Conclusion: The ongoing challenge of biblical interpretation

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 22

by Reta Halteman Finger 

As I finish this series on hermeneutics, I have been reflecting on what I have learned—or learned at a deeper emotional level— as I have researched, reread, and wrestled with the task of responsible biblical interpretation in relation to controversial issues around gender. The following three interrelated issues, stated as propositions, stand out.

1.  We cannot ignore the primacy and honor of the male in history and culture. As someone who has been actively working with gender issues since the early 1970s, I am not a stranger to sexism and how it is lived out in our world today, especially in my own American culture. Though we cannot assess exactly how much gender plays a role in the current election season, for example, it is there—both voiced and unvoiced.

In preparing this hermeneutics series, male dominance in the Bible became unusually clear to me as I read essays from the website of the organization called “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (Lesson 9). These authors truly believe that God created human males to be leaders and females to submit to their leadership. Using their doctrine of biblical inerrancy, they presume that the dominance of males in the texts reflects divine edicts coming from a male God. Although they would insist both genders are spiritually equal, in actual practice, it means that women stay “in their place” under men.

Many Christians do not realize the huge role male honor played throughout all ancient Mediterranean societies. Their many gods conveniently confirmed it. If necessary, females must sacrifice their own honor, and even their lives, for the sake of preserving the honor of their males.  Though I knew some of this before, the pervasive weight of the biblical assumption of male priority keeps pressing on my consciousness in new and depressing ways. I am more aware of the absence of biblical attention to females and their honor and concerns. The fact that there is no clear text in the entire Bible that addresses lesbians (Romans 1:26 notwithstanding; see Lesson 17) indicates how little men knew or cared about women’s sexuality apart from their relations with men. How little we know of marriage and family life and household economics from ordinary women’s points of view!

I need to keep in mind what James Brownson emphasizes in God, Gender, and Sexuality:  there are shifts and a gradual movement toward equality within the writings themselves, to which we must pay attention (Lesson 8 and elsewhere). God adjusts Herself to the limits of human culture and patiently waits for new insights to flower.

2.  It is important to recognize the connection between gender issues and LGBTQ issues. When gender roles are so sharply delineated, it follows that people who do not fit these roles are either rejected or forced to conform in ways that deny their identity. Given biblical inerrancy and rigid gender roles, conservative churches cannot accept gender-nonconforming persons for who they are. Despite the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8: 26-40 and despite the absence of laws against female same-sex sexual expression, conventional interpretations of scripture define LGBTQ people as sinners in need of repentance. And same-sex married couples in the congregation would skew conservatives’ neat categories of leader and follower. (See especially Lesson 5 and Lesson 9.)

3. The need for teaching principles of biblical interpretation in our churches is critical. Hermeneutics refers to “the science of interpretation.” Our Bible is a library of historical documents ranging from perhaps 1000 BCE to the second century CE. We need guidelines for how to interpret texts in their ancient sociological and anthropological contexts. We need church leaders and pastors who learn Hebrew and Greek well enough to use available resources and then help laypersons better understand how translation works across time and cultures. Instead, I fear many churchgoing Christians who sincerely care about the Bible read it “on the flat,” as if the writings were written in our native language and reflect contemporary assumptions. (See Lessons 1-4.)

For example, the erroneous idea that certain Greek words and phrases translate easily into our modern term, “homosexuality,” endlessly hurts and oppresses lesbians and gay men in our churches. Biblical writings that emerged from ancient bisexual and slave-driven cultures will not easily make sense within our long-held traditions of heterosexual norms. (See Lessons 17, 18, and 19, among others.)

The truths that I gradually learned over decades now press ever deeper into my soul. We’ve gotten so many things wrong. Our ignorance has hurt so many diverse people.

For further insights, refer to the additional resources mentioned in Lesson 8. To that list I would add A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics, by William Stacy Johnson (Eerdmans, 2006).

Questions for readers:

1.  In her concluding lesson on hermeneutics, the author says that she has learned at “a deeper emotional level” what it means to wrestle “with the task of responsible biblical interpretation in relation to controversial issues around gender.” Can you identify with her statement after your own study of the lessons in this series? If so, how?

2.  What are you taking away from this series on biblical hermeneutics?

3.  What, if any, are some specific ways you have changed your thinking about how to read, understand, and apply the Bible to life today?

4.  What concerns were omitted in this heremeneutics series that may need further attention?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.