Friday, March 01, 2013

Part 2: A Story Where You Choose the Ending

Earlier this week I posted an odd little story; a scenario about a young married couple who begin attending a church. The background about how the couple came to be husband and wife is unusual and a bit awkward. (If you haven't read the scenario, go here: After telling this story I asked if the couple should be allowed to continue attending the church.

Everyone I have posed this scenario to in person has responded in the affirmative. "Of course, they should be allowed to stay!" The responses I got when I posted it online were similar. Everyone seems to agree that there ought to be no reason to throw this married couple out of the church. Everyone, that is, except for one exception who carries a lot of weight. More on that in a moment.

But first I should explain what this is all about. Although my story is fictional, it is based on a historical situation. The conditions I described in the "small and obscure Eastern European country"--poor health care, extreme poverty, high rates of infant mortality and death during childbirth, husbands typically 10-15 years older than their wives, arranged marriages, strict social hierarchies, etc.--are actually the conditions most people lived under in the Roman Empire in the 1st century.

The situation of the man who's first wife died (even though she was likely much younger than him), prompting him to re-marry before dying himself, was not an unusual scenario in ancient times. The son who fell in love with and married the widowed second wife (technically his step-mother) is believed by many historians to be the likely situation in the case of a man who began attending a church in Corinth, Greece in the mid-1st century. He is the man who caused this reaction from the Apostle Paul:

"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. ... 'Purge the evil person from among you.'” (1 Corinthians, Chapter 5)

So what is the deal with Paul? Doesn't he have a heart?

Paul had been a devout Jewish Pharisee who became inspired and transformed by a direct encounter with the resurrected Jesus Christ. That encounter completely rocked Paul's world and turned him from a vicious persecutor of Christians into a sold-out Gospel proclaimer who gave everything he had (including his health, his safety and eventually his life) to tell people about the extravagant love of God. But Paul was also a man of his time and culture. As he himself admitted, "We see as through a glass darkly."

As an educated Jew, Paul knew that the laws against incest in Leviticus (18 and 20) included prohibitions against marrying a step-parent. Paul knew that such taboos also existed in Greco-Roman culture. Remember the tragic Greek tale of Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his own father and married his own mother? The city of Corinth actually serves as the backdrop of part of that story.

Ancient people knew little about genetics. The prohibition against marrying a step-relation had to do not with preventing birth defects but with maintaining social contracts and keeping established hierarchical roles and categories in place. In the shame-based culture of the ancient Near East, for a son to take his deceased father's wife as his own was to desecrate the memory and honor of the father.

This was the culture that Paul lived in. This was all he knew.

In a similar vein, it is generally accepted that Paul could not have imagined a world without slavery, and so his letters don't speak out against the practice. This has led some people to mistakenly assume that Paul therefore condoned slavery. In fact, slave owners in the Confederate states often quoted from Paul's letters to defend the practice of keeping slaves. But Paul was simply writing within the world he knew, and in that world slavery had always existed and was deeply embedded in the social fabric.

The same goes for gender roles and marital roles, including the idea that for a son and step-mother to engage in sexual relations--regardless of the circumstances--was incest and therefore inexcusable.

Paul's overriding concern in his letters to the Corinthian churches was the health and welfare of those churches. Corinth was a notoriously depraved city (a common slang term for a prostitute throughout the Roman Empire was a "Corinthian girl", and to debauch or corrupt someone was referred to as "Corinthianizing" them). The fledgling Christian churches in Corinth, which met in people's homes, were struggling with the tremendous challenge of being counter-cultural; of living holy lives in an unholy place. If the churches gained a reputation for engaging in practices (such as incest) that even the Corinthians considered wicked, then their reputation would be ruined, their message about Jesus Christ would be wrecked and they would very likely suffer brutal persecution at the hands of an indignant populace. And so Paul says, "Purge the evil person from among you."

We live in a very different world from Paul, in almost every sense. And so--to us--the story of the man married to a woman who is technically his step-mother is a bit weird, but not intolerable. Our inclination (and rightly so, I believe) is to extend grace to the pair. Perhaps the Corinthian Christians were ahead of the curve on this one!

What I hope this little scenario points out is that we can't just unquestioningly "copy and paste" attitudes and statements of Paul from the 1st century Roman Empire into our 21st century context. In fact, in many cases, we already know better. Few churches in the U.S., for example, require women to wear head coverings when they pray, or insist that they keep silent at church. We generally don't consider men with long hair to be going "against nature." These were all opinions held by Paul, in conformity to social norms of his time and place.

F.F. Bruce, who is considered one of the greatest scholars on the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul once said “I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.” We can do great harm when we try to read Paul as if he was proclaiming a new universal law, applicable for all time and all places. Paul himself, writing to the Christians in the region of Galatia, implored them to "live by the Spirit" and "be guided by the Spirit," for "if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law." Much of Paul's preaching and writing was focused on encouraging Gentile converts that they were not required to take up the Jewish Torah, with its dietary restrictions and requirement of circumcision. This is why, as F.F. Bruce pointed out, treating Paul's letters as a new Torah would be such an offense to him.

It is obvious to most of us that Paul's statements about women speaking in church or hair length of men or even of a man marrying a woman who is technically his step-mother can be reevaluated because of the differences in cultures and in what we now know of biology, genetics, psychology, social sciences, etc., etc.

Might there be other things Paul spoke against which we need to consider may have been based on the cultural norms and limited scientific information of the time? Shouldn't we be careful about how we "copy and paste" from the 1st century Near East into our very different context? And isn't it interesting how when you know a little bit about someone--when you can see them and hear their story--it makes it much harder to simply "purge" them from our community?


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