Common Sense and Absolutizing the Bible’s Commands

For my write-up today on The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, I’ll use as my starting-point something that M. Scott Peck says on page 148:

“There come many points on one’s journey of spiritual growth, whether one is alone or has a psychotherapist as guide, when one must take new and unfamiliar actions in consonance with one’s new world view.  The taking of such new action—-behaving differently from the way one has always behaved before—-may represent an extraordinary personal risk.  The passively homosexual young man for the first time summons the initiative to ask a girl for a date [;] the previously dependent housewife announces to her controlling husband that she is obtaining a job whether he likes it or not, that she has her own life to live; the fifty-year-old mama’s boy tells his mother to stop addressing him by his infantile nickname…”

Something else that I’d like to note is a story that Peck tells on pages 152-153 about a patient whose minister father failed to protect her or himself from her abusive, manipulative mother.  The father exhorted his daughter to turn the other cheek and to be respectful and submissive towards her mother.

One reason that the passage on page 148 stood out to me was that Peck was commending a hypothetical homosexual for asking a woman out on a date.  This may imply that, at least when this book was written, Peck thought that homosexuality was a condition that could be cured.  The copyright on my book is 1978, and it was in that year that the American Psychological Association reversed its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.  What is Peck’s stance on homosexuality today?  I do not know, but this article criticizes Peck by saying, “Peck also believes that homosexuality reflects God’s love for variety.”

But I don’t really want to focus on that subject in this post.  What I want to highlight is Peck’s notion that people should stand up for themselves.  He mentions a wife who stands up to her husband and goes against his wishes, a son who stands up to his mother, and a father and a daughter who should stand up to someone who’s abusive.

I was thinking about certain rules in the Bible and how a strict interpretation of them could land a person into trouble.  So we’re supposed to honor and obey our parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1).  A person who smites his father or mother is to be executed (Exodus 21:15).  A wife is to submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22) and imitate Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him lord (I Peter 3:6).  We are to turn the other cheek when somebody hits us (Matthew 5:39).

In a sense, and this is my opinion, there is a degree of rationality that underlies these rules.  There’s something to be said for respecting authority, honoring people, and accepting an insult rather than fighting back.  There has to be some respect for authority in our culture lest there be chaos.  And there are situations in which it’s preferable for us to swallow our pride and take an insult, rather than exasperating the situation by retaliating.  On the whole issue of wives submitting to their husbands, I’m somewhat of an egalitarian, myself.  But I appreciate that the author of Ephesians has as his goal the promotion of an orderly and loving home—-in which the wife submits to her husband, the husband loves his wife, and the two submit to one another—-even if I may have questions about or problems with his exhortation.

But, if these commands are absolutized, problems can occur.  Suppose the parents are abusive.  Should their children, in that case, obey everything that their parents command?  And does someone who strikes his father to protect himself or someone else (such as his mother or siblings) seriously deserve to be executed?  Should a woman obey everything that her husband tells her, when she has a mind of her own and is hurting herself when she suppresses her own identity?  And, if we turn the other cheek in certain situations, can we become a doormat?

I’m not saying that people should be selfish.  In a lot of relationships, people may find that they have to put their desires to the side, at least sometimes.  But I think that there should be give-and-take.  If there’s a marriage in which a husband forbids his wife to work, and the husband is not making any effort at all to understand his wife’s needs, then there’s a problem.  I agree with Peck that the wife should stand up for herself in that case.  There are Christians who may say that the wife should simply submit to her husband—-that, even if her husband is not loving her as Christ loves the church, she should do her part by obeying God’s command to her to submit, and, if that squelches her happiness and desire for fulfillment, she should seek her happiness and fulfillment in the Lord, through prayer, Bible study, and worship.  But I have my doubts that this would be the best approach for her to take.

What I like about Peck is that he’s a spiritual person, and yet he also has a common-sense approach to how to live life—-an approach that includes a recognition of one’s own needs, but also an appreciation for the needs of others.  I think that it’s a good idea to employ common-sense even when reading Scripture, rather than absolutizing certain biblical commands.  (Of course, there are commands that probably should be absolutized.)  But was our version of common-sense in the minds of the biblical authors?  In some cases, I’d say yes.  For example, David did not submit to Saul by allowing Saul to kill him, even though David probably felt that he was supposed to respect the king.  But I’m hesitant to project our version of common-sense onto the biblical authors, for they lived in a different culture.  I’m just talking about a way that one can read Scripture profitably and apply it to one’s own life—-one can allow Scripture to serve as a guideline and seek to gather whatever wisdom he or she can from it, seeking a reasonable rationale even behind commands that may rub him or her the wrong way.  But one can choose not to absolutize certain commands, and to use one’s own common-sense to determine what is appropriate for specific situations.

And what is common-sense?  Well, part of it is the wisdom of our culture about what is healthy and unhealthy, based on people’s experiences.  In my opinion, several things that M. Scott Peck encourages are examples of common-sense.  Would I absolutize our culture’s common-sense?  Well, no, for even our culture can be wrong, as past cultures have been wrong.  But common-sense can appropriately play a role in the dialogue of decision-making.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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