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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

How can the Episcopal Church approve of an action that violates Scripture

How can the Episcopal Church

in The United States, in her General Convention,

approve of an action that violates Scripture

By John S. Morgan

I speak only for myself. But I resent anyone suggesting my Episcopal Church has ever approved of an action that violates scripture.

The Episcopal mainstream is neither fundamentalist nor composed of individuals who would make an idol of the Bible. This compendium of diverse authors, composed of works that at one time circulated independently, has been selected and endorsed by the church and deemed to be holy because it seems to best describe the faith heritage of the Judo-Christian Tradition.

Having been hand copied for centuries, there is some discrepancy both accidental and deliberate among the over five thousand Greek manuscripts and fragments remaining today. The words of the New Testament were written down years after they were spoken.

Because of the prominence of the Bible in the Christian tradition, some individuals suspect that the Scriptures are error free. Fortunately Episcopalians seem to be a well-educated group.

The idea of Biblical inerrancy is rather easy to dispel when verses from different authors are laid side by side. Mark tells us that Jesus never approves of divorce. Matthew, on the other hand, assures us that Jesus is willing to make an exception for cases of adultery.

Culturally marriage has changed over the centuries. It is no longer an institution primarily for the transmission of property rights. The ancient phrase, "Who gives this woman," found in many Christian marriage ceremonies reminds us that once the property of a father was being transmitted to a husband.

Marriage is no longer an institution where the balance of power is inherently uneven, where the divorce for the female often means ruin. In Jesus' day I too would likely have opposed divorce.

If the state of Idaho were to have a statute forbidding all divorce, and Kansas were to have a statute forbidding all divorce except for adultery, we would not hold the composite of the law of both states inerrant. A lawyer could not plead for divorce in Idaho on the basis of adultery because such is not permitted under their law. In view of this contradiction alone, somebody must decide a course of action for Episcopal Christians concerning divorce.

The Bible itself is a work in which these kinds of self-contradictions sometimes arise. The prophets were often criticizing practices that are found approved in other Biblical passages. We all are aware of the central role animal sacrifice played in the Bible yet a prophetic announcement informs us that God is not pleased with animal sacrifice. God cannot at the same time approve and disapprove of the practice. The Old Testament required circumcision as the symbol sealing a covenant thought to be eternal, but a New Testament author conjectures that such a requirement should be symbolic rather than literal.

A practice existing for thousands of years of church history can be wrong. Slavery was everywhere to be found in the milieu of the bible. New Testament passages in support of slavery would include: "Slaves Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart." [Ephesians 6:5] "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the the Lord." [Colossians 3:22] "Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them." [Titus 2:9]" Nowhere was it condemned; Saint Paul did not decry the dastardly practice. He merely asked us to be kind to our slaves. Most Christians today would think slavery to be a serious evil.

Christians do not accept slavery today even though it was approved of in Scripture. We do not accept slavery today even though it was a practice endorsed by churchmen for centuries. The existence of a practice for thousands of years does not make it sacrosanct.

The history of the Bible is replete with examples of Scripture conflicting with Scripture and since then there have been many decisions of the church which violate the literal words of Scripture and/or interpretations derived from them:

Very few traditionalists in the church would curtail the practice of women speaking in church yet these same traditionalists would object, like cafeteria Catholics, to other practices of their own choosing that contradict scriptural literalism.

I think it is regrettable that there are those who ignoring the solid consensus of their peers would bring the church to schism over their interpretations. How does the General Convention, using the Anglican method of Scripture, tradition and reason, sometime produce mandates that seem to Violate Scripture?

It was Jesus who showed us how! In Matthew 12:10-13 we read:

And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.

In the Decalogue we find the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day. The Decalogue clearly and exhaustively states that one should not work on the Sabbath. It was on that day that the Lord rested according to the genesis accounts of creation. From any point of view it is certainly a good thing that the workingman have a day of rest from his labors.

But what is Jesus really doing here in Matthew 12? He is saying that while there is a law that forbids working on the Sabbath, and while healing is certainly a kind of work, that law can be superseded under certain circumstances. What Authority is Jesus using that supersedes this law of Scripture?

Jesus does not pull rank and justify his action by saying: "I am God and I can abrogate laws at my discretion." Instead Jesus has appealed to a general principle that concern for the sick must supersede in this situation. It should therefore be appropriate for Jesus as well as his apostles to heal on the Sabbath even though the specifics of the law forbade it. Others as well should be able to apply principle to Biblical injunctions that violate overarching goals of Scripture.

Of course, the Biblical authors could have constructed a law of no work on the Sabbath" along with several corollaries allowing for specific exceptions but such an arrangement could not possibly encompass all situations that might be worthy of an exemption. Specifics can never be as all encompassing as a general principle.

The moral understanding of Jesus was not built upon a set of rules written in Scripture.

Jesus said: Matthew 5:17

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil"

If the moral understanding of Jesus was not built upon a set of rules written in Scripture then how did Jesus understand his mission as a fulfillment of the law?

Jesus said: Matthew 22:36-40

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Jesus seems to be saying that while the ancients of the Bible incorporated a number of specific laws for people to follow, these regulations were not off-the-wall, random, or capricious injunctions that God ordered mankind to do simply because he said so.

Is not Jesus saying that all of the laws and exhortations of the prophets have a unified and comprehensive goal and purpose; namely, to bring people to the active love of God and neighbor. This then is what Jesus had in mind when he said: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil"

An example of this kind of thinking is in Jesus' healing on the Sabbath where a general principle overrides the rule. The specific rule says that one should not work on the Sabbath. Healing is a form of work. But for one who is truly concerned with the health of his neighbor healing is required. In this specific instance the law, while well meaning, was not good enough. In this instance it was null and void.

Again, Jesus did not say: "Look here now, the law says not to work on the Sabbath but since I am God, I can set it aside." Instead Jesus appealed to a principle in abrogating the law.

An internal principle or framework of morality (as opposed to a seemingly arbitrary set of injunctions) is a better way of making decisions when new situations arise. A principle offers a discernment that frozen laws cannot. Is the thinking of Paul not a lot like the thinking of Jesus when he asserts that Christians are above and exempt from the law? Paul was not eschewing the importance of morality in general. Too many of us focus on a specific law or regulation and miss the forest for the trees.

Nor was Jesus trying to deny the Authority of Scripture. He was asserting that there are things that one should not expect of Scripture -- it is not to be understood as a rule book of invariant laws. Scripture is more a record of what was attempted to solve specific problems in a given cultural setting. It is for our edification and instruction.

By violating specific laws of his tradition, Jesus was pointing to a different way of thinking. He was transferring the idea of morality residing externally in a book to morality residing internally in the human heart as a general principle and goal: To love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. In Jesus' own day surely there were those among his followers that thought that to heal on the Sabbath was sinful because it constituted work and hence violated the clear words of their Scripture. No one can assert that these individuals were not faithful.

Surely, there were those among his followers that understood that morality was internal, comprehensive, unified and purposeful -- not just a collection of arbitrary rules, that morality has a goal, as I have argued was the mindset of our Lord. That in this specific instance that it was faithful rather than being a sin to heal on the Sabbath.

But can anyone argue that these individuals were not faithful? Yes, they can! They merely can ask the question: "What does the bible say?" or "What are the clear words of Scripture?" Remember, the New Testament had not yet been written. The Old Testament was the Scripture. But here Jesus sided with the rule breakers against the clear words of scripture but not its spirit.

Those comfortable with rule driven morality might not appreciate the kind of reasoning inherent in Jesus' position that would allow the church to deal with issues that have risen subsequently to the close of Scripture. Surely when Jesus suggested he would send the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, he understood that we were not there yet. The church will need to deal with issues in the future such as cloning that are not covered in Scripture on a simple "rule" basis. The church will have to apply the larger thrust of Scripture or remain silent.

In earlier times the practice of women speaking in church was opposed on the basis that it violated the clear words of Scripture. It did. The church appealed to the overarching themes of Scripture. Today the practice is accepted even by the more traditionally oriented. Most traditionalists do not advocate that women be silent in church.

How can the Episcopal Church in The United States, in her General Convention, approve of an action that violates Scripture? The short answer is that she has not and will not.

Sometimes it is necessary to appeal to the overarching themes in Scripture to decide the validity and applicability of specific verses. In the absence of Jesus walking on planet earth, somebody must chart the future for the Episcopal Church. That body, for us, is General Convention.

The Church is composed of faithful members of all sorts. Let us pray for unity through understanding with forbearance.

-- John S. Morgan

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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