The lost art of humility: homosexuality and usury

Most of the hullaballoo surrounding Knapp-gate seems to have blown over for the time being, but its implications and the probability of similar future incidents continue to grow.

Undeniably, a crucial aspect of Christians’ discomfort with Jennifer Knapp’s stance is that she is “unrepentant” as a lesbian. That charge only works from outside, however, in that from her standpoint, homosexuality is not sin at all. This is considered to make her situation even worse — she’s living in denial! Surely she’s being selective in her use of Scripture, twisting it to make it mean what she thinks it should based upon her experience!

But is interpreting Scripture based upon prevailing sensibilities so unparalleled among her critics? Take, for example, the clear teaching in both the Old and the New Testaments, coming from the mouth of Jesus in fact, that charging interest on loans (called usury in Bible-ese) to fellow believers is a reprehensible, inexcusable practice. Lending money was considered a form of charity and as such undeniably played into Jesus’ fury at the “moneychangers” in the temple and in the social situation of the earliest believers in Acts who shared all possessions.

As I recall, the late Christian financial advisor Larry Burkett advised his evangelical audience not to charge interest among believers based upon this firmly biblical teaching. I can’t say that I’m surprised that Burkett’s once widely-broadcast counsel on this matter has not had much longevity; lending money is bifurcated, conveniently enough, into instances of necessity/charity vs. voluntary business transaction (as with banks), and usury now is taken to mean not “interest” but “excessive interest”.

I’m not saying that these categorizations and redefinitions are illegitimate; among other uses, charging interest actually makes a good deal of sense as a mechanism to allocate scarce capital. What I am saying is that the moment evangelicals (usually unconsciously) fly right past the clear teaching of the text to justify something they feel is common sense, right, and fair, they are in the same territory as those who creatively reinterpret/ignore Scripture for things which evangelicals steadfastly oppose, such as women in leadership or homosexuality. I, too, have found just about every justification for homosexuality based upon reinterpretation of Scripture to lack credibility. Yet evangelicals should not too quickly affirm their knee-jerk impression that those believers who “ignore” or reinterpret Scriptural condemnations of causes such as homosexuality or women in leadership are such unnatural aberrations, or rather, they should not harbor the illusion that they themselves, despite their own unavoidable interpretive incompetence, are somehow exempt from unnatural or aberrant beliefs about Scripture.

What evangelicalism needs most is a swift kick in the pride. Evangelicals must learn to recognize that even their beliefs are conditioned by things other than the text — are sometimes even directly at odds with the text; to acknowledge that no human may legitimately claim or imply the unimpeachability of his opinion merely by adorning it with the words, “The Bible says…” in place of the more accurate statement, “I interpret certain passages of Scripture to mean…”; to grant that even knowing what the Bible says is no guarantor that one knows the meaning or value of what it says. Humility needs to come home to the Church, that institution built in honor of, but too rarely in imitation of, our exemplar who “…humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Php 2.8). Humility, in doctrine as much as anywhere, should be the very hallmark of our faith. Newsflash, American Christians: it’s not.

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  • I don't appreciate you telling me that they have to go beyond their own presuppositions in reading and applying Scripture.

  • In that case, you'll doubtless be even more perturbed when I say that the
    same constraint applies to you. (And to myself as well, of course, but it's
    best we don't dwell on that overmuch.)

  • Yes, but as I am perfect and would never do such things…

  • Stephen Greer

    Where does Jesus condemn charging interest? Not trying to goad, I just really can't find it, so I'm wondering where it is.

    Also, what about Deuteronomy 23:20: “On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest”? I seem to remember that God said the land never belonged to them, so could it be a possibility that to charge a fellow Israelite usury would be to take from him what God had given him, which means it wasn't “up for grabs?”

    I agree that Christians ought to practice humility, I just don't think this is a particularly powerful critique against pointing out a sin, regardless of “personal viewpoints.” We may cast stones when we shouldn't, but Jesus said, “Go and sin no more,” so is there really anything wrong with pointing out His own judgments on the matter?

    Stephen G.

  • Stephen,

    The ban on usury within the community of believers is what Burkett argued for based upon the Deuteronomy passage. As far as Jesus' condemnation, I mentioned the likelihood that the money-changers were engaging in usury, to which Jesus reacted with a whip and a few choice words. Luke 6.34-35 is an example of Jesus taking his rabbinical tack of one-upping a ban on usury by saying that lending should be done without expectation of any return at all, much less the full sum plus interest; moreover, he apparently extends it beyond merely Israelites (cf. “enemies” in v. 35).

    Beyond these examples (which I recognize are not incontestable), it is important to note that we have no evidence that Jesus made any effort to dismantle the ethical system underlying the Law, and in fact, he seemed to encourage an extension on a ban of usury.

    In actuality, whether or not Jesus said anything about usury makes my main point no less valid. The argument from silence isn't usually a very useful argument, but here it strikes at the heart of the issue: will we ignore the OT's ethical teachings — which are not the same as the ritual commandments — although never refuted in the NT (and possibly extended)? Are we justified in ignoring the continuity of cultural prohibitions based on a retrospective acceptance of something we nowadays take for granted? I'm not so sure. You may disagree. At least we agree upon the need for practicing humility. (BTW, I'm sure you know that “Go and sin no more” is a statement more than usually contested as an authentic quotation of Jesus, even among conservative scholars! Maybe not so powerful, either. 😉 )

    Say, did I ever respond to your last comment? It was a long one, as I recall. 😀

  • Stephen Greer

    I'll be honest, I'm not sure what you mean by, “Are we justified in ignoring the continuity of cultural prohibitions based on a retrospective acceptance of something we nowadays take for granted?” If you mean that we often read in our cultural conditioning when we should not, then I whole-heartedly agree with you. It's deceptively easy to interpret based on what we think is acceptable, moral, expedient, etc. This is not a new problem. But I am reminded of the scene in Acts 15, where Peter pleads that the Jerusalem council should be wary of placing upon Gentile believers a yoke that “neither we nor our forefathers were able to bear.” Thus, we have a delineation between the “moral” aspects of the law and the “legal” aspects of the law. Did Judaism really recognize a difference? Absolutely not, and yet here the leaders of the early Church, who were themselves Jews, apply it to future cases, and I believe that this has some relevance to the discussion at hand, especially if they were being led by the Spirit that Jesus promised to send them. Now, I won't pretend that navigating the minefield is an easy task, but it at least has some precedent.

    As for arguments from silence, you are right, they are not typically useful arguments. However, in the case of the 1st Century culture we are examining, it takes on some merit. The culture of the Near East, and even the Far East, was (and in large part, still is) a “high context” culture. Much was left out of discussions simply because it was assumed that everyone new about the background, much as today scholars tend to gloss over setting a context in their works geared toward peers: it's largely unnecessary because the context is already set and shared. They know (or ought to know) the background info, so why rehash? We tend to be “low context,” in that we spell out everything to leave no ambiguity, e.g. the practice of law and legislation. “Well, that's what I meant” isn't a compelling defense!

    How does this apply here? For Jesus not to mention something in explicit detail could imply that He simply assumed that the context was “taken for granted,” and therefore applies still. Jesus was most shocking when He clearly went against prevailing thought on a subject, which is why I make a big deal out of a lack of condemnation. For example, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” to the lame man in Mark, and the Pharisees flip. Clearly, He was doing something that was out of the ordinary, and these are the things that would have stuck out most clearly in the minds of those listening.

    I get the feeling that we may be saying something very similar. I do not believe that homosexuality is a defensible “lifestyle” or whatever you want to call it, based on the Biblical record, but at the same time, it is not a “mortal sin” any more than greed or lust or murderous thoughts. It's just less easy to mask the associated behavior. As I said before, I agree with your main point, that humility is a virtue that is deficient in Evangelical Christianity, at least as I've experienced it here in the West.

    Stephen G.

    P.S. I don't know that you did respond in our other discussion. Feel free, but I may not rejoin any time soon. Finals are approaching quickly. 🙂