I had planned to write yesterday about the story of St. Nicholas, Sevenoaks and their teaching about marriage and the place of women in society and the church. The story has been covered, from different viewpoints, by the Church Mouse, Maggi Dawn and Peter Ould among others.
A theologically based point of view cannot be validated merely because it uses God-talk and Scripture, appeals to conventional understanding from former ages, or is passionately and sincerely held.
No doubt some would disagree. But at the heart of the matter is the question of how we use texts, particularly biblical ones. No matter what the texts may once have meant to those to whom they were originally addressed centuries ago, we cannot ignore the use and abuse to which those texts have been put in the intervening period. No matter what Matthew and his audience understood by his narrative of the trial of Jesus, here in the 21st century we cannot read the chilling words of Matthew 27:25 without being aware of the way in which these verses were later used (by Christians) to stir up antisemitic hatred and violence. So any preacher using this text today needs to work extra hard to overcome these negative connotations and to help her audience engage with it appropriately, both theologically and ethically.
The verses from 1 Peter 3 at the heart of the Sevenoaks controversy also need careful treatment, along with Ephesians 5 and various other texts dealing with both marriage and women. Again we have texts which have been abused to prop up a highly patriarchal view of both the church and wider society, and have been used to justify everything from the expectation that a man’s dinner will be on the table just when he wants it, to physical abuse and even rape within marriage. The texts themselves, of course, do not teach this, but when coupled with a particular worldview and a particular culture can be used to support the unsupportable.
Mark Oden seems to be aware of at least some of this. His sermon is peppered with phrases like, “I’m NOT saying that…” Nevertheless, the overall message of the sermon seems to be in support of a viewpoint that many would say was outmoded. Jesus berated those Pharisees with whom he was in conversation for thinking that by simply studying and sticking to the letter of scripture they had found eternal life (John 5:39). [And yes, I am aware of some of the connotations of speaking about this passage!] Jesus clearly expected them to apply some thinking that took into account both the nature of God and the needs of real people – what we might call compassion, in the true sense of the word.
As St. Paul put it, “[God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6).