And how do I know when I am wrong?
Evangelical faith and the Bible
Apartheid and the Word
With the death of Nelson Mandela stories of apartheid South Africa have been retold in all their harrowing detail. Less commented on was how uncomfortable this chapter of history remains for Reformed and Evangelical churches who make particular claim to base their life and values on the teaching of scripture. The disturbing fact about apartheid is that it was a doctrine that claimed biblical warrant. Within a predominantly Christian country it was rigorously applied to a whole society and backed up by highly qualified university faculties of theology, hermeneutical studies and ethics. These were churches faithful prayer, self-examination, breaking of bread and the reading of scripture.
Apartheid means ‘the state of being apart’ (not unlike the word ‘Pharisee’). To a significant degree this became a theological as well as social reality in South Africa. Faith and ethics were founded on the hermeneutics of a closed world.
When this happens ‘scripture simply becomes a mirror reflecting the community’s self-deceptions back to itself disguised as the Word of God. The Reformed Church lost the ability to read Scripture over against itself; it lost the ability to hear the critical prophetic voice of scripture.’ It was no longer able ‘to read Scripture in ways that would challenge and correct its character.’ (B400) A self-validating doctrine held scripture captive.
In his acclaimed book, Imitating Jesus - an inclusive approach to New Testament Ethics, Richard Burridge (B) explores how the Reformed and Evangelical Churches and organisations in post-apartheid South Africa faced up to the reality that their reading and interpretation of scripture had led them to participate in a theological and social system they now knew to be evil. For Burridge their stories stand as a warning ‘to those who wish to use Biblical narratives as a guide for the ethical behaviour today’ (B382) and against searching the Bible for rules or commands to apply to complex contemporary issues. Indeed this ‘may even call this entire approach to the Bible of looking for models for today into question’ (B368).
Now all these churches have expressed deep penitence for this. Some also repented of having repressed ‘dissident’ voices within their own ranks during this period. But these confessions invariably concluded with confident reaffirmations of the centrality of scripture and a renewed resolve to obey and proclaim it more faithfully. ‘The Bible may have been abused in the past to bolster a man-made ideology, but let's get back to what God intended for his people, and that is peace, joy in the spirit of Christ’. ‘We proclaim fearlessly that what we're doing today, we believe, is in line with the word of God and have no doubt that the future will prove us correct’. (B398-9)
Burridge asks how churches caught out in such error can be so confident that their reading of scripture is now ‘correct’? They thought they were ‘in line’ with the word of God before, didn’t they?
Beyond right and wrong
In the present debate on human sexuality a great deal of time is being spent stating and defending positions that various parties believe to be right.
I want to turn the discussion round and ask:
How would we know when we have got it wrong?
It seems to me vital that we have some way of approaching this question. After all, the most sustained opposition to Jesus in the gospels was from a religious group steeped in text and verse but of whom Jesus had to say - ‘You are in error because you know neither the scripture nor the power of God’ (Mk 12.24), and ‘you search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life … Yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (Jn 5.39). Then and now there are ways of being scrupulously ‘biblical’ that lead away from Christ.
But straight away I am framing the issue in the dualistic terms that oversimplify and leave us deadlocked – right vs wrong, good vs bad, biblical vs liberal etc. The question needs framing more carefully. It requires us to take a step back. I need to find a way of watching and listening to myself as I read. Only then can I recognise how I interpreting what I read. This is about becoming aware of the presuppositions, prejudices and assumptions that limit my responses to what I read.
What follows are the personal reflections of someone on the ‘including’ end of the evangelical spectrum (see Pilling p176), seeking to identify the ways in which this question continues to search me out and know me.
The Emotional Journey
I first encountered the evangelical tradition as a young adult in a glorious re-awakening of faith that remains its gift to me. The life that opened up so wonderfully at that time was built upon the pastoral foundation of socially conservative ethics. I still respect this. But within that world homosexuality drew very particular condemnation. It was the sin of sins: an ‘Abomination’. Biblically its condemnation was particularly attached to Romans 1 and to the story of Sodom where it thus gained a name that became a byword in history for all that is considered most evil, disordered and wilfully Godless. Now the Bible has no such league table of sins. Nor would homosexuality would be at the top if it did – attracting so relatively little attention compared to other moral issues. But a highly respected evangelical leader and personal mentor at the time would privately speak of homosexuality as ‘one of the great evils facing the church’ (unaware how often he was speaking to good people who were secretly anguishing over their own, unchosen, sexual orientation). When such plainly unbiblical distortions are claimed as scriptural, something else is going on.
It means that for many in this tradition the subject of same-sex relationships comes charged with powerful emotional responses. At one level this is to be expected. No one comes neutral to this subject. It will always draw us into the stories of our own emotional and sexual development. When a man in his seventies shared on a Christian website the journey he had been on to come to a place where he could begin to accept and relate to gay men and women he was dismissed rather impatiently by some but thanked by others. The deepest challenge for him had not been scripture. It was the struggle with his own gut responses to the whole subject, deeply conditioned through his upbringing within a particular era of social, cultural and religious history.
Revulsion, distress or anxiety are not measures of the rightness of any viewpoint. Still less are signs of biblical fidelity. They may just be telling me I am revolted, anxious and distressed about an issue. And that calls me to attend more carefully to my personal journey into a mature and secure awareness of my own sexual identity and desires. My freedom to read and receive the truth of scripture will depend, in varying measure, on my willingness to make that journey at all.
Pilling and others note the generational feature to this debate. Many of the younger generation of Christians simply don’t understand the fuss at this point (P6). To be sure they face the challenge of a destructively sexualised society. But on this subject I confess to envying their less defended perspective. As a result they may be receptive to understandings and responses previous generations have struggled to be open to.
Note to self: I am part of this journey too. Whatever ‘straight’ means in this context it never means straight-forward!
Self criticism and the Word
‘If the Bible is to be read correctly the first requirement is self-criticism’ (B400). The evangelical tradition has always taken this seriously because it is very serious about sin. It is committed to a continual process of reading, re-examining, repenting, re-interpreting its life according to the Word. Indeed its own understanding of scripture requires it. But the process does not come with guarantees. This was the approach of many South African Christians too.
I must start with self-examination. How defensive or defended am I? How do I cope with criticism? What is my response to being found wrong or making a mistake? How graciously do I receive and take time over viewpoints that challenge my own in ways I cannot simply refute? I will need the help of truthful friends to know the answer to these questions.
Note to self: strength of conviction is no guarantee that I am right. I will live with conviction but hold my ‘certainties’ with respectful suspicion. Others have thought my thoughts before me - and they too knew they were right.
The Word in community
Hermeneutical and biblical studies in post-apartheid South Africa have been stressing the need to hear the voice of the ‘outsider’ or ‘ordinary reader’. All must have a share in the process of biblical interpretation - especially those on the margins and whose lives are most impacted by what is being taught. The reading and interpreting of scripture requires a hospitable spaciousness. And in such discussions ‘the contribution of the Biblical exegete is not to provide “correct answers” of the “Biblical teaching” but to offer the Christian community some expertise and methods to enable them to grapple with the text themselves, while at the same time listening to their ‘ordinary readings’ (B396). We must no longer presume to talk about. It must be talking with. Only a diverse, inclusive community will guard us against self-serving community readings.
This conviction has significantly changed the way I now seek to teach and explore scripture. Wherever I can I invite discussion and shared reflection so that exegesis and personal story weaves in and out of a variety of approaches to the text. The result is as scary is it is exciting. It has certainly challenged my assumptions as to where the authority of the word is to be found in any group. Having prepared my best, as preacher/teacher, I have to surrender control of text and process and my place at the centre, and trust the ‘ordinary reader’.
It is in this context that I think that the extended ‘facilitated discussions’ recommended by the Pilling report remain essential. We cannot under-estimate the extent to which we are still learning to speak and listen to each other.
Note to self: I am/we are always part of a bigger story. Fellowship must always include those who, while sharing my faith, do not necessarily ‘speak my language’ or share my convictions. I need critical friends.
Ethics and the risk of the future
Christian faith is forward looking. It is future oriented. This should shape how we do ethics and suggests an important place for risk, adventure and experiment. But while this has been a mark of evangelical approaches to mission its approach to ethics is instinctively conservative. ‘When ethics is understood as the adjudication of tricky cases of conscience by balancing moral principles, the practice is implicitly socially conservative – since it assumes there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the status quo, only with its anomalies. In contrast, the Christian community lives within a tradition based on a story which in many respects contradicts the assumptions of the contemporary social status quo. How then does the community faithfully live out its story?’ (Sam Wells. My italics)
Craig Uffman, who is quoting Wells, takes this further. ‘The problem is NOT that folks are making wrong choices with respect to homosexuality. Our task is not to defend tradition or a particular ethical conclusion with regard to a proposed act.’ The focus on right or wrong acts confuses what Christian ethics is for. The real issue is not choice but vision, he says. If that is so then ‘our strategy ought not be to engage in continuous battle over whether homoeroticism is rightly defended or condemned or in other questions about right acts, but rather to call the Church to the practices through which virtue is formed, wherein we learn to take the right things for granted. The material cause of right actions is a virtuous community, and so our most fruitful approach in ethics is to focus persistently on the formation of that virtuous community, resisting the temptation to respond at the level of [the] acts [themselves].’
Note to self: Christian ethics is not for reducing to right or wrong choices. It is about primarily about what story I wish to be part of.
My choices will flow from that.
On waiting for the fruit
One of the things that distorts my judgement more than any other is an unwillingness to wait. Jesus addresses this when he commends a test of discernment that cannot be based on prior convictions about permitted or forbidden acts. This is the test of ‘fruitfulness’. ‘By their fruits you shall recognise them … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit’. (Matt 7.16-18). In my essay for the Pilling report I note that ‘since fruit needs time to grow and reveal its quality this must be a longer term strategy for discernment. And as fruit requires tending and care this process requires a trusting, patient and non-anxious inclusion’. (P190)
But can I be sure I recognise good fruit when I see it? I readily presume to judge the fruit or otherwise in the lives of others. What is a far harder task is to discern the fruit of my presence and values for others – my own effect. Is my living, teaching and moral vision enabling a fruitful flourishing among those called to gospel faithfulness and obedience? What is our measure of this? How do I know if I am not simply imposing unsustainable burdens? It has been rightly said that ‘the last thing we discover about ourselves is our effect’.
Pastoral and personal experience makes plain that the evangelical tradition has not been fruitful in communicating the love and life of Christ to LGBT people. All too often the price of welcome has been silence, at a high cost of personal secrecy, concealment and isolation. We have been unable to offer ‘safe places’ from which men and women may explore the issues that shape their deepest desires and relationships. We have required people to bear heavy burdens without offering support. We have silently colluded with the most violent prejudices of the surrounding societies and nations. In this respect we have not been good fruit.
A Christian approach to ethical questions must be centred on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and in-breaking future Kingdom. It will always be asking, ‘What kind of community and events were the outcome of his words and deeds?’ The answer is one marked by unexpected welcome, healing and scandalous inclusion. ‘In seeking to follow Jesus, we are called not merely to obey his ethical ‘strenuous commands’ in the pursuit of holiness but also to imitate his deeds and his words, which call his hearers to merciful and loving acceptance of everyone, including and especially those whom some consider to be sinners, without preconditions.’ (B78)
Note to self: if my faith is to bear fruit, and enable fruitfulness in the lives of others, I need a trusting theology of time and a more biblical commitment to welcome and justice.
Experience and the Word
A tradition that strongly stresses the Bible as the supreme authority for all life and morals will tend to be directive in its style. It therefore looks with suspicion at claims to be guided from experience. In his book The Word of Life - the use of the Bible in Pastoral Care, William Challis challenges this. He quotes James Poling who strikingly defines the task of pastoral theology as ‘being to prevent theology becoming oppressive, denying the truth of people’s experience.’ (C10)
We need to take it seriously when one of the most familiar results of trying to apply biblical texts to contemporary same-sex relationships is that those being referred to simply do not recognise themselves there at all. This is not that. Indeed the very idea is actually offensive. We need to listen to this. Indeed it is this conviction that has been quietly leading many evangelicals to re-examine their understanding of what scripture teaches on this issue.
Of course there is a danger in making my subjective experience the sole judge of what is right or true. But a tradition that stresses total reliance on an absolute external authority is usually more in danger of imposing a position onto the lives and contexts of others, presuming to understand what it has not first drawn near and listened to. That is why Pilling heard concerns expressed not over the different ways in which scripture was read but ‘the harm done to people by some ways of reading it’. (P6:30 my italics)
Note to self: my neighbour’s story must be received as I would receive Christ. It is their personal ‘holy scripture’.
Dead right? – Bible and mission
One thing the Pilling report and the Evangelical tradition have in common is a concern for mission. And in this context, ‘the Church of England's current teaching and practice is deeply off-putting to those outside the church and therefore a serious impediment to mission’. (P6)
It is possible to be a stumbling block for the sake of the gospel and a stumbling block in the way of the gospel. Mission itself is part of the question here? Of what use is ‘being right’ if it simply alienates, scandalises and leaves the watching world unable to hear the gospel at all? What does a person gain if they save their soul but lose the world? (cf Rom 9.3)
Is it possible to be dead right?
This would have been of primary concern to Paul and the New Testament writers. They were firm on the call to distinctiveness of life – ‘live up to your calling … do not live as the pagans live’ (Eph 4.1). But they also knew that this radical new community could simply alienate people who had no way of relating to its values at all. They wanted no unnecessary obstacles placed on people’s paths to faith. This consideration lies behind the otherwise contradictory teachings on relationships between men and women in public worship and households. Where patriarchal headship is (puzzlingly) re-asserted it is best understood as the Christian community working out its calling together in a particular mission context. There is a Godly pragmatism, a missional ethic, about Christian living that remains a priority in the world today. In the early church, ‘for the sake of the Lord’ (a persistent theme in Ephesians) accepted certain constraints on its behaviour so as to sustain an environment of welcome and meeting through which outsiders could draw near to Christ.
The scandal of the first Christian church before the watching world was that it was radically including in its expression of human relationships. The irony is that today the scandal of the church in the Western world is reversed. Resistance to the full inclusion of women alongside men in the church leadership, belief in male headship over women and strong opposition to the acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships is experienced as an excluding sexual ethic. To many in our society it is offensive, actually incomprehensible and experienced as a serious obstruction to the proclamation of the gospel. ‘For many, we make the good news into bad news!’ (David Gillett).
Note to self: may the only stumbling block I place in the path of others be the one I cannot avoid because I am a follower of Christ.
Trusting the trajectory of the Word.
New Testament is not a systematic document of belief and practice. It is a testament of theology, faith and living in progress. This is the background to my comment in my essay for the Pilling report. ‘Where the Bible does not directly address the context of any contemporary social debate we must seek what may be called the ‘trajectory of scripture’. (P191)
The primary authority of the Bible was a central theme in the Reformation. Sola Scriptura. There are those who can only hear the call for acceptance of same-sex relationships as a final abandoning of this doctrine. It is not. Rather there is a necessary revisiting of how scripture is read for contemporary life and dilemmas. It is a doctrine that needs reforming – which is, after all, a thoroughly biblical idea.
The challenge remains central to the emerging life of the Reformed and Evangelical churches in South Africa. Evangelical theologian and historian Mark Noll also finds it present in earlier history among the conservative Southern Churches after the Civil War. He observes that what made the hermeneutical transition to racial integration so difficult for them was that a whole doctrine of the Bible was at stake – not simply its interpretation for one issue.
Bishop David Gillett, a respected evangelical leader and former principal of Trinity College, Bristol, publically supports same-sex relationships on the basis of scripture. He sees the present challenge as the faithful continuation of a hermeneutical trajectory rather than the dismantling of a doctrine that some fear. Stressing the continued centrality of scripture in his life and ministry he writes, ‘For me this process of interpretation has led to significant changes in belief and attitude, most clearly in five main areas -
Creation and Evolution
Divorce and remarriage
Women in Leadership
Same-sex attraction and partnerships.
For me, as for many others, this process is so closely linked throughout that it is important to look at the last one as part of a continuous hermeneutical development. In each area we have seen significant changes in what Christians and the Church have accepted as “right in God’s eyes”. It is perhaps inevitable that the one through which we are living now (namely the issue of same sex-relationships) is seen to be the greatest change and challenge, but some of the previous ones were as radical in their time, if not more so.’
The issue we face in this discussion is not whether or not we are being biblical, yes or no. It is the way we read the bible in the first place, the questions we need to ask of it today and the hermeneutical process required if are to faithfully found our lives upon it. And in the divisiveness of the present issue there are also important questions as to how we engage in corporate discernment together in this process and what grounds we use for exercising that discernment.
Note to self: Now I see dimly …. (1Cor12.13)
The joy of being wrong!
In the ancient Easter liturgy of the Church the cantor chants the story of the world. It begins with creation and moves quickly to the sin of Adam and its tragic consequence. Verse after verse tells of the awfulness of sin and of the darkness of this world and its rebellion. Then, rising steadily in pitch, the liturgy tells of the coming of Christ, the second Adam. What the first Adam lost, the second of Adam wins back. The liturgy builds up to a climax until the sin of Adam is eclipsed by the overwhelming glory of what has been won by Christ and his cross. And now comes the astonishing line, ‘Oh happy fault! - that won for us so great salvation’.
These are very challenging times and complex issues. The wisdom we need for these days will be hard won. But the transforming gift of the gospel is never found in the security of being right. It is actually revealed in the joy of being wrong. In fact it is essential that we are wrong! Our narrow vision, our tribal agendas, our lesser securities, our limited understandings, must be constantly broken open by divine grace.
In one of the most memorable tributes to Nelson Mandela, Rowan Williams said, ‘Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.’
That seems to me to exactly express the calling of the church and all who minister within it.
There is another story being told. One that is yet to be fully revealed. It is always breaking through. And we can trust it with our lives.
O happy fault!
Jesus is Lord!
William Challis The Word of Life - the use of the Bible is Pastoral Care Harper, 1997.
Richard Burridge Imitating Jesus – an inclusive approach to New Testament Ethics Eerdmans, 2007 (B)
Mark Noll The Civil War as a theological crisis. 2006 Univ. of N Carolina Press
Report of House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality CHP 2013. Includes my essay Evangelicals, Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships - an ‘Including Evangelical’ perspective. Appendix 4