There was a time when I found a rant satisfying.
It was a cathartic putting right of the world, or at least a therapeutic binge of self-expression that, even if it didn’t persuade others, made me feel a lot better.
If I were to revert to the rant as default setting for responding to that which hurts, or is unfair, untrue, biased, prejudiced or annoying, then one of the frequent triggers for such a rant would be a debating strategy among evangelical Christians.
The approach that frustrates me is arguing a case, persuasively or otherwise, and finishing it with the claim that the view articulated is “biblical.” The implication being that differing views are less biblical.
It happens time and again in discussions about matters of controversy between Christians, most recently about gendered approaches to ministry and the two main schools of complementarian and egalitarian.
Judging by the way people are objectified in these arguments about abstract principles, cultural prejudices, theological preferences and, yes, biblical hermeneutics, it might even be argued that arguments from both sides are dangerously utilitarian.
The problem with using the word “biblical” as an exclusive truth claim is that by so doing it implies that all who disagree with the point being made are deemed to be less biblical, with a weaker view of the authority of Scripture, a willingness to accommodate error for the sake of contemporary relevance or cultural acceptability for a position held.
So, for example, those who hold a complementarian view of the role of women in relation to ministry and leadership, can quote chapter and verse from Paul, argue plausibly that Jesus only had male disciples, and find alternative translations of the name Junia in Romans 16 to show either that the name was male or that her appellation as apostle meant something other than apostle in the full sense.
Conversely, those who support an egalitarian approach to women’s ministry will likewise quote chapter and verse, point out the crucial role of women as witnesses and disciples in the gospels, and celebrate Junia as a female apostle showing Paul meant no universal limitation on women’s leadership.
The debate is deeply and decisively influenced by biblical hermeneutics and the preferred approach to biblical interpretation.
I am egalitarian and I believe responsible and faithful exegesis and hermeneutic respect for the text of the New Testament lead to that view.
But I will not claim that my view is “biblical” and those who think differently are unbiblical in their conclusions and hanging loose to the authority of Scripture in favor of their own prejudices bolstered by inadequate exegesis.
Both sides of such a debate are, at their best, exploring the texts, discussing the issues, respecting the views of those who differ and acknowledging the faithfulness and seriousness with which each seeks the truth, weighs the evidence and argues the case.
I think that the clarion call of the church’s freedom in Galatians 3:28 and 5:1 affirm and assert with all the vigor of an angry apostle that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Full stop.
But I recognize, and respect, others who read those verses differently, and I acknowledge that they too are wrestling with the texts, seeking to be faithful to the biblical witness and obedient to the Scripture principle.
It would be the height of arrogance, and indeed a barrier to my own learning and obedience, if I simply dismissed those who hold views contrary to mine as being “unbiblical.”
Let’s debate and discuss, explore and argue, listen and speak, read and write, but in a spirit of openness not only to what others are saying, but also to what God is saying to us through their words, ideas and insights.
We may or may not be persuaded, we may think others are mistaken and we are right, we might even shake our heads that someone can’t see the plain biblical truth that we claim to see.
But that’s the point at which I would urge those with such clarity, certainty and conviction to remember that it is the Holy Spirit’s ministry to take the things of Christ and make them known.
We should acknowledge that sometimes it is our own clarity, certainty and conviction that closes us to new truth and shuts off new ways of seeing things because we have it all figured out with our exegetical conclusions nailed down and our hermeneutical approach as the only game in town.
Being “biblical” in our theology and seeing the Bible as the final authority does not mean others who read the same Bible, with the same faithful reverence and desired obedience, but come to different conclusions are unbiblical.
Let’s discuss the biblical arguments, the textual evidence, the hermeneutic principles, the theological implications of such shared learning in the school of Christ.
But let us do so without claiming the word “biblical” for our own arguments, by implication disenfranchising others in whom, and through whom, within the community that is the Body of Christ, the Holy Spirit also works, speaks and moves us toward a deeper apprehension of what it means to follow faithfully after Christ.
I have read and studied the Bible for half a century. My theology, ethics, spirituality and way of looking at and living in the world is decisively shaped by this book, its witness to Christ, and its application to my own life and heart by the Holy Spirit.
I have learned that the Spirit of Christ is the Bible’s best interpreter, and the community of Christ seeking to follow faithfully in the way of the cross is the best context within which to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest those Holy Scriptures given for our learning.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.