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.

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