Guest Blogger: Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee on How We Read the Bible

I’ve posted my wife’s sermons on this site before, but this is the first piece she’s composed specifically for this blog!  Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee has been the pastor of Westernville Presbyterian Church since 2006.  She is the first guest blogger on this site, but I’m certainly open to others.  Let me know if you’re interested.

Sarah keeps her own blog at suchkindways.wordpress.com

As a mainline Presbyterian with “liberal” tendencies, but with an evangelical upbringing that I value, I have often found myself interpreting evangelical or conservative theological positions for my friends and colleagues—helping explain how evangelicals read the Bible, understand theology, and interact with the world. My goal is always to help friends prone to dismissing evangelicals to see the thoughtful theology, good-intentions and desire for spiritual faithfulness that I’ve known at the heart of the best of evangelical church life.

But now, with nearly 6 years of ministry experience in a decidedly liberal presbytery, I finally feel fluent enough to begin interpreting back in the other direction. It is time for me to interpret liberal or progressive perspectives to my evangelical friends and colleagues, particularly in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is time to talk about the fight over same-sex relationships that we all see coming at this year’s General Assembly. (And, despite the fact that I wish it were not a fight, I will call it such, because there are undeniable hard-feelings and hurt-feelings on both sides. Sounds like a fight to me.) It is time for me to help friends prone to dismissing liberals to see the thoughtful theology, good intentions and desire for spiritual faithfulness that I’ve known at the heart of the best of liberal church life.

First, we must reframe the way we understand the nature of this fight. This is not a fight over the “authority of scripture.” Framing it in terms of authority of scripture implies that evangelicals take the Bible seriously and liberals, or progressives do not. This is simply not true. The vast majority of Presbyterians who support same-sex marriage take the Bible very seriously and consider it the primary source of guidance and formation for Christian life. They do not ignore or dismiss parts of scripture that disagree with their political or social agenda. To imply so is insulting.

No, this is a struggle between two different hermeneutics (or, more precisely, two ranges on a hermeneutical spectrum). A hermeneutic is a fancy way of saying, “a way of reading the Bible”—the set of values and assumptions that inevitably shape the way we read scripture. Sometimes one end of this spectrum has been called “literal,” as in “I take the Bible literally.” Not only is this a gross oversimplification, it leaves the other end of the spectrum ill-defined. Is the opposite of “literal,” “metaphorical,”? “Figurative”? Or as one on-line dictionary suggests, “Inaccurate”? That is language that sets up a straw man. I prefer to think of this spectrum as one strung between these two poles: “I Take Everything in the Bible At Face Value” and “I Believe Everything in the Bible is Nearly Impossible to Interpret Accurately.”

Very few people land on either of these extremes. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, recognizing that while some things in scripture are very clear (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself,”), other parts are very difficult to understand, because they were produced in cultures half a world away and thousands of years ago using languages as distant from modern Hebrew and Greek as “Beowulf” is from modern English. (“They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh,” from Leviticus 21:5. What is the corner of a beard, anyway, and why shouldn’t it get shaved?)

Every evangelical I know is aware of this “hermeneutical distance.” I was raised in an evangelical church and family, and I grew up with the understanding that sometimes we need to learn a little bit about the historical circumstances in which a book was written in order to interpret the Bible well. For instance, we need to know that shepherds were not respectable members of society to fully appreciate the significance of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to a band of these ragamuffins.

By the same token, every liberal I know would agree that there are parts of the Bible we should take at face value. “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8 (NIV). “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39.

So, all of us on this hermeneutical spectrum take some parts of the Bible at face value and all of us use knowledge of the historical and literary setting to make sense of other parts. The difference is which way we look at certain parts.

Those who believe homosexual activity is a sin look at the handful of scripture verses that mention same-gender sexual interactions and they believe they can be read at face value. Just to be clear—I am not claiming that they refuse to examine the historical setting of these passages, but that when they do so, they believe that what they can discern of the historical setting does not change the “face-value” reading of the passage. Those who support same-gender relationships look at these same passages and what they can discern of the historical context in which they were written, and they reach the conclusion that these passages are not as clear as the “face value” would lead us to believe, and that, in their original context, these passages are not condemning the same kind of relationships they seek to support.

As someone who, during the course of theological education at an evangelical seminary shifted from the first way of reading these passages to the second, I can attest to the fact that these are not opposites, but surprisingly close positions on a spectrum—it was a slow, but seamless transition for me. I did not give up anything about the way I was raised to value and read scripture—I simply applied the same values in new ways and new places in the Bible. In fact, I know many people who still self-identify as evangelicals and support same-sex relationships, because they feel that they are continuing to read the Bible with the same primary lens—it’s just that when they focus that interpretive lens on these handful of passages, they don’t believe that they provide sufficient basis for condemning same-sex relationships.

All of this was a very long way of saying that most liberals who support same-sex relationships still take seriously the authority of scripture—we just read the Bible differently. This is not a fight between those who take the Bible seriously and those whose political or social agendas trump their commitment to the Bible. This is a fight between a group of people who value the Bible and read it one way and a group of people who also value the Bible and read it a different way.

Second, I would like to reframe the stakes of this fight. As I understand it, many evangelical pastors and congregations are concerned that if same-gender marriages are allowed in our constitution, there may come a day (sooner or later) when these marriages would be proscribed—in other words, that they would be required to perform those weddings (or ordinations of those in same-sex relationships) even though they believe they are prohibited in the Bible. This is the worst-case scenario—the loss of freedom of conscience. At best, they will find themselves serving within a denomination that no longer reflects their values.

First, I would like to say that I wholeheartedly support the freedom of conscience of all my colleagues. I believe our denomination should leave space for theological diversity—as much of that hermeneutical spectrum as we can bear. So, I will do all I can to actively prevent the worst-case scenario from happening.

But here’s what I need my evangelical colleagues in the PC(USA) to understand. That freedom of conscience you are fighting to preserve is one that has already been explicitly denied to your more liberal colleagues for the last 16 years.

Serious discussions about the Presbyterian church’s stance on same-gender relationships began in the late 1970s (in both the UPCUSA and the PCUS, for those of you who care). In both cases, the earliest theological papers acknowledged a diversity of ways to interpret the scripture passages in question—an acknowledgment that was not reflected in the subsequent theological statements adopted by each General Assembly—what began as open dialogue was shut down. There was, however, recognition that discerning a candidate’s suitability for ordained ministry was the responsibility of the session and presbytery, so while the General Assemblies adopted theological statements on their understanding of same-sex relationships, presbyteries still felt free to examine and approve candidates in same-sex relationships, when they recognized God’s call in their lives.

So—just to put things in perspective—there are pastors in our denomination who are in committed same-sex relationships, who were ordained before I was born.

But, in 1996, the ordination standards in the Constitution of the PC(USA) were amended to require all candidates for ordination to live “in chastity in singleness,” or in “fidelity in a marriage between a man and a woman.” In a denomination that claims to value theological diversity, our constitution was amended to limit the interpretation of the parts of scripture regarding same-sex relationships to only their “face-value,” reading, and ever since then, those who read these parts of the Bible differently have been prohibited from exercising their freedom of conscience.

The fight to remove that clause (which happened last year) and to open up the definition of marriage is not an attempt to deny any one’s freedom to interpret the Bible faithfully and act upon those convictions. It is precisely the opposite—it is an attempt to return that freedom of conscience to those in our denomination who for almost 20 years have faced the reality that in order to respond faithfully to their understanding of God’s call in scripture, they must defy church’s constitution. Most of these clergy and congregations have remained within the denomination, longing for and fighting for the chance to act upon their conscience.

The liberals in our denomination have endured almost two decades of serving a church that not only no longer reflected their values, but overtly prevented them from acting on one of their theological convictions. They’ve looked at young people who would make excellent pastors and said, “You’ll have to seek to serve in a different denomination. We’re not allowed to ordain you.” They’ve told members of their churches “I can’t perform your wedding because the denomination prohibits it.” The worst case scenario has happened. So, forgive your liberal colleagues if they don’t have much patience for those who worry their ability to exercise freedom of conscience may be lost. They already lost theirs and have not entirely got it back, yet.

I, and most of the liberal church leaders I know, want all of our members to have freedom of conscience. We do not want to force churches who read the Bible differently from us to hire gay or lesbian clergy or perform same-sex weddings. But we do want to have the ability to act on our own convictions—to live with faithfulness to the way the Spirit is leading us to read and interpret scripture—to affirm the ways we see God calling our friends and neighbors to service in the church and to fidelity in marriage.

4 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee on How We Read the Bible

  1. Dan Bender

    Without a reply button I’m completely disoriented with Blogging.
    A friend forwarded the article about PCUSA Schism and OK to go Own ways.
    I wanted to tell this fellow J. Barrett Lee what I told my friend.
    I hope it gets to others as well. …dan

    Bill,
    Unless I am mistaken, I don’t see a great movement of those leaving PCUSA returning to PCA.

    I have signed up to participate in this fellow’s blog but am terribly lost.

    I will tell him that PSNE is in the process of fixing the one fatal flaw in the ECO Polity statement. When we implement that here, churches all over the PCUSA will flock to ECO and we will be United by Polity and Glorified in our Theological Diversity.

    …Brother Dan.

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