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This Month's Scripture Verse:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5


Friday, April 28, 2017

When Conscience And The Scriptures Collide

One of the most pressing issues facing the conservative Church today is when its members see a conflict between their consciences and what they understand from the Scriptures. Many of these instances revolve around how we should regard homosexuals in society and thus homosexuality in general. For many Christians see, and correctly so IMO, bigotry against the LGBT community as being wrong and immoral. But many of us have been taught by conservative Christian leaders that the Scriptures demand that we must exercise such bigotry by opposing equality for the LGBT community in society. And one of the ways we are told to oppose this equality is to oppose Same-Sex Marriage (SSM) in society. The dissonance provided by these conflicting messages is great and has cause some religiously conservative Christians to go against what the Scriptures teach about homosexuality by approving of it in order to avoid showing bigotry.

Of course, sometimes the conflict between one's conscience and the Scriptures is in appearance only. The SSM issue serves as a primary example. Though the Scriptures do teach against homosexuality, there is nothing in the New Testament that tells we should try to marginalize the LGBT community in society. But, again, many conservative Christian leaders have been teaching their people that support such marginalization. That is very unfortunate for both the LGBT community and for many religiously conservative Christians.

And now this same general problem of conscience clashing with the Scriptures has occurred again in former President Jimmy Carter's leaving of the Southern Baptist Convention (click here). Why is he leaving? It is because, as Carter says, leaders from the Convention are selectively using the Scriptures to deny women an equal place with men in their churches. And that inequality is expressed not just in terms of how women are described in relation to men, but also in terms of denying women the chance to serve in the same positions of authority in the Church in which men are allowed to serve.

The above enrages Carter for he has seen how women have been abused and marginalized by being made subservient to men both in the Christian Church and in other religions. But the question for us Christians is this: What should we do when our consciences go against what we have been taught from the Scriptures?

When we see such a conflict, our first job is to test and see if an actual conflict exists. And thus, we first need to test whether we have correctly understood the Scriptures on a particular matter. Have the Scriptures made women below men in status? Have the Scriptures prohibited women from holding the same offices as men hold? And if the answer to the latter question is a 'yes,' does that imply that women are to be regarded as less than men?

In addition, we will want learn about women not just from what the Scriptures teach, but from the examples set in the Church. And  once we have compiled these Scriptures, we then try to arrive at a conclusion. We want to avoid what Carter claims he sees happening in the SBC: that is the selective use of the Scriptures to make a point.

But before preceding, I should also note two other things here. First, like Jimmy Carter, I belong to a denomination that limits the role of women in the Church. My denomination is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And before assuming that that denomination promotes male superiority over women, I would invite people to speak to the women in my denomination to see how much that is or is not the case. 

Second, most of the credit for any success I have achieved in life really belongs to two women. One of those women is the wife and the other is the best friend. Without having both of these women in my life, I don't know where I would be. The wife provides a great deal of support and stability for me which is important considering the background of the family I grew up in. I could never make it without that help. And because of how similarly we experience life and the examples she has set, the best friend and I consider each other to be mentors to each other.

The Scriptures that teach that men have some kind of authority over women whether at home or in the Church include the following: I Timothy 2:11-3:12 (click here), I Corinthians 11:2-12 (click here), and Ephesians 5:22-33 (click here). But we should note that the second passage just cited also carries with it some egalitarian ideas on men and women. Another Scripture that promotes equality between men and women is Galatians 3:28 (click here). And we have Romans 16 (click here) that provides a partial list of examples of the roles women played in the New Testament Church. We should also note the prominent roles women played in the ministry of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We might also note the role women played in Church history (click here for a brief summary from a Christianity Today article).

I do believe that women have been shortchanged in denominations like my own. That doesn't imply that I think my denomination is wrong in all of its statements on women. It simply means that because my denomination has not done enough in recognizing women's equality in the Church.

Once we have read through the Scriptures listed, we see that Carter minimizes the Scriptures that disagree with his position. That is unfortunate. In addition, I'm afraid he sees implications in the Scriptures that don't favor his position which are not really there. Also, in the Scriptures that do not favor his position, there is a certain authority men are given over women but that only occurs in certain relationships, not all relationships.

At the same time, we need to first give Carter his due. For most of us, the clashes we have with the Scriptures are due to an absence of a conscience, not the presence of one. Plus, former President Carter is a very honorable man who has done more to help people throughout his life than some churches have. In addition, we cannot ignore the examples where women were recognized as being leaders in the Church. Romans 16:1 lists Phoebe as church deacon. Some believe that Junia, also mentioned in Romans 16, is called an apostle. I believe that the Greek is ambiguous there. However,  one of the Church fathers, John Chrysostom, regarded her as an apostle (see the Christianity Today article cited earlier). We know that other women greatly helped Paul in his ministry and thus part of his ministry would not be possible without them. And as strongly as Paul says that only men should have certain offices in the Church, he also declares that men and women are equal (Galatians 3:28) and that they are interdependent on each other so that neither one is above the other (I Corinthians 11:8-12).

But we religiously conservative Christians should also note that we have another problem regarding the relationships between men and women. That problem is that we tend to go beyond the authority structures provided by the Scriptures to embrace an authoritarianism. With authoritarianism, we don't know how to turn off the authority switch in terms of how we should relate to each other. Not all of our relationships require positions of authority where one person is above the other. And thus we fail to recognize the many times where we are to relate to each other as equals. We should note here that how we relate to each other in society is not affected by the Scriptures that tell us how to relate to each other in the Church. Thus, what is said about the positions of authority women are not to have in the Church do not limit the positions of authority women can have in society.

Carter's reaction to his denomination is to be both respected and disagreed with. Carter is leaving his denomination because his sensitive conscience can no longer support how he sees it  treating women. That must be respected. At the same time, I believe that Carter needs to revisit the Scriptures that disagree with his position. He is too quick to minimize their significance, but perhaps that is because he has seen how those Scriptures have been abused.

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