Are New Testament Ethics Final or Trajectory-Setting?
Today we talk ethics, Pastor John. What do you say to those who hold to a “trajectory hermeneutic” (like William Webb)? Proponents of this view would say things like: Sure, the epistles say women cannot lead churches, but that was temporary. Paul had close associates in the ministry that were women, therefore Paul’s embrace of women as ministry associates sets a trajectory that should develop over time and lead the church to later embrace the ordination of women. Other issues are used, like slavery and homosexuality. In other words, are the ethics of the New Testament final, or are its ethics to be interpreted as undeveloped and moving along a trajectory we must follow out and find apart from the text?
Yeah, this is a pretty sophisticated issue, so hold onto your hats and let me give a stab at it. The gist of this view is that we can identify a state of affairs as ideal or different from what is presented in the New Testament as ideal or normative, at least presently, and then justify going in a different direction than the New Testament because of clues in the Bible that we should do things differently than the Bible teaches. That is the gist of it. The main issues are the role of women and slavery, but there are others as well. I have three questions to pose to those who are toying with this way of treating the Bible.
1. Who Has the Authority?
Doesn’t the ethical issue in question become a wax nose that can be shaped by one’s preference without giving decisive authority to the Bible? Doesn’t this way of handling the Bible let the interpreter decide what state of affairs he wants the church and the world to move toward on the trajectory? Where are we going? He knows where we are going. The interpreter in this view is deciding where we ought to go. And then say that the New Testament teachings are not that state of affairs, but are a stepping stone on the way there. In other words, if you use the word “trajectory,” you are assuming you know where we should be heading beyond the New Testament. Now, how do we know what this is since it is not in the New Testament?
The “trajectory-setting hermeneutic” seems to effectively strip the Bible of its final authority.
It seems to me that such a way of doing ethics will lead to a kind of subjectivity that lets me make my ethics in some ways pretty much what I want to make of them, which is another way of saying that this hermeneutic seems to effectively strip the Bible of its final authority. That is my first concern. Isn’t a trajectory-hermeneutic presuming that I can decide what that goal should be and, thus, shape it after my image rather than any authoritative image in the Bible?
2. How Did Paul Approach Ethics?
If the issue of roles of women and men are one of the key issues, which they are, here’s where this approach seems to be illuminating: Isn’t it strange that Paul would argue his points in ways that make it hard to use this trajectory approach? Here is what I mean. This approach would say that Paul’s instructions about men and women in the church, in marriage, are pointers to something beyond his own explicit instructions. In other words, Paul wants us to see his instructions as temporary and illustrative of liberation, not permanent and of normative value for all time.
But if that is what Paul — or God in inspiring Paul — wanted us to think, if that is the way they wanted us to think about things, it seems strange that the way Paul would argue for his position was in a way that is not culturally conditioned or temporary. In other words, Paul did not say that women should submit to their husbands, because that would help them fit into the culture better, so that in a later, more liberated time they would fit in better another way. Instead, he argued that this dynamic of husband and wife, leadership and submission, was rooted in a relationship between Christ and the church which God had signaled in creation back in Genesis 2 and was now being worked out in the expression of the way Christ related to his church. That is a really strange way to argue if you want people to take it in a different direction someday.
Leadership and submission, unlike slavery, are rooted in the relationship between Christ and his church.
When Paul argued for men being an authority as teachers and elders in the church, he didn’t argue by saying, “Now this will help you convert people better because they won’t have to make so many adjustments in their patriarchal culture, because they can come in here and see that men are in charge. But later in another culture it would help you convert people another way.” He just never argued like that. He argued in 1 Timothy 2:12–13 that these dynamics are rooted in creation in the way Adam and Eve related to one another in the fall.
But both of these — marriage and church — are ways of arguing for marital role distinction and church role distinction that are simply not what you would expect if God’s intent or Paul’s intent was that his way of presenting things was to signal to us that we should get on a trajectory and go in a different direction than the way he was ordering marriage and church life. That is my second concern.
3. Why Might Slavery Be Different?
I would ask: Did Paul treat slavery — slavery is the really hot one, I think — did Paul treat slavery the same way he treated the roles of men and women? Did he root in creation or in redemption the ongoing validity of the institution of slavery? Or, let’s ask it another way. What did Paul say was normative in regard to slavery in the New Testament? And isn’t the answer something like this? He did not treat the institution of slavery as normative or as desirable or as right in the way it functioned. Paul did not say that slavery as it had existed in his day or in most of history and, especially in America, was the way Christians should relate to each other. In other words, you don’t need a trajectory-hermeneutic to see in Paul that slavery is not the way it should be.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:21–23, Don’t be enslaved to anyone. Take your liberty if you can have it. Masters, don’t threaten. You have a master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9–10). Master Philemon, receive your former slave “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). In other words, when it comes to slavery, what is controversial about Paul, really, is not that he was pro-slavery, but that he was pro-submission to slave masters.
“You don’t need a trajectory-hermeneutic to see in Paul that slavery is not the way it should be.”
That is an issue that has got to be wrestled with. Where and when should that be applied and should it not be? In other words, his approach to undoing slavery in his situation is not the path of violence or the path of rebellion. It was another path. But there is no need for a trajectory-hermeneutic to move beyond the New Testament as if the New Testament celebrated slavery as the way things should be.
So, those are my three suggestions for consideration: 1) the problem of subjectivity in determining where this supposed trajectory is going, 2) the way Paul argues from creation and from Christ, not culture, if he is supposed to be putting us on a trajectory, and 3) the way he does not do that, does not argue that way with regard to slavery, but points to the flaws of an institution that was not the way it should be.