I’ve been in several ongoing conversations lately regarding “what the Bible has to say” about a range of topics…everything from gender roles and sexual orientation to church leadership and governance, and lots of stuff in between.
Now, I must say from the outset that most of these conversations are among good, genuine, loving, open people. We are good friends having good conversations. We’re not screaming each other down. If anything, I think we’re all trying to come to better understandings of the gospel. We just sometimes come at it from different angles.
I must also say I realize the razor-thin precipice from which I launch this discussion…in other words, I have to recognize that in saying what I’m saying here I’m making my own truth claims, and those claims are as subject as any other to honest critique.
The one thing we all have to recognize, wherever we land on issues of doctrine (and that’s what we’re really talking about here), is we are all making interpretations. We are 21 centuries removed from the events recorded in the New Testament. We are thousands and thousands of years from the oral tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures that form our Old Testament. We encounter these texts through vastly different languages, cultures and circumstances than those in which they were recorded.
One might argue that we have the traditions of the church to guide us in our interpretations. But we have to ask ourselves, which traditions? And of which branch(es) of the church? Are we willing to admit that many of our “traditional” interpretations have only been the tradition of the past several decades?
Ah, you say, but the Holy Spirit guides us in our interpretations. And that is certainly true. But are you saying the Holy Spirit only guides the people who agree with one set of interpretations to the exclusion of all others? I suspect the work of the Spirit is a bit subtler than that.
The point of all this is not to discredit any interpretation in particular or even the concept of interpretation in general. It’s just to call us to the intellectual honesty to say we’re all basing our positions on opinions.
And the point of THAT is to say if we want to have a really consistent application of biblical principles, we have to recognize the one that underlies them all: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-40; Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18).
What the Bible gives us is not a rulebook or blueprint or strategic plan. It gives us a story. A story of how God’s love for God’s people is revealed through specific people in specific circumstances in specific places at specific times so we may see, understand and trust that God’s nature is to love all of his creation equally and unconditionally. And it all emanates from and culminates with Jesus—who, because he was God incarnate, demonstrates perfectly God’s loving nature and identity.
When Paul tells Timothy “all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), I don’t think he’s saying: “You have the owner’s manual. Just follow the step-by-step instructions God dictated.” I think what he’s saying is, “You see through these words and stories what God’s love looks like. Be inspired by them. Live by that kind of love.”
All of our various interpretations are products of a complex web of experiences, influences, circumstances, and perspectives: our race, our nationality, our gender, our religious (or non-religious) upbringing and background, our education, our successes, our failures, our joys, our disappointments…you get the point. We bring all of that into the way we read scripture, the way certain stories speak to us, the way we imagine certain events happening, and what we think the writers meant.
I believe God uses all of that to reach us, to speak to us, to move us in ways we can understand. And so I also believe God allows us to hold our various and sometimes opposing interpretations because that’s the way each of us can best experience him in our own contexts. And so I think it’s good that we read, study, and interpret the stories he tells us.
But in the long run, we have to come back to that one underlying principle: Love. God’s nature is Love. Pure, unconditional, all-inclusive, all-equal love. He wants what’s best for each of us and all of us.
Jesus tells the Pharisees (a sect of Judaism who believed their particular interpretations to be exclusively correct), “the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within [or among] you” (Luke 17:20-21). In other words, at least as I interpret it, you’ll never understand the kingdom of God if you keep trying to pin it down to one set of interpretations. You’ll only understand it when you love like Jesus loves.
There’s nothing wrong with interpreting scripture. Let’s just be honest with ourselves about what we’re doing, and admit that there may be room for other opinions in something as big and mysterious as God. Let’s stop making an idol of our doctrine.
The fact is, scripture just isn’t crystal clear about an awful lot of things. Most of those things we tend to argue most about—homosexuality, church governance, the roles of men & women in leadership, etc.—are areas where our interpretations/opinions are far more certain than the texts themselves.
But the Bible is absolutely unambiguous about one thing: Love. Love God. And love each other. If we would do those things well, I’m convinced everything else will take care of itself.