• Homosexuality and the Bible: Moral or cultural?

    March 12, 2012

    How do you determine what in the Bible is a cultural principle (meaning it applies to the culture the author was addressing, but not necessarily to us) and what is a moral principle (meaning it applies always, in every culture)? It’s not as simple as one might think–or hope. Take the whole women in ministry issue. Or, heck, just take women in the church, period. The apostle Paul certainly says some difficult and, to our 21st century ears, downright offensive things on the topic.


    Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

    It isn’t just wrong for women to speak in church, the apostle says. It is “disgraceful.” Sounds an awful lot like the language Paul used in Romans 1. So why do some think Paul is making a cultural argument here, but not there? Some have argued that because women were uneducated in Paul’s day, he wanted them not to disrupt the service by constantly asking questions of their husbands when they could just wait till they got home, but there is nothing in the passage to indicate this. It’s pure speculation. And why would asking a question out of ignorance be “disgraceful”? Seems a little harsh if all Paul was worried about was disruption of a service. And anyway, this is not the only passage wherein Paul speaks of the woman’s need for submission and silence.

    1 TIMOTHY 2

     11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

    Here Paul gives us a little insight into his reasoning on the matter of women in the church, and what he gives us is not a cultural argument, but a moral argument, suggesting that he thinks what he is saying applies to all cultures in all times. So why do many churches, including many theologically conservative churches, say this passage, which contains no cultural argument, is culturally bound and therefore not applicable to us today, while Romans 1, loaded as it is with cultural clues about idol worship and Roman sexual practices, still applies?

    Some have argued that because we find exceptions to the rule in Scripture, times when Paul commends women deacons and possibly even a female elder, that Paul could not have been laying down a moral principle, but merely a cultural one that is not always binding. Exceptions, however, do not usually negate rules. And if the point then is that Paul may be speaking culturally even when he uses a moral argument as the basis of his instruction, how then can anyone say that Romans 1 is definitely binding for all times when Paul has filled that passage with cultural clues that would suggest otherwise? It’s just not consistent.

    And what about those pesky head coverings?


     2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.  7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

     13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

    Here Paul at least acknowledges that man is not independant of woman, for both came from God, but his conclusion remains the same, that a woman should be in submission. If she is not going to shave her head, which for some reason would be a disgrace (that word again), then she should have her head covered. Paul’s reason? “Because of the angels,” whatever that means. Whatever it means, it sounds like a theological, or moral, argument, and not a cultural argument. Paul seems to be saying that because of the very nature of things, the very structure of the unseen world, a woman should have her head covered. Paul even adds, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.” This was not just the practice of a church, but the church. And you’ll find no exceptions mentioned anywhere in the Bible. So why do so few women grab a doily on the way out the door to church on Sunday?

    It is, of course, possible that Paul is simply talking about hair length, that a woman with long hair has a natural head covering, so the doily would be superfluous, a head covering for the head covering. Either way, the point and the result remain because we do not enforce hair length standards in most of our churches today. But why? We somehow concluded this passage doesn’t apply to us today. How? And why would a blanket prohibition against even the most loving of gay relationships apply, even though, as we’ve seen, such a prohibition is anything but clear in Scripture?

    What is your consistent standard for determining what does and does not still apply to Christians today? How do you decide what is merely cultural teaching that we may do away with, and what is moral teaching that we should ever enforce?

    I would argue that the only consistent standard you will find in Scripture is the principle of love. Is “X” loving toward my neighbor, for the entire Law is fulfilled in keeping just the one command to love your neighbor as yourself (Galations 5:14). And the fruit should speak for whether “X” is loving or not. If the fruit is bad, probably not. If the fruit is good, then what’s the problem? As Jesus said, “Wisdom is proved right by her children” (Luke 7:35).

    If you disagree with my standard, with what would you replace it that is more consistent?

    Posted in: The Gay Posts

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