The debate over sexual morality in the church today is about more than sex. It is also about more than simply Biblical interpretation. The debate is really about the nature and authority of the Bible. Is it really the infallible word of God, revealed from God to God’s people? Or is it just the product of humans’ fallible attempt to interpret their experiences of ultimate reality?
Of course, I know there are some who sincerely believe the Bible is the revealed word of God, but the church has misinterpreted it with regards to sexuality. Yet, I think those folks are much more scarce than the growing number of others who just believe the Bible is simply wrong on the issue. These types of folks try to argue that they still value the authority of Scripture, but the reality is they mean something very different from what conservatives mean. As with many traditional terms, they qualify the meaning in such a way as to greatly diminish the actual authority of Scripture. They may be happy to say God can speak through the Bible, but not that God has clearly spoken in the Bible.
For people like Adam Hamilton, the Bible is a record of some people’s best, but limited and confused interpretation of the character and will of God. It is not, to them, the clearly revealed word of God. I have noted that progressives seem to be as committed to the notion of Scripture as a vague, diverse, and contradictory witness to people’s experience of God as the most ardent fundamentalist is to the notion of Scripture as a clear, reliable, and unified one. Both camps seem to also value wooden, literal interpretation; one to defend to the authority of Scripture and the other to undermine it. For similar reasons, both seem to be prone to prooftexting too.
In a discussion on the authority of Scripture with David Watson at United Theological Seminary, Mike Slaughter, for example, quoted a passage from Numbers that he described as “Taliban theology.” But the passage he quoted, which to modern ears sounds incredibly harsh, is not really just a random and isolated text in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Those kinds of passages are quite pervasive and even integral to the overall narrative of the Bible. For example, the so-called Genocide that really wasn’t of the book of Joshua (see book Did God Really Command Genocide? by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan), was clearly foreshadowed as early as Gen 15. It is also alluded to throughout the Pentateuch. These seemingly harsh passages that progressives evoke are not isolated and random. The Bible is not written in a string of isolated verses; there is a pervasive and unifying underlying narrative in which each verse and passage must be interpreted.
To modern readers, who, ironically, in many cases are perfectly fine with something like partial birth abortion, it sounds crazy to execute someone for breaking the sabbath in the Old Testament. It also probably sounds crazy to them that God would strike dead Ananias and Sapphira for lying about their offering in Acts 5. There is a lot of harsh judgment in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, from Yahweh in Gen 19 and from Jesus in Matt 5 and Revelation. God in the Old Testament does not take human sin and rebellion lightly; neither does Jesus in the New Testament. But the God described in those seemingly, overly harsh passages in the Old Testament is the same God revealed in Jesus Christ, who will come again to judge the living and the dead, in the New Testament. And whether we are talking about the Old or New Testaments, we are talking about a God who says “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezk 33:11 ESV). Either way we are still talking about the God who “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
I know there are many things about the Bible that are hard to understand. Moreover, I understand that not every verse and passage applies to us in the same way. But progressives like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter may say they value the authority of Scripture, but it’s quite obvious to me that they don’t prooftext what they might call “Taliban theology” passages to bolster the authority of Scripture in the ears of their listeners!
So the debate in the church today, is really one about the place of the written word in the church. For some the written word is the revealed word and will of God that serves as the primary source and ultimate criterion for Christian faith and practice. For others it may be a conversation partner that holds some possibly helpful opinions that for all practical purposes is just other people’s opinions among many. What else could it really be for those who describe the Bible as a flawed book written by flawed people? What else could it be for someone who says the Bible is inspired in the same way as books by other Christian authors like C.S. Lewis? Should the Bible just take a seat in the pews as just another opinion in the crowd?
When it came to the tablets of stone on which God wrote his word and will, he had Moses place them in a much more prominent place among the people of God. God had them place the written word in the Ark of the Covenant in the inner sanctuary of the Holiest part of the tabernacle (Ex 25:10-22), and later in the temple. The Ark was also called the ark of the testimony; the tabernacle itself was called “the tent of the testimony.” The Lord said,
And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. ~ Ex 25:21-22
We don’t have the ark or the tablets of stone, but God has not left us without a relaible testimony; God has not left us without a witness—a sure, reliable, and trustworthy word. God has also not left us without a temple. The people of God are the temple of God under the new covenant. And the written word, the Scriptures are our testimony to the word and will of God, most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. The written word of God still deserves to be in the most holy place among the people of God.
The real question for the people called United Methodist is what place will Scripture have among us? Will we trust the testimony of those who see Scripture as the fallible musings of men? Or will we trust the testimony of the apostles like Peter?
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. ~ 2 Pet 1:16-21