“Be it hereby enacted: That every three years all people shall forget whatever
they have learned about Jesus, and begin the study all over again” ___________________________________________________________________
Robert M. Brown quoted by Brennan Manning in The Signature of Jesus (159)
We are in a discernment process at the church I serve about same sex marriage. The Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer significantly shifted the cultural terrain, or is it, responded to the significant shift on the cultural terrain that has been well underway since the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s? Either way, within 15 minutes of the court’s ruling I had my first request to perform a same sex wedding, and I knew that neither I nor the church I serve was very clear about what to do next.
And so, using the denominational resource Listening to the Spirit: A Handbook for Discernment (Chalice Press – 2001) that was created for “such a time as this,” the elders at the church I serve have begun a deliberate process of discernment by listening to the voices of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, to the voice of God through the Word of Scripture, to the wisdom of the church across time, especially to that of our own spiritual tradition in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in each one of our hearts. As the words of a familiar Thanksgiving hymn put it ~ we are seeking “a wisdom surpassing our own.”
After putting all of these ingredients together into a great big pot and letting them simmer for a while, our elders will gather for a weekend of prayerful conversation right after the first of the year. And just like the church in the book of Acts who had to discern the place of Gentiles in the plan and people of God, we anticipate that our elders will come out of that retreat in January speaking a “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) kind of word to this particular community of faith about how we should faithfully respond to future requests for same sex weddings in our facilities and performed by our ministers.
In our preparation for this process, one of the resources that I looked at was Ruth Haley Barton’s book on the practice of discernment by leadership groups called Pursuing God’s Will Together (IVP – 2012). Ruth spent some time with us as a church a couple of years ago and we highly respect her spiritual wisdom. She insists that “discernment takes place in the context of friendship with God as it is cultivated through prayer” (42), and she explains that one of the kinds of prayer that is specifically associated with discernment is “the prayer for indifference.”
In this prayer we ask God to work in our hearts to make us indifferent to anything but the will of God. This kind of indifference was Mary’s response when the angel came to her and told her that she would give birth to the Messiah. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It was Jesus’ prayer after he struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
And this matches exactly the position that the Listening to the Spirit process takes.
This process assumes no specific outcome. That will be determined by the Holy Spirit. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). This process does assume that the Holy Spirit is at work in your midst, but no one can predict what the Spirit will do. (4)
Of course, this is so much easier said than done. Most of us already have our settled and passionate positions staked out on the great social, moral and theological questions of the day. And so we’re always ready to debate and we’re always eager to persuade. We’re accustomed to picking our side and then launching barrages designed to obliterate the positions that others have taken, thinking them either stupid or wicked because they don’t agree with us. Well, discernment is an altogether different approach. Again, as Listening to the Spirit puts it –
…As you gather to listen you acknowledge that a discernment process is not about convincing others that you are right, but listening for the message God has given your group… recognizing that God can speak to you even through those with whom you disagree… and listening for the word that God has for your group in what others have to say. (4)
Now, for this to happen there has got to be a conscious and conscientious suspension of our prior convictions, or, if that’s a “bridge too far” — and to be perfectly honest, it usually is for me — then we’ve at least got to try to muster up enough humility in ourselves to be able to admit that we don’t know it all, and that the person with whom we disagree the most could very well be our most important teacher.
In a recent sermon I quoted something that John Wooden, the heralded coach of the UCLA Bruins during their unprecedented run of National College Basketball Championships in the 1960’s and 70’s and a longtime elder in a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said about wisdom – “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” And that’s what discernment requires of us – the honest acknowledgement that we’ve all still got more to learn after we think that we “know it all.”
Because we’re not the only church having this conversation these days, I’m reading lots and lots of blogs from pastoral colleagues about what the Bible “really” says about homosexuality. They are all preaching sermons and teaching classes on it, and it’s what they’re saying that deeply concerns me. You see, my conservative friends are all telling their people that the Bible is against homosexuality while my progressive friends are all telling their people that the Bible does no such thing. Coming to the Bible with their minds already made up, they are finding what they already believe, or at least, they are shaping what they find in the Word to fit with their convictions.
Albert Schweitzer critiqued the quest for the historical Jesus in his day by saying that the Bible was being used by the scholars he read as a kind of deep dark well into which they peered, caught glimpses of their own reflection, and called what they saw there “the Historical Jesus. And what I see is that the Bible is being used in much this same way by lots and lots of my ministerial peers in the current conversation about same sex marriage.
I’d feel so much better about things if my progressive friends would take the time and make the effort to honestly understand the traditionalist’s point of view, and then if they would go out and try to make the case for it for their people just as fairly and faithfully as they possibly could. And I would feel so much better if my traditionalist friends would take the same time and make the same effort to understand the progressive’s point of view, and then if they went out and tried to make the case for it for their people just as fairly and faithfully as they possibly could as well. But as it is, what I see everybody – traditionalists and progressives alike – doing is just making their own cases, teaching their own conclusions, and leaving the impression that this is the only way to faithfully think and talk about things. But isn’t this just propaganda?
James Smart used to tell his students at Union Theological Seminary that the Bible always has in it things that are congenial and uncongenial to our cherished settled beliefs, and then he added that it was the uncongenial things that always held that greatest potential for our own personal spiritual growth. I have found that it’s where the Word pinches and scrapes me that the Spirit is usually most at work in my life. That discomfort forces me to think thoughts that are not my own. But it is precisely because this is just so uncomfortable to do that I always find that it easier for me to try to flatten out the Bible’s sharp edges so that they don’t bang so hard against my heart and soul. I try to push the uncongenial and inconvenient truths that I find in the Bible to the margins and the shadows. And so, just like Thomas Jefferson with his exacto knife carving up the Gospels to get a Jesus that he could live with, I let my preconceived ideas screen what I read and even the way that I read the Bible. Even though I know that I’m not supposed to, I find that I’m nevertheless pretty good at creating a God in my own image and after my own likeness. More than once along the way I was warned about the dangers of “eisogesis” when it comes to Biblical interpretation, and I really needed to hear this because it turns out that I have a good aptitude for it! I’m a natural when it comes to “eisogesis,” but “exegesis” is the goal.
The key to exegesis is found in the prefix “ex” which means “from” or “out of.” To exegete Scripture is to get out of the words the meaning that is there… On the other hand, eisogesis has the same root but a different prefix, the prefix “eis” means “into.” Thus, eisogesis involves reading something into the text… [R.C. Sproul – Knowing Scripture – IVP -1977 –p. 39]
Through the years I have found that my best safeguard against “eisogesis” has been to consciously position myself in a community of interpretation where I understood that my conclusions would be faithfully challenged and where I knew that different interpretations – including my own – would be welcomed and respected. I think of my New Testament Theology class at Brite Divinity School in 1977 in which Dr. Bill Baird had us reading Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament and George Eldon Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament at the same time! It was dizzying, and exhilarating, and I remembering thinking to myself back then that if this is what it means to be a “big ‘D’ Disciple” then sign me up!
And to do this same thing today in the present faithful conversation about same sex marriage means that we have all got to read, understand, appreciate and be able to fairly represent both points of view as they are articulated by their brightest and most convincing representatives. It’s just way too easy to demolish the arguments of the dogmatically unreflective representatives of the position opposite your own – both traditionalist and progressive – and to think that you have thereby done your job. Stereotypes and caricatures are spiritually unbecoming and theologically irresponsible. And so my traditionalist friends need to be just as familiar with and impressed by Matthew Vine’s book God and the Gay Christian (Convergent Books 2014) as my progressive friends need to be familiar with and impressed by Richard Hayes’ arguments in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFranciso 1996). Progressives who only offer their people the arguments that Matthew Vines makes are failing their people in exactly the same way that traditionalists who only offer their people the arguments that Richard Hayes makes are failing their people. They are both guilty of a dangerous kind of ministerial “eisogesis” – of only offering their people half of the argument, the half that they themselves have already embraced.
Roland Allen (1868 – 1947) – one of my true theological heroes – said that one of the real keys to understanding the mission and message of the Apostle Paul is to appreciate the fact that he truly “believed in the Holy Ghost, not merely vaguely as a spiritual Power, but as a Person indwelling his converts” (Missionary Methods 149). And then Roland Allen turned this observation right back on his readers. “When we believe in the Holy Ghost” ourselves, he said, then “the Holy Ghost will justify our faith in Him” as well (Missionary Methods 150).
The “Prayer of Indifference” that Ruth Haley Barton calls for in the Discernment Process is only possible when you believe in the Holy Ghost as Roland Allen described. Without the reality of the Holy Ghost we’re all left arguing our respective points of view, always trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong and needs to change. But with the reality of the Holy Ghost, we’re all drawn into the heart and mind of God where new perspectives can become real possibilities, and where we all have an equal chance of being changed by a fresh encounter with God’s holy-love. DBS+
Practicing what I preach, the “balance” for the Bible Study component of the Discernment Process that we have undertaken as a church is being facilitated by putting a copy of Homosexuality and the Bible – Two Views by Dan O. Via and Robert A.J. Gagnon (Fortress Press – 2009) in the hands of every elder who is involved in our process. The scholarship in this volume is first-rate without being so academic as to make its arguments inaccessible to the average reader. The tone is respectful without being mushy. The very real and substantial interpretive issues that are at stake in the Biblical witness on human sexuality are clearly named here, and they are explored with just enough depth to make this volume a great starting place for those who agree with me that it is pure pastoral malpractice these days for any of us to be preaching and teaching our own conclusions on this crucial question in such a way that people are left thinking that there are not equally thoughtful and faithful Christians who have a different point of view.