Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Monday, July 27, 2009

the foundation to answer the questions... part 1

Context: Last Wednesday, four people from our church represented the debate between Tony and Peggy Campolo over the issue of whether the church should sanction same sex unions. I argued (and believe) Tony's position, which calls gays (see previous post for important definition) in Christ to celibacy and challenges the church to create hospitality, intimacy, support and family for them, while two gay friends argued (and believe) Peggy's position, which favors such unions.

However, we ran out of time to answer the all the questions that ensued, so I'm going to spend some time answering some questions that encapsulate much of what seemed to be left hanging. Because the week is full, I'm going to cast a couple of questions out there that are similar and offer one fuller answer to cover them both. Here are the questions:

How do you believe God views the union of two people of the same gender? Do you believe it is sinful even if monogamous, loving, and committed?

How can we as a church deny the experience of gay and lesbian Christians that feel called by the Holy Spirit to a covenant relationship? What does the church have to lose or gain by blessing same gender unions?

The answers to these questions flow from a prior question, one that wasn't asked on Wednesday night, but which pastors must ask each and every day. That question is: "what is your source of authority, your basis from which you derive your ethic?"

Of course, the simple answer would be "from the Bible of course!" and we might say it with a boldness and certainty that will silence all dissenters, as we deftly appeal to Leviticus, and then Exodus, and the Romans, and then I Corinthians, as a means of declaring: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." You can discover here, why this notion is riddled with problems, but the short answer is that none of us simply read the Bible and apply its precepts in a wooden and literal way. If we did, we'd advocate the execution of all employees who work on Sunday (or perhaps Saturday, depending on your interpretation of the Sabbath - but of course, we don't interpret, we just read and obey). "All right then employees who work on the Sabbath, line up for execution."

Yes, that's both silly and sarcastic. But it's intended to demonstrate that we who declare that the Bible is God's "breathed word" to humanity and as such is our final authority on all matters of faith must still do the hard work of interpretation and application in order to live according to God's heart and revelation in this time and place. There's a "science" to this, called hermeneutics, and pastors/ theologians apply hermeneutic principles to the text to understand both what the text means and how to apply it.

The trouble of course, is that hermeneutics isn't quite as exact a science as, say, the addition and subtraction of whole numbers. There's a wide divergence of rules out there, and while I'll not get into the entire landscape, I'll tell you a few of the ones I use in order to work through ethical issues:

1. I always need to try and discover what the author's intent was when this was delivered to its intended audience. "Who wrote this book of the Bible? When? Why? What were people facing that caused this to be written? Who was the audience?" This is why we go to lengths to work out the context of any given passage. This context will naturally lead another question....

2. Are there precepts and principles that are applied uniquely to the original hearer's time and place? This is a lengthy and challenging discussion, but for now I'll simply say that there are times when I'll come to discover that a principle applied to only a certain time and place, such as when violators of the sabbath were to be executed. They might fine you if you try and open your shop on Sunday in some tiny Austrian village, but they won't kill you! Some precepts don't last. There are other times when it's clear that the precept or principle applies down to this day, such as the covenant made with Noah which, among others things, declares that government is better than anarchy.

3. Is there movement on an issue? This is a fascinating discussion (at least, for Bible geeks like me) because it turns out that there IS movement on a number of issues. Dietary laws were declared here, and then they changed here, and then they changed again here, and then they changed again here, and then they changed again here. The upshot of this is that I'm not about to preach on vegetarianism any time soon using Genesis 1:29 since that is "soooo yesterday." There's movement too on some other issues, which I'll cover tomorrow, even as I address the central question of this conversation, namely whether or not there's movement on the issue of homosexuality.

4. What has the church said? When interpretations get challenging, as they do, it's important to remember that we're presently holding the torch for one short leg of a long race that has been faithfully run by millions before us, some of whom paid for the preservation of truth with their blood. For this reason, "historical orthodoxy" matters a great deal to me. You probably realize that I'm not at all implying that there's never a time to stand up to "mother church". Indeed, a quick survey of church history's landscape indicates that we got it wrong a lot of the time. I'd suggest, though, that just as there's a real danger in blindly following an ignorant church as it sanctions slavery, and crusades, and the notion that the sun rotates around the earth, there's an equal (and in our age, perhaps greater) danger of dismissing 2000 years of church ethics because of something Freud said, or because some new study has come along. Yes, there are times to overturn, and those who resist any movement at all imply that the bride of Christ is already perfect, a notion unsupported by scripture. However, changing an ethical stance shouldn't be done lightly, and I happen to be under the conviction that in most cases, it shouldn't be done alone either. So there you have it; some principles to guide the answers to the questions. Unfortunately it's 10:30 and I need to do some other e-mails and reading before sleep wins out, so the next post will bring these principles to bear on the Scriptures that I use to answer the two questions.


At 28/7/09 09:04, Blogger Kevin said...

I've found that I can no longer expect guidance from scripture without the movement of the Holy Spirit inside me, and I hope that the Spirit is another means by which you understand scripture. For, much as with Ezekiel as he stood before a valley of dry bones, I can look into scripture and create order; I can conjure a context for every narrative and superimpose my own experience onto the words of scripture, and even come up with theological insights that are quite compelling. However, no matter how orderly I may arrange the bones, no matter how intricately I lay them together, unless the Spirit of God breathes over them and animates them, they will only ever be dry, lifeless bones. How do you propose that we approach a question both systematically and spiritually? If we are all moved differently by the Spirit, then the creation of theological systems would be rather difficult, if said systems are that for which we seek.

At 28/7/09 09:20, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

Your critique and question are both wonderful Kevin, and well taken. We make a mistake when we try to approach the Bible like a legal code, gleaning precepts with our mind, while ignoring the promptings of the spirit. However, I'd simply ADD the spirit to the list, recognizing, as I pray every week before preaching, that it is ultimately the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit which, alone, will guide us into all truth.


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