“Mary, Mother May I?” Part 1 – The Hermeneutical Hurdle

A. Introduction

In this series I begin sharing a good portion of my research project completed two years ago for my Masters in New Testament from Johnson University. It focused primarily upon Mary, Joseph’s wife, the mother of Jesus.

These posts will expand further upon my original project, “Mary, Mother May I?: Finding Hope for Restoration Movement Women in Mary’s Priestly Sacrifice Presented in Luke.”

My work on Mary focused primarily upon two main issues: Who was Mary’s rightful head? Did Mary teach men?

I concluded Mary’s rightful head was none other than God (not her husband) and that Mary indeed taught men —and continues to teach men today—through her song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). I proposed that Luke presented Mary as a new type of priest—the first among many to follow in the new priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:4-5).

I believe this is an important study because many of my brothers and sisters in Christ — within the Restoration Movement churches and in other churches — are wrestling with these questions. My study of Mary sheds light upon these matters.

B. Restoration Movement Churches

I write from my place as a member of the Restoration Movement (RM) churches founded by Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone in the early 1800s. Today there are three main branches within the RM churches: Disciples of Christ (DC), Churches of Christ (CC) and the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (ICC) of which I am a member. 

Theirs was a plea to return to biblical principles found in the early church as recorded in Acts. Today, we are known to be people of the book, who believe the Bible is our only authoritative source. 

This is taken to mean that issues relating to the church, society, family, home and matters of science, politics, ethics, and morality can easily be resolved by studying the plain, sensible accounts found in the Bible.

Once these can be determined from careful Bible study, we simply implement the patterns found therein to every avenue of life. It sounds easy enough, but it is actually more complicated than this.

This way of interpreting the Bible, (the science of hermeneutics) is laid out succinctly and critiqued by John Mark Hicks in the independently published book, “Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible”.

Hicks advocates for a hermeneutical shift in how RM teachers teach and how preachers preach the Biblical text. I wholeheartedly agree.

C. The Autonomous Church and Autonomous Bible Reader

Ideally, RM churches are autonomous, independent, and are led by elders and deacons elected by the congregation. This autonomy makes it difficult to pin down whether a local church is conservative or progressive in its church governance. Do the members within those churches favor liberal or conservative views of the Bible or hold to liberal or conservative political views? How does a person determine if a local church is implementing the Biblical patterns correctly?

Generally speaking, the DC churches are considered progressive (allowing women to be pastors, elders, deacons, etc.), while CC and ICC churches range anywhere between mildly-conservative (on occasion a woman may teach men or be a deacon, but not be an elder) to ultra-conservative (all leadership and teaching roles are exclusively reserved for men). 

As generalizations go, this is not always the case. I’m aware of CC and ICC churches which hold conservative biblical views but are politically liberal, and DC churches which embrace progressive biblical views yet adhere to conservative political views. 

There is a baffling beauty to this madness – each individual is free to choose a church that suits their fancy and is encouraged to follow their own conscience. On the flip side, this alerts us to the ongoing lack of consensus regarding all sorts of social and Biblical issues.

Of concern for my study was sorting out how leadership and headship is to be or must be interpreted? How was it practically worked out in the early church? How should it be practiced now in the church and home?

But there is no consensus. That is troubling. Apparently —the patterns in the Bible are not as easy to retrieve—otherwise, we would have arrived at a consensus, right? Herein lies our potential problem.

D. Restoration Hermeneutics

This naturally raises questions regarding the RM hermeneutic (as Hicks points out). We’ve been taught that the bible speaks plainly, yet the differing views reveal it is not a successful hermeneutic. Thus, this raises misgivings about how and why we interpret the scriptures the way we do.  

The individual who relies upon RM hermeneutical principles to uncover the plain teaching in the Bible finds himself or herself bewildered when faced with the plethora of viewpoints—each claiming to have discovered the pattern in the Bible.

How does an average RM member navigate the myriad interpretations regarding leadership in the local church?

Is it fair to say—about those who arrive at differing interpretations of certain scriptural passages—that they are “simply not applying the rules [of interpreting scripture] correctly” (Gender Roles & the Bible: Creation, the Fall, and Redemption (p. 39)? If that is so, who is invested with the authority to determine what is or is not the legitimate interpretation? This is especially pertinent in a movement that makes room for an autonomous reader.

Resolutions to these questions – as any RM student of the Bible knows – must come straight from the Scripture alone. If it’s not written there — in plain English — it is often outright rejected.

E. How Should We Read the Bible?

This raises questions as to how do we read the Bible? Is the Old revealed in the New? Is the Old no longer needed?

Is the Bible one book with diverse authors and agendas? Or is the Bible one book with one divine author and one purpose from Genesis to Revelation?

Is the Bible a narrative? If so, is there an overarching story from beginning to end? How do we interpret a narrative?

Is it an ethics and morality manual? Many use it as such. If so, who determines how the ethics are to be legitimately interpreted in the church?

These are important questions and not easily solved.

History repeatedly shows how those claiming to be the authorized interpreters of the text wield that authority unjustly and to their favor.

James Chukwuma Okoye’s comments are apropos.

“[We] sometimes run the risk of conscripting God into a national agenda … texts have been lifted out of context and then manipulated by some nations and peoples in the cause of injustice, and even genocide against other peoples. All the more important, therefore, that a responsible hermeneutic be brought to bear on such texts.”

(Israel and the Nations: A Mission Theology of the Old Testament, pg. 2).

This spotlights a critical concern—something other than the authoritative voice of Scripture may be at work when we interpret the passages as we do.

Did Mary realize this long before Gabriel came to visit? Perhaps clues in her praise song indicate she may very well have.

I hope you will join me on this longer look at Mary—as she is portrayed by Luke—in order to gain insight into the woman she was 2000 years ago—in order to gain insight into who we are called to be today.

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