My Troubles With God IV
1. Religious Leaders are Human Beings
Whenever we are together, my Mother (a pastor) and I (a lawyer) tend to have hot theological debates. More often than not, our debates turn on what the Bible says about women (read this for example). Sometimes, I yield to my Mother’s vast wealth of biblical knowledge and pastoral experience. Sometimes, my mother agrees with my arguments. And sometimes, we amicably agree to disagree. One of the things I love about my mother is that in my adult life, she has given me the space to determine what the Bible means to me, and to balance my personal choices against my conscience and convictions.
My Mother and I sift our theology through our different professional, generational, personal, and cultural lenses. Here’s the thing: all human beings process their spiritual beliefs through the lens of their background, their experiences, and what they have been exposed to. Here’s another thing: all religious leaders (including bishops, pastors, priests, evangelists, etc.) are human beings too.
Far too often, Christians are eager to be spoon-fed biblical doctrine, rather than digging into the meat of the word themselves. We swallow everything we are taught in church, forgetting our biblical right to test teachings against the Bible itself (1 John 4:1). I have been exposed to a lot of biblical teachings and teachers during my life—probably more than the average person. Sometimes, I see Pastors subterfuge personal or cultural beliefs as biblical doctrine—often without even realizing it.
I believe religious leaders have a right to set standards for their congregations, especially when these standards have moral, health, legal, cultural, or social merit. But I also believe such dogma must be divorced from biblical doctrine. Additionally, Christians have a right to ask questions about the Bible and the people who teach it. Indeed, the very fact that most Christians today have the ability to own a Bible in a language they understand is because some people were brave enough to ask hard questions. For example, during the 16th century, a German monk called Martin Luther began to question Catholic dogma. His 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses sparked a revolution across Europe known as the Protestant Reformation.
During the Protestant Reformation, men like Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox challenged the authority of the papacy, and advocated for sola scripture i.e. the principle that the Bible is the highest authority for defining Christian practice. One of the results of this revolution was that the Bible became accessible to the masses.
I enjoy assembling with the Christian community—there is no place I would rather spend a Sunday morning than my church home. I also choose to submit myself to the authority of my chosen spiritual guides. But for me: the teachings of any Pastor, will always, always, be secondary to the Bible.
2. The Bible Was Written by Human Beings
While the Bible is the word of God for me, I remain cognizant that human beings wrote it. God inspired, yes; but human written, still. I can already hear a reader hyperventilating and screaming blasphemy—please relax, and hear me out.
It is a testament to the beauty of grace, that God chose human beings with all their flaws, to convey his message. As theologian Barbara Brown Taylor put it in her book, Leaving Church: “As beautifully as these witnesses write, their divine reputation can never be separated from their ardent desires; their genuine wish to serve God cannot be divorced from their self-interest.” Take for example, the fact that the New Testament’s Gospel of John, traditionally believed to be written by Apostle John, refers to Apostle John as “the apostle who Jesus loved”—six times.
Varied authors, who had varied literary styles and varied purposes, composed the Bible. Rachel Held Evans put it perfectly in A Year of Biblical Womanhood: “The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own.”
Moreover, the Bible has been translated, compiled, and arranged by human beings over centuries—some of who also had self-interests. The King James Bible for example, was a project of King James I of England, who in part, intended to guarantee that the Bible’s new version would conform to the episcopal structure of the Church of England.
To read biblical scriptures in a vacuum, and to apply them literally to modern lives without regard for context, can be dangerous. For example, verses in both the Old Testament and New Testament either explicitly or implicitly endorse slavery. Yet, the majority of Christians condemn slavery today. Perhaps the time has also come for the modern church to begin to re-consider some of its gendered philosophies and practices. How much of biblical scripture should be cut-and-pasted to the lives of women today?
I still consider the Bible to be God’s living word to me: almost every day, I find a Bible verse that inspires, instructs, comforts, or entertains me. Sure, the Bible has its flaws: but I try not to miss the beauty of the forest by focusing on some questionable trees. Navigating the grey areas between dynamic biblical principles and untouchable ancient boundary markers remains a constant quest of mine. I also try not to overcomplicate things. This is the black-and-white sum of Biblical laws: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 37-40; Galatians 5:14).
Thus, even as I continue to study the minutiae of the Bible, I strive to not place my interpretation of it above my experience with the God it calls me to serve, nor above my relationship with the people it calls me to love. Speaking of which, the Bible does not limit my love to members of my gender, members of my religious faith or members of my race; neither does it place a boundary around people with different political or sexual orientations. Throughout the New Testament, one sees Jesus putting a love for humanity, above the letter of religious law.
And so, when it boils down to it: grace is my foundation, and love is my religion.
TO BE CONTINUED.