Jared Witt - June 21, 2018
Do we get our beliefs from our Bible or our Bible from our beliefs?
This is a pretty urgent question in this twilight zone time in which we’re living, when so many of my pastoral colleagues are being reprimanded by their congregants for “getting too political”—typically by the same congregants who want to see the ten commandments and Christian prayer mandated in public schools and who see no problem with our Attorney General saying in an official statement on an urgent public crisis:
“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes."
For the moment, let’s put aside the disturbing fact that our public leaders no longer feel the even slightest obligation to pay lip service to constitutional separation of church state.
Let’s even assume that Mr. Beauregard Sessions III has interpreted this passage correctly and that Paul actually is saying: “In all situations, give carte blanche obeisance to your government regardless of whatever crazy laws they decide to come up with, just or unjust. Remember, you owe allegiance to your nation state first and God second. If they make a law that every person of legal age must kick at least one puppy per day, you must obey.” That, of course, is not what Paul means, because that would be an insane decree, which he himself contradicted multiple times in his own life, when the command of Christ conflicted with that of the legal authorities of the time. But lets just assume so for expediency’s sake.
Even then, this one much debated verse (which, I notice, is cited far more frequently now than it was under the last administration) is counterweighted by…oh…about a thousand other biblical verses which command that we take special care of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant in our midst.
But I’ll spare you that long list of concordance citations, because it doesn’t really matter, and here’s why, for repetition’s sake:
The way we use the Bible has less to do with what’s going on inside the Bible and more to do with what’s going on inside us.
To put it another way, rarely does the Bible steer our soul in a brand new direction. More often it reinforces the direction in which our souls are already moving, whether toward more life or less.
Or put still another way, our heart is a muscle. It needs exercise. If you regularly give strangers the benefit of the doubt, serve the weak, and try to forgive your enemies, then when you open your Bible, your eye will tend to be drawn toward those parts which reinforce and inspire such life-giving behaviors. If, however, you tend to live your whole life fearing strangers, dominating the weak, and demonizing your enemies, then your compassion muscle has likely atrophied and decayed to a useless mass of necrotic tissue. And your eye will tend toward those verses which reinforce fear, domination, and demonization of the other.
Most of us live somewhere in between these two extremes, which makes it serious business, whether we’re generally nurturing our souls in a way that leads toward life and not death.
Jesus understood this well, that how we interpret our holy texts will be determined far less by what’s going on inside the text than by what’s going on inside of us.
When the Pharisees accused his disciples of breaking Sabbath Law by picking heads of grain to eat on a day in which such “work” was not permitted, Jesus didn’t try to oppose their reading of scripture. They were right on this one. Sabbath Law was written with very little interpretive wiggle room. And Jesus didn’t feel the need to justify himself by arguing otherwise.
Instead he put all of scripture in its place by appealing to something still more valuable: people. Specifically, he said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
If you understand by now that humans tend to read the state of their souls into scripture more often than the reverse, then you won't be surprised that the Pharisees weren't convinced by this argument. Instead, they plotted to monitor him until he again did something unlawful on the Sabbath, and they wouldn't have to wait long before Jesus was approached to heal a man with a withered hand.
What's he going to do? Again, don't forget. People are what matters. The Bible is for people. Does he get sucked into a meandering and pointless debate on biblical interpretation? Of course, not. Instead he asks the man to step forward and asks them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm?" (Mk. 3:4).
In other words, "If you don't think I should be healing on the Sabbath, don't tell me. Tell him. Let's not talk about it safely in the abstract. Tell him that your law trumps his life."
I wonder what would happen if our political leaders were more than welcomed to make whatever legal decrees they saw fit, BUT they were required to do so in front of the effected parties. Tell the twice employed single mother that you don't want to raise minimum wage because it will hurt the Fortune 500 executives who fund your campaigns to her face. Quote Romans 13 to the child who has just been detained, not knowing the whereabouts of his mother.
I bet our laws would end up looking a lot different.
Human beings are what’s precious to God. Not the Bible. The Bible is important because, and only because, of the people whose precious bodies and souls it serves.
So why read the Bible at all if we’re ultimately going to throw a leash around its neck and lead it wherever we already we wanted it to go, anyway? Well, we should point out that, if every one is already doing just that, then it would be better for us to at least be honest about it than not. Nobody ever accuses anyone else of “picking and choosing” what parts of scripture to pay attention to, who isn't already doing the same thing themselves.
But still, does this mean that the Bible is no longer the authority and we’re all just having a free-for-all our preconceived hobby horses?
No. The Bible still has authority. But it's a derivative sort of authority. Borrowed. It's the authority of a beloved boss as opposed to a dreaded one. It’s an authority that is earned rather than mandated. We give the Bible it’s authority because in it are contained the words of grace that give life, and the source of all life is God.
Is every single word a word of grace that gives life? Obviously not. Only someone deeply troubled in their soul would be confused about that. To paraphrase Jesus, Don't miss the forest for the trees.
The paradox of reading scripture is this: the second we start using it to harm or abuse people, we’re reading it wrong. Regardless of what the words say. The big picture is that the Bible is meant for people, not people for the Bible.
Let me put that paradox more simply. And if you don’t like paradoxes, I’m sorry. Theology has a lot of them.
Jesus chose people over scripture every time. Where did I learn that? The Bible.
I’d suggest Mr. Sessions give it another read.
Cheers and Peace,
On how Castle Church is stirring up a movement from a brewery in Florida.