DALLAS — Casting judgment. Sorting through disagreements. Deciding what’s worth fighting about and what not to push.
The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in the home stretch now before finishing its final report, has been studying passages of the Bible it hopes will shed light on these questions — including, in its work on July 20, the story of the woman caught in adultery from the 8th chapter of John http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=John+8:1-11&vnum=yes&version=nrsv.
Frances Taylor Gench, who led the two Bible study sessions and who teaches New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, said that particular passage is frequently cited in the battle over ordaining gays and lesbians, by both sides, so she figured it was a good one for the task force to consider too.
Liberals use it to say that Jesus forgave the adulterous woman — so shouldn’t we offer acceptance and forgiveness as well, said Sarah Grace Sanderson-Doughty, a pastor from Loweville, N.Y. And conservatives use it, she said, to remind folks that Jesus told the woman, “Go and sin no more.”
Gench called the passage a “homeless story,” because the earliest Greek manuscripts omitted it — it hasn’t always been considered part of John’s Gospel. “In all likelihood it was suppressed,” Gench said, because it dealt with sex, always an uncomfortable area, and because people feared that Jesus’ unwillingness to condemn the woman might be seen as giving license “to sin with impunity.”
Gench had the task force members act out the story — with one as Jesus, one as the woman, the rest as the scribes and Pharisees. They talked through its implications — what Jesus was writing in the dirt, why the Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus, why more isn’t told about what she had done — or with whom.
Scott Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, said, “I long for more information,” because “we know nothing about this woman. We don’t know anything about her life. … The total focus of this story is on her sin. She is objectified.”
Sanderson-Doughty put it this way: “Here she in the middle of the story, but she’s such an invisible character.”
And what are the readers to understand from this story about sin? Jesus told the woman, “Sin no more,” said Jack Haberer, a pastor from Houston. But he told the Pharisees and scribes, who had wanted to stone her, that whichever one of them was without sin could cast the first stone — a reminder that no one is without sin.
Jesus also refused to rank-order sins here, Gench said — to consider sexual sin as somehow worse than other wrongdoing.
Jesus twice knelt to write in the dust — there also was a lot of discussion of wondering why he did that, and what did he write? Gench said a woman once ran up to her after a presentation, saying she knew exactly what Jesus wrote: “It takes two.”
Jong Hyeong Lee, a pastor from Chicago, offered another interpretation. When Jesus drew his finger in the dust, he really was writing on the hearts of the Pharisees, showing them their own sins.
The day before, on July 19, the task force discussed the 14th and 15th chapters of Romans. The apostle Paul is addressing this section to the Roman house churches — and he is saying, in effect, that there are some things that seem to divide Christians very deeply in practice — and which may matter a lot to them — but which are not essential for faith and salvation and “which shouldn’t be allowed to divide them,” Gench said.
“He is not saying anything goes,” Gench told the group. “There are limits to Christian behavior.” But he is saying that within the proper response to the Bible, “there is a measure of freedom,” and a need for tolerance, to keep from causing pain to others in the community.
In Rome at that time, tensions ran deep between Jews and Gentiles, who had different understandings about what food they could eat and how to observe special liturgical days. For Presbyterians today, the reasons for these conflicts may seem hard to understand — but the atmosphere of arguing and mutual condemnation and anger, strong enough that Paul felt compelled to comment, may seem familiar indeed.
Paul is reminding them that God has allegiance to both the groups, that “Christ died for both of them,” Gench said.
And Paul speaks to the value of acting so as to make room for the other, of “building up the Christian community of love,” said theology professor Mark Achtemeier from Iowa.
Gench described it as putting aside the narrow view for the big one — remembering that “God’s plan is the unity of God’s creatures.”