Wrestling with Scripture



Wrestling with Scripture

In the last post I raised a problem I had with a text in Leviticus 21, and with a commentary on that text by someone I respect who comes from what might be termed a ‘Reformed’ perspective. I have not finished with Leviticus!

One of the physical disabilities which is counted as an unholy defect is crushed testicles. Which reminds us that descendants of Aaron who were acceptable in God’s presence must be male. Which, of course, is one of the reasons those with a Reformed outlook still reject the possibility of female priests or leaders. We Baptists don’t believe in Priests at all, and so have fewer theological barriers to ordaining women we sense have been called to ministry and have been suitably trained and accredited. But, even today, some of us will not affirm the ministry of women, and there is plenty of evidence that women in ministry are not treated with the same respect as men within our denomination.

My point though, is that the Leviticus text assumes Priests must be men and that those men must not be disabled. Because God insists on it. Yet, most of the Western church which embraces a range of opinions on Priesthood, now ordains women and disabled people in churches,. Both women and the disabled struggle with the same kinds of discrimination within the church as in wider society, but we have found a way of contextualising scripture which has made it possible to change our minds. Those from a Reformed perspective may still refuse to ordain women but, I assume but may be wrong, would not prohibit someone with a disability from Church leadership. I cannot think of any occasion where the attitude to disability found in Leviticus is carried over into the New Testament, whereas it does contain opinions about the role of women that are different to those of our society today of course.

My only point here is that humans operate with many biases, most of them hidden to ourselves. And we thereby find ways of convincing ourselves that scripture forbids what we don’t want or agree with and allows what we do. Some changes in attitude may take generations to achieve, whereas other paradigm shifts may become the norm within just a few years.

However fixed we believe scripture to be, we cannot escape the fact that we read it through lenses that are conditioned by our personal story and the culture we live in. Our mental images, perspectives, assumptions, attitudes and goals are completely different to those of the individuals who wrote the words we read. It is so easy to say we believe the bible to be ‘the Word of God’ and to read into it all the things we are used to and find in it the answers we want. We do it all the time.

I have chosen just one thorny topic as the main subject of this blog series: disability. Because it is the issue I have thought most about. But all the time I have had another in mind: our discussion on marriage. There was a time when the question of divorce was the issue of the day, but it is now possible to be divorced and in leadership despite the fact that there are biblical texts that appear to be unequivocal on the matter, and some of these are in the New Testament. However we defined it when that was the defining issue of the day, it was eventually accepted that the bible is a collection of texts which must be understood in their context and interpreted according to the example of Christ and under the guidance of the Spirit. Why do we need to re-learn that lesson every time a new issue of debate rears its head?

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About the Author

Craig Millward has been a Baptist minister for over 30 years and has extensive experience of the joys and challenges of church leadership.

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