Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Everyone’s Experienced….Just, not Everybody Knows it

Written by: on April 5, 2018

[Note: This post was written with very spotty – and much slower than advertised – cruise ship internet, so please excuse errors and the lack of usual visual elements…. I get it, I am definitely not complaining, but it did take 10 minutes just to get the cursor to start typing!]

This week our class read God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction by Adrian Thatcher which is nothing short of essential reading for anyone that wants to think seriously and theologically about, well, God, sex and gender and how those things intersect.  This is due partially to the breadth of material Thatcher covers, but it is at least equally due to the excellent layout of the material Thatcher introduces.

This may seem like a minor point, but I really believe that it is anything but.  This is, obviously, a hotly contested area of study and discussion not just in the church, but in our broader culture and society as well.  The issue of sexuality, God and theology is one that I have studied extensively in a variety of settings from seminary, to youth groups and church bible studies to much less formal conversations between friends inside and outside of the church.

Much of the material I have read in this area is devoid of theological depth, clearly writing with a predetermined conclusion in mind or just difficult to digest due to poor or overly dense writing.  Thatcher’s construction, with short easily digestible tidbits followed up with ‘activities’ that usually take the form of  a question and a comment that follows made the material more accessible and significantly easier to engage with.

Having said all of that, I feel like I could have gone in a variety of different ways for this post.  But one section, one of Thatcher’s ‘comments’ stood out particularly to me, under the heading 3.3 Using Sources Well

The basic problem is that the churches place considerable faith in the power of these sources to control their teaching about sex.  But it isn’t clear that these sources do control their teaching.  For example, Protestant churches appear to have little trouble with divorce and further marriage.  How do they square that with Scripture and Tradition?
Or again, it is important that any development in the churches’ teaching about anything should be shown to be consistent with Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  But, notoriously, groups of Christians have been adept at proclaiming heresy and hatred when they have advocated doctrines and ethical teachings, believing them to be fully consistent with Scripture and Tradition.  (Thatcher, 49-50)

Thatcher’s point here is one that reminds me of something my mother once told me as I was trying to work through the a severe disappointment from someone that I loved:  When someone you love consistently fails to meet your expectations you have only two choices: you can change your love or change your expectations.  For me this gets right to the question of ‘experience’ that Thatcher raises – whether or not to consider personal experience in this discussion (Thatcher says, yes) – and my own personal experiences with this issue.

The first thing I will note, from my experience, is in terms of those people whom I know personally that have changed their view on any issues around sex and theology (especially around LGBTQ issues and/or questions) it has been almost exclusively as the direct result of experience.  To be clear, I am not saying experience alone – but for many that have changed views on this topic, their personal experiences began to challenge their previous views and to illumine, shape and inform their current ones.

Thatcher’s point here about divorce is an obvious and critical one – this is not some new phenomenon.  Not only is this something that has been going on throughout all of history, it is something most – if not all – of us do.  And, while there are ‘dangers’, I don’t think one can have a fully realized theology that isn’t informed and tested by one’s own experience.

Whenever someone comes to me with an issue or complaint about something – or especially – someone in the church, one of the things I will often say is something to the effect of: the problem with the church is that it is made out of people.  My point is that none of us is perfect, so if we expect perfection from something with human hands on it, we are going to be disappointed.

We all know that we are far from perfect, but we also know that when those faults are found in someone we love, we often find a way to endure them, justify them and sometimes even to sanctify them.  It does beg the question of who we choose to demonstrate love to and why – which I believe will be the vital question for churches, and questions, on both ‘sides’ of the theological dived over sex.  How do we demonstrate God’s love?

I am still wondering where our understanding of tradition and Scripture (and reason), shaped by experience will lead us?
To be honest I am not sure where we are headed, and I am sure that I have no idea how we will get ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ is.  What I am sure of is that each of us is shaped by our experiences – and our theologies are shaped by those experiences as well.

About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

13 responses to “Everyone’s Experienced….Just, not Everybody Knows it”

  1. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Not a bit surprised that both of us grabbed onto the ways we understand the revelation of God in our discernments– is experience a valid factor in the equation?– though I didn’t have the sufferings of a cruise ship to wrestle through.

    As I stumble through these discernments, I see that all of the above (scripture, tradition, experience) are still intimately connected to experience. When we suggest “experience” what comes to mind is our own or someone close (in space or time) to us. Tradition is the experiences of those farther back in time from us, practices and paradigms beyond our arms’ length, a decade or a millennium before us, often codified into an institution. And scripture (I don’t want to make it sound like I’m downgrading it here) is the written experience of those who were close to the interaction with God in those stories, or who received those stories/songs/poetry/law/prophecies orally from those before them. All experience, just set in different times. If we believe the Holy Spirit is still actively engaged in the lives of God’s people (which I do), then we would do well to humbly and tentatively listen to our present experiences, praying that God will help us sort them out as they transition towards tradition.

    • A lot to say to this, but basically: YES! Yes, the Holy Spirit is still present and active. YES, Tradition is really the ‘experience’ of those that have gone before us. Yes, we need to sift through all of this – especially our own experiences – with humility!

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    Chip, what a great post. I agree that experience is a great shaper of theology, it certainly is in the way we view the world. As a Pentecostal, I am not unfamiliar with the tension between experience and theology! I know some of the serious dangers of pure experience over theology and I know some of the serious dangers of pure theology over experience–if I can say it that way. I suppose like Katy mentioned in her post, there is a balance in “it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit.” From my point of views, one of the challenges with the “us” part, is the failure to including the “us-es” that are outside of our immediate circle, both in time and experience. Without their inclusion, we can quickly fall into the error of circular thinking and I suppose, even circular experience–if that is a thing. I am a proponent of the “us” being not just the present “us” but also those in the past who have been guided by the Holy Spirit. I appreciate your insight. Enjoyed your post, Chip.

    • Thanks, Jim.
      You are right on with your point about expanding what we mean when we talk about ‘us’.
      This to me is so important.
      I am now at the point where I am less concerned with where you fall on this issue theologically – it matters, obviously, but I honestly believe faithful Christians can disagree about it, soooo the much more important question for me is how do you apply the call to love and hospitality in the context of your theological beliefs?
      So, in other words, how big is your ‘us’? This, to me is THE Question.

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      Ooh, Jim. Such a good point– who are the “us” in our discernments?– “Without their inclusion, we can quickly fall into the error of circular thinking.”

  3. Mary says:

    In the end even the most “a priori” first theologians have to look at experience. Even if we say that we can put our trust in those that have gone before us, on what do we base that trust?
    Chip, I think you hit a crucial point that we should deal with before we begin any discussion. I agreed also with the four-legged stool of Thatcher. We can write out propositions for our beliefs from Scripture, tradition, and reason, but when it comes down to how we’ll act do most of us trust our experiences?
    Does it seem like too much of a coincidence that in the past those more intellectual arguments held sway and now that the Holy Spirit is really moving in many parts of the world experience counts for more?

    • Mary you are right that experience seems to count for more these days…. I wonder too if part of what is going on is that we no longer live in a world that accepts ‘because I said so’ (from a person in a position of authority) or ‘because it has always been this way’ as sufficient answers to the hows and whys we are asking about so many important questions….. When those answers don’t work, experience, almost by default takes a bigger role.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Your post brings us the debate between Sola Scriptura, Prima Scriptula, and the Wesleyan Quadrangle of scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience? While Thatcher is an Anglican, he certainly comes across as a Methodist in this area.

    You (and Thatcher) bring up a good point, even those who say that they hold to a Sola Scriptura view of theology, are trapped in the worldview of their culture and experiences.

    • Stu, you got it – and this is the issue for me. I can’t stand it when people aren’t intellectually honest in these discussions – even (or maybe even especially when) I agree with them.
      When people try and discount ‘experience’, what they are really doing most often is trying to discount experiences that aren’t their own and/or that don’t support their positions.
      That isn’t a way to have a real discussion and it certainly isn’t a way to follow in the way of Jesus

  5. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Well Chip, I think cruise ships work in your favor for writing. This summed it up so great for me: “When someone you love consistently fails to meet your expectations you have only two choices: you can change your love or change your expectations.” That was perfect and brought everything into a sharp, concise focus. It has definitely described my journey in understanding how to relate, connect, and shift in my understanding and beliefs when it comes to relating to others very different from me. I guess I could say I have had to learn to love and change my expectations. It reminds me of a saying I use with my clients in regards to establishing stability in their lives: “B & B Buddies.” Your Beliefs and your Behavior need to match up and be “buddies” if you want a sane and peaceful life. If my clients don’t like how they are living, I challenge them to change their beliefs or change their behavior, but they need to coincide. I realized no matter what I believed, I was getting my beliefs and behavior out of sync with people who professed different lifestyles and values than me. I couldn’t talk about loving different people and not be inclusive with them in my life or church. I had to work at getting my beliefs and behavior in sync, which continues to be a lifelong journey. You have a wise mom.

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip great summary! Yes experience is key. When you walk alongside someone it can change the way you thought about something when formulating them from the outside. Once inside you may see a whole new world. This is why doing life in community is so important. It keeps us from being judges on the outside and engaging daily with one another on the inside. It is through experience where the Holy Spirit works powerfully in our lives!

  7. Lynda Gittens says:

    Thanks for the post.
    I wonder how much personal research did Thatcher do. Did he interact with people whom he decided to describe and dissect?
    I agree with your statement “What I am sure of is that each of us is shaped by our experiences – and our theologies are shaped by those experiences as well.” Our experiences and spiritual walk shapes our theology.

  8. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Really great take on Thatcher, Chip. Thank you for pushing through the deep struggle to get it posted. 😉

    I was unfortunate enough to have spent a crucial chunk of my teenage years with a youth pastor who taught against experience and hammered home that the stool only has three legs. I didn’t agree but how does one student push back against someone so educated and in authority? That is one EXPERIENCE that formed me spiritually. I learned the importance of presenting truth gently and offering space for disagreement. A wise person once asked me if I thought the inspiration of the Holy Spirit ended when all of Scripture was written. I said of course not and she reminded me that each of us is as valuable as a gospel writer because we present Christ everyday. The Holy Spirit is that person that guides us to insight from all four legs of the stool. Without the Spirit, we really only have the experiences and words of other people who may or may not have something to say to us.

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