Interpretation and Unity
The Bible generates tens of thousands of questions it never answers with explicit and exhaustive instructions or explanation. The people of God are left to interpret the biblical witness and move in peace in the direction of the central drift of the faith to the glory of God while they’re working with texts.
God tells Israel not to harvest the “edges” of their fields, leave them for the poor, but he doesn’t say what constitutes an “edge” or who exactly is to be seen as “poor”. He forbids work on the Sabbath but doesn’t bother to say what “work” is; he insists parents are to be honoured but says nothing about what “honoured” means under all circumstances (does it mean to believe everything they say or do all they tell us to do?). He forbids covetousness but doesn’t trouble himself to exhaustively define it. He calls for respect for the aged but who exactly are the “aged”? Peter speaks of modest dress but what constitutes “modesty”? Paul says we’re to obey the government—in everything? He says we’re to forfeit our rights in the presence of the weak—all our rights, and who are the “weak”?
At the Supper Jesus prayed over the bread and prayed again over the wine—must we have two prayers at the Supper because he did? He apparently passed one container and they all drank from it—must we do that? When and under what circumstances are examples permanently binding on us? We wrestle with such questions precisely because the Bible doesn’t answer them for us and if God’s Bible doesn’t settle the issue beyond dispute maybe we should be modest and confess that we can’t settle them beyond dispute either.
Maybe it’s okay to hold different views on a host of things since God via the Bible refuses to settle a host of things! Maybe our differences on these matters aren’t worth the time and energy we spend interminably debating them.
Yes, but surely we should try to discover the truth on such matters. Indeed, I’m certain we’re supposed to be “people of the Book” as we seek God’s face; but maybe there’s no definitive “truth” about many things. Maybe God allows us—even encourages us—to “work it out” among ourselves in a spirit that honours him and promotes peace and a united witness to his work of reconciliation in Jesus. Maybe some congregations will do “it” this way and others will do “it” another way.
[You understand I’m not talking here about jugular issues—truths that are manifestly central to the Christian’s faith and response. Even here there’ll be debate about what is jugular but shelving discussion on that matter for now, the mass of us are sure some teachings are soul-destroying and others are not. We take that view on some teachings because we have explicit scripture or scripture so nearly explicit as doesn't make any difference.]
It’s clear God’s people can’t stand still while we debate every point of difference until it's settled unanimously. We might not be able to agree on everything but there are some things we’re all agreed on and those we are to honour—now! Together!
Differences of viewpoint on non-jugular matters must not be allowed to obliterate or even undermine what we all agree are essentials. Where strictly non-essential questions are generating unrest and tension there's a really critical need for an assembly to affirm its unity in Jesus and draw close together, for the acid test of what they hold are essentials is whether they can and will by their promotion and protection of peace and unity bear witness to the reconciling power and purpose of Christ.
It's important for us to accept (after good-spirited and ample time for discussion over perhaps months) that there are some things we can't settle information-wise and so we must settle them at another level. It would help if a time limit were put on debate after which the leadership with the congregation’s full involvement decides the direction the church will go.
We debate some issues ceaselessly because we think they're sufficiently important and because we tend to think that the Bible gives an exhaustive answer to all our questions about how we should carry out this or that. We think if we just keep debating and searching for verses we'll come up with the definitive answer. This is part of our problem! There should come a time when the congregation as a congregation settles on a way to act on a given question even in the absence of a “here's how it must be done” text or argument; some proposal that the assembly can agree is at least acceptable. In doing this the assembly shows that it knows there are some things higher on God's agenda than congregational agreement on a non-jugular issue (one of those things being peace in brother/sister-hood). That way we’re free to move on with other matters we are all agreed on and are of critical importance to our witness to the community for Jesus Christ.
In such a scenario the major issue (peace and a united witness on the fundamentals of truth and response to truth) is given its rightful place—that’s what Jesus died to gain (Ephesians 2:11-end and John 17). A congregation that works like that has risen to a lovely spiritual and Christlike level.
To visitors, members of an assembly like that might say when a specific matter is raised: “Well, we couldn’t agree on the details because we couldn’t find scripture that settled the matter. But we’re all agreed on the essentials and don’t have the time or inclination to debate all the time. So we just worked something out that we all know is acceptable. It’s more peaceful that way, don’t you know, and we’re left free to get on with other vital and enriching matters.”
There might be something you judge useful here: