I heard a preacher once say, "Don't let facts blind you to the truth." What did he mean? Facts, misunderstood or taken out of context, can take us further away from, rather than closer to, truth. This risk is ever-present when reading scripture because you can focus on one set of facts to the exclusion of all the others! We call this "selective literalism." And, because the passages in scripture addressed an ancient situation, it is critical to understand the historic and cultural context-the specific situations to which these words had original meaning, and to which they still have moral and spiritual application today. Let me say it another way. Interpreting scripture requires more than reading the words on the page of the Bible. To grasp scripture's fullest meaning, we need to discern the author's original intent, asking how it might apply to our lives today.
Consider the issue of women's clothing and jewelry. Paul asks the women at Ephesus to adorn themselves "not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God" (1 Timothy 2:9-10). Yet, if you visit evangelical churches today, you will observe many Bible-believing women wearing gold wedding bands. Are these women disobeying scripture? No, because a literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:9-10 misses the point! Gold and pearls were "attendant features" to Paul's argument which was culturally and historically defined. Paul's primary emphasis is that our clothing and behavior should reflect our commitment to God. Wearing gold and pearls are not the point. Paul's point is that all of our lives should honor God, including our clothing. Many Christians today wear gold and pearls because they realize that when interpreting scripture they must:
- Understand the historical and cultural context.
- Allow what is clear in scripture to inform that which seems unclear.
- Let moral and spiritual teaching of scripture take priority over the "attendant features."
Interpreting scripture accurately is especially critical when dealing with issues of power. Abolitionists helped free slaves by showing that slavery was an attendant feature of ancient culture, rather than part of the moral and spiritual teachings of scripture, as William Webb and Willard Swartley have shown.
The moral and spiritual teachings of scripture are also overlooked when gender and authority are at stake. Consider Peter's request in 1 Peter 3:1-4 that wives submit to the authority of unbelieving husbands. Some assert that Peter was emphasizing the universal authority of husbands over wives, but this is not the case. Peter makes clear that the husbands in question are unbelievers. The point of the passage is not universal wifely submission, but the evangelism of unbelieving husbands in a cultural context where obedience to husbands was expected. After all, Peter makes the same request of slaves several verses earlier (1 Peter 2:18ff). The attendant features in this passage concern the cultural authority of masters over slaves and husbands over wives, while the spiritual principles compel Christians to submit to cultural norms for the sake of the gospel. If we were to apply the moral and spiritual principles of this passage today, some scholars have argued that it would compel us to share authority in marriage in order to advance the gospel in a culture where decision making is now shared equally between husbands and wives.
Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality. Join her this July 24-26 and consider these themes more closely at CBE's 2009 conference, titled "Are Men from Mars and Women from Venus? A Biblical Response to Gender Difference."