This past week at the Baptist World Alliance I offered a paper on a Baptist practice of congregational discernment. I probed what method for reading Scripture with the Spirit could guide a church toward the mind of Christ. Too often biblical interpreters take a text from the Holiness Code or the first century structure of paterfamilias and transpose it directly into contemporary challenges, forgetting that the original context had a very different understanding of social conventions than we do today.
Ultimately our hermeneutical trajectory should always take us to Jesus, but how expansively do we regard Jesus the Christ? Paul Fiddes, revered Baptist theologian, helped me frame my Christological understanding more broadly. He spoke of the Body of Christ as the resurrection body of Christ, the communion bread, and the church. “Real presence” is not confined to belief that Jesus was raised, but it also includes the reality that in both bread and human fellowship we encounter the risen Christ. Decrying the notion that Baptists hold to a mere memorial view of the eucharistic meal, he called us to consider a more robust vision of the modes of presence.
Fiddes argued, “because Christ is embodied among the gathered disciples through the meeting of their bodies, they expected to be able to discern his mind for them.” He was giving a particularly organic understanding of the church, which suggests that we cannot allow individualism to shape congregational discernment or practice. We can trust that the Christ who indwells the congregation through the Spirit will guide clearly.
My church, Prairie Baptist, went through a nearly two-year process of seeking to discern how we would respond if a request came from a same gender couple to get married in the church. The new Supreme Court ruling in 2016 prompted our church council to take up the issue. Prayer and reflection on Scripture, good community building, and thoughtful communication practices undergirded the whole process. We concluded that we would be welcoming and inclusive, not employing the word “affirming” out of respect for certain members. We agreed that pastors should have the right to marry anyone without consent from the congregation, and their employment would not be jeopardized by their use of discretion on this.
Not everyone got what they wanted with this decision; however, our process of seeking to read Scripture rightly together and to value the opinions of others was a constructive spiritual journey. That we kept on gathering was the key to a satisfactory outcome.
We concluded that the few texts that mentioned same gender relationships came from the Ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman Mediterranean world where patriarchy determined sexual relations. Our contemporary understanding of same gender attraction, which does not permit great power differential as with a grown man and a boy, is not being addressed in Scripture. It is not enough, however, simply to line up competing texts. We must probe the large theological trajectories of Scripture that attend to justice, equal, dignity of all, and the Spirit’s transgressive prompting. Discerning the mind of Christ was our goal, and “real presence” guided us.
Molly T. Marshall
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