Hermeneutics and change in church
As you know, I’m an avid reader of Richard Beck’s blog Experimental Theology (a title I wish I’d thought of — and thought of before he did. I’m so very jealous.) And he recently posted this regarding hermeneutics and Protestantism “Owning Your Protestantism” —
Here’s the situation, I told the group, you have to own the fact that you are Protestants (as am I). Which means that you are never going to land on an uncontested “biblical view.” Protestants have never agreed on what the Bible says. Just look at all the Protestant churches. Underneath the conversation about the “biblical view” what you are searching for is a hermeneutical consensus, the degree to which your community can tolerate certain hermeneutical choices.
Stretch the hermeneutical fibers too thin and the consensus snaps. People can’t make the leap. The view is deemed “unbiblical.” But if you keep the changes within the hermeneutical tolerances of the community the consensus holds and the view is deemed “biblical.”
But let’s be honest, I said, what we are discerning here is more sociological than Biblical. We are assessing the hermeneutical tolerances and capacities of a faith community because at the end of the day it’s consensus you are after.
Now, it’s beyond argument that Beck is right to say that we Protestants have never and will never reach consensus on the Bible in its entirety. And we do seek a certain conformity to our hermeneutical choices. In fact, one way we try (unsuccessfully) for consensus is by talking about hermeneutics and trying to agree on them.
And, yes, when the hermeneutics get stretched too far, we schism. I’ve got 500 years of evidence in my briefcase. There is no magisterium to tell us what to believe. Hence, we are all slaves to our individual consciences. Which is very bad. But what’s the alternative? (We’ll come back to this question.)
What is actually going on in a group on the cusp of a change during a “season of discernment” when they set out to “study an issue,” which might involve inviting people like me into the discussion, is the cultivation of hermeneutical capacities and the assessment of hermeneutical tolerances. If the capacities and tolerances are there for the change you change. If not, you go back to working on capacities and tolerances. That, or you stay the course and don’t change.
True, but not true enough. Let me explain. Suppose a church is considering ordaining female deacons. They are Protestants with congregational autonomy. That makes it a local decision.
The disagreement within the church is not about what the Bible says (everyone uses the NIV), but whether what it says applies today. That is, in truth, a hermeneutical question. Sermons are preached and classes taught on hermeneutics. The leaders cultivate hermeneutical capacities and assess hermeneutical tolerances. They try to educate the members into either agreeing with the leaders or agreeing that the question is sufficiently difficult that they should tolerate disagreement. We tend, for unstated reasons, to give more grace when the answer is not clear to us. It’s hard to damn someone for being wrong when you’re not sure that you’re right. But if you’re certain of your position, then … damn away.
So the process becomes an exercise in teaching hermeneutical humility. The case against your point of view is stronger than you imagine. You might actually be on the wrong side here.
And yet there’s something about a church controversy that closes minds, even while the preacher is pounding the pulpit for open minds — because the members know that the plea for an open mind is really a Trojan horse argument for female deacons — which is sin and will send us all straight to hell, the Bible being silent on the subject. Which is not remotely true, but it’s what we were all taught by our grandparents and the preacher who baptized us and our beloved, childhood Bible class teachers, and it’s devilishly hard to shake the instinct to run home to legalism when the going gets tough.
Aligning emotions with the intellect
Worse yet, this is not nearly the biggest factor in play — not in a Church of Christ. Many people will be in total intellectual agreement but unable to retrain their emotions to attend a church where women carry a title such as “deacon.” It can take even a rather open-minded person months or years for what they know is right to feel right. I’m not the psychologist, but my experience is that people don’t want to go to church and feel wrong even if they know they’re right.
A change in story
The cure for this is either very slow change (although I’m not sure how you slowly ordain a woman as deacon) or else the wholesale replacement of the story in which our members live. That is, rather than living the story: God loves me because I worship correctly, perhaps we replace that story with: God loves me because he made me, and he saves me because I believe in Jesus.
I’m sure most of our hermeneutical problems are really living-in-the-wrong-story problems. But we in the Churches of Christ don’t know how to do narrative theology. We don’t know how to tell a better story. In fact, had the church leaders begun telling a better story many years earlier, this would be a far easier transition.
Now, if you persuade your members to adopt a better story, they will go through a difficult transition. Again, it could take years for them to feel at home in their new story — but the issues will be so far removed from what the church of their childhood talked about, they won’t feel the need to run home to legalism to feel safe. But this still is no quick and easy fix. (And we’ll return to this topic. I know I’ve not be entirely clear.)
You ruined my Thanksgiving!
And then there’s the family-dynamic problem, called “My Thanksgivings are ruined because you ordained female deacons!” I may be cool with the whole thing — 100% on board — but my mom, dad, and big sister aren’t, and they’re going to be hateful to me at Thanksgiving over this. Which should tell me that they are practicing a false religion, right? I mean, the very idea of making a family member feel unloved and unwelcome over such a thing demonstrates that they’re steeped in legalism — which is bad. And letting them emotionally extort conformity to their legalism is to submit to their sin. So I really shouldn’t yield to my family’s emotional blackmail. But if that’s a problem for me, it’s been a problem literally my entire life, and the preacher can’t fix it with a five-part sermon series. (Although I can see a place for carefully worked out drama as a way to help our members feel through the transition.)
So our circle of hermeneutical consensus needs to include our members’ extended families, who aren’t at our church to hear our marvelous sermons. It’s a problem. I mean, a problem that can’t be fixed with a sermon series is a pretty bad problem. What other solution could there be?
Who are we?
And then there’s the identity issue. You see, despite all our pronouncements regarding being non-denominational, we see ourselves as “the people who cared enough about the Bible to obey its clear instructions on deacons (among many, many other things).” When we no longer care about banning female deacons, we lose our sense of identity. If we’re not that, then who are we? Silently, subconsciously, we ask, “How are we better than the Baptists?” because it’s always been about being able to look down on “the denominations” — meaning most especially the Baptists and their huge, red brick buildings. There is something powerfully compelling, even addicting, when it comes to feeling superior to others. And so, when we change positions on anything, we feel less superior, we eat a little humble pie, and we go through superiority withdrawal.
In fact, we go through something called “liminality,” that is, disorientation resulting from losing markers of our identity. A change in story does the same. Being forced to be in conflict with our family can be profoundly liminal, too. All these things can be highly disorienting, and most people hate that feeling.
Of course, younger members find it easier to change because they’re in a phase of their lives where change is routine — go to college, get a job, marry, have children — these are all huge transitions that all happen within a few years. Older people haven’t had to deal with such major life changes in decades, and for them, a major change feels like starting over. And who wants to do that at 65 or 80?
And so our members either flee to another church which is like what our old church was, or flee to a very different church with a very clear identity (so they never have to experience liminality again), or they form a new identity where they are. The ones who stay are therefore looking to re-form their identity. The leaders need to help.
So I think Beck is right (but he understates the difficulty of the problem), and Nein Quarterly is filled with unexpected, even unintended insight into our peculiarities as a denomination — because our philosophy is in some respects as deconstructionist as the Post-modern deconstructionists. While we claim that we have found the Truth behind the words, we’ve really only found ourselves — which is why it always comes back to identity.