February 27, 2008
A Big Can of Worms
David Swanson reports on opening events from the National Pastors Convention.
David Swanson agreed to leave frozen Chicagoland to labor in sunny San Diego at this year's National Pastors Convention. He'll be sending us updates throughout the week of the goings on there. This is his first post.
I arrived at the National Pastors Convention in California a day early to catch one of the pre-conference seminars: Emerging Critical Issues Facing the Church. (For this Midwesterner, the sunny blue skies of San Diego were another reason to come early.) The seminar featured four panelists - Scot McKnight, Phyllis Tickle, Andy Crouch, and Tony Jones - addressing four critical issues: the role of Scripture, the church and politics, homosexuality, and religious pluralism.
These issues are as controversial as they are critical. This was clear from the spirited conversation between the panelists, the passionate questions and comments from the audience, and our moderator's repeated requests for civil interaction. Allow me to summarize two of these conversations.
Scot McKnight introduced the section on the role of Scripture. "Since high school, I've been perplexed about how we [Christians] read the Bible," he began. Specifically, Scot was puzzled by how we decide what parts of the Bible were for "then" and what is for "now." He went on to define four ways Christians make these decisions. The "return to restore" method believes we can return to a New Testament form of Christianity in order to restore the Biblical texts to their original meanings. A less idealistic version of this is the "return and retrieve" method, through which the reader approaches the text in order to decide what can be retrieved for our lives today. The panelists agreed that every Bible reader does this to some degree. The question, of course, is how we decide what to retrieve and what to leave behind. Still others approach the Scriptures through his or her "sacred tradition," allowing their particular tradition to shape their understanding of the text. Finally, Scot described the "primacy of Scripture" method of biblical interpretation. Rather than reading through the lens of tradition, this method reads with tradition. Scot believes this is the most helpful way of reading the Bible, for it allows the church to be constantly reforming.
If Scot is right that we read the Bible in these different ways, and if he's correct that reading with tradition is the ideal, then how do we preachers and teachers help our church members read this way? Is it enough to allow our preaching and teaching to be formed by the primacy of Scripture, or must we be more blatant in explaining our methodology?
Reading from an article he wrote in 2003, Andy Crouch introduced the third critical issue facing the church: homosexuality. According to Andy, "Humankind is not divided into homosexual or heterosexual categories. We are all sexual beings who tend towards self-satisfaction." Additionally, many churches rally around these categories, "which leads to a double standard: chastity for those who are gay and a don't-ask-don't-tell policy regarding sexuality for the rest of us."
While the panelists disagreed on whether or not homosexual practice is sinful, they were clear that the church must do a better job of pastoring those who are gay. Phyllis counseled the pastors in the room to "remember the human side - these are people, not theories, we are talking about." Scot added, "The challenges for those pastors who are more traditional is how to create a safe environment for those who are gay to worship." The evangelical church, he said, "has mostly failed in this area."
Tony stated that the critical question for most churches is not whether to care for those who are gay. The question many in church leadership are wrestling with is, "Can a gay person can serve in leadership? And at what level?"
Can churches that understand homosexual practice to be a sin actually provide a safe space for gay worshipers? And regarding Tony's question, should gay members of your congregation be allowed some opportunity of leadership? At what level?