‘It’s dangerous to loosen foundation stones!’ (Thomas Manton)
That’s true. Chipping away at basic Christian doctrines—which is what the speaker meant—is always ill-advised; it is at our peril that we tinker with, say, the inspiration of Scripture or the deity of Christ. But surely many secondary issues of Christian belief, the theological equivalents of artexing a ceiling or removing a mock-tudor frontage, stand open to adjustment without threatening the whole structure?
When we come to Christ we naturally take on the theological framework of those who lead us to him, or of the church we first join. There is so much to learn, such a glorious treasury of truth to rejoice in, that we can’t examine and reach personal convictions on each item straight away. But with time that changes. As we become more familiar with the Lord, his ways and his Word, we begin to wonder whether some of the views we took on trust at the beginning now need adjusting.
This was certainly my experience, reared as I was in the Brethren. Going away to university got the ball rolling. I found myself in a Christian Union with students from a wide spectrum of churches and denominations. They were all deeply committed to Christ and to the Bible as God’s Word, yet didn’t agree on everything, and I found myself reading Scripture with a new urgency, wanting to settle my opinions on a dozen doctrinal issues.
As I have got older the ground-shifting has become less frequent and I have felt comfortable with my growing overall grasp of the Bible and its teaching. Until recently, that is, and the issue this time has been the role of women in marriage and the church.
My cultural background dictated my starting point. I remember my grandmother saying, when I was a child, ‘The master will be home soon.’ She meant her husband would soon be back from work for his evening meal. Her choice of words reflected his position as the undisputed head of the household and her own as the little woman dutifully serving him and looking after the children. My own parents were less hierarchical in outlook, but even so I was happy with the books I read in the 1970s that established a scriptural basis for ascribing to the woman a secondary position in marriage and excluding her from leadership in the church.
The problem with this approach was knowing where, in the nitty-gritties of real church life, to draw the line. Some were happy for women to exercise leadership, including taking significant initiatives, as long as they did so under the oversight and approval of male elders, while others would question why competent women couldn’t make leadership decisions in their own right. Where, in practice, did one draw the line between restriction and permission? Could a woman head up the children’s work? Yes. Could she be an elder? No. Could she be a deacon(ess)? Maybe. Somebody at some point had to draw a legalistic line.
I knew, of course, that some Christians took an egalitarian view, but I could never square that with the New Testament’s apparently clear endorsement of male leadership and female submission. What caused me to shift ground was a further tweak in my understanding of biblical hermeneutics.
Most serious Christians want to be biblical in all they believe and do. The big question is: what do we mean by ‘biblical’? One could say that adultery and murder-by-proxy are biblical, because the Bible records that David committed both. That is ridiculous, of course, because the unspoken assumption is that by ‘biblical’ we mean what the Bible prescribes rather than what it simply describes, and when Paul urges wives to submit to their husbands and doesn’t permit women to teach in the church I had taken his word as prescriptive.
What wobbled me now was the realisation that even some of the New Testament’s commands and directives, because they were issued at a specific time in history and into a specific cultural situation, may never have been intended to set a pattern for all time and every culture. I had always been comfortable with a hermeneutic of development from Old Testament to New but had never considered that there might be a development from the New Testament era—the first century AD—into later history. I now came to realise that there is in fact such a development. In the nature of the situation it can’t be explicit, but the pointers are clearly there.
Take slavery as a case in point. It was widespread in the Old Testament and endemic in the New. Many of the first Christians were slaves. The New Testament writers like Paul addressed Greco-Roman society as it was, not as they would have liked it to be. They were teaching their readers how to act in a Christian manner inside the society and culture of their day so as not to bring the gospel into disrepute. So Paul commanded Christian slaves to be obedient to their masters and Christian masters to treat their slaves considerately. Peter does the same. Does this mean, then, that slavery is ‘biblical’? Is our hermeneutic to be based on a ‘frozen in time’ historical situation so that what was applicable in the first century remains, by definition, equally applicable twenty centuries later? If we say yes we are obliged not only to condone slavery but to actively encourage it. And some have done so: the Dutch settlers in southern Africa, for instance, had no hesitation in making slaves of the black indigenous inhabitants on the grounds that their action had biblical backing. Americans in the south of the USA took a similar view.
Most of us recognise, however, that we can never in good conscience sanction slavery. The exodus is one pointer to God’s desire to end it. Another is Paul’s advice to slaves that, should they get a chance to gain their freedom, they should take it without hesitation. The trajectory of what has been called ‘redemptive movement’ in Scripture continues beyond the Greco-Roman world into later centuries and on into the future of God’s purposes. People like William Wilberforce saw this clearly and it inspired their efforts to end slavery once for all.
I came to realise that the same process is relevant to the situation of women in marriage and the church. The New Testament taught a Christian attitude appropriate to a first-century society in which the husband was expected to be dominant anyway and the wife obliged to be not only submissive but, in many cases, little more than a chattel. Women were barely educated, their opinions counted for nothing and they were not seen as having anything to teach.
But the New Testament writers, in signalling in Christ the end of the main cultural distinctions of the day—Jew/Gentile, slave/free and male role/female role—set up a clear marker signalling the continuation of the liberating trajectory into the post-New Testament era, when marriage would become a partnership of mutually-supportive equals and when gifted women, once duly taught, would teach others and exercise leadership alongside gifted men. I believe this is what we should expect, and what we should put into practice today.
So yes, I’ve shifted ground quite a bit over the years, and I have no regrets. I remain quietly confident that, in holding these modified positions, I remain in line with the principles of God’s Word and in harmony with his eternal purpose.
Not everybody will be happy about my position, on several counts. Some will say that to shift ground is to cast a slur on the wise and godly people who discipled us and taught us our original theology. But it isn’t. The chances are that they, too, had shifted ground during their own pilgrimage of faith and that what we got from them was their modified thinking anyway, except that we didn’t realise it. Like us they were people of their time, and they pleased God by living according to the light they had. We ourselves will please God, not by holding ground for the sake of their reputation, but by adjusting to the further light that God has caused to break forth from his holy Word in more recent times.
Others will argue that a ‘redemptive movement’ hermeneutic is fraught with danger because it could, in theory, be used to justify all manner of dubious beliefs. So, yes, there will be some risk. All the major truths of the Christian faith are risky, none more so than the doctrine of the grace of God, which history shows can all too easily be turned into licentiousness. But we don’t for that reason ditch the doctrines of grace and embrace salvation by works, nor should, say, violent exponents of Liberation Theology be allowed to stop us proclaiming freedom in Christ Jesus, whether it be for believers in general, for slaves, or for oppressed women.
So that’s me and my moves, at least for now. A major refurbishment has taken place, one might say. But worry not; there are no loose foundation stones.
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