A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 10, 2017
James 2:8-13 CEB; Reading from Faith of a Pilgrim Father
How committed are we to scripture? That is the question I am posing day. The truth is, one does not have to be an evangelical, conservative, or fundamentalist even to be committed to, or have a great love and respect for, the Scriptures. Marcus Borg, Amy Jill-Levine and John Shelby Spong are all of the most progressive or liberal Christian theologians of our time, but who also are very open about their love and respect for and commitment to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
I have been a lover of and have had a great respect for and commitment to the Scriptures for some 44 years now. At the same time, the way I view Scripture and my degree of commitment to the Bible have changed dramatically over the years. But allow me to share the particulars of what prompted today’s sermon in the first place.
I have been closely watching, and with much interest, the goings on between the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City and the Tennessee Baptist Convention. In case you missed the story, here’s how it went down. First Baptist Church of Jefferson City recently made a decision to hire their first-ever female senior pastor. Speaking on behalf of the congregation, John McGraw, First Baptist’s chair of their board of deacons, said he “and others at the church believe God had a hand in the church’s decision to hire [Ellen] Di Giosia [their new pastor]. ‘We didn’t choose her because she was a woman. She just happened to have all the best characteristics as a pastor that we needed in our local church,’ McGraw said. ‘There is not one doubt in my mind that God and our church called Ellen to be our pastor.’”1 When the story first aired on the local television news and was also covered in the Knoxville News Sentinel, I secretly applauded the church for taking such a bold step.
However, as you might imagine, not everyone has responded to the church’s decision with such joy and enthusiasm. Because of the church’s move, the Tennessee Baptist Convention branded them as a “non-cooperating church,” and the Convention refused to seat the church’s six messengers at the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s meeting that was held in Hendersonville last month. The Convention’s reason for refusing to seat the church’s delegates and calling them a “non-cooperating church” is because “the convention is committed to Scripture . . . the convention is firm in that only men can serve as senior pastors.”
Now, let me be clear: I am not picking on Baptists. Rather, I am addressing a theological belief, stance or method of interpretation that has to do with one’s commitment to Scripture, whatever the denominational affiliation. As I have already stated, I, too, am firmly committed to Scripture. I have been a lover of the Bible for over 40 years. But I have learned in my 40 years of ministry, 40 years of reading, studying, and loving the Bible, that there are limits to one’s commitment to Scripture, as I shall explain in a moment.
No specific Scripture verses were cited in the television news story or in the newspaper article that I read, but I am guessing the Tennessee Baptist Convention is basing its platform on a few scattered verses that say women should remain silent in church services, a woman is not to teach or usurp authority over men, and passages that enumerate personality qualifications of men who would be church leaders.
Often the Apostle Paul is cited as the source of such prohibitions against female leadership, when in reality such passages are from books that we now know were not written by Paul, or passages that were inserted into Paul’s letters by later, anti-female editors. In words that we know are authentically Pauline, he praises female co-workers who most likely were pastors, and most certainly were church leaders. And in his letter to the Galatians, a book that we know for certain is authentically Pauline, he says, “there is neither . . . male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
And Jesus had female followers, most likely female disciples as well, in my opinion. It was only later, long after both Jesus and Paul were gone, that the church became increasingly patriarchal and delegated women to lesser roles than they had enjoyed in company with both Jesus and Paul. But when you have an unequivocal commitment to Scripture, it matters not the history or context behind scriptural passages. You take them literally – cart blanch.
One of the first things I learned in seminary is there have historically been four sources of authority when it comes to beliefs, practice, biblical interpretation, and church life. You might want to take note of these. The first source of authority is Scripture – the Bible. For many Christians, the Bible is the chief, and for some the only, source of authority. “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” is a common statement in some church circles.
The second source of authority is experience. Faith is a personal matter. Each of us experiences God, the Sacred, or spirituality in our own way. Experience is important in matters of faith and spirituality. The spirituality that I find in the natural world is experience-based, for example. But experience is subjective and should be not relied upon as our only source of authority.
The third source of authority is tradition. What has the Church said and held to be true down through the centuries? Most often – not always, but most often – tradition can help keep us on track. For instance, many of us are old enough to remember the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy when hundreds of misguided souls followed cult leader Jim Jones to Central America where all kinds of bad things resulted. In the end, the US government sent Congressional representatives down there to investigate, and in short order over 900 men, women and children died after drinking poisoned Kool-Ade. Looking to tradition might have helped avert such a tragedy.
Such leads to the fourth source of authority having to do with biblical interpretation and faith development, which is often ignored or downright rejected – reason. Enlightened, science-informed reason. Even if I read it in the Bible; even if my experience seems to be legitimate; even if tradition has for hundreds of years given approval; if my reason – my education, training, science-informed reason, my gut instinct – tells me something is wrong, then I need to listen. An example: For hundreds of years, Scripture, experience (especially Southern experience), and tradition seemed to sanction the institution of American slavery. There are biblical verses that instruct slaves to obey their masters. Many Southerners felt (i.e., experience) that African Americans were less than human. And Southern tradition, including church tradition (as many Southern churches had slave balconies) for generations had sanctioned slavery. But ultimately it was enlightened reason that led abolitionists to take a stand and say, “Slavery is not right. We must put an end to it.” So you see, when it comes to biblical interpretation and development of our faith, we need to take experience, tradition and reason into account.
Yes, I am committed to Scripture as much as anyone. But my commitment to Scripture only takes me so far when ancient words that were written for a different age, under different circumstances, and were clouded by certain prejudices and lack of understanding fly in the face of reason. Who of us will take our child to the town square to be stoned to death if they curse us? The Bible says it (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9), but reason dictates it is wrong. Who of us thinks a woman is ritually unclean for several days when she begins her monthly cycle or has a baby? The Bible says it (Leviticus 12:2), but reason dictates otherwise. Who of us believes it is wrong to wear clothing made of two different types of thread, cotton and polyester? The Bible says it (Leviticus 19:19), but reason dictates otherwise. Other examples could be cited.
So, you see, we can be committed to Scripture, but to what degree? We interpret Scripture in conjunction with experience, tradition AND enlightened reason. As Pilgrim Pastor John Robinson told the Pilgrims departing from Europe as they set sail for America, “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” In other words, understanding and interpretation of the Bible is not static, but is an on-going process.
And so, when it comes to the question of a commitment to Scripture to the degree that women are to remain silent in churches and not be permitted to be pastors or other church leaders, what does our experience and our God-given, 21st century reason dictate? For me, they dictate that women have every right that a man does to be a preacher, pastor, or any other type of professional, and they should be compensated on the same level as their male counterparts. But we know that such is not often the case. I am going to let you in on a little secret: My favorite well-known preachers in America today are women, as they know how to prepare sermons and preach.
The writer of the book of James reminds us that fulfilling “the royal law found in scripture [is] Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we show favoritism, he says, we are committing sin. And mercy should overrule judgment.
So when it comes to questions about interpreting Scripture and how we relate to others, the Law of Love and our God-given reason need to guide us. So, are we committed to scripture? Most definitely. But to what degree? To the degree that the royal Law of Love, in light of experience, and coupled with enlightened, science-informed reason, show us the way. May it be so. Amen.
1Holly Meyer, “Congregation, Tennessee Baptist Convention split over female pastor,” Knoxville News Sentinel, Wed. Nov. 15, 2017.