Have you ever stepped from a dock into a rocking boat? Spiritually, the precariousness of this situation is where we live our lives as Christians. Our mandate is to go into all the world to preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15). The dock is the New Testament, the firm and fixed platform from which we operate. It is our first source and primary authority for faith and practice as Christians. The world is the constantly shifting boat, rising and falling with the waves, rocking and rolling in the wind. And we who have experienced and been entrusted with the Gospel message of God’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ are constantly being asked to step from the sure dock of the New Testament into the shifting boat of the world. The expectation is that we will carry the Gospel message that is rooted and grounded in the New Testament to the worlds where we live and move and have our being. The trick in this is being able to “translate” the Gospel message into the language, thought-forms and felt needs of our changing world without “transforming” the Gospel message into something else in the process.
When I started ministry back in the 1970’s the pressing question of the day was women in the spiritual and pastoral leadership of the church. Back then I pastored churches that elected their first women elders and congregational chairs, and that called their first women ministers, and believe me when I tell you that there were some tense and terse meetings in those congregations as those decisions were being made, and some casualties. Some church members strongly and sincerely believed that the New Testament prohibited women in spiritual leadership, and they cited I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11-14 as their proof. They had their feet firmly planted on the dock of Scripture and they weren’t budging. Other church members knew that the world around them had changed, that the cultural movement towards equal rights between the sexes was right, and that the church needed to “catch-up” and adjust to this new reality. They had their foot in the moving boat and they were faithfully committed to keeping it firmly planted there. Needless to say, this created some uncomfortable tension. Passion was met by passion, and the trick from my perspective as their pastor was keeping the necessary conversation civil and sustained. The temptation was always for somebody to pick up their ball and go home. Rather than trusting that the Holy Spirit was the source of the whitecaps of controversy in the pond of their church, some were always looking for a quick exit, a premature resolution. Either stay on the dock or get into the boat. Enough of this straddling business! But the Great Commission – going into all the world to preach the Gospel – by definition always has and always will position us with one foot on the dock and with our other foot in the boat.
Resolution finally came in those churches not by dismissing the Biblical concerns nor by ignoring the present cultural developments, but by remembering that the books of the Bible themselves were all written in a shifting cultural context too, and that by figuring out what was cultural in them and thereby negotiable, and what was Gospel in them and thereby nonnegotiable, was going to hold the key for us as Christians today trying to “translate” the eternal Gospel into our specific cultural context without “transforming” the content of the Gospel into something else.
Appreciating the difference between the husk and the kernel of a pecan was the crucial distinction. Every Texan has had the unfortunate experience of putting a pig piece of pecan pie into your mouth and biting into a piece of shell when what you were expecting was the taste and texture of the soft sweet nut. Well, the Biblical context is the shell and the Biblical content is the nut. The shell in inedible and disposable. The nut is edible and valuable. The trick is figuring out which is which when you are looking at a Biblical text.
Sometimes it’s obvious. I’ll bet you a dollar or two that you didn’t see any women in church last Sunday morning with their heads covered even though the New Testament explicitly commands it (I Corinthians 11:1-16). You don’t need a seminary degree to know there’s a kernel and a husk at work in this text, and the fact that there were no women in church last Sunday with their heads covered shows that we know what the husk of it is. The real question is what is the kernel of this text? The interpretive tools of scholarship were developed to help us figure this “kernel” question out more faithfully.
Historically, the church has always believed in a Bible that is both authoritative and that needs to be interpreted. It needs to be interpreted because as C. Leonard Allen put it –
The Bible is a collection of writings rooted deeply in a world that is remote to us. It reflects languages, cultures and world views as strange to us as those of rural Kenya or Kurdistan. Only as we realize that we are outsiders can we enter that strange world and to some degree become insiders.
To be able to do this requires us to undertake an interpretive journey across the barriers of time, culture, language, knowledge and worldviews. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays in their book Grasping God’s Word (Zondervan 2005) says that this journey involves asking and answering five question with every Biblical text –
Step 1: What did the text mean to the original audience?
Step 2: What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
Step 3: What is the theological principle in this text?
Step 4: How does this theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
Step 5: How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?
This is what’s involved in stepping from the dock of a Biblical text into the rocking and rolling boat of a culture in the world today with the message of the Gospel in your arms that you are trying to deliver from its original ancient setting to your present contemporary setting. It’s tricky, and it can’t be rushed. Today, for most of us, the question of women in ministry has been settled by discovering what’s the kernel and what’s the husk of texts like I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11-14, and we did that by following some version or variation of the 5 steps of the interpretive journey.
Today, the pressing question for us is the full inclusion of Gay and Lesbian Christians in the life and ministry of the church, and just like the question of women in ministry 40 years ago, the LBGTQ question today has some church members with their feet firmly planted on the dock of Biblical texts like Genesis 19:1-11, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:10 and Romans 1:26-27, and other church members with their feet firmly planted in the boat of a culture in which the understanding of same sex identity and relationships have undergone a dramatic shift, a culture into which they know they have been sent with the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ. And just like 40 years ago and the question of women in ministry, there is some uncomfortable tension in the church today about what it means to be Gospel inclusive? Passion is meeting passion once again, and the trick for me as a pastor, once again, is to try to keep the conversation civil and going.
When people on the dock, and people in the boat, each threaten to take their ball and leave, we need to trust that the Holy Spirit is in fact the source of the whitecaps of controversy in the pond of the church, and to see it through to God’s resolution rather than seeking our own quick exit from the process. 40 years ago it was the question of women in ministry. Today it is the question of the full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians in the life of the church. 40 years from now it will be another question. So long as Christ sends His church into the world with the message of the Gospel of God’s saving love, we who are Christians are going to feel the very real tension of having one foot on the dock of Scripture and the other one in the boat of culture. So, don’t fight it. God is in it. Trust the Holy Spirit’s work. See it through. DBS +