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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Who is Changing Whom?

You can find an essay by The Rev. Warner White, a retired Episcopalian minister, that addresses the problem of the contradiction we find between biblical commands and church practices. He notes that God commanded His people "You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you." (Deut 4:2) He goes on to say, "The Bible is full of commands we don't even know, much less keep!" Coming from an Episcopalian minister, this actually sounds encouraging. Don't worry. It turns out that the essay was written in defense of the ordination of Gene Robinson as a homosexual Episcopalian bishop.

How does this work? I ask not because of the Reverend Warner White or even his topic, but because we do the same thing. Perhaps we can see in what he says an answer to our own dilemma. White points out that wives are no longer subject to their husbands even though the Bible clearly commands it and that we've largely embraced divorce and remarriage even though the Scriptures clearly forbid it. Why? He points to the defense of slavery by the South in the 19th century and affirms "There's a strong biblical case for slavery. Yet we universally condemn it." How can this be?

He starts with the Old Testament. That one is easy. The Mosaic Law was given to the theocracy of Israel. Just like the laws of Canada do not apply to the United States, the laws of Israel don't apply to Gentile Christians. This is evident in Scripture. After Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19) and told the Pharisees that "the Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27), and Peter got a wake up call from God about whom God accepts (Acts 10), the New Testament Church recognized that the laws of cleanness and sacrifice were not applicable to Gentiles (Acts 15:29). Even in that, they required "that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols" while Paul later said, "What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No." (1 Cor 10:19-20) He went on to tell them to "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience." (1 Cor 10:25) Thus, to not knowingly eat food sacrificed to idols, but that it's okay if you don't know.

The point, then, is that biblical injunctions change ... biblically. So far, so good. If God's Word changes (in some sense) God's Word, that's fine. But ... if cleanness rules (Old Testament) and "eating food sacrificed to idols" (New Testament) rules change, why not rules on divorce, women submitting, or biblical statements on homosexual behavior? We've certainly seen changes in all that. How does that work?

Mr. White hands that task to the Church. He does so, first, by requiring that it not be a simple dismissal. It must be a "reinterpretation". And it must not be "in the hands of individuals bent on forcing their own meaning onto the text." Both, I think, are true. "We don't like that 'women submit' thing, so we'll say it doesn't count anymore." That's popular, but it doesn't work. It must be from Scripture. So while the South defended slavery as biblical, we see their defense as unbiblical -- reinterpretation. To be clear, I'm not on board with his "the Church gets to reinterpret Scripture" idea fully, but I agree that it must be Scripture rather than dismissal or individual preference.

So how does he say the Church gets to reinterpret Scripture? His answer is "Vision". "Christians looked at slavery," he says by way of example, "and could not reconcile it with that vision of Christian life." He carries that out to other changes. "We see our daughters have restricted opportunities because of their gender, and we become supporters of women's rights. We see our friends and relatives get divorced and then be treated by us, the Church, in narrow-minded ways." Vision. On divorce, the Reverend White says, "My change of mind was essentially a matter of vision and feeling. Following the rules of the Church at that time made me feel mean and narrow."

Does anyone see a problem with this? When did it become necessary to change our understanding of God's Word based on how it makes us feel? The problem begins here. It is made worse (for those looking for a new vocabulary word, try "exacerbated") when he assures us, "I don't look to the Bible for rules." I've heard that before. He says, "Jesus was not a rule-giver. Moses handed down rules. Mohammed handed down rules. But Jesus did not." What a fascinating perspective! I think it was Jesus who said (for instance), "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt 5:16) That sounds a lot like a command. I'm fairly certain it was Jesus who said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35) I think, since it has the phrase "a new commandment I give to you" it is definitely a rule. I'm positive it was Jesus who said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me." (which makes Him a rule-giver) "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matt 28:18-20) I don't know. I think it is abundantly clear that Jesus did indeed give rules. (In fact, White admits "The only exception I can think of is his prohibition of divorce and remarriage" which White believes is no longer in effect ... because it made him feel bad, so it must not be for our time.)

Having tripped up already, White goes on to explain why they've reinterpreted the abundantly clear statements on the sin of homosexual behavior. He says that the Leviticus passages are out because we're not going to put them to death like it says we must. He dismisses the 1 Cor 6:9-10 and 1 Tim 1:9-10 references because he considers the references to be unclear. "It's a matter for scholarly debate." (Nice dodge.) He leaves the last New Testament reference (Rom 1:26-27) open for discussion. Does this apply to all people at all times, or was it local, for a particular time and a particular people? Then this key admission: "Only after we have had experience throughout the Church with committed homosexual couples will we be able to give this text an authoritative interpretation."

There we have it. There's what I've been talking about. We are required to know God through His self-revelation, His Word. We are supposed to not be conformed to the world, but transformed by His Word (Rom 12:2). It is indeed important to read the Bible for all it's worth, to know what it says, to compare Scripture with Scripture to get the whole counsel of God. And we will certainly be constantly reforming our understanding by way of being transformed. But when our standard of truth becomes "how I feel" and "experience" rather than the clear Word of God, we can be absolutely certain that we will not end up in the truth. We will end up conformed to the world. Scripture reinterpreted? Sure, but that would be reinterpreting it through our own feelings and experience, not from the Word itself with the enlightenment of the Spirit. So beware of false prophets bearing gifts. When we reinterpret God and His Word on the basis of our personal feelings and experience, we are simply making Him in our image. And that's not God.

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