In our previous post I discussed some of the issues and potentials problems that arise when one claim’s “biblical authority.” Besides the fact that it is a difficult case to make that God ended all revelation once the canon was put together and we had what we know to be the Bible, there are a few other issues that riddle Christians when they claim authority found in Scripture.
But before we summarize that we should note the problems with claiming “authority” in the first place. To claim any sort of authority based on so-called fact is very much a phenomenon of Modernity/Enlightenment thinking. Before Modernity there was a centralized notion of truth because humanity had little to no means of communication across borders. This reduced contrary thinking in a society. Birds of a feather naturally flock together. The Enlightenment was heavily fueled by two things, to name just a couple. First, the invention of the printing press allowed fact and belief to be filtered across societal lines often for the first time. There grew an emphasis on the written word and, as a result, fact could be located through enough research. Mass amounts of fact was distributed and people could be infiltrated with a wide, new array of knowledge. Secondly, the scientific method offered a proven way to test theories and create fact based in science, research and observation. This evolved over time and allowed humanity not only to measure and weight what could be seen, but also to predict would was to come. All of this created a world where beliefs and truth first were found through the written word and, second, proven as truth through controlled and measured methods of analysis.
Problems arose when this neat and orderly method began to dissolve. I won’t speculate on this blog as to when this happened—many scholars more learned than I am have debated this for many years. The end result is that we now live in a world where diversity and complexity are the norm and where neither can be adequately measured like we once thought we could do. This often doesn’t stop us from attempting to hold onto Modernist notions of universality in truth and fact as the highest form of law. But this is ever so quickly giving way to a world where diversity of opinion outweighs the pursuit of so-called fact.
I say all of this to say something very simple and yet very weighty. Claims of authority are always rooted in an attempt to claim power. When we attempt to claim biblical authority we are, in essence, attempting to exert power over a contrary opinion or even a person who would hold a contrary opinion to that which we read in Scripture. The pursuit of knowledge, in its purest essence, is and has always been a pursuit of power. And claims of authority based in so-called fact and knowledge are always an attempt to levy power, most often over against another.
More often than not, claims of biblical authority depend on a particular reading of the Bible. As Derrida reminds us, “there is nothing beyond the text,” meaning context is always key when understanding claims of belief and truth.
For me, this doesn’t reduce any of the weight of Scripture but, instead, adds weight to it. Not only understanding the context we live in, but also that of the biblical world, we can come closer to glimpsing the mysterious truth found in the pages of Scripture. We can no long be satisfied with a surface-level reading of the Bible. We must trudge through the deep waters of mystery where behind every question we find not answers, but more questions. This is what it means to faithfully read the text. And this also prevents us from using the text to make claims of truth larger than we should.
There is great truth found within the fabric of the biblical text. There is truth that can change the lives of those who dare to read and hear such words. But this truth cannot be contained in pithy formulas or simplistic systems of understanding. It’s much too great for that. At best, we read and share the reading in community. We speak to what it means for each of individually and we hear what it means for our fellow sojourners. And we don’t put it down or stop the conversations until it changes us, over and over and over again. On the one hand, I suppose we could say that we need to greatly limit the so-called authority we attest to the Bible to avoid narrow readings and simplistic understandings of faith. On the other hand, if we dare to do this, we will open a world of mystery and revelation and catch a glimpse of the divine we might never have imagined. Such an adventure surely will “transform us into the same image [of God] from one degree of glory to another.”
Does this limit how you read Scripture? Does it expand your reading of the Bible? Is such a reading of the biblical text even possible?
The question of authority has riddled Christianity for centuries. Whose word carries ultimate authority in matters of faith? Whose writings, thoughts, or critiques grant our claims of faith such solid authority? And what happens when someone else’s claim of authority runs counter to ours?
The truth is, we don’t really care about the first two questions nearly as much as we do the third. In our modern Western context, individuals are, for the most part, free to believe as they want to believe, according to whatever sources they choose to believe in, and by whatever authority they choose to claim. That is, until those choices run up against another’s choice of belief grounded in a different authority. In the end, we may “agree to disagree” with those outside of our respective belief systems, but what happens when groups or individuals who subscribe to the Bible disagree on beliefs and what passages inform those beliefs? Disputes will arise. Debates will ensue. Questions are asked and accusations are made. All of this leads us to ask what grants the biblical texts authority in how they inform our faith journey?
Authority is what guides our decision-making process on matters of faith. There are issues facing the church, albeit too numerous to name, and biblical texts claiming authority are being trotted out with each one. Scripture is meant to be the guiding force that inspires and informs our faith. On “hot-button issues” it becomes the sticking point that leads to creating dividing lines across the issues. In other words, I wonder if when we debate these issues we aren’t really debating how to read the Bible? If someone doesn’t read the Bible the way I do, they must be wrong because I work under the basic premise that my reading of Scripture is essentially right. Therefore, if you’re not with me, then you’re against me. And so the debates ensue.
This debate over the authority of the Bible is not a new thing at all, in fact we can go back as far as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) for an early articulation of strict biblical authority. The assumption was that God spoke and acted completely in the biblical account–there were no further revelations. In defense of this Calvinist doctrine, the Reformation and Enlightenment had led many to claim authority based on new revelation in many areas, even those outside of the theological arena. Much of the reason why this Confession of Faith was constructed was to offer a clear, concise understanding of the nature of God and the authority of Scripture.
Okay, I think we’ve had enough of a history lesson. So what does this mean for us today?
After 350 years, the Westminster Confession is still alive and well. Camps form around the various ways we read the Bible and dividing lines establish who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Many who subscribe to the classical Liberal Protestant reading of Scripture will essentially argue that passages on grace and love trump those on law. Many will even claim extra authority on the so-called “red letter” passages (those are the words of Jesus in case your Bible isn’t color coded). Others who lean more towards the more Evangelical reading of the Bible will often have a great emphasis on the inerrancy of the words found in the Bible–including those passages on laws and ethics. This is essentially what informs ideas on women in leadership in the church and homosexuality to name just a couple of issues debated.
There is a major risk we run no matter how we read the Bible. We risk being guilty of Bibliolatry, which is essentially idolatry.
The problem with both readings is that it leaves no room for continuing revelation. I recently had a conversation with a friend where I mentioned this idea of “continuing revelation.” He quickly informed me that “continuing revelation” simply means justifying that “anything goes.” I disagree. What sort of living vitality does the Bible hold if it simply serves as a rule book or encyclopedia of faith? What sort of transforming power do those words have if they have no living power? And where is the note that God was finished revealing God’s self once the canon was established?
What does the Bible mean for you? What experience do you have with people debating current issues using the Bible as authority for their opinions?
In Part 2, we will discuss what giving something the label “authority” means–maybe not something we’re willing to admit.
As you may know by now, Oprah ended her run of daytime programming last week after 25 years on the air. But Oprah was (and is) so much bigger than merely an afternoon TV show. She’s become her own brand—a force of nature, if you will. Her endorsement can make or break the career of potential entrepreneurs.
The city of Macon has a special love for Oprah and she came here a few years back to film on of her “Favorite Things” episode. As a newer resident of Macon, it took about two weeks before someone shared the “Oprah in Macon” story with me.
After all of the build up from weeks of celebration, Oprah’s final episode was a simple and unique hodge-podge of thoughts similar to what those in academic communities know as “Last Words”—where a retiring professor will share what they’ve learned during their career.
As she shared some of the wisdom learned throughout the years, Oprah confessed that she could not have accomplished anything over the last 25 years without God. She gave credit to God in saying, “because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” She would go on to share more of her faith woven within a beautifully honest and human backdrop of love rooted in the human experience. When it came time, she ended her show, she earnestly proclaimed, “To God be the glory.”
And yet you don’t have to go far to hear from those of us who would be skeptical of the validity of Oprah’s faith. Why is that?
There have been certain authors and religious personalities who have made a good living selling books and sharing thoughts using Oprah as the embodiment of the so-called “secular spirituality” that seems to pervade the American religious experience. Many of these use Oprah as the counter to what a good, solid “Christian America” looks like. And that’s very sad.
But please hear me, I don’t think Oprah is a saint by any stretch of the imagination. She would be the first to admit that. However she has helped us see for the last 25 years that one can be both a follower of Jesus and a lover of all things beautifully human. In her final episode she demonstrated that the Christian faith doesn’t have to begin by opposing those outside of the faith, but rather it begins by including all of God’s people in love and acceptance as the very expression of our faith.
I have lots of admiration for Oprah. She’s a smart businesswoman who knew she couldn’t preach day in and day out if she wanted to be as big of a success as she is. But I think she also knows deep down that God loves all people no matter what. And she showed us that God’s grace is demonstrated best when we resist beating people over the heads with narrow expressions of faith. It’s something all Christians should try from time to time.
Oprah reminds us that we can “love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” but we also have to “love our neighbor as ourselves” even when that neighbor is not Christian or not even like us at all. God’s love is very real tangible. It’s a message all people probably need to hear that now more than ever.
In Good Company
by Kerry Greenhill
A sermon preached at Highlands UMC, Denver, April 11, 2010.
The lilies have been taken out of the sanctuary, the chocolate eggs have all been eaten (more or less), we are moving on to our next spring projects, whether that is spring cleaning or planting a garden or planning a summer vacation.
Maybe Easter was everything you hoped it would be; maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you were disappointed somehow with Easter—with the service, with the meal you prepared or ate, with the company you shared—or maybe it was Monday morning that was the letdown.
Maybe Easter’s not a big deal for you, but the Monday after Christmas, or Halloween, or 4th of July is your saddest day of the year.
Here is a story for you.
Two of the followers of Jesus were heading home from the big Passover celebration in Jerusalem. These weren’t members of the 12 closest disciples,
and we don’t know much about them: Cleopas’ unnamed companion may well have been his wife.
Talk about a letdown, a complete reversal of expectations.
Not because it was an anticlimax, but because this movement they’d been part of, promoting the kingdom of God as something radically different from the kingdom of Caesar, had culminated in what could only be described as a tragedy. Their big holiday had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
And so they were talking together as they walked the seven miles home. Discussing the events, processing what it might all mean. Puzzling it over, trying to make the pieces fit together in some way that made sense to them. A stranger comes near them on the road and walks with them.
This is a classic example of dramatic irony, when the reader or audience knows something that the characters in the story don’t know yet. So we know it’s Jesus,
but the poor, depressed, unsuspecting travelers are oblivious.
So when he asks them what they’re discussing, and Cleopas replies, “You must be the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what went down this week!” we all have a good chuckle at Cleopas’ expense.
But sometimes a question isn’t so much a request for information as an opportunity to tell a story. Like a therapist or a 3-year-old, Jesus keeps asking until they overcome the inertia of their grief enough to tell him what they think they know.
They have been witnesses to some of the events, probably to the crowd’s rejection of Jesus and his crucifixion; and heard about others second- or third-hand. But the story they know ends in a strange and unresolved way. None of it makes sense to them.
They still don’t recognize Jesus, even when he switches from therapist mode (can’t you just imagine him saying, “tell me more about that?”?) to a more familiar form of expression: “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” This chiding seems almost a term of endearment with Jesus; at least, it was how he frequently spoke with his friends and followers!
But no, still “their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” even as he puts their partial story in the context of a greater story, a familiar story of God’s saving work in the world as understood and told by the prophets of Israel.
They reach their destination, and Jesus walks ahead as if he’s going on. (We might well ask, “Where would he go if the two didn’t invite him in?” but that’s a sermon for another day!) And as is the custom of their culture, the two travelers must urge him strongly, not just invite him once halfheartedly, but really insist that he come in and stay with them since he won’t get much farther before nightfall.
In the midst of their meal, likely in the travelers’ own home, Jesus as guest becomes the host: he takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them.
Something he had previously done a time or two with those who followed him, not only at that final Passover meal, but in feeding the 5,000 as well.
And they recognize him, at last.
Not in the appearance of his face or body. Not in his greater understanding of the scriptures or his ability to teach and explain to them the meaning of all that has been troubling them. Not because of any sense of glory or the miraculous.
But in the familiar actions, the holy mundane of mealtime ritual, their eyes are opened and they know their friend and leader.
Jesus has been their companion on the journey and they didn’t even realize it.
Do you know the origin of the word companion, the same roots as the word company? From the Latin, com- means with, and panis means bread, or food. Our companions are literally the ones who break bread with us.
During the year I spent in Venezuela after college, I learned that the Spanish word, “acompañar” (to accompany), is more than just going somewhere with someone. It is an important part of the work for peace and justice and human rights; it means to walk alongside those of different backgrounds, those who have been marginalized or victimized, those who need to know they are not alone. It means to stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to be present for them, to witness their lives and to hear and tell their stories to those in power.
To walk alongside, to break bread together, to share in telling the stories of our lives: these are powerful things.
The two disciples experience Jesus in their midst, and they are compelled to jump up and walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem that same night to share their story with those gathered there.
It is not enough to meet the risen Christ; we experience resurrection when we bear witness, share testimony, tell the story of what has happened in our lives so that we can try to better understand it together.
And in the telling, we may experience Jesus anew. The very next line is, “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them,
‘Peace be with you’”!
Humans are social animals. We crave connection, belonging, community, in whatever form it is available.
Consider Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, LinkedIn, Second Life, and dozens of other sites that promote virtual connections with people of similar interests, backgrounds, fantasies, or actual knowledge of each other! Social networking is the definition of Web 2.0, and frankly, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that we are using every technology available to us to connect with others and to tell our stories in both new and familiar ways.
Contrast the behavior of these two followers of Jesus, or that of the 11 gathered in Jerusalem, with the solitariness of Judas in his decision to betray Jesus. Now, I’m not trying to knock solitude – I’m an introvert, I can’t live without it – but I don’t think it’s sufficient for the life of faith.
When John Wesley, founder of Methodism, said, “There is no holiness but social holiness,” he wasn’t mainly talking about the work that we do to improve society
so much as he was saying that we can’t be faithful followers of Christ on our own.
Growth in faith requires companionship: the encouragement, challenge, accountability, and love that can be found only by being in relationship with others seeking to live out this mystery of faith.
There is a beautiful hymn called “The Servant Song” in The Faith We Sing that describes what it means to be Christian community together. I first learned the hymn as a child when I lived with my family in Australia. In the hymnal there, verse 2 is just slightly different. It reads: “We are pilgrims on a journey, and companions on the road.”
For me, that is the heart of the Church, this crazy, beautiful, flawed, inspiring
community of sinners and saints. We need companions—bread-fellows—to walk with us on the journey and to share in our stories and our storytelling.
Community is the circle of those who bear witness to our lives and to God’s life and story lived out among us.
In telling our stories, sometimes over and over, we figure out or remember who we are, whose we are, and what part we play in the greater story of God’s creative, redemptive, and transformative work in the world.
We come together as the Church because this is how we meet Jesus:
in the company of friends and strangers,
in opening the scriptures to find new meanings,
in offering and receiving hospitality,
in breaking bread together,
in telling our stories,
and hearing the stories of others.
May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
Rev. Kerry Greenhill is an ordained Deacon serving as Associate Pastor at Highlands United Methodist Church in Denver, and as Project Coordinator for Family Voices Colorado, a health care advocacy organization. She lives with her husband and two cats, and when she is not actively pursuing her passion for God’s kin’dom of love, justice, compassion, and peace, she makes time for reading, crafts, and gardening. She can be found on Twitter at twitter.com/revpeacegirl, and blogs sporadically at liberalchurchnerd.blogspot.com.
The story goes like this: in the middle of a supercharged political-theological atmosphere, a bishop dies. The entire city, divided right down the middle, goes to the cathedral to elect a new one. The local governor was a Christian, but he went to the site more concerned to prevent rioting than to vote. Known for his fair-mindedness, he appealed to both sides for peace and order. But in the middle of his speech, he was interrupted by cries of “Ambrose, bishop! Ambrose for bishop!” And he was elected by the entire assembly to the episcopacy.
Though it might sound as if this could happen in Europe or Latin America today, the city was actually Milan in 374 AD.
Ambrose went on to be one of the most renowned bishops of antiquity, renowned for his intellectual tenacity. By virtue of his own personal character as well as relationships forged during his secular political career, he refused to admit Emperor Theodosius to a Eucharist after a massacre of 7000 soldiers. He personally lived a life of abundant generosity, and – oh, by the way – mentored a young, wayward scholar to return to faith named Augustine. Yes, that Augustine.
Unfortunately, as Fred Schmidt has astutely observed, it’s unlikely that such a figure would be elected as a bishop today, in The United Methodist Church or many others. Why? Schmidt hits us between the eyes: “we have created an ecclesial climate in which it is hard to elect bishops who have the gifts of an Augustine and nearly impossible for them to live like Augustine—even if they do possess those gifts and get elected.” I would add Ambrose, Hugh of Lincoln, and many more to a list of courageous and formidable ecclesiastical leaders that need emulation today.
I say this without ever having been to a UMC Jurisdictional Conference where bishops are elected; but from what I have heard there isn’t anything that marks them as particularly theological or spiritual processes. There may be individual issues that are addressed from a uniquely ecclesiastical point of view, or individual candidates or delegates may harbor those points of view, but I don’t see what makes this a process enacted by either an institution or a movement in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Process and structural concerns matter, especially in a denomination with the size and reach of ours.
If we aren’t going to embrace a process that is marked by faith concerns, then why don’t we get a headhunting firm to track down leadership from across the connection and present us with a candidate (or shortlist)? It might even save us money, plus these companies have experience and track records which we cannot possess. In fact, that sort of consulting & outsourcing is what brought us the Call to Action. (Or maybe that’s a cautionary tale?)
I don’t have any easy answers. But with General & Jurisdiction delegate elections beginning this month, and Episcopal elections happening in about a year, I would like to open the conversation (since I’m on Ben’s dime, here, ha!): what would a faithful process for electing bishops in the United Methodist Church look like? What would we spend less time on? What doesn’t yet exist that needs to? I look forward to reading your comments below!
Josh Hale is a United Methodist elder in the Texas Annual Conference; after serving 5 years in campus ministry, he’s changing mission fields this summer to pastor Perritte Memorial United Methodist Church in Nacogdoches, TX. Josh tweets @expatminister, writes somewhat longer at The Expatriate Minister , blogs semi-regularly for HoustonBelief, and keeps a great deal of thoughts to himself!