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.