Dealing with “biblical” Claims

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Both the Bible and the lessons of Adventist history (see the previous blogs in this series) demonstrate that circumstances alter cases. But what does all that have to do with the ordination of women? Is Women’s Ordination also an issue where circumstances alter cases? Before I get into recent events and the upcoming General Conference session, let me share an important distinction in biblical interpretation. When we say that a particular teaching is “biblical,” the evidence for such an assertion comes at two different levels. I draw a distinction between teachings that are exegetically compelling and teachings that are exegetically defensible. Some biblical doctrines are exegetically compelling. In other words, the Bible raises the very question we are concerned with and answers it with compelling clarity. Everyone sees clearly what the Bible is saying and either follows it or chooses not to.

On the other hand, many so-called “biblical” teachings are defensible from the Bible, but not totally compelling on the basis of the Bible alone. Such teachings do not contradict the Bible but require reasoning, tradition, experience, history, science or other sources in order to be convincing. For example, the Bible itself never addresses the issue of smoking. And no text in the Bible tells us that spinach is good for us and tobacco is bad. So while Christians may ban smoking on the basis of biblical principles, it requires non-biblical (mostly scientific and experiential) evidence to make the case.

When it comes to women’s ordination, there is no text that raises the question or addresses the issue directly. All biblical arguments are derived from texts addressing other issues. So any argument from the Bible on women’s ordination needs to be exegetically defensible (not contradict the Bible), but can never be exegetically compelling in the sense that all will be compelled to understand and accept the conclusion from the Bible alone.

The interesting thing about the observations in the previous blogs is that even exegetically compelling texts may not always apply in a new situation. The practice of circumcision in the church was based on clear, compelling texts. The rules on meat slaughter for Israelites in the desert were based on a clear, compelling passage. The ruling in Acts 15 was direct and clear, so was Paul’s counsel regarding civil authorities in Romans 13. But even when the texts are compelling and clear, circumstances can alter cases. How much more should the principle apply when neither side’s exegesis compels the other?

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood or misquoted on this point. I am NOT saying that anything goes. I am not advocating situational ethics, I am not advocating that all values and principles can be altered at will. But I AM pointing out that within Scripture, there are clear examples of circumstances altering cases. We cannot take the most straightforward reading and assume that it applies universally in all circumstances. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10:15, when it comes to matters of church policy, we need to consider time and place and use common sense.

To be continued. . .

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