The Constitution, Scripture and the Progress of the Human Mind

By Mark Poindexter

Washington D.C. is a favorite destination of mine.  Over the years, I have been to our nation’s capital about half a dozen times.  I enjoy the historical significance of the city and its many monuments.  My favorite place is the Lincoln Memorial where it is possible to stand in the same spot that Dr. King stood to deliver his inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech.  I like to imagine myself being there that day and feeling the Spirit move among the people.  Another monument that draws my attention is the Jefferson Memorial which has some of Thomas Jefferson’s words inscribed into the walls.  It is there that I came across these words which I think have something important to say to our nation and to the church.  Jefferson said:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance to keep pace with the times.  We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Jefferson makes it clear that changes are necessary for human advancement – even with something as important as a constitution.  The document that guides our nation will soon be 250 years old and though it has had some amendments through the years it’s time for at least a couple more.  The right to bear arms was given in a time when single shot muzzle loaders were the guns of the day and a quickly formed militia was necessary to fight the Brits.  Those who wrote those words that were ratified had no idea of the well-formed military that the United States currently has nor the killing capacity of assault weapons that millions of private citizens can buy.  A killing capacity that is now being aimed at other American citizens, often children.  With an average of ninety people a day being killed with guns in our nation – something has to be done.  Instead of more gun laws, maybe it’s time to amend the second amendment.  The right to life, liberty and happiness has to supersede the right to bear arms.  No right can be unlimited in nature.  Our nation’s current obsession with guns and violence has to be curtailed before it destroys us from the inside.  Maybe the place to make that change is with the constitution. 

Another place that I think needs changes is our current system of elections.  Especially in regard to the House of Representatives.  The amount of money our nation spends on our elections is obscene.  Millions upon millions of dollars are put into the political machine each year.  We could save ourselves some money by extending the length of a Representative’s term from two years to four.  As it is, no sooner are they in office when they began working, and raising money, for their reelection.  The whole purpose of being elected is to get reelected.  It would take another constitutional amendment but one that could save our nation lots of money if we did it.  It might actually free up our representatives to do some work without every vote being a political maneuver.

My point is this, since 250 years have passed since the constitution was penned, those who wrote it would have no idea the state of the nation today and unless we are willing to revisit the document in some important ways the very rights it seeks to protect might be lost as we implode upon ourselves.

I think the same is true for the church and its understanding of scripture.  The stories of the Bible were written between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago.   Hopefully, the human mind and our ability to reason did not stop that many years ago.  We have to interpret scripture through centuries of human evolvement.  We have to continue to listen to the voice of God that didn’t quit speaking when the last word to the book of Revelation was written.  If we are going to follow Jesus today we are going to have to do it with a mind that is open to perpetual revelation of new truths and new ways of being the church.  In addition, we need to be open to the possibility that there is something beyond the church that takes us even closer to the realm of God, which is the realm of peace and justice.

I went to a very conservative Christian college where we were taught the “Restoration Principle;” the idea that the book of Acts and the letters of Paul laid out a blueprint for the way the church ought to exist in any time and place.  I bought into that philosophy during my first years of ministry, but over time I learned that the blueprint way of understanding the church was not an eternal truth.  Though there are some important truths that can be learned from Acts and Paul, especially about how barriers that divide us can be broken down, in what forms and structures the church has to exist isn’t one of them.  When it comes to understanding the role of scripture in the life of the church, one has to lay human reason and experience alongside the sacred text and interpret the words for this day and time.

Whether it be our nation or the church, the documents and texts to which we point must not be understood to be stagnant documents through which no new light can shine.  They must be understood to be living words the understanding of which is influenced by centuries of human development and experience.  Both our nation and the church has a responsibility of moving forward. The past can guide us, but it should not restrict us as a nation from making the changes necessary to allow every human being to pursue life, liberty and happiness and as a church for working  for peace and justice for all people.