(An earlier version of this essay was published in The Circuit Rider, May-July 2011,http://circuitrider.com/pdfs/circuitrider/U007501KTPe.pdf)
To state the obvious, issues of biblical interpretation can become the source of bitter disagreements.
Sometimes these are just foolish, but they do reflect the very human quality of holding strong opinions, whether about home decorating, breast-feeding vs. bottles, political issues, use of money, sports teams, Bible interpretation, and so on. I recall a Sunday when I preached on some topic and referred to the story of Massah and Meribah, Exodus 17:1-7, where God instructed Moses to strike the rock in order to produce water. Afterward a parishioner, with fire in her eyes, informed me I was wrong; God had told Moses to speak to the rock. That’s true if we’re talking about a similar passage, Numbers 20:2-13. There, God instructs Moses to speak to the rock but, in anger, he strikes it instead. An easy mistake to make; in fact, I double-checked my statement afterward, worried (since I was just starting out in preaching and eager to do well). But I thought, rhetorically, why in the world would you use a scripture in order to take delight in catching someone in a mistake? Unfortunately, Bible interpretation often takes that form, especially the way parishioners can overreact, sometimes with schadenfreude, to pastors’ mistakes.
But social issues take on additional controversy when they turn upon points of biblical interpretation. Often we cite the Bible’s authority as a guarantee of doctrinal correctness, or as a code for particular social positions, without caring that other people may disagree with us on biblical grounds. Here are just a few contemporary issues:
- The current debate about homosexuality is one example. Leviticus 18:22 condemns male homosexual practice within the contest of Israel’s life under codes of purity—codes which also include abstention from sex during menstruation, capital punishment for adultery, and so on. Romans 1:27 is a condemnation of male homosexual practice, situated in a context where Paul contrasts the behavior of the Gentile world with the behavior of self-justifying religion (Romans chapter 2; see also 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10). Those who criticize same-sex marriages and ordination of gays argue that Paul upholds the sanctity of the heterosexual bond as created by God (Gen. 1:26-27), and that the several biblical prohibitions against homosexual practice cover contemporary circumstances. Those who support ordination of gays and same-sex marriage (like me) argue that the biblical prohibitions do not address our modern understandings of sexuality, gender, and identity, nor does it address committed, loving relationships between same-sex persons. Supporters also note that, as Paul argues, we all are saved by Christ and empowered with the Holy Spirit without distinction, for God shows no partiality. (Would Galatians 3:28 include the coupling “gay or straight” if Paul were writing today? I believe he would.)
One of my best friends, who is gay and a deeply committed Christian, complains that church discussions about same-sex marriages and gay ordination are too often conducted as a topic of Bible interpretation in absence of gay people and their testimonies about the Spirit’s work in their lives. My friend’s concern raises an important issue: can we interpret scripture apart from the testimony of persons, when our interpretation affects those persons? This question applies to some of the following issues.
- Women’s ordination is not practiced in some churches, and some denominations have men-only leadership roles. (Years ago my wife, who is now a university president, could not serve on her congregation’s council because of her gender.) The New Testament also contains passages that imply or teach the subordination of women to men, or at least wives to husbands: 1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-9, 14:34b-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Peter 4:10-11. The creation stories seem to imply the subordination of women as helper (Gen. 2:18). Additionally, Jesus only chose males as his disciples and thus only males should be ordained. (He only chose Jews, however; doesn’t that fact negate the argument?) But the New Testament mentions several women disciples and leaders: Acts 9:36, 18:24-26, Romans 16:1, 3, 7, Philippians 4:2, Philemon 2, not to mention Old Testament leaders like Deborah, and the women followers of Jesus who unlike the men stayed with Jesus through the end and some of them were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
Similarly to homosexuality, interpretive differences on this issue have to do with a broader interpretive decision: how do we apply statements made in the 1st century to our contemporary time? Is the biblical subordination of women’s roles a timeless truth, imbedded within God’s creation, or a reflection of that ancient culture? Does not the Holy Spirit rise up persons to be Christian leaders within a different cultural situation as the Bible’s?
- Scientific theories are models of explanation that have stood the test of time, satisfactorily describe newly discovered phenomena, and facilitate technological development. A theory is different than a “hypothesis,” that is, an unproven assumption that hasn’t yet been shown to be valid. Evolutionary theory, for instance, is a satisfactory and well-tested scientific theory for numerous fields like biology, genetics, paleontology, and others. But scriptures like Psalm 104, John 1:1-3, and Col. 1:15-20 declare God’s creation and care of the natural world, truths unavailable to science. How do we reconcile naturalistic theories with theological convictions like the reality of human sin, the special place of human beings in creation, the reconciling work of Christ on the cross, and the providence of God in the natural process as well as the human social world? One way is to recognize that scientific models are properly physical descriptions, not philosophical and theological conclusions. Science and religion are, potentially, complementary sources of truth. But science can seem threatening when scientific theories seem to lead to agnostic conclusions, and even to purely naturalistic explanations of religion itself.
- Should a Christian own a gun? Obviously the Bible does not mention guns, which began to be developed in the Middle Ages. David praised God who prepared him for battle (Psalm 144:1), and Jesus’ disciples carried swords (Luke 22:38, 49-50). Armed soldiers came to faith (Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10:1-33, Romans 13:4). And yet Jesus taught peace, reconciliation, and concern for one’s enemies (Matt. 5:9-12, 38-47), as did Paul (Rom. 12:14-21). A Bible-based decision on keeping and bearing arms may come down, not so much upon Bible teachings, but one’s motives and attitudes, which are also shaped by the Bible.
- Use of alcoholic beverages has been an issue in American history turning upon scriptural interpretation. Temperance supporters argue that drunkenness is condemned in scripture (Prov. 20:1, 1 Cor. 6:10, Eph. 5:18-20), and is also a potential stumbling block to other Christians (with 1 Cor. 8:1-13 providing an analogous situation); therefore, a Christian should abstain from alcohol. One could also argue, however, that scripture allows moderate use of alcohol. (Prov. 31:6-7, Ps. 104:14-15, 1 Tim. 5:23), and even Jesus himself was criticized for drinking (Luke 7:33-34). In that passage, Jesus turned the issue back to the hearts of his critics. If we do not embrace abstinence, will we be hurting our witness?
One could mention many other issues of contemporary importance: environmental issues, criminal justice, the death penalty, medical research, and so on. For several years I was blessed to be on a team of writers of a weekly curriculum that addresses current events through the lens of scripture. Christians interpret the scripture as our normative guide to our convictions and practices, but at the same time, appealing to scripture does not lead to proposals satisfactory to all. When our opinions and convictions are connected to the Bible and our perception of God’s will, we want to defend our convictions—and our sense of personal identity can become tied together with those convictions. Naturally, conflicts will arise when we encounter contrary viewpoints.
We have biblical precedent for conflict among Christians. In Galatians 4:21-5:1, for instance, Paul discusses an Old Testament passage that, apparently, had been also used by his opponents; both “sides” argued the issue of circumcision. We are liable to say: Well, of course Paul was the correct side in that controversy. But at that time, Paul was just one participant in a sharp difference of interpretation. A commentator puts it this way, “Normative proposals about Christian practices must be adjudicated through debating the interpretation of Scripture. As the Letter to the Galatians shows [referring to the 4:21-5:1 section], the appeal to Scripture does not settle issues in a simple, straightforward way. The right reading of Scripture may be bitterly contested, as it was in Galatia. Still, Scripture defines the arena in which the contest must take place.” This is not a subjectivist approach to truth; rather, we seek a deeper understanding of truth, humbly, knowing that truth-with-a-capital-T is Christ, our living Savior.
Though scripture may be bitterly contested, we must try not to be bitter toward one another, lest we hurt our Christian witness by our rancor. The Holy Spirit builds us up, changes us and renews us, so that we can become effective witnesses to Christ as the Spirit works through us. I leaf to another favorite scripture, which applies to the way we read the Bible:
[I]f any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you to behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:17-20).
If we read the Bible for rules with which to confront people, to call them up short, and to shore up our own “rightness,” we miss an important aspect of our Christian walk, which is to show how Christ reconciles us with God.
Another favorite scripture:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh… Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the life … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:16, 19-21b, 22-24).
To seek God is not simply to understand God and his will better—a good and appropriate thing. Seeking God is also seeking the fruit of the Spirit. You can’t seek God without also seeking to be changed by God: to grow in love, kindness, gentleness, and so on. We’re freed from having to “earn” God’s love; God’s love is simply a gift. But our spiritual searching—our quest to know God’s will more fully and purely— has to do not only with intellectual understanding and scriptural interpretation, but also with transformation and reconciliation.
And one more favorite scripture:
Once when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?’ He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?”(Josh. 5:13-14).
“Are you one of us, or one of them?” “Neither.” What a wonderful reminder that, even at our best and our most biblically-correct, we fall very, very far short of God’s holiness and fall down in humility before his mercy.
 Two interesting writings concerning the Bible and homosexuality are Jeffrey S. Siker, ed., Homosexuality and the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), and Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), chapter 8. See also Dave Barnhart, God Shows No Partiality: The Forgotten Slogan of the Early Church (CreateSpace, 2012). My friend Thomas Dukes has written a wonderful book, Sugar Blood Jesus: A Memoir of Faith, Madness and Cream Gravy (White Sulphur Springs: OSL Publications, 2009).
 An interesting recent book on the ordination of women in the early church is Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 Authors like Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, and others have written about the complementariness of science and religion and the issues in the relationship between the two fields. I wrote a short study book called What About Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).
 Brevard S. Childs notes that the Old Testament is famously a violent book, but he discusses how the Bible’s overall witness is to God’s will for peace: see his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 74-78. Similarly, Jon D. Levenson writes, “The basis of this vision of peace [Ps. 46:10-11] is not pacifism, but rather the limitless scope of YHWH’s triumph…The recognition of YHWH’s lordship is the basis of universal peace.” Levinson, “Zion Traditions,” in David Noel Freedman, gen. ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, Si-Z (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1101.
 The curriculum FaithLink, published since 1995 by Abingdon Press (www.cokesbury.com/faithlink). Several FaithLink issues were incorporated into the series Becoming the People of God: Living Faithfully as Friends and Family (2001), Walking Humbly, Doing Justice (2002), Caring for God’s Earth (2002), Forming a Global Family (2003), Opting for Virtue in Public Life (2003), Working Together, Sharing the Bounty (2003), all published in Nashville, TN, by Cokesbury.
 Numerous books tackle religion and politics: Tony Campolo, Red Letter Christians: A Citizens Guide to Faith and Politics (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2008); Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: HarperOne, 2006); David Klinghoffer, How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative (New York: Doubleday, 2008), and others.
 Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 307.