Practical theology vs. “biblical” theology

James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,” (earlier referenced here and here), addresses the concept of “practical theology,” a branch of academic theology that looks at the real-life effects of doctrine in various contexts.  Poling argues that it’s not enough for theologians and pastors to determine whether a teaching is “right” or “wrong” in the abstract.  They must also look at how those teachings shape communities, families, and individuals, and evaluate whether a doctrine is right or wrong based on its practical implications and applications.

In a way this is a restatement of the idea that moral and ethical evaluation of beliefs and behavior needs to be focused on their effects and implications, rather than on the intentions behind them.  It’s not enough to say that a doctrine is “biblical” or “doctrinally sound” if it leads to harmful consequences for people and communities who try to live by it:

The ways that Christian doctrines and practices affect the everyday lives of ordinary people need to be considered alongside questions of ‘truth’ that is, whether the doctrines and practices conform to the revelation of God in Scripture, history, and rational thought.

Clarice Martin, black womanist New Testament scholar, describes the difference between hermeneutics of truth and hermeneutics of effects:  “‘Hermeneutics’ is not simply a cognitive process wherein one seeks to determine the ‘correct meaning’ of a passage or text.  Neither are questions of penultimate truth and universality solely determinative of meaning.  Also of essential importance in the interpretive task are such matters as the nature of the interpreter’s goals, the effects of a given interpretation on a community of people who have an interest in the text being interpreted, and questions of cultural value, social relevance, and ethics.  What is at stake in hermeneutics is not only the ‘truth’ of one’s interpretation, but also the effects interpretation and interpretive strategies have on the ways in which human beings shape their goals and their actions.”

This form of hermeneutics involves a rhythm or dynamic interplay between biblical texts from the canon and the lived faith and experience of communities of faith.  An interpreter cannot understand Jesus by studying the Bible in isolation, but must be immersed in a community of faith that practices the faith today.

. . . .We need to know how religion functions at the level of the conscious and unconscious formation of perceptions and behaviors; that is, how the symbols, ideas, and rituals about God oppress or liberate the human spirit using the criteria of theology itself.  If the ideas and practices of religious communities are damaging individual believers and their families according to Christian norms, then we have a responsibility to bring these realities to the attention of religious leaders for reexamination. For example, if certain forms of theology increase the suffering of woman and children by refusing to address issues of rape and sexual violence, then we must raise prophetic voices to protest such theologies. – Poling, “The Cross and Male Violence,” 475-6, emphasis mine.

This is both an eminently sensible approach to Christian theology and completely counter to how I was raised to understand “true” Christianity, which is how most traditionalist branches of Christianity approach issues of doctrine.   Doctrine is either right and must be followed at all costs, or wrong, and to be avoided no matter how sensible or compassionate it seems.  No in-betweens.  Right is right and wrong is wrong, and if that makes people feel awful or makes their lives more difficult, that’s just tough luck.  Following Jesus isn’t easy and sometimes involves enduring suffering, because of the effects of sin.  And so on.

I often wondered why this had to be.  If God really loved everyone just as we are – and created us to be just as we are, and if “he” was forgiving and slow to anger and all of that stuff we were taught, why there were all these rules that seemed so difficult for many people to follow, without any comprehensible reason behind it?  Why did following them seem to cause such needless pain and damage in so many lives?  My pastors always denied that persistent problems like domestic violence and abuse had anything to do with the doctrines related to marriage and family life.  If husbands abused their wives and used the bible or complementarianism to justify it, it was because their understanding of the doctrine was sinful, not because the doctrine itself was sinful.

I began to see after a while that “biblical” Christianity seemed to define living a “good” life as following arbitrary rules that seemed unconnected to present-day realities and weren’t necessarily good in their effects on people.  I began to see that the problems I observed with increasingly clarity all around me weren’t coincidental or random.  They were natural, regular, even predictable effects of the doctrines I was taught as “truth.”

Somaticstrength’s recent post on evangelical understandings of forgiveness and how they relate to recovery from incest is a heartbreaking example of this.  Survivors of abuse in fundamentalist or evangelical families and churches often have to deal with widespread enabling and excusing of their abuse, complete lack of support, and repeated attempts to dictate the terms of their recovery – for example, demanding that they must forgive their abusers both in order to be good Christians, and to “heal” from their abuse.  As I commented on her post, this culture of abuse (both enabling abuse and treating survivors in an abusive manner) is a direct product of evangelical teachings on sin and forgiveness:

Demanding that someone’s recovery from abuse look a certain way is completely odious. Unfortunately it’s also completely in-line with the version of Christianity we were raised with; a lot of the teachings contribute to these kind of responses to survivors, and make them seem legitimate and even righteous.

Like the teaching that by far the worst thing we could ever do is sin against God, and that every single little sin we commit is enough to put Jesus on the Cross. And if God could forgive us for making “him” have to kill his son, and no sin against us, no matter how evil, could ever be as bad as our sin against God, then we have no excuse to not forgive any sin against us.

It occurs to me now that one of the many problems with this argument (you know, besides it being totally evil in the way it completely dismisses the gravity of true evil and cruelty perpetrated by humans) is that no human is God, so why should we be expected to be capable of divine levels of forgiveness?

Then there’s the fact that it makes being unforgiving into a worse sin than being abusive. And it makes a virtue and an obligation out of giving forgiveness cheaply, and even for free – forgiving people who, like it seems with your brother, have never asked for your forgiveness and don’t believe they need it and don’t see anything wrong with what they’ve done. Requiring people to forgive someone who is unrepentant is evil, IMO.

And the corollary of this is the teaching that it’s impossible for there to be a situation between two people where only one person is sinning or is in the wrong, because we’re all sinners. At least, I was taught that – there was no such thing as one person being 100% wrong. The other person could be 99% wrong, but you still had your 1% of wrongness, and that’s what you were supposed to focus on – that and the times where you were 99% in the wrong against that person – not on their sin. It kind of boggles my mind now to think that this was taught to children – I mean, talk about a recipe for enabling and excusing abuse. So disgusting.


13 Comments on “Practical theology vs. “biblical” theology”

  1. presentlyhuman says:

    This played a huge role into why I started my blog. It was just after John Piper’s stuff about women in abusive marriages and I had just had it with the way that abuse is treated like this theory to discuss doctrine over, all the while real people are being affected. Isn’t it nice for them that they can sit around and debate the Biblical-ness of everything because their experiences mean that they have not and may never be in the situations that they feel they can speak about. I’m the end result of what happens when you try to take all those nice theories and actually apply them to people.

    I’ve always thought it strange that God looks at the heart, and can see beyond what others can, and yet he remains somehow completely black and white in everything.

    • Grace says:

      Yes, it’s part of why I started my blog, too. It really sickens me to see how male pastors and theologians literally play God with people’s lives and then pretend as though the damage caused has nothing to do with them.

      I’ve always thought it strange that God looks at the heart, and can see beyond what others can, and yet he remains somehow completely black and white in everything.

      Excellent point.

  2. Mark says:

    This is a very interesting and relevant topic, and I wish it was part of the every-day reflection of all religious institutions. Sadly, as we all know and as your post indicates, Grace, is not. And it left me wonder how much is it possible to ask institutions that work on the basis of exclusion, correction, and instruction can effectively incorporate a vision that brings about considerations about the legitimacy of their core working principles. I certainly have seen the Catholic Church repeat the argument you mentioned, Grace: the doctrine is not wrong, though the specifically-appointed theologians of the church can correct it’s interpretation (a process that by no means signify the kind of consideration that practical theology proposes). If the way the doctrine is practiced results in something “sinful”, or in some form of wrong-doing, that is a problem with the way specific people/groups interpret it, and they must be corrected (and coerced) by the theologians in charge, so they can follow the law of the Church successfully (or, of course, be declare as heretics).

    • Grace says:

      Imagine how different the church would be – how much of a positive impact the church could have – if the practical impact of theology were a primary consideration. If only. The sad reality is that people who try to apply a hermeneutic of effects to the Bible are dismissed by most of the church as not being holy enough or not having enough faith . . . because we are expected to maintain an unthinking, unquestioning faith in traditional definitions of Christianity no matter how much havoc and harm they wreak all over the world.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ajackson. ajackson said: RT @NoQuivering: Are Women Human? Practical theology vs. “biblical” theology: James Poling’s “The Cross and Mal… … […]

  4. acme says:

    Bleah! this one is way too close to home.

    In my SGM days, i got slammed repeatedly for wanting “practical” solutions rather than sucking it up and sticking with the “biblical” ones. Needing a mentally ill spouse to see a psychiatrist was practical, not biblical. Needing same abusive spouse to stay out of the family home was practical, not biblical.

    I seriously struggle these days understanding how anyone can justify “complementarian” theology and still be a Christian–and that stupid “deciding vote” argument, especially with the idea that “women tend to manipulate men” as part of our sinful nature.

    Here was a reader comment at that particularly rankled:

    ““Are you sugggesting because of my male parts I am more anointed than my wife? I am given some spiritual insight she cannot have? The Holy Spirit does not dwell in her the same way as me?”
    Well, sort of, yes. Not more anointed, just different. Diffrrent callings, different roles.
    Masculinity and femininity are not just physical biological differences. The God who gave us living souls has made men and women very different in their souls, down to the depths of their being. You might say the physical reflects a spiritual reality. The man strongly impacts and penetrates physically, and also does so with his soul in this world as he leads and provides and protects.
    The woman gets her physical fulfillment as she receives the man’s strong impact- she is receptive, inviting, warmly welcoming. That reflects the nurturing stereotype of a feminine woman.
    You will find that as men serve and give to those around them they become more of what we consider traditionally masculine- more of a leader, stronger, more protective. As a woman gives and serves and sacrifices she becomes more of what we consider feminine. A typical wimpy guy is self centered,a typical hard demanding woman is self centered.
    Both sexes can be tender and kind and patient and merciful, or wise and just and fearless. But gender is reflected in it. Both have the fullness of the holy spirit and all the treasures of wisdom hidden in Christ….but both do not have the same calling.
    Just wait. One of these days when the decision has to be made, and you just can’t agree, and you know you are placating her so she won’t get all upset, you’ll realize you have to do the guy thing and lead, even it it means conflict. Hopefully you will have prayed together and sought counsel, but the decision just isn’t clear cut, and somebody has to be the man of the house and make the hard choice. That’s you Matt.
    I could draw some analogies with elders leading, but you have a bible same as me. If you can’t read it and see elders and deacons and pastors and all the rest, and figure out that all callings are not the same, that’s OK, one of these days you’ll understand. Time has a way of making us wiser.”

    • Faith says:

      Translation from from sanctified BS into English: Once you start beating your wife down (verbally, spiritually, or physically) you’ll become more confident about doing so and you’ll get better at it. And women love to be told what to do anyway.

    • Grace says:

      Yes, your experience at CLC was one of the situations I was thinking of while writing this post :/

      It’s sad and to my mind totally un-Christlike that in SGM being “principled” and having a “biblical worldview” is considered to be basically incompatible with trying to ease needless pain and suffering. By their standards, holiness means willfully ignoring facts and reality. Jesus’ standards were that his followers would be known by their love and by their fruit . . . so the idea that we have to adhere to abstract principles no matter how much real-life damage they cause seems to me to be totally counter to Jesus’ message.

      It’s scary to think of how many people have been and are being hurt because of SGM’s disdain for mental health professionals and insistence on treating real illnesses as purely spiritual conditions. “Biblical” theology doesn’t treat any illness, mental or physical. It doesn’t protect anyone from an abuser.

      I saw that comment at SGM Survivors. It’s a perfect example of why I SGMS is not a safe space for a lot of people recovering from time in SGM, especially people who have been hurt by their teachings on gender roles. That’s part of why I started this blog – I was sick and tired of these incredibly exclusionary, conservative, homophobic and transphobic sites being the only spaces where ex-SGM folk could gather and heal. I appreciate the work Survivors and Refuge have done in the past couple years to expose some of the problems in SGM, but there needs to be a space where people who are not Christian, or who are liberal Christians, or politically/ideologically liberal or even moderate can share their experiences without being attacked or marginalized.

  5. Mark says:

    Wow! What a “quiet”, “polite” and “harmonic” way to explain, justify, and foment violence and abuse, and to downgrade women to the level of sub-human.

    • Grace says:

      And in this case it’s a woman insisting that it’s necessary for her and other women to accept sub-human status for the world to run smoothly. This is one of the most evil effects of “biblical” theology – people are brainwashed into believing they are naturally inferior and that this is somehow a good, divinely ordained status.

  6. acme says:

    I think some Survivors and Refuge folks, including the hosts, are still really focused on having the “right” theology, so as to prove their worthiness to challenge SGM.

    Here’s part of my letter to CJ sent through SGMRefuge

    “The last Sunday I attended CLC was in October 2007. In the 21 years between my first and last Sundays at CLC, I tasted much that is good and wonderful, because God is so good, so faithful, and so kind. In that time, I have also tasted much that is bitter and even poisonous
    —these include
    – the fearful avoidance of those who may not be CLC-Christians or may not be godly enough even if they’re in CLC, of our neighbors, of our communities (including the public schools)—and the subsequent pressure to fit in.
    – the difficulties recognizing our very creatureliness
    o that the brain is an organ too, that malfunctions and may need medications to help regulate its functions,
    o that behavior may be affected in ways that are not governed by prayer, preaching, and self-control
    o that emotions, instincts, personalities, and more are God-given – and not suspect
    o that separation and divorce are sometimes sad necessities

    Counseling sessions tended to focus on Adam preaching the gospel, reminding us again that the Lord has already taken care of our biggest problem. I asked from time to time if perhaps someone with a broken leg, for instance, might need the gospel AND a cast, but was assured that really what was going on was a sin issue. Again I tread the tightrope of speaking the best of my husband and telling the truth about what was happening at home. I found that if I wasn’t specific enough, Adam told us that every man struggled with that. If I was specific and clear enough, Adam told me not to focus on G’s sin. G couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be working on—or would blame us for his anger. He would nod in the meeting and then explain how this really didn’t apply to him or to the situation at home.

    The first Sunday G couldn’t take communion—I wept, knowing how much he loves the Lord and the church. I hoped this would help him to see the gravity of the situation. By October 2007, after two years of separation without seeing change and after being warned that, if I were to pursue a divorce, then I too would be church-disciplined, I asked both Adam and Jim to release me to visit other churches. I visited a number of fine churches in our county—and have come to find a new church home at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg. My studies and experiences in the Lutheran Church and in CLC have lead me to a place where my understanding of theology, polity, and practice align better with the Anglican communion. I tendered my resignation from CLC last summer.

    On my 20th wedding anniversary this March, I woke feeling lead to ask CLC to restore G to full fellowship. I have come to see that he is in many ways handicapped like Reid Jones—although clearly not to the same extent and in ways that are neither visible nor readily apparent in casual conversation. There is something fundamentally wrong with his brain that is not sin so much as dysfunction that renders him unable to operate as a husband and father, as we understand those roles—and so he cannot live here because he becomes dangerously abusive, put in a role he cannot handle. He’s still attending CLC—two years after being excommunicated. . . . . He’s reverted to his single state—functioning more like an uncle and brother.”

    • Grace says:

      I hadn’t thought about it, but I think you’re right. Which is the same mindset as SGM, really – being right trumps everything else.

      I don’t know if you saw this SexGenderBody interview with Vyckie Garrison. I thought the part where she talks about Acquired Situational Narcissism was really interesting and insightful:

      Though at first glance the hierarchical family structure with husband as head and wife as submissive helper may appear to be an inviting set-up for the men ~ the day to day reality, and the long-term effect of being indiscriminately catered to ~ the perpetual indulgence of power and control ~ turns out to be not such a sweet deal for Daddy after all.

      I was intrigued recently to read about “Acquired Situational Narcissism” (ASN) ~ a personality disorder which develops in late adolescence or adulthood ~ brought on by wealth, fame and the other trappings of “celebrity.”

      I was especially interested to read this:

      ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society: fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.

      Naturally, I began making connections ~ because what is patriarchy if not the absolute enshrinement of the supreme importance of males?

      I’ve long thought that groups like SGM attract narcissistic people and narcissistic men especially, and have suspected that they exacerbate narcissistic tendencies in people who wouldn’t otherwise be full blown narcissists, so it’s interesting to see that acquired narcissism is a recognized psychological phenomenon . . .

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