We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Culture & the Bible: A Relationship of Power

"Woman Preacher of the AME Church"
Over the last 150 years, gave or take, the United States has gradually but increasingly accepted the full and equal role of women in American society.  The process goes on and is not complete, but the direction seems clear and persistent: the attainment of full civil rights in all of its aspects is going to happen.  One of the strongest bastions of resistance to this change has been the "Bible-believing" churches, which have stood firm on their insistence that the Bible commands that women be chained to a secondary, subservient place in a "godly" society.  Mainline churches have progressively opened leadership roles and fuller participation in church life to women in a process that in the Presbyterian Church goes back to the early 19th century (see here).

The point is that societies, like individuals, gain wisdom.  The full and equal role of women in society, which now seems like a no-brainer, is a case in point.  We are learning that it is wise as well as just for society to cease to discriminate against women just as it is wise to cease to discriminate against individuals on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation.

The transforming power of social wisdom, as it swells, progressively opens minds and hearts that have long been mired in ideological or theological resistance to social change.  A case in point: the pastoral leadership of Grace Church, Noblesville, Indiana, now advocates the full inclusion of women in all of the leadership roles of this large evangelical church, which previously excluded women from most leadership positions.  The church's clergy engaged in an intensive study of the Bible and found that the scriptures demand the full inclusion of women rather than the opposite.  Teaching Pastor Tim Ayers makes the case in a remarkable sermon entitled, "Our Approach to Women in Leadership," which he preached on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  But for Ayers continued affirmation of a literal approach to the Bible, one would think that he was a mainline exegete.  He makes all of the points they have been arguing for many decades concerning the biblical mandate for equal rights in the church.

In a news posting entitled, "Grace Church in Indiana in Spotlight for Reversal on Women Leaders; Theologian Lauds Shift on 'Massive Misreading' of Scripture," Christian Post reporter, Nicola Menzie cites recent studies by the Barna Group and by the Pew Religion & Public Life Project that indicate a significant shift among evangelicals concerning the role of women.  The Pew study, for example, found that 75% of evangelicals believe that women should be allowed to be pastors.

While Ayers and the other pastors of Grace Church insist that they are not caving in to culture and that it has been their careful, Spirit-guided study of the Bible alone that has led them to change their minds about the role of women in the church, such a change could not have taken in a society that was not itself changing.  It is the larger hard-won wisdom of our society that created a social climate in which such a change becomes possible.  Mainline churches in the 1950s and 1960s were no less Spirit-led, no less intent in their study of the scriptures when they removed their barriers to full inclusion.

We celebrate the changes at Grace Church.  We celebrate still more the movement of the Spirit in our society that has opened all of our eyes to the importance of ending discrimination in all of its forms.  Christ taught no less.  Amen.