When Scripture Seems Cruel.

Via Scott Robinson
on Jan 20, 2011
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In graduate school I knew a talented voice major who had married the pastor of a conservative church.  Because of passages in the Apostle Paul’s letters to his disciple Timothy and to the Christians in Corinth, women were not allowed to assume any teaching or leadership roles in this congregation.  So my friend prepared the choir on Wednesday evenings, and her husband, a former minor league pitcher with no musical training whatever, stood up and waved his arms at them on Sunday mornings.

Of course, the interpretation of Scripture that sanctioned this behavior is full of holes, but since a full treatment of the subject is outside the scope of this article, I will let one example suffice:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.[i]

Now, the word translated as “have authority over” is authentein—a word that appears only once in the New Testament and apparently refers not to “authority,” but to the offices of an authenia, or female temple prostitute.  Arguably, it is therefore unconverted pagan women who were forbidden to teach in church and, not surprisingly, to engage in sacred prostitution with men.

However, even if you have no access to biblical Greek scholarship, the antics of my friend’s church are still patently outrageous, so let’s use this as a guiding principle:

If your interpretation of Scripture forces you to be a hypocrite, your interpretation is wrong.

Unlike most other sacred texts, the Bible is not a unified document by a single inspired author, nor a compendium of a founder’s wise sayings, but a sprawling, multi-authored, wide-ranging collection of prayers, stories, prophesy and law that defies easy understanding.  You have to dig hard, and make a lot of judgment calls, when you seek God through the Bible. This is both its glory and its liability. This was brought home to me vividly during my grad school days.

Dissatisfied with the European classical tradition in which I was being trained, I used to meet some people in my neighborhood to play bluegrass, folk music, free jazz, experiments with Middle Eastern scales—anything that involved listening hard to one another and improvising.

One day we took our banjo and guitar and squeezebox into the next neighborhood over to jam with another group of musicians. Which was how I met “Steve.”

Steve, a drummer, hardly said a word the whole afternoon, but his playing was versatile, sensitive and skillful. Asked for a solo demonstration of the concertina, I launched into a 17th-century Dutch march, which Steve joined in on with the tightest rudimental snare drum playing I had ever heard in a room full of pot smoke. When we had finished, he grinned at me.  “Marching band,” he explained.

A few days later, we returned to the apartment Steve shared with a dread-locked, barrel-chested gentle giant named “Ben.” Arriving, we saw Ben on the stoop with big tears running down his anguished face.

“Steve’s dead,” he told us.

His roommate lay on his bed, having apparently overdosed on one or more of several drugs, covered in purple blotches and not breathing.

Stunned, we sat on the stoop while the police arrived and investigated the scene. Most of what little talk there was is a blur to me, but one thing stands out in my memory: Steve was gay, and Ben worried that Steve’s conservative Christian parents would not allow his friends to attend his funeral.

Christian opposition to homosexuality is largely based on seven Bible passages­­–often called “clobber verses” because of the way they are used by many conservatives–that seem, on the surface, to categorically condemn gay sex. Of the three verses from the Hebrew Bible, two[iii] probably refer specifically to gay ritual sex in pagan temples, while the third[iv] refers to the rape and humiliation of strangers.

Of the four New Testament passages (none of them from the Gospels) one[v] almost certainly refers to bestiality rather than homosexuality, two[vi] probably refer to adult men who keep boys as sexual slaves–Paul does not use the standard Greek word for homosexuals, but rather a word of his own coinage that seems to pair “men” and “boys”– and one[vii] refers to ritual orgies.

But once again, those who are either ignorant of Biblical Greek scholarship, or who disagree with secular and liberal scholars, have another way of deciding when to reject what Scripture seems to be telling them:

If your interpretation of Scripture forces you to be cruel, your interpretation is wrong.

As it turned out, Steve’s parents surprised everyone by welcoming his friends to his funeral. But I look forward to the day when people won’t need to worry about that–when grief at the death of a loved one need not be compounded by fear of being shut out, and anxiety over a loved one’s illness or injury need not be accompanied by the fear, much less the fact, of being excluded from the patient’s bedside. Using Scripture to justify forcing someone to die alone while their loved ones are kept from them is nothing in the world but cruel.

Happily, America has recently taken a decisive step in the right direction:

New regulations regarding hospital visitation rights went into effect Tuesday…Under the new protocol…hospitals partaking in Medicare and Medicaid must now allow all patients to decide visitation rights, as well as who to entrust with making medical decisions on their behalf, regardless of sexual or gender identity.

As an Episcopalian, I am proud to belong to what Fred Phelps delights to call “The Faggot Church.” I am proud that my children are unfazed by the same-sex couples who parent many of their friends at their Quaker school. If I could, I would export the revolution of kindness and tolerance immediately to the whole world.

But it’s probably a good thing that I don’t run the zoo, so I suppose I’ll just take the struggle to bend the arc of history a little faster toward justice one day at a time.

[i] 1 Timothy 2:12

[ii] 1 Thessalonians 4:11

[iii] Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

[iv] Genesis 19

[v] Jude 1:7

[vi] 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy :9-10

[vii] Romans 1:26-27


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


10 Responses to “When Scripture Seems Cruel.”

  1. Ben Ralston says:

    “I suppose I’ll just take the struggle to bend the arc of history a little faster toward justice one day at a time.”

    Amen brother!

  2. Scott, I am so glad that you are here bringing us a rational loving Christianity, so different from what so many of us, including myself, grew up with, and, in my case, at least, ran from as soon as I was old enough to think for myself (early high school.)

  3. Roger Wolsey says:

    I 2nd what Ben and Bob said and I'll just add — Yes!

  4. Momma says:

    I'm going to share this on Facebook and among other friends as well. Thank you for the reasonable and loving reflection on Scripture.

  5. *jj* says:

    Love this. TFS!

  6. Elle Bieling says:

    Yes, thank-you for the thoughtfulness that helps derail the dogma.

  7. Pam says:

    AMEN!!! Just because people call themselves "christians" does not mean they are actually following christ's teachings and way of life, just because someone interprets a scripture one way does not mean its the right way nor that God intended for it to be meant that way. People give God a bad name because they dont understand but think they do and cant keep there mouths shut about things they know nothing about. Btw this is my interpretation so take it to heart not head. I dont like the word God that people made up, I prefer the I am. I believe people can speak/act stupidly due to self-righteousnes…s and prejudices. But I also believe that every person has an amazing ability to know in their spirit what is right… to discern what is right… even when handed a lie. I read scriptures that I know are interpretations but I can see the truth behind them. Laying aside feelings of seperateness caused by our material state at the moment, laying aside self-righteous interpretations and attempts to force them upon others… we know in our core what is true and right. We fail to express it.

  8. Renee says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing this. It's funny to me how the Bible has been used (as have many religious texts) to justify all sorts of hate when in fact the Bible's stance on homosexuality is so unclear; and may I add, is it not true that the Bible says absolutely nothing about lesbianism? I need to go back and read those passages. Every time I pick up the Bible I think, well, if we are going to make sweeping generalizations about how to interpret such a task, I think that Jesus would advocate us all giving up our comfy lives to serve the poor like Mother Theresa.

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  10. YesuDas says:

    Well said, Renee. And if I am not mistaken, the main reason lesbianism doesn't come up is that the ancient world struggled to keep the human population up, and gay men were seen as wasting seed. (Ditto men who practiced bestiality.) Not only would this not apply to women, but I doubt if most men were even aware of what the women were doing in the womens' quarters, or wanted to be.