Having been involved in some debates in recent comment sections (most outspokenly, here) of blogs, I’ve realized something important about the Bible, Culture, and existence. When there is a cultural innovation, it is up to Christians to prove that the said innovation is un-/anti-biblical, not the other way around. In other words, the burden of proof is on those who say an action is “sinful.”
Take the invention of telephones. Is talking on the telephone forbidden on the Sabbath? The burden of proof clearly must be on those who say it is unlawful to talk on the telephone on the Sabbath.
Likewise for slavery, same-sex marriage, or female pastors. Now the obvious objection to this comparison is that the Bible actually discusses these things, while it doesn’t mention telephones at all. Well, yes and no. The Bible mentions slavery, and passively (to say the least) condones it. But we’ve made the arguments against it, and no one in their right mind will now say that slavery is biblical. For women, the culture is totally different now. Restrictions against women in the Bible are connected to the patriarchal culture of its time. So when a new culture allows women to vote or to work outside the home, when they couldn’t before, the culture has shifted, making it possible to become church leaders, especially Senior pastors. Since the cultural norms have shifted, the burden of proof lies on the one who would restrict such behavior, not on those who would seek to change orthodoxy. The same goes for same-sex partners who wish to be in life-long relationships. They don’t have to show that it is permitted for Christians, rather, those who would prohibit it must show biblically that it is sinful.
The reason for this is that over the centuries of the composition of the Bible, culture in the Levant changed, shifted, and evolved. These tensions can be seen throughout the texts of the Bible, but no more blatantly than in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and to the Romans.
In Galatians, Paul is dealing with Judean Christ followers and gentile Christ followers and the cultural boundaries that centered around Torah, especially circumcision. Rather than giving a static new law, Paul breaks the boundary, and gives principles for negotiating cultural shifts. Consider a couple of verses from Galatians 5:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery… For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal. 5.1, 13)
Christ has set (all of) us free from the Torah. You can follow Torah if you want, but you can’t force another to follow it. Now, to those of you who won’t follow it, don’t use your freedom to do whatever you want and serve yourself. The whole gift of your freedom is that you may serve on another in love, freed from the restrictions to do so.
If someone wants to remain uncircumcised fine, and the burden of proof falls on those who wish to force him to do so. Likewise in Romans, where Paul is negotiating other boundaries between Judean and gentile believers, he concluded:
Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:2-7 ESV)
The pointing of fingers does no good. The aim of the work of Christ is that Christ’s followers would “live in such harmony with one another,” in order that they may welcome each other as Christ has welcomed them. So whether one eats foods sacrificed to idols or pork, or whether one participates in this-or-that festival (both in Rom. 14) is of small importance. Only that which stands against these guiding principles for negotiating culture bound restrictions ought to be stopped. And the burden of proof falls on Christ’s followers who wish to restrict, that they must show that the prohibition actually works to serve the other in love and to welcome the other in Christ. This is part of the moral trajectory of the New Testament which recognizes the shifted sands of cultural and the problems of culturally codified restrictions.
So the argument, that I hear so often, that supporters of same-sex marriage and female pastors haven’t proven anything according to Scripture, does not stand. Orthodoxy does not constitute a reason to escape burden of proof; in fact, the burden of proof is always on any static form of orthodoxy. Therefore, nobody has to make the case for female pastors or same-sex marriage. Opposers have to make a convincing case against it.
What restrictions in the New Testament are not bound by culture and do not follow the two guiding principles mentioned above?