SLAVES, WOMEN, AND HOMOSEXUALS:
Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis
William J. Webb
InterVarsity, 301 pages, $24.99
Is it okay to wear stretch pants? You know, the kind that fit well before and after a big meal, made of 5 percent spandex and 95 percent cotton?
It's a hermeneutical (interpretive) dilemma because the answer to this question flows from the way we interpret the Bible. It's about what we do with Leviticus 19:19, which clearly says, "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." Think about some other puzzling biblical injunctions:
- "Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife" (1 Cor. 7:27b).
- "Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more" (Prov. 31:6-7).
- "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes" (1 Tim. 2:8-9).
Consider, also, the more incendiary mandates. Are the following binding for Christians today?
- "Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh" (1 Peter 2:18).
- "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12a).
- "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman" (Lev. 18:22).
William J. Webb, professor of New Testament at Heritage Theological Seminary in Canada, opens his book with a similar but longer test—two pages full of biblical decrees. He asks, "Which of these instructions from Scripture are still in force for us today exactly as they are articulated 'on the page'?" The exercise is bound to disorient the reader, and appropriately so. It leaves one badly in need of a system to distinguish the biblical injunctions that apply to us from the ones that don't. Webb's book presents us with such a device.
The author calls it the redemptive movement hermeneutic. The name is not a zinger, but it's apt.
Redemptive stands for God's reclaiming of sin-stained ground throughout history and within cultures. Movement is for the direction of God's redemptive action throughout history—sometimes with and sometimes against, in Webb's words, the "winds of cultures."
Of course, many theologians before Webb have seen the Bible in a way consistent with the redemptive movement hermeneutic. But Webb seems to be the first to articulate it so clearly.
The redemptive movement can be detected using three factors: (1) the original culture of the primary hearers of a biblical passage, (2) the biblical mandate, and (3) our culture. The movement between these three points to an ultimate ethic.
Take slavery. It was widely accepted among the Israelites and their neighboring nations. But Webb points out that, in a liberating trend, the Scripture called God's people to a higher ethic. For example, the Hebrews were required to give a seventh-day rest for all slaves, and a seventh-year release for Hebrew slaves.
Today's culture, with talk of reparations and the savageries of slavery as practiced for generations in the United States, sees slavery as evil and works to free slaves throughout the world. Culturally, our attitude toward slavery is near the ultimate ethic, toward which God's redemptive movement is taking us.
In Webb's words, the ultimate ethic here means "slavery eliminated; improved working conditions; wages maximized for all; harmony, respect, and unified purpose between all levels in an organizational structure."
Webb devotes most of the book to plowing through the passages concerning women and homosexuals. He draws, once and for all, a stark contrast between the two: The texts about women are more like the slavery texts—and not at all like the homosexuality texts.
A little history for those who don't see the significance of this contention: Some complementarians (who believe the Bible limits women's leadership roles) accuse egalitarians (who believe the Bible does not limit women's leadership) of reading the Bible in a way that could also be used to argue for embracing homosexual practice. After all, some charge, if you think the passages that restrict women's rights don't apply to women today, then you may soon think that the passages that condemn homosexuality applied only to, say, temple prostitutes or the uncommitted—not to today's committed homosexual unions. Unfortunately, some Christians have come to this conclusion.
But if you follow Webb's case-by-case dissection of the pertinent passages, you'll see why they shouldn't have. You'll see that a chasm extends between interpreting the Bible as fundamentally egalitarian and believing that it approves of homosexuality.
Applying the redemptive movement hermeneutic, Webb first considers the original culture's treatment of women: In the ancient world, "the overbearing strength of patriarchy and its abuses were often horrific." For example, Webb says, women rarely were allowed to initiate divorce, and they were punished if they were raped. The Bible improves significantly on these injustices.
As with slaves, the Scripture intervenes to allow women freedoms greater than the culture's concessions. For example, it drastically elevates women's emotional and sexual needs (Eph. 5:25-33 and 1 Cor. 7:4-5). Webb says, "For the first-century audience, it was not the wife material that was radical or strange; it was the husband material."
While minor sexism lingers in our society, women may undertake anything they want—consider Gloria Steinem, Condoleezza Rice, and Anne Graham Lotz. Through a meticulous examination of the texts about women, Webb arrives at the conclusion that the ultimate ethic must be either "ultra-soft patriarchy or complementary egalitarianism and interdependence, mutuality, and servant-like attitude in relationships" (emphasis mine).
That's partly why this work received rave endorsements from egalitarian scholars such as Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Eastern Seminary, and from moderate patriarchalist (complementarian) scholars such as Darrell L. Bock, New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.
In stark contrast to the texts on women stand the passages on homosexuals. Webb explains: The ancient cultures to which Paul wrote were marked by "mixed acceptance and no restrictions of homosexual activity." (Compare it to the original cultures' stances on women and slavery.) The Bible acts against its primary recipients' cultures by offering "a negative assessment and complete restriction of homosexual activity."
Our North American culture opposes this biblical view, and it may be even more permissive than ancient cultures (when Rosie O'Donnell came out, she barely caused a stir).
While the biblical texts concerning slaves and women move with the culture—in a freeing direction—the homosexual texts move in a restrictive direction in comparison to the culture. Galatians 3:28—a verse naming the "social-stigma" groups—omits "neither gay nor straight," Webb points out. "Only a negative assessment of homosexuality retains the redemptive spirit within the biblical text."
An encyclopedic, densely footnoted, analysis of texts related to homosexuality that expands on this understanding can be found in Robert A. J. Gagnon's recent work, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 2001). While showing that the Bible consistently and universally condemns homosexual practice, both Gagnon and Webb call for compassion toward homosexual people.
What if Webb's theory of interpretation is wrong? He is humble enough to devote a chapter to this possibility. It is here that he considers the likelihood that Pauline injunctions about women transcend the cultures of its primary readers. Complementarians, who hold this position, will respect Webb for it.
Egalitarians, on the other hand, may wonder what Webb would think about the work of such biblical scholars as Joy Elasky Fleming. She argues that in telling the first woman "he will rule over you," God is not uttering a curse, but describing consequences of the Fall. Webb seems to see God's declaration as part of a curse. But even so, Webb insists that Christians must work against the curse.
The major accomplishment of Webb's book is one honest realization. While it was fine for the primary readers of the Scriptures to apply the biblical mandates literally, we don't always have to do it. It's okay for us in the twenty-first century to wear stretch pants, gold, and braided hair, and refuse to give beer to the perishing—but not because we're relativists or revisionists.
It's okay because, as Webb puts it, "we must journey beyond any surface-level appropriation to an application of the text that captures its meaning in cultural and canonical context—an application that honors its underlying spirit."
Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis and The Bible and Homosexual Practice are available at Christianbook.com.
Webb's hermeneutics class syllabus is available online.
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