Amy Plantinga Pauw
Covenant Network Conference
November 3, 2005
The Christian life is a material life. When we talk about spiritual practices we are not talking about an attempt to put our bodies to the side somehow and concentrate on the inner life of faith. Spiritual practices are about a way of conducting a bodily life. Practices involve gesture, posture, seeing, hearing, touching, speaking. Practices require a habituating of our bodies. When Itzhak Perlman picks up his violin, and you watch it become an extension of himself, you are witnessing a profound bodily habituation. Likewise with Christian spiritual practices. When Christians from Mali gather around a deathbed in the last hours of someone’s life and “sing them out” that is a deep bodily habituation. Practices are spiritual because they catch us up in the life of the Spirit, not because they are disembodied.
Nor are spiritual practices primarily an individual exercise. They are about a pattern of human existence lived out in community—a shared pattern that can be seen by others. This comes through so beautifully in Kathleen Norris’ reflections on spiritual practices. Because spiritual practices are rooted in communities they ineluctably involve issues of tradition, culture, and power. Spiritual practices are not a pious escape from these basic communal issues and struggles. During the time of slavery in our country, some of our Presbyterian forebears spoke about the spirituality of the church as a way to avoid confronting the maldistribution of power in their communities and the cruel and unjust treatment of human bodies. By contrast, I will assume that the spiritual practices of the church are about our material, bodily lives in community, with all the messiness, ambiguity and potential for conflict that bodies and communities involve. The good that God intends for the church has to be worked out in historical communities, and thus there is no way for our spiritual practices to avoid the processes of negotiation, error, confession, risk, and change.
Spiritual practices involve negotiations of power. For example, no matter how modest its resources, every Christian community has economic power, and makes decisions about how that it to be exercised: stewarding material resources is a spiritual practice. Likewise, every Christian community has polity, that is, political, decisions to make about arranging its common life: shaping communities is a spiritual practice. As Larry Rasmussen has noted, the perennial Christian strategy is to gather the folks, break the bread, and tell the stories. But every Christian community has to figure out how people gather and who gets to break the bread and tell the stories; it’s those kinds of basic communal questions that have brought us here this weekend.
Spiritual practices are an attempt to catch up with and respond to God’s merciful and transforming presence in the world. Christians have been at this for a long time. When we engage in spiritual practices, we affirm our ties to an enormous community of faith that stretches across space and time, far beyond the confines of a single congregation or denomination. Yet the scope of spiritual practices is ultimately even broader. In one of his hymns, Brian Wren revels in “how grandly love intends to work till all creation sings.” Spiritual practices share this grand vision, and so cannot be confined to the inner lives of individuals, or even to the flourishing of one religious community. Spiritual practices are ultimately concerned with God’s intentions for all creation.
Hospitality, forgiveness, reading Scripture, giving and receiving, shaping communities, prayer, discernment, and healing are all examples of the kind of practices I have in mind. This afternoon we will be focusing especially on shaping communities. But spiritual practices are not items on an à la carte menu. They complement and deepen and strengthen each other. Together they form a coherent way of life in the world that God made and loves. Despite their great variety and dynamism, they are not “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” They are instead intentional, communal ways of responding to God’s mysterious and uninvited initiative in our lives and gateways into deeper knowledge of God.
It is important to preserve both sides of this: practices as responses to God and as gateways to God. Spiritual practices are concrete responses to beliefs and convictions about God’s active presence. For example, we know God as gracious host, the One who welcomes us into a life-giving and life-sustaining network of relations with our fellow creatures and with God’s own self. And we respond by practicing hospitality in the limited confines of our own lives. In our practices we try to glorify God, that is, to reflect back just a little bit of the love, beauty and justice that God is. We do so trusting that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray, says the apostle Paul, but the Spirit intercedes for us. Likewise, we don’t know how to heal, how to forgive, how to discern God’s will, how to read Scripture. But we trust that in our modest attempts to practice our faith, the Spirit is present. So spiritual practices are a response to God, arising out of our deepest Christian convictions.
Practices are also gateways to knowing God that deepen and sometimes even challenge our Christian beliefs. There are some things you can know only by doing. Jonathan Edwards, one of my theological heroes, liked to say that the devil went to the best divinity schools–a comment, I suppose, on the best divinity schools as well as on the devil. What he meant was that, on one level, the devil’s intellectual grasp of the claims of Christian faith was excellent–but it was what Edwards called a speculative, notional knowledge. What was utterly missing were the practices of faith, and the love of God and neighbor that would unleash the transformative power of that knowledge in life-changing ways. In the same way, there is a distinctive knowledge of a religious tradition that is best attained within the framework of its ongoing practices. Engagement in these communal practices, over time, can give rise to new knowledge, to new capacities for perception, that are not otherwise accessible. Living within the circle of self-understanding of a religious tradition yields a special kind of knowing. While it may seem logical to achieve clarity about our convictions first and then to shape our spiritual practices accordingly, this is not the way it actually works in the life of faith. The theory/application model is inappropriate here. We are always figuring out what we believe in the midst of practicing our faith. Indeed, reflecting on our faith is itself a spiritual practice. A practicing Buddhist knows things about Buddhism that an expert in world religions cannot. Likewise, we may find that we acquire a deeper knowledge of God’s hospitality to all of creation only when we make some fumbling attempts to practice hospitality ourselves.
You’ve noticed by now that the way I’m talking about spiritual practices goes against a popular understanding of what is means to be spiritual. A common way of thinking about the spiritual life roots it in an inward religious experience that transcends words and social traditions. In this way of thinking, most of the time we operate within a socially constructed, ordinary view of reality. But there are those extraordinary moments when that reality collapses and we catch a glimpse of the transcendent, of a reality that is totally other. It is in these moments of private spiritual experience that one’s true religious identity is grounded. These experiences then receive institutional forms in practices and doctrines, but these concrete expressions never capture the vividness or the freedom of the original experience. Communal religious practices, in this view, are always at best domestications, if not distortions, of the original spiritual encounter with God. There is little sense that communal practices and traditions may be vehicles of divine presence, conveying God’s love and presence to us in ways that only social language and bodily actions make possible. So the claim that God meets us in the flesh, in our cultural, communal location in and through our embodied practices, is a bold one. It echoes the bold claim of the incarnation, that in Jesus Christ, God has taken on our flesh and made a home with us.
On the other hand, it is possible to make inflated claims for communal Christian practices as a failsafe means of forming Christian virtues and character and of commending the Christian faith to the world. Theological discussions of Christian practices sometimes paint an idealized picture of exemplary communal practices perfectly aligned with pious intentions and correct theological construals. The concrete history of Christian practices looks very different. It is an ambiguous history, marked by countless examples of good practices done for bad reasons, of once vibrant practices becoming confused and sinful, of communal practices becoming so strong that they dominate the conceptual space, degenerating into an unreflective “but we’ve always done it this way” mentality. The idealized picture of Christian practices glosses over issues of how decisions about communal practices are made, and the complex ways in which spiritual practices both resist and accommodate prevailing cultural norms. When you look at the spiritual practices of real live Christians, you can see why some are tempted to champion private spiritual rapture as the foundation for Christian experience of God. Embodied, communal spiritual practices are a messy and ambiguous business.
Yet it is there in the mess and ambiguity that we meet God’s grace. Hence one of the meanings of my title, Graceful Practices. Spiritual practices are grace-filled because they are places in our ambiguous lives where God meets us, where the most important thing we can do is to show up, open to God’s work in our hearts and our communities. This stress on grace is crucial, because a focus on practices can tempt us to turn our gaze away from God’s grace towards our own spiritual accomplishments. Spiritual practices are not merit badges, something to which we can point to assure ourselves of our exemplary life and our worthiness to stand before God. They are not a proof of our moral integrity by which we convince others of the rightness of our faith. As David Kelsey has recently argued, “living in trust that our lives are justified by what we do in accord with standards of excellence lies at the very heart of sin. What we do sinfully need not even be immoral; even if what we do is morally good, it is sin if we trust the doing of it to show that our lives are worth living.”(1) To call practices graceful is to remind ourselves that practices are like holding out our hand to receive the bread of life at communion. They are a communal act of faith that is at the same time a concrete acknowledgment that we are not whole, that we are not at peace, that we need healing and nourishment that we cannot provide for ourselves. Practices are an acknowledgment of our ongoing need for grace, and at the same time they are structured ways of showing gratitude for the grace God has already bestowed on us.
The title Graceful Practices also implies that we try to step gracefully in practicing our faith. We try to live, as Paul says in Colossians 3, as if we had truly been raised with Christ—clothed “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col. 3:12). This is particularly important in practices like shaping community and reading Scripture, which have not always been conspicuous showcases for Christian kindness and humility. To practice our faith gracefully, we do not plow down those who stand in our way. We give an honest account of our gospel convictions and practices and stand behind them, but we do this, as I Peter 3:16 counsels, with gentleness and reverence. Since God has justified us by grace, and not on the basis of our exemplary beliefs and practices, we have room to be graceful with those who disagree with us. We can put away our badges of victimhood and progressive farsightedness and acknowledge that all of us still see through a mirror darkly. Graceful practices resist the temptations of strident dismissiveness or smug intolerance. Graceful practices leave room for generosity, even in disappointment and defeat.
Of course, graceful practices do not eliminate disagreement. You might even say that they make genuine disagreement possible, by dismantling the self-protective mechanisms that keep us from really listening to each other. The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre has defined a tradition as an ongoing argument—to those of you who are part of the Presbyterian tradition, this definition will come as no surprise. His point is that conflict in inherent in tradition because of a built-in unpredictability about what the excellence of an ongoing tradition requires. You need both rule-breaking and rule-keeping, MacIntyre insists, for a living tradition to flourish. Rosa Parks, whose life our whole nation has been celebrating this week, is an eloquent example of how rule-breaking was required for the flourishing of the American tradition. But unfortunately, says MacIntyre, we have no rules to tell us whether it is rule-keeping or rule-breaking that is required in a given situation. So we argue.
In the realm of spiritual practices, we are not arguing about whether to preserve foundational Christian practices like breaking the bread and telling the stories. We are not arguing about the necessity of a practice of common prayer, about the need for mutual confession and forgiveness. We’re not arguing over the need for shaping communities by the Word and Spirit. We’re arguing about the rules that contribute to doing all these things decently and in good order. Presbyterianism has argued that these kinds of rules are desperately needed to keep human communities from tumbling into chaos. But the Presbyterian tradition has also insisted that these kinds of rules are subject to pragmatic and prayerful re-evaluation from time to time. We are given no complete set of operating instructions for the Christian life, no infallible Book of Order. And as the missiologist Andrew Walls has noted in another context, God has a tendency to make tender mockery out of all the particular forms of church government to which Christians have earnestly devoted themselves. (2)
This afternoon we will be looking at the practices of shaping communities. As a Reformed theologian, sooner or later I find myself reading John Calvin. In particular I have been looking at his letters of Ecclesiastical Advice, where he deals with the challenges of shaping Christian community and in particular with qualifications for ministerial leadership.(3) His sixteenth-century Genevan context is very different from ours, but, I will argue, supplies some provocative analogies. Calvin was a second-generation reformer. The break with the church of Rome, which was not the original intent of sixteenth-century reform movements, was pretty much decided by then. So Calvin’s most pressing concern was to figure out what an alternative church order might look like.
The perception of scandalous failings in the established church significantly shaped Calvin’s ecclesiology from the beginning. He had to accommodate the conviction that dissent from the visible church in his time was a Christian duty because of the corruption of key Christian practices. According to Calvin, God has entrusted the church with the “power of the keys” (Matt. 16:19), but Christian communities can so abuse this trust that in them “Christ lies hidden, half buried, the gospel overthrown, piety scattered, the worship of God nearly wiped out.”(4) Christian practices can become so corrupted that the life and health of the church is imperiled. Thus a Reformed doctrine of the church is rightly marked by a stark recognition of the church’s fallibility.
Calvin’s approach rejects the kind of restorationist wistfulness you sometimes find in appeals to return to established spiritual practices of the church. In Calvin’s view, while the great company of Christian saints deserves our respect and gratitude, they suffered from human infirmity and weakness as much as we do, and provide no perfect blueprint for Christian community. The words of the 1560 Scots Confession reflect Calvin’s realism about the church: “We do not receive uncritically whatever has been declared to men under the name of the general councils, for it is plain that, being human, some of them have manifestly erred, and that in matters of great weight and importance.” Significant elements from the church’s past may deserve retrieval, but no “policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places.”(5) For example, Calvin thought that the structures of church office were relative to particular historical contexts. Whereas in the early church the office of evangelist was vital, he asserted that “in duly constituted churches it has no place.” (6) Contemporary Reformed communities would take issue with Calvin on this point. But they would agree with him that the central Reformed task is not the retrieval or maintenance of a historic rule regarding church office but the prayerful, communal discernment of the present form of ecclesial faithfulness, which may involve significant institutional change.
Calvin was wary of extravagant claims for the holiness of clergy. Even church leaders have countless weaknesses and are justified not by their holiness but by God’s grace. Ministers of the gospel do not necessarily tower over other Christians in wisdom or spiritual maturity. Calvin’s frank appraisal of the ordinariness of pastors bears repeating: “when a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable toward his minister, although he excels us in nothing.”(7)American Presbyterianism’s big advance on Calvin’s view of ministers is that in the last fifty years or so we’ve affirmed that God also raises puny women from the dust.
As the body of Christ in the world, the church is a broken and diseased body, mirroring the ills and divisions of the larger society. Yet even when its practices become corrupted, the church remains a mysteriously powerful channel of God’s grace to us. “I would even be in despair,” says Calvin, “if it did not occur to me that the building up of the church is always God’s work, and that he will cause it to prosper by his own virtue even if all supports should fail us.”(8) The church is a nursery of piety, where Christians are schooled by worship, teaching, and discipline into deeper communion with Christ and each other. The earthly community of believers is God’s gracious accommodation to our spiritual weakness. In union with Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the cracked earthen vessel of the church continues to be a means of grace—a locus for worship and for personal and social transformation.
As Presbyterians, we have inherited this understanding of the church: a fallible body of believers led by ordinary people, called to faithful discernment about the appropriate form of their communal practices, and resting on God’s abundant grace not their own holiness. We share Calvin’s conviction that spiritual practices can get corrupted, and that even good practices need reform as the needs of the church change.
Let’s look more closely at Calvin’s ecclesiastical advice. He is writing to a Reformed community to make the argument “that celibacy should not be required in a minister.”(9) He starts his argument on a conciliatory note. There is certainly “a reasonable basis” for advising celibacy. Marriage can be a distraction from the Lord’s work and continence in sexual matters lends “not a little dignity to the holy ministry.” Furthermore, Calvin is very pleased that the church authorities are not using “pressure or tyranny to force celibacy upon those who hold ecclesiastical office.” That would be wrong, Calvin thinks. Instead, the church authorities are trying to convince ministerial candidates of what they “judge to be in the best interests of the church.” Yet Calvin respectfully disagrees with their judgment. “Celibacy has its own disadvantages,” Calvin insists, and “these are considerable and not all of one type.” He clarifies that he is not yet talking about “the difficulty of sexual continence.” “Even if it were agreed that nothing is more liberating than celibacy and nothing more impeding than marriage, it still should not keep us from taking thought for need. It is certain that many who are otherwise suited for the ministry cannot usefully do without marriage.” Calvin’s view is that celibacy and marriage can each present hindrances for ministers, and it is best to assess individual need, rather than making a blanket policy.
Calvin has another argument. “In the second place, I reply that the Lord has provided, best of all, the gifts that properly adorn his ministry, and we see that celibacy is not among them.” Calvin is worried that the church’s ordination practices have become corrupted. “There was no law requiring celibacy in the early church, but an absurd admiration for it became so strong that marriage was condemned as shameful for bishops. Afterward, the severity of a law gradually crept in and has produced countless forms of evils for us. What good it has brought I cannot judge,” says Calvin. “I always fear that it is dangerous for celibacy to be honored extravagantly, for good men may be frightened away from marriage, even when their need of it is urgent.” So even though the church authorities to whom Calvin is writing are not commanding celibacy “by a definite law,” Calvin is worried that they are “in effect establishing a law” when they “consider married men of less value, as if they have lost some adornment.” If celibacy is not among the gifts that God has provided to adorn the church’s ministry, then it is wrong to consider people who lack this gift as being of less value. In Calvin’s view, the rule of celibacy has produced countless forms of evils in the church, and must be reconsidered.
Calvin has one more argument. Even if the church authorities find that encouraging celibacy is not “an obstacle for [them] at present,” that is not reason enough to continue this practice. “Austerity” about this matter, he says, “can be a great obstacle to future generations, for whom, as you know, we must take thought.” We should take care lest our unduly austere practices exert pressure and tyranny on future generations of Christians who may be living in quite different circumstances.
Calvin is not arguing that celibacy is bad. He is worried that celibacy, while a good in itself, can become an idol, a law which Christians used to justify themselves, to proclaim their own righteousness, and to tyrannize others. He sees all kinds of practical problems with it, does not think that God requires it for ministry, and is worried about setting a bad precedent for future generations.
But in reforming the church’s practices around ministerial leadership, Calvin was not given a blank slate. Pastoral celibacy had been the accepted western rule for centuries by Calvin’s time. Celibacy was exemplified by Jesus himself, advocated by the apostle Paul, and revered as a mark of Christian holiness. It was an established rule in the practice of shaping church communities. So let’s try to imagine the kind of criticism Calvin and other Protestant reformers invited from traditionalists when they challenged this rule of celibacy. “What do you mean that celibacy is not required of all who are called to be ministers? Surely it works the other way around—if you don’t have the ability to live a celibate life, you weren’t called to be a minister in the first place. What gives you the right to lower the church’s standards of holiness? Should anyone with what you call an “urgent need for marriage” be a pastor in the first place? An “urgent need for marriage” is not something we should even be talking about in connection with the pastoral vocation. It points to a moral deficit. It degrades the whole notion of priestly calling. This only confirms our suspicions about you self-appointed “reformers”—you are an undisciplined, immoral lot. Celibacy requirements go against your libertine inclinations and so you want to overturn centuries of church tradition. Look, we welcome undisciplined people with an “urgent need for marriage” to be baptized members of the church. But if you are a self-acknowledged, unrepentant, practicing heterosexual, there is no place for you in the priesthood.”
As I look around the Presbyterian church today I don’t see much “absurd admiration” for celibacy anymore. If there is anything that is “honored extravagantly” in our church context, it is heterosexual marriage. In fact, I suspect it has become what celibacy was for the church in Calvin’s time. All the research tells us that what Protestant churches now see as the ideal pastoral candidate is a married man.Just as Calvin worried about the rule of celibacy in the sixteenth century, we must be concerned about the way we treat heterosexual marriage. Do we exhibit “absurd admiration” for it as a mark of ministerial fitness? Do we equate honoring heterosexual marriage with upholding sexual morality? Do we consider unmarried people of less value, as if they have lost some adornment? Though we are not tyrannical about requiring heterosexual marriage for ministers, are we letting “the severity of a law” creep in? Is our honoring of heterosexual marriage frightening good people away from pursuing the calling God has given them?
Don’t get me wrong. I am a great supporter of heterosexual marriage. I myself have been happily married for 23 years and I am the mother of three children. I am in agreement with Gene Rogers that a healthy marriage is a great gift, and that the commitment and sacrifice that marriage requires can advance us on our path of sanctification. But just as Calvin worried about celibacy, I worry that the honoring of heterosexual marriage, while a good in itself, can become an idol, a law which Christians use to justify themselves, to proclaim their own righteousness. We see this kind of attitude exemplified in the recent comment to a group of Christians by Indiana Representative John Hostettler: “The picture of marriage is the picture of Christian salvation.”While it’s rare to hear Christians say it that bluntly, I suspect it is not an uncommon assumption. We need to hear Calvin’s caution about extravagantly honoring something that God does not require for ministry and that sets a damaging precedent for the future of the church.
From our vantage point, the preference for celibacy among the church authorities whom Calvin counseled looks like a way of avoiding a frank discussion of ministers’ emotional and physical needs and desires. “We do not know what to do with the relational needs and desires of ministers, so let’s just try to keep those who acknowledge them and do not feel they have received the gift of celibacy out of the ministry altogether. It’s simpler and less awkward all round.” Many church folk today still feel the same way: honest, sober conversation about relational matters is awkward and uncomfortable. The fact that the larger western society is emotionally stunted and sex-saturated makes honest, sober conversation more, rather than less, difficult. And I think that helps explain the strong Protestant bias toward married clergy. The assumption is that with married ministers, none of these delicate questions have to come up. We can just assume that all is well in these sensitive areas and focus on important things like their administrative skills. We of course know better than that. Through painful experience the church has found that neither celibacy nor heterosexual marriage is a guarantee of sexual and emotional health and personal holiness. Questions about relational health and holiness are ones that all Christians must face and wrestle with.
It seems to me that without this kind of conversation, the move to change ordination standards is incoherent. We have to be willing to answer the question the Peace, Unity and Purity taskforce asks: “How does God’s gracious drama of creation, reconciliation, and redemption work itself out in the lives of baptized gay and lesbian persons who are committed to exclusive, covenanted relationships?” As in the case of covenanted heterosexual relationships, we must, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “avoid glamorizing and idealizing the whole venture,” recognizing that “uniting sexual longing and emotional commitment is a troubling and troublesome mission” for everyone, gay or straight.(10) But just as Calvin was certain that “many who are otherwise suited for the ministry cannot usefully do without marriage,” so we assert that many who are suited for the ministry can usefully do without heterosexual marriage, including those who are single, divorced, or in exclusive, covenanted same-sex relationships.
In reflecting on these matters, we have to preserve Calvin’s insight that both the present needs of the individual and the long term needs of the community must be taken into account. By needs of the individual, Calvin includes what he calls “the needs of nature.” He thinks that in establishing the standards for ministers, the church must be wary of making rules that attempt to abolish the laws of nature. What are these laws of nature? Calvin gives a rather unconvincing example. Appealing to I Corinthians 11, Calvin says that when Paul “teaches that it is shameful and unbecoming for women to go into public places with their heads uncovered, he is telling us to take advice from nature as to whether it is proper for women to be in public with their hair cut short, and finally he concludes that nature does not allow it.”(11)This example is unconvincing because it exposes the fact that our understandings of what “nature allows” are culturally conditioned and so change over time. I daresay that few people on either side of the current ordination debate would agree with the apostle Paul that it goes against nature for women to be in public with their hair cut short. But Calvin is right in that we do need to pay attention to the laws of nature, as best as we can ascertain them. For many of us who advocate a change in ordination standards, a decisive issue has been our acceptance of the evolving scientific and cultural understandings of nature, leading us to conclude that consistent same-sex desires are not “against nature” for some of God’s children.
We should also preserve Calvin’s insight that even rules that have served the church well in the past should not be foisted on future generations as non-negotiable. We have to think with sympathetic imagination about the well-being of the future church. It is possible that tomorrow’s church may require new rules for its flourishing. Our faithfulness is not to a particular configuration of our common life, but to the promise that God’s grace in Jesus Christ will accompany us in the spiritual practice of shaping community.
I see in Calvin an attempt at graceful spiritual practice around the contentious issue of ministerial leadership. He concedes that the weight of church tradition is on his opponents’ side; the proposal to accept married clergy was in a bold and risky one in that context. Calvin does not pretend that he has it all correct or that church order will never have to be rethought. He is doing his best to put together Scripture’s witness and pastoral and personal realities, trusting not in the exemplariness of the church’s practices of shaping community, but in the God who meets Christians in their searching and struggling to be faithful.
Shaping Readers of Scripture
A related question is how we go about shaping graceful communities of readers of Scripture. One of the most heartening things for me about the deliberations of the Peace, Unity and Purity taskforce was their insistence on studying Scripture together. They found that Bible study in diverse groups “enriches our understandings and corrects our misunderstandings and helps us wrestle with God’s word more deeply and honestly.” When those who disagree agree at least to stay in the same room, studying the same Scripture, then the way is open for a deeper and more honest wrestling with God’s word. Bible study in communities of the like-minded has its place. But it does not bear the same gracious promise of enriching our understandings and correcting our misunderstandings. The truth about contentious matters seems so clear when you can just get those who disagree with you to go away! But that is not a shortcut to becoming a graceful community of readers.
Reading Scripture is a communal practice. The sensus fidei, the mind of the faithful, deserves a respectful hearing, even when its opinions fall short of moral unanimity. Respecting the mind of the faithful requires listening to the voices of GLBT people and their allies. But it also involves listening to those who out of scriptural convictions oppose a change in ordination standards. For example, are we willing to listen to our Christian brothers and sisters in the global south on this issue? Are we willing to read Scripture with them? If not, doesn’t our push to change ordination standards risk being perceived as a unilateral maneuver all too reminiscent of American foreign policy? Won’t it risk looking like an American pursuit of their own ecclesial interests without much worry about their impact on the rest of the world? What does graceful practice require here?
We need the help of the Spirit in reading Scripture gracefully. Our confidence in holding “the biblical view” has been shaken so many times across church history. Is the earth the center of the universe? Is the pope the antichrist? Is slavery in accordance with God’s will? Is divorce ever permissible for Christians? On these and many other subjects Christians in different time and places have changed their minds on what “the biblical view” is. This change of mind is usually brought about through the web of spiritual practices, rather than feats of exegetical brilliance. It happens through prayer, repentance, efforts at reconciliation, largehearted attention to the spiritual gifts and discernments of others. Christian history has shown us again and again that one of the most spiritually dangerous questions we can ask is: “What does the Bible say about them?” Whether it’s Christians asking that question about Jews, men asking that question about women, slaveowners asking that question about slaves, Protestants asking that question about Catholics, straight people asking that question about GLBT people, church history has shown us that when we ask that question—what does the Bible say about them—we often hear a self-justifying answer. As we gather here in support of the goals of the Covenant Network, we too have to be on guard against this. How easy—and how alienating—it is to compare those who disagree with us to the Pharisees, to the circumcision party, to those who are tone deaf to the new thing God is doing. When we are surrounded only by our like-minded friends, it is tempting to read the Bible in graceless ways, ways that reinforce rather than challenge our comfortable perceptions of ourselves and others.
We’re on much firmer spiritual ground in our practice of shaping readers of Scripture when our question is, “what does the Bible say about us?” That question presupposes a community, a community not always in internal agreement, but willing to place its life before the witness of Scripture and to ask for discernment. Our aim in the communal reading of Scripture, as the Catholic priest James Alison has said, is to give glory to God and to create “merciful meaning for our sisters and brothers as we come to be possessed by the Spirit” of the crucified and risen Jesus. A graceful practice of shaping a community of Scripture readers will aim at “undoing our violent and evil ways of relating to each other,” and show us “how together to enter into the way of penitence and peace.”(12)
Within a Reformed theological framework, this Christian purification and transformation are understood to extend over lifetimes. That is why we need the church. God’s grace works by creating this communal space where sin can be repented of and forgiven, where brokenness can be healed. Spiritual practices within the community of the church are not badges of spiritual accomplishment but means by which we are opened to God’s transforming grace. “We take great pains,” says Calvin, “to prevent anyone from deceiving himself by boasting of his works, and we openly teach that we can do nothing good without the guidance of God’s Spirit. We have countless weaknesses, and nothing in us is strong of itself or of any consequence in proving our worthiness before God. The only foundation for that holy living which constitutes genuine righteousness is to cast everything else behind us and embrace the cross and death of Christ with both hands.”(13) God’s grace is the only foundation for holy living: let us practice our faith gracefully.
1- David Kelsey, Imagining Redemption (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 57.
2 – Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2004), 246.
3 – John Calvin, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, trans. Mary Beaty and Benjamin Farley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991).
4 – John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster,1960), 4.2.12.
5 – PCUSA Book of Confessions, 3:20.
6 – Calvin, Institutes, 4.3.4.
7 – Calvin, Institutes, 4.3.1.
8 – Calvin, Ecclesiastical Advice, 114.
9 – Calvin, Ecclesiastical Advice, 112-116. The quotations from Calvin in the next three paragraphs are all taken from these pages. See also Paul E. Capetz, “Binding and Unbinding the Conscience: Luther’s Significance for the Plight of a Gay Protestant,” Theology and Sexuality 16 (March 2002): 67-96.
10 – Andrew Sullivan, “Alone Again, Naturally,” in Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Reading, ed. Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 287.
11 – Calvin, Ecclesiastical Advice, 128.
12 – James Alison, “‘But the Bible says…’? A Catholic Reading of Romans 1,” xiv-xv.
13 – Calvin, Ecclesiastical Advice, 56