“Maybe Theology Is The Wrong Tool For This Particular Job” image

“Maybe Theology Is The Wrong Tool For This Particular Job”

The job in question was figuring out what we believe about same-sex attraction (specifically in the context of the Church of England's controversial Living in Love and Faith document). The comment was on a Facebook discussion of Rachel Gilson's book Born Again This Way. The comment writer was saying that she had found herself unconvinced by Gilson's theological stance, as set out in the first part of the book, but found herself warming to the author and her stance when she began to unfold her story.

I don’t know the commenter, but felt I needed to respond. I told her that I think it’s very important to search the scriptures and work out what we think God says about these things. Everyone’s story is compelling and powerful, so how are we to discern between those whose stories illustrate that resisting their same sex attraction has brought them wholeness and fulfilment and those whose stories illustrate that embracing theirs has? We risk being ‘blown and tossed by the wind’ if we start with the stories we resonate with and try to fit God’s word to people’s experience.

Her response was “I think this is my point. How objectively do any of us come to the Bible? Everyone who takes the topic on sounds very convincing.”

She’s right, of course, and it wasn’t the forum to dig any deeper, but those of us who have any kind of leadership or discipleship role in the church need to be aware that this is how many in our congregations are approaching our teaching (even if they are not self-aware or articulate enough to express it that clearly).

So the question is, how do we equip those in our churches first to recognise that they are likely to be approaching the text with their own assumptions and second to know how to proceed from there.

When we come across two interpretations of scripture that seem equally plausible, what should we do? Especially if one feels more appealing than the other (yes, female elder/Teacher question, I’m looking at you).

Of course, recognising you have a problem is the first step towards solving it, so we need to keep reminding those we are teaching that they have this problem. We all come to every text with biases and assumptions.

Next, I think we have to invite them not to take our word for it, but to go and look for themselves. Insisting you are right and that your congregation/study group/friend must listen to you is not confidence in the gospel, it’s insecurity and bullying. If you really are right, their honest study of the word will reveal that. (And if you’re not, it’s far better that they turn away from your teaching and towards the truth!)

Alongside this is the hard part, equipping them to search the scriptures for themselves. This is one of the reasons why I’ve recently started a women’s Bible study at my church - I want to learn better Bible study skills, and I want to help others learn them too. We’re using Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word and Andrew Sach and Nigel Beynon’s Dig Deeper. Both are incredibly helpful tools to start you on the journey.

I’m also love, love, loving the Knowing Faith podcast with Jen Wilkin, JT English and Kyle Worley. Across eight seasons so far they have discussed everything from creation to the new creation and back again. It’s really fun listening to three friends do theology together and modelling how to approach questions on which faithful believers disagree. A lot of the time they are discussing how they have come to a particular conclusion, and Jen in particular can often be found pulling them back to “yes, but what does the text say?” It is so helpful, enlightening and inspiring. If you’ve got people, like my Facebook interlocutor, who don’t know where one would start in trying to grow in theological understanding, episode 17, ‘Theology 101’ would be a good episode to point them to.

One of Jen Wilkin’s strengths is that she makes you believe that you can understand the Bible for yourself, that you can weigh up different interpretations and build a framework for discerning which makes the most sense of all the facts - and fits with the full biblical narrative. It probably wouldn’t hurt preachers, teachers and the like to be more explicit about why we so often draw on other bits of the Bible to illustrate our points - helping people make the connection that every part of the Bible is connected to every other part, and it all needs to be understood in context of the whole.

Testimonies are important, but the reason Rachel Gilson began her book with the boring, biblical bit is because that is the foundation on which her story is built - it’s the vitally important bit, and if you only make it through a few pages, it’s better for it to be those pages. Her story - like all our stories - is the embodiment, the incarnation, of her belief system. The way we act is driven by what we believe - even when we don’t yet know what we believe.

Let’s work on helping our people do theology, and giving them confidence that yes, theology is absolutely and always the very best tool for the job.

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