There was a lot of discussion last week of the Presbyterian Church’s (USA) decision to allow for the ordination of homosexual clergy. Christopher Cocca has an article at The Huffington Post, however, that pulls a thread that many have not picked up on.
Cocca’s article is essentially about hermeneutics and the way that the Bible should inform our moral evaluation of homosexuality. But he comes at the issue from a different angle and argues that there is a connection between the ordination of homosexuals and the ordination of women. Cocca maintains that the hermeneutic that excludes the former also excludes the latter. He is no doubt right about this, and that is why all the mainline denominations that are now accepting gay marriage/ordination have long ago accepted the ordination of women into the pastoral office. Cocca sees this connection, and he is right.
But the question that I want press is this. Is the hermeneutic itself a sound one? Is Cocca giving us a valid way to approach our reading of the scripture? I think the answer to that question has to be no.
Cocca contends that, “the refusal to ordain women or to treat homosexuals with fairness, dignity and grace, stem from a certain kind of biblical hermeneutic that deals with Scripture in very limiting ways.” After caricaturing his opponents as believing in a “transcription” mode of divine inspiration, he argues that Bible nevertheless has contradictions within it when it talks about gender issues. His case in point is the way that the apostle Paul speaks about women in 1 Corinthians and Romans. On the one hand, Cocca says this about 1 Corinthians:
“In Corinth, women were to have precious little to do with church leadership: even as the freedom they found in Christ to speak in a room of men was real, Paul thought its practice would scandalize the accepted gender roles of Corinthian culture at the expense of the Gospel. (This is one of those times where I think Paul erred on the side of caution with devastating results).”
On the other hand,
“In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he acknowledges and praises the leadership role of the woman Junia, even calling her an apostle.”
Cocca says that these statements represent two contradictory perspectives on gender that cannot be reconciled. He writes,
“If you believe the letters to Corinth were from God, you probably believe the same about the note to Rome. But if believing such also means you believe that these letters are also meant for all Christian communities for all times, you have something of a problem. Which model is right? Should the Roman apostle Junia really consider herself a complementary (subservient, rather than co-equal) child of God next to her husband simply because Paul told the church in Corinth (and Ephesus) to follow the societal and familial norms of their native cultures? I don’t think so. I don’t think you can hold this view even if you say you think the Bible is the literal word of God.”
In short, Cocca thinks that Romans presents an egalitarian vision of gender roles while 1 Corinthians presents a patriarchal one. Paul was mistaken in 1 Corinthians, but right on the money in Romans. Thus, Christians should not take Paul’s instruction to one particular church (Corinth) and make it the ethical norm for all churches at all times in every place.
There are numerous problems with Cocca’s argument, and we would do well to note at least three of them:
(1) Cocca misreads 1 Corinthians. Cocca’s reading of 1 Corinthians is staggeringly superficial. He claims that Paul did not mean “these letters” to be “for all Christian communities for all times.” This is an astonishing statement when we take a closer look at what Paul actually says in the gender texts of 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, Paul exhorts the women to be silent during the judgment of prophesies and to be in submission, and they are to do so as it is done “in all the churches of the saints.” Paul explicitly cites this norm as a norm for all the churches, not just Corinth. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul affirms male headship (v. 3) in the worship practices of the church and concludes by saying, “we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor.Â 11:16). One can disagree with Paul, but one cannot say that he was unclear. Paul means the gender texts of 1 Corinthians to be normative for all churches, not just Corinth. This is a glaring omission on Cocca’s part.
(2) Cocca misreads Romans. Cocca tries to make hay out of the fact that Junia is apparently named as an apostle in Romans 16:7. What he fails to mention is that the translation of this verse is highly disputed. In fact, some translations don’t even recognize Junia as a feminine name but as a masculine one, “Junias” (NASB, NIV , RSV, NJB). Other translations that do regard it as feminine regard Junia not as an apostle but as one who is well-known to the apostles (ESV, NET). Other commentators, understand Junia to be an “apostle” but not in the same way that Peter and Paul are apostles. Tom Schreiner, for example, sees the underlying Greek term to mean that she was an itinerant evangelist or missionary, not that she was an apostle in the strict sense (Romans, pp. 796-97). The case for Junia as an apostle is no slam dunk, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Cocca’s article.
(3) Cocca undermines biblical authority. This is the most serious shortcoming of Cocca’s article. Cocca argues that there is a contradiction between Romans and 1 Corinthians. Logically, that means that the two letters may both be wrong, but they can’t both be right. And so Cocca takes the next logical step. He concludes that Paul has “erred” in 1 Corinthians “with devastating results.” If Cocca is right about this and the Bible contradicts itself, then we are left with no basis to appeal to the Bible as an authoritative guide for life and godliness.
But Cocca’s opinion on this point is at odds with the way that the Bible speaks about its own inspiration: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 TimothyÂ 3:16). Because scripture is “breathed out by God,” it cannot have errors and contradictions in it lest we conclude that there are errors and contradictions in God Himself. This implication of Cocca’s view of inspiration doesn’t seem to trouble him, but it ought to.
Both Cocca and the PCUSA adopt a hermeneutic that undermines the Bible’s teaching about gender and sexuality. And that is the real issue for both of them. Cocca and the PCUSA have asked the ancient question, “Hath God really said,” and they have concluded that He has not.