Last week, a friend of mine posted a link to an article that was written to show that Christians who say they take the Bible literally on the issue of same-sex marriage do not (and cannot) even follow all of the Bible’s rules concerning hetero-marriage. The article had a list of Biblical instructions concerning the hierarchy of husbands over wives, the practice of polygamy, and what to do in case of a rape. She followed up on the article by asking a few genuine questions for her Christian friends to answer. I thought this was an interesting topic, but I didn’t want to answer on her newsfeed because (1) it would be too long, and (2) although my friend might be genuine in her questioning, I’m sure there would be others who would read my comments and only be looking to pick a fight. I thought that perhaps it would be better to answer these questions in blog form. It is important to note, though, that there is a lot of diversity within the Christian faith. Each Christian has his or her own view on issues of Biblical interpretation, doctrine, and the spectrum of how literally they follow the Bible. In my opinion, it doesn’t make a person any less of a Christian simply because they have a different view of the Bible than I do, but I want to be clear that my answers to these questions are my own. Christians (and non Christians) with different views are welcome to chime in on the comments section – or even answer these questions for themselves in their own blog posts! It would be neat to see the diversity of responses. So, without wasting any more of your time…
“What do you do when you read something in the Bible that you clearly don’t believe?”
I’ll be the first to admit that there are plenty of things in the Bible that seem pretty crazy. I’ll also admit that, to my extreme disappointment, when I have asked other Christians about questionable Biblical passages – they became defensive and have either labeled me as someone who didn’t really have faith, or have uncomfortably tried to gloss over my questions with shallow “pat on the back” answers that really held no weight. This is a huge problem that Christianity seems to have – we don’t like to face the hard stuff. We want to pick all the nice, happy scriptures and focus on those without really looking at the whole picture. When we do this, we are not only doing ourselves a disservice but we are also keeping others from understanding who we are and what we believe. I have learned, unfortunately, not to ask the hard questions to other Christians because I never know how they will respond. This is not a good thing, and this is something that I hope will change, but it is where I am right now.
In my personal study time, however, I enjoy delving deep into the tough stuff. Here are a few things that I look at when I face a passage of scripture that seems brutish, cruel, and/or unlike the God that I have come to know and believe in.
I look at historical context – what was happening at the time? What were the normal customs of the people I am reading about and the people around them? We have to try, as much as possible, to read the Bible through the perspective of the people about whom we are reading. We can’t read it with our 21st century American views and expect to come away with a full understanding of what was going on. I look at original meanings of words – the Bible was written in a few different languages, and I’m sure that there are puns, popular metaphors of that time period, and other words that have just gotten lost in translation over the years. There are probably words that they had in that time, that didn’t exist anymore when the Bible was first translated into English. Some Bibles have footnotes that tell you where a word used might have actually replaced another word or meant something different at the time of the original writing. Those are important clues to look at, as well. I ask myself whether the outcome of a passage is something that God wanted to happen, or something that happened because of the people involved. There is a huge difference. One of the scriptures listed in the article is about when Abraham slept with his wife’s servant-girl, Haggar, in order to produce an heir to his family line. The article incorrectly assumes that the Bible condones rape as a way to ensure your lineage. In actuality, God never told Abraham to sleep with or rape Haggar. Abraham and Sarah devised this plan on their own, independently of God. When reading the Bible, we have to remember that most of the Bible’s stories are stories of people who did not believe in or obey God. Most of the Bible’s stories are about people who take matters into their own hands and disregard God’s instructions. That doesn’t mean the Bible condones a certain thing, but the Bible just tells us what happened. Finally, if I find something questionable and it is a direct result of God’s instructions, I ask God about it and I continue to study the issue until I get an answer. Descartes talks about the need to doubt everything you know in order to know anything with any certainty. This has proven true in my faith journey. I think it is okay to respectfully challenge God. In fact, I think it is essential. How else are we supposed to get to know Him? I don’t want to walk away simply because I come up against something difficult. I want to understand it. I want to understand God to the best of my ability. And there are plenty of things in the Bible that I am still working toward understanding.
“How do you reconcile following the Bible as a whole?”
I think a lot of people see the Bible as simply a rulebook and we have to read it and do what it says. The Bible is more than that. It’s really the very (very) long story – spanning thousands of years and various cultures – of God’s interactions with flawed people. The Bible often tells what actually happened, and not what should have happened. Many of the Bible’s heroes are really just reformed criminals. Moses, David, and Paul were all murderers. Does that mean God wants me to go out and murder people, or is He just showing me that He can change lives? The Bible also has poetry, symbolism, metaphors, letters, and allegory. When I say that I follow the Bible as a whole, what I mean is that I believe its historical accounts are true. I mean that I have studied the history of and the laws created for the Israelites, and have studied how Jesus fulfilled those laws. I mean that I have sought to understand the hidden meanings of the Bible’s poetry, symbols, and parables. I mean that I have studied how Jesus is foreshadowed in the Old Testament and revealed in the New. I mean that I have read the letters written to the various groups of new Christians and learned about how the early church developed. I mean that I have read the stories of people who disobeyed God, and I have tried not to follow in their footsteps. Yes, there are certain commands in the Bible that I, if I say I believe, should apply to my life. However, following the Bible “as a whole” is really less about following rules and more of an attempt to understand this story of redemption that God is writing.
“Do you just not follow the parts that don’t work in society anymore, and then follow the parts that mean something to you?”
To answer this question, I need to go over some of the different parts of the Bible. If we’re looking at what is considered the “Old Testament,” we are talking about three parts. The first five books of the Old Testament are what make the Torah – or the law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). These laws were meant for Israelites to follow, most of them were for ceremonial purposes. The laws were there to form a covenant between God and the people through whom He chose to reveal Himself. Some of these laws were only for priests, some of these laws were only for men, some of these laws were only for women – so not even the entire people-group for whom they were written could follow them all. And yes, some of these laws are weird and/or cruel! Even the people to whom they were handed down did not always understand them – but they sought to! Many of the Torah’s laws are expounded on, debated, and discussed at length in the Talmud – an extrabiblical source that helps Jews to make sense of Torah’s rules. Likewise, just because I don’t have a cultural or religious obligation to follow these rules – or because I don’t always understand them – doesn’t mean that I should disregard them. Many of these laws had symbolic meaning that looked forward to the coming of a Jewish Messiah – who I believe to be Jesus Christ. I personally do not believe that one can fully understand the New Testament without an understanding of the Torah, similarly, I don’t believe that the big picture of the Torah can be seen without an understanding of the New Testament. Christians who emphasize too much of one over the other – in my opinion – are missing out. After the Torah, you have the Nevi’im – or the prophets. This is the part of the Old Testament that has all of the fascinating stories and carries a lot of Jewish history (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc). These are mostly stories of the people’s disobedience to God and the resulting consequences and warnings that God gave. In these books are people from whose experiences we can learn, in order to make wise decisions in our own lives. These books also give us good background and historical context. The other part of the Old Testament would be the Ketuvim – or the writings. This is what I would consider the “wisdom” parts of the Old Testament – Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations – and others. These books give advice, philosophical ideas, and insights into the meaning of abstract concepts like life, love, faith, and hardship. Many of them can be read alongside some of the stories of the Bible, because they were written simultaneously. For example, you may read in the book of 1 Kings a story about an incident that happened in King David’s life, and at the same time you can read one of the Psalms that King David wrote while that incident was happening. After the Old Testament, you get into the New Testament. The New Testament is also split up into different sections. You have the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) which are all firsthand accounts of Jesus’ life, written by people who knew Jesus. They tell mostly the same stories but from different perspectives. Then you have historical accounts of how the Christian Church began to form (the book of Acts). Then, you’ve got all of these letters – many written by Paul, some by other authors – that were written to instruct the early church on doctrine and conduct (books like Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, the list goes on). Finally you have the book of Revelations, which is a book written by John after he was exiled for his faith to the Island of Patmos. The book of Revelations is the written record of visions that John had while he was on Patmos. In my opinion, the Bible is not meant to be followed as much as it is to be studied, learned, and absorbed. Although you may hear many Christians refer to the Bible as a “manual for life,” most of it contains stories and history, not rules. So, to finally get to an answer to the question, it’s not about following only what works in society or cherry-picking the portions of the Bible that you like, it’s about understanding the whole picture of a story that the Bible is trying to tell – and then making a decision about how you will respond to that story.
“Why [does] the Bible mean so much to people when they disagree with many parts of it?”
I can’t tell you why the Bible means so much to other people – but I can tell you why it means a lot to me. I like that it has real people who make real mistakes and are given second chances. Sometimes, when we hear of “holy” men and women, all we hear about is how perfect they are and how wonderful everything they did was. That’s not real life. No one’s perfect. It’s the reason why people don’t like the Duggars (although I do like them) – they seem too perfect and so it reeks of fake. I like that King David slept with another man’s wife, had that man killed, and then God changed his heart and turned him into a better person. I like that Jonah tried to run away from God, but ultimately ended up doing what God had originally instructed. I like that Thomas doubted Jesus, even after knowing him personally. I like that Peter denied Jesus, even after he’d been best buddies with Jesus for a few years. The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat. It doesn’t make people seem to be anything that they’re not. It doesn’t hide dirty laundry. It lays everything out there for us to see. I also like that the Bible has people who make real mistakes and don’t get second chances. Because, that’s life sometimes, too. Sometimes we screw something up and that’s it. There is no second chance. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find forgiveness or that God won’t help us, but sometimes the consequences of what we do are permanent. I like that I can read the Bible over and over and still find new things to learn and ponder. It’s like a bag that you can keep pulling things out of. I have been reading the Bible for all of my life and there are still things about it that I am discovering. It doesn’t get boring. It keeps me interested. I like that it leaves me with questions. I enjoy being intellectually and philosophically challenged. I don’t like to read something and just take it at face value. There are times when you really have to dig deep to figure out how to reconcile what the Bible says with what the present culture is telling you to believe. There are times when you have to look at science and look at the Bible and figure out how and if the two fit together. That’s good for me. It keeps me from being one-sided and helps me learn to look at things from a variety of different angles. I don’t want to be told what to believe or what to think, I want to discover what I believe and what I think. Studying the Bible really helps to challenge me in that discovery process. I love that the Bible’s wisdom has kept me from making mistakes. There have been times when I was about to do something, remembered what the Bible said about it, didn’t do it, and it literally saved the day. On the flip side, there are times where I’ve ignored the Bible’s advice and then felt stupid for what I’d gotten myself into. Finally, I love that the Bible has helped me to get to know God. God and I are friends. God is not some abstract concept that I struggle to understand, He is someone that I know. For me, the Bible has played a huge part in getting to know Him.
I know this was long.
And I don’t know whether or not this post was at all helpful, but – to my friend who asked these questions – thanks for bringing up such a neat topic that caused so many of your Christian friends to really think about what they believe. We need that in the Christian world, more than you know.