Lessons: Exodus 20:1-17; Colossians 2:6-10
This past week a colleague called with a question. He grew up in a church in Pittsburgh where I was the minister for thirteen years. After graduation from seminary he was called to a church in Wisconsin. Now and then he would return to Pittsburgh to be with his family and we would discuss our ministries. This younger colleague's question was: "What keeps you going as a Presbyterian minister?" He explained the question indicating he was not asking what keeps me going as a minister, instead he was asking what keeps me going as a Presbyterian minister, what do I value about being a Presbyterian minister?
It is a timely question.
There is a basic struggle going on in our Presbyterian denomination over what kind of denomination we will be. The struggle has grown in intensity and breadth over several years. It is about the fundamental vision and character of the denomination.
The focal point of the debate is Amendment A. This amendment would change the wording of another amendment, Amendment B, which was adopted by our denomination last year. Even though it was adopted, the vote was very close and while many people in the denomination were grateful for its passage, many other people were dismayed and disturbed. Amendment A has been offered as a better alternative to Amendment B.
The debate over Amendment A is related to an issue which is powerful and divisive in our denomination: the question of whether or not active gay and lesbian people are to be allowed to be ordained as ministers of the word and sacrament, elders or deacons. There is a prohibition against such ordinations in our denomination. Even if Amendment A passes it would not remove that prohibition. Yet if it passes it would open the door for considering and discussing such a possibility.
One of the issues which has become important in our debate over Amendment A and our persistent struggles over ordination is the nature of biblical authority.
The people who oppose Amendment A and who also oppose the ordination of active gay and lesbian people claim they have the bible on their side. They say the bible says homosexual activity is wrong and therefore it is wrong. They claim anyone who does not believe homosexual activity is wrong does not respect biblical authority.
There is a very powerful dynamic at work in this argument. It was described by Dr. Jack Rogers in some comments he made to a group of us this past week at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He described it this way: if you believe the truth of a certain matter is obvious, then you are entitled to believe anyone who disagrees with you is either a fool because he or she does not see the obvious or evil because he or she sees the truth but wants to subvert it.
We have reached the sad point in the struggle within our denomination at which some people believe the people who disagree with them do not respect biblical authority. Worse yet, we have reached the point at which some people believe those who disagree with them are either fools or evil.
I believe it is urgent for us to review our denomination's position on biblical authority.
In l927 our General Assembly formally rejected the fundamentalist view of scripture. This is the view which essentially believed the words of scripture were the literal truth of God. Whatever was in the bible was written by God and therefore whatever was written in the bible was to be accepted and believed as it was written.
Our denomination rejected that point of view. In its place we confirmed a high regard for scripture and the authority of scripture. We have consistently affirmed our faith the bible was inspired by God. We have also, however, allowed for the possibility of interpretation. We believe biblical texts can be interpreted and examined. We believe it is possible a process of interpretation may lead us to conclude a particular text in the bible is no longer authoritative for our belief or our behavior.
We believe it is possible for people to practice interpretation and still honor the authority of the bible.
There are many examples of how the process of interpretation has changed our view of the authority of a biblical text.
An obvious example is our view of the biblical claim the world was created in six days. By a process of interpretation most of us have concluded this reference to creation taking place in six days is poetic. We do not believe we have to ignore the whole science and knowledge of evolution. We do not believe we have to take the billions of years of evolution and try to fit them into six days or even six seasons or phases.
Another example is our belief about the biblical prohibition against eating pork products. Through a process of interpretation we have come to believe these passages are no longer authoritative for us. You can eat all the bacon and ham you want, with your physicians approval of course.
A more difficult example concerns the bible's view of the role of women. There are passages, particularly in Paul's letters, which clearly suggest women should be subservient in the church and in the home. Through a process of interpretation our denomination has come to believe women should be welcomed into leadership positions of the church and should be allowed to be ordained. There are denominations even now which will not allow women into leadership positions or allow them to be ordained because of what the bible says. Our denomination and others disagree.
One final example of the role of interpretation in our life concerns divorce. In two of the gospels Jesus speaks about divorce and adultery. He states clearly when someone is divorced and gets remarried that person is committing adultery. It is clear this is what Jesus said. There is no ambiguity. Furthermore, this is Jesus speaking. This is not a relatively obscure passage from an uncertain source. Yet again, through a process of interpretation our denomination and many others have concluded people who are divorced and who get remarried should be allowed to do so without the fear of condemnation.
The truth is everyone interprets scripture. Everyone has selected those passages they believe are authoritative and those passages they believe are no longer authoritative.
The truth is many of the people who oppose the ordination of active gay and lesbian people by claiming the bible says such behavior is wrong have already decided other biblical prohibitions are not authoritative. I am sure there are people who oppose the ordination of active gay and lesbian people on the basis of what the bible says who do not believe the world was created in six days, who eat pork products, who welcome women into the leadership of the church, including ordained leadership, and who do not believe a person who is divorced and who gets remarried is committing adultery.
This raises the question: why do some of the people who have decided other passages of the bible are no longer authoritative for them still hold to the authority of the biblical texts regarding homosexuality? If they believe biblical passages on other matters are no longer authoritative, why are they so determined to adhere to the biblical authority on this issue?
It is in the process of answering this question that an abiding irony enters the debate. It is claimed by some of the people who oppose the ordination of active gay and lesbian people that the advocacy of such ordination is driven by secular and worldly political movements. It is claimed these movements have invaded the church and will destroy the church. It is claimed we need some new confession of faith to cleanse the church of secular influences and to rally the true church within the church, to identify the true believers from the fallen believers.
Yet this argument is a two-edged sword. If people who claim homosexual behavior is wrong because the bible says so are willing to accept other behavior the bible says is wrong, is it not possible their position is also shaped and influenced by secular forces?
It appears homosexual behavior has become a litmus test for both liberals and conservatives in our culture today. In each of these large, dynamic and hardly monolithic confederations called "liberalism" and "conservatism" there are litmus test issues, defining issues. To establish your credentials in one of these federations you have to be able to subscribe to certain core beliefs. For whatever reasons homosexual behavior has emerged as one of these defining issues or core beliefs. Each side blames the other for this being the case. Liberals say conservatives were permissive about abuses of gay and lesbian people. Conservatives say liberals have been pushing the gay and lesbian agenda on them. Each side has pushed back. Each side has used gay and lesbian issues as a defining issue. Liberals promote tolerance of gay and lesbian behavior. Conservatives resist and resent it.
Thus for either side, within the church, to claim the other side is driven by and unduly influenced by secular forces is dishonest. Secular forces always work their way into the church. Social movements are always an amalgam of various forces and influences. I remember when the civil rights movement was gaining strength many people claimed it was just political. Yet it combined a mixture of political, moral, spiritual and intellectual forces.
The challenge for us within the church as we struggle over our issues is to keep our theological, spiritual and biblical bearings. So it is crucial for us to understand biblical authority and be honest about how it works.
There are several aspects to the process of determining biblical authority in many matters of behavior.
First, when it comes to the bible's authority for behavior, there are basically three sources of direction and guidance for us within the bible.
One source of biblical authority for behavior are laws. The bible, especially the Old Testament, has many laws. Some books, like Leviticus, are filled with laws, laws which at the time were viewed as God's clear will for how people were to behave. The primary expression of the law of God in the bible is the Ten Commandments. While we have concluded many of the laws for behavior in the bible are no longer authoritative, the authority of the Ten Commandments has not been questioned. For centuries and for many seasons of moral confusion these laws have held up. They have not been compromised by the church.
A second source of authority for behavior in the bible are principles. The bible identifies principles which should guide and shape our behavior. One of the primary texts of this kind is the passage from Micah:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.
Another passage of this kind is the statement by Jesus that all the laws are summarized by the call to love God fully and to treat our neighbor as ourselves.
A third source of authority in the bible for our behavior is the life of Christ. As Paul writes in Colossians, the image we are to hold before ourselves of how to live is Christ. We are not to pretend or presume we can be equal to Christ in our faithfulness to God's will but we can use Christ as the example of how to live.
Secondly, while we have these three sources, we believe Christ is the supreme guide. We believe Christ is the fullest and clearest revelation of God's will for our lives. We believe as we grow into Christ and learn to live in fellowship with Christ, we will come to see what is God's best and truest word for our living.
Thirdly, we believe as we try to discern God's will for us in matters of behavior, we need to blend these sources together, listening to each of them, and letting their interaction with each other guide us to a more faithful understanding of what is required of us now, always allowing in such considerations for the supremacy of Christ.
Finally, we believe it is useful to bring into the process of interpretation other sources of insight and knowledge. We believe what we have learned from personal experience as well as what has been gained from other disciples and sources of knowledge can be useful. Yet, again, we hold to the primacy of Christ and to the unique authority of scripture as we seek God's truth in matters of behavior as well as in matters of belief.
Trying to find God's word for us in matters of belief and behavior is difficult. It is risky. It is easy to yield to secular sentiments. It is easy to yield to sinful desires from within our own lives. We are rightly called by the passage in Colossians to avoid being captivated by humanistic traditions and the elemental spirits of the universe. In all matters of life and faith God is to be our God; God's Son is to be our primary revelation. Next to Christ is to be God's Word written in scripture.
The alternative to this risky and difficult process called interpretation is the fundamentalist alternative, the shutting down of all interpretation and the acceptance of a dangerous illusion: the illusion we can live in full obedience to every word of the bible without any compromise.
To guide us beyond the fundamentalist position and into the respect for biblical authority which tolerates interpretation, our denomination has printed and published a stream of books, teaching guides, and other materials.
The Presbyterian Church I know honors the authority of scripture.
The Presbyterian Church I know honors the role of interpretation.
The Presbyterian Church I know holds Christ to be the supreme revelation of God's truth.
Those who claim we cannot interpret scripture regarding homosexual behavior but who are willing themselves to interpret scripture on other matters are being dishonest.
Those who claim those of us who interpret scripture do not respect biblical authority are being reckless with our fellowship in the Church.
Those who in spirit and in truth do not want biblical interpretation to happen want a different kind of church from what our denomination has been, different from what it is now, and different from what I hope it will be always.
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