I write for many reasons but one reason, and it’s not a little one, is so that my kids and their kids will understand how their dad got this way. They may or may not ever read this but their confusion won’t be because I didn’t try. And that’s not a bad thing.
One thing that has shaped my current reading of the Bible is the experiences I have had, since becoming a Christian, with other Christians, some really smart Christians, some truly genius Christians who have forgotten way more than I’ll ever know – and what they tell me is so.
Fresh from telling Jesus I would follow him and do life his way (before I had a clue what I was really getting into), I went off to Bible college to become a missionary. The group of churches that I was a part of at that time used slogans like “where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” And they said, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” The Bible, obviously, was very important to them and they saw it not only as God’s Word but the way to unity for a fractured Church. If we’d just read the Bible and do what the Bible says the way the Bible says to do it and call Bible things by Bible names, we would suddenly find ourselves caught up in unity faster than a counselor at a Billy Graham crusade could get your name down on a decision card.
That tribe sees patterns in the New Testament for what people sometimes call ecclesiology – the nature and structure of the Church. Critics among the denominations would ask us, “which New Testament church are you trying to restore?” meaning, they were all a mess, so good luck with that. And we would shake our heads at the silliness of their question – none of the above, was our answer, we’re after restoring the church of Jesus’ intent, the church you can read about in and between the lines. The Church Jesus talked about and Paul described in his letters to imperfect churches.
The point was never to restore a particular New Testament church but to restore the Church of the New Testament.
But that pursuit, for the sake of unity, often meant we were at odds with every other church in town. At Christian gatherings in the city we were often the odd group out because of where we understood the place of baptism, the mode of baptism and the purpose of baptism to be in God’s plan of salvation. Or it might have been because we believed that once the New Testament was written, the need for and practice of miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit was done. Or we had no pastors, we only had ministers because a pastor is an elder, not a minister…’cause the Bible tells me so.
And women must keep quiet in the church and learn in submission to men whose genitals make them particularly equipped in some mysterious way, to perform the work of church leadership, preaching and teaching (except of children and occasionally on the mission field in extreme situations of need). Thus sayeth the Lord.
When our Scotch Presbyterian founders formed this movement in the wee hours of the 19th century, it was not without some controversy. When they decided that infant baptism would no longer be practiced because it was not practiced in the New Testament and that only adult believers would be baptized by immersion – besides creating an endless discussion on who was an ‘adult’ – it caused one of the men to break fellowship, remarking to the others, “I never thought I would see the day when we would forsake the sacred words of Jesus to suffer the little children to come unto him.”
Our founder, turning the other men assembled asked, “Who will volunteer to go after Brother ________ and tell him that that’s not what that verse means?”
I’m telling you that story because that’s how old people get to their point if they can remember what point they were trying to make in the first place.
And I do, and here it is – I’ve been around a while and I’ve been very committed to the plain reading of Scriptures that I’ve learned other devout, passionate followers of Jesus don’t read the same way my friends in that movement of churches do. What I once considered the “clear teaching of Scripture,” I’ve learned is considered down right murky or even misused and abused by some of my Christian friends – some of whom are pastors and authors and theologians. I’ve read enough books and articles and listened to enough sermons and lectures that turn on the phrase, “of course we KNOW the passage can’t mean what it says…” to get too enthusiastic when someone insists to me that their take, or their groups take on a particular thing from the Scripture is “the clear teaching of Scripture.”
I’m telling you this because I believe “the clear teaching of Scripture” is often a myth we use to empower our group over and against the well-being and interests of others.
“Are you saying there are no clear teachings in Scripture? Are you saying we can’t even believe what the Gospels say about Jesus…you neolibtard fool?”
No, but thank you for asking the question so I can clarify. I’m saying that collectively we need to relate to one another with humility and charity and a generous orthodoxy. I’m saying that knowing how spectacularly the Bible has been misused (in my opinion) to support things like Crusades, blowing up abortion clinics, supporting slavery, opposing inter-racial marriage and anti-Semitism, we need to hold loosely onto our definition of “clear” and “obvious” and “simple.”
I’ve been among Catholics who were some of the most profoundly Jesusy people I’ve ever met. I’ve been among Charismatics who were some of the most profoundly Jesusy people I’ve ever met. I met Jesus through a Baptist friend – so even there one might find Jesusy people who reveal God to people. (I kid, of course, you definitely can find at least one.) What I’ve learned is that my interpretation of Scripture and my decisions about how to apply it, will never be the basis of unity. What I’ve learned is that relationship built on love is the basis of Christian unity. And I think if we’d give up proving we have God approval by proving how wrong everyone else is – or at least not as ‘right’ as us, we might discover something beautiful again that the World still longs for.
I once stood on a platform with a bunch of other pastors from all sorts of other churches and denominations and charismaticy persuasions. And we were all having a wonderful Kumbaya moment until the independent, Pentecostal pastor asked us – the collective us – the other pastors in the tea and biscuits room after the event, “just to be clear, none of you would approve of a man being a pastor if he’d divorced his wife and married another?” Our small room suddenly felt about three times smaller and inevitably all of our eyes fell onto a pastor in the room, sitting as suddenly quiet as the rest of us, who we all knew had, in fact, divorced his wife and married another.”
In fact, I think the man asking the question already knew that too.
(and so ends part one of Brian vs. The Clear Reading of Scripture – join us next week for the exciting second part of our tale.)