Savi Hensman

The burden of false certainty about the Bible

By Savi Hensman
July 14, 2007

In tennis, as the recent Wimbledon tournament has reminded us, it is not unusual for a player to be convinced that the ball touched the ground inside a line when an opponent or official is equally confident that it was out. It is all too easy to see what one wants or expects to see.

In today’s world of rapid change and widespread insecurity, many people look to the Bible to provide them with certainty. Even in some denominations which used to be marked by diversity and local freedom, there has been a drive for greater centralisation, and control by ‘Bible-believing’ Christians.

A decade ago, a gathering brought together a number of senior clergy from the USA and nations of the global South who were seeking to transform the Anglican Communion, and this produced the Dallas Statement. It took forward some of the themes discussed earlier in 1997 in Kuala Lumpur.

When I re-read the Dallas Statement recently, I was struck by how much support its ideas had gained. ‘The sources from which we have received our Anglican distinctives are Scripture, prayer, experience, tradition and worship’, but ‘The centrality of the authority of the scriptures’ was emphasised. ‘From the days of William Tyndale, Anglicans have believed that the Bible is sufficiently clear for God's people to understand those things necessary for salvation in matters of faith and morality. The Church itself is called to expound the Bible's complex harmony and to obey its plain teaching’, though ‘some matters are clearer than others in Scripture, and the question of how to harmonize one passage with another may require careful study and reflection.’

The most senior bishops worldwide should enforce this, and discipline any provinces which strayed: ‘We are convinced that God has called us to effective mutual accountability... we are glad to note that our Primates want to exercise enhanced responsibility and make their meeting a more effective instrument of unity… We call upon the Lambeth Conference to empower the Primates' Meeting to become a place of appeal for those Anglican bodies who are oppressed, marginalized, or denied faithful episcopal oversight by their own bishops.’

According to the Dallas Statement, ‘Accountability also calls us to provide a clear understanding of the bounds of eucharistic fellowship within the Anglican Communion. Those who choose beliefs and practices outside the boundaries of the historic biblical faith must understand they are separating themselves from communion.’

A draft Anglican Covenant is now being discussed in which, though there should be study and debate on controversial matters, ultimately ‘biblically derived moral values’ would be enforced by international Anglican structures, in particular the Primates’ Meeting.

I found it fascinating to consider what the gathering on Dallas regarded as clear Biblical truth. The 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement on human sexuality was endorsed: this had claimed that the ‘clear and unambiguous teaching of the Holy Scriptures about human sexuality’ is that it should be ‘expressed only within the life long union of a man and a woman in (holy) matrimony’, and ‘homosexual practices between men or women, as well as heterosexual relationships outside marriage’ are sinful.
The Dallas Statement tried to put this in a wider context. Apparently ‘In both Old and New Testaments the generational family of father, mother and children is understood as the matrix in which healthy human relationships are formed (Genesis 2:24). Full humanity has consisted of two genders from the very beginning-male and female. The created order comprises sexual differentiation as God-given and good. Together, both man and woman were given the commission to pass on new life in fruitfulness and to rule over and care for the earth (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). This is why only both genders together can mould the world in a humane way. The good society, according to Scripture, is ordered to help families flourish economically, socially, and spiritually (Leviticus 25; Isaiah 61:1-3). Although the family may be distorted by the brokenness of sin or become a false priority in the life of discipleship, it derives its graceful potential from the Father, from whom all families in heaven and on earth are named (Ephesians 3: 14-15). The Church as the new family of God must be the place that supports families and those who lead the single life so that each believer may be fully equipped to serve God in his or her particular calling, so that families in turn contribute to the strengthening and healing of society at large.’
I do not regard myself as ‘anti-family’, and indeed family relationships are important in my own life. But I was baffled. How could the church leaders who came up with the Statement think that?

Of course, there are some positive scriptural references to families, and to fertility, especially in the Old Testament. It is important that humankind includes males and females – indeed some might say that this reflects something of the diversity of creation. And the Bible is largely about responding to and reflecting God’s generous and creative love, in families and communities and beyond.

But where in Genesis are the generational families which set an example of how healthy human relationships are formed? Presumably Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel do not fit the bill? Indeed, how many such family units are there? Is not care of the widow, orphan and stranger – those outside the protection of the usual family structures – repeatedly emphasised?

While men and women both contribute to society, does this imply that everyone should be in a heterosexual relationship, and if so why? Does this apply to Jesus? What of those who are ‘eunuchs’ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19.10-12)?

Indeed, I would have thought the Gospels would be shocking to anyone who puts too much value on advancing the interests of their family (nuclear or extended). Might it not seem irresponsible to abandon home, family and fields (Mark 10.28-31)? Does not following Christ involve ‘hating’ one’s family and taking up the cross (Luke 14.25-27)? Presumable Jesus’ own crucifixion did not exactly advance his nieces’ and nephews’ prospects of socially and economically advantageous marriage!

What may seem obvious to some Christians may seem far from obvious to others. Difficult though I may sometimes find it to be in a church with people whose views are very different from mine on a number of matters, I can benefit from having to think more deeply; likewise they may gain something too.

There are grave risks in imposing a framework for discipline based on the ‘clear’ teaching of the Bible which may not be so clear to many people! Uncertainty may be hard for some to bear, but a false certainty may be worse.


(c) Savi Hensman. The author, an Ekklesia associate, was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities, and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.

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