Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Why My Grandmother Doesn't Need to Punch the Apostle Paul in the Mouth and Get Kicked out of Heaven

My grandmother, Georgia, is one of the great heroines of the Faith after which I try to pattern my life.  She loved God and people, and she was a true biblical feminist.  She used to say that when she got to Heaven, she was going to punch Paul slap in the mouth. Yes. That would be the Apostle Paul.  The guy who gets blamed for a lot of stuff including marginalizing women and homosexuals.

I recently finished a several week study on the passage found in 1 Timothy 5:3-16.  This passage talks about widows, old and young, and how they should be cared for by their families or other women, and what a real widow is, and how they should get married so they don't turn to Satan, and how they are idle gossips, and busybodies...If you're confused, there is a good reason.  No one knows exactly what is happening in this letter supposedly written by Paul giving the early Church a set of instructions regarding Church order.  But that's not what interests me in this passage.  What does interest me is the author's use of language in his set of instructions.  I won't bore you with all of the details of my research, but instead I want to lift up a pattern that I see happening in the 1 Timothy text that I think still happens today.  

How we understand the use of language in an argument is key to how we, as modern readers of the Bible, should understand 1 Timothy 5:3-16.  The side that takes possession of the language in a dispute can gain an unfair advantage. For example, calling an interpretation, feminist, infers a bias and thus an attempt to skew the argument. To label an interpretation as feminist demonstrates a microagression in regards to gender and makes the claim that the interpreter does not agree with the predominate point of view; in the case of 1 Timothy, a point of view that is historically patriarchal. Another example to consider is the phrase, high view of Scripture. This phrase was used by those who, during the Civil War era, claimed that the Bible supported their right to own slaves.  Those who did not hold the same point of view were labeled as those who held a low view of Scripture. This same argument is used today.  Recently, while listening to a lecture given by a visiting professor on Evangelical Tradition in the United States, I heard him describe Evangelical Christians, and those who hold a literal view of Scripture, as having a high view of Scripture.  Why are those who hold the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, rather than the literal word of God, considered to hold a lower view? Why do those who hold the high view claim to speak with such authority?
This literal understanding of Scripture has led to some of the most problematic issues that the Church faces today.  In 1972, the Reverend Eddie Fox, an ordained elder within the United Methodist Church, wrote a statement to be included in that denomination’s Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.  He wrote that “homosexuality was not in keeping with Christian teaching.”  The words of  Reverend Fox have been, for the UMC, an authoritative statement that has limited, and excluded, people on the LGBTQ spectrum, not only from answering and living out a call as clergy, but also from the larger Church body.  Recent proposals to make changes to the Book of Discipline have brought further argument from Fox, “The UMC statement on human sexuality needs to be clear, concise and faithful to biblical teaching.  Leaving out that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching would be confusing, especially for members of the church outside of the United States.”  These statements still control the argument regarding human sexuality in the United Methodist Church, a debate which spilled over in the Fall semester of 2013 into the student body of Candler School of Theology as Fox was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award by the Candler Alumni Board. Letters were written to Dean Jan Love and a protest was held on the day of the awards ceremony. Many conversations were held in the halls and classrooms of Candler. Both sides of the argument were discussed and considered, but the side that preferred the statements written by the Revered Fox, the side that claimed to hold a biblical view in keeping with Christian teaching enjoyed preference within the debate. Those on the other side of the debate, especially those individuals on the LGBTQ spectrum felt as if their status as Christians, and even their humanity, were being questioned.

So, what meaning can the modern reader glean from this second-century text?  1 Timothy 5:3-16 is just as significant to the Church today as it was when is was written, for this reason: Today’s reader must ask questions of the biblical texts with which they engage and assess the role of authority with a critical eye, ear, and mind. This text is a part of an ugly history that has been used to control women; a history I know very well. As I child, I fell in love with the stories in the Bible.  I loved Noah, Moses, Jonah, and Jesus. I used to pretend that I was a minister.  I would stand in front of an imaginary congregation and preach, but growing up in a denomination that would not ordain women meant that I could tell these stories in a Sunday School class, not from a pulpit.  By the time I was a teen-ager, I still loved the Bible and it’s heroes, with one exception, the Apostle Paul.

While studying this text, I have thought a lot about my grandmother and other women like her; women who have been told they cannot serve in leadership roles within the Church because of passages from the Bible like those found in 1 Timothy.  Not only have I been thinking about the implications for women, but those who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, and anyone who has known discrimination because of irresponsible exegesis and biased interpretations. So, I write this blog as a letter to my younger self, to those who have known this special brand of discrimination, and to my grandmother.

Dear Grandma:
Before you go looking for Paul, I've got something to tell you...