…Or a matter of hermeneutics?

… a blog by Mark Ongley

Back in the ‘90’s, a friend of mine transferred his credentials from the United Methodist Church to the more conservative Free Methodist Church. I used to tease him with, “Yeah, the Free Methodists are about as free as the United Methodists are united!”

I don’t joke about that anymore. The Free Methodists have become a LOT less legalistic. And as for us being united . . . well not so much.

My last article made the case that you can’t boil 50 years of controversy down to one simple issue. The “one issue” I’ve heard from conservatives more than any other is this: the authority of scripture. Increasingly, I’m hearing centrists and progressives say they believe in scripture’s authority, but that it’s a matter of hermeneutics—how we interpret scripture.

A few years back when Ron Hoellein was pastoring St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, I attended two different events sponsored by the local Reconciling Ministries Network. The case was made that the ordination and marriage of practicing gays and lesbians was absolutely biblical. Pastor Hoellein, who had to be out of town for the first one, addressed the gathering via video. So convinced the scriptures affirmed this position, he challenged anyone to debate him by stating, “Bring it on!”

Years later, a much larger event included a variety of speakers, lunch, and a concluding worship service. One lecturer was a member of our annual conference: Dr. Steven Tuell, Old Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In one of his teachings, he gave an analysis of Romans 1, the most jagged scriptural burr under the saddle of progressives. That passage not only clearly identifies male same-sex relations, but is the only passage addressing lesbian relations. All of us listened with piqued interest.

He did an excellent job interpreting that chapter, carefully framing it within the cultural context of the Roman church, and clearly relating it to the rest of the letter. I couldn’t have agreed with him more . . . until his summary statement:

“I believe it is clear that Paul understood same-sex behavior as sinful. But I also believe it is ok to say that Paul was wrong. If he lived today, and understood what we now know about orientation, he would have written that chapter differently.”[i]

I couldn’t believe he was so lucidly admitting that he disagreed with Paul. And in looking around the room, I could tell there were others who were equally surprised.

Such a handling of scripture leaves interpretation in the hands of each individual. Instead of appealing to cultural context, the original intent of the author, or the content of the historical literature of the time, one looks through a 21st century lens, picking and choosing what to believe. Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today takes a similar approach.

But this very same approach can render moot any number of foundational beliefs, including those found in the Articles of Religion. Despite being protected by the Restrictive Rule, they are merely ink on paper if we each apply our own personal hermeneutics.

For example, if we can cast aside the teachings, themes and metaphors for heterosexual marriage which permeate scripture from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Paradise, what about the Virgin Birth? The conception of Jesus within Mary has far less textual support and is easily dismissed by 20th and 21st century sensibilities.

The same could be said for many other items found in The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church which are also protected by a restrictive rule. Future judgment, the existence of both heaven and hell, justification for the penitent “only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ”–all could easily be replaced by a more palatable universalism for those who pick and choose their scriptures.

Hermeneutics does, in fact, matter. But there will always be teachings from scripture which, when properly interpreted, still leave us mystified. We are left with a choice: Bow before the throne with our unanswered questions, or bow to the idolatrous opinions shaped by the philosophers and theorists of this age.

After Dr. Tuell’s teaching, I asked questions to clarify his hermeneutics. Humility and grace were abundant. He was warm and approachable. My questions detained him for a while, so he invited me to sit with him at the concluding worship service. While I certainly disagreed with how he interprets scripture, I knew he was warm and sincere.

Not only that, he’s a diehard Pirates fan! And I’d much rather go to a Pirates game with him than a lot of the evangelicals who agree with me!

OK, my Free Methodist friend would be an exception to that! He’s a Buccos fan too!

[i] This is quoted from memory, so it is not exact. But I can’t help but vividly remember the words, “. . . it is also OK to say that Paul was wrong.”