which is what human marriage is designed to illustrate in type, and is a recurrent theme all throughout Scripture. I do not consider myself to be a ‘fundamentalist’, as that has almost become a dirty word, but I do celebrate God’s wisdom and condescension in showing us His mind and heart through His creation. We can, of course, all raise objections to the way He does things, so I leave the arguments to those who feel they know best.

      1. Are we sure marriage is designed to be a type of Christ’s relationship with his church? That’s one interpretation, but I’m sure there are others. But anyway, in what way does Christ’s relationship with his church preclude loving same sex relationships, or define heterosexual ones? The church contains men and women, and surely God is both and neither.

        1. It depends on whether you want to accept that the Bible can be believed for what it clearly states. I would refer you to Ephesians 5:32. Some people will take Paul’s teaching on marriage and use it to oppress women, making men dominant, but Paul actually says that marriage (and relationships between married men and women) illustrates Christ’s love for the church – sacrificial – in Jesus’ case – actually to His death. That’s another topic, but all through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, God shows us His redemptive. sacrificial love through the example of the bond of heterosexual marriage, which, in Eastern culture, was a clearer type than it is in our modern western setting. Not that I would ever want to go back to being ‘owned’ by my husband, but Christ did purchase us on Calvary, redeemed us from our slavery in sin, and became our Lord and Master – our Head. This was the pattern of human marriage right from the beginning, and there are many, many references to it through the Old Testament and the New, since God has not and does not change. I would encourage you to investigate further, as the revelation of the unbreakable union between Jesus and His Church, following the pattern of Adam and Eve, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, is something to be amazed at, rejoiced in, and joyously celebrated. To know that He chose to purchase for Himself a bride who had prostituted herself in sin (that’s all of us) and gave Himself utterly to her for her cleansing, healing and restoration, is a truly amazing and life-changing revelation. To my mind, it far surpasses the wranglings and wrestling of trying to make God fit into our modern concept of ‘love’ and ‘alternative lifestyles’. I want no alternative interpretation, as I would be rejecting the best that God designed for us, and questioning His wisdom in the way He chose to teach us about Himself.
          I do not approve in any way of hating homosexual people. We are called to tell people the gospel of grace and new hope in a sin-sick world. But we can’t make God different from how He has shown us He is. And why would we? Do we think we can improve on Him?

          1. Just as an afterthought – the story of Hosea and his undying love for his unfaithful wife is worth contemplating as a parallel of God’s unswerving love for us, His Bride, even though we behave contemptibly at times. There is no reference in Scripture to same sex physical relationships being anything but unacceptable to God, although platonic love bonds, such as Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan are commended.

          2. I repeat the point that a single quote from Scripture cannot build an edifice for ‘bible teaching’. I have never denied the positive teaching about marriage that exists. The point is simply that there are many models of family life in Scripture, not one. The blog post has the aim to point out this multiplicity of models. It is not to downgrade any of the positive models but to point out what is actually there. I fear that many who quote the Bible against one thing or for another have not grappled with the text. Please anon read the passages I have mentioned and tell me how you make sense of them. A serious student of Scripture reads the whole thing, not just ‘proof texts’!

            1. And my point was not that those things are not mentioned in Scripture, but that the model God gave of one man and one woman committed to each other in marriage is a type of Christ and His Bride, which, to my mind anyway, is a far more positive and life-enhancing subject for meditating upon than trying to grapple with Scripture in order to justify something that Scripture does not endorse. I have not offered one proof text, but suggested investigation of the subject from Genesis to Exodus to find God’s heart on the subject. I didn’t think anyone would appreciate me doing it for them in this forum! The fact that humans commit heinous offenses against Him and one another is surely the whole point of the fall and redemption of humanity, and not an alternative blueprint for life. The passages you reference from the Law, as mentioned by someone earlier, were either given to limit sin, or simply the recounting of events, without any endorsement from God. He did not approve of everything that occurred just because it is recorded in the Bible.
              And my reply was in response to the question asked by EnglishAthena as to whether we could be sure that marriage is a type of Christ and the church, and since one Scripture states plainly that it is, Ephesians, 5:32, I didn’t feel the need to quote every reference in the Bible.

              1. I’m afraid when you say that you don’t look at bits of the Bible that may reference things that aren’t what the Bible teaches, that is rather circular reasoning. What if someone reads something, in the Bible, that is not so clear? But Stephen is right, the Bible appears to approve female slaves submitting to their owner. You really can’t ignore that, other people won’t. If we are to reach out to new people, we have to be able to deal with their wholly reasonable questions. Including, by the way, whether Adam and Eve ever existed.

  6. Thanks Anonymous,

    I must leave the arguments to those who feel they know best, but, I sense an agenda behind this issue that only the word darkness can truly describe. I have nothing more to say than that.

  7. Being laid up with a big toe injury, I was able to read Genesis at one sitting yesterday. Marriage and relationships come up surprisingly often. Even a perfect union can produce children that come out wrong (ch4); nakedness is a private matter (ch9); having more than one woman does not work (Hagar, ch16); choosing a wife is important (ch24); polygamy produces unhappiness (ch29-30, 37): rape is seen as an outrage (ch34) and God can redeem our mistakes in this area (ch38). All of these stories comment on the creation comment “therefore a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh (2:24)”. Stephen’s call for us to read the whole sweep of scripture is helpful, and speaking personally this is how I have formed my view of what is biblical and what is not.
    Can I add that I have found the discussion of this matter on this blog well conducted and helpful. Thanks to all contributors.

  8. Stephen takes issue with the view that the Bible is “totally unambiguous” and “very clear” on this subject. He presents counter examples to make his point.
    Some statements in this world are unambiguous, such as notices like “no parking” or “no smoking.” For any longer text, complete clarity is hard to come by. Laws framed by parliament are haggled over daily in the courts. In a trial, the criterion is to ask whether the crime was committed “beyond reasonable doubt.” The strength of the evidence is carefully assessed, and the outcome is decided by twelve people not one, all in an attempt to get a just result. The difficulty of certainty can be seen in many areas of life.
    To me, Stephen’s attempt to deny the view of Andrea Ledson’s correspondents by citing a few counter examples does not succeed, but for those who are convinced by it, I put this question: do you think it is ever possible to say of a practice, this is biblical, or this is not biblical? Take murder for example. It seems on the face of it to be condemned by the Bible, but there are counter examples – Moses killed the Egyptian, David engineered the death of Uriah the Hittite, and Saul of Tarsus harried the Christians and approved of the death of Stephen. These men were great leaders. Is this enough to raise the possibility that murder can sometimes be justified? Perhaps Harold Shipman was not so bad: after all, he was gentle with those he killed and reduced the burden of care placed on their relatives, so maybe he was simply practising euthanasia?
    Must go. There’s lots more to consider here!

    1. Perhaps it depends on whether a person thinks they are infallible or not! The trouble is, as soon as you start to say, “It’s not as obvious as all that”, it becomes a problem with where you draw the line. Which bits are broadly simply accurate accounts, and which bits are subjective, or even allegorical? You can only use your own wisdom and experience, which basically, has to be drawn down from others who have studied the matter. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the Hebrew translation, for example, as I don’t speak Hebrew. I found out recently, that it’s possible the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, may actually be a better version of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts than the Hebrew we have, because it was probably drawn from older documents, which have subsequently been lost. Now, no way would I have found that out without referring to experts in the field.
      Nor did I twig that there are actually two creation stories until it was pointed out to me. Nor did I realise that there are at least two ancient threads running through the OT. One which refers to God as Yahweh, always rendered as LORD, and one which refers to him as God. You can see it once you know to look. So, I use my common sense and judgement, I think we’re obliged to do that, in a way. We can’t just abdicate all responsibility, we are thinking animals. But I wouldn’t ever say that I am sure I am right. Of course, I can be wrong. And so can the experts. It is complicated.
      So, no, I don’t think you can really say that anything is “clear” or “obvious”. Sometimes it is, but sometimes there will be something you didn’t know, that throws a spanner in the works, and you have to leave room for that possibility.

      1. Hi EA – I basically agree with what you’ve written. However you say “You can only use your own wisdom and experience, which basically, has to be drawn down from others who have studied the matter.” and I think there’s another side to this – we have not been left as orphans entirely dependent on ourselves. The Holy Spirit, if we will allow him to guide us, will help our interpretations, and in fact that is pretty essential I think as well as whatever wisdom, experience and understanding drawn from others we can muster. John 16.13 “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”

        1. Hi, sis. Fair point. I didn’t mean to leave him out! It’s just that I have a fair amount of experience of people who think that if they pray, they must therefore be right! I think I meant that you should pray for guidance, but use your God given brain, too.

          1. Sure thing. Sadly, whatever we do there is always the possibility of making a poor reading of the text, but I prefer living with that awareness, than having what I see as a deluded idea that the text magically interprets itself with one clear only meaning that is obvious. Jesus didn’t think that – he didn’t think the Scriptures were always clear or had only one level of meaning, why else did he ask the lawyer “how do you read it”? Why else did he give the disciples at Emmaus a key to interpretation of all the scriptures – and that key was he himself – ? I think the really helpful point to remember is well expressed by James Alison, that we need to be aware of whose eyes we’re reading scripture through, and the important thing is always to try to read verses as Jesus would have read them, through his eyes. This is basically saying the same thing as asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us. And if we look at how Jesus is shown to read and use the scriptures, we see an amazing, inspired freedom, not confinement in a dead literalism.

      2. There are no experts in biblical studies, only the suggestions of scholars. You refer to the documentary hypothesis first proposed by Julie’s Wellhausen in 1820 and followed by many since, until the 1980s approximately. The best discussion of it that I found was by E. V. Rieu in his penguin classic translation of the Odyssey by Homer. Dame Helen Gardner said in 1951 that trying to discern sources in literature was “like trying to weave ropes in sand.” the best way to read any text to my mind is to take it at its face value. For example, if the text says “Jesus said, I am the light of the world,” then the way I understand that is that Jesus said, I am the light of the world. We do ourselves no favours when we introduce unnecessary complications when reading the bible.

        1. Your dismissal of scholarship and intellectual enquiry is couched to have a certain commonsense allure and appeal to simplicity. Yes we do well to respond to the beauty of simple truth. But such a complex set of texts (not one text) as the bible most surely has multiple layers of depths and interpretations, and I can’t agree that it’s better never to attempt to tune in to some that go beyond the blindingly obvious. Just to take one example, Jesus did not appear to expect or even desire people to find his parables something that they could immediately take at face value.

        2. Point taken. But supposing that text was in a gospel that people don’t think is authentic? Or people quote Paul, and it turns out that they are quoting from Timothy or Titus, which may not have been written by Paul? It’s there in the Bible, and that’s fine. But you can’t hang too much on the notion that it is Paul’s words, if it might not be.

  9. I favour scholarship and intellectual enquiry in biblical studies. Please don’t misunderstand me. But the word expert implies a person who knows, and at two thousand years distance, with many unanswered questions about the text, I don’t believe it is appropriate to take on any scholar’s view about the text as being the truth, uncritically. I wish to hold the text itself in awe, rather than hold an individual scholar in awe.
    This point is hard to express. I hope you can see what I am driving at.

    1. I agree that I too hold the text in awe – some of it. Some of it speaks unequivocally to me of Jesus and God. And some of it just doesn’t. I can’t see any way round that, and I’m not apologising for that. And some of it can be very mysterious and difficult to unpick, and I can be very grateful for certain scholars who lead me into fascinating insights that I might well have not reached by myself.

  10. After reading the above and witnessing the; “Protestant Dilemma,” in terms of Sola Scriptura, I see the claims of the Catholic Church as something really worth considering?

    I think we would all agree that Christ said that, “The Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth,” His word to Peter, ‘Upon this Rock’ and the teaching of the Church Councils down the ages for me, cannot be dismissed.
    It is so much easier to be a Catholic.

    Bye – Bye everyone I’m off to Rome!


    Chris Pitts

    PS Cue, “Lead Kindly Light” John Henry Newman

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