Friday, December 26, 2008

The Verdict

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

                        John 3.19 

Dousing the Light

I grew up in a rigid strain of Fundamentalism. Attached to our denomination’s Statement of Doctrine was a long list of restrictions, each with a parenthetical reference to one or two contextually stripped Scriptures. “Women shall refrain from cutting their hair,” for instance, cited 1 Corinthians 11.15: “If a woman has long hair, it is her glory. For long hair is given to her as a covering”—Paul’s teaching that prophetesses should set themselves apart from other women by covering their heads when ministering, just as prophets did. Evidently, no one in our church put all of this together. So our women spent hours and dollars many didn’t have on beauticians capable of spinning waist-length tresses into beehives.

In my case, the most problematic by-law was, “Members shall abstain from movie theaters and other ungodly amusements.” Since this taboo obviously had no literal Scripture to back it, it used 1 John 2.15: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world”—a one-size-fits-all license for legalistic overkill if ever there was one. Now, I was a huge movie buff who’d seen more movies on TV than anyone I knew by the time I was old enough (and bold enough) to challenge this teaching. When I cornered my Aunt Pearl about it, her exasperation led to John 3.19. “You ought not be in movie houses because they’re dark inside,” she said. “If you love darkness, you’re doing evil.” In her sincerity she didn’t realize she was dousing the light of Scripture to uphold a dogma born in dark ignorance.

Something for Everyone

It’s true. The Bible’s complexity and range of topics hold something for everyone. Anyone can isolate a verse here or a phrase there that supports what he/she believes and does—from hate crimes to hairstyles. But faith is not founded on the Bible; it rests in Christ and it’s by Him we assess the validity of our beliefs and actions. Would Jesus have cared about the length of a lady’s hair? Absolutely not, according to Paul, later writing to the same people who read his admonition about covered heads: “You are looking only on the surface of things. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he.” (2 Corinthians 10.7)

Throwing Shade

The Word isn’t given to pinpoint surface faults in others; it’s a tool revealing the Light so we remain confident we’re following Christ. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,” 1 John 1.7 says. Scripture is given to unify us in fellowship, not divide us in controversy, to promote justice, not propagate judgment. Any time we pick it apart to defend our prejudices and vanity we prove how poorly we grasp its true purpose. Regardless how correct our judgment may be, the verdict goes against us because our motives are unjust.

When we misappropriate the Word to criticize others, we abuse our privilege to handle it. Throwing shade with Scripture exposes what’s in our hearts—a love of darkness and evildoing. The Bible often confirms errors in others and us. But no matter how well we know and understand it, it provides us no right to condemn anyone. Nor, for that matter, should we pay heed to those seeking to do likewise. The Bible doesn’t prove our points. Its points are what we must prove.


Our judgment of what the Bible says may be correct, but if we use Scripture to condemn others, our case falls apart because our motives are unjust.

(Tomorrow: Bread Alone)


johnmichael said...

This is another great post. I read the Bible daily and many times I need to think about what I have read. Sometimes I wonder how literal some of the readings are and I can see how people can use them to launch soapbox standing speeches.

Tim said...

Hi, John. Hope you had a terrific Christmas.

In my daily reading I too have been giving a lot of thought to the line that separates what God wants me to see from what I want to read into it. Most of the time it's fairly plain, but not always. And when I'm not so sure I'm not projecting my personal opinions into it, I try to re-read it through Christ's eyes. More often than not, the "Gotcha!" I found in the first reading fades away.

This human obsession to pull at straws to prove we're correct and others aren't is a tough thing to master. But I'm finding increasds awareness of it helps me in two ways.

First, it stops me from dousing the light and missing what God wants me to see because it forces me to look at the Word straight-on, rather than from a predisposed view.

Second, it has greatly increased my empathy for those who haven't yet grasped why reading the Bible without a personal filter is so essential. I understand their compulsion all too well. And that's a big coup, because it permits me to forgive them on this level without getting hung up in the error of their argument.

Although this may come off as condescending or simplistic, it's not intended as such. But the best comparison I have to this is our four-month-old kitten, Cody. He's at his most ornery, trouble-prone stage of development right now--always getting into trouble because his curious nature drives him to do things he'll eventually learn aren't smart or tolerable. My partner, who's never raised a kitten so young, gets all worked up when, for instance, Cody climbs behind the TV cabinet and starts playing with the wires. Because I've seen this in other kittens, however, it's not nearly as upsetting; I understand it and know if he takes our correction to heart, he'll outgrow it.

Soapbox Christians are a lot like Cody, I guess. And if we understand them better, we can forgive them more easily.

Just a thought.

Good to see you, as always!