• Gay marriage: time to reinterpret the Bible again!


    Yesterday, on 17th April 2013, New Zealand legalised same-sex marriage.  The bill was passed in parliament with 77 votes in favour and 44 against.  Although New Zealand is not the first country to pass such a bill, it is the first Asia-Pacific country to do so, which means they beat my home country of Australia to it.  And even though our prime minister is an open atheist, we don’t seem to be in a hurry to follow New Zealand’s lead.

    New Zealand actually has a proud tradition of being a socially inclusive country.  In 1893, it became the first country to give women the vote.  That didn’t sink the country, and I don’t think same-sex marriage will either.  Everyone will get used to it soon enough.

    Of course there have been divided reactions to the change in the Marriage Act.  Polls suggest the majority of New Zealanders support the change but, naturally, many religious people are not happy with the decision.  One Christian apologist I know from New Zealand reacted by saying that “the legal thing called marriage is not actually marriage as we understand marriage to be”, and gave the following voting advice:

    My new Zealand friends who opposed today’s law change:  Please do not act like so many do every single election, and forget everything that went on during the last Parliamentary term.  Here is a list of who voted, and how they voted.  Actually remember it.

    I’m really glad New Zealand has reached this “fabulous” landmark, but it’s a pity it has been opposed by Christians at every step of the way.  It’s worth pausing and thinking about the other things Christians have tried to stop over the centuries.  Gender equality is an obvious example.  And slavery is another.  It is not even two full centuries since slavery was officially abolished in the West.  There was significant Christian opposition to abolitionism, and even though some of the prominent abolitionists were themselves Christians, they were mostly successful when they abandoned Bible based arguments in favour of a more humanitarian approach.  Hector Avalos argues this case very well in his book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship.

    In any case, slavery in the West is mostly a thing of the past, and Christians have updated their interpretation of the Bible accordingly.  Although I’ve argued elsewhere that the Bible’s teachings on slavery are very clear and completely immoral, Christians today claim that the Bible is against slavery.  Well of course!  Christians have to reinterpret the Bible when moral advances are made.  After all, Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by the perfect designer of morality itself, so if it seems to be advocating something immoral, it must really be saying something else, right?

    Christians also claim that the Bible supports gender equality, even though the Bible clearly teaches that women shouldn’t teach men, and other choice things I won’t list here.  Again, this is because Christians have come up with new ways to interpret the verses that had traditionally been used to subjugate women.

    And my prediction is this.  In a decade or two, everyone will be used to same-sex marriage.  And within a generation or two, the majority of Christians will have gotten perfectly comfortable with it.  Moreover, Christians will be claiming that it was a proper understanding of the Bible that paved the way for same-sex marriage.  They will claim that, despite “appearing to” say the opposite, the Bible is really pro same-sex relationships.

    But what will be the end of this?  Maybe in 100 years, it will be considered immoral to eat meat.  I suppose Christians of that time will say that the Bible teaches vegetarianism.  Maybe it will eventually be seen as an unacceptable exploitation to ride horses or elephants, or to make animals do any kind of work for us.  Maybe it will even be frowned upon to keep an animal as a pet.  And I guess Christians will then claim that the Bible provided the basis for all these moral advances too.

    In the end, as morality progresses further and further away from so many of the set-in-stone teachings of the Bible, Christians will be forced to either abandon the Bible altogether, or else interpret it until it means exactly the opposite of what it says about these issues.  You’d think Christianity would have a hard time surviving that kind of shift, but it’s done so plenty of times before.

    But that’s just speculation about the distant future.  In the meantime, I hope my LGBT friends enjoy the success of this passed bill.  And I hope we’ll get a temporary break from the claim that our society is “based on Judeo-Christian values” 😉

    Category: ChristianityHomosexualitySlavery


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian
    • Tom

      Hmm… I don’t really want to get into the debate about gay marriage but I think you may be reinterpreting Wilberforce. He certainly didn’t abandon Biblical reasons in arguing against slavery. He argued that since all humanity is made in the image of God, there is a common human dignity to which slavery is an affront. He made several arguments against the slaver owners’ assertions that the Bible approves of slavery. The main one, as I understand his thinking, was that the Jewish laws on slavery were for the Jews (because of their privileged position as God’s particular people). Christ’s work did away with distinctions between nations so, since we are effectively all of the same ‘people’, so the law prevents us from slavery, since it’s prohibited by the Law to take slaves from amongst your own people. (There were exceptions, but such bond-men and women were either being punished or offering themselves for a period of bond-work for reasons such as poverty, indebtedness etc… it was limited to 7 years. the Law required that they be treated well…. )

      “Inasmuch therefore, as we are repeatedly and expressly told that Christ
      has done away all distinctions of nations, and made all mankind one
      great family, all our fellow creatures are now our brethren; and
      therefore the very principles and spirit of the Jewish law itself would
      forbid our keeping the Africans, any more than our own fellow subjects,
      in a state of slavery.”
      ~~W Wilberforce.

      • havalos

        Dear Tom,
        I address some of your arguments and others in my book. Your defenses are very well-known, and that is why I spend a lot of time addressing them.

        Your view of Wilberforce is outdated. Have you read, for example, this more recent biography: Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)?

        Wilbeforce’s complicity in other forms of slavery is now admitted even by evangelical Christian publications, as fo example, Ted Olsen, “The Abolitionist Scandal: William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect Founded Sierra Leone Then Tolerated a Form of Slavery There, a New Book Reveals,” Christianity Today 54 (October 2010), pp. 46-49.”

        I also used materials that remain unpublished in some archives. For example, there is a letter (dated June 17, 1806) by Wilberforce preserved in the archives of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The relevant portion states:

        “…there certainly cannot be a doubt as to the principle of the Holy Scriptures especially of the New Testament on the subject of the Slave Trade or even that of slavery; tho’ on the latter point Explanations would be required. But I believe it was better not to enter into any such discussion in the House of Commons for many reasons.”

        I show that Wilberforce tried to move away from using the Bible because pro-slavery owners could use it just as well in Parliamentary debates.

        Wilberforce’s arguments based on the Bible against slavery were not very good in any case. For example, the idea that human beings were made in the image of god did not stop biblical authors from accepting or endorsing slavery, and we can find similar sentiments about the unity of humanity in other cultures who also had slaves.

        Similarly, your comments on Exodus do not reckon with the fact that the New Testament had no term limits for slaves, and so was even worse relative to the Old Testament. As Christianity spread, especially after 1492, so did slavery all over Africa and what became known as the New World.

        So, I think it is better to read the book first, and then comment on it with that knowledge.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        Thanks for posting your thoughts, Tom, and don’t worry – I’m not in a hurry to debate gay marriage either 😉

        Regarding 7 year limited terms, treating slaves well, etc – please read my other post – http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless/2013/02/07/slavery-bible-style/ – it was written specifically so I’d have something to link people to when they said things like that. Better yet, you could read Dr Avalos’ book (which I linked to in the post) – as you can see from his response, the book is backed up by extremely thorough research, and covers every single Christian defense I have ever heard on the matter.

        • Some Christians want you believe that biblical slavery was an early form of social safety net.

          • Reasonably Faithless

            Yes, I’ve heard that one several times – it’s just great that if you were in debt, you could get “employment” like that. In my post on slavery – http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless/2013/02/07/slavery-bible-style/ – I linked to a Christian site that actually claims the master-slave relationship is comparable to the bond between a father and son.