Bible,  Sexuality

If You Don’t Teach This, You Can’t Teach That

Whenever Christians cite the their faith in support of some unpopular moral view, objectors often turn to a well worn argument. I call it the ‘if you don’t teach this, you can’t teach that’ argument. The argument turns on a comparison between the objectionable view in question and some other Christian view or Biblical text. The objector accuses the Christian of cherry-picking his beliefs. One version of the argument suggests that the Christian obeys only parts of his faith that support the objectionable view while not obeying those that appear to support the objector’s moral view.

The longer the list of Christian beliefs that the Christian does not support, the more effective the argument. And as long as the reader thinks those beliefs are what the Christian ought to believe, the objector remains persuasive.

To be sure, a Christian who only seeks to fulfill some of his obligations while ignoring others is not consistently practicing his faith. Although we all fall short, Christians should not reject some teachings while accepting others.

Consider the following letter to the Guardian in London:

Rees-Mogg is a Catholic who defends Rome’s position on marriage and abortion. He is also a conservative and so supports a reduction in welfare programs, the use of military force to restrain aggressors, and the promotion of low-tax wealth producing policies.

Mr Rowan catalogues a series of putative Christian beliefs that support his non-conservative agenda. HIs conclusion is that if Mr. Rees-Mogg is to be consistent, then he ought to move to the political left.

However, as it turns out, none of the left-wing applications follow from the Christian beliefs and some are actually contrary to the teaching of the Bible (and, from Rees-Mogg’s perspective, the Catholic Church’s historic teachings on the subject).

First, a welfare state does not follow from the Bible’s teachings on compassion. Compassion compels Christians to aid those in need. It does not compel the support of large government sponsored welfare programs. In fact, large welfare programs are not compassionate at all; they actually adversely affect their participants. Furthermore, in contrast to paying taxes, compassion is uncompelled. One owes taxes. They are not gifts. An act is only compassionate if it is freely given.

Second, calling for military intervention does not breach the Christian’s commitment to peacemaking. Military intervention for good reasons is solely the responsibility of the state. Paul tells us that God uses governments to restrain evil through force (Romans 13). One might debate the scope and circumstances that justify military intervention, but it is not ruled out by appealing to the Sermon on the Mount. A Christian’s love of peace is compatible with his desire to bring evil forces in the world to justice through legitimate means.

Third, being wealthy is not sinful. Jesus point to the rich man wasn’t about his wealth. It was about his heart. The rich man tells Jesus that he is a willing follower, ready for anything. Jesus exposes the man’s love of his wealth by telling him to give it all away.

A friend of mine posted another example of the argument in response to those who hold to  traditional Christian views about the Bible and homosexuality:

For those who uphold the authority of scripture, and therefore feel compelled to reject homosexuality, a trans identity or same sex marriage as sinful, how do you deal with the following passages of scripture? Surely you must uphold the authority of these verses too, and must enforce them within your church.

The implied argument seems to be roughly as follows:

  1. If you teach and adhere to the moral content of scripture about homosexuality, then you should teach and adhere to the moral content of other parts of scripture (including 1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:11-12; Titus 2:9; 1 Corinthians 11: 5-6; 13-16; Matthew 19: 8-9; 1 Corinthians 7:8; 1 Corinthians 15:29; Luke 22:36; and Luke 19:27)
  2. You do not teach and adhere to the moral content of other parts of scripture
  3. Therefore, you do not have to teach and adhere to the moral content of scripture about homosexuality. 
My friend then catalogues the other parts of scripture he presumes we leave untaught and unapplied. 
In reply to my friend, it should be said that those who hold to the authority of scripture do teach the moral content of those other parts of scripture. In other words, premise (2) is false. 
My friend asks questions about how we could possibly teach nine potentially offensive scriptures. Presumably, he thinks that teaching any of them is morally reprehensible. In order to show that none are morally reprehensible, I offer the following sketches of what the texts in question mean. The first question my friend asks is about 1 Corinthians 1:34. It is the first of three texts that deal with the role of men and women in the church:

Do you affirm and uphold this? 1 Corinthians 14:34 “As in all the churches of the holy one, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate even as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.”

At first glance, Paul appears to be suggesting that women should not utter a word in church. This is clearly not what is meant since Paul has already provided guidelines for how women ought to pray and prophecy (11:1-16). What is most likely in view is the evaluation of prophecy given in the church (14:26-33). If so, then Paul is restricting that activity to the male leadership of the church. For many evangelicals, this passage no longer applies because there is no present prophecy in the church. The kind of prophecy in question ceased at the close of the canon. 

Text #2

Plus 1 Timothy 2:11-12 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

This text actually helps the case for the previous text’s interpretation. This text is not suggesting that women should not teach per se, but that they are not able to serve as elders in the church and thus fulfill a male-only function within the church (this is the context of the text). To teach as one who has the authority of an elder is, in Paul’s view, a usurpation of the rightful authority of men in the church. This does not entail (for most evangelicals) that women should not teach at all. 

Text #3

On slavery, do you teach and uphold Titus 2:9? Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them.

Again, it may surprise the reader that we do indeed teach verses on slavery in the Bible. Of course, we don’t believe slavery is morally justifiable. Indeed, we think it is reprehensible. But Paul is not attempting to convince anyone of the moral status of slave-holding. Rather, he is teaching people who are slaves about how to behave if they happen to be one. Their good behavior will aid the spread of the gospel among those who see it. Presumably, Paul thinks masters with Christian slaves may become Christians. But the text in no way condones slavery. 

Text #4

Do you teach and enforce 1 Corinthians 11: 5-6? But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 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. And similarly 13-16: Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Again, this is something we teach and practice in the church. In this section (1 Cor 11:1-16), Paul tells men and women that their attire and demeanor in church services should reflect the authorities under which they live. In Paul’s time, the most distinctive symbolism of such a demeanor was a head covering. The main point Paul makes is that since a man lives under the authority of Christ, he should not appear as a woman and since a women lives under the authority of men, she should not appear as a man. Doing so dishonors that authority. 

Text #5

Do you teach and enforce Matthew 19:8-9? Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Yes and Yes, we do teach this. Christians believe that divorce is contrary to God’s design for marriage. Consequently, divorce is only morally justified if a spouse is unfaithful. 

Text #6

On marriage do you teach 1 Corinthians 7:8? “I’m telling those who are single and widows that it’s good for them to stay single like me.” Or do you only pick the scriptures you agree with?

No, we do not merely pick Scriptures we agree with. And there are tough scriptures we shouldn’t shy away from. The letter to Corinth is filled with prescriptions for a sexually pure life. This is for good reason – Corinth was a hotbed of immoral lifestyles. In this verse, Paul writes to those who are not married and suggests that they may want to consider not getting married. In verse 6, Paul makes clear that what he says it not a command. Rather, it is his personal advice. Notice that Paul only says that it is good to remain single; not that it is obligatory. Evidently, Paul experiences benefits from his own singleness and suggests it as a way forward for those who are single. 

Text #7

Does your church practise the baptism of the dead as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:29? Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?

Again, there is no reason not to teach this text. Although there are apparently many different interpretations of this text, one plausible view is that Paul is referring to an activity carried out among the Corinthians. If a family member died after converting to Christianity but before being baptized, another family member may have, at his own baptism, proclaimed the belief that the dead family member was a believer and that he would like his own baptism to declare this publicly. He uses this fact to advance his argument for a future resurrection.

Text #8

Do you carry a sword as Jesus instructed in Luke 22:36? He said to them, But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.

Yup, we teach this too! In this passage Jesus is telling his disciples that he has always prepared them for the work he asks them to do. He uses the metaphors of bags, money belts, and swords to indicate preparation. Now the disciples will need to be prepared for Jesus to be ‘numbered with transgressors’ (verse 37). He teaches them to get themselves ready for the coming events. The disciples show their slowness to understand the events and show Jesus two swords!

Text #9

How do you treat Luke 19:27? But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.

And, you’ve guessed it, we do teach this text. It is part of a parable Jesus teaches to warn his followers that judgment looms for those who are found to be disobedient upon Jesus’ return.

Now, my sketches may lack detail. However, what I have shown is that none of these texts are off limits to the Bible teacher in an evangelical church. Thus, there is no reason why we shouldn’t teach difficult texts about human sexual ethics. And as long as the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, this is indeed what  you will find us teaching and applying. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.