Reading the Constitution, the Bible, and Pastors

Jeffrey Toobin is a law professor, a consultant for various news media, and the occasional columnist for The New Yorker. In the July 27, 2009, issue of that magazine he helped me understand something that has puzzled me about Supreme Court justices as they approach the U. S. Constitution.

Toobin is talking about the questioning of Judge Sonia Sotomayor by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last few days. I watched snippets of it, enough to see she didn’t say a whole lot. But that’s the plan, these days, if you’ve kept up with how these things work. Anything controversial like abortion or same-sex marriages, you just say, “Senator, since there are cases involving that subject before the High Court at the present time, I’m unable to answer your question.”

Anyway, back to Toobin.

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Sotomayor said, “In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy.”

“Simple,” she said. “Fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law–it is to apply the law.”

Sounds good, right? But it’s too good, says Toobin. “Coming from a jurist of such distinction, this was a disappointing answer.”

And why is that?

“…it suggested that the job of a Supreme Court Justice is merely to identify the correct precedents, apply them rigorously, and thus render appropriate decisions.”

“In fact,” Toobin goes on, “Justices have a great deal of discretion–in which cases they take, in the results they reach, in the opinions they write.”

Then, here is the clincher: “When it comes to interpreting the Constitution–in deciding, say, whether a university admissions office may consider an applicant’s race–there is, frankly, no such thing as ‘law.'”

That is, the Constitution does not speak directly to that issue.

As a result, Toobin says, the Justices end up making choices, “based largely, though not exclusively, on their political views of the issues involved.”

Is that wrong? He says, “In reaching decisions this way, the Justices are not doing anything wrong; there is no other way to interpret the majestic vagueness of the Constitution.”

The fact that she skirted around these things in her testimony, however, Toobin says, “is indicative of the way the confirmation process, as it is now designed, misleads the public about what it is that Justices do.”

That was enlightening. Yes, the present system is flawed and produces Justices we still know little about, but I find it helpful to learn that the only way to interpret the “majestic vagueness of the Constitution” is as he said: by making choices.

My hunch is that most citizens would have the same response I do: I find it scary.

Let’s pray for our Supreme Court Justices. God help them make wise choices.

As a pastor and a sometimes teacher of preachers, it occurs to me that the same principle of choosing also holds true for the minister as he opens the Word of God–the original majestic instrument–to address present-day issues not directly covered by Scripture.

He has to make choices.

But first, you ask, what present-day issues are not directly covered by the Word of God? Well, for one, the issue of marriage. You’ll think of others.

As a new (and very green) minister, I was surprised to discover the Bible nowhere commands the pastor to perform weddings, does not contain an actual wedding ceremony, and leaves lots of our questions unanswered concerning singleness, marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

That’s why so many good-hearted, well-intentioned men and women of God differ on this subject, sometimes vehemently.

Here’s what happens.

The pastor search committee sits around a conference room table, all eyes focused on the dignified gentleman sitting at the end. This is a big night, the time when the prospective candidate for their pastorate has made himself available for a question and answer time. They’re prepared, having labored over the subjects they want to cover in previous sessions in someone’s living room.

At some point that evening, a pre-selected member of the committee asks, “Pastor Munn, what is your view of Scripture?”

Pastor Munn is ready. He also has been prepping himself over the past few days–not to the extent the White House has been working with Judge Sotomayor, but the object is the same: to successfully negotiate these white-waters–and he has his answer ready.

He smiles and says confidently, “I believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I believe it from Genesis to Revelation. Or, as my Grandpappy used to say, ‘I believe it from the Contents to the Maps.'”

They all laugh. It’s not actually funny, and they’ve heard it before, but a pastor search committee in this situation is grateful for any excuse to break the tension.

In the climate of our denomination these days, the answer Pastor Munn gave is the correct one and more than likely, satisfies the committee. They move on to the next question.

But let’s not. Let’s stay with this a moment.

Let us agree that it is one thing to say you believe the entire Bible and another thing altogether to interpret the Bible, as every pastor does each Sunday in his sermons. Whether he preaches the Bible to what he extent he does, and how he does it are major considerations, not to be dismissed by a couple of quick sentences from a candidate to a committee.

A faithful committee needs to listen to their candidate preach numerous times. They should request tapes of his messages and listen with a critical ear. (I’m not recommending they nit-pick the sermons to death–the way some senators seem to be doing with a statement from Sotomayor in which she suggested that being “a wise Latina woman” might enable her to make better judgements on the law than “a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”) I am suggesting the committee ought to familiarize themselves with the pastor’s preaching style and satisfy themselves that he is properly handling the Word of God.

The plain, unvarnished fact is that every time a Christian–and much more, a preacher of the gospel–opens the Bible and seeks the correct understanding, he or she makes choices.

Some of the choices a pastor makes as he studies a text for next Sunday’s sermon include:

–how much weight to give a certain line or word in his text.

–what to do with a “contradictory” or complementary line from somewhere else in the Bible. For instance: suppose the pastor is planning to preach the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). We all know what adultery means, the pastor decides. Yet, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that to look lustfully on a woman is tantamount to adultery (Matthew 5:28). The pastor will decide for himself whether he needs to bring that into his sermon, give major emphasis to it, or save it for another time.

–what texts to preach and which to ignore. (We all have our favorite passages. In 42 years of pastoring, if we took every sermon I preached and keyed it to the appropriate text, no doubt we would find there are whole chapters which I basically ignored. It’s a rare preacher who doesn’t.)

That’s the idea. And that’s where we will leave the matter for the moment.

I send forth this little treatise as a reminder to laypeople that a pastor’s answer that “I believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God” does not tell you as much as you would like to know. There is no way to fully know what he believes about the Bible without listening to what he preaches.

Pray for the pastor search committee. They have the greatest opportunity and the scariest task of anyone in the church for years. Unless the committee is led by the Holy Spirit and staffed by mature and responsible Christian people, the result can be disastrous.

7 thoughts on “Reading the Constitution, the Bible, and Pastors

  1. Lord, don’t even get me started on SCOTUS “interpreting” the Constitution…

    Maybe I’m naive, or willing to revert to a principle that has been violated for so long that it now seems quaint and archaic, but there IS a process for spelling out constitutional rights written into the constitution itself. A couple of examples should suffice:

    Does anyone honestly believe that the 14th Amendment (right to privacy) would have ever been ratified if it specifically included a right to have an abortion? I don’t think so.

    How about the “equal protection” clause? Could that little statement EVER have been approved by “We The People” if it had been understood to include a right to same-sex marriage?

    Or the “Full Faith and Credit” bit… would that have ever been accepted if everyone knew that it meant a same-sex marriage from Massachusetts must be honored in Texas? No, it never would have made it into the constitution.

    If the people want to enact new constitutional rights — even ones I personally disagree with — that’s fine. There’s a process for that: Amendment and ratification.

    But judges who make stuff up out of thin air, knowing full well that NOBODY ever ratified it, and they NEVER WOULD HAVE at any point in history, are no less than elitist tyrants who think they know better than “We The People”. King George would be proud of them.

  2. I’m certainly no legal scholar and don’t pretend to be. But, I think we need to look back to the original document that preceded the founding of our representative republic to find the answers to most question of our ‘rights’ and the interpretation of our ‘Constitution’. If we do not have that document, we do not have a country. Our ‘God-Given Rights’ are spelled out there and if we were to pay more attention to those and less on bending the Constitution to apply to every question of ‘rights’ in our country, we’d be much better off.

  3. When I read this I said, “There he goes again. Opening himself for most of his readers to totally miss the point. Like when he tried to convince me that Lincoln was a better president than Washington and Jefferson and that Big Government ain’t so bad–hello Mr. Go! Hello Army Corps and levees!” The point of your blog, it seems to me, (this is only MY interpretation, you understand) is that it is easy to make statements regarding Scripture that almost all Bible believing Christians find comforting. The real issue is how is the Bible used in preaching/teaching. There are many passages I have not dealt with and some inadequately in my 45 years or so in ministry. I kind of ignore “love your enemies.” I mean, why would Jesus throw that one in? Or, “pray for those who despitefully use you.” I have enough trouble praying period, let alone for those who are “mean, vicious, straight-razor toting” people, (to quote a famous Mississippian, Tony Joe White). And there are many more. Paul admonished Timothy and us to “rightly divide” the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15) and I believe that means to handle Scripture accurately. Our churches need preacher/teachers who will do that.

  4. Unfortunately, no pulpit committee that ever interviewed me (7) asked in detail about my beliefs. Their questions had more to do with reaction to perceived foibles of former pastors. (Do you fill your sermons with stories? Do you tithe? What’s yr experience with building?) Only one had the wisdom to interview me at depth before hearing me preach. Hopefully, this is changing, but most pulpit committees seem to work on the assumption that one hearing and a brief interview is enough to discern the Lord’s will. I’m impressed at the grace of God that the system works as well as it does.

  5. Amen, Bro. Lassiter. Ain’t it amazing that God gets any part of His will done on earth as it is in heaven using the likes of us.

  6. In reading this post, I was struck by the call to pray for pastor search committees. I currently serve as a transitional pastor and had the responsibility and privilege to train that committee. I remember emphasizing the need to inquire deeply about doctrine. And I also whole-heartedly agree that our Lord amazingly does limited, graced people to accomplish His will.

    One thing that we as preachers are to do is to determine the authorial intent of our texts before moving to timeless biblical truths and present-day applications. It is an awesome (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word) task to study and to speak the word of the Lord.

    Concerning the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, I believe that it to is to be understood by determining authorial intent. The intentions of the writers are found in such works as “The Federalist Papers” and other such writings by those involved in its writing. Case law should not be the source of interpretation; it should be the library of applications. Thus, it is necessary for us to understand that Christ-followers are to seek the authorial intent of the biblical text, and our experiences become the library of application.

    Thank you, Bro. Joe, for calling the church to pray for pastor search committees. It is a task that requires prayer and Spirit-led sensitivity to the voice of the Lord.

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