I ask that question with great fear and trembling. I grew up with the Bible. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “If anyone has reason to be confident I have more. A member of the Cradle Roll before my birth; raised in Sunbeams, and RA’s; state winner in Memory Verses and Sword Drill; soloist in our Youth Choir and Preacher for Youth Sunday; BSU member and Weekend Retreat Leader; Summer Youth Worker; BA in Religion from Wake Forest and a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological seminary (when it was a seminary) and a Doctor of Ministry in Ethics from Candler School of Theology; ordained minister; Minister of Youth; Pastor; Mission Trip leader and participant.” I am about as Baptist as they come!
Yet I find myself asking this difficult question. Is it time to jettison the Bible?
It has served as the “lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” throughout my life. It continues to be the story that I return to again and again, seeing my life reflected in the stories of faith that I find within its pages. I am a minister who stands in a pulpit week after week reading words of scripture from the Biblical text and proclaiming “This is the Word of God!”
But this week I wonder if it is time to let it go?
This isn’t a personal crisis of faith, but a reflection about the way in which the Bible, the very foundation of my life has been misused this week.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech entitled “Attorney General Sessions Addresses Recent Criticisms of Zero Tolerance By Church Leaders” chastised those protesting against the treatment of those seeking refuge in the US. He said “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 them for the purpose of order.”
Using his hermeneutic (a theological word meaning how we interpret scripture. I told you I went to seminary!), anything the government says should be obeyed.
Let that sink in.
He is using the Bible to say that we have to obey the government because God says so. That is the same scripture cited when churches were urged to obey the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, the same scripture that was used to defend slavery.
Is that what you believe?
The same week the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the world, meeting in Dallas, TX used scripture to continue a decades-long subjugation of women. Even in the face of leaders losing jobs over sexual harassment and impropriety; when the #MeToo Movement came to church, they chose to again quote scripture reminding over half the world’s population that they are commanded by God to take lower roles, especially in matters of faith.
The same week, in the same town, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship also met. This is the group that has been my denominational home. Formed after “losing a battle for the Bible,” they met hoping to move beyond the topic of same sex relationship—a topic raised perhaps 7 times in all of scripture. Every denomination it seems is struggling to avoid a break-up over the topic. Every time the issue is discussed groups on both sides begin using scripture like a cudgel to bash their opponents.
And it isn’t just this week. Every week I find myself feeling the need to apologize for some preacher who is using scripture to milk congregants for funds to buy a jet, another house, a larger tabernacle. In recent weeks we have seen the Bible used in foreign policy to justify the location of an embassy. We choose our international friends with a selective reading of who God says land is given to. It is easy for a official to pull a verse from the Bible that commands obedience to the government, but when was the last time you heard doctrine against interest? We use the parts we like, the parts that correspond to our lifestyle and our own prejudice.
And we all do it! I will be honest. I am not going to preach a sermon based on I Timothy 6:1. While I used I Corinthians 13 as a text last Sunday, I am not going to preach a sermon on I Corinthians 14:34, ever! (“Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate.”) Has anyone ever done a sermon on Deuteronomy 23:1?
We all jettison parts of the Bible.
We always have. We rarely hear about the history of the Bible. We see it on the coffee table or on the pulpit, all together in the black leather cover, and we think that is how it was written. Even if we understand that it was written at different times, we think of it like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The sense is that it came down from heaven complete—with references and footnotes. (That is how Islam sees the Quran.) All of it has equal value.
There are so many problems with that! First, that isn’t how the Bible came to be. It was written over centuries by individuals telling their story of their experience with God. It was written by humans with all their histories, prejudices, cultures, and contextual understanding of science and the world. All of those are reflected in their writing.
The Bible we have is not the only “scripture.” There are other books that didn’t make the Bible. The Jewish rabbis put what we know as the Old Testament together during a meeting in Jamnia around 90 AD. There were books that were hotly debated. Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes barely made it in. And did you know that God is never mentioned in Esther?
The New Testament was not made “official” until the Third Council of Carthage in 397 AD. There were many books that didn’t make the cut. Some are found in what we know as the Apocrypha (ever heard a reading from Bel and the Dragon?) Others were not considered. (Read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas for a different vision of Jesus!)
(For more on this topic, see T.C. Smith’s wonderful and very readable book How We Got Our Bible.)
There were many criteria used to decide what was “In” and what was rejected, but one of the main criteria was what was used in the life of the church. What were congregations using in worship?
Which brings me back to my question. Is it time to jettison the Bible?
My answer is No!
But we must change our understanding. We can take the Bible seriously but not literally. We can admit that there are parts of the Bible that must be examined in light of their cultural context. To take the Bible seriously, we must study it with the full understanding of how it was put together and alongside the history of those ancient writers and storytellers.
This will not be easy.
It will mean that congregations and individuals will have to be honest enough to say that this passage does not resonate with their own experience of God.
It will mean that there will be times when we have have to say that there are parts of the Bible that really aren’t “Bible,” that don’t reflect the God we worship.
It will mean we will have to do the hard work of reflecting on our experience of the holy.
It will mean being honest about what we believe God calls us to do and be, and what is just cultural and outdated.
It will mean grieving the loss of an idol we have built and worshiped.
It will mean being prepared for the cries of heresy, the rejection of those who still hold on to the old ways.
It will mean declaring to the world that we hear a different story than the one the world, and too often the church, has been selling.
It will mean having the courage to declare, “This I believe, God help me. I can do no other!”
But it is past time to be honest about it, and about our faith. It may be the only way to save the Bible.