“Danger Will Robinson” is more intriguing than, “The influence of hermeneutical goals.” How dry!
What follows is a true story. For me, it is a sad narrative illustrating several principles, such as the powerful influence desire and fear can wield over our understanding of scripture. It also underscores how institutions, like individuals, can seem to get caught between serving Christ and pursuing either legacies or self-preservation.
After surveying a variety of perspectives on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, a presenter at an event sponsored by an institution stated his objective for his class. He wanted to explore whether a case could be made for women speaking within the assembly that could remain faithful to scripture.
First suggestion: Whenever our primary goal of interpretation moves away from seeking to discover the author-centered message, we invite self-deception.
Years ago, a festschrift honoring Jack P. Lewis entitled Biblical Interpretation, made the insightful observation that our goal in interpretation, that is, the problem that we are seeking to resolve through understanding scripture, will determine what we understand. Thus, divergent goals have led to creating different churches!
To the speaker’s credit he said he wanted to remain faithful to scripture. Nevertheless, whenever we unleash upon the text the task of defending a particular viewpoint, we will cease to ask necessary questions promoting an author-centered interpretation. Our goal will shape the questions we ask, while simultaneously blinding us to other questions!
For example, in his presentation he regarded every instance of a prophetess within the New Testament as evidence affirming women taught within the assembly. Among those who support this position, this is a common affirmation. Nevertheless, he failed to mention that individuals within the New Testament prophesied both within and outside of the assembly. He likewise assumed that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul expected women to be teaching within the assembly with head coverings, which is not a good assumption.
Thus the presenter made no effort to critically consider where these prophetesses were prophesying. What had happened? The goal of finding corroborating evidence for a desired thesis had encouraged a blindness threatening the discovery of an author-centered understanding.
When our goal involves identifying an author’s intended message, a faithful conclusion might leave us in ambiguity, neither supporting nor undermining a particular viewpoint. In this case, it might be that a particular text neither supports female prophetic activity within the assembly nor that it reveals such activity was restricted to other settings. However, whenever someone pursues an agenda, such ambiguity may blindly be assumed to support one’s own agenda. Yet, a person does this at the cost of ensuring faithfulness to scripture.
Second observation: Whether it be a church, a Christian university, any other Christian institution, or even our personal lives as disciples, the desire to thrive can challenge serving Christ.
Jesus put it succinctly when he said that no one can serve two masters. We cannot have two goals organizing our decisions, driving our lives forward and shaping our understanding. This is true for both people as well as organizations.
People or institutions can buy into a narrative of fear when they believe such ideas as, “unless you align with ___, there is no future.” Whenever this occurs, serving Christ will become challenged in the pursuit of “remaining relevant” or “thriving.”
Rationalization then enters, “Survival can ensure promoting at least some presence of Christ, which is better than dying.” How well does this thinking align with the tenor of Jesus’ teachings or the nature of discipleship’s self-denial? Jesus’ teachings as well as the New Testament’s are more in sync with – Don’t worry about what people might do to you, be concerned about being faithful to what God has entrusted to you and about what God will do.
Where do all of these musings leave me? Fearful? Depressed? Hardly!
For starters, how many times throughout history have people announced the church was about to die or that God was dead … only for God’s work through his people to blaze brighter than before? Even more significantly, God’s word can not be broken. His promises are secure. What are the incidental pressures of a particular culture against the power of our eternal Creator who holds the future in his hands?
Whether as individuals or members of institutions, we would do well to imitate the faithfulness of the three who said, “If our God whom we are serving exists, he is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he will rescue us, O king, from your power as well. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we don’t serve your gods, and we will not pay homage to the golden statue that you have erected” (Daniel 3:17,18).