The Lord Giveth, But Lowly Man Taketh Away

I am not a patient man, although I wish it were not so.  I see things like injustice and inflexibility and I want them to change, not some day – now.  I hate suffering.  I hate oppression.  I hate ignorance and the willful perpetuation of misunderstanding.  On the one hand, these realizations spur me on to action.  I look for ways to make things better.  But I run into the possibility of relying too much on my own devices. That is something of a danger, because then I am more likely to claim credit where I don’t deserve it, or more likely still, I will make stupid mistakes.  Knowing my limitations, I redouble my efforts to stay on track.

I enjoy a challenge.  I would like to think that I am not so set in my ways that I am unwilling to explore any concept from different angles and views.  I want to know that what I believe I believe because I truly believe it, not because someone told me that I have to.  This, I believe is the spirit of the noble Bereans in Acts 17, who searched their scriptures to determine if what Paul taught them was indeed true.  We must be willing to do this if we are to avoid being led into a faith more founded on tradition and interpretation than truth.

But this invariably leads to conflict because not everyone is willing to think.  Oh, they may say they are, but when the chips are down, many seek only to reinforce their pre-existing dogmas, and are quite unwilling to do anything to rock the boat.  But therein lies the problem: if we are content to sit quietly on a mirror-still sea, we are not moving, either forward or back.  There are only two ways to get anywhere: the winds will blow us one way or the other, or we will have to row.  Chances are, we will eventually, even periodically, be affected one way or the other by the wind, and then we may have to make corrections, never losing sight of our lode star or the goal we set just at the edge of the horizon.

In matters of religion, change is never easy.  We may view change as patently wrong because it violates our cherished orthodoxy, or we are just too comfortable with the status quo to consider any alternative.  I am not in any way suggesting change for the sake of change, or change because we think it is a good idea.  I am talking about change that places us in closer alignment with God’s own will.

There are so many things in religion that we do, not because we have specific authority to do them, but because of tradition.  As churches evolve, as a movement speciates from its ancestral sect or denomination, it naturally distinguishes itself with some sort of novel or perhaps reconstituted practice or doctrine.  If there is no difference, why break away in the first place?  Thus, some changes are implemented while there are many things that are essentially left intact from its predecessors. Within the Stone-Campbell Movement, the prevailing hermeneutic has been to establish religious authority by direct command, apostolically approved example, and inferring commands from examples, or allowing expedients that provide support for the works we are commanded to do, or that have been exemplified.  This was not new with the SCM, but was passed down from elements of Presbyterianism and is evident in some form in different Protestant groups.  There is much good that can be gleaned from this sort of practice.  On one level, it encourages study, which is always good.  But when we draw conclusions that are not necessary from the data, we actually commit error.  In logic or statistics, this is called a Type I error, or a false positive, which suggests to us that a relationship or correlation exists that actually does not.  When we place the method of interpretation on such a level that it is viewed as actually being of divine origin, we have essentially edited the scriptures by adding something that is not there.  Jesus may have interpreted scriptures for his audience, and he may have inferred conclusions, which are both logical assumptions.  However, he never gave commands as to how to interpret scripture.  No apostle ever enumerated the three methods of establishing authority.  Search as you might, they’re not there.  Oh, keeping commandments is certainly mentioned, as is following examples.  But one thing to remember here is that when Paul told his readers to imitate him, he directed them to imitate him as he imitated Christ, which is the gist of his directive in both I Corinthians 4 and I Corinthians 11.

There have been many changes of varying degree that have been made over the centuries by accident or by direct choice.  Indeed, the catalog of evolving practices is a work in progress.  We typically think of any such change as being an addition to scripture.  But what if we have actually accepted a practice that has taken away from the original intent?  Are we willing to restore what has been lost?  This is a genuine test of the purported fidelity to an original form.

What can we possibly have lost from the original intent of the structure of the church?  Perhaps one of the most glaring issues I have found is the elimination of the recognition of women who are designated specifically as servants or deacons (diakonon) of the church, as Phoebe was in Romans 16.  The same word is used in I Timothy 3, where the listing of the qualifications of deacons is interrupted by a clause that describes the characteristics or qualifications of women who would be designated to serve.  How we translate the Greek word gunaikas, here, makes a tremendous difference: the Greek word may mean either wives or women.  The tradition of translation has been to render this as “their wives,” referring to the spouses of the male candidates for the office of deacon.  However, there is no possessive pronoun modifying the Greek word to indicate that this distinctly refers to the deacons’ wives.  And, as it has been pointed out over and over by anyone who has honestly and carefully studied the passage, there is no parallel discussion of requirements for bishops’ wives.  The simplest solution to this issue–which according to the logical dictum of Occam’s Razor is usually the best— is that this extended the general qualifications of servants to women as well as men.

But what would these women have been responsible for?  Ample evidence from the early church writers after the apostolic period supports the work of a woman as deacon in terms of serving women who may be ill, serving the communion to home-bound women, assisting with the baptism of women, caring for orphan children and serving those who were in prison.  According to some writers from the middle ages, the office of the female deacon was abandoned because some were apparently over-extending their circle of power and influence (not unlike male bishops and preachers), and because of issues such as women being of “inferior intelligence” and “weaker” than men, and of course, their “impurity” associated with the natural progress of female physiology.  This rather misogynistic view apparently coincided with the decline of the necessity for women to attend adult female candidates for baptism, since the emphasis had shifted from adult believer baptism to infant baptism.  So, the adoption of the extra-scriptural doctrine of inherited sin “necessitating” the well-meaning (but not scripturally supported) institution of infant baptism may have contributed to the abolition of a divinely appointed, apostolically instituted office.  In essence, two wrongs made a third wrong, not a right.

What worries me about this sort of an issue is that we have accepted this legacy of error, born of erroneous doctrine and the prejudicial translation of early texts to support the status quo inherited from the androcentric hierarchy of medieval Catholicism.  The straw man argument will be made today that if we accept that women may serve as officially appointed deacons, then they will soon be allowed to serve as elders, then preachers, and on and on.  It’s that old “slippery slope” all over.  (I’d actually love to see this slippery slope that some are always worried about.  It sounds about as wide and steep as the wall of the Grand Canyon.)  If we are truly dedicated to maintaining fidelity to the early church constitution, however, we will not go beyond what is evident.  However, we will carefully and prayerfully appoint women to take on these grave responsibilities.  By not recognizing the role of women as designated servants with specific responsibilities, we are equally in error.

As I ponder these sorts of issues, I know that some will immediately and without a moment’s consideration take exception, because as of the mid-20th century, we have achieved perfection in our reconstruction of the primitive church.  And while I may be the target of the accusation that I am trying to add to scripture, I am not in any way advocating anything of the sort.  I would like to see us embrace an essential and valuable dimension of our spiritual heritage.  I would just like to see us “…hold true to what we have attained.” (Phil 3.16)  But we cannot hold true to what we have not striven to attain.  Don’t take my word for anything I have written here.  Seek out the truth.  Consult the early manuscripts.  Consider the early histories.  An excellent synopsis of the early history of the role of women as deacons can be accessed at https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2008/07/the-ministry-of-the-deaconess-through-history.html.  Bobby Valentine, who I find to be a very conscientious and accessible scholar, has an excellent article quoting from the published views of many of the formative leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement regarding the role of women as deacons.  It was interesting to see that so many of the most influential men in our history—men like Alexander Campbell, Moses Lard, J.W. McGarvey, Walter Scott, Tolbert Fanning and C.R. Nichol – essentially assumed that women would be selected to serve, not because of a human desire for it, but because it is so plainly evident from scripture. His article can be accessed at http://stoned-campbelldisciple.blogspot.com/2011/09/voices-on-female-deacons-in-stoned.html.  Valentine points out that the only person specifically identified as a deacon in the New Testament is Phoebe in Romans 16.  The significance of that cannot be underestimated. (The “Seven,” including Stephen and Philip, selected to “serve” in Acts 6 are not specifically called “deacons.”)

When I find myself becoming anxious over our self-satisfied inertia, leaving us sitting motionless on that glassy sea, I need to remember the words of  I Peter 5,  “6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  So, there.  It is God’s to deal with.  But if we can be the instruments through which his will may be done, are we not obligated to act?  Ultimately, God will judge.  He reminds us through the heart of the poet to “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46.10)  Yet sometimes, being still is hard.  Especially if you are an impatient man who wants to see justice and liberty bringing the freedom for all to serve God to their fullest capacity as God ordained, nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

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