Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It has been the busiest of few days and I am now drawing breath and looking forward to end of the week, which, in addition to being my birthday, is also mid-Autumn Festival and National Day. This means that people around me get to celebrate the birth of China and of me all at the same time!

3. Using the Bible in Ethics: Inconsistencies

Can I stress that in this post I am not arguing for or against a position on any of the issues mentioned (slavery, women's ordination, homosexuality) rather I am trying to look at how the Bible is being used at arriving at decisions on them as well as looking at the process by which we reach a decision.

Let me begin this post then with three simple statements:

1. In the past, some Christians led the campaign to abolish slavery, even though the text of the Bible seemed to support it.

2. In the past, some Christians accepted the ordination of women even though the text of the Bible seemed to be against it.

3. Today, some Christians, who support the abolition of slavery and accept the ordination of women, even though the text of the Bible seems to be against it, are opposed to homosexuality because the text of the Bible seems to be against it.

Isn't there an apparent inconsistency in this last statement that at the very least requires some explaining on the part of those who hold it?

In fact, the text of the Bible seems to have far more to say in support of slavery and against the ordination of women than it does about homosexuality. Now I am not here arguing that the Christians concerned are wrong in their convictions on any of these issues. I totally accept the sincerity of those involved in the campaign against slavery, for women's ordination, and against homosexuality. What I am trying to do is understand how the Bible is being used and interpreted and in what way it is authoritative for making decisions today about what is right and wrong.

A question I am also trying to answer is, if it is alright to ignore specific texts when it comes to slavery and the role of women in the Church, why must they be rigidly adhered to when it comes to homosexual behaviour? Quite simply, I suspect that the decision about all these issues is being made by all the parties concerned on grounds, possibly perfectly valid ones, other than the Bible and before the Bible itself is brought into the debate.

In using the Bible in ethics, there is amongst Christians of all varieties, a liking today for an approach that seeks to understand and follow the implications of the bigger theological message of the Gospel rather than being bound and limited to individual verses in the Bible. Themes then which emerge from the Gospel are more important and authoritative for helping us decide what is right and wrong than specific texts. So the theme that 'all are one in Christ' is more important and determinative for the Church than 1 Timothy 2 which says women shouldn't teach.

Furthermore, it is argued that, simply because the New Testament writers didn't work out the logic of the themes that they themselves teach, doesn't mean we shouldn't. There may have been all manner of reasons why they couldn't see the logic of what they preached: human weakness, a lack of time or occasion to do so, cultural limitations, prejudice, opposition and so on. It is the Gospel that we are bequeathed in the New Testament firstly, by Jesus himself, and then by his apostles that serves as our authority. Yes, of course we can learn from how the apostles and their followers applied this in their own setting and, yes, we should listen to what they themselves have to say, but we are not bound to their interpretation and practice and, indeed, sometimes we must do the opposite to it.

Now I can see the attraction of this 'themes versus texts' approach, but I remain unconvinced about it as the basis for using the Bible in ethics. I will return to why in future posts, but for the moment two problems come immediately to mind:

1. I am suspicious that the significance of these themes, in two of the areas we have considered, weren't spotted for a very long time. (18 centuries for slavery and the best part of 20 for the role of women in the Church.)

2. And, seriously and logically, is it true, for example, that the theme of 'equality in Christ' means that women should be ordained?

Isn't the truth rather that trends and themes in society at large have led Christians to take a different stand now on some issues than they did previously? Now this isn't a problem for those who believe that this is how God speaks to us today. It is a problem, though:

1. For people who, knowingly or unknowingly, have accepted that this is how he has spoken to us on some issues, but won't let him speak to us in this way on others.

2. And it most certainly is, I suggest, a problem for people who think that the Bible should be our guide and authority in these issues and not values and ideals which originate outside of it.

As an observation, I think those who accept slavery, think women should not be ordained, and reject homosexual relationships have ON THE SURFACE OF IT the greater claim to being both Biblical and consistent.

Even if I don't personally agree with them myself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I thought I would post another blog in this random series before the weekend! It promises to be a busy weekend with a large wedding on top of various other activities.

I am also preaching on Sunday. The Gospel reading this week picks up on last week's reading about Jesus' using a child as an example of discipleship. The point of what Jesus is saying is not so much that we should welcome children (which, of course, we should), but that we should be more like them as his followers. The immediate occasion in Mark's Gospel of this teaching was the disciples argument over who was the greatest amongst them. becoming a child then means rejecting the search for power, position, and prestige that is all too common in our Churches.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I hope you have a very good weekend!

2. Using the Bible in Ethics: Whence the Themes?

It is over 200 years since the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Many in the Church have rejoiced that the heroes in getting it abolished were people like John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who became an Anglican priest, and the so-called Clapham sect, a group of evangelical Christians including Wilberforce. Newton also wrote, of course, the hymn, Amazing Grace, after which the 2006 film about the abolition of the slave trade is named.

It is important to remember that the abolitionists didn't just campaign for slaves to be treated more humanely. They campaigned for an end to the slave trade and of slavery itself. They are often portrayed as people who on the basis of their study of the Bible campaigned against something that the Bible taught them was wrong. As Dr Richard Burridge points out, however, the Bible teaches no such thing. Certainly the Bible would not encourage cruelty and the sort of conditions slaves were kept in, but, if anything, it can be said to support the institution of slavery itself.

One of the first things that happened after the flood was for Noah to make his grandson a slave (Genesis 9:25-27). Abraham, the father of all who believe, is blessed by God with slaves. Exodus and Leviticus provide for slaves and how they should be treated (Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25) and the New Testament makes no effort to challenge the social and economic system of slavery upon which the Roman Empire was based.

I have heard Tom Wright argue that Paul in his letter to Philemon placed a time bomb under the institution of slavery. All I can say is that if he did, then it took a long time for it to go off: 18 centuries to be precise, during which time the Church and prominent Christians in it had slaves themselves. It perhaps needs to be remembered that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon and in 1 Corinthians 7 urges Christians to stay in the state in which they were called.

It is true that Paul tells masters to treat their slaves fairly, but he orders slaves to obey their masters 'as they obey Christ' (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25). In Titus, slaves are told that they are to be submissive so that they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour (Titus 2:9-10). The attitude to slaves in Paul is repeated in Peter who goes even further telling them to obey their masters not only when they are kind and gentle, but also when they are harsh. Furthermore, they are to accept pain, seeing it as being to their credit, if they suffer it unjustly (1 Peter 2:18-19).

The abolitionists were undoubtedly good, honest men who acted from the best of motives, but the way they use their Bibles to justify their beliefs is a long way from the way it is often used by many of those who see them as their spiritual heroes. Quite simply, the text of the Bible seems to offer support to slave owners not to abolitionists. As with women's ordination, it can, of course, be argued that the thrust of the Bible's teaching is against slavery: it's just that no-one in the Bible seems to think that it is.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that with slavery as with women's ordination beliefs reached on other grounds are being used as the basis for subtracting themes from the Bible that otherwise wouldn't have been seen. And that the themes so reached are then being used in a way that appears to contradict the actual text of the Bible itself.

I am not arguing that it is necessarily wrong to reach conclusions about what is right and wrong on the basis of convictions arrived at from sources other than the Bible, just that we need to be honest that this is what we are doing.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I would like to begin a series of blogs about using the Bible in Christian ethics. They are somewhat random, but let's see where they lead!

1. Using the Bible: Themes not Texts

When I first became a Christian, I was encouraged to see the Bible as having all the solutions to life's problems. If there was any issue at all then it was to the Bible that we should turn for a definitive answer. It was a question of a text for every occasion. It didn't take too long to see that there were difficulties with this approach. What about issues that simply weren't around when the Bible was written, nuclear power for example? This difficulty was admitted, but the Bible was still considered as having answers to those issues that were issues then as well as now: sex and marriage, for example. And I have to say that many people I knew were far more worried about people having sex than they were about nuclear destruction!

In fairness, evangelicals at least, were reasonably united on this approach and largely agreed on what the answers were that the Bible gave to the questions we face.

This consensus began to break down, or so it seemed to me, over the issue of women's ordination. In my own church, for example, in the debates leading up to the vote in the General Synod of the Church of England in 1992, evangelicals were seen to be divided over how to interpret the Bible on this issue. For some it was very straightforward, the Bible did not allow women to have authority over men so that was that. Others tried to argue that the Bible did support women being ordained and that the texts had simply been misunderstood and misinterpreted in the past. I always felt that those taking this approach sounded as if they were arguing that black was white.

The approach that carried the day was that while indeed there were texts in the Bible that, taken literally, would not allow women to be ordained these were culturally limited, did not represent the spirit of the Gospel, and did not apply today. The thrust of New Testament teaching, it was argued, led to the conclusion that women should be ordained, regardless of what specific texts did or did not say.

Not all were happy with this approach, of course, but it has, I suggest, become the majority view amongst evangelicals in approaching the issue of women having authority in the Church, irrespective of which denomination they happen belong to. I single evangelicals out solely because of the emphasis they make, theoretically at least, on seeing the Bible as the authority for decisions within the Church.

There has been a general movement from a 'text' based approach in which texts are found for or against on an issue to a 'theme' based approach in which Biblical themes are seen as what should be followed, even if there are specific texts pointing in the opposite direction. So when it comes to women's ordination, the Biblical theme that 'in Christ all are equal' means that women as well as men can be ordained, even though 1 Timothy 2, taken literally, seems to suggest otherwise.

I realize, of course that the whole issue of women's ordination is far more complicated than this, but I hope you get the point about what I am saying about how the issue is being approached by those who want to allow the Bible a significant role in making a decision.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back to Normal

It's been a long time so hello and thank you to all who are still reading.

The Summer heat here goes on forever. It is still in the 30s and probably will be for some time to come. It was rather good then returning to the UK for a couple of weeks to enjoy temperatures of around 20! Although the heat goes on, Summer itself, of course, does not everything is now settling down after the Summer break. Schools have started, the various organisations are back to normal, and we are planning the run up to Christmas (hooray!)

There is much to do before then, of course, and the next major event is Harvest. Here it is in two stages: first, we have the mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong, which is a public holiday, and then the Church's own harvest festival. Usually, we involve the schools in the celebrations, this year, however, there is some doubt as to whether we are going to be able to as human swine flu has taken quite a hold in our school communities. We are fast coming to the conclusion that the sooner we all get it the sooner we can get back to normal.

Swine flu or not, I am just thankful that my shoulder injury has now healed. Last term was challenging to put it mildly, but apart from the odd twinge now and again, I am largely over it. Thank you to all who sent good wishes!

I am also back this term at Ming Hua, our theological college, teaching Christian Ethics. I am doing this against the background of the ongoing crisis in the Anglican Church over the issue of homosexuality. I find it both distressing and incredible that we Anglicans are prepared to tear ourselves apart over this. St Paul writes:

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:14-15)

Well there is a lot of biting and devouring going on at the moment, and I doubt that anyone will win except, of course, the Devil.

This ongoing dispute, however, has encouraged me to focus more on how we use the Bible in ethics and apply Biblical teaching to issues today. The Reverend Dr Richard Burridge has written on this, and his book, Imitating Jesus, gives food for thought. I intend to blog on this issue as I get back into the swing of blogging!

Yesterday, I recorded 5 talks for a series of radio broadcasts on RTHK in October. They are for the Minutes that Matter slot on Radio 4. This year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin and this is my own small contribution to it. I will post them here beginning next week.

As I say in the talks, I am not sure I would have liked Calvin if I had met him and I am sure he would not have liked or even approved of me, but to allow such concerns to influence one's opinion of someone's theology would be to reduce Christian theology to the level of celebrity and personality. What matters surely is truth and there is I think much in Calvin's writing that can help us understand God's truth more.

See what you think of my take on Calvin anyway!