One of the key questions central to the discussions around the future of The United Methodist Church pertains to the authority of Scripture. In this essay, renowned New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson grapples with that issue. How can the church both maintain an authority of Scripture, while also recognizing the human stories of hurt and harm that pervade these conversations?
On the one hand, all Christians should take seriously the words of Scripture. Johnson himself professes “little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties.” As faithful disciples, we have a responsibility to read and profess Scripture well and truthfully, and to take seriously its authority.
At the same time, we also have a responsibility to bear witness to the gifts of God at work in this world. After all, as Johnson notes, at various points in history, tangible scriptural evidence has weighed against ideas that we would take for granted: that slavery is evil, that women can and should serve as ordained leaders in our churches. The biblical evidence in support of these ideas is scant.
To reconcile this dissonance, Johnson calls for the faithful to understand a deep experience of human stories. This is not a version of “cheap grace” as he says, where anything goes. Rather, experience takes into account human pain and suffering, and seeks to understand how God is at work. In discerning with experience, we begin to understand that appeals to what is natural are, far too often, “culturally constructed” and “far removed from the analysis of actual human experience.”
When we take these experiences of human stories interacting with, being transformed by, and working for the purposes of the living God, we are able to bridge the gap of seeing the story and themes of Scripture, while also being faithful to the authority of Scripture. We understand that Scripture does not support slavery, that women can and should be leaders in our denominations, because we have heard the stories and seen the work of an active God.
Johnson writes from outside of The United Methodist perspective. A practicing Roman Catholic, Johnson’s writings serve as a helpful reminder that our communion is not the only one wrestling with itself. That such an essay has been written from a noted scholar of another Christian tradition reminds us that this conversation will continue to happen regardless of the political outcomes in 2019. To hope that we can we put a full stop on these important topics is folly. The path forward is a discernment of the tension between the sacred texts that we rightly hold dear and the certain reality that God is still moving and at work in our lives, our churches, and our world. This is a conversation in the tradition of the New Testament. As Johnson writes,
Indeed, the New Testament compositions owe their existence to the struggle to resolve the cognitive dissonance between a set of sacred texts that appeared to exclude a crucified messiah as God’s chosen one (“cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree” Deuteronomy 21:23) and the powerful experience of Jesus’ new and exalted life as Lord through the Holy Spirit – an experience that empowered the first believers.
The choice between serving an active God and a final word of Scripture is a false one that almost no one would admit supporting. And yet, we often fall into this false debate. Being faithful requires us to take Scripture seriously and authoritatively. It also requires us to pay attention to the spaces where God is at work. Johnson warns that “if neglect of Scripture is a form of sin, [as] John suggests, a blind adherence to Scripture when God is trying to show us the truth in human bodies is also a form of sin, and a far more grievous one.”
Our joyous, though difficult, obligation as disciples is to live in that tension: to take seriously the Word of God, as proclaimed in the Old and New Testaments, while also striving to witness the work of God in the world around us. The only way to do that is through committed and unified discernment. Abandoning that discernment risks us forsaking the truth of Scripture for an easy acquiescence to the world, or missing the work of the living God that “creates the world anew at every moment.”
Written by Rev. Allen Stanton, the Executive Director of the Cal Turner Center for Church Leadership at Martin Methodist College in Tennessee. This introduction commends for your reading and reflection an important article by Luke Timothy Johnson.