BY WHAT AUTHORITY?
"By what authority are you doing these things,
and who gave you that authority?"
IT IS LONG PAST TIME TO ASK THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION: "By what authority are you doing these things?" Every intense debate in the history of religion has turned upon the issue of authority, and so it is today with the persistent heated debate about "the practice of homosexuality." Recent actions by the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church, and the various reactions to them, are only the current demonstration of the fundamental issue at the heart of every disagreement with regard to matters of faith and practice: What is the nature and source of the authority claimed by each participant in the conflict? As long as the core issue of authority is not addressed decisively and tested radically (to the root), there can be no possible resolution to any vital conflict.
Thus it was with Jesus in his ultimate confrontation with the Jewish religious authorities of his day, and thus it has always been: in the debates about the inclusion of the Gentiles in the first generation church, in the conflicts about the biblical canon in the third century, in the Christological conflicts of the fourth century, with Luther before the Diet of Worms, and so on. John Wesley faced the issue when he decided he had to ordain elders for the Methodists in the newly independent United States. Christians North and South faced it with regard to slavery. Later it was conflicts about the organizing of labor, about the civil rights of the Black population, and much, much more. Every time Christians (or other religionists, for that matter) disagree intensely, the question fired at the "other side," in particular against those seeking to change the long-established status quo, is the same: "By what authority are you doing these things?"
Christians, for many centuries, turn inevitably to the authority of the Bible. Among its particular attractions is its hard, ink-on-paper objectivity: there it is, "big as life," actual, specific words in print; all that is needed it to read it! No debate! "That is what it says!" An enticing simplicity and sufficiency!
But what does the Bible actually say; and more crucial still, what does it mean? Therein lies the problem, for once we Protestants declared that the Bible alone (sola scriptura) possessed authority, rather than the Pope, we have continued to fight and divide over a great many matters clearly addressed in the Bible - as well as the many matters that are not. The Bible's purported final and absolute authority has never yet been able to produce unanimity on any vital issue! Even so, a great many cling to its "supreme authority" in spite of such a frustrating "track record."
We Methodists retain a very high regard for the authority of the Bible, yet our Father Wesley believed that God's truth was to be discerned in any current circumstance only through the dynamic process of "conferencing"; neither historic Creed nor established Articles of Faith were judged sufficient for the recognition and application of God's will in the specific contemporary situation. It was in the collective wisdom and discernment of the living community of the faithful, attained through respectful, diligent "conferencing" (the Body of Christ assembled in consultation) that "the living core of the Christian faith" would be discerned as "revealed in Scripture, illumined in tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason" (The Book of Discipline 2004, "Our Theological Task," p. 77).
United Methodist conferencing seems unable today to come anywhere close to a common discernment of God's specific will on quite a number of matters. On many of them we trustingly "agree to disagree" without feeling any threat to our unity in the one Lord, recognizing that unanimity on even quite vital matters has never been characteristic of the Body of Christ, whose unity is in Christ, not in uniformity either of doctrine or of practice. But with regard to "the practice of homosexuality" we find ourselves far from able to accept the same amicable disagreement - although now the Judicial Council has ruled that such an honest confession is not a violation of the restrictive rules with regard to United Methodist doctrine.
One speculates that an honest confession of disagreement on this one matter is perceived, by the existing majority of General Conference delegation at each session for more than thirty years, to be some kind of extraordinary threat to ultimate authority. To confess disagreement here, on this matter, seems to be an acknowledgement that there is no ultimate authority at all. If that is the case, all the foundations are shaken! Why disagreement on other vital matters does not cause such alarm is an intriguing question: after all, has any decision of a General Conference ever been unanimous? One suspicions that the refusal to acknowledge disagreement with regard to homosexuality may have far less to do with a threat to ultimate (i.e., biblical) authority than it has to do with other, deeper matters, matters more emotional than rational. But it is the ultimate authority of the Bible which is named.
Which brings us back to the central issue: "By what authority do you do these things?" The religious leaders of Judea challenged Jesus' actions and words on the basis of his right to speak and act contrary to the authority of Torah and tradition. Jesus was violating fundamental requirements of the Holy Scriptures. What was the basis of his authority to ignore or even reverse the established code? Christians have always acclaimed and celebrated his authority to do what he did and to say what he said - even when in direct violation or contradiction of "the Bible" of his own faith community. His words and actions asserted a higher, more truly ultimate authority than the Bible! And Christians have never questioned his right to make that claim; indeed, they have acknowledged and proclaimed that right in every way. It is noted and affirmed throughout the Gospels and the rest of the Christian scriptures. Jesus has become the ultimate authority!
Or has he?
Did his authority over even the Bible and tradition only obtain before his death and resurrection? It might seem so, for subsequent claims that "Jesus told me so" have gotten very little credence, in particular when any biblical texts could be found to the contrary. His beloved Peter even argued with his risen directive when it conflicted with what Peter believed on the basis of Scripture (Acts 10); and only very reluctantly did Peter violate other established understandings of "the Bible" by entering the house of a Roman and preaching the message of the new faith. Already, the Risen Lord was having a difficult time leading his disciples into the new freedom from "the law" (and the Book upon which it was based) which he had won for them!
Ever since those first days, Christians have often retreated to the authority of the Book when the authority of their Lord proved hard to discern! The "Battle with the Bible" was under way! The guidance of the Living Word was not so easily identified as were words inscribed with ink on parchment or on paper! The Bible texts were far more easily accessible than the "mind of Christ," and soon enough the focus of authority returned to much the same place it had been before the man from Nazareth appeared upon the scene: "It's in the Book!" The text was "the word of God," soon "the Word of God." Before very long the text was being granted the very attributes of divinity itself! Was Jesus no longer the ultimate authority? One might think so!
No United Methodist voice in the current controversy about "the practice of homosexuality" would disclaim the authority of the Bible, or consciously set that authority over against the present will of the Risen Lord. The problem is: How do these two forms or loci of authority relate to one another; how are they supposed to function together? More specifically: How is the authority of the Bible to be understood and applied in the work of discerning the mind of Christ?
If Jesus of Nazareth had the authority to challenge and to act contrary to the Written Word of God in "the days of his flesh," and in the early period after his resurrection, does not the Risen Christ retain the authority today to challenge and to act contrary to the Written Word of God, including that portion formed and preserved in his name? But how does the individual, and especially the community of the faithful, discern correctly when it is now "the mind of Christ" to do so? There's the rub! There's the hub of our present conflict!
Many varied individual and corporate efforts have made to address and explore this issue. None have attained broad consensus; nor have official bodies, such as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, chosen bravely to bring the issue out from where it lurks in the shadows of many great debates, and to give it the full exposure to daylight and to reasoned "conferencing' that it deserves and greatly needs. It is too "hot," too "fundamental" an issue! But until it is addressed responsibly and effectively, the healthy and appropriate spiritual unity of the Body of Christ will be greatly threatened. This issue has underlain most divisions of the past, and it will serve divisions in the future as long as it is allowed to stay in subversive hiding.
Christine Gudorf, writing in Homosexuality, Science, and the "Plain Sense" of Scripture (David A. Balch, ed., Eerdmans, 2000), states the issue "baldly":
My understanding of the status of the Bible as a resource for Christian ethics . . . has three aspects. First, the Bible is a (not the) primary resource for Christian ethics; to approach the Bible as the sole and absolute source of revelation is idolatry, the worship of a text rather than the one true living God who was definitively revealed in Jesus Christ and continues to be revealed in history. Second, the Bible always requires interpretation. The New Testament makes clear that Jesus himself was involved in debating the interpretation of the Old Testament. All texts are context-bound, because language itself is context-bound. Third, the interpretation of biblical texts must be consistent; there can be no biblical grounds for reinterpreting biblical attitudes or teachings on other sexual or ethical issues, such as divorce, slavery, marriage, or the role of women, but insisting that biblical teaching on homosexuality is timeless, universal, uninterpreted, and exceptionless.
That pretty well lays the issue on the front of the table (or the hot stove) where it belongs. It is time to stop evading it! The Church which debated the nature and the authority of Jesus Christ, God's Living Word, for centuries, before (sort of) reaching agreement at Chalcedon, must finally have the courage to debate the nature and authority of the Written Word of God! Until it does the relationship of the two can never be even reasonably clear, and differences there (our diverse Doctrines of Holy Scripture) will infect every effort to discern the mind of Christ today!