On Practicing Theological Interpretation in Churches of Christ

I began a sermon a few Sundays ago with the Apostles’ Creed. Well, with Rich Mullins’s rendition anyway.

I’ve been in a cappella Churches of Christ worship services for close to every Sunday of my life (if I count the churches we planted in Peru, which perhaps I shouldn’t). I’ve been in rural and urban churches, large and small churches, progressive and conservative churches. And I have never heard any of the ecumenical creeds recited in worship.

This is no surprise, for anti-creedalism was near the heart of the Restoration plea. I knew of the creeds growing up only as the “traditions of men” opposed to Bible-only Christianity. The expectation that Christianity could be reunited by refusing to make creeds and confessions normative has long since mellowed and morphed in the Stone-Campbell traditions, even in the a cappella Churches of Christ for whom anti-denominational sectarianism and the ideal of “Bible words for Bible things” lingered long. In my lifetime, many Churches of Christ seem to have overcome the suspicion of “theology” and the disdain for careful, contextual statements of faith. Yet, our tradition has left us in an essentially acreedal place—no longer anticreedal but far from having the liturgical instincts necessary to recite “extrabiblical” words regularly as a natural part of worship, much less as an essential practice of theological formation.

Instincts is a good word for it. Or maybe reflexes. Being cognitively quite compelled by the historical and theological significance of the ecumenical creeds, I still reflexively think, Why shouldn’t we just use the words of Scripture as liturgical confessions? Isn’t that enough? And, in fact, we often do. I have been in many worship services in which the collective reading of a text was our confession. More, since the creed will not contradict the canon, can’t we expect to find in Scripture’s own words anything we might confess through the creed? My instincts tell me the creed is acceptable but not indispensable. I’m not against it—actually I’m for it—but it still feels unnatural to argue in the context of my tradition that the creed is necessary. Trust in the sufficiency of Scripture is in my bones.

This makes my study of theological hermeneutics particularly interesting. The practice of theological interpretation of Scripture is not monolithic, and the debate about what it is in the first place is ongoing. Some broad strokes are clear enough, however. My mentor, Joel Green, identifies four key concerns:1

  1. “The relationship between theological exegesis and Christian formation.”
  2. “The role of history and historical criticism in theological interpretation.”
  3. “The relationship between exegesis and the Rule of Faith.”
  4. The influence of locatedness in “particular faith communities and theological traditions” on theological interpretation.

I’m reflecting here on the relationship between the last two. What happens when the particular tradition in which one wishes to practice theological interpretation makes no space for the formal hermeneutical role of the Rule of Faith? Despite the diversity among theological interpreters, there is little doubt that the Rule is a given. “Theological interpretation in any tradition cannot escape the question of the relationship between those ecumenical creeds that define the faith of the church and this canonical collection that we embrace as Scripture.”2

I won’t venture into an explanation of why the Rule is hermeneutically necessary for the church catholic—the issues are complex. But assuming this necessity, what are the options for Churches of Christ? How do we proceed? This is a practical question to which a tradition committed to congregational autonomy cannot expect a single answer. Nonetheless, I ask the question on behalf of a tradition whose coherence has been largely hermeneutical.

I wish I had an answer! In the mean time, I suppose the burden is on discrete enactments of theological interpretation within the tradition. As it happens, we’re preaching through Ephesians at Hollywood Church of Christ, and the book of Ephesians is itself a sort of invitation to see through the faith stated in the creed. Particularly, the interpretation of the latter half of the book depends on having learned to see God’s eternal purposes fulfilled in Christ. In my assigned passage, the household code of 5:21–6:9, I think it is impossible to understand how God would transform our family lives apart from this christological vision. In one sense, this is what the Rule is meant to do for all of the church’s interpretation: give us the eyes that Paul prayed the Ephesians would have.


Family in the Upside Down Kingdom
(Eph 5:21–6:9)

Hollywood Church of Christ

Lens

Acts 17:1   After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.  2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures,  3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.”  4 Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.  5 But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house.  6 When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also,  7 and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”  8 The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this,  9 and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

Apostles’ Creed

Traditional Version

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ his only Son,

our Lord;

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, dead, and buried;

 

he descended into hell;

the third day he rose from the dead;

he ascended into heaven,

and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;

from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.

Adapted from Rich Mullins, “Creed”

I believe in God the Father

Almighty maker of heaven and maker of earth

And in Jesus Christ his only begotten son,

our Lord

He was conceived by the Holy Spirit

Born of the virgin Mary

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

I believe that he who suffered was crucified, buried, and dead

He descended into hell

and on the third day, rose again

He ascended into heaven

where he sits at God’s mighty right hand

I believe that he’s returning

To judge the quick and the dead of the sons of men

I believe in the Holy Spirit

One holy church

The communion of saints

The forgiveness of sin

I believe in the resurrection

I believe in a life that never ends

Seeing and Being

I believe. This morning, like so many Sunday mornings, is about living into this belief. I believe that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God the Father, was crucified, and dead, and buried, and rose. But so what? Does it matter? What does it change? I believe. Lord help my unbelief.

Listen now to Scripture: 5:21–6:9.

We have been thinking through Ephesians about how to be a church family, so as we focus our attention on 5:21–6:9, we are challenged to imagine specifically what the shape of our personal family lives has to do with the shape of our church family life. In the context of our homes—as wives and husbands, children and parents—I ask the question: why does it matter that we believe? Does Ephesians pivot suddenly to this concrete code of conduct to tell us God’s will for the family? Is that why our belief matters: we believe, therefore we know how to organize our households, so that husbands, wives, children, and slaves know their place?

Yes, the mention of slaves is supposed to make you uncomfortable. Because we are not allowed to answer the question this morning by ignoring the last third of these instructions. I’ll be blunt: if the Christian confession leaves slavery intact—if it doesn’t change anything substantial about relationships in which some people own other people—then it isn’t the kind of thing I want to shape my marriage or my parenting. So I ask again: what difference does it make for my most entrenched, most disturbing relationships that I believe Jesus Christ, the only Son of God the Father, was crucified, and dead, and buried, and rose? What does that mean for the broken way that I learned how to be a husband and a father from a husband who cheated and a father who left? Or from a rural south Texas culture in which husbands are authoritarian and fathers are harsh. Or a Peruvian culture in which husbands are machista and fathers are absent, or an urban California culture in which—well, I’ll let you fill in the blank. Regardless, we know how broken our relationships are because of the twisted ways we’ve learned to treat each other, which is often the inheritance of generations. (Connect “inheritance” to 1:11, 14, 18.)

Now, if you had an amazing father or have grown into a really healthy marriage, great. I’m not trying to make a point by convincing you that you’re actually terrible. I just know that there is enough dysfunction represented in this room—and, I will wager, in the lives of every single one of us—that I have to ask in all seriousness this morning, What difference does it make in all those dark corners of our lives, in the day-to-day dysfunction of our relationships, that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord?

And this passage puts the question as sharply as possible, because it has seemed to many that here we have proof nothing changes. This household code is recognizable alongside others of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Patriarchy and slavery are apparently intact. It’s as though Paul says, “Believe in Jesus and carry on as you were, just be nicer to each other.” But is that it?! Do we come here, confess that Jesus is Lord, read this text of Scripture, and come away with nothing more than a bland sense that I should try to be a better person this week? Is Christlikeness nothing more than a bandaid of personal virtue on relationships that are well and truly broken? Does nothing change except I’m nicer or more “spiritual”?

Of course, for many who read the New Testament as though it were an instruction manual, it is not only that we have here the certainty of the divinely ordained family structure but also that, if we are obedient to it, then we will be blessed. In this case, Ephesians tells us how to have the ideal marriage, the most well-behaved children, and, apparently, a blessed owner-slave relationship. And here as well, the expectation is not that there is some kind of essential difference from other families but that, since we’re doing it “God’s way,” our family is bound to be the kind that prospers with financial peace, great sex lives, guaranteed conflict resolution, respectful teenagers, and—well, we still don’t know what to do with slavery, so we’ll pretend like it’s not a part of the instruction manual. Is that it? Our faith matters for our family life because it compels us to take Scripture as the manual for the marriage we always wanted?

Or perhaps, if we reject the marriage-and-parenting prosperity gospel, we at least have instructions for pleasing a God who wants our households ordered just so. In which case our faith in the Lord Jesus matters because pleasing God is what matters: God said it, I believe it, that settles it. It makes a difference because truth is truth, and the truth is that husbands are supposed to be the head of the household, women and children are supposed to be obedient, and slaves are supposed to be enthusiastic. When that is the case, all is well, because our families are “biblical.” Is that really it?

This is one of those passages that triggers untransformed habits of mind in so many of us. We’re reading along, soaking in everything that Paul has to say about our adoption, reconciliation, and the unity of the body. We might start to read the morality stuff a bit legalistically, maybe not, but then we hit “wives, be subject to your husbands,” and it’s like a switch flips. Suddenly, we are in cut-and-dried legal code territory: This is how God ordained the institution of the family to be organized, and that ordinance is what the passage is meant to provide us. But the problem is that reading it this way cuts the household code off from what Paul has been arguing since the beginning of the letter, which is definitely not that God saved you so that you will be obedient when God tells you who is at the top of the family hierarchy. Nor, for that matter, that God has saved you so you can have your best family life now. Paul’s claim is far more audacious, far more breathtaking, far more challenging than that.

Ephesians is like a bus with no brakes, gaining momentum as it builds to an almost unbelievable vision of what wives, husbands, parents, children, slave owners, and slaves will do to the world if their family life gets filled up with the love of God. Paul’s vision is not about what happens in the private lives of a handful of Christians in the provincial city of Roman Ephesus or in the private lives of a few dozen households in twenty-first century Hollywood—that is not why it matters that we believe Jesus is king. Paul’s vision is cosmic, it is about the transformation of everything—“a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). We are indeed blessed, adopted, and redeemed—so that we “might live for the praise of his glory” (1:12). “To the praise of his glory” is in fact the refrain of the opening prayer, but it doesn’t mean simply “so that we might praise God.” Rather, his peculiar glory—the “glorious grace” (1:6) lavished on us through the inglorious cross—is praised not merely by us but because of our existence.

This is why Paul is so concerned that the eyes of our heart be enlightened (1:18) with the result that the power of the resurrection be at work in “us who believe” (1:19). Specifically, the same power of God at work in us was at work in raising the crucified Christ and seating him at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (1:20–23). You don’t have to understand what the heavenly places are, but pay attention to what this means for those of us in whom the power of God is at work: God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:1).

Okay, so we’re saved by grace, and in some mind-boggling way we, in Christ, are seated at the right hand of God where as head over all things, Christ has dominion over all rule and authority. Why? “So that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:7). God puts on display the reconciliation of all humankind in Christ according to this boundless grace, which Paul calls “the mystery of Christ” (3:4). But there is more: he puts this mystery on display “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:1).

In summary, by the grace of God, the wisdom of the cross is manifest through the church so that rulers and authorities in the heavenly places might witness that wisdom in the ages to come.

Perhaps you see why I would say that Paul’s vision is cosmic in scope. And for the same reason, perhaps you’re stuck wondering what in the world to do with these claims. The thing is, Paul thinks that understanding this mystery is how we see things as they truly are—grasping this is how the eyes of our heart are illumined. And only if we come to see will we then have the power to be the church that puts the wisdom of God on display. So he circles back at the end of chapter three to his prayer: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:18–19).

The fullness of God in the church is what Paul already mentioned in 1:22–23: “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” And this same theme pulls us forward, for it is the body of Christ that is built up for the work of ministry in 4:13, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the [stature of the fullness] of Christ.” And picking up the other idea from 1:23, 4:15–16 says, “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Thus the “likeness of God” (4:17) is restored in us, and Paul declares in 5:1–2, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

Paul, in other words, will not talk about the specifics of conduct apart from this cosmic vision of God’s grace and love that, once it becomes the way we see, is itself the wisdom of God at work in the church. So he says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,” and we recall that the “power to comprehend” the love of God in 3:19 results in our being filled with the fullness of God, or the maturity that is the fullness of Christ, and likewise, the wisdom of God is on display in the church.

So the book reaches a crescendo—or the bus crashes home—as the wisdom of God, the imitation of Christ’s sacrificial love, is put on display in a concrete context: the family. And the transition is clear. What has been called the fullness of God in the church and the fullness of the stature of Christ is a wise way of life he now identifies by saying “be filled by the Spirit” (5:18). Your translation probably says “with the Spirit,” but the more likely gist is “by the Spirit”—be filled with all the fullness of God, be filled according to the measure of the fullness of Christ, be filled by the Spirit. Be imitators of God. Put the cross-shaped wisdom of God on display in your lives and prove that it is wise, to the praise of his glory. Because that is what is at stake. You see, we too easily diminish godliness to that morality bandaid. I’m supposed to be godly because that’s what I’m supposed to do. My family is supposed to follow these rules because these are the rules.

No: if we read the household code in Ephesians and fail to realize how fundamentally Paul challenges the typical way of being family, it is because our confession of Christ has not yet given us eyes to see.

Does it matter that the crucified Christ is the risen Lord? The question is, what could possibly matter more?

The death and resurrection of the Messiah has turned the world upside down! When we say the Crucified One is king, the meaning of authority can never be the same. When we say that this Christ is the head of the church, our concept of headship gets blown up. When we see how the Father adopted us, parenthood changes. And when we see the glory of the one who took the form of a slave for our sake, the way we inhabit the structures of injustice in our society—whether they regard gender, age, race, or class—transforms into a new way of being.

This is not, “Now I’m going to say some things about how to be a model family.” This is a call to jump on board. This is Paul seeing the chance to turn life of the church into the world-shaking proclamation of the glory and wisdom of God in Christ, so he pleads with us to bring the unbounded love of God, the fullness of God that has been poured into our lives, right into the way we live everyday as a family, and set the world on its head, to the praise of his glory!

What happens when the wisdom of God invades the conventional structures of our family relationships?

5:21 Mutuality becomes the premise of our relationships, and the only fear that motivates them is fear of the one who has proven his love for us. Fear of the Lord was always the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7, etc.), but that wisdom is now manifest in the cross of Christ. This is the Christ who commands, “Do not fear, only believe,” and this is the wisdom made known through the church.

5:22–33 Headship is stood on its head and marriage becomes a way to put the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church on display. A head is head only in imitation of the one who “taking the form of a slave . . . became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7–8) and who taught that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45). Culturally defined power structures are inevitably transformed in light of the love of Christ that leads to the imitation of God.

6:1–4 Children obey their parents, not because of the law but because of the promise. Not because “in my house you obey my rules” but because in Christ even our children learn how to live wisely, in ways that give life. More surprisingly, mutuality reshapes this relationship into the image of God too, and fathers submit themselves to children. The paterfamilias must be reimagined when we have known the Father of the Son of God (4:13), just as, in the upside down kingdom, the pater patriae must be reimagined when “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” (3:14–15) is the Father to whom we have access through Christ Jesus in the Spirit (2:18). God shows us what fatherhood is by making us adopted children, lavishing grace on us (1:5–9). Surely the parents who brings up their children with the guidance and instruction of the Lord are imitating the God who makes known his love (1:15–19; 3:18–19). These are not parents who say, “Because I said so,” but who, like Jesus with his disciples, teach and model a way of life in the upside down kingdom instead of merely commanding obedience.

6:5–9 But what do we do with slavery? Many scholars say things like, “Paul simply couldn’t imagine a world without slavery.” It would be something like trying to imagine our contemporary economy without the internet. To which I respond: after the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, I don’t think there’s much Paul can’t imagine. Just listen to these words: “And, masters, do the same to them” (6:9). I think Paul knows exactly what he is doing. Once he writes those words, the institution of slavery is doomed.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.
And masters, do the same to them.
Slaves, render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women.
And masters, do the same to them.

For us who believe, what we see in our most broken relationships is a new possibility, a new imagination, a “new humanity” (2:15), even in the structures where it seems not yet to exist. It is a “promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). But the upside down kingdom is always like that: a mustard seed that is the promise of an unseen future; a bit of leaven working slowly through everything; a few communities of cruciform love embedded in the structures of an empire of positional power.

This is the invitation: to a way of being in our relationships “rooted and grounded” (3:17) in a way of seeing, a comprehension of God’s love lit up by Christ (1:18). Our confession is our way of seeing. May it become our way of being as the family of God in the upside down kingdom.


Pray with me: God of our Lord Jesus Christ, Father of glory, give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know Jesus, so that with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which you have called us, what are the riches of your glorious inheritance among us, and what is the immeasurable greatness of your power for us who believe. God let us see, and so let us be, according to the working of your great power in our church family, and in our personal families. Please make known the mystery of Christ through our lives, as the breadth and length and height and depth of the love fills us up becomes evident in every relationship, to the praise of your glory. Put your manifold wisdom on display in us for the whole cosmos to see, to the praise of your glory. Fill us Father, by the power of your Spirit, to the measure of the fullness of Christ, to the praise of your glory. May our imitation of you turn the world upside down, to the praise of your glory. To you who by the power at work in us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


Notes

  1. See Joel B. Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), “Introduction.”
  2. Ibid.

1 Comment

  1. Hey Greg, couldn’t find your email address so just wanted to say thanks for the thoughts shared. I’ve randomly come across your blog – and wanted to note that I’ve been thinking through some of the same things (both in regards to Hiebert/Kraft on worldviews and in relation to the Rule of Faith/hermeneutics in the Church of Christ). I’m a missionary in Malawi, also with the a ccapella Churches of Christ, and I’m currently working on an MTH concerning hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ in Malawi. Would love to connect as I’m sure I could learn from your experience and knowledge in these areas. Anyway, felt like it was worth writing you as we apparently share some interest and background. I suppose you know Mark Love and Monte Cox? My parents with missionaries with Monte and his family in Kenya (along with O’Neal Tankersley as well) and I knew/know Josh Love (Mark’s son) etc…

    Also saw your CUDA website – very interesting work. My primary work here is with a form of rural microfinance called Village Savings and Loans.

    Anyway, you could respond to me at ryan.hayes@gmx.com if you don’t mind.

    Thanks!
    Ryan

    P.S. have you read Jeff Cary’s book “Free Churches and the Body of Christ: Authority, Unity, and Truthfulness”. Really insightful concerning the role of tradition and the rule of faith from a Church of Christ background. A brilliant man all around actually. Just FYI.
    (https://www.amazon.com/Free-Churches-Body-Christ-Truthfulness/dp/1610976371/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1486391813&sr=1-1-fkmr2&keywords=jeff+cary+free+churches)

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