By Wes Spears |
Last week, Harvard Professor Karen King announced the discovery of a piece of papyrus (a “previously unknown gospel”!) that referenced the wife of Jesus. While King clearly states that the papyrus does not allow anyone to definitely say that Jesus was married, she is hopeful that her findings will cause Christians to reconsider their assumptions about marriage, celibacy, and family. A former professor at the City University of New York, Bernard Starr, wrote that he hoped this papyrus and future findings would eventually yield “indisputable evidence” about Jesus that would force the church (mainly the Roman Catholic Church) to revise some of its teachings on these subjects. Many different writers have voiced similar sentiments over the past week—I disagree.
While I think Christians ought to revise traditional understandings of qualifications for ministry (specifically qualifications relating to gender and sexuality), I do not think we need to find “previously unknown” gospels to do so. That sort of logic is based on faulty assumptions.
That some new documents from the first few centuries of the church are all we need to modify our religion amounts to another form of proof-texting. We do not need to consult any of our faculties so long as some ancient text tells us to do something one way or another. I find proof-texting with the Bible to be annoying enough when it comes to issues like creation, biblical authority, and gender roles—do not start using history to do the same thing.
When it comes down to it, we need a lot more to change the church than just text. Responsible decision-making is not born out of a visceral response to or surface reading of a text, even if that text is the Bible. Responsible decision-making comes from a complex matrix of different factors and influences. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is a good example. Scholars have often summed up his thinking in the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”
In making a theological decision or assessment, Wesley would depend on four streams of thought. First, he considered the Scriptures. Second, he consulted tradition, or those practices and beliefs handed down from and developed since the apostles themselves. Third, he utilized reason. In other words, God purposefully gave you a brain and logic. Fourth, we must invariably confront our own experience of God. The United Church of Christ puts this point well with its campaign motto: “God is still speaking.”
The problem with just consulting ancient texts and practices, canonical and orthodox or non-canonical and heterodox, is that this perspective idolizes the past. Whether this attitude reflects a purifying impulse or a revisionist inclination, it assumes that things must be static. As a future minister, I value what the church has been but much more what the church will be. I am much more concerned with how best to handle the future than to manipulate the past.
Let’s value new discoveries about or old teachings from the early church, but remember that the future church is in our hands now.