I’ve been reminded again about the struggles between Scripture and our experience. Today we see a tension between two major schools of thought: one which interprets Scripture based on human experience, and one which interprets human experience through the lens of Scripture. There are many variations on these themes, but that’s the basic tension.
I remember experiencing this tension when I was in school at Abilene Christian University. At that time, there were approximately 150 students from Thailand who were studying at ACU. They were almost all, if not all, Buddhists. Many were good people, morally sound and ethically strict. They cared about the poor and the suffering. They were fun people; I came to form some very special friendships.
For many of us, our relationships with these students presented a minor challenge to our theology. Were we willing to say that these wonderful people were lost without Jesus Christ? Many of them seemed to show more of the fruit of the Spirit than a lot of the Christians. Could we say that they needed something more than the faith they had?
This challenge has played out many times in many ways throughout the world. Many Christians have responded to this challenge by embracing some form of universalism or religious relativism. The result has been a church that de-emphasizes evangelism. Most of our people would rather build a house or dig a water well than talk to someone about Jesus.
The same struggle comes up in discussions about gender roles. It’s the rare person who begins with the Bible and works out to decide that traditional views need to be challenged. Most look at talented women they know, examine changing views in society about men and women, and then find a way to make Scripture line up with their experience.
Homosexuality and gender identity also bring this tension to a head. When gays and transgender people were mocked and ridiculed, it was easy for the church to reject them. As society has changed, the church is facing new realities. More LGBQT people want to participate fully in church without changing their lifestyle. They are loving, caring, spiritual people. How does the church say to them that there is only heterosexuality or celibacy?
So we face the struggle again and again. To value experience over Scripture is to be applauded by society, celebrated as open-minded and accepting. In his wonderful article “Why Pushing Right is Harder than Pushing Left,” Andrew Wilson explores these ideas and says:
So the things that make me and my church stand out are now the areas where we’re conservative: a high view of the gathered church, biblical authority, an orthodox view of hell, Reformed soteriology, complementarianism, and things like that. And for some reason, pushing right on these things doesn’t feel anything like as exhilarating as pushing left on the other things. It doesn’t draw the same whoops from the crowd, nor the same admiration for being courageous. (In fact, when I get called courageous at all, it’s usually for pushing left on something that most people approve of, even though this requires much less real courage than pushing right. It may just be me, but I think it requires far more bravery to say the things Al Mohler says than the things Brian McLaren says, even though the latter is far more likely to be admired for his courage.)
For now, I’m firmly in the camp of interpreting experience in the light of Scripture. It won’t get me a lot of applause nor acclaim as a forward-thinking champion of the downtrodden. But it will help me sleep at night. And feel at peace with my God.