We all have a tendency to find in the Bible what we expect to find. The Pharisee finds plenty of commands to impose on his brothers. The liberal finds language that excuses just about any conduct. The male chauvinist pig finds verses putting down women. The feminist finds verses putting down male chauvinist pigs.
This is why the world likes to say that you can prove anything by the Bible, and certainly it must seem that way to many. The reason anything can be “proven” by the Bible is that we often only look for what we want to find, and we thus accept as proof anything that supports what we like.
If this is not so, then why are there so many denominations all studying the same Bible, using many of the same reference materials, with 2,000 years of research and scholarship available for all who will look, and yet disagreeing about very many things? Why can’t members of even the same Sunday School class or eldership agree on every point?
To avoid simply studying to prove ourselves right, we must first look at ourselves squarely in the mirror. After all, no one reads the Bible consciously intending to misunderstand it. Those who misunderstand it do so for reasons that are invisible to themselves. They think that they are applying logic when they are actually applying their personalities, culture, and traditions to the task.
Anyone reading this who feels that he or she is not guilty of such bias is actually guilty of the worst bias of all — having so little self-awareness and introspection that he can’t do anything about his biases.
I am not foolhardy enough to believe that we can shed all our biases like an old overcoat, but we should all be honest enough to at least admit that we have some biases.
A critical step toward shedding our biases is disciplining ourselves to read, and even study, the opinions of those who disagree with us We study those with whom we disagree because it is, after all, those who disagree with us who have the most to teach us. If we only listen to those within our own party, we will soon consider ourselves virtually inspired, because we will have not been proven wrong for years! But testing our views against the steel of those we disagree with (and I mean the most talented of our opponents) allows us to match our reasoning against someone with very different biases from our own.
We must study our opponents first hand. If I study, for example, the views of Creation Science by reading the criticisms of Creation Science written by those who disagree with it, I will only understand Creation Science as distorted by those who disagree with it. If I study evolution by only reading the works of those who disagree with it, then I will only understand it well enough to disagree with it. We must have the courage and the integrity to study both sides — not one side and propaganda about the other side.
Only an intellectual coward would refuse such a test, and yet we do not routinely study commentaries, books, or articles by those we disagree with, even within our own Restoration Movement. I cannot believably contend that I have reached a conclusion based on logic and the facts without having even bothered to study the views of any side but the side that I decided should win — before I began my study.
To be truly honest students of the Bible, we must be as open to persuasion as we ask others to be. If I ask a Presbyterian friend to study predestination with me, I should not only expect him to be willing to change his views based on the evidence our study produces, I should be willing to do the same. Of course, I think that I’m right, and I’m sure that I’ve studied the question very carefully. But so has he. I have no monopoly on strongly held opinions. I am nothing but a pompous, self-righteous hypocrite if I think that everyone is wrong except me and that everyone except me should be willing to reconsider his views.
This bit of insight did not come to me in a flash. Rather, I figured all this out by being humbled over the years. I once thought that I knew all the answers. As I grew older, I found my positions changing. Before each change, I knew to an absolute certainty that I was right, but I later learned that I was wrong.
I am still certain of my positions, but I now know that I am capable of being wrong regardless of how sure I am. But as I gain experience, I am slowly peeling off the layers of biases, intellectual laziness, and just plain bad habits that have clouded my thinking in the past. And I am sure that I am picking up a new set of biases in the process, but hopefully some that aren’t quite as Pharisaic as my last set!
And so I must continually rededicate myself to ridding myself of these corrupting influences, but never imagine that I have totally done so. I must be vigilant against cowardice, bigotry, and catering to culture and even to the editors of influential Church periodicals.
So, what are our biases? What should we look for in ourselves before beginning this study? The following are some of the ones that I’ve encountered, in myself and in others:
Change. We are very, very afraid of change. Even the slightest variation in our practices will throw many of our members into a panic. We struggle with children’s church, decorating the auditorium with a cross, skipping the invitation, and singing unfamiliar or “trendy” songs.
I’ve read letters and articles condemning singing during the Lord’s Supper (we can’t have two acts of worship at once), baptizing at home instead of at church (we must make converts loyal to the church), clapping (where is that in the Bible?), multiple song leaders (someone might think that it’s a quartet), men serving at the Lord’s Table without coats and ties (disrespectful), men serving at the Lord’s Table with coats and ties (pretentious; tending toward clerical garb), and even a preacher having a gold pen in his pocket while speaking (distracting).
There are biblical arguments to be made on a few of these points, but the reason that these sorts of things are as emotional as they are is our fear of change — any change at all. And that feeling is a bias. To become Christians, we had to accept change. To mature as Christians, we must continue to change.
The past. We venerate the past. The way we did things when we were children or how daddy used to do it is often more important to us than how Jesus said to do it.
Some of this comes from our Southern heritage. Most Church of Christ members live in the southern United States, and we Southerners all have strong attachments to our families and our collective past. Nonetheless, none of us wants to go back to the horse and buggy or even black and white TVs — or to give up our air conditioning!
Southerners celebrate the past, but we don’t really try to live in it. And yet in the Church, we tend to think that we’d be more comfortable if we could just conduct church just like we used to, with seven-day long meetings, an occasional tent meeting with sawdust on the floor, and preachers who never preach on anything we don’t already believe in.
Conformity. While the Churches of Christ take a certain pleasure in not conforming to the practices of other churches, among ourselves, conformity is the name of the game. One false sermon and the church down the road will disfellowship you, someone will publish an article declaring you “marked,” and your preachers will never be able to get a job anywhere else.
We practice church autonomy in theory only. Too many churches claim the right to judge the positions of every other church on whatever issue is in fashion and visit God’s wrath on all whom they disagree with by the severest peer pressure. God says, “Vengeance is mine!” (Rom. 12:19 KJV), but far too many of us are self-appointed angels of retribution, and we routinely arrogate to ourselves the judgment of God Almighty.
Modern culture. We cannot escape the society in which we live. This is the 21st Century whether we like it or not. We are all being forced by events beyond our control to deal with questions of homosexuality, divorce, extra-marital sex, abortion, and the like. In the 1950’s such matters were not even discussed in polite society. Now they fill the headlines and TV news reports.
We can hardly be surprised that these times influence our views on the role of women, worship, and such. And the influence cuts two ways. Some of us are too tied to the present, and we expect God’s church to be just like the world. If society accepts a homosexual couple, then so must the church, we feel.
Others are contrarians. Such people feel that if society is pushing for a greater role for women in the church, then we must not. We sometimes go out of our way to differentiate ourselves from the world, even if it means being wrong.
Both views are wrong. We must define our beliefs by the Bible only — neither by society nor by opposition to society.
Pandering to the right wing. As a group, we are guilty of pandering to those more legalistic than us. It is considered fair game to call those on the left wing (less legalistic) “liberals” and to question their acceptance of the inspiration of scripture. However, it is considered bad taste and divisive to call those on the right wing “Pharisees” (at least in print) or to criticize them as divisive.
We are anxious to maintain good relations with those more legalistic than us, but we take wild swings at those less legalistic. We see unity as a virtue only if it is with someone more legalistic than ourselves. Not surprisingly, those more legalistic than us apply the same unwritten rule, declare us to be liberals and make little effort to be united with us. Unity across doctrinal lines is a one-way street, and therefore exists much more in theory than in practice.
In our sermons, we are very careful to say nothing that will offend those on the right. I have heard sermons that were designed to teach a broad view of grace or the indwelling of the Spirit preached in such watered down terms that the more legalistic members of the church were convinced that the preacher agreed with them on every point. We rarely state plainly why the Pharisees are Pharisees, for fear that they will be “offended” at the criticism. But in so doing, we also fail to persuade them of their error or to effectively rebuke their false teachings.
This bias of ours gives the legalists a platform and opportunity to be heard, while those less legalistic than us often get no hearing at all. Not surprisingly, this bias puts strong pressure on the Church toward legalism and away from grace. We lop off our leftward members and kowtow to our rightward members, and so the church as a whole continually drifts toward its legalistic side.
And yet Christ spent far more of His brief time on earth preaching against the Pharisees, the legalists of the day, than preaching against the Saduccees, the “liberals” of the day. And His condemnation of the Pharisees was not just that they were hypocrites, but that they insisted on demonstrating their salvation based on rules made by men, binding unbearable interpretations in an effort to be safe from the wrath of God. We should heed the warning of John 12:42-43:
Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
Safety. We are now getting to the heart of the matter. We want to be saved, and to be saved, we must be safe. Thus, when in doubt, we do the most legalistic thing possible — we make a rule. When we are discussing some controversial point of doctrine in class, doesn’t the class nearly always end with someone saying, “Well, those arguments are all well and good, but the safe thing to do is what we have always done”?
When in doubt about what the Bible says, the safe thing to do is not to make a rule. Adding to God’s Word is just as wrong as taking away from it. The safe thing to do is trust God’s grace and lean on the great, overriding principles of scripture — God’s love for us, His forgiveness, the personality and example of Jesus, the cross, God’s grace, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our relationship with Jesus.
Rules upon rules. We often assume without proof that the Bible has a rule for whatever concerns us. For example, many believe that the Bible plainly teaches about how to use the church building. They open their Bibles, go looking for such rules, and — sure enough! — they find them. This is so even though church buildings weren’t even built until the Bible had been finished for nearly 300 years!
Jesus is not the second coming of Moses. Moses was a lawgiver. Jesus came to rescue us from law. We find safety in the cross and graciousness of our Lord. Rules don’t save. Jesus saves, and we are in Jesus by faith — that is faith that He is the Son of God and that God raised Him from the dead (Rom. 10:8-9).
Overlooking the Old Testament and the Gospels. When the role of women comes up, we want to jump straight to 1 Cor 14:32-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-15 and start exegeting them with very little consideration of the context in which they were written. Indeed, overlooking the impact of the Old Testament and the Gospels has been a problem in the Churches of Christ for a long time.
Paul wrote both passages in explicit reliance on Genesis. Genesis! You can’t plausibly begin an interpretation without first exegeting Genesis 1-3. Nor should we imagine that the Gospels do not somehow apply here. I mean, events recorded in the Gospels surely form the foundation for much of Paul’s thinking.
Conclusion. Certainly, not all congregations are guilty of the biases and misconduct that I am describing. I’m sure that only a minority of churches behave as I describe. I hope that is the case. But enough of our brothers behave in this manner that we always take their condemning attitudes into account in making decisions, and subconsciously, even when we read our Bibles.
Even in those congregations where such attitudes do not predominate, there will nearly always be enough members steeped in such attitudes that the leaders feel compelled to consider their intolerance in setting policy. Given the contentious, divisive attitudes of so many of our brothers, no leader within the churches would look forward to finding some biblical command that compels him to lead his church away from conformity.
Solution. The solution is, of course, grace — or more precisely, a proper understanding of grace, as we’ll consider in the next post.
Moreover, we must take the study in proper order. We start at the beginning. Literally. We start in Genesis. We’ll work our way through the Old Testament, the Gospels, and then we’ll finally get to Paul.
However, before we get to the “role of women in the church” verses, we have to interpret the “role of women in a marriage” verses. You see, Genesis 1-3 says much about marriage and nothing directly about the church. Before we look at the broader question of how men and women relate under new covenant, we have to first consider how Paul interprets Genesis 1-3 in the context of marriage. He’ll have the same interpretation in the church-organization passages, of course.
I noticed some time ago that we exegeted Genesis one way when teaching marriage, another way when talking about women teaching Bible class, and even another way when doing systematic theology and discussing the Fall of Man. We have to get our thinking consistent, you know. So it’ll take a while to get to 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2, but when we do, we’ll be well equipped to understand Paul’s teachings.