Not all biblical texts are created equal

My first semester in grad school, I took Tom Olbricht’s course, Religious Teachings of the New Testament. (It was before we believed in theology at ACU. Apparently, we believed in religion). The first lecture changed my life. The rest of the course was working out the light that went off in my head that day.

In his inimitable way, Dr. Olbricht simply demonstrated that not all Scripture is created equal. Paul knew that. Some things were of “first importance.” Jesus knew that. There were “weightier matters of the law.” Dr. Olbricht pulled from the pocket of his sansabelts a handful of change. He told us, all the money in his hand was worth something. But it was not all worth the same. And part of learning to understand the Bible was knowing which was the $100 bill and which was the penny.

Now, I’m not sure I possessed a flat view of Scripture (all verses being equal, because after all, this is the Word of God), but what Dr. Olbricht’s simple illustration gave me was something of a definitive reading strategy.

I still use his illustration when I teach my freshman Bible class, though I never seem to have any change in my pocket. (It’s all in my dryer). 

And its not that hard to figure out what the $100 bills are. Things that recur throughout Scripture, particularly those things that reveal God’s identity. The Exodus story. The death and resurrection of Jesus. The Kingdom of God. God’s concern for the poor, the widow, the alien, the sojourner. Grace and faith and mercy. These are some of those $100 bills.

Prayer of Jabez? Nope. Never shows up again. Boiling things in the right milk or wearing clothing of mixed threads? Nope. 

Now this isn’t the only thing to be considered when reading Scripture, but it sure helps. It’s especially helpful when you’re adjudicating against competing claims or the perspectives of diverse witnesses or church practices (i.e., places where Scripture says multiple things about the same topic). 

Here’s the thing. Once you start reading this way, you realize how poorly suited the Bible is in providing an exact blueprint for the continuing practice of the church. If you read Scripture under the assumption that Scripture is flat (in Churches of Christ, we do this only for the NT), then you read over the diversity in the witness. But if you assume that some things are worth more than others, that not all commands are created equal, then you start noticing the topography of Scripture, the hills and the valleys, the cul-de-sacs and open roads, and the growth and decline of themes in Scripture. Now you’re not just parroting or proof-texting Scripture, you’re interpreting it. And when you have this kind of imagination about Scripture, you’re more likely doing actual theology.

So, what does this have to do with my views on gender. Well, generally speaking everything. It just puts the discussion on en entirely different footing. My first question is not what is the example of the NT church, which is not likely as uniform as we suppose when this is our first question. Instead, my first question is, how are gender issues connected to the big themes of Scripture? These questions might produce different answers.

One specific way, however, that this influences my understanding is that I don’t assume that the whole Bible should be read assuming that two passages in Paul are normative or regulating for all others. First, even passages within Paul suggest that silence is not the only word Paul had on the subject. Second, the practice of Jesus gives us a different viewpoint as well. And the practice of Jesus is being presented by gospel writers who are trying to encourage certain practices within congregations, so may be giving us just as much a look into the lives of congregations as Paul’s letters. In other words, if I assume Scripture is flat, that everything is $100 bill, I can get away with reading the entire Bible through two passages which in the big scheme of things might not carry as much weight as we give them.

So, Dr. Olbricht’s illustration led me into a new journey with the Bible, and one that let the Bible itself indicate how it should be interpreted. And that led to other insights which will come in future posts.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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14 Responses to Not all biblical texts are created equal

  1. Kevin Kadrich says:

    Strong work once again….I have always felt guilty when reading “the penny” scriptures, feeling I wasn’t giving them their due, but I like your Dr. Olbricht’s explanation better….thanks !!

  2. Jerry says:

    Remember Dr. Olbricht using the exact same illustration in a Pepperdine class. Made so much sense (or should that be “cents”?) that I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t heard anybody say something like that before.

  3. Wayne Aus says:

    If you think about it, many of those who disagree with you may actually agree that all scriptures are not equal. They place the “key” scriptures about women above all other scriptures.about women. However, I think this misplaces the real issue about scripture. To me the real issue should be: “is scripture a set of laws to be obeyed, or is it filled with principles to live by? If I believe the former, I could probably create the same kind of life (and be more honest and consistent) by becoming an orthodox Jew.

  4. Andy says:

    I like the analogy of some scriptures being more weighter. Also I like the idea of if mentioned many times it is most likely a weighter scripture. So help me out, biblical leadership? From Genesis 1 through the book of Revelation leadership has always been a male role. I will grant you that there are also scriptures that talk about females being the leader but the vast majority talk of male leadership. Even more specific when Elders and Deacons are talked about they are talked about with the man talking on those roles.
    Men and women were created to different jobs. Neither one of the jobs each were created for are better than the other, just different from each other. We in the churches of Christ need to stop debating who needs to lead. Men need to take up that burden, stop debating it and leaving it to women and do the job that God has left for us.

    • Mark Love says:

      Andy, this is a good question. As you suggest, its not as simple as always male leadership. But its certainly true that that is the norm in Scripture. So, the question becomes not only what recurs, but what is the arc of the biblical narrative. In other words, where is the story going. This will be a big piece that comes together for me later.

  5. jonesker says:

    Outstanding illustration! Thank you, Mark!

  6. Nicola says:

    Not of first importance does not equal untrue. Gen 1-3, has Creation, Fall and Curse. Pretty important stuff. 99 cents on the importance scale. 1 Tim 2 tied to Creation, Fall and Curse (of childbirth). Perhaps also pretty important. But not even legal tender on your scale. And “faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” are tied to that without Paul even taking a breath. Perhaps they should be ignored also. Along with husbands. And one wife.

    • Mark Love says:

      Nicola, both valid points, neither of which I would deny. All of its valuable and creation is often used as a theological justification in Scripture. A couple of thoughts about creation. When Israel said what it meant to be an Israelite, it typically recited a story. There are several recitals throughout the OT. Some include Abarham, some don’t. Some include David, most don’t. Only one includes creation. All of them, every last one of them, includes the story of the Exodus. I say that only to point out that in the OT, there is a theological impulse str stronger than creation. Though I haven’t checked this, I think it’s safe to say that the prophets very seldom use the creation narrative as a source, whereas they often explicitly use the Exodus narrative.

      In the NT, the creation stories are used more often, even by Jesus, who uses creation to strengthen the status of women in marriage. But, just as with the OT, other theological traditions are appealed to more. For instance, Paul appeals to the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus far more than any other narrative for the practices of his churches–way more than creation. This is because, for Paul, this event has ushered in a new age ordered by different powers, what the Synoptics call the Kingdom of God, and what Paul refers to as the new creation. I think Paul does practical theological reasoning principally in light of the coming realities of the new age. We live in the tension of the already/not yet. Sometimes, it’s important to emphasize the not yet, and when he does, he sometimes uses creation as his theological justification. But the new creation is the bigger theme for Paul. It is weightier because it is connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, creation does not have absolute value for Paul. It still has some, but not as much as new creation.

      • Nicola says:

        But Paul “does” – here – appeal to Creation Fall, Curse. That is what he is doing. That is “his” point in 1 Tim 2. That is what he is appealing to. That cannot just be ignored. You have moved from a text to a philosophy and that is just as unfair to the discussion as those who say women are more easily deceived by nature. The text, (and Paul) does appeal to Genesis 1-3. I am very aware of Israel’s appeal to the Exodus, just as I am very aware of our appeal to the Gospel Event.

        Paul “is” constantly grounding us in future, new creation because of the past Event. But we are not there yet. And until we get there, he is writing how we are to conduct ourselves:

        1 Tim 3:14-15
        “I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God”

        That is the purpose of this letter. We cannot ignore Paul’s stated purpose. Paul’s purpose in writing is to show conduct now, in the present creation not conduct in the new heaven and earth where elders will not have to be husbands of one wife for there will be no husband and wife.

        Mark Love: “Paul appeals to the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus far more than any other narrative for the practices of his churches.” Absolutely. The Gospel is the purpose, the completion of all the other narratives. And he appeals to that death and resurrection here. The reason for this conduct is that common confession we all share and is stated in verse 16: “The Body that was taken up in glory.” The “first importance” to Paul is the very reason we conduct ourselves this way. The Gospel is the reason we do everything. To Paul they are not unrelated.

        The reason we conduct ourselves in this manner is based on the most important thing. It is not that they are exclusive of one another. It is not that the conduct is less important than the Christ and the Cross. The conduct is “based” on the Christ and the Cross. The conduct, the practice, is “because” of the Christ and the Cross. The Christ and the Cross are the reason we conduct ourselves in certain ways. And that is what Paul states here. The Body Raised. The Gospel.

        The theological justification tied to creation, fall and curse is based on the Body that sits at the Right Hand.

        The obvious question here for a woman, after Paul appeals to order of creation and order of fall is, what about the curse? Paul is not just laying out rules, he is answering legitimate questions. If women are to not be elders because of creation and sin, what about the curse associated with childbirth put in place because of that sin? What if we are still under that curse and a Christian woman should die in childbirth? Paul says, as he always does: “Saved by faith.” We are still “not yet.” Still under the physical curse. Still physical bodies. If not we could show up for church naked. The universe still groans. Though we have salvation now, we are not there yet. You say we are “already not yet” but act like we are now in the new heaven and new earth. We are not. Paul is governing conduct for the household of God until then.

        When Paul talks to pagans who have no Biblical background he must appeal to Creator and Sin. Without that story, the redemption story is meaningless. The most important thing makes no sense without the first thing: Creator and rebellion. Israel appealed to the saving act of the Exodus as we do the final Exodus. But the Creator, Rebellion and Curse laid the groundwork. It was the people in the Wilderness who first received Genesis. From Moses. Who was setting the record straight. When Israel pointed to the Exodus, it was by the gracious God who created.

        Without the Story, the Cross makes no sense. Founded prophets (foretelling) and Apostles (witnessing). We can’t just start in the middle.

        Mark Love: “…for the practices of his churches–way more than creation. This is because, for Paul, this event has ushered in a new age ordered by different powers, what the Synoptics call the Kingdom of God, and what Paul refers to as the new creation.” These practices Paul is speaking of are because “We are the Household of God, the church.” We are a subset of that kingdom. If we were there, there would be no marriage…But we are not there, we are here. And we still have to conduct ourselves as if we are here, not there.

        We do just as Israel: We point back to an historic Salvation and look forward to a final Rest. In the meantime, Israel could not pickup sticks on the Sabbath and boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Paul says, here is how the household of God conducts itself. We should not tamper with that.

      • Mark Love says:

        Nicola, we are looking at the same data, but seeing it two different ways. Just pointing out the data again won’t bridge the difference in our understandings. So, I’d invite you to eavesdrop, or not, on the rest of my posts, so that at least you’d see how all the pieces fit together for me. And if you have a place where you have written out your views, I’d be happy to look there. In lieu of that, I doubt a blog is a sturdy enough relational environment to bridge the differences in our readings.

        And my point in writing is not to convince you of my position, but get others to recognize my journey for what it is, right or wrong. So, I’d hope that even if you disagree with me, you’d see that my heart is really set on doing what I think God requires, and that I take great care to try to be consistent with Scripture. That you’d grant that I believe deeply in a living God, revealed most fully in Jesus Christ, and who keeps pulling us into his future through the Holy Spirit. I’d hope that you’d grant me at least that, even if you disagree with me.

    • Mark Love says:

      One more comment. Also in 1 Tim 2 are admonitions against jewelry, expensive clothing and a command that men lift their hands while praying. Same context. Same rationale. And whatever is going on in 1 cor 11 regarding head coverings is also supported by an appeal to creation. So, I bet both of us are picking and choosing.

  7. Geez Louise I’m slow on the uptake! I’m new to the blogging world but I guess all I need to do to get more readers to my little poet theologian website is write a poem about women in the church, huh Mark? Lessee’… “There once was a woman named Eve…” (www.dropsofdew.com — big grin)

  8. logan1949 says:

    This reminds me of something I wrote last February about the impossibility of keeping the (whole) law. (see http://www.logancowartwords.blogspot.com/2013/02/words-keeping-law.html) In short: “Any sufficiently complex set of laws designed to govern human behavior will be both incomplete and contradictory. That is, there will eventually occur circumstances which the law does not cover, making it incomplete. And there will eventually occur circumstances where one law may be kept only at the expense of breaking another law, making it inconsistent.

    This was the core of the controversy between Jesus and the legal experts of his day; which law do you keep when faced with keeping one law while breaking another?”
    . . .
    “Jesus resolved these controversies in the Law by prioritizing the laws. His priorities are as follows:
    1. Love the Lord your God. (Deut 6:5)(Matt 22:37)
    2. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev. 19:8)(Matt 22:39)
    3. Love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12)
    4. Do for others, what you would have others do for you. (Lk 6:31)”

  9. Dan McDonald says:

    Thank you for this blog. I’m dealing with these issues. A few months ago I would never have questioned the complimentary or patriarchal perspective. Now that I have been more exposed to egalitarian perspectives I wonder where Agabus’ daughters fit in, you know the four daughters who had the gift of prophecy. So now I am having to go through all this, and at the same time learn how to deal with everyone with all sorts of positions on this matter. This blog definitely helps.

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