authority of scripture

This post is an abbreviated version of a post on my own blog.  The fuller version can be found here: http://mattfrizzell.com/2013/11/10/the-authority-of-scripture-or-how-not-to-read-it/

I’m teaching Restoration Scripture this semester at Graceland University.   When I teach this upper division undergraduate course, I spend more time thinking about the role of scripture in normal life more than I usually do .

I teach Restoration Scripture in a way that brings knowledge about scripture together with critical thinking about truth and authority.  I attempt to help students think critically about scripture, yet have respect for its tradition.  The point is to develop a creative openness to scripture.  I believe my approach fits well with Community of Christ’s Statement on Scripture.   It’s a relational approach in which students combine critical thinking and respect for its purpose as a communal authority.  This allows scripture to become a tool with which to think, imagine, feel, and learn the Spirit at work in the church and its sacred writings, present day and in the past.  It takes more time, effort, and discipline to think about scripture this way.  But, it is also what connects scripture with lived-life in community with others in an intellectually honest and life-giving way.

Putting practical questions first, we start by asking the implicit question, “What is scripture good for?”  This question is important because many young adults simply haven’t developed an understanding of scripture outside their personal exposure (or lack of exposure) to it.  Like us, they see how too many Christians obsess over religion and scriptural authority in a way that alienates others. Christianity that worships the authority of scripture has alienated many of us from what it means to be Christian.  The humble call to walk and learn from the person and work of Jesus is quickly lost.  This is even truer with young adults in my experience.

bible-silentThe problem is that most Christians get way too caught up in the “what” of scripture.   More fundamentalist and conservative Christians do it by overemphasizing the literal word and authority of the Bible.  Liberal Christians and pan-religious folk do it when they dispense with scripture by labeling it as personal devotional material, simply stories and moral teaching, or irrelevant historical documents.    When “what scripture is” becomes more important than what scripture points to, the “who” of scripture is eclipsed.  The message and purpose of scripture are lost.

The future of scripture will grow out of a fuller understanding of its past.   Interestingly, Restoration Scripture lends itself well to this approach. Community of Christ has an open canon of scripture that evolves.  (Other traditions also have an evolving understanding of scripture and its interpretation; its the canonization of new scriptural material that makes the Community of Christ unique.)  With all the traps and dangers of having an open canon of scripture, it also has its advantages.  The same traps and dangers that come with an open canon also illuminate the all-to-human processes from which the scriptures come. Because of historical proximity, the emergence of Restoration scripture helps us appreciate how scripture emerges as crystalizations of collective (and collected) human experience.  They do not drop out of the sky or emerge pristine out of an arc or from the ground.  Scriptures are products of divine-human encounter.  They are a human endeavor.  They come out of the circumstances that created them and carried them to us.  And, they testify of God’s activity midst human experience in ultimate proportions.   “God,” in scripture, is a sign and object of ultimate meaning.

When we read scripture, we commune with the dead.  We glean their wisdom and read their witness of ultimate concern in their lives.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey a semblance of God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   They are stories and life-lessons of survival, life’s search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death.  All come to us through scripture.

Scripture is also a particular kind of literature.  It is literature that personifies God.   In scripture, God is personified because God and human beings constantly interact.  They fight, deny, adore, return, struggle with and depend deeply on God.  God is strangely present and beyond these entanglements.  God is wily and faithful, powerful and vulnerable.  God is vengeful and gracious.  God is the beginning and the end, whose name is simply “I am.”  (Exodus 3:14)  This God communes with human beings and  is terribly interested in our lives and welfare.  God persistently reaches out to us at great personal expense.

When we approach scripture with narrow personal interests or uncritical assumptions about its authority and content, so much gets lost.   Any reader can slip right past the message within scripture, finding only what they set out to find. This is how we approach restaurants and government – expecting to get what we’re promised and what we want.    But approaching scripture this way avoids a deeper relationship.  I avoids questions about who it comes from, to whom it testifies, and who it’s for.  So much of what scripture is comes from our relationship with it.

Practically, scripture contains wisdom of the ancients and a living message for today.   The ancient church is always also us and not us.  The faith community that practices reading and discerning scripture together will be shaped by its message.  Reading scripture together is a particular experience that shapes a common memory and a community.    This living memory is lived and repeated in the sacraments and rituals that shape the community.  This approach to scripture gets much closer to its purpose and message.   Jacob wrestled with God; I wrestle with God.  Jesus was baptized; I was baptized.   The disciples broke bread and drank in Jesus; we break bread and drink in Jesus.   Job suffered and searched for meaning; we suffer and search for meaning.   Israel longed for a messiah; we do, too.

jesus gift bagsConsumer culture tends to make us think that religious resources are actually spiritual consumer goods.   This, too, influences how we see scripture.    Consuming scripture goes beyond using scripture as personal devotional material.   Scripture becomes only good for “what I get out of it” and “what it means to me.”    This diminishes the community-shaping power of scripture.   But, it can also lead to abusing it.    When scripture is a consumer good, it’s authority is in what I can get out of it.   In an anxious world, we have all seen alarmists and charlatans use scripture to propagate fear, manipulate persons, and create false security.   Used as a consumer good, the ultimate nature of the human problems and difficulties addressed in scripture can become a weapon.   Consumer culture does not cultivate a relationship with scripture or shape the kind of community its message conveys.

Practical wisdom leads to an understanding of scripture that liberates us from extreme and uninformed approaches.   What is scripture good for?  It’s good for reading.  It’s good for reading in community with others.  The authority of scripture is not in literal truth or infallibility.  Nor is the authority of scripture limited to what you or I can get out of it for our own benefit.  The authority of scripture lies in our ability to encounter, grasp, and be changed by its message.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   The stories, testimonies, and life-lessons of survival, our search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death all come to us through scripture.   Reading it together forms relationships and a common memory of stories, life-lessons, and language to express the meaning and mystery of life – which otherwise is nearly impossible for us to express.  Read this way, scriptures do not exert authority.  Their authority is evident.

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“Mourning in Zion” Syndrome

The 2013 World Conference of Community of Christ is about to get underway in Independence, Missouri. Organizers looked to chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel for daily themes. The heart of that story is Jesus in his home synagogue reading from the scroll of the book of Isaiah. Luke gives us just a few verses, but it’s what comes after that in Isaiah 61 that may be most important as we gather for this World Conference and the subsequent USA National Conference:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.isaiah-scroll-l They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. –Isaiah 61 NRSV

The prophet spoke to those who had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Resettlement in their homeland and the rebuilding of a temple hadn’t turned out to be quite as glorious as they’d hoped. Stark reality was setting in. Their nation would never be truly independent. Jerusalem would never be as prosperous and important as in the glory days under David and Solomon. And the new temple could never match the remembered magnificence of the original. That’s why the people were “mourning in Zion”: the good old days would never return, and that represented the shared failure of both the people and their God.

In a sense it represented the death of a dream based on collective memory. Human nature being what it is, those hopes were flawed from the beginning. What the people had to do, the prophet counseled, was to build something new without forgetting where and what they’d been in the past. That included both “golden years” (tempered by the perceived memories of several generations) and the painful challenges of exile. Out of that would arise a new covenantal relationship with God.

The leaders and members of Community of Christ can learn something important from this ancient text from the Hebrew Scriptures. For us it requires discernment by a prophetic people. That term has been bandied about in the church for quite a while, and it’s now time for us to finally grow into that challenging role.

Many folks within the church still long for our own version of the “good old days.” That’s understandable, I think. Look around in just about any of our congregations on a Sunday morning and you’ll find far fewer bodies in the pews or chairs than there were two or three decades ago.

We all know (or, let’s face it, are related to) now-former members who left over disagreements about women’s ordination, open Communion, changes in baptism/confirmation rules, church membership in the National Council of Churches (USA), or any number of less major or more local issues. Or maybe it’s because the church doesn’t emphasize tithing statements, or the Book of Mormon, or the “Old Jerusalem Gospel,” or the Word of Wisdom, or the exclusive authority of priesthood, or, well, just fill in the blank with lots of other choices.

We’re about to convene a World Conference in which one of the resolutions calls for “liberalizing” restrictions on the social use of alcohol by priesthood members. My grandmother is no doubt spinning in her grave. I doubt if there’s a current longtime church member who couldn’t insert the name of the dead relative of their own choice in that sentence, as well. That’s just one of the issues we’ll debate. Then immediately after World Conference ends, delegates from throughout the USA church gather to discuss the possibility of marriage and priesthood ordination for people in same-gender relationships. If most of our dead relatives weren’t spinning before….

There are different ways of looking at all this, but the first one that comes to mind for me is that a sizable chunk of Community of Christ members are in mourning. Maybe it’s because of all those changes; maybe it’s because those changes haven’t gone far enough. Perhaps it’s because of all the folks who’ve angrily stomped out the front doors of our congregations during the past three decades or so. Or perhaps it’s for all the others who’ve much more quietly drifted out the back door, tired of the constant bickering and accusations, weary of patiently waiting for the kind of transformation they believe the church sorely needs. Maybe they were just tired of carrying heavy loads without much help.

Of course, change simply for the sake of change is wrong. But so is longing with flawed memories for a golden era or “good old days.” While it’s true that the church has changed, it’s time to recognize that our society and culture have changed even more. And so what it means to be the body of Christ and the people of God in the 21st century will challenge us in ways even our recent ancestors could never have imagined.

My own childhood in the late 1950s and 1960s represented a time when the then-RLDS Church was constructing buildings practically nonstop. My congregation was one of a handful of churches in our small town. Today it’s a sprawling suburb with 50,000 residents, but back then just about all of the 2,500 or so folks identified with one of those churches. Most people were in church every Sunday morning (Catholic mass on Saturday evening served the same purpose). There were Sunday evening services and Wednesday night prayer meetings, Scouts on Monday nights, priesthood visiting on Tuesday, monthly Women’s Department meetings on Thursday evenings, and in the summer volleyball or softball games on Friday night or Saturday. In short, social life centered on church activities. Even in small towns today that’s rarely the case. Active church members now often find themselves uncomfortably out on the margins of society not at its core running the show.

SAM_0144-AA majority of Americans today are no longer regular church attenders. Even that term has been redefined to mean once a month or maybe a few times a year. This is by no means a Community of Christ phenomenon. Why, even the Southern Baptists have a shrinking membership. Many of those churches we built back in the 1950s and 1960s are underutilized, in need of major repairs, or being closed. The chief financial supporters in many congregations are growing older and dying off. Young adults are not returning to the church once they marry and have children the way previous generations did. As a result, many faithful members wring their hands and, yes, mourn.

I love the church. I’m not alone in saying that. There’s a little voice in the back corner of my mind that sometimes whispers, “Wouldn’t it be nice if things were the way they were back in the day.” Fortunately, there are other voices that counter, “Get over it already! Jesus never said anything about putting up impressive buildings and getting butts in the pews—or chairs, as the case may be.” No, Jesus quoted Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory….”

Yes, I know there’s lots of people worried about what’s going to happen at these two conferences. Much of it can be stated in the form of “If this is approved/recommended, then….” I don’t have a crystal ball to see how it will all turn out. There will be some folks who will be unhappy and others who are happy; most likely there will be a fair bit of confusion and worry. And probably a little mourning for the good old days, whatever that means, or for what might have been.

I believe the bottom line is this: It’s time for Community of Christ to step up and become the prophetic people we’ve only talked about in the past. Oh, and one more thing: We really need to get over ourselves.

Rich Brown writes a weekly lectionary blog, ForeWords.

Some Walls Just Came Tumbling Down

The boundaries separating Community of Christ from other Christian denominations have just gotten considerably more porous.

Item No. 1:
Last week CofC leaders released details on new procedures for church membership for Christians previously baptized in other denominations. An interim policy takes effect January 1, 2011, and will be valid through the following August 31.

On September 1, 2011, an official policy becomes effective. It is anticipated that a new church-members introductory course will be available by that time, and all new prospective members will be required to complete it. Until then existing resources (Walking with Jesus: Disciples in Community of Christ and Sharing in Community or We Share: Identity, Mission, Message, and Beliefs) may be used by local authorities.

A key element in both the interim and official policies is that this procedure is only for those people who were baptized (1) at the age of eight or older and (2) their baptism involved water [full or partial immersion, pouring, or sprinkling]; in other words: infant baptism does not qualify. All people seeking membership in Community of Christ in this way must agree to a Shared Understanding of Baptism statement.

Included with the official announcement of this significant policy change was a letter from church president Stephen M. Veazey. In it he explains how the policy came into being, its direct connection to Doctrine and Covenants Section 164 (approved in April 2010 at World Conference), and a brief personal reflection.

Item No. 2:
On November 10, delegates to the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches U.S.A. unanimously approved Community of Christ for membership. A report by a NCC committee recommending approval is here (the report also includes the church’s “We Share” document). The NCC report makes for interesting reading, particularly the section that notes that the Community of Christ’s “founder” was not Joseph Smith Jr. but Joseph Smith III (admittedly, this information is provided by a representative of Roman Catholic bishops and excerpted from a letter by him to the committee).

The announcement on the church’s Web site is here. While this announcement is not totally unexpected (recall that the NCC’s general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, addressed the CofC World Conference this year and expressed his strong support for this step), it does represent a significant (some would probably substitute “radical”) development in RLDS/Community of Christ history.

These separate announcements are not simply administrative actions, of course. There are major theological and historical issues involved. Clearly there are those who view this moment in the church’s long history as a leap into religious maturity while others see it as damning proof of apostasy.

Perhaps in both cases this becomes a core question: Now that the Community of Christ allows church membership for Christians without requiring rebaptism and the denomination is a part of the National Council of Churches USA, what difference is that going to make as the church (understood as a worldwide communion, national churches, mission centers, congregations, and faith movement) moves ahead?

In its shortened form, it’s simply this: So what?

Sticks and Stones and … Compliments?

Several years ago when my congregation attempted to join the local ministerial alliance (in a town right next door to Independence, Missouri), I was met by a coalition of fundamentalist and evangelical pastors intent on keeping out the (then) RLDS Church. Their reasoning ranged from claims we were “non-Christian” all the way to “not Christian enough” and, finally, to “it would just open the door for Mormons to want to join.”

As it turned out, they only wanted to talk about Joseph Smith. Apparently, our faith movement’s founder represented all that anybody needs to know about contemporary Latter Day Saint groups.

To shorten a long and rather nasty story, I’ll just skip to the part where representatives from United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and Roman Catholic Churches prevailed. A Methodist pastor put it this way: “Nobody asked me to prove I was ‘Christian enough’ to join, so why should we start now?”

Eventually most of the fundamentalists/evangelicals bolted from the alliance when an LDS representative was admitted a few years later. They formed their own group, which over time has dwindled in size and influence.

I mention this episode as a way to ask, “Do we expect to be misunderstood or misrepresented?” Is this a natural outgrowth of religious discrimination and persecution experienced by our forebears in the almost two centuries of our faith movement’s existence? Although nobody’s getting tarred and feathered these days (at least here in North America, as far as I’m aware), has suspicion become our default setting?

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Sexual Policy and the Church

This post focuses on the sexual policy and the church in the U.S. and Canada.  It does not address the international issues regarding sexual policy, which I believe are significant in considering the church’s progress on addressing same-sex ordination and marriage as a global church.  For more information, see H-6: Committee on Homosexuality and the Church Report from the 2007 World Conference.

On May 22nd, the First Presidency of the Community of Christ issued a letter to administrators about the authority of priesthood to conduct same-sex marriages.  Not intended for wide distribution, the letter restated the church’s current position against this practice. It requested, again, that leaders respect the current position while the church continues to struggle for a way to adequately address the issue.   This letter circulated among some members on the internet.

The letter was prompted by inquiries following Iowa Supreme Court’s decision.  Same-sex marriages have been legal in Iowa since April 29th.  On May 17th, Michael and Chuck Hewitt of Community of Christ’s Cornerstone Congregation (see KMBC 9 story) married in Roy A. Cheville Chapel at Graceland.  June 2nd, Graceland’s President, John Sellers, issued a letter stating his administration did not know that a same-sex wedding was planned.  Given current church policy, it would not have authorized the service knowing a Community of Christ minister was officiating.  The letter invited responses. Continue reading

Theocratic Democracy and the Role of Theologians

It’s one of the most intriguing concepts, if not contradictions, central to the Community of Christ.   It’s referenced in the very front of the “Church Administrator’s Handbook.”   It is the reason the church upholds the rule of common consent.   It is why church leaders emphasize the importance of consensus.   The tension in this idea is why the church feels  like a hierarchy, even though it tries to say its not.  The idea is central to our polity and how the church functions as a body.  The idea is theocratic democracy.

Theocratic democracy makes more sense in the way its lived out.   In the church, the “theocratic” portion of the church’s body is its priesthood.   Denominationally, the theocratic structure is comprised of the church’s leading quorums: the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric, and Quorum of Twelve Apostles.  Next is the Seven Quorums of Seventy, the Order of Bishops, Quorum of High Priests, and so on.  In congregations, the theocratic structure of the church-body is the local priesthood:  the presiding Elder, Elders, and Aaronic Priesthood.   The democratic structure of the church is its voting conferences.  Conferences operate at the congregational, judicatory (mission center), and International church levels.   Every Priesthood call must be supported by these conferences.  Church policies, legislative functions, theological issues, all are handled by church conferences.    Conferences have tremendous power, if that power is organized and executed well.  But, like every democracy, it takes time, effort, and grass roots work. Continue reading