On Why the Bible is Not Clear

Sermon on the Mount
Copenhagen Church Alter Painting

With NaBloWriMo almost over (can you believe it’s almost December?!), I have a few comments to make before I post this next piece of advice.  

I went into this month sort of blithely – I’d been avoiding the big “S-E-X” issue, despite it being massively important for feminists. I figured this would be a good time as any to get some thoughts out about it. The reaction has been pretty astounding – I want to thank my blog commenters for their willingness to share and discuss and debate issues with openness. My goal in this blog space is to create a safe space for women (and all other genders) to discuss feminism and the church without judgment or harm, as there are plenty of other places for that to happen on the internet. (There seems to be some confusion about that.)

 

I’ve been sitting on a post about what the Bible specifically says about premarital sex (here’s a hint: it’s not a whole lot, surprisingly), but I think we need to take a step back and go to Step Zero before we can get to Step One of discussing the nitty-gritty. I’ve addressed this on my blog previously, but it bears repeating, quoted with big bold italicized and underlined emphasis:

 

On many controversial issues, especially those concerning women, the Bible is not “clear” and it is disingenuous, unfair, and hurtful to claim so without providing explained support.

 

Indeed, I would venture out to say that claiming “the Bible is clear” on something is a way to malign dissent and to shut down debate. The person who makes the claim “The Bible is clear” is essentially telling other members of the discussion that their personal experiences don’t matter, that, in this instance, personal testimony doesn’t matter. And that’s wrong.

 

I tweeted earlier this week:

 

I am amazed at the stubbornness of people who, when presented with story after story of how a theology of "purity" has destroyed lives, will continue to harp on and insist that "it's clear," and "it's still sin" and we shouldn't change a thing. In other words, they say to every woman who has been hurt by patriarchal assertions about purity, "Your pain does not matter to God or to me. Buck up."

 

This is never clearer than in the purity movement. Even before this month, I heard over and over and over and over “The Bible is clear” that we shouldn’t have sex before marriage. It didn’t occur to me until last year (after 24 years of being told “the Bible is clear” and watching friends fail to live up to this standard and judging them when they did) to actually look at what the Bible has to say. And I found it sorely lacking. Premarital sex as it happens today – heck, DATING, as it happens today – are absent in the world of the Bible.

 

Deut. 22, commonly quoted when discussing premarital sex, is the “clearest” verse we have – and it prescribes stoning as a punishment, directly follows verses about types of clothing to wear, and makes it clear that women are property in a marriage that functions as a transaction.

 

According to this chapter, if a man sullies a woman’s [and, by extension, family’s] reputation by claiming that she wasn’t a virgin at marriage because he feels she wasn’t good in bed, he’s deserving of punishment; if a man and woman willingly engage in sexual relations outside of marriage – ie, as two people who are promised to others but “cheat” – they are punished by stoning; if a man rapes a woman who is pledged to be married [notice all the qualifiers of “pledged to be married,” indicating that the woman is already the property of another man], then he’s punishable by death. Rape, as presented in Deuteronomy 22, is a property crime, rather than a crime against a person’s basic dignity. This is an incredibly important distinction.

 

And this is the “clearest” spot in the Bible that even gets close to speaking of premarital sex as we see it today, and the understanding of marriage as arranged and as a transaction between two families is vastly different from the covenant of love that we see today.

 

What about Mark 10?

 

What about it?

 

Jesus, in answering whether or not Moses’ law still applies to divorcing couples, mentions “what marriage is” and comes down significantly harshly on divorcing couples who remarry other people. Want to know why this is? Because men were the ones who could initiate divorce for any reason whatsoever – they dishonored marriage with how easily they divorced. Christ’s claim about the seriousness of marriage has no mention of premarital sex – there are a number of assumptions and traditions brought to the interpretation of this passage about divorce, and considerable twisting that needs to be done in order to make it about premarital sex as it happens today.*

 

Before I tackle the last commonly cited verse, I’d like to draw your attention to the last four words of the preceding paragraph: “as it happens today.”

 

Premarital sex in Bible times was, as we see in Deuteronomy, usually the result of a man taking the virginity (whether consensual or not) of a woman already committed to another. Marriage was arranged; it was a transaction between families.

 

“Romantic love” did exist (Song of Solomon makes that clear), but was not a primary reason for marrying – indeed, in Song of Solomon, there’s no indication that the two speaking are even married.

 

A word on Song of Solomon: putting a solely sexual spin on it has a lot of complications, as it is frequently taken to be a love song between Christ and his Church, which makes "do not awaken love until it so desires" a weird line if it's referring to sex. Commentaries generally agree that ascribing a moralizing aspect about sex, in particular to this line, is at odds with the rest of the verses. Indeed, rather than a precaution of "don't have sex or don't do things before marriage" [which is how "do not awaken love" is commonly quoted], it likely means, literally, "Don't wake him up!" or "Don't interrupt your time with your love" - an incredibly different implication from the common moralizing.

 

It’s also worth noting that women were married in their mid-teens to men likely older than them – something that doesn’t resemble marriages of today, unless you’re Courtney Stodden.

 

[caption id="attachment_705" align="aligncenter" width="338" caption="I have a lot of trouble believing that she's actually 16, for one."][/caption]

 

To imply an equivalency of sex between two consenting adults that happens outside the bonds of a marriage relationship and a man and a woman, pledged to other people, having sex, is to perform a quick sleight of hand with the scripture and the context. There needs to be a careful examination of what sort of sex we’re talking about, the context of the Scripture passages, and how different marriage and sex look like today versus pre-Christian Jewish villages and communities.

 

Do I believe an argument can be made? It’s possible. Have I seen that argument made or made well, in this blog space or, basically, any other? No, never. And I’m not exaggerating. I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument against premarital sex that does not fall back onto “The Bible is clear! The Bible is clear!” without actually pointing to me why “x” verse applies to “y” situation, and which does not resort to patriarchal assumptions about women as property.

 

Here’s possible the best example of this scenario: The purity movement loves 1 Corinthians 7:9: “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

 

HAH! There, there! Get married to avoid having sex outside marriage! That’s CLEAR!

 

Or not.

 

“Unmarried” means widowed men. This is confirmed by several commentaries. Widows and widowers (and divorced people) weren’t allowed a second marriage because of the transactional nature of marriage. “Unmarried” does not refer to people who have never been married – it refers to those who were married and are not now married. These widows and widowers wanted to remarry, but couldn’t because of the law. Paul, here, appears to be saying, basically, “screw the law; it’s better for you to get married than sit there and distract yourself with pining.”

 

Context, context, context. Paul is actually advising people to go against what “the rules” would have them do, because he recognizes that being unable to get married, and therefore being forced to “burn with passion” is a distraction from the kingdom. Many sources, indeed, indicate that Paul himself was a widower, so it’s quite possible that he was experiencing this very problem.

 

And Paul cautions against creating this bind of legality on people in the very next verse – because of this problem with remarrying, with being unable to move on per the law, you should probably make every effort to make that first marriage a good one.

 

There’s nothing to indicate that Paul is talking about sex here. And certainly nothing to indicate the Paul is talking about sex in the way it is seen today – two consenting, loving adults in a committed relationship that may or may not be bound by the covenant of marriage.**

 

“The Bible is clear” brigade has a lot of work to do in order to make such a statement, considering the Bible is Not. Actually. Clear. Saying “the Bible is clear” and citing a couple of verses does not offer hope to the girl who has been told she is worthless because she is not a virgin. It does not offer hope to the woman trying to recover from rape.

 

The Bible is far from clear – especially on the subject of consensual sexual relationships. Did Bathsheba consent fully and knowingly to the amorous intentions of King David? Did all of Solomon’s 300 wives consent knowing and happily? Did Esther, one of the strongest women in the Bible, actually consent to her marriage to the king, or was it something she saw as a duty and an opportunity for her people? Even the language describing marriage eschews consent: men “take” a wife, they “lay” with a woman – no mention of consent is made. A woman’s sexual agency does not – with the exception of Song of Solomon – appear within those thin gold-leaf lined pages; therefore to say the Bible speaks against consensual sexual relationships which occur outside marriage is to make numerous leaps in logic that do not actually have much support.

 

So let me repeat myself: There may be an argument made against premarital sex that has sound basis in theology and Scripture. But this argument is not being made when one side is bludgeoning the other by saying “The Bible is clear on this issue!” Indeed, as shown by the very fact that there is disagreement, the Bible isn’t clear. Those proclaiming “the Bible is clear” have the burden of proof on them. It’s not my job to prove to you that the Bible doesn’t say something – “prove to me it doesn’t” is a fallacious argument. It is your job to prove to me that it does preach against premarital sex in dating relationships as it appears today.

 

And, one last thing: when we start claiming “The Bible is clear on x or y issue!” we get into very dangerous territory of accusing our opponents of not being “good Christians,” simply because they disagree with an interpretation or don’t think it’s as clear as a cursory reading may suggest. The woman who was coerced into sex by her husband for a number of years will read Mark 10:10 quite differently than the one who has experienced a healthy marriage. The woman who was raped at 9 years old will read Deuteronomy 22 quite differently from the man who managed to stay a virgin well into his 30s. The lesbian who wants to marry her partner of 20 years but can’t because of legal statutes is going to look at 1 Corinthians 7 in a completely different light from the teen who is using it to justify marrying her high school boyfriend so they can finally have sex.

 

We all bring assumptions to the text, especially, ESPECIALLY, when it comes to an issue as personal as sex. When I say that we need to consider other’s experiences in our discussions of an issue, what I mean is that we cannot and should not ascribe a one size fits all theology based on a few contextually questionable verses because it creates a situation in which we hurt other people. In order to make a reasonable argument for abstinence, one needs to develop it within the narrative and tradition of church history and what we know of God and then profess this theology in a manner which respects and attempts to understand disagreement.

 

Saying “the Bible is clear” about something upon which there is disagreement – be it Calvinism or Arminianism, eschatology, the atonement, sex, slavery, gender roles, women in leadership, what have you – is a method of silencing debate. It says to your opposition that they are not Christian enough, they have not done enough to understand, and that the experiences they bring to their reading of the Bible are illegitimate and ill-informed. And most of all, it tells them that their experience of God is wrong and makes Scripture a god above God himself.

 

I’m aware that these are harsh words, but I believe they are necessary.

 

To assert a black and white in the middle of a safe-space in which women are talking about how such a black and white view has hurt them is insensitive to the nth degree. There are grey areas, and we need them in order to grow as people and understand ourselves in relationship to the world and to Christ.

This is my large, overarching point, again bolded, italicized and underlined for your reading benefit:
We need to have a better discussion on sex. This includes recognizing that the Bible is not clear on the issue and retooling the way we discuss it. A healthy sexuality develops out of a healthy, non-judging discussion that allows for different life experiences.
My point is NOT to encourage women or men to start having sex here, there and everywhere, but rather to recognize that each situation is different, each sexual experience is different, and there needs to be grace, mercy, and love in ALL discussions. Continuing to insist on a one size fits all approach is not conducive to discussion.

 

__________

* I also need to mention this: I have serious, serious problems with the fundamentalist interpretation of these verses (the section in Mark 10) as being strictly anti-divorce for any reason whatsoever. I have heard pastors – John Piper, for one – preach that this applies even in cases of spousal abuse. The misuse and malignment of this verse and Jesus’ words, used to justify outrageous forms of abuse and entitlement to sex on the part of the husband, make it a dangerous verse to bring up in a feminist sphere. Just so you know.

 

** I define sex in this manner on purpose – this is how many Christians struggling with the issue of purity have experienced it. The abstinence movement likes to think that the only way people are having sex outside of marriage is through one night stands and anonymous hook ups in alleys. This, again, is a propaganda technique meant to degrade the decision-making process – if you have sex outside of marriage, then you’re a slutty slut who will do anything for sex. It gives them an object, a persona, to rail against. It’s much harder to defend the “you should have waited” argument from a person who was in a committed relationship he or she thought was headed toward marriage, had a sexual experience, and saw the relationship fall apart months or years later from some other unrelated tension.