William Webb, in his Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, examines a singular question: how to analyze which parts of the Bible are “cultural” and which parts are “transcultural.”
The book is a study in method: How do we make such decisions? Whether you agree or not, there is no book like it.
He develops no fewer than 18 criteria that need to be considered when “applying” the Bible. Today we look at the five “persuasive” criteria.
The questions we need to ask are these: Does anyone apply the Bible literally? Is there not some shift always in applying the Bible to our world? And what principles are used in application? Do you greet one another with a “holy kiss” (Romans 16) or not? Do you wash one another’s feet? We could go on … doesn’t matter. What matters is how you make such decisions.
One of his big points is to use a “neutral” example. He uses “slavery.” I can’t get into the issues he raises with slavery or with homosexuality, since this series (which will go on perhaps through next April when I finish my course at NPU) is on women in ministry.
1. Preliminary movement: the biblical message makes a preliminary (not final, absolute) movement by modifying the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman cultural conditions and laws regulating women.
He sees improved rights for female slaves and concubines; no bodily punishment of a wife; women’s gain of limited inheritance rights; women could initiate divorce; greater rights in divorce cases; women suspected of adultery were treated more fairly; elevation of female sexuality; improved rape laws; softening the husband side in household regulations.
2. Seed ideas: the biblical text sometimes is a seed that will develop over time.
He appeals to Galatians 3:28 (neither male nor female) in light of 1 Cor 12:13, Eph 2:15 and Col 3:11 — interchangeable parts of those who are “in Christ.” And he appeals to 1 Cor 11:11-12 where equality and mutural interdependence are taught.
3. Breakouts: here the biblical text is actually broken out of in another biblical text.
He appeals to the basic hierarchy that is broken out of by examples like Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Junia, Job’s daughters and inheritance (42:15), sexual realm in marriage (1 Cor 7:3-5).
4. Purpose/Intent statements: a biblical text is culturally bound if in following it one no longer fulfills the text’s original intent.
He appeals to “submission” women to men. The evangelistic intent of 1 Pet 3:1-6 may be harmed by “submissive” attitudes.
5. Basis in Fall or Curse: a biblical text may be transcultural if it is rooted in the Fall — since the Fall continues today.
He thinks Gen 3:16 (curse of Eve in subordination) is misused: the Christian does not perpetuate the curse but redemption of those under the curse. We’ve minimized childbirth pain, weeds, etc.. The order of the fall is not emphasized by Paul and there is lots of guesswork that takes place on this issue. Women are not inherently deceived more than men — science disproves it. Creation does not evidence subordination; that appears after the Fall.
Christians are to battle against the curse.