My first semester in grad school, I took Tom Olbricht’s course, Religious Teachings of the New Testament. (It was before we believed in theology at ACU. Apparently, we believed in religion). The first lecture changed my life. The rest of the course was working out the light that went off in my head that day.
In his inimitable way, Dr. Olbricht simply demonstrated that not all Scripture is created equal. Paul knew that. Some things were of “first importance.” Jesus knew that. There were “weightier matters of the law.” Dr. Olbricht pulled from the pocket of his sansabelts a handful of change. He told us, all the money in his hand was worth something. But it was not all worth the same. And part of learning to understand the Bible was knowing which was the $100 bill and which was the penny.
Now, I’m not sure I possessed a flat view of Scripture (all verses being equal, because after all, this is the Word of God), but what Dr. Olbricht’s simple illustration gave me was something of a definitive reading strategy.
I still use his illustration when I teach my freshman Bible class, though I never seem to have any change in my pocket. (It’s all in my dryer).
And its not that hard to figure out what the $100 bills are. Things that recur throughout Scripture, particularly those things that reveal God’s identity. The Exodus story. The death and resurrection of Jesus. The Kingdom of God. God’s concern for the poor, the widow, the alien, the sojourner. Grace and faith and mercy. These are some of those $100 bills.
Prayer of Jabez? Nope. Never shows up again. Boiling things in the right milk or wearing clothing of mixed threads? Nope.
Now this isn’t the only thing to be considered when reading Scripture, but it sure helps. It’s especially helpful when you’re adjudicating against competing claims or the perspectives of diverse witnesses or church practices (i.e., places where Scripture says multiple things about the same topic).
Here’s the thing. Once you start reading this way, you realize how poorly suited the Bible is in providing an exact blueprint for the continuing practice of the church. If you read Scripture under the assumption that Scripture is flat (in Churches of Christ, we do this only for the NT), then you read over the diversity in the witness. But if you assume that some things are worth more than others, that not all commands are created equal, then you start noticing the topography of Scripture, the hills and the valleys, the cul-de-sacs and open roads, and the growth and decline of themes in Scripture. Now you’re not just parroting or proof-texting Scripture, you’re interpreting it. And when you have this kind of imagination about Scripture, you’re more likely doing actual theology.
So, what does this have to do with my views on gender. Well, generally speaking everything. It just puts the discussion on en entirely different footing. My first question is not what is the example of the NT church, which is not likely as uniform as we suppose when this is our first question. Instead, my first question is, how are gender issues connected to the big themes of Scripture? These questions might produce different answers.
One specific way, however, that this influences my understanding is that I don’t assume that the whole Bible should be read assuming that two passages in Paul are normative or regulating for all others. First, even passages within Paul suggest that silence is not the only word Paul had on the subject. Second, the practice of Jesus gives us a different viewpoint as well. And the practice of Jesus is being presented by gospel writers who are trying to encourage certain practices within congregations, so may be giving us just as much a look into the lives of congregations as Paul’s letters. In other words, if I assume Scripture is flat, that everything is $100 bill, I can get away with reading the entire Bible through two passages which in the big scheme of things might not carry as much weight as we give them.
So, Dr. Olbricht’s illustration led me into a new journey with the Bible, and one that let the Bible itself indicate how it should be interpreted. And that led to other insights which will come in future posts.