It’s always interesting to listen to people who come from outside our own circles. I have become a religious listener of the Unbelievable Podcast hosted by Justin Brierley in the UK. The difference of perspective that is driven by our different experiences, individual, familial and cultural, is the subject of this piece.
Two recent podcasts come to mind. The first included two Christians, one with an egalitarian view on women and the other with a complimentarian view on women (Unbelievable? #MeToo and the Church: Egalitarian vs Complementarian • Natalie Collins & Phil Moore). The egalitarian position is the progressive view, and the complimentarian position is the conservative view. That seems obvious enough. What interested me was not only the difference in opinions, but the influences that shaped those opinions.
The other podcast (Unbelievable? Render unto Caesar – Should the church keep out of economic politics? Andy Walton vs James Price) involved two more Christians, one with a view that the church should speak to politics, and another with a view that the church should not speak to politics, but should stick to theological things. These guys, being from Great Britain, turn the American views of these things on their heads. Thus, a difference in perspective that prompts me to write this blog piece.
The render unto Caesar discussion between the two British Christians about the involvement of the church in the state took on a character that would be unfamiliar to an American Christian. In the United States, the conservative voice would tend to urge for involvement of the church in the state (ala the Moral Majority and its progeny). The progressive American Christian voice would tend toward the position that the church should butt out of politics, leaving the moralizing in the church building. The tendencies are exactly reversed.
The conversation arises in the context of the Archbishop of Canterbury addressing Parliament in regard to trade unions. Specifically, the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed support for trade unions as a voice of the church. This may seem strange to watch from the United States of America where the church voice would probably take a different view. Labor concerns haven’t been a “church” cause in the US.
The dichotomy strikes me in one key way that has been part of my ruminations since I listened to the egalitarian vs complimentarian discussion. It’s clear that the way we approach the Bible gets filtered through our own individual, familial and cultural experiences and predispositions. As much as we (conservative Christians anyway) may protest bringing our own framework to the Bible and interpreting the Bible through outside filters, an outside framework, we do it in spite of ourselves.
At the risk of sounding sexist or not duly sympathetic to the egalitarian view of women in the church, I was struck by the personal story of Natalie Collins, who took the egalitarian position in the first podcast. She experienced a very abusive marital relationship, and her views and involvement in promoting that egalitarian position grew out of that experience.
I have often been impressed that our personal experiences often are the motivators that drive us to get involved in causes and service to other people. We are sensitive to other peoples’ plights because of our own experiences and motivation to help people not go through what we have experienced. People who are involved in the fight against cancer are usually people who have been closely affected by cancer. It’s a natural phenomenon, and one without which many or most people may not be willing to volunteer for those causes.
Even so, those experiences color us and influence us in ways that subjectively affect our worldviews. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can become an obstacle to developing an objective view. As I listened to the discussions, I could see ways in which the people on both sides of the equations were colored by their own experiences that also, then, colored their views.
People who grew up in the UK have a different view of the church and state relationship than people who grew up in the US. Phil Moore’s view of women in the church is colored by his experience as a man in the church. As a man, he is not as sensitive to or understanding of the plight of women who have been on the receiving end of sexist attitudes, abuse and injustice.
I often found myself agreeing with some of Phil Moore’s points about the biblical passages, and I found Natalie Collins less objective in that sense, but my assessment didn’t sit perfectly well with me. Something was missing from Phil Moore’s perspective in my opinion. He was much more willing to trust the patriarchal hierarchic structure, and Natalie Collins much less so.
This is not to say that I think we should impose our own interpretations on Scripture that are not supported by the text and a careful exegesis of it. Perhaps, it’s a spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law thing. Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. At the same time, he gave us a new insight into the law – it can be summed up in two statements: love God and love neighbor.
The letter of the law needs to be interpreted consistent with the spirit of the law or we end up being Pharisees.
One person commented on the dialogue that egalitarianism may be important outside the church where relationships need balance imposed by society to prevent wrongs, but complimentarianism is the rule for within the church, ordained by God. Maybe so, but the ideal is not often lived out in the church either. Can we sustain a complimentarian system of rules that is is often abused and lorded over women in a way that Jesus would certainly have never tolerated? In the tension between the real and the ideal, where does love stand?
But back to the real point of this blog. It is evident to me that each of us see God, Scripture and other people through the filters of our own experiences, familial and cultural influences and the views we have developed that are partially affected by them. The combination of those influences can be both good and bad. They help us along the road of discovery, but they can also blind us to objectivity and understanding.
How do we find and hold on to timeless truth when we are so affected by the temporal filters that are part of our individual and collective perspectives? Frankly, I don’t think we are even very aware most of the time how much our own experiences color our views..
I’m not sure I have a good answer other than this: we need to become aware of this human tendency and consciously strive to understand ourselves in relation to God, our world and the views that we hold. Without self-awareness and some conscious effort to discount ourselves, we are inclined to wander away from true north.
In the end, this is a kind of humility (dying to ourselves) that helps us to see God, our world and others in a purer light. It’s part of the process of God working within us. We can’t hold on so tightly to the way we see the world that we are unable to change as God would change us. We need to be willing to step into the light and to see things as they really are.
I say this, admittedly, being aware that I am subject to these tendencies in ways that I probably have yet to realize. This is why we need each other.
The illustration of the log and the speck is instructive here. (Matthew 7:1-5) How can I see to take the speck out of my brother’s eye when I can’t see around the log in my own eye? The log in my eye is the speck that others see. Jesus isn’t saying here that we should not try to remove the speck; he is saying that we need first to deal with the log.
Second, we need to be very close to our brother to be able to take something as little as a speck out of our brother’s eye. Note that Jesus uses the term, brother, here (and not neighbor). This implies relationship and familiarity. We can only help each other from a position of relationship and affection. (8 Important Points About Judging and Judgment)
We need others who are willing to dialogue with us respectfully and civilly to aid in that process. I am reminded again of the importance of the church, as messy as it can be, in the way God works in us to will and act according to His good purpose. Iron sharpens iron, as the proverb goes.
While iron sharpens iron, God looks for hearts of clay that He can mold. We need to gain greater and more accurate perspective by being willing to subject our own views to the test of other perspectives. And we always need to be willing to submit our perspectives humbly to God. When it comes to God working within us, we need to be more like clay than iron.
We should not hold on so tightly to our own perspectives that we cannot be molded by God’s eternal perspective and gentle hand. Our perspectives, as important as they are, should be held with humility, recognizing that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s ways are higher than our ways. Our perspectives are temporal, but there is eternal truth. We should strive for understanding that eternal as best as we can, which starts and ends for us in knowing God and growing in our knowledge of Him.