How confident can anyone be that the gospel and doctrines they proclaim are the right ones? How certain can anyone be that the rituals of their worship tradition are the right ones? To what authority can one look for answers of certainty?
As an example, a few decades ago, the Episcopal Church was embroiled in bitter debate over the ordination of homosexuals. Openly gay candidates for ordination were proxies for resolving the more fundamental question about whether any form of non-standard heterosexuality was acceptable in the body of Christ. Was being gay a sin, or was it one way of being made in the image of God? Those of us who came down on the side of being made in the image of God were accused of being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4)
They’re not bad questions. I’ve used them myself to demand whether my interlocutors aren’t the ones being tossed to and fro, misled by the trickery of received social practices at odds with following Jesus, who was so often at odds with the received social practices of his day. So how are we to tell which side we’re on?
The passage from the Letter to the Ephesians cited above is attributed to St. Paul, and sometimes we have to be reminded that Paul was not Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. For lack of more adequate words, we call him the Son of God. Paul was a late vocation apostle doing his best to guide Greek speaking gentiles beginning their new lives as Christians. He was a native of Tarsus in modern day Turkey, and never knew Jesus in person. As divinely ordained as he was, he was not Jesus. As divinely inspired as his writings may have been, they are not the equal of what Jesus is recorded to have taught. The difference is important because it is the key to understanding how to tell when one is being “tossed to and fro…”
On what did Jesus say hung everything else in scripture? Loving God, self and neighbor. That was it. We need to measure the doctrine we proclaim by how well it displays God’s love for all that God made, as in “…God so loved the world…” We have to measure it by how well it expresses love for others as Jesus expressed love for others in word and deed. We have to measure it by how well it expresses our selves as beloved of God. These standards by which the doctrine we proclaim is measured have not changed in over two thousand years; moreover, they come directly from God so there shouldn’t be much debate about their authority. But our ability to apply them is always changing. That’s because God’s standards are always in tension with what is socially and politically acceptable in the times and cultures we live in. Peter Gomes, in “The Good Book,” said something like, the words of scripture don’t change, our ability to understand them does. The social rules and expectations with which we grew up are deeply rooted. It’s hard to imagine they don’t define what is, and always has been, right and good. To follow Jesus is to courageously, and sometimes rebelliously, dare to weigh them against the divine commandments of love.
With that in mind, as a progressive minded Episcopalian, I’m confident in the doctrine I proclaim, knowing it’s incomplete and the divinity of its inspiration is highly questionable, as long as it’s measured daily by Jesus’ standards of love. At the same time, I’m comfortable knowing that others have different ways of expressing doctrine they believe is upheld by the same standards. And I will remain highly skeptical of doctrine for which there is little evidence that it is upheld by the standards of love.