Jay, this year I’m teaching 1 Corinthians in one of our adult classes. And so I’ll get to address the thorny issues of divorce and remarriage and womens’ public role in the church. I’ve read your books on these subjects and you did a good job of crystalizing where my thoughts were headed after having studied, restudied, and re-restudied these issues over the years.
I’m an elder at a “mainstream” church, with a relatively small – but highly vocal – traditionalist minority. I intend to teach what I believe the Bible teaches on these touchy subjects (which is almost exactly the positions you set forth in your books), and it’s likely to create a firestorm.
I am a lawyer, but generally do a better job communicating in writing than I do orally. So, I thought I’d write a “position paper” on divorce and womens’ role and give it to the class several weeks before we hit chapters 7 and 14 so as to give folks a clear (and hopefully concise) picture of where I stand.
I’d like your input on whether you think this is a good idea. If you do (and even if you don’t), do you think I should offer to study these issues with the rest of the elders first, since virtually all of them are likely to disagree with my conclusions? And, if I study these issues with the elders and they “forbid” me from teaching my conclusions (which is likely), what advice do you have?
Thanks so much for taking time to respond, and for the time you’ve spent posting the results of your study on your blog. I read it almost daily, and have learned a great deal.
Every church and every class and every teacher is different. Obviously, there is no magic 1, 2, 3 formula. I can just tell you what I’d do and hopefully you can adapt it to your situation.
First principle: The only cure for a theologically divided church and/or eldership is the teaching of grace (empowered, of course, by God’s Holy Spirit). You can’t negotiate a solution. I’ve discussed this at the series Overseeing the Moderate Church and in the series Leading Change, and so I won’t repeat all that. If your co-elders see grace as you do, they shouldn’t forbid the teaching. Therefore, I figure they don’t. That’s the big problem here. And it’s a problem that will eventually destroy your congregation if not remedied.
Second principle: Even the elders are to be in submission to the eldership. I remember when I first taught the series on women that became Buried Talents and the series on divorce and remarriage that became But If You Do Marry … . I wasn’t an elder, and I was very glad. You see, by not being an elder, I didn’t have to contend with anyone thinking I was expressing the official position of the church … or that the church was about to appoint female elders or something. We just had a very controversial, interesting class. (And we had elders with the guts not to shut me down — one of the greatest blessings a church can have.)
Therefore, it’s critical that you make it clear you are speaking for yourself and not the eldership or the congregation. And it’s critical, I think, that you give them some warning. You see …
Third principle: Elders hate surprises. There’s a school of thought among some (youth ministers especially) that it’s better to seek forgiveness rather than permission. That’s how youth ministers get fired. And I wouldn’t do to my fellow elders what I wouldn’t want some staff member to do to me.
Now, once the elders are warned, you all can sort it out any of several ways. The best way, I think, would be for the other elders to sit in the class and respectfully participate in the discussion — and even disagree respectfully as need be. This way, they get to see the reactions of the members and hear the discussion — and the members get to see that the elders can disagree and still be loving and respectful toward each other — which I think is much better than pretending the elders agree on everything.
Again, it would be appropriate to make clear that these are your teachings and not theirs, so they don’t feel the need to defend them.
And it would be very important to communicate that the elders are nowhere near making any changes in practice or policy. Otherwise, some members may feel compelled to campaign to shut you down. No, we’re just having a dialogue … a conversation … to, as a community, study God’s word, and we know going in that there will be differing opinions, and there will be differing opinions when we’re done, and we’ll still all love and respect each other.
Fourth principle: You can’t understand women and divorce until you first understand grace. I would never attempt to cover either subject in a class where I’d not earlier covered grace and the Spirit thoroughly.
Since you’re still early in 1 Cor, I suggest you find a passage that lets you cover grace and the Spirit in depth. Chapters 1 – 4 are a great place to take it on, as the subject is unity and the Holy Spirit (which comes up again in chapters 12 – 13; you can’t avoid the topic). Is unity the result of cult-like agreement on everything? Or is there a better path to unity? (See the Amazing Grace series for lessons we used to teach a series of Bible classes on grace and the Spirit at my church. There are gobs of other materials as well on the site, but these are classroom tested.)
Therefore, I wouldn’t invite the elders to hear my lessons on women and divorce. I’d invite them to come in and participate in the lessons on grace. Get that handled, and you’re well on your way. And take whatever time it takes.
The next point isn’t a principle. It’s just my experience. When I taught my classes on MDR and on women, I waited until the end to pass out the books. I actually went home after each class and typed up the lesson I’d just taught (backwards, I know, but it works for me), and I turned the lessons into a book — adding supplemental material along the way. You can never teach as much as you prepare for.
For me, it’s less threatening to the class to start with the oral presentation. They can ask questions. Some people need to hear it several times or said in a certain way. When it’s written down, it looks like a position paper handed down from on high — especially coming from an elder.
And so my approach has been to teach and then hand out the notes, saying that I realize many people remained unconvinced or would like the chance to re-study the material to see if they really do agree with me. This way it comes across as: here’s what I think, study it, and see if you agree. (Some people come from dysfunctional churches and so have trouble with the idea that an elder might teach from a position of hermeneutical humility. They need to hear it more than once: “This is just what I think. You don’t have to agree, but please study it and let me know what you think.”)
I know of elderships that have spent lots of time and money studying a difficult issue for months before presenting it to the church. When they’re done, they have 50 hours invested in it, and then they expect the church to jump on board after a series of three 20-minute sermons. I think that’s a bad approach.
I believe in congregational hermeneutics. I want my doctrinal theories tested by anyone I can find to help — my wife, my fellow elders, my fellow Bible teachers — even thousands of internet readers. I think it’s just healthy for the elders to sit in a class with the adults and say: we’re studying this together. Tell us what you think and we’ll do the same.
(And given that your eldership seems to be more representative of the vocal minority than the rest, they’d be wise to proceed this way. An eldership without the support of the majority is in trouble.)
May God bless your teaching — and let me know what I can do to help. Call me if you wish.