A gracEmail subscriber in South Korea asks, “To what degree do we take the Bible literally? You can take most issues and make arguments for both sides using scripture. One example is homosexuality. How do we know what is written from a certain cultural perspective? Another example is women’s role in the church. How do I know what still applies to our lives in today’s world?”
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Clearly, the Bible was written long ago, in ancient languages, to people and by people whose culture differed greatly from 21st-century western democratic cultures. Most Christians therefore consider culture when interpreting the Bible. On that basis, very few churches practice footwashing as a religious rite, or exchange the holy kiss, or require women to wear a head covering in public worship. Some of those who do practice any or all these things see others’ omission as disobedience, though perhaps growing out of misinterpretation.
At the other end of the spectrum, most so-called “mainline” Protestant churches have decided already to ordain women and struggle now with whether they should ordain non-celibate homosexuals. Some argue that biblical teaching here merely reflects ancient cultural norms and that it is irrelevant for life today. Never mind that the Bible consistently lists homosexual activity among other sexual and non-sexual sins which, left unrepented, bring down divine wrath and exclude people from God’s eternal kingdom.
The real question is not whether we take the Bible literally, but whether we take it seriously. If we take it seriously, we will ask its respective authors what they intend to say. We will examine their reasoning, their appeals to theological principles or to earlier Scripture. We will take into account the various types of biblical literature, whether poetry, prophecy, proverb or prose — to name just a few of the possibilities. We will consider the circumstances and situations which elicited the various portions and books of Scripture. We will give due attention to context, to language, even to “tone.” And when we have done all these things — if we take the Bible seriously as canonical Scripture — we will humbly accept as authoritative and normative whatever we finally conclude that its writers intended to teach.