I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling sometimes that I am trapped in an anarchous society. To make it worse, the very people who have been charged with administering the law are driven by their own subjective interpretations that have elevated the flaws in our legal system.
Several years ago, we witnessed the fallibility of the judiciary in three high profile cases.
1. The family of Terry Schiavo were pulled through an emotional roller coaster as the legislative and judicial systems donned the diagnostic and moral garbs of medical doctors and clergy.
2. Same sex couples in California had also been thrust onto a tenuous see-saw, when after being granted marriage licenses by San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, they were informed by the California Supreme Court that their licenses are null and void, only to hear later that Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer had declared their marriages legal.
3. And let’s not forget the unfortunate Jessica Lunsford, whose killer, John Couey, had made a career out of criminal activity but was able to get lost in a system that is still not in full agreement about the extent of a convicted sex-offender’s right to privacy.
A “Christian” Response
I would have liked to provide a “Christian” response to each of these cases, but I have no doubt that there are scores of “Christians” who would disagree with my “Christian” assessment.
The truth is, before the body of Christ can present a united response about the fate of Terry Schiavo, the individual members must first come to consensus about how to define a viable life. If the Church of God wishes to propose a unified position on gay marriage, the various congregants must first agree on the extent of the government’s role in legislating morality. And as far as the fate of John Couey is concerned, before the people of God can unanimously endorse the sentence that was eventually meted out by the court, they must first agree on the biblical position on capital punishment.
“Baggaged” Bible Study
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not slipping into the shaky sea of post-modern relativism. I am not suggesting that every theological opinion is equally valid. I have firm convictions about the aforementioned issues, and can find biblical support for each one.
However, I have close friends who are just as apt at dissecting biblical nuances and hold radically different positions than mine. Of course, I believe that their interpretations are wrong! Nonetheless, after years of heated arguments and reluctant adjustment to personal “convictions” I have come to understand that each person–even the theologically trained–reads the Bible through lenses that bear a unique prescription reflecting his or her life’s experiences.
Every interpreter of the Bible approaches the task with baggage picked up from parents, Bible teachers, political ideology, culture, denominational creed, and a host of other influential forces.
An Invitation to Dialogue
Does this mean that the Bible is too vague to be used in Christian decision making? I don’t believe so. However, I have learned that the Bible was never intended to offer cookie cutter solutions to every one of our moral dilemmas or theological inquiries. As we learn from the story of Job, the God who created us with the power to reason anticipates that we will exercise our intellects in our quest to understand His will, His workings and His ways. As we enter into creative dialogue with Him through His word, we are humbled by the awareness that we all “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor 13:12).
It is with this recognition that Paul advises the warring theological factions in Rome to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you...” (Rom 15:7; cf. 14:1-15:13). Faithful Christians who love the Lord and are loved by the Lord may disagree on how to extract theological principles from God’s word, but they are faithful Christians nonetheless.
Personal Acts of Love
As individual Christians struggle through the arduous task of applying biblical principles to contemporary issues, I trust we all agree that the central message of scripture is not subject to debate. It is the message of a God who loved an erring world so much that He provided the corrective remedy for all the world’s problems through His beloved Son (John 3:16-17). In response to this ultimate act of love, God invites us to respond through personal acts of love directed not only to Him, but also to our fellow earth dwellers.
As Christians, we may not arrive at a consensus on the fate of Terry Schiavo, but we can devote some time each month to visit others who ail in hospices, hospitals and homes. We may not come to an agreement on the role of the government in enforcing biblical principles, but we can combine our collective resources to develop attractive and effective entertainment and recreation alternatives for a generation being shaped by MTV and social media. We may not share the same ethical view on capital punishment, but we can provide spiritual, emotional and physical support to those incarcerated and their families.
As you contemplate your theological positions, never forget that the true measure of a Christian is not determined by “what” is in your head, but “Who” is in your heart. I pray that as we think about the way in which we dialogue with each other about difficult issues that we will never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton teaches at Oakwood University and is a former member of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute Committee.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3948