Each Monday (1/21-2/18) we are highlighting in turn the six “Responses to Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, ‘Covenant Freedom: Freedom for All or Free-for-all?’” published in the most recent issue of the Covenant Quarterly. We invite you to engage directly with the authors in the comments section below (comments policy).
From Klyne Snodgrass, “Response to Clifton-Soderstrom,” pp. 42-46.
A focus on freedom is one of the treasures of the Covenant Church, one that rightly attracts many people. Freedom in Christ from sin and for service is the focus of the sixth Covenant Affirmation. It is rooted in the other five affirmations and seeks unity rather than division. I value this freedom, but from my early years at North Park I have said with some regularity that the Covenant is very good at talking about freedom but does not do well talking about the limits of freedom. Freedom only exists within context and with responsibility.
With regard to faithful dissent, several questions and comments are in order. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s article analyzes Covenant freedom in relation to the centrality of the word, the necessity of new birth, and faithful dissent, all said to be essential to sustaining Christian freedom. As much as I want to guard dissent and do see it as necessary, it is not one of the Covenant Affirmations, as are the centrality of the word and the necessity of new birth. The article claims that a “diversity of viewpoints within the communion creates potential avenues for renewal” (p. 38). The New Testament focus is more on unity, including unity of thought. If one sought to justify dissent scripturally, it would not be easy….Positive statements about dissent you will not find. In fact, dissent is frequently disallowed. Paul did not allow dissent in Galatia or elsewhere, and even when stressing his own independence, he took pains to emphasize his unity with the traditions of the church. How do we guard the role of the prophetic voice while recognizing the frequency of false prophets?
Relying on the 1963 report Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom —a very good report—Clifton-Soderstrom distinguishes between human reason, which Scripture does address, and the inward work of the Spirit in our minds and hearts. What is the relation of human reason and the inward work of the Spirit in our minds? The article suggests a distinction between reading for truth claims through exegesis, original languages, and authorial intent and reading for spiritual sustenance and conversion, evaluated by how the good news has taken hold of and molded the life of the believer. I reject the dichotomy. There is an implicit exegesis in any interpretation or grasping of the text, and we do not do one kind of reading when studying and another when reading devotionally, although different concerns may be foregrounded. Even more important, Clifton-Soderstrom does not do justice to the commitment to Scripture in the 1963 report, for the paragraph immediately following the focus on the Spirit’s inward work sets boundaries for any dissent.
Another point requiring comment is that the topics Clifton-Soderstrom gives as examples of Covenant dissent are quite divergent and should not be lumped together: just war and pacifism; baptism; women in ministry; different views on eschatology, the charismatic movement, and inspiration; the affirmation of a restorative process for those who have committed crimes; and LBGTQ issues. Quite different interpretive processes are at play in these varied topics. For some, biblical texts stand in tension with other biblical texts, and for some, convincing explanations can be made for different views. While a biblical defense can be made for both sides of some of these issues, for others that is not the case.
With LBGTQ issues, however, everywhere the issue of same-sex relations is treated in the Bible, the
practice is rejected. There is no tension between texts, nor is there any question regarding whether the biblical writers rejected the practice of same-sex intercourse. Freedom to disagree about interpretation is not the same thing as freedom to disregard all plausible exegesis in favor of contemporary cultural values.
Inclusivity is an important theme, but what are the limits of inclusivity? Inclusivity is absolutely crucial because the gospel is for all people, but the gospel is distorted if inclusion affirms sinful behaviors. It is one thing to speak of inclusivity of other races, but quite another if one is thinking of ethical boundaries. Sexual practice is not the same as skin color. If the church is not going to be marked by ethical difference, why should anyone bother? If in the name of inclusivity we accept practices contrary to Scripture, we violate the Covenant’s stance on freedom we were trying to guard.
Read Snodgrass’ full response here.
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