Reading the Bible in Churches of Christ

Reading the Bible in Churches of Christ

 

In the churches of my youth the Bible was read several times during each worship period. A passage would be read before communion (usually First Corinthians 11:23ff or a portion of Isaiah 53), another before the sermon (usually a few verses that were part of the text being used by the minister), and during Bible class where we used the text as you would a “Wordsearch” puzzle, finding answers to fill in blanks in our class workbooks.

Scripture was considered holy and perfect. It was a rule book and quite a complex rule book at that, full of hidden laws, man traps, and gotchas for those not schooled properly in how to “rightly divide the Word.” We were certain we had found the proper method of interpreting it and most of us made it through high school with a dozen or so passages etched in our minds – proof texts to keep us on the straight and narrow. All of this was done by well meaning, honest, good hearted people who devoted their lives to serving Jesus the best way they knew how and I will owe them the rest of my life.

But…there were problems, problems we never talked about and were never encouraged to ask about. For me, it all started with lasciviousness and the Moabites. But I’m getting ahead of my story…

We were told that the Bible was dictated by the Holy Spirit, word for word, to holy men who wrote it down just as they were told and then other holy people preserved those words perfectly, exactly for us in our Bibles. One illustration on how God dictated every single word – told to us by more than one preacher – was the story of Balaam and his donkey. The donkey, when beaten by Balaam, turned to the prophet and told him that there is an angel blocking the path. Balaam doesn’t seem to be surprised that his donkey is speaking to him but that isn‘t the point. The preachers told us that God made the donkey talk and gave him the very words he was to speak. “He didn’t just tell the donkey to talk to Balaam and put it in his own words” they said and we all laughed. The problem came later when some of us read the parts of the Bible we never read in church or Bible class and when others of us studied how the Bible came to be written and then gathered in the first place. While those two items alone were enough to knock us silly and cause us to question what we’d been taught (and which may be why we lose so many of our teens once they leave the nest) we can’t fully explore either of them here. Allow me to give a few illustrations of the problem and a possible solution and then allow you and the Spirit of God to take it from there.

Remember I said that it started with lasciviousness? We were told that God condemned it but we’d never heard the word before. It’s a great word, a wonderful old King James word and we were told it was why we weren’t allowed to dance or go to our prom (even if we refrained from dancing and “just watched”). Tracts – small booklets available in racks in our foyer – told us about the dangers of dancing and each made the point that the word “lasciviousness” meant dancing and since God condemned it, we shouldn’t even want to dance. When I was 13 I overheard some older teens doubt this wisdom from the elders and I was offended at their questioning of the faith. My father had an extensive library (I’d read over half of it by then. It was a requirement in our family) so I spent a day going through Greek and Hebrew lexicons, thesauruses, and commentaries…and was devastated at what I found. It became plain that one could dance in a lascivious manner but the word most certainly did NOT mean “dance” and, in fact, most dances in the Bible were in honor of God and He didn’t care for anyone who disapproved of them. If I was being lied to about THIS…what else was I being told that wasn’t true? I tried to ask a question about this twice and the fierce reaction I received from my father and, later, a Bible class teacher taught me to never ask questions again.

 

After spending time in agnosticism I came back to God because of the intricacies in the human brain (I eventually became a psychotherapist and neuroscientist). I wanted to be a deist but I just wasn’t sure if that was a safe option… So I did something I had never done before: I read the Bible and paid attention. I wasn’t looking for rules or patterns or ways to prove other religions wrong. I just wanted to read it and see what it said.

 

And here’s the thing: I wasn’t alone. I have since found a very large number of Church of Christ members have been doing the same, many of them for much longer than I. Fact is, I was a bit late to the party. As a church without a bureaucracy, we can change our direction much faster than other religious tribes. And when the younger generation came up and took its place as leaders, it brought with it an honest look at some scriptures we had never dealt with before (or swept aside with a “things were different back then. Just trust God. He must have had His reasons”). It wasn’t just the young preachers passing on a different way of viewing scripture: we had Cecil Hook, Leroy Garrett, Carl Ketcherside and many others who’d been cast out of fellowship by most of our churches but who kept writing and living lives of faith and love. We read their stuff and it changed everything. At least it did for me.

 

That’s why I wanted to mention the Moabites. They are merely one of a couple dozen examples I could bring up but since this is a blog and not a book…

 

If you carefully read the Old Testament you would be excused for being confused about God’s view of Moabites. In Deuteronomy 23:3-6 they (and the Ammonites) are expressly barred from the assembly of God. They are unsaveable and unconvertible – even to the tenth generation. If you had a single Moabite ancestor even nine generations back, you were forbidden from coming into the assembly or worshiping with the Jews. This wasn’t a temporary rule – it is recalled and enforced in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 13 and elsewhere.

 

God goes after the Moabites again in Isaiah 15-16, Jeremiah 48-49:6, Ezekiel 21 and 25, and Zephaniah 2:8,9.

 

But then we have the Book of Ruth. And she was a Moabite woman who was not only loved and protected by a Jewish man, he married her and she became the king’s grandmother and a grandmother of Jesus. Whaaa?

 

We have God telling the Hebrews to kill everyone in Jericho but they save a prostitute (I am interested in how they ended up at her house but that’s beside the point) who lied to protect them. Later, she married a Jew and she, too, enters the line of Jesus. Seriously? That seems to go against a lot of Deuteronomy and Leviticus…

 

Then we see Jonah. It isn’t about the fish/whale – it’s about God’s love for people that a lot of His followers hated. They were convinced God wanted the Ninevites and all other foreigners dead or banished. Instead, God sends them a prophet and forgives then when they repent, changing the decree He had made against them earlier.

 

It seems that God’s dislike/hatred of Moabites was overstated. At a minimum. And that changes the way we read scripture.

Skip to the New Testament and you find Paul saying a couple of things to the church in Corinth and Ephesus that people use to overrule other things he says about women in leadership and teaching. People ignore his conversational remarks and lists of workers, teachers, and leaders and go for what looks like rules and I understand their motivation; that was the way I was told to read scripture, too.

 

So how do we deal with the fact that Philip’s four daughters preached alongside him or that Junia was an apostle or that Phoebe is the only person in scripture expressly titled a deacon?

 

I haven’t figured it all out yet but I find one story very helpful: The Transfiguration. Jesus is praying when Elijah and Moses show up. The apostles are overjoyed – this is their entire Marvel Comic universe showing up, their pantheon of heroes, their fearless leaders! They want to build altars to them but God’s voice thunders and indicates Jesus, NOT the representatives of the law and the prophets. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

 

I – and a great many in the churches of Christ along with countless others in other religious traditions – now see the Bible as a narrative, not a rulebook. It is our story that points us to Jesus. When I get confused by Deuteronomy or Joshua or Paul or James I remember: go back and listen to Jesus. Hear him.

 

My path out of deism and into faith in Jesus had many steps but none so important as my decision to read the Gospels over and over for six months. It was easier back then to maintain an electronic-free room but I believe it is still worth the effort to do so. Go in there and read the story of Jesus again and again. Get to know his voice. As Hebrews 1 says, Jesus is what God looks like, sounds like, IS like.

 

The Bible is a finger pointing to Jesus. I love the Bible but I love Whom it points to even more.We are, after all, the Church of Christ – not the church of those other guys.

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14 Comments so far

  1.    Jim Patton on November 17th, 2014

    I was always intrigued by the difference between lascivious and licentious. I wonder how many of the tribe grew up hearing both regularly in church classes and having no idea what they really meant or what their origins told about the difference in their meanings.

    Reply

  2.    Jean Pierre DeBernay on November 17th, 2014

    This is why I love “Benefit of the Doubt” by Greg Boyd. It doesn’t make me feel like a heretic.

    Reply

  3.    Chris Wildesen on November 17th, 2014

    Patrick…I love reading your blogs and listening to your sermons! You make me think and search…so much of what I have believed for over 46 yrs is based on man ‘s traditions and not the will of my Heavenly Father. I have to do a lot of soul-searching and praying to have the relationship with God that I have missed out on for so long. I always felt distant from God…not I look forward to having what I missed out on for all those years! Thank you, Patrick, for opening my eyes and my heart to God’s love!

    Reply

  4.    Ray Leggett on November 17th, 2014

    Thank you Brother Meade for your insight. I have encouraged fellow followers of Christ to “read the red”. If they don’t have a “red letter” edition Bible I provide one for them.

    Reply

    •    Nolan on November 20th, 2014

      Ray I see your good intentions in this but I think it is a bit misguided. I know the red-letter Bible thing is popular but I don’t know if it is a good idea. Like Patrick is saying the entire Bible is a narrative pointing to Christ. You could say the Bible is “Christotellic” its “tellos” or goal is Christ. Everything in the Old Testament is pointing to Christ and everything in the New Testament is expanding on and pointing back to Christ. The entire Bible is about Jesus. When we read or preach from the Old Testament or any text the point of that reading and preaching is Christ. Unfortunately the “Red Letter” Bibles can make it seem like the only parts of the Bible that have anything to do with Jesus or where Jesus is teaching is where the red letters are. That is not true. Christ is teaching throughout the entire Bible. From Genesis to Revelation is Christ’s teaching. I think it is GREAT to place an emphasis on what Christ said but unfortunately a “Red Letter” only emphasizes some of what Christ teaches and leaves out so much. I think the point that Patrick is trying to make is that we should not segment the Bible into teachings we prefer and teaching we don’t discuss because they do not support our beliefs (like the Church of Christ so often does). Rather we should be reading and being fed by the whole council of God’s word. The word that God has given to us that teaches us everything we need to know about his story and primarily the work of his son Jesus.

      Reply

  5.    Richard on November 17th, 2014

    I am so glad to see others can grow up in the Church of Christ and not be bitter toward those who brought us to Christ even when we question or disagree. A breath of fresh air.

    Reply

  6.    Scott on November 18th, 2014

    Very well said. I love the progression in this post. I am very encouraged by these words.

    Reply

  7.    Jeff Hatcher on November 18th, 2014

    Outstanding! I love to hear of God’s faithfulness to people who are honestly looking. Your focus on the Gospels is of utmost importance. These days, I even have to weigh the teachings of the apostle Paul in light of what Jesus truly said and focused on in His ministry. I love the great promise we have in 2 Corinthians 3:18… that if we have our eyes focused on Jesus, God is the one who effects the transformation into His image. May He continue to bless you!

    Reply

  8.    Parker Jenson on November 21st, 2014

    When taking a serious look at the scriptures, both old and new testaments, and letting them be heard on their own terms. As Brueggemann says, “let the text have its own say”. It becomes evident that our view and knowledge of Jesus is mediated by the authors/redactors of the scriptures. So the advice to “go back and listen to Jesus” is more accurately stated “go back and listen to what the new testament writers of the gospels say about Jesus”.

    Even a cursory examination of source critical methods (e.g., N.T. synoptic problem and O.T. documentary hypothesis) reveal a more complicated picture. Not to say that it’s all not still God breathed.

    The “finger pointing to Jesus” is indeed pointing. It points up. The problem is that when I look up… it’s cloudy.

    Reply

    •    Matt on December 9th, 2014

      Parker, fantastic! I struggle in my sojourn here and become weary with the cloudy skies. The immediate forecast is more clouds. I am learning it’s cloudy for at least a couple reasons. 1) We’d die if he did not conceal himself, rather reveal himself in tiny increments. 2) We wouldn’t be walking by faith if we could see clearly.

      His requirements of us are far more gracious and difficult than our own requirements of us. This is why it is impossible to be like him without abiding in him. And if we are not abiding in him, then we should tread cautiously when spreading our understanding of the ancient text.

      Reply

      •    Matt on December 9th, 2014

        oops. And if we are abiding in him, then we already know well to tread cautiously in the Scriptures among fellow sojourners, bruised reeds, smoldering wicks and fragile souls.

        Reply

  9. Profile photo of Ray Downen   Ray Downen on December 15th, 2014

    I love to hear Patrick Mead preach. I love to think about Jesus and what He wants us to know and do. It’s clear that there’s much in the Bible that we will find hard to understand. God’s dealing with the Moabites is only one surprise. But Jesus offers salvation to ALL from every tribe and every nation. And that’s no secret. It’s easy to see in what Jesus taught and in what His apostles taught. If we want to understand the GOSPEL, we do well to study the apostolic writings about the early church. I disagree with concentrating on what Jesus Himself taught.

    Jesus taught children of Abraham, but the gospel is for ALL people of every race and every nation. And the teaching for US is found in apostolic writings. I vote for study of what the early church was taught rather than what children of Israel were taught by the Master. Those who lived under the Law were taught to obey that code. We are not under a code of laws.

    Reply

  10.    R.J. on February 6th, 2015

    I wouldn’t say that every Moabite was damned but dispensationally barred from coming near the shekinah until the prophets and especially when the wall of perdition came down on the Cross!

    They along with every other Gentile were under the Noahide covenant.

    Reply

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