The Quest for “a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality

In the previous posts in this series (see, in order, “How the Study Committee on Human Sexuality Handled the Texts,” “Does the Bible Have a Plot?” and “What Kind of Book Is the Bible?”), I have looked at how a new report on human sexuality commissioned by Synod 2016 of the Christian Reformed Church handles the biblical materials that the committee believes are important for formulating, in the words of their synodical mandate, “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” The first post in the series looked at their handling of a specific text, Matthew 19, that they regard as key to the project. In the next post, I ask about the assumptions the committee brings to their work on human sexuality. Do their conclusions arise from the Bible or does their reading of the Bible arise from the assumptions they bring to the text?  In the third post, I asked a more general question, what kind of book is the Bible? discovering in looking at the kind of book the Bible the root of the failure of projects like the one that faced the study committee. In this final post but one, I look briefly at the ironic outcome of attempts to articulate “foundation-laying biblical theology.” Instead of focusing on the Bible, it gives priestly power to Bible scholars. Thus, the movement that began with the slogan sola scripture, “only by the Bible,” ends not with the Bible but with the pronouncements of a synodical committee.

Sometimes when you stand back from something you have been involved for a long time you suddenly see how absurd it is. For years I was involved in a debate in my denomination over whether women should be allowed to serve the church as pastors and elders. As study after study committee brought their conclusions to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in the 1980s and 1990s, I wrote communications to the synod, urging them to open the offices to women. I made speeches. I served as a delegate to synod. I was involved. And, in the end, we prevailed. Sort of.

The debate centered on a handful of texts from the Bible, all from the Pauline tradition. In the long discussion, these texts were parsed, disputed, interpreted, and re-interpreted. The synod could not decide. Meanwhile, women were being drawn to the ministry in increasing numbers. Some congregations began to open the offices to women, my own congregation included. In the end, synod decided—by now, it was 1995—not to decide, to say instead that there is biblical warrant for both positions: for those who thing that the Bible prohibites women from serving in church office and for those who think that the Bible does no such thing. The denomination set up or tried to set up ways to accommodate both positions.

It was sometime near the end of the denominational debate that I heard a friend describe an argument that he had had with another friend. They were then on opposite sides of the debate. After they had argued for some time, my friend told me, they reached an impasse. The impasse was over the proper interpretation of one of the Pauline texts about the participation of women in church. My friend said with some amusement and not a little pride that the argument came down to a single Greek preposition in a single text. They couldn’t agree about the force of the preposition, and therefore they could not agree about whether the church should or should not open the offices of the church to women.

Step back from this, and you will see the absurdity of it. An important matter like whether the church should be inclusive of women’s gifts, something that affects the lives of real people including women who believe themselves called by the Spirit into the ministry, hangs on the basis of a point of ancient koine Greek grammar. Is this finally what the Reformation slogan sola scriptura, “only by the Bible,” comes to? And if it does come to this, does this mean that a new priesthood has been established in the church, the priesthood of Greek and Hebrew grammarians? Would God, has God, so arranged the church?

I doubt it. Something has gone terribly wrong. The problem is goes back to the Reformation. The Reformers, mostly young educated men, were concerned that the church had taken a wrong turn. Or several wrong turns. Lost its way. How to find the way back? The Bible seemed the key, especially the New Testament, the apostolic witness. And so, they set the Bible against the church. How does one judge whether the church is faithful to the lordship of Jesus or not? Only by the Bible, in Latin, sola scriptura.

Rome, in reaction to the Reformers asserted the opposite, only the Church, the magisterium transmitted through the line that descended through the centuries from the apostles to the bishops and, in particular, from Peter to the pope of that age. The Reformers asserted that the Bible judged the church; Rome asserted that it was the church which recognized the scriptures in the first place and which remains their only reliable interpreter.

As is usually the case in church controversies like this, both sides are right. In the church, all authority is ultimately the authority of Jesus Christ, lord of the church (Matthew 28:18). The authority of Christ comes to the church in two ways: through the scriptures, the written testimony of the apostles, and through the living church, the apostolic community. These are both empowered by the Spirit. Both are necessary, even when they exist in some tension with each other.

Separate these two ways in which the church receives the authority of Christ, and disaster happens. The successors of the apostles—church leadership—without the scriptures will drift into practices that support the institution and lose the spirit-filled power of the presence of Christ among his people. The scriptures apart from the long conversation and interaction with them in church history and without engagement with the spirit-filled community will be read woodenly, losing the very grace that they are meant to bring.

A point of grammar will not—should not—settle the issue about how to include women as well as men in the leadership of the church. Nor is it a matter of appointing a study committee of experts to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of gender roles in the church. What’s required is a church persisting in conversation, a conversation bathed both in the experience of God’s people today and in the scriptures, which are the record of the experiences of God’s people in the past. We should not be surprised that such a conversation will lead in the direction of grace and freedom. It always has, whether the issue was Jew and gentile or slave and free or women and men.

We should not be surprised that the new study committee reporting to Synod 2022 will occasion much debate and settle little. As I explained over the course of these posts, the project was inherently flawed. The committee went looking for what the Bible will not give them, “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” What the Bible will give them is a long conversation about what it means to be sexual beings and what it means to be family, and that conversation should open us up to more conversation about those things in the light of what is happening in our culture.

Scripture must be read prayerfully, conversationally, and carefully. We should pay attention to detail in scripture—to the way the Bible is written—not just because we are trying hear what it says but because reading it in that way brings insight and joy and possibility. In the pages of scripture, we hear not only people of past, but in their conversations with each other, the whispers of the Spirit.

I am a trained Bible scholar, but in my experience the best readers of scripture have not been Bible scholars. Bible scholars have their place, and some are extraordinary. But the best readers of scripture are those who have been steeped in the church and in the grace of Jesus Christ, whose stories have merged with the stories of the people of the Bible, and who therefore see the world in biblical terms. They are always people who, in their graciousness, resemble no one so much as their Lord.

Clay Libolt

With this I am done with this project, but I do have one more post I’ll put up in the next few days. This last post for this series reviews the seven texts on homosexuality in the Bible. Or are there seven, after all? We’ll see.

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