Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Good Book and Bad Intentions

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matthew 22.29)

Monkeying with God’s Word

Oh, how we love to argue Biblical truth by inflicting personal opinions and preferences on what God wants us to hear! Whoever first observed it’s possible for anyone to support anything with Scripture was a genius. The disjointed, non-collaborative process by which it came to be, centuries involved in its writing and assembly, unparalleled range of topics and information it contains, and—most of all—the profound mysteries thrumming through its lines and around its edges make The Bible a handy, all-purpose tool to excuse or defend whatever suits our fancies. Because we (supposedly) believe the Bible is God’s Word, one would think we’d approach it reverently and apply it cautiously, even fearfully, as its authority exclusively rests on belief in God’s infinite wisdom, power, and supremacy. Otherwise, if we suspect God is anything less or something other than GOD, what God says to us through Scripture holds little to no consequence for us.

Taking God out of God’s Word reduces The Bible to an encyclopedia of ancient history, poetry, and proverbs—surely the greatest volume of human insights ever compiled, yet human nonetheless. Were this so, we could shelve The Bible beside The Sayings of Confucius, Poor Richard’s Almanac, Bartlett’s Quotations, and other ready-made resources of mortal wit. We could pick and choose from it as we please, as though its pages stored a treasure of quips for every occasion and rationale for any earthly idea, from noblest to basest—if The Bible were a hodgepodge of philosophical tidbits, fables, and trivia. But that’s precisely what The Bible is not. Despite the extraordinary factors affecting its gradual creation and eventual shape, God’s pervasively consistent voice is the Binding Force that unifies and balances Scripture as all of a piece. It’s one Book comprised of 66 books penned by different people addressing many issues in wildly different times and places, all witnessing the miracle of divine inspiration by advancing one theme with one focus: restoring humanity’s hope by reconciling its relationship with God. From cover-to-cover, the message remains the same. To do what pleases our Maker, we must undo everything that displeases God and inevitably precipitates our own undoing.

Thus, The Bible isn’t amenable to selective reading, nor its contents available for selective use. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3.16-17 (emphasis added). Usage that detracts from The Bible’s overarching theme and/or undermines its overriding objective serves no godly purpose. It’s an illegitimate product of those who ignorantly mate The Good Book and Bad Intentions. Since they’re monkeying with God’s Word, the grave danger they invite should make Scriptural abuses very rare. Yet it happens all the time.

Silly Riddles

Flagrantly manipulating Scripture to manipulate hearts and minds—along with its flipside, exploiting Sacred Writ for material gain—constitutes unrivalled audacity. Therefore, we aren’t shocked that those bold enough to attempt it are equally fearless in their determination to succeed. Nor are we surprised that they target people who are scripturally gullible and susceptible to imbalanced doctrine and baseless dogma. Naïve, non-inquisitive recruits make the bravest of soldiers once they’re convinced they’re defending the “truth.” We observe this dynamic in Matthew 22.

A company of intrepid Sadducees engages Jesus in a battle of words on their pet topic, resurrection. Belief in life after death is where they part ways with the Pharisees, who teach resurrection, while the Sadducees refute it. Given the Pharisees’ overwhelming majority, Jesus’s mastery of their doctrine’s finer points, and His own comfort with preaching resurrection—for obvious reasons—most scholars presume He identifies as a Pharisee. (Nothing like our popular I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious default position exists in first-century Palestine. There are no non-denominational synagogues or ecumenical groups, either. Every Jew publicly embraces a theological tradition and sticks with it.) So the Sadducees confront Jesus not as God’s Son, but as a Rabbi from the opposition. And their challenge is no off-the-cuff premise. It’s one of those silly riddles Bible abusers cook up to corner opponents—the Sadducee equivalent of “If God meant people to be gay, why did God create Adam and Eve instead of Adam and Steve?”

Here’s what the Sadducees propose: A woman marries a man with six brothers. When he dies, in keeping with Mosaic Law, she marries one of his brothers. When that husband dies, she marries another brother. On it goes until all seven brothers are dead and then she dies. How does this scenario get resolved in the afterlife? Whose wife will she be? Jesus refuses to dignify the riddle by attacking its naked intention and outlandish scenario. Instead, He cuts right to the chase. The Sadducees have selectively pounced on one scripture (Deuteronomy 25.5) and cleverly manipulated it to pose an argument they think sufficiently disproves Pharisaical belief in the afterlife, when their riddle proves how oblivious they are to Scripture’s overarching message. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God,” Jesus replies. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22.29-32) Harping on one verse to condemn those who worship the same God, yet hold differing beliefs, misses the point. Wakefully doing God’s will in this life far outweighs dreaming up scenarios of what God will do in the life to come.

Fellowship and Right Relationship

Paul’s instruction to Timothy about proper use of Scripture is wisdom we all should take to heart. “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.” (2 Timothy 2.14-17) The Bible isn’t an armory; it’s God’s Word. We don’t rifle through its pages in search of weapons to deploy in defense of personal opinions and preferred dogma. It’s the height of audacity to imagine we can pull one scripture over here, another over there, and weld them into a club with which to clobber fellow-believers who hold differing views.

In Psalm 119.130, David exclaims, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” God’s Word gives light. Through it, the Holy Spirit speaks promises of hope and reconciliation that open our eyes and illuminate our lives. That’s Scripture’s purpose in a nutshell. While we’ll never grasp how this happens, why it happens is so basic anyone can understand it. In 2 Corinthians 6.14, we’re asked, “What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” And 1 John 1.7 gives us the answer: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” The light of God’s Word is given to bring us together in fellowship and right relationship with God. Misusing The Good Book with Bad Intentions divides us and blinds us to God’s power. Those who manipulate and exploit Scripture for such purposes merit our pity and forgiveness. By no means do they deserve our attention or respect.

The Bible is not a weapon we deploy in defense of personal opinions and preferred dogma. It’s a light that draws us together and reconciles us to God.

Postscript: “Clobber Texts”

In tandem with a two-part study my pastor is conducting on “clobber texts”—i.e., scriptures taken out of context and erroneously used to condemn other believers (especially gay ones)—we’ll spend the next few posts examining them. I pray everyone who’s been frustrated, intimidated, or outraged by this practice will benefit from what we discuss in order to dismiss “clobber” manipulation and irrelevance out-of-hand.


grant said...

A very wise pastor once noted that over thousands of years, people have all claimed they were just "following the bible" and have come up with all sorts of practices - some of these downright destructive. His conclusion was that the Spirit in which we go to the bible is key to what we will find there. I agree.

Looking forward to the upcoming series ...


Sherry Peyton said...

Oh Tim, truer words were never spoken. I so very much look forward to upcoming posts. I'm so tired of being "versed" as to my wrong thinking! lol...

HCJoel said...

Thank you! I love this message (and need this reminder frequently).

Tim said...

Grant, the pastor was correct. If we open the Bible with an agenda in our heads, we'll inevitably come away in complete confidence we're correct. That's why attending to the Spirit's voice while we read and study is so essential. Jesus said, "The Holy Spirit will guide you in all truth," while David prayed, "Teach me O LORD the ways of your statutes." So many of us approach Bible study like we're grad students writing a term paper, looking for and only sticking with passages that support our arguments. But we're actually more like children who are learning to read. Every word is precious and has meaning, which we'll find if we listen to what our Teacher tells us.

Sherry, I too have been "versed" to death. (Indeed, I just responded to someone like that and had to say, "Oh well, we'll have to agree to disagree...") The real issue is knowing the truth for ourselves and sharing it with those who are genuinely open to what God's Word says. After that, I'm afraid it's every man/woman for his/herself!

HC, welcome to Straight-Friendly! It's a joy to meet you and I couldn't be more thrilled that you've found something at S-F useful. I invite you to join our conversations here any time. We are a gentle group who welcome anyone who can add to our thoughts and build up our faith without condemnation or condescension. (Having looked at your blog, I hardly think those issues need mentioning, though.)

Blessings to all of you!

genevieve said...

Tim, when I came out as transgender, I really took John3:16 to heart. How could someone who says they love Jesus hate a group of people who are different?

Many folks should read 2Tim.2:15 because sadly many don't study the scripture. I would rather be corrected in my error than continue to go down the wrong path.

Tim said...

Gen, you've tapped into the supreme beauty of Scripture. It withstands time, tradition, and opinion to reveal the heart of God. God so loved the world--the "so" indicating the full extent of God's love for every human being, without respect to the vast differences in our making--to enable our belief we can have everlasting life, now and forever.

Our unyielding faith in this truth must not be shaken by gleaners who pick and choose shreds of Scripture to condemn us for not conforming to their images of what a "worthy" believer should be. Their condemnation--whether born of fearful prejudice or fear-based sincerity--is not our concern, beyond the love and acceptance we offer in response. Jesus tells us He didn't come to condemn the world, but to save everyone in it. Each of us is living proof of that promise. Whatever anyone else chooses to believe is open to question. Believing Christ's promise is not.

Blessings, dear sister. And thanks as always for your gentle wisdom.