Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 2)

It's easy to criticize (see earlier post about critics).  However, it's much less easy to offer constructive points about what one believes will result in plugging the holes that are making a ship sink.  In the church, it's a monumental task.  Church isn't like a business.  In the business world, if a person is mismanaging things, the person can be readily fired and someone else can be hired.  New blood can be infused within a matter of months if a company is willing to do what is necessary.  There might be a few emotional strings that get pulled, but in the business world, it's cut-throat.

The church is slightly (ahem) different.  For one, it's a volunteer organization.  No one has to belong to it, and you can't simply fire someone if you believe they are not doing the right things.  Furthermore, everyone has their own ideas about what the church should and should not be doing.  It doesn't matter if you hold a PhD in theology or if you have an eighth grade education and are reading the Bible on your own, everyone has a particular interpretation of what Christianity is all about.  This can make things very, very difficult.

For instance, let's look at a particular Biblical text.  Here's a familiar one from Jesus in Matthew chapter 5:

39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Now, taken as the plain reading of the text, Jesus calls his followers to be rather passive when it comes to dealing with violence.  If someone strikes us, rather than retaliate, we are called to offer the other cheek as well giving an invitation for someone to hit us back.  Kind of makes us look like pushovers when it comes to our lives of faith, but that is a straightforward interpretation.

But let's add a few layers given to us by those who have done some more study about the time and place where Jesus spoke these words.  According to many biblical scholars, this text is far from a passive act.  In the Mid-Eastern culture, when someone struck you with their left hand (striking someone on the right cheek), they were hitting you with the hand that was considered unclean.  The left hand was the hand used to clean yourself after taking a crap.  If someone slugged you with that hand, they were basically telling you, "You aren't worth crap."

Jesus says, "If someone slaps you with their left hand and calls you crap.  Offer them your other cheek instead.  Make them treat you as an equal."  Furthermore, inviting someone to strike you on the left cheek is inviting someone to deal you a death blow.  That puts the person who struck you in an awkward position.  Dare they strike you and kill you for a minor ordeal?  Dare they bring shame upon themselves in such a manner?  What does one do with a person who is not afraid of death and invites you to go ahead and take their life?  Would you want to be responsible for striking down a defenseless person?

Seen in this manner, Jesus call to turn the other cheek is not a simple, passive action that allows Christians to be walked over.  Instead, it's a call for dignity.  Pretty impressive. 

But, now is the tricky part.  Which interpretation is the right one?  If one does not have the scholarly background to know all the details of what was going on in Jesus' day, is that person wrong?  Tricky isn't it? 

This is one of the reasons we have doctrine in the church.  We have a set of beliefs and principles that guide us in how we interpret scripture, how we live a Christian life, and the beliefs which we believe are most important.  Each church has some sort of doctrine which helps it govern itself.

In my opinion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has strayed far and wide from it's historical, Lutheran doctrine.  We have done so in many, many ways.

In the above instance in interpretation of scripture, the ELCA has chosen to go with scholarly interpretation.  Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that; however, such a choice actually flies in the face of the founders of the Lutheran church.

Martin Luther argued that the plain reading of the Biblical text in the language of those who were reading was the primary way scripture should be interpreted.  Luther dealt with a church that kept common, lay people ignorant of what was in scripture.  Scholars and priests held more authority, and the ultimate authority of scripture was the pope.  As Luther delved into church history, he saw how scholars repeatedly disagreed.  He saw how popes disagreed.  He saw the potential for abuse of scripture in this manner as well as only a few had actual knowledge of what the Bible said.  There was no checks and balances.  Therefore, Luther argued vehemently that the plain reading of the biblical text should be the most authoritative.  There was nothing wrong with biblical scholarship, per se, but when push came to shove, the plain reading should carry the day.

The leadership and many clergy in the ELCA do not adhere to such principles today.  Instead of inviting people to read the plain language of the text and become inspired to make their own interpretations, scholars are referred to and arguments are based upon appeals to such authority rather than the authority of the Holy Spirit.  This has led to some very confused lay folks within our congregations.  They see something written in plain language before them, hear a very different interpretation, and become very confused as to what is true and what isn't. 

When confusion reigns in this manner, no one knows what to do when the ship starts sinking.

As I look at the current state of the ELCA, my beloved church, I believe the first step in radically changing course is a return to the plain reading of the biblical text.  Such a move will allow lay and clergy to come together on a level playing field without scholarly pretenses. 

However, that playing field does have its set of rules as well.  More on that next post.

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