On Reading Scripture: A Question of How, Not What
July 3, 2012 6 Comments
Being in the middle of a search for a church to commit to (having moved across the country) has caused me to reflect on my formation in and commitment to the Churches of Christ. My recent post on the experience of ecclesial homelessness is an example of those reflections. While the response to that post has been overwhelmingly positive, the most common “negative” response has gone something like this: the problem with young adults these days is that they’ve grown uncomfortable with, or simply don’t know, the Word. If we could just get back to reading and teaching the Word of God then these problems would go away.
This is an ecclesially appropriate response for folks in the CoC to give and it points to a deeper issue: the deeper place of tension for many homeless CoCers isn’t what scripture teaches but how to interpret what it teaches. The cases of instrumental worship and women’s roles will serve as two examples. But first, a brief history:
The churches of Christ began in the United States in the early 19th century as part of the American Restoration Movement. That movement was an ecumenical movement intended to transcend denominational divisions and for Christians to become “Christians only”, i.e. not Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc. Their method for doing this was simple: discard all creeds and denominational statements and go back to the Bible. They worked with the assumption that if someone with an honest desire for God’s truth and a pure heart shed all denominational and creedal baggage and read scripture with fresh eyes they would be able to discern how God intended the church to function and could then simply be Christians. American restorationists wanted to be Christians exactly as the first Christians were Christians (because their story of Christian history was one of continuing decline, evidenced in the multiple denominations that exist). The Churches of Christ, the most conservative of the three main ecclesial traditions that grew out of the movement, thus began referring to “the first century church” as the ultimate example and authority for polity and Christian living.
Of course, once they gave this thing a try they quickly realized that if you give people Bibles without any guidance for interpretation (as creeds provide) a multitude of interpretations quickly arise. The problem, then, is that you are left with only two options: either scripture is confusing or some people aren’t reading with pure hearts and are distorting God’s word. Of course, the leaders of the movement chose the latter option and, therefore, what began as an ecumenical movement morphed into a sectarian movement that changed its unofficial slogan from “Christians only, but not the only Christians” to “restoring the one true Church where salvation can be found.”
In response to this crisis of interpretation many leaders and churches adopted a strategy of interpretation intended to guide readers of scripture in its proper interpretation. What was this method? First, Christians should approach scripture by asking the following question, “What is God’s eternal intention for the ordering of the Church?” Second, one should look for, in this order, 1) direct commands, 2) authoritative examples, 3) direct inferences, that can answer this question.
One can apply this method to the entirety of scripture and discern God’s eternal will, it is argued. So, because there is no example of instruments being used in a worship service in the New Testament a biblically faithful and “true” church won’t use instruments. Also, since we have direct commands for women to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) and that they are commanded not to exercise authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:11-15) there is no public leadership role for women in Sunday worship services.
So, working with these assumptions and method it is clear what scripture teaches and the discomfort of the “homeless” I talked about is due to their unwillingness to submit to God’s will and not for any good theological reason. End of discussion.
However, these assumptions and that method are not biblical in a strict sense, i.e. there is no “biblical” method of interpreting scripture that looks like the one just described. And they are not, in fact, very defensible outside of a certain already held worldview. And it is not the hermeneutic employed by most “homeless” folks. So, debates about “what the Bible teaches” are fruitless when folks approach and interpret scripture differently.
Here are some of the differences in hermeneutical method that a homeless Christian may employ:
First, they don’t necessarily believe that the Bible is primarily a sourcebook for “how to do church.” Rather, they understand it primarily as the story of God and God’s interaction with the world. Through reading (and living!) this story we come to know the character of God, and are drawn into imitation of that God. If this is how scripture is primarily to be read, the logic goes, God cares more about the living of the story and the imitation of God than about the organization of churches.
Second, they do not ignore, gloss over, or deny the diversity in the biblical texts. Most CoCers, and many other fundamentalists, claim that the voice of scripture is a wholly unified voice without any diversity of opinion. Homeless Christians reject this claim as false. Rather, they recognize the diversity and ambiguity of scripture and draw upon it as a resource. So, for example, they read the commands that exclude women from public leadership alongside those scriptures that mention women as deaconesses (Romans 16:1), as prophetesses (Acts 2:17), and as leading public prayers (1 Corinthians 11:5).. In addition, they read Jesus’s interactions with women in the gospels as countercultural and liberating. Also, they recognize that the gospel writers are not historians in the modern sense but theologians. Thus, something like telling us that women were the first witnesses to, and first evangelists of, the resurrection has great theological significance. In the light of all of scripture, then, it seems that women can be in public leadership.
Third, they do not accept the myth that there was “a first century church” and the model it followed is clearly and flawlessly recorded in the NT. Rather, they read the various epistles and recognize many churches, dealing with a multitude of problems, and disagreeing on important theological issues. Yet, they are all recognized as Christians.(For instance, the Corinthian church was dealing with adultery, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and denials of the resurrection, and Paul continually called them “children” and “brothers and sisters.”) If there was diversity in the earliest churches (planted by Paul!), they reason, then there is room for diversity in churches in the twenty-first century.
So, if many young adults from the CoC don’t toe the traditionalist line on some traditionally key doctrinal issues it’s not because they don’t know what scripture says, it’s because they disagree about how that scripture should be interpreted. What traditional leaders have been unsuccessful in teaching, then, is not “the Word” or a love of scripture. Rather, it is that they have not convinced many in the next generation of their hermeneutical method which, in an increasingly postmodern world, seems at best rigid and at worst implausible. To continue to beat the “we just need more Bible” drum, then, will continue to fall on deaf ears. “Homeless” young adults do know what the Bible says, they just interpret and apply it differently because they find the “direct command-authoritative example-direct inference” model unsatisfactory. A robust defense of that hermeneutical method is what is needed to successfully defend the traditional view on some of the most contested CoC doctrines today. However, I know of no such convincing defense. This is a place for real growth in the CoC. If we move beyond an outmoded hermeneutic we may open up the space for new life in our churches.
1 This is already going to cause some issues because most members of CoCs understand themselves to be part of “the one true church” which goes all the way back to Jerusalem in 33 AD/CE. Historically, however, this is untenable. I don’t want to get into the theological arguments for this claim here so we’ll stick with the historical record.
2 Also the Christian Churches and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
3 As a side note, this method fit perfectly in a culture so profoundly shaped by Enlightenment ideals of rationality and scientific discovery as early America. This method is not a method that makes sense in all times and in all places.
4 Naturally, this led CoCs to focus primarily on issues of church organization and polity, rather than ethics, systematic theology, etc. They, therefore, spend the majority of their time in the pastoral epistles rather than the gospels, for instance.
5 Importantly, this is also different from those who approach scripture as a “how-to” manual for life, like many prosperity preachers do. Or, as a piece of modern history or science, as many creationists do. Scripture is primarily theology, it is about God, and everything in it points to theological truths before anything else. It should not be judged according to its historical accuracy, scientific acumen, or practicality in achieving wealth. It should be judged according to the truthfulness of its witness to God’s character and the relationship between God and creation.
6 Why are these examples ignored in the “orthodox” CoC tradition, they ask? This is one example of why the second criterion mentioned above, namely authoritative example, seems like nothing more than cherry-picking. We clearly don’t emulate everything the churches addressed in scripture did. For example, we don’t take the Lord’s Supper as part of a communal meal (or “Love Feast.”)
7 For example, in Luke 10:38-42 Jesus treats Mary as a rabbinic disciple.