–Daniel S. Ferguson
While I’ve connected with all of the stories I’ve heard so far in deep and meaningful ways, one giant part of my own story has, so far, been glaringly absent from others’ stories: a struggle with the Bible.
I know that I set out to talk about why people leave the church, so it’s been about that. But for me, the church and the Bible are thoroughly wed. If I reject one, I will reject the other. If I ever do leave the church, I’ll leave the Bible behind, too.
If you’ve never wanted to set your Bible on fire, I have to doubt if you’ve ever actually read one.
Make not mistake, the Bible is damned offensive at times. And not the good, I-need-my-life-rocked-because-I’m-doing-things-wrong offensive.
Actually, really offensive, by any modern standard.
Who doesn’t look at God’s commands for Israel to commit genocide with horror (Deuteronomy 20:10-20)? Who doesn’t balk when Paul says it’s disgraceful for women even to talk in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)? Who isn’t offended when Jesus says that a divorced woman’s remarriage is an act of adultery (Matthew 5:31-32)? Who doesn’t think of a beloved friend when reading that God calls homosexuality an abomination (Leviticus 18:22)? Who isn’t genuinely horrified by hell in general?
The Bible’s position is rather extreme on some issues that have evolved dramatically since its writing, but that presents a problem for the Christian. We’re told that the Bible is our “God-breathed” authority on all issues (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Every church I’ve ever met has placed a high value on the Bible as the primary (or even the sole) source of wisdom for Christian living.
Though many Christians simply ignore the difficult passages in the Bible, the Bible doesn’t seem to grant us that luxury. You’ll see churches doing all sorts of Scriptural gymnastics to justify simply doing things differently.
And that presents a real problem for a lot of people.
I think a lot of people have left the church because…
1) …the Bible said offensive things and the church enforced them anyway, and
2) …the church said the Bible was its authority but selectively ignored the offensive parts of it.
That’s a Catch 22 for churches. On the one hand, you don’t want to enforce Biblical mandates and ideas that don’t make sense to you or that genuinely offend you. On the other hand, you can’t just call something your authority and then ignore it at will. Picking and choosing drives people nuts.
So what are churches to do? Well, they’ve largely done the natural thing: they’ve split into a bajillion different denominations, each with their own interpretive structures, and each with their own intentional Biblical blindspots.
This helps churches have their cake and eat it, too. You see, they basically get to say that they respect the Bible in all its teachings but that here, at this church, we don’t do [x] for [y] reason. If people want a strict, Bible-following church with headscarves and no gays, they can almost certainly find one. But here, at this church, we follow Jesus as best we can and really just don’t read or follow the passages that we find offensive.
The problem is that both the strict enforcement and the looser selectiveness of the Bible turn doubters off. On the one hand, we doubters find a lot of things in the Bible genuinely horrifying. We’d rather burn certain pages out of every Bible in the world than ever believe them. (For me, that’s Romans 9.)
But on the other hand, a church that picks and chooses which parts it will and won’t follow strikes us as hypocritical, and we’ve had quite enough of that.
It’s particularly annoying to us doubters when a pastor is preaching from a passage and conveniently skips over the offensive verse. (This happens all the time with 1 Timothy 2.) We hate that he can get away with it because no one ever actually opens a Bible in church when there’s a screen that projects the verses. It drives us crazy. (And by ‘us’, I mean ‘me’, but I assume there’s more than just me…)
So what do I do when there’s something in the Bible I don’t, can’t, and/or won’t agree with?
There are so many parts of the Bible that I wish simply weren’t there. I can get over most of the cultural cleanliness stuff (because mildew is still gross today), and I get that Jesus fulfilled the law so that means a lot of it no longer applies. I think we’re on good footing wearing polyblend clothes and not setting lambs on fire twice a day anymore.
But what about homosexuality? Divorce? Women’s equality? All of those are discussed in the New Testament, some by Jesus himself. I can’t whisk those away so easily.
I’ll be honest that I’ve committed a lot of the Biblical gymnastics I’ve complained about in this post. It’s the only way I can swallow the text whole. I start with Paul’s assertion that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10), connect that with Christ’s assertion of the same (Mark 12:28-30) and build everything else out from there.
I will freely admit that there are Biblical commands I simply ignore. But my choice to do so has not been flippant. I don’t just read them and decide they aren’t for me. I struggle with the text. I study every interpretation I can get my hands on. I read it in Hebrew, Greek, English, and Latin (and in one case Spanish). I read commentaries going back centuries.
I figure if I’m going to disagree with the Bible, I’d better have a damned good reason why, one that’s supported by the Bible itself. I can’t just my personal feelings on a given topic let me push the Bible aside.
Now, that’s just me. I really can’t expect every Christian to do what I do. I’ll admit that it’s overwhelming. It’s a passion of mine, and I understand that not everyone has that passion. Most people want the Bible to be simple to them. That’s not a bad impulse.
But their desire for simplicity can only be serviced well in a church where at least the pastor struggles with the Bible like this. Not every Christian should wrestle with the text, but certainly pastors and teachers should. If you find a pastor who speaks in generalities about the Bible, who doesn’t have any indication of struggling with the text, who glosses over the hard parts, and who suspiciously skips over verses–run.
My best advice? Find a church that struggles with the Bible.
That’s the middle ground I think that’s best for us. Not a church that takes the Bible at face value and chastises those who question it. But also not a church that flippantly or conveniently ignores the hard stuff. I (and, I imagine, a lot of the people who left) want a church that tackles the difficult issues head on and isn’t afraid of getting dirty in it.
After all, isn’t that what love is? You can’t say you love the Bible and not try to love its most difficult parts. We wouldn’t do that do a person we loved. I can’t say I love my wife and yet willfully ignore her beautiful complexity.
Doubters aren’t often served well by either hardliners or sugar-coaters. We’re served well by debaters and discussers. Churches would win a lot of us back with that approach, I think.
And if you are a doubter like me, you owe it to yourself to get dirty with the Bible, too. Try your best to go to a church Bible study. Ask hard questions. Expect hard answers. Listen. Talk. Tell stories. Lather, rinse, repeat. It will do you a world of good.