I still remember when a man in the church divorcing his wife and marrying another was instant disqualification from ministry. Why were we picking on people whose marriage ended because of divorce? Because we followed the Bible. “For example, a man who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery. And anyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Lk 16:18) Seems pretty clear, eh?
Today I know many men in senior pastor roles who have gotten divorced and eventually remarried.
Did we just give in to culture? Did we just abandon our moral convictions in order to accommodate our will to divorce? I have to admit that it’s entirely possible we did. But I can also tell you that there have been a pile of books and papers written on the New Testament passages on divorce that offer alternative readings of the text – scholarly examinations – studied conclusions – that some of us (but definitely not all of us) acknowledge and that leave enough room for conversation that we’re not ready to drawn lines that leave divorced people forever out of pastoral ministry or the church or the opportunity to remarry.
But some still do.
Because of the clear reading of Scripture.
My daughter was discussing her sense of being called to pastoral ministry with a co-worker while they shared a break together. Her co-worker was a student at a nearby Baptist seminary and he assured my daughter, in between sucking on his “break joint,” that her desire for ministry was from the devil and God couldn’t forgive her if she continued to do ministry in the church. He clarified that she could teach children but never teach or preach to men. God forbids it.
Having been part of a movement of churches that hold to the complementarian view, I was familiar with his argument. It wasn’t made up out of thin air or a modern influence. “Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.” (1 Ti 2:11-12) and “Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.” (1 Co 14:34-35)
I’m currently a part of another network of churches but in this network, women can preach and teach and lead in a local church in every way that a man does. Not in all of our churches. But in many and maybe even most of them. Yet we also have an international director of our movement who has preached to a room full of men and women but who, in years past, preached to a room full of women only. In that room was a friend of mine from Northern Ireland and she recounted how this woman, before she was an international leader of our movement, told those women that they should not be preaching to men and needed to stay in submission to their husbands and leave the preaching to them.
I’ve changed my mind. She’s changed her mind. Not because we are capitulating to culture – though men in the Neo-Reformed camp would say otherwise – but because we’ve developed a more generous orthodoxy and come to acknowledge that there are other readings of the text that arrive at a different conclusion. The text hasn’t changed. Your Bible still says exactly what is printed above. But we’ve been offered alternative readings on divorce and women in ministry that we have liked and adopted as legitimate.
But there are other passages about other things – the clear teaching of Scripture – that we have not adopted alternative readings or applications of but rather rejected. It’s not that I think a person has to adopt all the alternative readings that come along but I do think we need to make space for one another and recognize that real scholarship and honest reasoning has taken place in developing those alternative readings and we need to respect and be willing to make room at the table for those who have adopted those alternative readings and interpretations.
YOU’RE MAD! EVERY ALTERNATIVE READING? WE’LL JUST INCLUDE ALL THE CULTS NOW SHALL WE? WE’LL JUST ACCEPT WHATEVER SOMEONE SAYS BECAUSE IT’S AN ALTERNATIVE READING you liberal, demon oppressed false teacher?
That’ not really what I’m saying but thank you for asking.
I’m saying this is exactly why God gives us scholars and theologians and pastors and apostles. I’m saying that we have people given to us by God who can sit down together and work through some of these alternative readings about different issues and come to a conclusion together that “seems right to us and the Holy Spirit.” (Ac 15:28) Let me be really clear though. I’m not talking about a hierarchy of administration or denominational leadership. I’m talking about gathering those who the beloved community itself can testify are people gifted in theology and biblical scholarship and who care for people and the mission of the Church. Include people who have skin in the game like Paul, advocating for the inclusion of Gentiles in Acts 15.
Once, in the church I was in that was determined to restore new testament Christianity, we had a couple start attending our service and the woman always wore a hat. It was always just big enough to make a statement. Meeting them and getting to know their story they didn’t waste any time in making sure my friend, our senior pastor, knew they had an agenda. They wanted to know, if we were a New Testament church, why were we ignoring the clear teaching of Scripture that women were to wear head coverings in worship? “But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head. Yes, if she refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering.” (1 Co 11:5-6)
We replied as we had been taught – this was a cultural command, not a permanent command. We don’t have to follow that anymore.
I wasn’t prepared for their next question. “Where does the Bible say we don’t have to follow cultural commands?” Or their second question, “What makes this a cultural command? Paul ties the command to Creation and to the angels of God and doesn’t seem to leave room for taking this as a temporary command.”
Again, I’m not trying to convince you of anyone’s rightness or wrongness with that story – I’m just trying to illustrate that “the main and the plain” should always be followed with a qualifying question – “WHOSE main and WHOSE plain?” It’s difficult to engage with the Church today and not acknowledge that we have a wide range of hot takes in the Church about what constitutes the main or the plain teaching of Scripture.
And, “because we say so” is an inadequate response of any group of leaders.
And one more time, for the sake of clarification, I am NOT saying that NOTHING is clear or that we should accept everything as true just because someone else insists it is. All I’m saying is that we can do better than we are doing and we can look to the Scriptures and church history to find ways that maintains integrity and the church practice of collective discernment aided by the gifts of scholars, theologians, apostles and pastors that God has given us. Settling for expediency or convenience or what agrees with me seldom arrives at a healthy conclusion.
In the group of churches in which I pastor now, it only takes a quick Google search to discover that some other Christians consider us a cult or at least cult-like. There have been books written about us warning people how evil we are. Isn’t that cool? It’s always a mystery to me how groups like ours, with a story like that, could then turn on other people who want to be in our group and rather than include them, exclude them for that one thing they read differently than “we” read. I guess it’s because of my own story that I’ve been sharing here and how many times I’ve found myself in a group that’s been defined “out” by others.
I’ve been rewired – and I blame God. Today I find myself in sync with the words of a song by my friend Andrew Smith and I will end this long post with these simple, true words that shape my relationships with others and my approach to “the main and the plain” and the “clear teaching of scripture.”
But I don’t want to fight in your holy war
How can I defend myself anymore
I don’t want to live in your us and them world
God knows there is only us – Andrew Smith, Holy War.