The first half of this post’s title highlights a loaded topic in modern American churches. It likewise presents an important opportunity to challenge / question practices and traditions that we might have mechanically accepted for many years. Just to be clear, yes, I am saying that challenging / questioning our long-held practices and traditions is not necessarily a bad thing! Nevertheless, the good that can be found in challenging or questioning is not an automatic call to abandon those long-held practices and traditions. Only through the process of seeking better to understand God’s word, Church History, and each other can this process of “challenging” be fruitful.
To illustrate, imagine you just bought a new parcel of land. In the midst of the property is an old fence, which to you seems an obsolete obstruction. It is your property, so you have the liberty to do as you wish with the fence. Should you tear it down? Maybe… Maybe not…
You could remove the fence immediately, but first, it would be wise to ask, “Why is this fence here?” Was the fence built for a temporary purpose, such as holding the previous owner’s livestock? If so (and if you do not need it for the same purpose), the fence can be removed without negative consequence. But what if the fence was built for an enduring purpose, such as protecting livestock and people from falling into a mineshaft or sinkhole? If so, rather than tearing down the fence, it would be wise to rebuild or repair the fence to protect your family and others. Your initial desire to remove the fence is not necessarily good nor bad, but actually doing so, without first understanding the fence’s purpose, could be quite harmful. You simply cannot know without learning and understanding the fence’s purpose.
This same principle applies to challenging and questioning theological “fences,” long-held practices and traditions. It does not apply to core doctrines (e.g., Scripture’s clear commands, prohibitions, statements, etc.) because they were given by God and therefore are not subject to the judgments of men.
As a quick aside, I dedicated the first parts of our Leadership Teaching Series to establishing the theological “fences” of Reformed & Presbyterian theology. Those “fences” have not been universally accepted and practiced but do represent the original intent of our denominational standards the majority view throughout Reformed & Presbyterian history.
Too often we act on our initial assumptions, impressions, and presuppositions – “I believe/feel/think [this practice or tradition] is right/wrong, good/bad, etc.” – challenging or questioning the perceived problem without first taking time to understand a particular “fence’s” intended purpose. Furthermore, we fail to consider our personal biases: what our parents taught us, what we learned in school, the influence of surrounding culture, previous painful experiences in churches, and so on. Whatever the case might be, our initial reactions to those things we do not like (or perhaps do like) deserve additional scrutiny. We must continually re-examine personal assumptions, impressions, and presuppositions in light of God’s word.
Even then, we must hold our beliefs/feelings/thoughts humbly, realizing we are never without sin and error (in this life). God’s word is indeed without error, but our interpretations are not. One of the greatest “fences” that protects us from theological error is the collective, ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s Church. In other words, theological tradition, the teachings and writings of past saints (both men and women!), worship practices, and Church History as a whole, teach us that countless brothers and sisters in Christ set up theological “fences” for particular reasons at the leading of the Holy Spirit, based upon God’s word. We would be foolish indeed to think that our modern minds are automatically superior to the saints of yesteryear.
For example, on many matters I disagree with the 13th century Roman Catholic Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. However, my reasons for doing so should be more thoughtful than, “He’s outdated, medieval, and just plain wrong!” If all the faithful labors of Aquinas were (presumably) done at the prompting and by the power of the same Holy Spirit who indwells me, I should not thoughtlessly demolish Aquinas’s “fences.” Such action on my part would be presumptuous disregard for the Holy Spirit’s work as well, would it not? Whether Aquinas or Augustine, Clement or Calvin or Keller, let us not rashly disregard the work of God’s Spirit in those who came before us and even those with whom we might disagree.
Fences are a helpful illustration in another sense. Fences are only as strong as their weakest links and only as effective as their continuity. What happens to a fence with several fallen posts? Most sides might remain stable, but the fallen posts typically cause adjacent areas to sag or collapse, thus making the fence a less effective (or ineffective) barrier. Similarly, holes in a fence or open gates undermine the overall purpose of the fence, which is to be a continuous, interlocking barrier for the purpose of preventing unauthorized entry or exit.
In the same way, theological systems are constructed as cohesive, continuous, interlocking arrangements of biblical truths. The doctrines of a particular theological system build upon and harmonize with one another to form a doctrinal “fence” that should, as closely as possible, reflect God’s revealed will in his word. Over the centuries, theologians have examined the metaphorical “fences” of systematic theologies, testing for weaknesses and looking for holes. Why? Because the system (or “fence”) is only as strong as its weakest link and cannot serve its purpose if it has gaping holes (or errors).
In applying this principle to ourselves, both individually and as a congregation, this means we must not be too quick to tear down theological “fence posts” (e.g., particular doctrines) in a system, no matter how unimportant or outdated they might seem. Whether considering the roles of women, the structure and style of worship, racial reconciliation, social justice, or any other hot-button issue of our time, we must realize that willy-nilly alteration or removal of one theological “fence post” can have far-reaching consequences.
We must also avoid joining together different types of fences. Have you ever seen a white picket fence joined to a chain link fence? Perhaps you have seen the two beside each other, close together, but they were not joined together as a cohesive, continuous whole. Gaps, though small, exist between the two types of fences. The two fences might form a semi-effective barrier, yet it is clear the two fences are different in substance and structure, awkwardly pieced together and poorly built.
Merging or syncretizing elements from different theological “fences” (i.e., systems) produces the same result. The doctrines of Pentecostalism cannot simply be incorporated into Reformed theology nor can Baptist doctrines be combined with Roman Catholic dogma. The syncretized theological “fence” might work well enough for a while, but the gaps and incompatibility portray the shoddy workmanship of the fence and will ultimately fail.
In other words, a belief system must be a coherent worldview, carefully and thoughtfully assembled (and sometimes disassembled and/or reassembled) as a person grows and matures by God’s word and Spirit. It should never be a mere grab-bag of doctrinal preferences. In building anything as Christians, whether an actual fence or a theological “fence,” all things are to be done well for the glory of God. So let us not be shoddy workman in crafting our theological “fences.”
And so, to come full circle, how does this relate to practices and traditions regarding women in ministry? My desire is that all of us – humbly, according to God’s word, and consciously dependent upon the Holy Spirit – will challenge why we believe what we believe but not be too quick to disregard or to tear down our denominational “fences” – its theology, practices, and traditions. Let us first seek to understand them better. If we do so, I am altogether confident God will bless, mature, and strengthen us as a corporate body.
So may we be careful, humble, thoughtful, and diligent craftsmen as we labor in building his kingdom!