Chapter 6: Scripture’s Light and Beauty. 2, “You Can’t Pick and Choose”

I can think of three popular ways that the authority of the Bible is wrongly articulated: as a book from which we shouldn’t pick and choose, as a book in which every word is true, and as a book we should obey rather than interpret.

The members of a particular small group studied the letters of Paul.  They came to Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 2:12, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. A female classmate spoke critically of Paul’s outlook toward women. Her husband teased her, “You can’t pick and choose, you know!” Although the man was joking with his spouse, this argument isn’t uncommon: if the Bible is God’s Word, then we should not pick passages of scripture we like and discard others.

“Customizing” one’s religious beliefs isn’t an uncommon phenomenon among Americans, and not necessarily a good thing if one hopes that people will have sound, traditional doctrines.[1] On the other hand, we all do pick and choose Bible passages. We all make decisions (not necessarily articulating the reasons) about which scriptures to follow literally, which to follow less literally, and which not to follow. We interpret some passages as more culturally conditioned than others.  We cherish Jesus and seek to do his will … but we do not liquidate our possessions, give to the poor, and live as indigents (Luke 18:22). We do not traipse in pairs from town to town, barefoot and without money, lodging at people’s houses as we spread the Gospel (Luke 10:1-12). We “adapt” the literal command to fit contemporary realities.

We also pick and chose because, honestly, we’re not inclined to follow certain portions. How many people do you admire because of their bluntness and candor, in spite of the Proverbs that teach restraint from angry words and the wisdom of quiet thoughtfulness (e.g., Prov. 10:12, 14:29)?  Have you ever taken the time to reconcile with someone prior to your worship (Matt. 5:23-24)?  Have you lately helped a poor person, or visited someone in jail (Matt. 25:31-46)? Faithfulness to scriptures that we could follow more conscientiously is a struggle for all of us!  But we’re prone to honor Jesus with pious and respectful feelings about biblical authority, and then we proceed to live neglectful of his teachings.

Bible study is a key way to clarity about God and God’s will, but as long as we live we’re always seeking deeper knowledge of God, new insights, new understanding of biblical content and fresh connections of the Bible to our current circumstances. A positive way of “picking and choosing” is to seek God’s will in scripture with humble heart by finding scriptures that address our current situation. Rather than “customizing” scripture, we compare verses and allow them to teach and guide us, according to the Spirit’s guidance.

Here are just a couple examples.  This is a verse well known to anyone struggling with a sense of Christian calling.

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).

But here is also a passage that is equally scripture:

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:4-5).

Jesus calls us to put him first in all things. But if a person serves Jesus in, for instance, a role of church leadership, he or she should not thereby become lax in household responsibilities.

Here’s another scripture:

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (Mark 7:9-13).

Here Jesus criticizes those who would renege on one’s obligation to parents through the custom of devoting an offering to God.

These passages taught me during a time when I struggled to balance the needs of a young child at home, my marriage, the increasingly dire needs of elderly parents (of whom I’m the only child), and my call to serve God. It would’ve been easy to linger on Luke 14:26 and feel guilty—as if I were a bad servant by having family needs, a common-enough anxiety in clergy—but broadening my reading I gained a better perspective.

Here’s another scripture that I love.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10).

But here is a passage from the same book.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (1 John 3:4-10).

All of us do sin. Sometimes we fall into sin in spite of our best intentions, if not in the “big” sins then in our attitudes, weaknesses (gossip and the like), and poor decisions. Some of us fall into the big sins, too.  Furthermore, we are a part of social structures where we participate in or tacitly condone sins like injustice, poverty, economic policies that exploit domestic and overseas workers, and so on.

The first passage rings true and is quite reassuring. Does the second passage contradict the first? This is important to understand as we see God’s gifts of holiness and sanctification. We must look at other scriptural viewpoints in order to elucidate John. How much power do we allow Jesus to have in our lives? He does save us for Heaven while we are sinners (Rom. 5:8), but should we allow him to cleanse us more thoroughly of sin? Do we really want him to? Not only that, but while Jesus can and does cleanse us from specific sins, we must ask: Is there also a point where we deceive ourselves as to the depth of our sin? Sin has a way of rearing its ugly head just at the point when we think we’ve conquered it. In addition to moral and psychological sins, we fail to recognize kinds of sin that don’t necessarily set off “alarms” (our acquiescence of injustices, our subtly racist and elitist habits of thinking and acting, and others).

Recognizing the tenacity of sin, we can go beyond a definition of sin as the violation of law (John’s understanding here) and compare John’s theology to, for instance, that of Romans 7:7-25; there, sin is not just the violation of the law but also a fault within human will and nature.  Christ’s salvation is something that reaches deeply into our circumstances.  In this case, another scripture by another author help us understand a point that was less completely discussed in a passage.  (In a previous chapter, I similarly discussed the beloved verse Psalms 37:4.)

“Comparing scripture with scripture” is a venerable way of studying the Bible, but it’s a way that requires sensitivity for word meaning, context, and the author’s intended meaning.[2]  We also need more rather than less of the Holy Spirit’s help for clarity of understanding and for guiding our hearts.

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[2]  When we “proof-text,” we choose Bible verses, in a hasty or sloppy way that overlooks issues of context, either to prove a point or to proceed straight to an application.  Here are some examples:

  • You have tattoos? You’re violating God’s word: Leviticus 19:28. But are these laws intended for non-Jews?  If this law is God’s word, what about the other laws, like the kosher laws of Leviticus 11, that we do not or cannot follow?
  • You baptize babies? Then you’re violating God’s word: infant baptism never appears explicitly in the New Testament.
  • You see children read stories about witches?  God hates witches, though—Ex. 22:18, Lev. 19:31 and 20:6—so God is against these fantasy stories.
  • You want a good reason to spank your children?  Proverbs 13:24, taken out of context, seems to provide warrant for a few slaps on the kid’s bottom. (The word “rod” is not meant as a tool for abuse but also “an instrument of guidance and protection” like a shepherd’s staff; Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 683.

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