Some years ago, I had the opportunity to observe a kerfluffle caused by a seminary professor issuing blanket condemnations of yoga practice from the pulpit. A few years later, I had the opportunity to observe another kerfluffle in another group caused by a pastor issuing a blanket condemnation of pink hair based on 1 Timothy. (For your amusement and edification, links to the latter are below. We’ve had the discussion of yoga elsewhere.)
I teach my students to pay careful attention to such controversies, including some that are well outside your own community and in which you have no particular stake. There’s a lot to learn from observing the conversations, both in terms of thinking through the positions and from noticing how people interact with one another. These situations give rise to a near-universal set of temptations, and it’s easier to notice how the temptations work when you are not particularly tempted. If you pay careful attention, you greatly improve your chances of correctly diagnosing your own temptations later on, when it’s your controversy.
There is always someone who wants to claim that Scripture simply doesn’t apply to these situations. That’s silly — Scripture applies to everything. Arguing that someone has misapplied a Bible passage is one thing; arguing that the passage ought never be applied is something else entirely. There’s a wide difference between the two.
That said, establishing that this verse makes that particular point is hard work, and we should come having done that work, and prepared to demonstrate it to everyone’s satisfaction. On the negative of the debate, it’s entirely permissible to argue “This text doesn’t say that!” but it is not permissible to stop there. We should want to know what it does say, and how to apply it properly. The goal is always a faithful, obedient response.
Making a claim like “1 Timothy forbids pink hair” or “1 Corinthians 8 forbids practicing yoga” is not just a matter of exegeting the text of Scripture. It’s also a matter of correctly exegeting the culture. Cultural exegesis is tricky business. It can be hard for us to see our own culture clearly; doubly so when the speaker may be immersed in a subcultural bubble that his hearers are not part of. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle the job — exegeting the culture is absolutely necessary. It just meant that cultural exegesis calls for the same kind of careful validation that biblical exegesis does — and that is not something they teach well in seminary.
The whole conversation goes better if you can correctly identify where you actually agree, and exactly where the disagreement lies. It’s entirely possible to agree on the biblical exegesis, and still have well-founded differences in the way you read the culture.
Some of those differences may be highly context-dependent. A particular act or way of speaking may send a very different message on the Jersey Shore than it would send in Charleston or Birmingham, and different again in Denver or Los Angeles…to say nothing of Dubai, Jakarta, or Shanghai. There’s a temptation to provincialism wherein we think that what an action means is what it would mean to me, right here, in my setting. This is particularly an issue when you’re having an online discussion.
Because we are seeking to stir one another up to love and good works, there is a certain kind of ad hominem that is not a fallacy. Someone really can object to a valid biblical application because of their own sin and/or spiritual cluelessness, and it is not out of order to say so. Jesus did, regularly.
At the same time, as a working pastor, I have learned to be extraordinarily suspicious of myself when I begin to feel that anyone who disagrees with me on a particular issue is simply revealing their own cluelessness or sin. There are many cases where that approach is a demonstration of pastoral autonomy and pride, and as the old sage said, that goeth before something unpleasant.
These are high-stakes conversations. On the one hand, a certain amount of suspicion of established authorities is required: “let no one subject you to regulations.” On the other hand, there really are cases where — however hubristic it might appear to say so — it is actually the case that anyone who disagrees is demonstrating their own sin or cluelessness. For example, I think it is vile to dismember a baby in utero for the convenience of the mother. It is viler yet to hawk the murdered child’s organs and exploit them; that’s effectively necromancy. I you disagree, I am prepared to insist that you are demonstrating your own sin and/or cluelessness. Accuse me of hubris all you like; I’m not backing off this one.
In the discussion below, Sumpter and Wilson are concerned to resist the human drive toward total autonomy, and one of the central places that drive expresses itself in our age is in gender confusions of various kinds. God made His image male and female, but we have sought out many schemes. Sumpter and Wilson are — as good pastors — interested not just in opposing sin in principle, but opposing it in practice where it matters. That means that they are not just going to fight the sin when it has become so obvious that anyone (you know, outside a major Christian publishing house) can see it. They are correctly concerned to fight the sin at the edges, in the little compromises that lull the faithful into bigger compromises down the road. Littlejohn is concerned that Sumpter and Wilson have over-exegeted innocuous actions as implying some larger sin, and are unlawfully binding the consciences of their congregants.
All these folks are concerned to obey God and love their fellow believers. All of this is holy and just and good…but who is right?
That, dear reader, I leave for you to mull over on your own. Here are the posts (all from 2017):
Pink Hair and Boys Wearing Girls’ Underwear – Toby Sumpter – April 18
Pink Hair and the Love of Christ – Toby Sumpter – April 21
The Coronation of the Infantile – Doug Wilson – April 21
When You Paint the Barn – Doug Wilson – April 22
On Binding Consciences – Brad Littlejohn – April 24
How Liberty of Conscience Looks in Yoga Pants – Doug Wilson – April 25
The Perilous Business of Pastoring – Brad Littlejohn – April 25
Poodle Skirts as Ruination – Doug Wilson – April 26