In “Healthy disbelief,” an opinion article published by Baptist News Global in August 2015, Baptist theologian Molly T. Marshall declared that “Disbelieving false gods is a faithful practice.” Marshall has the battle scars proving her authoritative right to speak on the subject, having been forced from her teaching position at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994 because of her gender. She has every reason to disbelieve the false god whose worshippers were instrumental in her professorial demise at that seminary.
Ironically, it was only three years before her departure that I found myself anxiety-ridden and physically shaking at the prospect of not meeting the submission deadline for my Ph.D. dissertation at Southern Seminary. A professor was holding my dissertation chapters without grading and returning them, with the result that I was unable to correct and resubmit them.
“The very exercise of choosing passages of scripture to support our positions is a subjective enterprise which flows from a position we already hold.”
I thought of the one person who might be able to help me: Dr. Molly Marshall. I called her and pleaded for her to exercise some influence on the professor in question. Soon, I began to receive my graded chapters. I have never forgotten her act of pastoral response and have always found it ironic that the one professor who behaved as a pastor toward me was asked to leave by a group of people who did not believe women could be pastors. Even though Marshall’s theological perspectives and mine differed – and still do in significant ways – she has always been a friend and encourager to me.
This commentary is not written to refute Marshall, but rather to raise questions about the overall theology which she and others seem to espouse, specifically as it relates to our thinking about the God in whom we believe. How are we to identify “false gods?” And who is the final arbiter concerning what concept of God is false and what is true? The answers to these questions, of course, are arrived at subjectively, no matter how many verses of scripture we might amass to bolster our particular cases or causes. The very exercise of choosing passages of scripture to support our positions is a subjective enterprise which flows from a position we already hold.
However subjective, it is still necessary for Christians to base our views about God upon a scriptural foundation. But in so doing, we must recognize that the Bible presents us with a variety of views about God which seem contradictory to one another. Can the Old Testament God of violence be reconciled with the New Testament God of love? Even though we might all agree that in Christ we find the highest revelation of God, which aspect of Christ’s ministry is to receive preeminence? His teachings and life? His cross? What view of the cross?
On what basis do we make our decisions? Is it not true that the view of God we choose is based upon our own conception of what God should be like? In so doing, are we in danger of creating God after our own image?
“We need to humbly respect those with opposing views, giving consideration to the fact that these persons might have a more biblical view of God than do we.”
Currently trending in popular theological discussions is the assertion of God’s inclusive nature. Specifically, this understanding of God is used to justify the church’s inclusion of gay persons into the full life of the church. Proponents argue that this conception of God’s inclusivity derives from the scripture. The argument is that we must take the highest and most profound views of God found in scripture and make that determinative for all biblical interpretation.
And who is it that chooses these particular verses that present this particular view of God? Who is to say what verses and themes of the Bible must be used to interpret all others? Could not another person, equally sincere, begin with other verses, themes and concepts that derive from scripture and conclude that God is not affirming of sexual relationships between same sex persons?
What if the central, underlying theme of the Bible is not simply the inclusiveness of God, but inclusiveness emanating from the grace of God – grace which can only be properly understood in view of human sin? In this view, might the cross be seen as the central focus of scripture, and not a cross simply of love being demonstrated, but of love reconciling sinful humankind to a holy and loving God? In this view, gay sex might very well be seen as a sin contrary to holy God’s divine purpose for human wholeness, a sin, which adhered to, would preclude that person’s inclusion into God’s redeemed and confessing congregation of those who have found God’s grace, like Paul, to be sufficient in relation to a “thorn” which God might not have removed.
My conclusion is this: for all sides in these arguments, God is not simply who we want God to be. We need to humbly respect those with opposing views, giving consideration to the fact that these persons might have a more biblical view of God than do we. Who is serving a false God? To be certain here is to sin: ‘“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).