Monday, February 18, 2013

The Silence of the Scriptures Part One

The silence of the scriptures--the question of what to do if the Bible doesn't say anything about a particular subject--is a big, big idea in church of Christ thinking. "Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent" has been a saying of ours since the beginning, as has "Describing Bible things in Bible terms."

Real quick (and simplified) history lesson: The main founders of our movement (which includes Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ, and churches of Christ) were Barton Stone, Thomas Campbell, and Alexander Campbell. Stone and T. Campbell were Presbyterians, and A. Campbell was a Baptist. All three wanted to preach and evangelize. Yet they all found themselves frustrated because it seemed the churches they wanted to work for required their preachers to affirm and obey things they felt were not in the Bible. Stone, for instance, had doubts about the trinity and about Calvinistic elements present in the Westminster Confession of Faith. After preaching and writing for several years and experiencing opposition, they either withdrew or were suspended from their respective churches. They and others like them continued to preach, and the churches they formed had as their goal that they would not require their members to believe or do anything that wasn't taught in the Bible, either explicitly or by example. They did not intend to form a denomination--they wanted the universal church to come together and end divisions. The churches were called what they are instead of being named after a particular doctrine or the founder because they wanted to refer to them as churches are referred to in the Bible.

So the original idea of "Speak where the Bible speaks" was that, as Christians, we could not force anyone to believe or do anything that was not from the Bible. We rejected--or tried to reject--doctrines or traditions that were a product of human reasoning and not actually from the Bible. This is why we have no creeds or liturgy and very few rituals--though traditions are very hard to get away from, and we probably have more than we'd like to admit.

But since nothing is ever as simple as we would like to make it, a question soon arose. Is the silence of the scriptures restrictive or permissive? That is, the Stone-Campbell movement was agreed that we could not force anyone else to do or believe things that did not come directly from the NT. But did that mean that we, ourselves, could not do or believe those things? Take the question of instrumental music: there is no statement or rule in the NT suggesting that it is wrong for Christians to worship with instruments. However, there is also no evidence that the early Christians did so. The movement eventually split with this as the most prominent disagreement. The church of Christ decided (and this is a very simplified argument) that because we are only ever told one way to worship (singing alone) and no other way is mentioned, this means that when we use instruments, we are rejecting the proper way to worship and disobeying the command to sing. This general rule is applied in other areas to. For instance, some churches pass around only one cup for Communion (our word for the Eucharist) because only one cup is mentioned in the gospels.

Some subjects are even harder because nothing is mentioned one way or the other regarding them. Should a Christian go to war? We don't have any examples of either soldiers or conscientious objectors among the NT Christians, so it's impossible to answer through an appeal to a direct command or example from scripture. Should a Christian vote or participate in civic affairs? We have a few examples of secular leaders among the NT Christians, but no explorations of how this works or to what extent our faith should inform our actions. And voting is never mentioned one way or the other. There are myriads of other examples of concepts or technology that, if they were known at all at that time, are never mentioned: recycling or conservation of resources, birth control, nuclear weapons.

Another idea is what we might call the "vagueness" of the scriptures. Some scriptures have clear moral instructions, but it's difficult to determine how far they go or how to apply them. Drunkenness is wrong, but what about drinking in general? We should dress modestly, but how much skin should be covered, and how do we apply it equally to men and women? Certain doctrines can also be difficult to understand. There is no scripture that comes right out and says directly, "Jesus is God"--so do we have to believe Jesus is God? Do we have to believe in the trinity, even though the word "trinity" never appears in the Bible? And how about the scriptures that just seem weird? "Don't cast your pearls before swine"?

I have made the argument in the past that the scriptures seeming to apply to gender/sexual minorities are "vague" because we don't fully understand the words used and because the behaviors described by those words don't seem to match up with what modern same-sex relationships look like. I don't want to make that argument again now; suffice it to say that it's been made by others as well and you can accept it or not. If this is true, though, if the same-sex relationships in the Bible are not like those today, then modern same-sex relationships fall under "silence," because they simply are not mentioned. So what to think?

(I realize that an important question from those in other faith or no-faith traditions is "Why does it matter? Shouldn't we do the right thing regardless of what the Bible says?" That's a valid question, but it's a bigger one than I have time for right now. All I can say is that as a product of my tradition, I can't help caring deeply about how the first Christians acted and believed and wanting to keep as consistent with that as possible.)

This dilemma has been on my mind lately because of a comment I read on a recent post by Rachel Held Evans. Unfortunately I can't find the comment to quote it directly (there are a lot of comments). However, I have heard the idea enough that I think I can try to state it as fairly and sympathetically as the author of the comment did:
The interpretation of the verses referring to homosexuality may be disputed, but there are no positive examples of same-sex relationships anywhere in the Bible. Couldn't the same argument [that when a command is vague or disputed, we should defer to the hermeneutic of love and allow people to do what they believe is loving, as long as it's consensual and not hurting anyone] be used to defend practices that are clearly unbiblical, such as a married couple mutually consenting to adultery if they both agree that it will make their marriage healthier? If the same-sex relationships in the Bible are not like loving, consensual same-sex relationships today, couldn't we postulate a loving, consensual adultery to which the NT injunctions against adultery do not apply (because it did not exist yet)?
(Incidentally, I am hard-pressed to restate this argument with any sin that is not sexual in nature. It would not make sense for most other sins that I can think of--for instance, "consensual stealing" is just borrowing.)

This is a fair question. Now personally, I do think that I'm not allowed to have any say or judgment on what non-Christians do with their sex lives, as long as they're not hurting people. I don't want anyone to think that I'm talking about people outside the church here. However, I also think that the Bible offers guidance that a) Christians can make use of in determining a sexual ethic and b) churches can use pastorally to teach and lead their members. I also think that churches should be allowed to insist that their members follow their standards, as long as those standards are not enforced selectively, abusively, or intrusively and that "discipline" is reasonable. (Just as an example, you can decide someone is not a member anymore but you can't publicly humiliate them or order other members to shun them.) That's why I think this question is important--because we do live in community, and the way we act and the things we believe affect each other. I think it's therefore essential that we use consistent reasoning when determining standards for community behavior, so that everyone is on the same page and treated fairly.

We may restate this question as a reductio ad absurdum: The idea that you can defend practices commanded against in the bible by disagreeing with the interpretation and saying that it doesn't hurt anyone leads to the untenable conclusion that adultery is defensible--we know that adultery is definitely wrong, so the idea must be false. At the end of this series (probably about 3 or 4 posts), I'll give my answer to this question, but first I'd like to explore the idea of freedom in Christ and how it relates to the silence of the scriptures. Look for that post in the next couple of days, and please comment if you have any thoughts to add here.

1 comment:

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