Kim Davis and the Case for Clergy Education

In listening to Kim Davis defend her stance against same-sex marriages, I hear familiar arguments and punch lines. Ms. Davis vaguely cites scripture and claims God as her authority. She uses fundamentalist lingo, like telling a gay couple they would be answering to God at judgement. How did she learn to speak and reason like that? She has her own story of waywardness and salvation. But she uses that story as the basis to judge the rightness of another couple. It would seem more logical for her history of family strife to make her more forgiving of others trying to create families. I’m trying to wrap my head around her thinking.

150902-kim-davis-kentucky-clerk-728p_431afe6a8af0407f607e9f0b111e2ba9.nbcnews-fp-1200-800It’s clear to me that Ms. Davis’ thinking is not simply of her own invention. She is applying learned theology to her resistance to same-sex marriage. She learned this theology from her own local church, her clergy and church teachers and her culture. And yet, there are many in her same culture, attending different churches of differing theologies within Christianity who have come to opposite perspectives. They can’t both be right. While I clearly disagree with her stance, I am curious as to how she got to her conclusions. Who taught her this way?

The Bible cannot be dis-contextualized and any of its teachings applied to any matter at any time. Even seemingly straight forward verses require care and insight for proper interpretation. While I believe that the Bible is the primary story of the primary means of salvation, I recognize that it does not stand in a vacuum. The story is intimately wrapped up in the context of the times in which that story is told. The content of the salvation story is God descending to us in the person of Jesus to reconcile all of creation. The context is the cultural and historical wrappings that place the story of salvation in real time and real history. Context means the place of ancient Palestine. It means the time of Roman occupation after Babylonian Exile after kingdom-hood after Exodus after Abram settled in Beersheba after Adam and Eve left Eden and procreated. Context means the cultural wrappings of patriarchy, the Judean community splintered into varying philosophies and resistance movements, the legal framework surrounding Israel’s understanding of God, sin and salvation, the history of the prophets and the God-ordained distrust of outsiders.

I currently live 2000 years after that contextual wrapping. In fact that cultural wrapping has been deconstructed multiple times since then. I also live almost 7,000 miles away. There is a lot of world between there and here. It matters.

How can one teach the authentic content of the gospel? How easy would it be to corrupt the content by misunderstanding the context? How can one faithfully translate the content of the gospel into another cultural idiom? It’s not easy. It requires time, skill, training and insight. It requires oodles of humility and equal amounts of curiosity. It requires one to take a good look at their own cultural idiom and know it well so as to not infuse the authentic gospel with one’s own cultural biases. A corrupted gospel is quite dangerous. It invariably takes a gospel for all and adds favoritism to it. Do that enough in a global religion like Christianity and you wind up with a noisy church that fights a lot…with itself as well as with those considered outsiders. The cultural wrappings of scripture are extensive and multifaceted.

This is why we need extensive clergy education. Educated clergy have gone into the depths of the cultural wrappings of scripture. Educated clergy have done extensive training exploring their own cultural wrappings and biases. These two elements combined allows one to get beyond the cultural wrappings and into the authentic gospel. As we get further and further away from first century Palestine, we need smarter and more informed clergy to help the followers of Jesus navigate the cultural distance and discover the authentic gospel. In the end, this is what we want, isn’t it: an enlivened church taking the authentic gospel into the future.

I suspect that Ms. Davis has not been led to the authentic gospel, but instead a gospel corrupted by cultural biases. Wouldn’t an authentic gospel forbid her from mistaking a culture war for true martyrdom? An informed faith would understand that our knowledge of sexuality has increased dramatically and God will not die if our understanding of sexuality changes.

I wonder if Ms. Davis’ spiritual leaders have read the Bible’s wisdom literature lately. Wisdom, in this sense, is knowing what is appropriate and what is not. Wisdom means the ability to apply scripture in a manner that is true to the larger, authentic gospel. Can Ms. Davis’ spiritual leaders explain why those tricky verses about homosexuality in the Bible are applicable but those ones about divorce are not?

We need clergy that are not only educated in the intricacies of scripture, but who are trained in critical thinking and ethics. Personally, having a strong philosophy element to my undergraduate degree has been the cornerstone of my development as a theologian. Philosophy taught me how to question, investigate and integrate new information. Philosophy taught me how to identify that which is foundational. When I entered seminary, I had the critical thinking background which allowed me to tackle more difficult ethical dilemmas. That has made a tremendous difference.

I want very desperately to allow Ms. Davis’ faith tradition to have its standards and methods. I do not by any means believe that Methodism has its standards and methods perfected. But I suspect that Ms. Davis’ spiritual leaders have promoted an undisciplined, uncritical faith that doesn’t know how to think through the cultural shifts we are all experiencing. As Methodism continues along the trend of appointing less trained clergy, we must be wary of unleashing an uncritical, culturally biased gospel on a world that already views us as suspect and irrelevant. It would not be too far fetched to learn that Methodism has produced many Christians like Ms. Davis: lacking in humility and willfully harming people in the name of our God.

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