Tag Archives: authority

Replacing biblical authority with that of experience

Let me get back to a topic from last week. I was talking about Christians and churches accepting an additional authority in spiritual matters, that being the authority of experience.

Jay Guin is doing a series of articles on church trends. The first trend he discusses comes from an article by Philip Jenkins and focuses on “gender revolutions.” Let me quote a few things from what Jay says; listen to see if you can hear the voice of experience dominating the discussion in churches:

But there was an even bigger revolution that I’d date to around World War II. Pre-WWII, most conservative churches considered the biblical passages thought to prohibit women from having authority over men (primarily 1 Tim 2) to apply universally — in the secular workplace as well as church and family.
However, by the early 1960s at least, the commentators were limiting their arguments to the church and the family, largely conceding that women may have authority over men in the secular workplace — but more by omission. They just dropped the secular workplace side of the question. Why?
Well, first, women were busily proving their competence as principals of schools and administrators in other fields. And they were bringing home much larger pay checks because of it. And so the old argument of female gullibility was disproved by experience, and few men were willing to give up a 50% raise in their wife’s pay just to make a theological point.

The near future trend is that the complementarian (hierarchical) position will continue to erode as experience shows the competence of women as supervisors and as a generation that has never known the discrimination that I grew up with become church leaders and elders.
Now, for non-Christians, anything short of full equality for women is considered grossly immoral. Millennials consider the notion that women shouldn’t be full partners in a marriage or church laughable and deeply wrong. This is going to become less of an internal debate within the church and more a question of our ability to evangelize the lost, because few unchurched people will be willing to accept imposing a subordinate role on women.

To be fair, let me note that Jay makes powerful arguments for egalitarianism based on Scripture and theology. He is not one who has accepted the authority of experience over the voice of Scripture. But many in our churches have done so. For most, a desire to change the church’s stance on women does not arise out of Bible study or new insights into the text. It comes from experience, both personal experience and observed experience.

Interestingly enough, Jay included point #2 in the same post. (I don’t think the grouping was intentional) That point deals with “Revolutions in sexual identity.” I find that interesting because I can’t help but feel that we’re going to see the exact same thing happen in the church as regards sexual identity. Experience will cause us to return to the Bible and massage the text until it finally says what we want it to say.

Note what Jay says:

While some congregations are choosing to accept gay couples or else to take an agnostic position (same difference), most churches consider homosexual sexual activity to be sinful. And, indeed, I think this is what the Bible teaches (as we’ve covered here many times). But there will be a price to be paid as homosexuals push for legislation that punishes those who refuse to adopt their agenda. I’m sure that at some point the tax exempt status of churches will be challenged if they don’t submit to the gay agenda. And some churches and related institutions (universities, publishing houses) will capitulate rather than close their doors with the loss of tax-deductible contributions.

In both cases (gender and sexual identity), Jay notes that the church will have to pay a price to hold to traditional views. I’m less optimistic than he. I think few Christians and few churches are willing to pay that price. We’ve seen it in gender discussions. We’ll see it with conversations about sexual identity.

Give experience a voice equal to or greater than that given to Scripture, if you choose. Just be honest about it. I think you’re damaging the church by changing your source of authority. And I think generations in the future will return to Scripture and marvel at the choices we made.

When the Bible seems inadequate

Through the years, Christians have debated what authorities should be followed when it comes to religion. The Catholic church, among others, teaches that the traditions of the church hold equal weight with the Bible when deciding matters of faith. Most Protestant churches have insisted that the Bible alone is sufficient authority.

Many today are advocating a new source of authority, though few are open about it. This authority is experience, be it personal experience or observed experiences. Luke Timothy Johnson, an accomplished New Testament scholar who is a member of the Catholic church, expressed this new outlook on authority in a 2007 article published in Commonweal magazine. Let me quote an important passage:

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to…

Johnson is more open than most when choosing experience over the biblical revelation. But his position is a common one, particularly when discussing two main issues: homosexuality and gender roles in the church. It boils down to this: if you can show that people are hurt, demeaned, frustrated by a certain doctrine, then that doctrine has to be changed in light of the experience of these people. It’s not a matter of going back and restudying something; it’s about elevating human experience over the written Word.

I don’t buy it. I’m not ready to give up on the Bible as a sufficient authority in matters of faith. Yes, we need to wrestle with how to apply today instructions that were given two thousand years ago. But let us not be found guilty of the chronological snobbery that leads us to believe that we in the twenty-first century understand God better than fellow Christians who lived centuries before.

Let us hear the voice of the hurting. But let’s offer them more than a sympathetic ear. Let’s offer them the wisdom of God’s Word speaking time-tested truths.

Please note, none of this is about unclear biblical teachings or questionable interpretations. Johnson is talking about looking biblical teachings square in the eye and telling them they are antiquated.

Hear another quote from Johnson:

I suggest, therefore, that the New Testament provides impressive support for our reliance on the experience of God in human lives—not in its commands, but in its narratives and in the very process by which it came into existence. In what way are we to take seriously the authority of Scripture? What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives.

Again, I don’t buy it. Let us be shaped by both narrative and command, led to live lives that stand in stark contrast to culture rather than following its every mutation. Ask the hard questions, do the deep study, but don’t give up on God’s Word. All of it. Let every jot and tittle shape our experiences and not vice versa. Let the Bible change how we live rather than daily life changing the Bible itself.

Sola scriptura. Let’s not be too quick to give up on that standard.

Honoring those in authority

Most of us are aware that the New Testament talks about respecting authority, honoring the king, etc. Christians were not to be disrespectful to those in power. I don’t feel that that principle has changed, though the specifics may have. (We don’t have a king, but I think the principle about honoring rulers remains)

What I’m wondering about is this: how far are we to take that? We are to be respectful to all people, but I think there’s a greater honor due to those in power. Does that mean all elected officials? All government officials? Anyone with authority (like security guards, flight attendants, etc.)?

In a democracy like ours, must we show equal honor to all three branches? To all levels: national, state, country, city, and others?

How do you apply this principle? To whom do we show honor? What does this honor and respect look like?

I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Romans 13: Tying up loose ends

All right, let me try and tie up the loose ends from this series:

  • Paul begins a section of thought in Romans 12, speaking of how to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. This lifestyle is highlighted by an attitude of love. Love for enemies, priority of peace, refusal to take revenge… all of this is a part.
  • Romans 13:1-7 is a part of that life of love. Rather than getting caught up in the social unrest of the moment, the Christians were to submit to this evil government. Though Paul recognizes that there are sinister powers at work behind the government, God has “ordered” those powers, keeping them within prescribed bounds.
  • If the Roman Christians will eschew the rebellious attitude typical of the Jews, Paul says that they need not fear the present government. This is especially true within the big picture of Christ’s return.
  • It bears repeating that the principle of honoring authority and obeying laws is repeated several times in the New Testament. This is part of living at peace and respecting others.

I really think that, because of the misuse of this passage, our discussion yesterday of what isn’t said here is as important as the discussion of what is said. If we’d limit ourselves to what Paul is actually discussing, we could actually learn a lot.

Romans 13: What it doesn’t say

Some passages in the Bible take on a life of their own, living independently of their own context. As such, they can be made to say any number of things, some not even remotely related to the original meaning. Frankly, Romans 13:1-7 is one of those passages.

Discussions on politics, on military service, on voting, on citizenship… this short passage can appear in any and all of those discussions. Before rounding out what the passage is saying, let’s take a moment to talk about what it isn’t saying:

  • Government was created by God.” You might can make that argument from somewhere else… though I’m not sure where. It’s my own personal belief that government naturally arose as man rejected God’s protection and chose to depend on other men. It’s the story that played out at Babel.
  • Christians are called to be an active part of their government” or “Christians are called to be good citizens” or “Christians have a civic responsibility to vote” or… Yeah, there are a whole bunch of related ideas that people try to support with this passage. Huh nuh. Think about the situation in the first century. Would any of those things have been remotely conceivable to Paul or the Roman Christians? We can’t take our situation and superimpose it on theirs. Again, you might be able to make those arguments somehow, but not based on Romans 13.
  • Christians must support just governments, but should oppose unjust governments.” Sorry… you can’t make this passage play both ways. If it applies to every government throughout history (which I don’t believe), then it applies to the good and the bad. If it was of limited application (which I believe), the direct application was to one of the cruelest, most unjust governments that has ever existed. If we submit to all governments, we submit to all governments: good and bad.

I could go on, I guess, but those are some of the main ideas. Care to mention any others? Or dispute what I’ve written here? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.