How readest thou? This is a fundamental question in Christianity and revolves around whether or not you believe the Bible is an instruction manual, telling us how to conduct our lives in every detail. For example, some Christians believe that because Jacob had four wives, David had multiple wives, and Solomon had 300 wives, that the Bible is giving us instruction that polygamy is God’s ideal in marriage. Other examples of taking the Bible as a literal instruction manual are: snake handling, speaking in tongues, use of force, intermediation by priests, and burning or stoning dissenters.
Is the Bible a prescribed rule book to memorize and blindly follow, or is the Bible a history showing us what happened to people after they made choices—both good and bad—giving us the historical facts with the results of the choices made for us to evaluate and avoid or emulate? Jesus’ comment about divorce is very instructive here: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).
The story of Zelophehad’s daughters tells us that God has not prescribed every detail for every age, generation, or culture. Even though God had given explicit rules and regulations to Israel on seemingly every aspect of life and often spoken about how to treat the marginalized and powerless, Moses and “the elders” somehow could not generalize the inheritance laws to women when the circumstances called for it. They did not understand they should apply the basic principles of the law of love to make a reasoned response to the requests and concerns of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Instead, the elders relied upon God through Moses to tell them what they should do. The fact that the five women are even named illustrates the importance of this story and the importance of using the basic principle of love to come to an equitable and charitable decision.
It appears that from the very beginning of the Jewish nation the principles of love, mercy, and doing what is right got lost in the minds and practices of the Israelites. Because of the multitude of specific rules given, they thought that if God had not implicitly commanded them to avoid specific behaviors the behavior was allowed. On the other hand, since God had not defined “work” in the fourth commandment, they started to define what and how much of a given activity was allowed before being considered “work.” Much of the Bible is actually a collection of stories about how people lived their lives, giving us examples, non-examples, and principles upon which we can know how to make decisions and conduct our lives.
Some look at the story of Samson as an example of how we should treat our enemies. Others see a self-centered man who relied upon his own strength, never calling his brethren to join the battle and ending up asking God for revenge on his enemies. Yes, he is in the Hebrews 11 list of faithful, but was the trajectory of his life God’s plan? What would his life have been if he had been able to lead men as David did? I suspect Samson’s life story and his impact on Israel’s history would have been much different if he had been able to lead men by example. Even though he is listed in Hebrews 11, that fact says more about how God works to reclaim every human on this planet. In many ways, Samson’s life is a warning about how not to conduct your life, a lesson that the Palestinians and Israelis of today should take to heart.
How readest thou? is fundamental even to the question of women’s ordination. Do we use the Bible to understand how people lived in their time to then order our own practices and beliefs in the same manner? Does this mean that because God allowed meat consumption after the flood that the practice of eating animals was his ideal for all time, or was meat-eating allowed to reduce longevity and because initially there was very little vegetation? What is God’s ideal for male/female relationships? If there is no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven, what will the hierarchical structure of “control” look like?—Selah! Will humanity be unsexed in heaven? If so, what will happen to the dress codes of Leviticus? What will happen to the 7th commandment? The ridiculous nature of these questions points to the fact that all these laws were emergency measures to meet the contingencies of growing a society of slaves into God’s representatives on earth.
The question How readest thou? actually points to a person’s worldview of the Bible. Because we have differing fundamental worldviews of the Bible within Christianity and the Adventist church, the question of women’s ordination can never be resolved biblically. This problem was highlighted when the Theology of Ordination Study Committee brought back three official recommendations. Imagine, the so-called theological experts can take the same Bible and the same texts and arrive at entirely opposed conclusions. How are we, as church members, who are untrained in the Bible’s original languages, supposed to take a firm stand? Moreover, how can the church in General Conference session ever give a correct and educated vote if that committee is not allowed to present their findings and recommendations so the delegates can make a somewhat informed vote, assuming that everyone’s prior beliefs would be unbiased and fair-minded?
The only way I have been able to determine how to break this deadlock is to ask the question, Are you willing to be burned at the stake, beheaded, or tortured for the stand you have taken on any theological doctrine or issue? This is the question that creates a division within theological issues—those of supreme import—from those that are trivial, non-essential, and that should be avoided. Do we really need to be about our Father’s business of warning the world that God does not sanction women’s ordination? Is that the final warning that must be given to a dying world?
Dennis Hollingsead works in the Office of Development at Andrews University.
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