We have already stated the first rule of interpretation — know your own biases and avoid interpreting to satisfy them. It is far too easy to find a shallow, too-convenient argument that just happens to support what you want to believe and then persuade yourself that the argument is God’s own truth.
Second, we must not take the most difficult passages, impose our preferred views on them, and then use our human conclusions to reinterpret (or just ignore) the plainer passages that don’t suit our prejudices. For a seeker of the truth, the path is clear: start with the basics, meaning what the Bible says are the basics. And then work toward the more ambiguous passages.
It is easy to unconsciously reason in circles. For example, suppose that we read 1 Timothy 2:11-15 with our traditional church biases in mind to conclude that women cannot have authority over men. This passage bases its teachings on Genesis 2. We then turn to Genesis 2 and interpret it to say that women cannot have authority over men — basing our interpretation on 1 Timothy 2:11-15. We then turn back to 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and argue that our interpretation must be right because it is supported by our interpretation of Genesis 2!
To avoid this, we must first look at the scripture that is not so difficult. Does the Bible support our position from unambiguous passages interpreted without benefit of the difficult passages? Or do the unambiguous passages actually contradict our proposed interpretation of the difficult passages? If so, to avoid reasoning in a circle, we must discipline ourselves to reject the proposed interpretation and to accept an interpretation that is consistent with the rest of the Bible.
Third, and most importantly, the “basics” are not just the plainer passages. Rather, we must begin with the first principles, that is, what the Bible says are the first principles. Anything that contradicts the New Testament’s teachings on salvation by grace is false doctrine, no matter how appealing the arguments may be. Any interpretation that contradicts the New Testament’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit and His working within each Christian is a lie. Of course, there is much more.
And yet we immediately see one of the biggest problems facing the Churches of Christ today. We don’t even agree on the principles that form the basis of all New Testament doctrine. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in nearly every opening of the New Testament from John through Jude (and in the other books, but just not as often), and yet we are still debating whether the Holy Spirit has done anything since AD 100!
If we can’t agree on what all the verses dealing with the Spirit mean, how can we hope to reach agreement on the other verses? They cannot be interpreted independently of an understanding of how God works in our lives as Christians today!
And for that matter, we still struggle with the nature and scope of grace. Grace permeates every Christian doctrine. In fact, everything we are told in the New Testament is a logical corollary of a sound understanding of grace and the workings of the Spirit. And yet we still find our brothers bickering over whether Christians are saved by faith or works.
Until we reach a common understanding of how we’re saved, why we’re saved, and even whether we’re saved, we are in no position to discuss much of anything intelligently — or more importantly — spiritually. To speak plainly, discussing any difficult issue, such as the role of women, with someone who deeply misunderstands the workings of the Holy Spirit or the power of God’s grace is like trying to explain space travel or the theory of gravity to someone who believes in a flat Earth. You simply do not have enough of a common understanding of the nature of things to converse on the subject.
I do not mean that you and I must agree on every nuance of theology to be able to talk about women and the Church. Far from it. But the answers to the hardest questions, such as those regarding women, ultimately are found in a deep, rich awareness of our relationship with God and what He has done and is doing for us.
The failure of the Churches of Christ to reach a consensus on these elements has quite naturally resulted in disputes in many other areas. But studying the role of women, and even reaching an agreement on the subject, if that were possible, would only be treating a symptom and not the cause of the problem. When we are all more spiritually minded, many things that seem very hard today will appear trivially easy, and much of what seems easy will prove to be very hard indeed.
I will make many arguments that draw support from my understanding of grace and the Holy Spirit, and these arguments will appear senseless to those who see things fundamentally differently. But here is where the test of truth is found: is my position grace-filled and Spirit-filled? or is my position law-filled?
(2 Cor 3:6) He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Finally, we will often be forced to decide whether a command is binding today or was imposed due to temporary circumstances that no longer apply. Some will feel very uncomfortable with such considerations and will even wonder whether such an approach is “liberal.” But such questions are far from liberal. In fact, we have traditionally taught that very many commands no longer apply.
For example, we don’t greet one another with the Holy Kiss, despite the New Testament’s repeated commands to do so (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; I Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). We correctly reason that people always greeted one another with a kiss in the First Century (much as Arabs and Southern Europeans do today). Therefore, we conclude that the choice of greeting — kissing — is a feature of the local culture, rather than an eternal command.
We determine whether kissing is to be an eternal ordinance for the church by looking not just at the command itself, but also at the reason behind the command. Clearly, there is good reason to urge a warm greeting among brothers and sisters (“Love one another.”) Is there a good reason to make kissing the forever-form of the greeting?
Finding none, we conclude that the command to greet warmly is to last for the life of the church, whereas the means of greeting depends on the local and temporary culture. Thus, we “culturally limit” the command, and this is sound Bible scholarship.
So even “direct commands” do not always bind Christians today. We must always look at the reason behind the command and ask whether the reason is eternal and whether the way that the command is to be honored is also eternal. The command to greet one another warmly is eternal. The means of so doing was temporary.
We feel very comfortable with this approach in areas that preserve our traditions. But we feel uncertain, even unsafe, when this approach is applied to challenge our traditions. But the principle is sound and the Churches of Christ have followed this principle since our beginnings.