Context is important. As an aspiring Biblical exegete, I recognize how important context is for interpreting the Bible. Awareness of the customs and cultures of the world the texts were produced within, along with the people who originally created and received them play a big role in helping to correct any erroneous presuppositions I might have from my way of life as a white, male, educated, millennial, American. My desire to understand the Scriptures as I believe they convey something to us about God means that I find paying attention to context an important instrumental process to help me reach my end goal. As someone who studies psychology and highly values the study of interpersonal relationships, understanding the situations and circumstances people are facing is critically important if one wants to facilitate relationships, groups, and environments that are more defined by peace and justice. Being aware of people’s contexts is a vital instrument to accomplish my pro-social intentions. So, context is important. However….
Context is not God. Context is not Jesus Christ. Context is not the Holy Spirit. Context is not the Gospel. Therefore, for us who take the Scriptures as definitive for defining the nature of the Church, since the Church is God’s chosen earthly embodiment of the love and power of Jesus Christ through the giving of the Holy Spirit, defining our ecclesiology by reference to anything that is not known about God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit is deeply problematic. It becomes a form of metaphysical reification, where we take some idea or concept such as “context” and treat it as something inherently right and good and therefore try to form people, institutions, groups, etc. in accordance to this idea. Put more colloquially, “context” becomes an idol.
The idea of context is sort of a modern fad due to the increased influence of hermeneutics in our post-modern world that has thrown skepticism on what we thought we knew; we look to hermeneutics implicitly and explicit as a guide for navigating ambiguous and unclear experiences and symbols. So, as with all fads and buzzwords, they exist sort of like an economic bubble, where people assume the idea is reliable and good to use in more and more situations and because of that, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and uses it because everyone else is using it; then the concept gets used in more and more places. However, in the end, it gets used without actually verifying the idea is actually descriptively true or is accomplishing its assumed purpose and goal; its truthfulness and usefulness is simply assumed. Using the word “context” that is derived from fields focused on hermeneutics and interpretation to define the Church would be much like me studying the Old Testament Torah and trying to force people to act according to some rule or law I find of use in the Old Testament. Why? Because context of something is important. But what is ironically happening is that context is being decontextualized.
So that foray into the abstract analysis of context and theology is to make this point: when the Commission on the Way Forward for the United Methodist Church puts forward a “contextual” resolution to address the difficulties our denomination faces regarding marriage and human sexuality, there is a deep theological and spiritual problem with it. It is defining and organizing the Church by some idea other than what we trustingly know about the Triune God. It’s solution for organizing the church by “contextualizing” the issue of human sexuality to local congregations is to try to embody an idea that we call “context” and that we use because it tries to serve certain power interests of trying to have one’s cake and eat it to in trying to lose no one, and by doing so, potentially lose many while simultaneously not creating the types of change that would challenge the interests of the bishops and leading authorities in the United Methodist Church. While the Church should pay attention to context in how it lives out its mission, the ultimate organizing principle of the Church should not be based upon the idea of context and embodying this idea of contextualization; the Church is God’s chosen earthly embodiment of the power and love of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Instead, we should not employ the idea of context to define God or the Body of Christ, but rather it should be contextualized back to its hermeneutical roots as a necessary, instrumental step by which we come to understand more reliably and effectively. Otherwise, beside the issue of sexuality itself, we would be committing intellectual idolatry.