Friday, February 29, 2008

An Open Bible Needs An Open Heart

This Sunday I start a new class called: “An Open Bible Needs An Open Heart.” I believe that our attitude and casual familiarity with scripture borders on contempt. I see examples everywhere of the abuse of scripture, some obvious, and some subtle. I have heard scripture rapidly quoted with anger and bitterness by people using the Bible as their own personal machine gun to win an argument, and I have spoken with an atheist about historical inconsistencies they saw in the Bible. Both of these examples have one thing in common – these people were quoting scripture without having a relationship with the author of scripture. In that vein, I have observed two very extreme, very opposite ways of reading scripture, and I believe they are both dangerous:

1. Pattenism
By this I mean reading scripture for the sole purpose of extracting rules, procedures, and guidelines. This is dangerous because scripture then becomes cold and lifeless. Passages can be ripped from their literary and historical contexts, and we tend to focus on the question, “Does the silence of scripture prohibit or allow something?” - a question that the Bible itself does not answer. (Several months ago I posted why I reject the prohibitive nature of the silence of scripture.) Reading the Bible this way can make us intellectually lazy because if the Bible is reduced to a collection of facts to be learned, then you can only know so much, and once you have all the facts and rules down there’s not much left to do but argue with anyone who disagrees. Plus, you tend to engage in doing something that I think is impossible – “restoring” the 1st century church in the 21st century.

2. Subjective Emotionalism
I often hear people use the phrase, “God laid it on my heart.” But the problem is that God could not possibly have laid on their hearts something as vapid as what they’re suggesting. When reading scripture becomes a private, purely emotional, application-only experience, you also rip passages out of their contexts, and force those passages to say things they were never intended to say. This way of reading scripture perpetuates the trendy myth that the aim of Christianity is to develop a “personal relationship” with Jesus. But when you find an unintended application in scripture you are committing violence against the integrity of the text. For example, I was sitting in on a small group Bible study some time ago, and we were studying one of the prophets – a text where the prophet was condemning Israel. And people were saying, “We Americans need to change. Look at this message. God will destroy our nation if we continue to sin and act immoral.” And I felt foolish pointing out that the prophet was speaking to Israel, not the United States. God has no covenant with the United States.

Both of these ways of reading scripture does not respect the distance between us and the text. Take 1st Corinthians. We are listening in on one side of a 2000-year-old conversation between Paul and a church in another city in another culture in another time. So, here’s one question we’ll discuss in class – do instructions given to the Corinthian church in the 1st century (oh say, concerning women in the assembly) apply to a congregation in 21st century America?


Kerrie said...

You know being so short on sleep, this is probably not the best time for me to comment.

I understand that you are writing about scripture references here but I'm wondering if your suggesting more than that in the subjective emotionalism section. You write about the "laid it on my heart" type of comments and the "trendy myth about the aim of christianity being a personal relationship with Jesus". I really hope you are not making light of the active role that Christ takes in our lives today. "Trendy Myth" does not describe my life or the relationship I have with Jesus. No,it is not the aim of Christianity, salvation is. However I can not separate my own salvation with the relationship I have with the one who saved me. I HOPE that you are sincerely just speaking about taking scripture out of context and not making light, making fun or even negating the active role He has in my life. If you are then that brings up a whole maybe related discussion about how God works in our lives today. Don't even get me started tonight on that one.

Mark said...


Its early in the morning so I hope this is coherent.

I often wonder if we don't over complicate the whole thing. Maybe it's just pride on my part or my American tendency towards individualism, but I can not believe that you have to be a Greek /Hebrew scholar and a historian to understand the bible. I tend to believe that the bible is understandable as a stand alone document. I tend to think that the individual can go to the scriptures and understand his/her relationship with God.

On the other hand. God did not want Christians to go it alone (that is why He gave us patterns for coming together as a body of believers.) He knew we needed each other for a number of reasons, including helping each other grow in understanding his word. The scholar and the "layman" all have their roles.

I'll take the bait on discussing women's roles later...

Charles North said...

Hi Kerrie. I would never make fun of someone else's spirituality. My comments are STRICTLY concerning how we read scripture. I know that God is active in our lives in ways I could never comprehend, and I would never judge someone else's relationship with God. Mark introduced what I think - the best study of scripture happens in community.

Charles North said...

I need to add one more thing - I began the post by saying that you can only properly interpret scripture if you have a relationship with God. So I don't think it's primarily an intellectual exercise.

Kerrie said...

Thank you Charles, I appreciate your concern for keeping balance and perspective as I need that. I have learned so much already since you have been here and your lessons at church have certainly never led me to believe that you didn't believe in God's power in our lives. After some sleep last night I realized I too have seen the extreme views of reading scripture that you mentioned and can see how that could get out of hand.

Guess I got hung up on the "trendy Myth" wording as I have seen God's hand so visible in my life right now as you know. I couldn't be surviving right now without him.

Mark said...

I've always viewed thing like this. In order for me to understand what a passage means, I have to answer two questions. What did it mean to the audience of the day? And, what does it mean to me today? (I think a failure to answer these two questions is the reason why we get so many theories on the Revelation... but that's not the point here is it?)

Take the example of your Old Testament passage. You are right in pointing out that Americans do not have the same covenant as the Israelites. That would be a gross over-application of the passage. However, we (Christians) ARE in a covenant relationship with God.

Mark said...

I said I would take the bait on the "Woman" subject, so here it goes. Obviously, women played an important part in Christ's life. I think that is why so much of the story of Jesus has women in it playing an active role. I always think it's interesting who he showed himself to first.

There are two passages that are used in the discussion of the roles of women. Of course, that's I Cor 14:34 and I Timothy 2:12. Based on the context of I Timothy, I do not find it hard to accept the argument that the passage is referring to things being done in an acceptable way within the culture. I think the context of that passage is about holy living, not what is done on Sunday morning.

However, I find it difficult to dismiss the I Corinthians passage. I am left with one question, why is it disgraceful for a woman to speak "in the church?"

Whatever the case, this is what I think. Preaching, teaching, praying, song leading, etc. are all acts of service, not platforms of power. Politicians make great speeches because they seek power and influence. Teachers of God's Word should speak to encourage others to Godly living and bring others to Christ.

I've also said before that the public worship is such a minuscule part of our lives. There are so many ways to serve God with the gifts that we are given.

Just some thoughts....

David said...

Charles, I have a few comments.

First, I think you meant to put Patternism not Pattennism. In case you want to reedit that.

Second, I think that to say silence is either always prohibitive or always permissable is a gross generalization. You know as well as I that it has to be determined on a case by case basis. The larger problem is not silence being prohibitive, which I believe at times it could be, but our coupling of silence being prohibative with patternism and a Christianity that desires to be right rather than one that desires to imitate Christ. The problem with coupling these three together is that it often leads to picking and choosing based on what I already think is right rather than letting myself be formed by Scripture.

Third, I completely agree that the best interpreter of Scripture is the one who has a relationship with God and I would add to that that those who with stronger realtionships with the Lord probably interpret Scripture better than those who do not have one. That does not mean though that we can ignore the arguments of the atheist and agnostics. It just means that the Bible is the churh's book and is best interpreted within the community of faith. That being said, I don't know if I buy our Protestant notion that everyone can interpret the Bible equally. Now I don't want to go so far that I create a hierachy, but if we trust doctors for surgeries even though all of us to some degree have some medical knowledge than I would like to think that by receiving theological training I am better equipped than just the average joe. However, the person who receives theological training has to always be tempered by the overall interpretation of Scripture by the community of faith and by a strong relationship with God. Without that, then a theologian is simply a secular scholar. Now again, I do not want there to be a hierarchy in our churches, I just want to get rid of this notion that all of us are on the same level of interpretation. Some have stronger realationships with God, others have more theological knowledge, others more pratical, etc., which always influences the levels in which we interpret Scripture.

Fourth, about the women's issue, what we do as a church is couple 1 Cor 14:34-35 with 1 Tim 2:12. No one in their right mind would say tha women could not speak in the assembly. If that is the truth then get rid of all bible classes, co-ed singing, etc. Even Paul allows for woman to pray and prophesy with their head covers at the beginning of 1 Cor 11 (whatever that means!) Also, Paul uses the same word for silence for the tounge speakers and prophesiers in ch. 14 and for them it does not mean always be silent. It is conditional. It means be silent if you are speaking without an interpreter (tongue speakers) or while someone else is speaking (prohesiers). The problem with the women issue is that we don't have enough info to figure out exactly what form of speech Paul wants them to stop. Since that this verse is in is about interpreting prophesies, I think that what was going on was that some of the prophet's wives were interupting their husands while they were prophesying and casuing a ruckus, since in most places in Paul when the word submissive is used in conjunction with women and men it has to do with wives and husbands.

The point is 1 Corinthians is a bad book to turn to to try and determine women's roles. The real question is what does 1 Tim 2:12 mean and does it trump Gal 3:28

Finally, Mark I would add one more question to your already excellent interpetation questions. 3) How has the church interpretted this passage for them through the ages? Sometimes this can be really valuable.

David said...

Oh and though God may not have a direct covenant with America like he does Israel, God does have a covenant with all humanity and accepts individuals as well as nations to abide by some ethical standards (See Amos 1:1-2:3). Though I understand your fear. Some of the standards that God held for the nations are not necessarily the same ones he held for Israel and I know that you are worried about the religious right who take these verses and use it to try and ensure only right wing Republican politics.

David said...

expects, not accepts*

David said...

Oh and what you said at lunch the other day, If your Martin Luther then I'm Erasmus! (Inside Joke, sorry for everyone who was not there)

Mark said...

David, I like your third question. That can show us our bias towards a passage. I think that is where understanding a bit about church history comes into play.

On the point of a "hierarchy" of biblical understanding, here's my question. If scholars truly, based on their vast knowledge, had a better understanding, then why is it that so many scholars slip into agnosticism or embrace blatantly wrong theology?

David said...

That is where I think that scholarship has to be tempered by a deeper relationship with God and the church. Without a close realtionship with both God and curch and letting oneself be critiqued by the church, scholars often fall into the traps you mentioned but I think that if all those factors are taken together, scholarship can be greatly beneficial for the church.

David said...


A story that I like to use to illustrate the point is the Rich Man and Lazarus. This story ends with the Jesus saying that if the rich man's brother do not listen to the Law and the Prophet's they will not listen if someone rise from the dead. This condemnation is aimed at the Pharisees who "know" the laws and the prophet but misinterpret through their lifestyle. Their interpretation of Scripture would ultimately cause them to miss Christ. It was not that they didn't know Scripture but since they weren't living the lives God wanted them too they couldn't trully interpet it. Thus I think the primary criteria for all of us is to make sure that we're living live that God desires. Only then will we be able to read with our heart as well as our head. That being said, I would hope that those who did read with their heart and had the scholarly knowledge of the Pharisees would be able to offer something to the church that those who do not can't, although the one who does not have this knowledge has a different perspective to offer.

I think we are both afriad of similar things. I think that you're afraid of us getting too specilized and hierarchical and taking the Bible from the hands of ordinary people, i.e. your hands, and I am afraid of people just making light of what I am going to school for and basically treating me like my degree means nothing.

Charles North said...

Those are very good comments. David - you are right. I did mean "patternism," but "pattenism" sounds like a sophisticated British accent!

Yes, I also think that saying the silence of scripture is either permissive or prohibitive is oversimplifying a complex question. I have problems with both approaches. I try not to be a theological elitist because I am educated, but I see your point. The example of the surgeon makes sense. I don't deny that "ordinary people" can read and interpret the Bible, what I resent is the requirement that I go to graduate school for 10 years, and then I have to act like I know nothing at church. Well educated ministers have to put on an "aw shucks," Ernest goes to Seminary act to "fit in."

Mark - I really like what you have to say about the corporate worship being such a miniscule part of our lives. Your instincts about the role of women in 1st Cor. is right - to read 1st Cor and say women can't preach, pray, read scripture, etc. is profoundly illogical and indefensible. You have got to switch your brain off to reach that conclusion.

So, while I'm being combative - David's reference to Luther and Erasmus is spot on. Erasmus was a theologian who wanted to slowly change the Catholic Church from within. What did he accomplish? Nothing! Luther was a firebrand revolutionary who hammered mercilessly at the tyranny of the Medieval church. I'm Luther because I believe that the greatest change doesn't happen slowly over time, but cataclysmically by people who smash structures of injustice. Keep in mind though that Luther was NUTS! He argued with the devil in his bedroom. If he were alive today he would take a box of Zoloft a day! I hope that's not me in 20 years!

Kerrie said...

I have no problem appreciating and respecting those that have qualities/talents/expertise that I don't. I'm not sure how many others really have a problem with that either. It may be we just hear more loudly, those that feel threatened by say 10 years of graduate school. If one does not come across as arrogant, seeing themselves as better than others there shouldn't be a problem.

I like what David said:
"However, the person who receives theological training has to always be tempered by the overall interpretation of Scripture by the community of faith and by a strong relationship with God."

I am much more inclined to listen to, and be motivated by a teacher that I know follows these guidelines because I know that he is not just using his skills learned in school (which I respect very much) but is relying on God's Spirit/wisdom for application.

Imagine what would happen if someone with a deep close relationship with the Lord who loved to witness, also gained a firm grasp of studing the scriptures and how to apply them with wisdom, and vice versa? What an impact we could have for God! We need as a group to respect and appreciate each others gifts as you have mentioned on Wednesday nights with the quadrants, and learn from each other. That is what makes us the body with different parts working (some of us really are listening Charles).

I don't think anyone should have to pretend to be less than they are whether relational or intelletually oriented. A humble attitude about the gifts God has given us and honesty about the things we may be lacking in, helps buffer the differences and make each more approachable.

Mark said...

Kerrie, you are right. If we understand our gifts and limitations when it comes to the study of scripture, then we can more easily rely on those around us to help us grow in our understanding of scripture.

The problem is that we have to be willing to challenge our beliefs. This issue about womens rolls during the public worship is difficult for me because the alternate answers are much different than what I grew up with. But, if I am going to grow in my understanding of God's word, I must be open to the idea that my current belief set on that concept is either wrong or incomplete.

Kerrie said...

Its interesting hearing the men discuss the issue of women's role and I think I'd like to hear from some women on this. I'm not that person though as I am not naturally inclined to be in a public leadership role in any form. So it has never been much of an issue with me before just because of my personality. I have no desire to be seen but would rather voice my thoughts on blog spots:)

I think in the big picture of things though with the goal of reaching the lost, I can't see as with other things, that Christ would be too hung up on how the message got out just that we reach the lost. Obviously this opinion isn't based on scripture reference just my thoughts.

Charles North said...

Thanks Kerrie. Your thoughts are based on scripture - Jesus identified his primary mission as saving the lost, and he had zero tolerance for those religious leaders who tried to stop that mission.

Mark said...

I still have trouble with the "Eve was deceived..." part. If this was truly a cultural issue, then why does Paul bring up a historical issue that would seem to put this into a broader context?

Also, what positions of performing acts of worship are LEADERSHIP/AUTHORITY positions? Just because we call it "Leading" a prayer, does that give the person giving the prayer authority over the rest? Or, are these things that we do "service" roles?

Mark said...

After reading a few commentaries, here's the best I can do with this right now.

Historical Context:
In the Greek and Roman culture of the day, women were not teachers and those that spoke out were looked down upon. In the Hebrew society, women could not read the law in the synagogue. So, if an outsider were to come into the assembly and see a woman teaching/preaching, they would be turned off to the message.

The message was delivered to two Greek churches.

Earlier in the passage, Paul tells men to lift holy hands during public prayer and women to cover their heads during public prayer. I see nothing to make me believe that women could not pray in the public assemblies.

The Greek Words:

Ok, I am not a greek scholar, but best I can tell, "silence" is a good translation of the words.

Historical View and Bias:

I think it is fair to say that, across denominations (consistent with culture), this passage has been viewed as excluding women from doing much more than sitting on the pew and singing along.

I am not sure if their were any challenges to this until we began to see the womens movements take hold (suffragettes, women's lib, etc...)

From this, we have to recognizes two biases. The first is the "barefoot and pregnant" bias. I think that's pretty self explanatory. The next bias is the "My rights... equality" bias. It's the pendulum swing opposite of the first bias. It's the bias that puts down housewives as not achieving their full potential.

The first bias produces women pew-sitters, and the second bias produces women elders and preachers.

My Conclusion (finally):

Because Paul points back to a created order, I have got to believe there is something more to this than a cultural issue.

I think it is safe to say that women can not be Elders and should not deliver the message on Sundays. However, I am not sure if these passages exclude women from giving the prayer or serving communion or other service tasks like that.

This is a difficult passage because it is hard to peel away 37 years of teaching on this subject and my cultural view to look at this objectively.