The message from African-American theologians and pastors was crystal clear: The Bible is not a good resource on sex. The occasion was a conference on "The Black Church and Human Sexuality," held at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., Nov. 17-19.
"Isn't there anything clear?" asked one pastor. "My people want to know, ‘What thus saith the Lord?'" There was consensus among the 10 scholars that while there may yet be ‘a Word from the Lord' about sex, the Bible may not be the place to look for it.
According to Randall Bailey, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Interdenominational Center in Atlanta, Old Testament texts involving sex were not written to teach about sex but to define property rights. Women were the property of their fathers until marriage and the property of their husbands after marriage.
Biblical prohibition against adultery is strictly defined as a man having sex with another man's property, Bailey said. This fundamental principle explains much of the Bible's sexual ethos. It was not unlawful for a married man to have sex with any woman so long as she was not the property of another man. Such models are not acceptable for modern times.
The Rev. Herbert Marbury, Instructor of Biblical Hebrew at Vanderbilt, gave specific cases of troubling or difficult biblical stories that seem to condone abusive male sexual domination of women and certain men. These cases included rape, incest, infanticide and genital mutilation. Today, we find these behaviors to be shocking and morally reprehensible.
How should the church deal with such troubling texts? Victor Anderson, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Vanderbilt, suggested that proper use of the Bible requires four steps: that we gain contextual understanding, see how various texts in the Bible relate to or are in dialogue with each other, enter the dialogue asking the Holy Spirit to reveal God's message for our communities, and seek to bring ourselves and our communities into closer union with God.
"The church has too often been guilty of ‘bibli-idolatry,' worshiping the text instead of God," Bailey said. "African-American people knew God when it was illegal for us to read the Bible. In the words of Samuel Proctor, ‘Long before there was a Bible, there was a God.' The Holy Spirit leads communities to live faithfully within a context and time ... Don't throw the Bible away. Engage it. God is still speaking."
The Rev. Alberta Ware, Director of The Balm in Gilead in Chicago, told of an African-American church whose members wrestled with ancient biblical texts to solve a new problem. Members had to deal with their use of a common communion cup while there was a person among them who was living with AIDS. The congregation entered the dialogue with conflicting biblical texts about purification, medical information and prayer. They concluded that there was only one ‘good and right' thing for them to do. They invited the person living with AIDS to take the first sip because he was most vulnerable to their diseases.
On that day, she said, gathered around a common table, in the breaking of the bread many in that community may have found both a witness and closer union with their God.
Ron Buford is Public Relations and Marketing Manager for the Office General Ministries.