Monday, April 22, 2013

When the Bible Offends

Last week I dealt with a post from Dr. William Mounce on the use of the vocative “Woman” in the New Testament. His view was that this was difficult, if not impossible to translate, because it sounds offensive to modern Western ears (see last week’s post). In reading through the comments on Mounce’s post, it became clear that a number of his readers agreed with him. They found the term offensive, or upsetting.

That raised the following question for me: What are we to do when something we read in the Bible offends us? It seems to me that there are three responses. The first response should be for us to ask ourselves whether we have understood the Bible properly. As I sought to show last week with the “woman” issue, this may not be particularly difficult to determine. Some time spent with a concordance, or a commentary, or a study Bible should clarify many things for us. When it becomes clear that we have misunderstood the passage, we need to labor to bring our understanding in line with what the Bible is actually saying at that point. We may help ourselves in this by seeking to explain the true meaning of the passage to someone else. I have found in my two decades plus of teaching that teaching something to someone else clarifies it for us.

Second, we should seek to determine if perhaps our offense is with the Bible, or with something within the cultures in which the Bible was written. For example, I find the practice of polygamy offensive. It is clear from Genesis 2 and from Jesus’ teaching that polygamy is contrary to God’s purposes for marriage. The fact that many people in the Old Testament practiced is no justification for the practice. The mystery is why God tolerated that sin through many generations of the lives of his Old Testament people. I can live with that. We each ought to be aware that God tolerates many sins in our own lives, and in our own cultures. The fact that he tolerates them and does not immediately judge them is no justification for our continuing in them, or for encouraging others in their practice.

Third, if we have properly understood the text, and the problem is not some cultural distinctive or some sin issue, then we should conclude that our thinking ought to be brought to the captivity of Christ. We may find it offensive that Paul tells women to be silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2). However, Paul bases his statements not on cultural considerations but on the created order. In other words, the command of Paul is not a product of Paul’s misogyny, but is appropriate to the order of life as God has created it. (For a fine exegetical treatment of the issue of women in the church, I would refer my readers to God’s Good Design, by Claire Smith.) Submitting our thinking to Christ is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is necessary for our sanctification. We like to think that we are right, and that our own practices ought to be the standard for others. But our standard in all things is Christ, and it our responsibility as disciples of Christ to submit our thinking to his Word.

There. Isn’t that simple? No, because of The Nature, Power, Deceit, and
Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, to borrow a title from John Owen. Conforming our thinking to the Word of God is a lifetime process empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes when the Bible offends, we need to be offended so that the Spirit might perfect his work in us.

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