What Is Your Authority?

Sunday night at Happy Hour we had our first full-blown, nearly fully-inclusive theological discussion.  What began as questions from one young man about our denominational practice regarding ordaining women (we don’t) erupted into a much larger discussion with a great deal of heated emotions.  I was struck by numerous things in this encounter.

Firstly, I was amazed at the unanimity of rejection of or concern about our denomination’s stance in this regard, and my personal support of it.  I know that many of the folks at Happy Hour come from different denominational backgrounds but I don’t know the details.  There was really only one person joining my defense of this practice, and he’s relatively new to the faith in some regards.  All the others, most of whom I suspect would classify themselves as strong Christians, and nearly all of whom are recently graduated from a prestigious private Christian university, were uniformly opposed to the non-ordination of women despite it being the near-universal norm of Christian practice up until the late 20th century.  It’s interesting that they could so easily dismiss a nearly universal practice that has endured for almost two millenia, that they were so completely certain that the viewpoints that have evolved in the last 60 years in some quarters of Christianity and more particularly in secular culture must be correct!

I attempted to distinguish between equality as culture and feminism have defined it (functionally, based on what women and men do) and how Scripture defines it (as a matter of who we are in the fact that we are created by God – an existential equality separate and prior to whatever it is we happen to do).  But this argument was mostly rejected – functional equality was definitely the preferred or assumed correct way of defining equality.

Secondly, I was surprised at the vocalization of personal experience as the ultimate arbitrator of theological belief and practice.  The discussion was far less about what the Bible says on the topic and far more related to the emotional assertions of people that regardless of what the Bible says, personal experience somehow demands the ordination of women as part and parcel with women’s equality.  Another young man talked about his reading of Scripture as important, but inasmuch as it was validated by his personal experiences and which, he intimated, could be actually superseded by those experiences.

I articulated that Scripture is my personal, final authority and arbitrator of reality.  Scripture is what should norm and condition and interpret my personal experience, not the other way around.  This led to some inquiry later on as to how I could be certain of Scripture’s authority.  Why would I trust this book so completely?  On what basis could I be certain of divine inspiration?  Others seemed to find it difficult to believe that I could believe that the Bible should function so completely and authoritatively.  Obviously, I’m sinful and don’t perfectly conform to what Scripture says.  But to the best of my ability, I trust what Scripture says and trust that when there is a conflict between what I want and what Scripture tells me, Scripture is right even if I disobey it.

Others wanted to know how I would personally apply this theology to my family and my daughter.  Would I tell her that she couldn’t be ordained because she was a girl, while I could encourage my boys to be ordained if they so desired?  There seemed to be the assumption that whatever I held to be true personally would change if it impacted my daughter.  My response was that if she expressed such a desire to me I would want to sit down with her to find out why, and then to talk about what the Bible has to say on this matter.  I would want to engage not just the views of my denomination and historic Christianity as a whole, but also the more recent views and exegesis of the pertinent passages (1 Timothy 2:10-15).  I’m aware that there are some compelling arguments to treat Paul’s words here as we treat his admonishments about women wearing hats to church in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.  We’d talk through this together.

At the end of the day if my daughter was still convinced that the Holy Spirit was calling her to the pastoral ministry, and if she had a defensible way of dealing with the Scripture passages that have traditionally been interpreted as forbidding this, my response would not be to try and change my denomination’s stance on the issue!  Rather, I would encourage her to consider ordination through an alternate polity where women are permitted to be pastors.  It seemed genuinely surprising to some of the folks last night that I would not change my view on the matter or attempt to try and change my polity’s view on the matter just because it was my daughter who was personally involved.

One of the participants talked about the Church’s duties to improve and correct and right the wrongs with the world in anticipation of our Lord’s return.  She had great difficulty with the concept that Christ would return and everything would instantly change, and seemed far more comfortable with the idea of gradual improvement and sanctification so that when Christ returned, at least some of the change would already be accomplished.  She was insistent that it was the Church’s duty to lead the charge towards this.  Slavery was brought up as an example.  And she threatened that there were more than a few people who would be insulted and affronted by Paul’s words in Colossians or Philemon and elsewhere because he doesn’t outright condemn slavery and call for Christians to abolish it.

I know that there are Christians who have been and are offended by that.  Which was the point, I argued.  What God is after is not the transformation of our social units, but of our hearts.  I asked her to show me the passages where the Church is called to be the agent of social change.  This brought up an objection from someone else as to whether or not this was a fair use of Scripture.  Should Scripture be cited as the ultimate authority or not?  And even if it should, can it even be done because some people are prone to proof-texting and taking things out of context to support their positions?

She was aghast and at a loss at my request, as were others.  What did I mean, show them the Biblical passages?  I quickly offered that I might not be thinking clearly at the moment and would be happy to be proved wrong, but that the passages I could think of regarding moral behavior and sanctification are all aimed at the individual Christian or the Church – not at society or culture as a whole.  We are called to be transformed individually, which will obviously have an effect on the Church as a whole and then on culture and society around us.  But the idea that the Church should collude with culture or society on certain agendas on the basis that the Bible calls us to personal sanctification is a very large and dangerous leap.  We move from what the Bible says to ideas and assertions that are inspired by Scripture.  And whenever we move from what Scripture actually says to our ideas about what that ought to mean, we’re on very dangerous footing.

She left the conversation and our house shortly after this exchange.

I hope and pray she comes back next Sunday or before then with a list of Scripture verses.  I pray that she grapples with what I asked and said, and either comes back to correct me (which I will graciously and humbly accept), or begins to question some of the teachings she’s received.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t struggle for what is right.  But first and foremost – Biblically speaking – this is an matter of personal internal and external struggle.  I am called to change how I act and think and speak.  I am not called to change how others act or think or speak unless I can do so in love and unless they are professed followers of Christ as well that I am in relationship with (members of my congregation, for instance).

Yes, there are various exegetical dealings with Scripture, in which case a fair level of humility is required in these discussions.  To assume that you must be correct and that any question of your interpretation or application is erroneous is a dangerous state of mind, but it was a very common state of mind last night.

This is what I hoped would develop.  I just wasn’t expecting it at the end of a long day, and I wasn’t expecting it to be so emotionally charged.  But I want our gatherings to be a place where we can grapple with hard issues, where we can be challenged in our thinking and in our beliefs so that we are together better and stronger and more grounded in the faith.

But it isn’t necessarily a smooth process, I guess.

In the meantime, it shows me the glaring need for continued dialogue and teaching in the Church.  One gentlemen last night suggested at one point that we were too much the heirs of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in that we too heavily favor reason over emotion and experience.  But as I pointed out, that wasn’t the case in the discussion.  The discussion heavily and almost completely favored experience and emotion over an actual intellectual, philosophical, theological discourse!  This is what has happened since the mid-20th century, the moving away from rational discourse more and more towards emotion and experience as the authorities in our lives.

What this results in then is the increasing difficulty of talking with people and understanding people who disagree with us.  I expressed my disappointment with their school that after four years of very expensive and undoubtedly very high-quality education, a basic discussion could result in such anger and such emotion.  Not that there isn’t a time and a place for emotions, but that the discussion should move so quickly to that personal, experiential level without an adequate effort at understanding the rational and intellectual positions that each side was coming from.

If personal experience and emotion are the ultimate authority in our lives it truly becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue based on different perspectives.  Christianity has insisted from very early on that the Bible is to be the authority in our lives.  The Holy Spirit may well directly speak to us from time to time, but the only way we can know and trust His voice is by comparing what we hear to what God says in his Word.  At one point a young man sort of joked that this was an idolization of Scripture.  I suppose one might see it that way, but to me it’s a simple matter of what is my authority?  I can say God is, but if what I mean by that is only my personal emotions and experiences of this God, I’m in a very tenuous and unstable position at best.  How can I trust that God is directing me rather than a demon or my subconscious or chemical imbalances?  How can I ever hope to arbitrate between differing ideas about theology or practice if there isn’t an objective external authority to appeal to?  What do we make of 2 Timothy 3:16 and the assertion by St. Paul that all of Scripture is indeed useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness?  Ironic that on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Sola Scriptura appears to be just as opposed by some Christians as it was by then, even Christians who are themselves theological heirs of the Reformation.

Fortunately there was the opportunity to affirm mutual love and respect with almost everyone by the end of the evening.  I think others were a little shocked as well at the level of what had just occurred, but the general consensus is that it was a good thing.

It will be interesting to see what happens this coming Sunday, and who is there for it.

 

 

 

2 Responses to “What Is Your Authority?”

  1. The Argument for Scriptural Authority | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] again Sunday night I heard similar, veiled expressions.  Why trust Scripture so absolutely? How can we know for […]

  2. Planting Seeds | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] And when it’s been months since I’ve had a substantive interaction, and that one was challenging, to say the least, I  begin to […]

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