Language Games, Credibility and Authority

Posted: February 8, 2014 in Hermeneutics, Theology, Things of Faith

This morning I got a little jab in the ribs from my fellow NuDunkers as the blog posts began to fly. I have been, admittedly, silent for more than a month. This has not been my intention but with the big move to Massachusetts and the effects of this transition in full effect, I was afraid I may have lost my (proverbial) voice. Of course my family disagrees. However, as I read the blogs (Collationes, Authenticity, Restorative Theology and the Patchwork Pietist) I noticed the themes of authority and language in each post.

As I have begun to be re-immersed in the New England culture I have noticed (at least religiously speaking) a remarkable presence of extremes when dealing with the Christian churches. I know that I have been away from this culture for a while, but there doesn’t seem to be as much open space for theological conversation. Before my email box fills up, please let me explain. What I have been experiencing are churches that are either very conservative (particularly from the Reformed tradition) or very progressive. Even as I write this my mind is thinking of how much this culture is thoroughly Liberal as well as post-Christian. Again this is certainly a generalization, but one that it is clearly evident. Even as I have met with some area pastors they have described the situation in very similar terms. So let the bifurcations fly!

I am always curious how in such contexts as this parties from either side speak with absolute authority without room for movement on the one hand. On the other hand neither side will allow themselves to be held accountable because they are convinced that they are absolutely right in their stance. What such Docetism creates is the context to demonize and dehumanize their enemies. Either “they are fighting fundamentalists bent to have everyone burn” or “they are flaming liberals who stand for nothing.” Each of these are hyperbolic caricatures of positions. In various places I have noted how on first meeting people we have a tendency toward wanting to categorize for the purpose of knowing. This in itself is an arrogant act of minimizing the personhood which God created. As if any human being could be so easily defined. In our workplaces (and even churches) we want to label people either Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, male or female, straight or gay, rich or poor, etc. The key terms in those phrases are “either, or.” And the most significant marker is the desire to categorize. Each of these is the work of Liberal society or the Modern agenda. In such a culture we are obsessed with categories and bifurcations. Epistemologically we are driven to dichotomies because our understanding is driven by the evaluation of objectivity (as if that were something we could ever attain). From a more generally sociological perspective cultures such as this need the “either, or” phraseology in order to construct the illusion of truth upon which they are then able to form their authority (I’ll save examples for a later post).

Within the so-called Christian church I have witnessed and experienced numerous forms of authority, most often wielded in such ways as to damn rather than to save. I have seen it imposed upon people in ways that quench the Spirit of God keeping dearly loved children of God from exercising their Spiritual gifts. I have witnessed the fruit of such authority as people have been cast out to destruction. I have also born witness of a quiet authority expressed with gentle meekness in words of correction as a brother was held accountable for his actions. I have seen a congregation in turmoil go silent when a godly elder has stood and provided the much needed wisdom. And I have seen authority exercised with righteous anger when a child is intentionally wounded.

The only legitimate authority in the church (from the humble opinion of this post-liberal Anabaptist) finds its roots in the narrative of Jesus and the presence of spiritual discernment. God’s authority is most explicitly revealed in the redemptive life, death and resurrection of the incarnate Word. Those who legitimately carry such authority in the church are those few who have sojourned the path of faith with such integrity as to be reflective of the Christ narrative. We may ask what it looks like, but we need only to go so far as Jesus’ life and teachings. Unfortunately, I have known too few of these people. But the ones I have known have been instrumental in my spiritual formation. These folks (both women and men) bear the credibility that is earned by humble integrity. Even when they find themselves at odds with the church in which they were baptized, they have maintained their vows. They may reject the “either, or” decisions recognizing that God’s creation is far more complex and intricate than two parts can possibly represent, but they also recognize that they too are called to submit (this does not mean one should submit to abuse or some other form of evil. Scripture also teaches us to resist evil nonviolently). As difficult as it seems sometimes, submission is the exact posture by which Jesus lived and the attitude Paul instructed all the believers of Ephesus to practice (Eph. 5:21). It is the way of the cross and paradoxically it is the conduit for the credibility necessary for authority. It is the key ingredient of redemptive living and absolutely necessary for loving both God and others.

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