As I contemplate the future of hermeneutics in Churches of Christ in terms of a touchy subject like women’s roles, it strikes me that one critical issue is our collective emotional brokenness. To personify the tradition, I can’t help but compare us to a child of divorce. My own baggage certainly informs the analogy, but maybe it also permits recognition. As I stated in my first post, I have a position on female leadership, but what I’m advocating at this point is the conversation itself. It needs advocacy, because so many congregations are clearly in avoidance mode. But the fact is, that’s the case with a great deal of issues—with conflict in general. Granted that avoidance is among the universal responses to conflict, that may not seem like much of an observation. But I think our family of origin issues are powerfully at work in this tendency. Our previous fights have been really ugly and ended in divorce. At this point, we’re clear that our unity movement ended up being among the most divisive of Christian traditions. The current generation, while it has in many sectors opted for a more gracious attitude in response to mom and dad’s ugly relationship, is nonetheless scarred by the experience. We seem to be acting as though, if we have a fight, we’re inevitably going to get a divorce. We don’t know how to fight! This is a common problem among newlyweds, especially those who never saw their parents have a bad fight and those who never saw their parents’ relationship survive one. I see the latter mentality in Churches of Christ. When I talk to people in our tradition about the women’s roles issue, I often hear the expectation that it will be my generation’s “instrumental music”—that two streams are already emerging and will end up splitting in my lifetime. We really don’t believe that we are capable of working through the conflict of biblical interpretation without splitting, so many elderships act as though the discussion is forbidden fruit. If we talk about it, people will leave.
If that assumption remains in place, the rest of the hermeneutical discussion is irrelevant. I believe, therefore, that one indispensable component of biblical interpretation for Churches of Christ engaging women’s roles and other “divisive” issues (note the assumption built into the adjective!) will be a marriage counselor. We need to learn how to fight well, and only a trained professional is going to manage that task, because we’re dealing with some massive emotional baggage. Much as we might wish “just be nice to each other” would be sufficient advice, ours is a mindset formed in a broken home. Shifting out of the analogy, what I’m saying is that a hermeneutic for twenty-first century Churches of Christ must include the gifts of conflict resolution facilitators. Full disclosure: one of my beloved teachers, mentors, and friends is Randy Willingham. Randy introduced me to church conflict resolution in undergrad, and his influence on my conception of ministry is second to none. But it is only recently that I’ve come to think of conflict facilitation as a natural component of hermeneutics per se, rather than just a piece of the congregational ministry toolkit. Scriptural hermeneutics has already begun to take the communal turn following postmodern thought, and, in any event, processes of community discernment are inherent in a restoration of more Christian modes of scriptural interpretation. More than ever, we are going to have to learn how to work through family decisions together on the congregational and the denominational level. This means that dealing with our emotional scars is essential, and for that we need the God-given abilities of those best able to lead us through anxiety and pain to loving conflict and embrace. In many congregations, I expect we will actually depend on those trained in marriage and family therapy, because church conflict resolution experts simply aren’t that numerous. The point of construing this as a hermeneutical move, however, is that congregations should structure the discussion of, say, women’s roles as a discernment process built around the facilitation that counselors and conflict managers can provide. In other words, we have to stop conceiving of “gifts of the word” so narrowly and recognize the gifts of those able to equip the church for listening, patience, gentleness, self-control and forgiveness as given to the church for the reading and interpreting of Scripture as much as anything else.