Meandering thoughts on Nein Quarterly, hermeneutics, a little Kierkegaard, and leading change in a Church of Christ, Part 1


From Nein. A Manifesto by Eric Jaronsinki, compiled from his Twitter feed of philosophy based humor: @neinquarterly

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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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18 Responses to Meandering thoughts on Nein Quarterly, hermeneutics, a little Kierkegaard, and leading change in a Church of Christ, Part 1

  1. Joe says:

    Jay the paradox is that some can’t even admit they have a hermeneutic. But the one they delude themselves in having is unquestionable.

  2. S.A. native says:

    ” God loves me because I worship correctly…”

    One of the main themes of the Old Testament is proper worship: wrong sacrifice, wrong fire, wrong priest, wrong penitence, and you were in deep trouble. Since we are all hammered with the OT stories, it’s no wonder we think that way.

  3. Mark says:

    I have always thought that way too much effort in the cofC was put into getting “church” right, e.g. the organization, leadership, no IM, the non-capitalizing of the c, no kitchen. Of 52 Sunday morning sermons, I’d guess 40-45 dealt with organizational issues, faults of the denominations, why we don’t do x, etc. I have even heard the pre-communion meditation used to lash out at Methodists in a flagship cofC. Sadly, Jesus was left out even on Palm Sunday, Easter, Christmas, and Ascension when the text describing the events of that day is in the Bible. I would go home on those Sundays asking “why?”, and then decided to watch the Methodist service on tv. There needs to be a return to the ancient faith, the tenets, and trying to live like Jesus. Additionally, I have always wondered if the preacher alone could make the decision to leave Jesus out or if the leadership gave the order to preach on particular topics and avoid Jesus on the big Sundays.

  4. Dwight says:

    I think we see worship in the OT and even the NT as a test to see what we will do…will we do it right or will we do it wrong. But that wasn’t the purpose of worship. Worship was the purpose of worship. Now it could be argued that for God to have a specific recipe for incense to be burned to him, when any incense would work as well, is a test. But this certain incense was only within the confines of a certain place the Temple. In general man could burn any incense to God as worship any time and any where. The Temple was about a ceremonial worship and yet God still wanted worship from the heart. The Temple and ceremonials are gone as a command and God still wants worship from the heart and yet we are still pushing ceremony. Hmmmm.
    One of the problems in the coC is pride and pride in the fact we are right. But this also sets up fear and then a fight. Because if there is found one thing, no matter how small, to be not what we think it is or have declared it to be, then it sets up the possibility that we could be wrong in other things. No one wants to go down that road, so we ignore the road. Even while telling ourselves that we are not perfect. It is like the Gomer Pyle’s Sargeant Carter’s statement, “I’m not saying I’m always right, but I’m never wrong.”
    Jay, you are right about identity. Even the word “denominational” forms an identity marker. Denominationalism is a sin, even when we can’t find the word or the condemnation of it in the scriptures. But we use it to divide ourselves from others, even though it in its truest sense also encapsulates…well everyone to some extent. If you call yourself a Christian then you a denomination of Christ who is the head. The sin doesn’t come with taking on a name, but in dividing over that name or association according to I Cor. with others that have different names. But if we don’t do that, then where is our identity. Maybe our identity should be in Christ and not a name or group name.

  5. laymond says:

    “God loves me because he made me, and he saves me because I believe in Jesus.”

    Jay , that statement is pretty much on the money, isn’t it?

    Jhn 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
    Jhn 3:17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
    Jhn 3:18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

  6. laymond says:

    “God loves me because he made me, and he saves me because I believe in Jesus.”

    I know there are those among us who say Jesus was the creator, but just like John, I don’t believe that.
    Some here even say John said Jesus was the creator in chap.#1 but then the rest of the book says he is not. huuum, hard for me to grasp.

  7. Dwight says:

    Ummm, Laymond, it is maybe because I have a morbid curiosity, but where in John does it say or indicate that Jesus was not God/the Son of God (no one else was called the Son of God). This from what I understand was one of the main points of John, which was the point out Jesus Godliness and deity.

  8. Ben says:

    Laymond, with respect, how does your comment about Jesus not being the creator meaningfully contribute to this discussion? I appreciate Jay’s open comment policy, but sometimes I have to stop reading the comments when they diverge into unrelated theological topics.

  9. Monty says:

    Laymond, it isn’t that hard. God made the world. Jesus made the world. Both are affirmed in scripture. Therefore, Jesus is God. And by the way, God isn’t a name, it’s a title. If Jesus isn’t God(deity), then both God(deity) and Jesus(non-deity, according to you) made the world. See the predicament you are faced with? You end up with saying God made the world but it was through a non-God man(only) son of God. That’s stranger and harder to believe than there is a God( a singular deity) who exists in 3 persons who created and sustains, and who condescended and took on humans flesh and died for our sins.

  10. Mark says:

    This is quickly becoming a discussion of Christology.
    The creed uses the exact terminology of Augustine’s On the Trinity (published 415 AD).

    There is a whole discussion of St. Athanasius here
    and homoousion here

  11. Bob Brandon says:

    Jay, you’re a soul of wide-ranging interests; Nein Quarterly is really good.

  12. Monty says:

    Excellent article! Hit the nail on the head. We who pride ourselves on proper interpretation and compliance unwittingly trap ourselves into not being able to change(at least not without much weeping and gnashing of teeth), forever reading the same scripture and always coming to the same foregone conclusions, not on a “thus saith anyone” mind you but on matters where the scripture is silent and permissive. We paint ourselves into the proverbial corner and the only way out is to mess up the pretty art work our hands have made, which we had already hailed as being the finest artwork around (which seems to most to be an unbearable thought). Most would rather just live the rest of their days denying they were trapped in a corner and pretend their walls are the perfect hue and that the corner they’re in didn’t happen by accident or by a faulty usage of a particular hermeneutic, but by the careful, well reasoned, intellectually superior, attention to detail of their spiritual (Sherwin -Williams) forefathers. Oh, the irony! It would be so much easer if we were just Catholic, but at least in one way we are. We deny the holy(or not so) decisions of an earthly pontiff, but on the other hand our traditions carry the weight of scripture.

  13. Dwight says:

    Monty, This I see is the fundamental flaw in pulpit preachers
    1. preachers were to preach the good news to the lost (outside world) not the saved (in assembly)
    2. pulpit preachers will recycle status quo thinking and seek to keep it, as any differing thought will be seen as a failure of the preacher. Any out-side-of-the-box thinking is not good and quickly hushed.
    3. pulpit preachers preach dogma or creeds, esp. in coC, that don’t indicate what we are to do or how in being a saint, but rather what we must do to be saved or what will happen if we don’t do the creed or dogma in being lost. It isn’t about Christian living as much as it is about church attending.

    I once promised myself that if I ever became a preacher, the stipulation would be that I would preach only once a week and spend the rest of the time on evangelism.

  14. Mark says:

    Jay is very good about allowing the comments to go wherever they go. Perhaps we need to have a discussion of just what preachers are supposed to do vs what they actually do vs what people wished they would do. Isaiah said in 40:1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. This must have been important because it’s said twice, according to commentary of the rabbis. Jesus told Peter written by John in 21:17 feed my sheep. Many people wish the preacher were more of pastor or spiritual leader. The elders want the preacher doing everything including their bidding. The people want/need a shepherd. Something needs to change.

  15. laymond says:

    Monty said; “Laymond, it isn’t that hard. God made the world. Jesus made the world. Both are affirmed in scripture. Therefore, Jesus is God.”

    Surely the angel that spoke to Mary knew all these things,strange to me he never mentioned that God would be living in her for 9 months. Baffling that the world is not big enough to contain God, but a woman’s womb did the job. We need to take into consideration the whole bible before we start makings statements like “God was born of a woman”. That would truly make Mary the mother of God. I know the Catholics pray to Mary, Jesus and a few other saints, but I didn’t know the CoC had come around completely to their way of thinking. The Roman Catholics also came up with the creeds that seem so popular in the church today. so I suppose the Church has truly become “The universal Church”

    Mat 1:1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
    Mat 1:16 And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
    Mat 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
    Mat 1:20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
    Mat 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

    Luk 1:31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
    Luk 1:32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

  16. Monty says:


    Good points. Very true.

  17. laymond says:

    Jay asks , WHO ARE WE ? I can’t tell you who we are, but I can tell you who we ain’t, we are just like The old gray mare,
    She ain’t what she used to be
    Ain’t what she used to be,
    Ain’t what she used to be
    The old gray mare,
    She ain’t what she used to be
    Many long years ago.

  18. Larry Cheek says:

    Are you trying to state that today we are better than those, “many long years ago”.
    We should be because we have more knowledgeable information available than those whom many seem to believe were experts.

    I really do believe that, (the old gray mare) is greatly advanced in knowledge by her experience and learning than she was when she was a young mare. This concept alone should validate that age is beneficial to all relationships between man and God. Therefore, no old man or church (group of old men) should ever have remained as they were as new born Disciples.

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