Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Authentic Christian Reading of the Bible

It takes spiritual eyes to read the Bible in a healthy, transformative way. The Bible can be (and has been) employed as an instrument of oppression and evil, as well as an instrument of change and transformation. All Christians who debate public and faith issues among each other or in a public forum use Scripture to support their arguments. Whether the issues relate to sexual orientation, women pastors or deacons, the role of government, the right to wage war, the role of the military, divorce, the nature of Jesus, or the nature of judgment and salvation, Scripture is quoted and interpreted by all Christians engaged in the debate. The critical question concerns how we use Scripture, how we interpret the Bible, what framework and guiding principles we use to make sense of Scripture and apply it to our lives and communities.

Some years ago, I, along with three other pastors, tried to change the policy regarding women’s participation in an Eastern Kentucky Baptist Association of the Southern Baptist Convention. As the policy stood, women could not speak publicly to any issue up for a vote at the annual meeting. I spoke for the proposed amendment. I appealed to passages in the Gospels revealing how Jesus was egalitarian in his ministry and mission, calling women disciples. I talked about the social vision of God’s new creation expounded by Paul in Galatians—how “in Christ” all social, sexual, and racial barriers are abolished. I pointed to Scriptures demonstrating that women served as coworkers and partners with Paul in preaching and teaching the gospel.

Do you know what happened? Those who opposed the change quoted Scripture, too. They quoted 1 Cor. 14:34 that says women should be silent and subordinate in the church, and if they have anything to say they should ask their husbands at home. Someone asked, “What if they don’t have husbands?” They said, “They need to get husbands.” Then they quoted that troublesome text in 1 Timothy 2 that says women should be submissive and not teach in the presence of men, because Adam was created first and the woman was the one who was deceived by the serpent. It’s in the Bible, they said. And they were right. It’s in the Bible.

And what the Bible says, God says, right? I don’t know of any thing that has done more harm in and to the church than this simple equation: What the Bible says is equal to what God says. The direct identification of God’s Voice with what the Bible says has been used to justify all sorts of destructive biases and oppressive practices. Think of all the preachers who raise their voices declaring, “The Bible says . . .” assuming that this is what God says. The damage this has done is immense.

In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospels, Moses and Elijah (representatives of the Law and the Prophets) appear with Jesus (see Luke 9:28-36). But it is Jesus who alone is affirmed by the Divine Voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” The Law and the Prophets find fulfillment in Jesus. Listen to Jesus, the Voice declares.

Here is the key to a holistic, healthy, and transformative Christian reading of the Bible. Jesus is the lens through which Christians see. A truly constructive, redemptive, and transformative Christian reading of Scripture filters our understanding of the biblical stories and writings through the ultimate story, the story of Jesus. This means that an authentic Christian reading of the Bible will always be tilted and biased toward the things that Jesus stood for—the love, forgiveness, compassion, and grace embodied in Jesus’ life, death, and vindication.

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