Using the Bible on issues such as equality part 1

I have been engaging with the Newfrontiers Church again on the issue of equality. See The Pink Pamphlet: Soul Survivor’s Position on Women in Leadership | Theology Matters | Newfrontiers UK.

I suspect that my approach to the issue is probably as frustrating to Newfrontiers people. I get repeated requests from them to jump straight into biblical exegesis. However, I feel that is unhelpful and for several reasons.

Firstly, there is the problem of the hermeneutic circle.

Simplistically that recognises that there is no independent starting point when we approach Scripture. We come to Scripture and have interpret it from where we are now and that influences how we understand Scripture – if you like we are not and cannot be bias free. However, we would hope and expect that engaging with Scripture will change us and our views somewhat so that next time we come to Scripture we do so from a slightly different viewpoint.

This process has no end (hence Hermeneutic Circle). 

When Newfrontiers and I approach the Bible on a issue such as equality we do so from very different positions and with very different experiences. These change the way we then understand what we read just as all that we have read of Scripture in the past has already changed who we are as we approach this time.

In a situation where we know our views differ so greatly and where neither Newfrontiers nor I can come to Scripture bias free it seems to me that it is best to spend some effort exploring the issues before approaching Scripture so that when we do so we can have a little more understanding of these biases and where we are each coming from.

Secondly, (and of course this is related to the first) I am deeply unhappy with approaching Scripture looking for verses and interpretations of verses to support a particular point. At it's worst these becomes a proof text battle where each side hits the other over the head with individual "clobber" verses and in the process the Bible is reduced to a club rather than the word of God. I find this irreverent and ineffective. Sadly, it is very hard to avoid this in discussions such as this where Andrew Wilson has already responded using a verse based approach to a paper written elsewhere.

Thirdly, I much prefer a wider view and approach to Scripture. As I read Scripture I want to be explicitly reflecting on how this relates to my whole model (understanding) of God. Too often you can work at the detail level and then when you look up suddenly realise that what you have ended up with is in conflict with your understanding of who God is and how God works. Sadly, very often people do not evaluate their conclusions in this way and sometimes this leads them to make some very odd claims.

Related to this is my great concern about taking verses from Scripture out of context. The phrase "a text without a context is a pretext" is rightly a popular one. Yet the danger is that if you that start with individual verses the context becomes a bolt on and molds to your purposes. At that point the pretext is shaping the context.

Fourthly, I am unashamedly a follower of Jesus. That aligns me with what some describe as a "red letter Christian". In other words when I am reflecting on Scripture I give more weight, more priority to the words of Jesus than anything else. It does not mean I restrict the Bible to only the words of Jesus but it does mean that everything is tested against the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I again find this puts me into conflict with the Newfrontiers approach which tends to put more focus on the writing of Paul.

So what is my approach?

The most important individual tool for me in using the Bible is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. That means I explore an issue using 4 sources which in priority order are

  • Scripture
  • Tradition
  • Reason
  • Experience

So the highest authority is given to Scripture but my understanding is explored by relating it to all the others. A key element of this approach that was assumed in the past but with our society needs to be handled explicitly is that this process is not individualistic but done as and in community. My understanding needs to be mediated by the Christian Community that I am a part of (and the more that is connected into wider Christian Communities the better).

In a way the Wesleyan Quadrilateral fits well with my understanding of the Hermeneutic Circle. Using the elements of tradition, reason and experience allows me to explore in a deliberate way what affects the way I approach Scripture. Far better to be be aware of these than ignore them.

However, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is not the only approach I take to Scripture. It can easily be too intellectual and so it is important to me to balance this with other ways of approaching Scripture such as through worship or meditation.

Hopefully this first post sets the scene for why I appear to Newfrontiers to be slow to use Scripture when I want to challenge a their views on gender and equality.

13 thoughts on “Using the Bible on issues such as equality part 1

  1. Simplepastor

    Especially this one (http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog/article/pigs-and-blankets) where you’ll see Andrew doesn’t argue for a detail, verse approach as he says the question is, ” The crucial question is the last one: do we have a worked through hermeneutic that undergirds the decisions we make about how to apply the scriptures? Do we have a clear view of the narrative shape of the Bible, and why it is that we follow certain biblical commands and not others?”

    Reply
  2. Dave

    Phil/Simplepastor,
    Firstly, this post was not intended as an attack on Andrew but more a positive exploration of how I understand we can/should use the Bible. If that did not come across it was probably due to in large part to writing it late at night.
    I have stayed up and read a lot of posts on WhatYouThinkMatters. I hear what you are saying about Andrew’s posts and taking the bigger picture.
    However, Andrew’s bigger hermeneutic is about a narrative, it is not a circle, it does not include much at all about understanding being influenced by and influencing our experience. Instead his approach still comes across to me as a modernist one. That can be summarised for me as “there is a right answer that can be proved and will be authoritative for all.”
    Secondly, for all the talk about bigger narrative there is also still a sense that the real work on equality happens when you look at individual verses. So while the post on the Pink Pamphlet starts with an overview that is positive on gender equality including looking at the way Jesus acted it then suddenly switches to the standard Newfrontiers approach of verse by verse critique. Suddenly the bigger picture is lost of how these verses connect to the Gospels, to the Kingdom of God, to our understanding of the nature of God. Again the focus switches from Jesus to Paul.

    Reply
  3. Simplepastor

    I didn’t say anything about ‘attack’ Dave, simply that I thought you’d not done him justice in what you wrote. No need to escalate it.
    I’ll be interested to read your ongoing explanation of how you read the Bible, especially how your position would be ‘non-modernist’, because it certainly comes across that you think, ‘there is a right answer that should be authoritative for all’ – at the very least on the issue of gender roles.

    Reply
  4. Dave

    Phil,

    because it certainly comes across that you think, ‘there is a right answer that should be authoritative for all’ – at the very least on the issue of gender roles.

    I think that this is a good example of the hermeneutic circle at work. That comes from your belief in what is needed (a person in authority saying how gender roles should be).
    My view is that yes equality demands no imposed roles. But it is not providing an authoritative view for how that should happen. For example I have stated many times that I have no problem with a couple deciding that they wish to follow a male headship model in their marriage (although yes I would stress that this needs to be a free and informed decision by them both). The problem comes where they say that ALL marriages should work this way. So I have written posts that explain how our marriage works, because male headship supporters claim it is impossible. However, in those posts I made it clear that what works for us is not going to be right for everyone else.
    In the same way saying that all roles should be open to people regardless of gender does not mean I tell people which role they should take.
    To claim that by choosing the option that leaves people free to make their own decision is modernist and authoritative for all is somewhat perverse.

    Reply
  5. Simplepastor

    Off you go escalating things again – I ask a question based on how your position appears to me – and for my trouble, it gets called ‘perverse’. If you want to know why these conversations get frustrating; that’s a good example. If you genuinely want people from the other side of the fence to you on this issue, engaging with you and at least trying to listen then that language just doesn’t help.
    So let me try again, if you’re happy, as you say that you ‘have no problem with a couple deciding that they wish to follow a male headship model in their marriage (although yes I would stress that this needs to be a free and informed decision by them both)’
    Then why wouldn’t that same principle apply to a church? People are free to attend or not as their conscience allows and a ‘male elders or vicars for that matter’ position is after all hardly a secret.
    If that position was consistent then although you disagree with the position that Newfrontiers and others hold, you shouldn’t have a problem with it?
    No?

    Reply
  6. Dave

    Phil,
    “Then why wouldn’t that same principle apply to a church? People are free to attend or not as their conscience allows and a ‘male elders or vicars for that matter’ position is after all hardly a secret.
    If that position was consistent then although you disagree with the position that Newfrontiers and others hold, you shouldn’t have a problem with it?
    No?”
    Where have I said that Newfrontiers should not exist?
    Where have I said that people should not be free to attend the Church they want?
    Arguing against a position does not mean I think people who hold it should be lined up and shot.
    However, there is a problem that male headship is I believe inherently disabling for women (and actually for men too although in a different way).
    Therefore I am concerned that it is possible for women to be trapped in male headship (certainly there are many stories where women describe their experience in this way). Does this mean there should be no male headship Churches. No, but it does need care.

    Reply
  7. Simplepastor

    “Where have I said that Newfrontiers should not exist?
    Where have I said that people should not be free to attend the Church they want?”
    I have absolutely no idea, where was I suggesting that you did?
    “Arguing against a position does not mean I think people who hold it should be lined up and shot.”
    When it comes to Newfrontiers, you could have fooled me ;)
    I agree with you that it needs care, all leadership structures do. Male leadership is no exception to that. My own experience is that it hasn’t been ‘inherently disabling’ and often quite the opposite but an argument from experience is not enough to sway either side, is it?

    Reply
  8. Dave

    I don’t understand.

    Male leadership is no exception to that. My own experience is that it hasn’t been ‘inherently disabling’ and often quite the opposite

    You are male. Why would you find male leadership disabling?

    Reply
  9. Simplepastor

    That’s just being obtuse Dave. In over a decade of church leadership serving alongside
    many gifted women, ‘inherently disabling’ is not something anyone would have said about our church, the way it was led, or the contributions made by the men and women involved in leadership. But then I think you knew that was what I meant in the first place.

    Reply
  10. Dave

    Ok so I was teasing you.
    The problem is that you have to be discount all the women who have left or been ignored.
    The various threads on the Newfrontiers blog have plenty of examples of women being ignored and there are comments here too.

    Reply
  11. Simplepastor

    Well in this thread, it’s just you and me slugging it out. Every now and then on my blog I’ll stick my neck out and venture into this territory and if any women comment on it, I’ll do them the courtesy of a reply. And if I’m on a comments thread and someone directs a comment to me, I’ll do my best to reply to them there too, not that I always check back – sometimes life just moves you on.
    I gather you’ve had some contact with my friend Adam Voke. Hope it was a positive engagement.

    Reply
  12. Dave

    Well take a careful look at the now closed comments on the Pink Pamphlet and you will see that several women were ignored with a snotty reply from Gareth McNab who plays with words claiming nobody gets a reply from Newfrontiers where it is clear that men get answers from Newfrontiers men and women are generally ignored.
    (I am tempted to also reply to his remark about the Trinity & slavery as sadly both are abused by Male Headship, especially at the extremes.)
    Then also look at the comments on my other post If it walks like a Duck and quacks like a Duck then it is equal to a Duck to see women describe their experiences of being ignored.

    Reply

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