My grandfather took a ragged breath and continued, “Son, I never taught you to oppose the Lord. And I have the right to be hurt.” I had just informed my grandfather who had dedicated more than 50 years of his adult life to preaching in the conservative Churches of Christ that I disagreed with him. I told him that there was great likelihood that the Church of Christ where I serve as the preacher would soon add another worship service that would possibly include instrumental worship and incorporate women in public teaching roles. I had not called him to explain my theological rationale to him—I knew that he would not change his mind, nor would he change my mind on this. I had called him to be honest with him, to tell him that although I disagreed with him, I loved him and respected him.
He was hurt—he had a right to be. But in his hurt, he lashed out. He said he was ashamed of me. He told me that he hoped I failed, my church failed. He told me I had become an opponent of Christ and his church. He told me I was no longer in Christ’s kingdom. He told me that I was going to hell and he was withdrawing fellowship from me.
When my father left our family my senior year in high school, my grandfather stepped in and became the most influential and important man in my life. As he continued to rebuke me, I didn’t try to argue. I just repeated myself over and over. “I called to tell you that I love you. That I respect you. That even though I disagree, I care deeply about you. I called to ask you to still be my friend. Will you please be my friend, Papa? Please.”
I believe that it was hard for him to say, but in the end he said that he had to withdraw fellowship from me. I felt like I had begged the only father figure I had left to not leave, and he had left. It hurt.
[the original post has been edited by the author to be as fair as possible to my grandfather]
Honestly, this conversation was very recent, and I am still raw from it. I don’t share it so that I can relive the pain or buy some sympathy. I don’t share this to somehow impress you with my own maturity or self-control in a heated conflict, and I certainly don’t share it to run my grandfather down publicly. I mean this: It’s not about me. This conversation is one that many people have had with loved ones over issues like this, and I think that conversations like this are becoming more frequent for those with roots in our fellowship.
Here is what I know—the church of Christ has been arguing and dividing over interpretation for a long time. But lately the conversation has changed. And my disagreement with my grandfather is a clear example of this change. I believe that the current divisions we see cropping up in our fellowship are not about interpretations of scripture, but are more fundamentally about the use of scripture—about our understanding of the nature of scripture and its purposes.
In the past, our fellowship argued and divided over how to interpret the commands, examples, and inferences that we found in our Bible. Should the local church support orphan homes, have kitchens, have Sunday school, or fellowship divorced persons? All of these centered on which interpretation of the commands and examples and necessary inferences of scripture were most compelling. And in truth, we also argued over instrumental worship and women’s roles in the assembly along these same lines—and there was widespread uniformity at our conclusions, because we mostly assumed together that the scales were fair, all we had to do was pile up the arguments and measure.
Honestly, the divisive issues that are currently facing the church of Christ are not any different than most of those in the past. Questions of instruments in corporate worship or women in public teaching roles are no more significant or substantial now than they were fifty years ago. But, I believe that the current disputes are very different in terms of essence. The difference is that now, instead of arguing about issues, we are arguing about how to argue over issues.
We find ourselves arguing over how to most healthily read the Bible altogether. Many in our fellowship (myself among them) no longer assume that a hermeneutic built on commands, examples, and necessary inferences is consistently correct or even healthy. So we find ourselves at an impasse, because neither side is playing the game with the same set of rules. We no longer all agree that the scales are fair—and some of us believe the scales are not even the best tool for the job at all.
This explains why when my grandfather brings up the “strange fire” of Nadab and Abihu, I want to ask him if he really believes the grand theological narrative of scripture would place that single story at a central place.
This is one of the issues at center of the dispute over women’s roles in public worship assemblies. “Conservatives” point to Paul permitting women to learn in silence and highlight the SILENCE part. “Liberals” point at the PERMISSION part and ask why we should presently use a text to oppress when it was originally intended by the author to liberate.
When “conservatives” urge people to Behold The Pattern, “liberals” start summarizing The Blue Parakeet.
The bottom line is that some of us are pointing out what we believe the Bible plainly says, and others of us are asking about how the Bible actually speaks in the first place.
Until we as a fellowship reconcile the hermeneutical question, we will struggle to really make headway with regard to our divisions. At best we will agree to disagree, and at worst, we will divide our fellowship and see more families undergoing the same heartache as mine. Churches must be willing to address the deeper question of hermeneutics before they can even begin to talk through questions of interpretation. What is troubling is that few seem willing to enter into this discussion about hermeneutics, I think, because it is hard.
For now, I am compelled to believe that it is a minister’s job to take the lead in equipping, modeling, and training those sheep in his/her care in how to read the Bible most healthily. And this is not a single sermon, or even a series of sermons on narrative theology and some caricatured straw man approach to the command, example, inference hermeneutic. Ministers must commit themselves to the long term process of the day-in and day-out application of the scripture to life—the rhythms of biblical reading, interpretation, and application we call Christian living.
Part of this, quite frankly, calls for much better preaching on our part. If we want our communities of faith to learn to read differently, our preaching must come from and exhibit the reading we want them to embrace and learn. Simply put, we have to stop being satisfied with moralism—preaching morals and virtues. Not because moral living or virtuous living is bad, but because the core of the gospel narrative of scripture is not becoming a better or more moral you. The point of the gospel narrative of scripture is that you are loved and chosen and God has done and will do everything to restore creation and redeem his people.
So, the point of—let’s say—Esther is not to tell people to be more courageous (yes, I have preached that sermon before). You might as well tell them to be prettier too. The larger point of Esther is that God is still at work to redeem everything, and God uses every opportunity—even our “diaspora” moments where we feel so weak and powerless and caught up in things beyond our control—to move forward on the mission of redemption. We are not forgotten. That is gospel in light of the biblical narrative as a whole.
And preaching the beatitudes won’t charge people to get better at being a peacemaker or increase their humility, as if it were a list of virtuous precepts that we must master to receive the promises that follow (and yes, I have preached that sermon too). Why would we try to make mourning sound virtuous (it’s mourning over sin, right? If only the text said that.)? The point of the beatitudes is to express how radically present the kingdom of God is—even and especially among those who in their grief, their brokenness, and their humiliation think they are being left out of God’s blessings—and to help us realize that God’s kingdom is bigger and better than we ever imagined. That is gospel in light of the biblical narrative as a whole.
When we as preachers and teachers relentlessly communicate everything in light of the grand story of the gospel (instead of stopping at the pop-psychology and expected personal piety boost that moralism offers), we begin to change the culture of Bible reading in our community. We begin to tap into the collective imagination that our church shares regarding scripture and how to use it.
This calls for great patience. It will take years to retrain our eyes to see something else, to get us to read something in a new light. And it will take much longer if we don’t learn to read together. We must cultivate space in our assemblies for us to read scripture together and imagine the world in light of that gospel truth together. Do we have room for this sort of practice and discussion in our services?
What makes all of this so hard is that it doesn’t necessarily have a really nice product at the end to offer as proof that the process was worth it. It is sort of like the difference in building a house and making a home. Building a house is an activity that has its value in the extrinsic product—the house. Making a home is an activity with intrinsic value that has its worth in the tickle-fights, bedtime stories, snuggling, and dinner tables of the actual ongoing process. But in the end, there is no tangible extrinsic product to point at.
Committing ourselves to changing a hermeneutic is messy. Shifting from a fractured or ineffective hermeneutic does not always result in a new hermeneutic that offers clear concise answers with easy handles. Shifting to a narrative theological hermeneutic will instead offer you nuance, complexity, questions, and a “more-art-than-science” finger-painting messiness that most of us don’t want to live with. I mean, finger-painting is fun to do with the kids, and maybe we’ll keep one piece of “art” as a keepsake, but would you finger-paint every wall of your house?
But the measuring of the worthiness of a hermeneutic by a product at the end seems to be ingrained implicitly in us. After all, don’t we want to point to something at the end of our scriptural exploration and be able to say it worked—look! our method produces faithful Christians. But, is it that simple? What if the value (worth…worthiness) is not in the product, but the process—what makes a Christian faithful is their continuing engagement with and abiding presence before God. What if the value of a hermeneutic is how well and how frequently and consistently it delivers the reader to surrender to God, reliance upon God, and bold trust in God? What if the value of Bible reading is not so easily found in the structures built as a result of reading, but in the reading itself?
Leading a community through a hermeneutical shift takes more patience, energy, time, and commitment than most of us have (certainly more than I have by myself). Oddly enough, this is why it is so essential that ministers commit themselves to others who can minister to them. Persistence and perseverance are communal practices.
As for me, the costs are real and the hurt is real. But I would rather spend myself doing this hard thing that will prepare our fellowship for the future than stay safe by letting our fellowship live hand-to-mouth when it comes to our reading of scripture… because I love the church.