O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Slavery, Usury, and the Evolution of Beliefs

In the 17th century, in response to his support for Copernicanism, the Church condemned Galileo and his heliocentric ideas. Good Christians fought opposed the idea that the sun was at the center of the solar system. Why? Because the Bible seemed to indicate that the earth was stationary, and everything revolved around it, including the sun. For instance: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” (Psalm 93:1) Not to mention all the verses about the sun rising and setting. But eventually science won out, and other than this guy, almost all Christians believe in heliocentrism despite what the biblical writers said.

In the 19th century, a large number of Christians condoned slavery. Many Christians in the South actually owned slaves. They didn’t question it because the Bible seemed OK with slavery. Yes, it set some conditions on owning slaves (Deut. 16:14 commands that they be treated like extended family), but it also allows conquered tribes to be turned into slaves. The Apostle Paul famously advocated that slaves obey their masters. But it wasn’t until the abolition movement (led by Christians who, it should be noted, also based their beliefs on the Bible) that Christianity turned against slavery — despite what the Bible teaches.

Throughout the 20th century (but less so today), divorce was stigmatized in the Church. Jesus taught that remarrying after divorce was like committing adultery. The Apostle Paul echoed this teaching in Romans, and divorce was frowned upon by the Church. Many churches refused to marry divorcees, or allow divorced people to serve in important positions. Some still do. But slowly, divorce is becoming much less of a stigma — despite what the Bible teaches.

Today, in the 21st century, no one bats an eye at charging interest. Yet the Bible expressly forbids usury. “Usury” used to be defined as “charging interest.” ANY kind of interest. An Israelite could charge interest to a foreigner, but not to his “brother.” Jesus teaches that we should lend without expecting anything in return — not even the tiniest bit of interest — but you know what? I’ve never heard a sermon denouncing bankers. We’ve even redefined the word “usury” to mean charging EXCESSIVE interest. But I’m not sure that’s what the Bible meant. It seems that any amount of interest was considered sinful. But when Christians make loans, they probably charge interest. Churches have no problem paying interest. Interest is just the way the world works today — despite what the Bible says.

Why do I bring these up? It’s for a thought experiment:

• The idea that the earth is at the center of the universe is biblical. But we no longer believe it.

• Acceptance of slavery is biblical. But we no longer accept it.

• Divorce is put on a level with adultery in the Bible. But we no longer stigmatize it the same way.

• Charging interest on a loan is expressly forbidden by the Bible. But we do it, and pay it, all the time, without thought.

Despite our calls to return to the “biblical” standard of this or that, we have let other things — like science or reason or equality or the free market — take precedent over a clear biblical teaching. Religion evolves, and sometimes it evolves in good ways. (Honestly, I would be really suspicious of any Christian who advocates slavery or believes the earth doesn’t rotate around the sun.)

So here’s the question: There are a number of issues today in which society or science or culture seem to be in conflict with the Bible. Homosexuality. Feminism. Abortion. Evolution. The second season of “Jersey Shore.”

Do you see Christianity moving toward acceptance of any of these ideas…and away from a clear biblical teaching?

And if so, which ones would you be OK with? Which ones would bother you? Why? 

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posted July 13, 2010 at 3:09 pm

whoooweee! stir up that controversy. :-)
the problem is that if we don’t like it we try to find a way to say it is not biblical. most of us don’t really live what WE consider a biblical life. everyone considers people who don’t like what they believe in or what they are doing intolerant.
for me, there is no real answer to this question…. but i will definitely be thinking about it.
the words below are banned and consideration…. i find that kind of ironic.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Interesting. Just for the sake of semantics, do you think some of this argument stems from what makes something a biblical teaching? I mean, the Scriptures used to support the earth as the center of the universe actually support different truths: the sun does rise and set from our earthly perspective and the earth is fixed in its position (even if that position is not the center of the universe). The biblical teaching stands; we have simply misunderstood it.
As I’m starting to read the Bible more according to genre, a lot of these misunderstandings can be rectified. For instance, one person may say that if you don’t believe the earth was created in six 24-hour days, then you don’t believe in the truth of the Bible. But what if the creation story there is told for poetic effect and not literal truth? The biblical teaching would not be wrong – our interpretation of that teaching is what is wrong. The writer didn’t mess up, the reader (thousands of years removed) just didn’t get it.
I don’t know how helpful this is in actually trying to find solid answers, but it helps my perspective of God. I question Him less and us more.

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L.E. Owens

posted July 13, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I know a handful of divorced (and remarried) people who can be really homophobic. They always cite the Bible when you ask them why they feel so strongly against gay people. I always want to ask them why the anti-homosexuality verses still apply but not the ones about being divorced and living in adultery.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Two that I’m beginning see some movement on are evolution and homosexuality. More and more people are turning to the idea that evolution and the Creation story aren’t necessarily contradictory. For my part, I believe evolution is how we got here and the Genesis story is about why things are so screwed up. As for the homosexual issue, there are more churches that are accepting of homosexuals than there ever before, Even if they don’t agree with the lifestyle, these churches realize that we’re all sinners and no one sin is worse than another. Both of these ideas tend to crop up in younger groups, although there are some older folks (myself included) that agree. I’d love to see where we are in 50 years, but I’ll be 99 then and I’m so irritating, I’ll doubt I’ll make it that long.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 3:42 pm

How come no one questions the local weather person when they say: “Sunrise today 6:00am, sunset tonight 8:00pm”? Just because someone speaks of sunrise or sunset does not mean they believe in a geocentric universe. Not arguing for or against any of today’s “controversies”… just trying to understand why the Bible is said to be written from a geocentric point of view because based on the verses referenced, I don’t see it.

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Jason Boyett

posted July 13, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Wow! First Ted Haggard and now Galileo himself wrote in!
So, Galileo, you really don’t see how the Bible is written from a geocentric point of view? To start with, what about the story in Joshua where the sun stands still? He commands the sun to stand still rather than telling the earth to stop rotating. That’s geocentrism.
As for “sunrise” and “sunset” language, clearly we understand them as figures of speech today. But until the advent of telescopes and the Copernican revolution, they were thought to be literal. People thought that the sun, moon and stars revolved around the earth. They believed it because they were ancient people and predated modern cosmology, but they also believed it because that’s how the biblical writers understood it. That’s why the Catholic church condemned heliocentrism as being false in 1616 — because it was contrary to Scripture.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 4:08 pm

The geocentric verse heliocentric thing is a non-issue for me, I don’t believe the Bible is a science book and it doesn’t say the sun revolves around the earth…that’s something we can scientifically prove was a misinterpretation. You’ve got me curious on the slavery issue, only because I don’t know the real history of the role faith played in abolition. I understand the reasoning behind abolition (obviously) but of course the Bible seemed to condone it. Divorce is another one, I’ve heard both sides of the argument, that the Bible does condone it in certain circumstances and that God hates it and it is akin to adultery. I actually tend toward the latter. And this is where I’d say that the Bible is pretty clear, but we tend to try to make it fit what we’d like to believe. It’s not necessarily a good thing that the church now accepts certain things it didn’t used to. Are we “evolving” to be a better church? Or is the law of entropy at work here? I don’t know the answer to that. All good questions though, and reason to dig into the scripture, including the original language and context when possible, ourselves!

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Ray Hollenbach

posted July 13, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Jason, this is a difficult post because I agree with your central idea, but in my opinion you just aren’t playing fair.
While you try to demonstrate the dangers of too-narrow interpretive approaches you insist that the Joshua passage *must* be interpreted as geocentrism. There are plenty of other approaches. With respect to divorce, you correctly point out the nasty stigma assigned to divorce by many Christians, without attempting to deal with the “why” of God’s feelings about divorce (which has nothing to do with rule-keeping and everything to do with spiritual fidelity to Him). In so doing you belittle the heartfelt inspiration of the Spirit, while tacitly asserting that the regrettable stigma attached to divorce must somehow be Biblically accurate. Paul’s letter to Philemon (perhaps the final Biblical revelation on slavery) is a multi-layered and liberating treatment of slavery, which you reduce to a slogan “Acceptance of slavery is Biblical.”
This is disappointing because you want to challenge us to think about how we will receive the Biblical witness in our day, which is a very worthy exercise. I’m sympathetic to our need to wrestle with the why and how of God’s word, but I feel goaded into the exercise because, in my view, you have rigged the game. Perhaps you were in a bit of a hurry with this post?
I know my tone is a bit too adversarial-forgive me-but in this case it reflects my genuine response to your post. Sorry, but I think you’re better than this.

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Jason Boyett

posted July 13, 2010 at 4:44 pm

You’re right that I probably hurried more than I should have with this post. It’s a blog post, not a book, and I could have nuanced it more than I did.
One of the things I would have changed would be to make it clear that I wasn’t questioning the accuracy of the Bible — clearly genres matter, as well as the limits of the writers’ knowledge — but how the culture interpret it and interacted with it. Whether you think a geocentric interpretation of Joshua is too narrow or not, the fact is that the pre-Copernican culture WAS geocentric, and the Bible had a lot to do with it. The pre-abolitionist culture WAS pro-slavery, and the Bible had a lot to do with it — even though Paul’s teaching about slavery was multi-layered, as you said. (The abolitionists and slave-owners were reading and interpreting the same texts, after all.)
But, still, Paul doesn’t condemn slavery like we’d like him to. And Jesus is pretty clear that divorce is bad.
Did I leave out the nuance? Yep. My bad.
Am I “belittling the heart-felt inspiration of the Spirit”? For some people, it’s impossible to ask a hard question about the Bible without doing that in their minds.
Am I better than this? Hopefully we all are better than our blog posts.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I kinda agree with Ray on this one. There are some thing that the Bible flat out says and some thing things you can “make an argument for”.
Divorce, Adultery, Homosexuality, Usury- Those are pretty plainly spelled out. I don’t think it is a good thing that people have become so casual about any of them. But I DO think it is a good thing we are no longer alienating these people either.
Another “ignored” sin is the sin of gluttony- especially in the Southern denominations.
I think we need to work harder to find a balance between loving the people involved but still understanding that the Bible is very very clear on the fact that these things are serious sins with real consequences.

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Danny Bixby

posted July 13, 2010 at 5:01 pm

lol @ galileo as a username
Also, I really hope we don’t come to an acceptance of the 2nd season of Jersey Shore…some things are just abominations.
I see Christianity as a whole moving more towards acceptance of GLBT & Evolution. I think that we’re developing a more nuanced approach towards abortion. And you can already see in many denominations (not all) the acceptance of women clergy & other leadership roles.
I think it’s the nature of the church to swing back and forth between progressivism and conservatism. We’re very reactionary.
So right now I think the pendulum is swinging on the side of reacting to the Evangelical surge of the past 50 years and therefore continuing towards more progressivism during our lifetime. Hopefully.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm

As a divorced woman myself (tho technically i had “biblical grounds”), & remarried, i tend toward acceptance. Tho, i have to say that when someone i know & love is getting divorced, i’m intensely sad.
One thing that we no longer do now, in almost all churches, is require head coverings for women. Yet Paul states unequivocally that “. . . every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.” 1 Cor 11:5-6 KJV
It seems to me that some things are simply cultural or specific problems with the churches to which certain letters were written. Does God really want women to always be silent? It seems to me the answer comes to what was written to a specific situation or is spoken of to a certain cultural norm & what is enduring? I think it requires discernment. That is harder than just following a set of rules that is rigid & does not change.

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Ray Hollenbach

posted July 13, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Thanks for your kind and patient reply, Jason. I certainly agree with you regarding the prevailing cultures of each of your examples. They were indeed geocentric, pro-slavery, and the like. For me the significant point is that the culture largely dictated the terms of interpretation–that is, they thought the Bible affirmed their reality rather than allowing the Scripture to challenge it. I’m pretty sure we both agree on that. And I’m all for a spirited dialogue on the meanings of scripture.
We in the 21st century face the exact same challenge–wearing different clothes. The old legacies of the Enlightenment took most of the 20th century to wear off, and the new (prevailing?) sentiment is the great god Tolerance. So I become suspicious when I encounter arguments that too-easily dismiss the errors of the past while implicitly affirming the accepted wisdom of our day. I think we do well to turn a critical eye on approaches which seem to affirm the “realities” of our day. I’m certainly not looking to turn back the clock or advocate for the past: The church has treated divorced people poorly, has demonized the GLBT culture, glorified a “God is with us and against them” attitude. All those things are bad.
The answer is not to embrace the received wisdom of this present age. It is no more friendly to the Kingdom of God than any of the past cultures (or “kingdoms of men”).
I’m running long here but please permit me one final quibble with you: “But still, Paul doesn’t condemn slavery like we’d like him to. And Jesus is pretty clear that divorce is bad.” Of course Jesus is clear that divorce is bad–because it damages lives and leaves scars. He’s *for* people, not advocating law (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”). The same for Paul on slavery: his letter to Philemon asks for Christian
community above economic concerns, while requiring Onesimus to exhibit radical trust in a Christian brother.
Thanks for your patience. Grace to you, and Peace!

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posted July 13, 2010 at 6:28 pm

While I normally don’t like calling things an abomination, I’ll put that aside and agree whole-heartedly that another season of “Jersey Shore would most definitely be that and more.

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Mark Turner

posted July 13, 2010 at 6:40 pm

I see a lot of soundbites but not a lot of convincing arguments behind what you say (in this post). Very thought-provoking, but I don’t think a trajectory hermeneutic is the only way to square the Biblical text with “modern” life.
You said, for example, that “acceptance of slavery is biblical.” I think most people who read and understand the Bible would disagree. Slavery is present in the Bible but it does not command or condone slavery. You even referenced the fact that past pro-slavery and anti-slavery arguments were both based on the Bible. Clearly, only one can be the most reasonable interpretation of the text.
Human interpretation of the Bible is subjective and flawed but does not reflect a deficiency in the Bible itself.
I am very interested in understanding where the Bible speaks clearly on an issue and figuring out how a “Christian” could justify not believing that issue. I am baffled when people oppose the Bible but maintain the moniker of “Christian.”
I for one see the second season of Jersey Shore as evidence of original sin or the impending apocalypse!

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posted July 14, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I think it would be hard to get at the issue here if you are burdened with the idea the Bible is actually holy and needs to be defended.
People who study the Bible seriously, rather than in veneration, often come to realize it was written by people a few thousand years ago who had their own agendas and in many cases were trying to found and advance a particular religion (one many of them were making up as they wrote). Then, since the only way to make copies through most of the history of the Bible, there were copying errors and errors of intention by folks who wanted to improve it. And of course there was the selection process as to what to include and what to exclude, all with political and religious power in mind.
So you are dealing with a book, one containing in fact several clear errors and self-contradictions. If it were inspired by a god that would have to be an incredibly sloppy god.
All through history people have picked and chosen from this and other holy books what to follow and what to ignore. Oh, and they’ve taken quotations out of context, too. It’s not surprising that what people choose to use varies as society changes in reaction to what happens in the world. And of course if there’s a part that would be hard to follow it’s the unusual preacher who concentrates on such a part. Easier to preach on things that don’t seem to have much to do with his congregation (or if they do, those folks are unlikely to bring them up) than on, for instance, greed. Or hypocrisy. Or bigotry.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 12:27 pm

“Then, since the only way to make copies through most of the history of the Bible [was copying by hand], there were copying errors

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Headless Unicorn Guy

posted July 14, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Acceptance of slavery is biblical. But we no longer accept it.
Ever heard of “A fish doesn’t know it’s wet?” Up until the Industrial Revolution made labor-saving machines possible, slavery had been a constant in every civilization in history. It was the main way to get rich and stay rich. Slavery was thought to be as fundamental a Law of Nature as Gravity.
And of course you’d be against Abolition as long as you were personally benefiting from the Slavery system.
Divorce is put on a level with adultery in the Bible. But we no longer stigmatize it the same way.
“I know a handful of divorced (and remarried) people who can be really homophobic. They always cite the Bible when you ask them why they feel so strongly against gay people. I always want to ask them why the anti-homosexuality verses still apply but not the ones about being divorced and living in adultery.” — L.E.Owens
Again, it’s because homosexuality is the OTHER guy’s sin, not theirs. When it’s yours (and you’re personally benefiting from it), well, That’s Different.
Charging interest on a loan is expressly forbidden by the Bible. But we do it, and pay it, all the time, without thought
Remember how the head of Enron (or was it Tyco?) was a respected elder in his church? Being able to Tithe six-seven figures grants an Indulgence. Again, personally benefiting from the system.
Remember the “Sexual Harassment Panda” episode of South Park? The one where Kyle’s lawyer dad was getting rich off Class Action Lawsuits at the expense of the rest of the town? The exchange when he lectures Kyle about how all the lawsuits are to enforce Political Correctness of outlawed thoughts and words?
Kyle: “But Dad, isn’t that Fascism?”
Kyle’s Dad: “No it isn’t son. Because we don’t call it Fascism. Do you understand?”
Kyle: “Do you?”
Kyle’s Dad: “Think of this wonderful new big expensive house we’re moving into…” (i.e. a Saddam Palace, paid for by all the lawsuits that made the family rich on the lawyer’s 40% off the top. Kyle’s “Remember the Holocaust!” parents are sure personally benefiting from this incarnation of Fascism, So That Makes It Okay.)

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robert r. cargill

posted July 15, 2010 at 2:52 am

this is a wonderful, provoking thought experiment. thanx for writing it. ;-)

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posted July 16, 2010 at 10:43 pm

thank you for sharing

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Rob the Rev

posted July 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm

nnmns on July 14, 2010 12:25 PM wrote: “I think it would be hard to get at the issue here if you are burdened with the idea the Bible is actually holy and needs to be defended…..”
I totally agree with your post and the points you made!
These folks wouldn’t have their “spiritual” problem if they wouldn’t try to create a world view out of a mere human book that is an ancient peoples view and opinion of God and what she thinks (as if they could really know).
God’s Word is to be found in all the disciplines, not in one collection of ancient writings.

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