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Failure to Resolve Homosexuality Issues Motivates Biblical Authority Dialogues in December

'Faith Confronting Culture': Freeing the Bible from cultural captivity

July 29, 1999 News media contact: Tim Tanton (615)742-5470 Nashville, Tenn. {398}

A UMNS Commentary

By the Rev. Leicester R. Longden*

Everybody has an opinion about the Bible, and nearly everyone has found a use for it.

Publishers make money on "Bible codes" and predictions of Armageddon. Politicians quote it when they want to claim the moral high ground. Religious leaders define themselves and their followers by their interpretations of it.

Some years ago, prominent conservative theologian Harold Lindsell launched a Battle Over the Bible in the religious press with a book by that title. In recent years, the modernist Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book declaring himself to be a prophet Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism.

The Bible has also figured prominently in the culture wars, either as the guarantor of one’s right to speak for God or as the enslaver of human freedom. But this is precisely the problem. These contrasting views of the Bible’s authority caricature the way religious communities have read the Bible and been shaped by it.

As Richard Hays puts it in his recently published book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: "One reason that the church has become so bitterly divided over moral issues is that the community of faith has uncritically accepted the categories of popular U.S. discourse about these topics, without subjecting them to sustained critical scrutiny in light of a close reading of the Bible."

Thus it is encouraging that the United Methodist Church has begun to turn its attention toward a more nuanced communal struggle with scriptural authority. This was evident in the theological diversity dialogue sponsored by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns in November 1997 and February 1998. The diverse parties in that dialogue discovered they could not reach consensus on contested issues like homosexuality until they were ready to examine together their underlying assumptions about revelation and scriptural authority.

Following the recommendations of the diversity dialogue, outlined in a document called "In Search of Unity," the Council of Bishops recently held a consultation on scriptural authority. Now the commission plans to sponsor a consultation in December to explore United Methodist understandings of "the authority of Scripture and the nature of revelation."

These steps to explore the authority of the Bible in the church are coming none too soon for Methodism. If recent commentaries and news articles published by United Methodist News Service are any indication, many public figures in United Methodism speak of the Bible in ways that either oversimplify the issues or demonize their opponents.

Take, for example, the recent commentary by Bishop Kenneth Carder, "Bible’s true authority lies in power to change" (UMNS #311, 6/2/99). He rightly argues that Scripture in the church is a "means of grace" that has the power to shape and change us. He denounces the use of Scripture merely as a source of proof-texts for winning arguments. Unfortunately, the bishop then dismisses the role of argument altogether, as if the Bible’s transforming power had nothing to do with truth and good arguments. He slips, perhaps unintentionally, into a pietist perspective.

Or consider the commentary by the Rev. Neill McFarland, a professor emeritus of Southern Methodist University. His column, "When use becomes abuse" (UMNS #380, 7/21/99), attacks those on the religious right who use the Bible as a weapon to validate their partisan stance. He pokes fun at their "graceless judgmentalism" and "enslavement to the Bible" that make "a mockery of the concept of scriptural authority."

While there is substance to his warnings about the misuse of the Bible, McFarland’s attempt to define "the very nature of biblical authority" is itself a partisan interpretation. That he attacks only the Bible misusers on the religious right betrays his unawareness of the partisan purposes of his own argument. He can envision only two perspectives on biblical authority: the "sanctimonious fantasy" of those he attacks and his own view of "informed reasonableness."

Both the bishop and the professor are as bound by their presuppositions about the Bible as the "partisans" they attack. One reduces biblical authority to a pietist experience of spiritual change; the other relativizes it as the "derivative wisdom" of "human experience." Neither of them escapes that cultural warping by which arguments about the Bible are wrenched into the predetermined shapes of right/left, liberal/conservative, rigid/flexible, reasonable/irrational, etc.

No wonder the church is held hostage to extremists who submit every issue to this relentless rhetoric. Whether it is the dissenters who call for "ecclesiastical disobedience," the hard-liners whose "right doctrine" is a thinly veiled rage, or the "centrists" claiming to be "neutral" — too many voices in our church today are intellectually captive to the cultural polarity of liberal/conservative.

The dialogue planned for December is a significant opportunity for our denomination to put its best pastoral and theological minds to work to halt the very real decline of scriptural authority in our church. In the midst of numerous partisan theological proposals to reshape the church’s scriptural and doctrinal heritage, we must struggle together to hear the word of Scripture, which teaches us not to be conformed to this age.

Scripture says we are to be "transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may rightly discern the will of God" (Romans 12:2). This will mean nothing less than our best arguments, our deepest prayers and a sustained communal attentiveness to Scripture. It will mean listening again for a Word that challenges all our cultural commitments.

*Longden is senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lansing, Mich. He is a clergy member of the West Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, where he serves on the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry.

[Not part of original UMNS Story]: Les Longden is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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