If the definition of exegesis is “critical explanation or interpretation of a text or a portion of a text, especially the Bible,” (dictionary.com) then the definition of axegesis is “uncritical demolition or misrepresentation of a text or portion of a text, especially the Bible,” (my own). I am constantly amazed at the number of well-meaning Christian leaders who do such violence to the Word of God… in the name of God. What follows is a near-verbatim conversation I had recently with one of my clergy colleagues (thankfully not United Methodist). It borders on the surreal, Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First,” kind of conversation. Read it and weep.
My friend, who shall remain nameless (for what I hope are obvious reasons) is the pastor of a growing congregation who is crusading against two social crises: homosexuality and the problem of the homeless. Now, I am not making a case for or against any position — I am focusing here on the inconsistencies of scriptural interpretation and the general lack of critical thinking applied to theological reflection. Let’s join my conversation, already in progress (my friend’s comments are in italics; mine in normal type):
“You cannot believe what we’re up against. More and more Christians are turning their heads and ignoring very clear instructions from scripture — homosexuality is a sin, an abomination — Leviticus 18:22.”
“Okay, but don’t we want sinners in the church? If they are truly doing something wrong, shouldn’t we welcome them with open arms?”
“Not if they won’t repent of their sin. If they choose it, they lose it — salvation, that is. You cannot throw God’s grace back in His face. The Word of God is eternal — what was true in the ancient world is still true today. You can’t play loose and fast with the commandments of God.”
“But what about grace and forgiveness? What about forgiving seven times seventy? What about healing love that looks beyond our human weaknesses?”
“You give the devil an inch and he’ll take a mile. Let one sin slide, then another, then all of them — why bother being a Christian? It’s the same thing we’re facing with illegals and all the bums on the street. The more we coddle them and allow them to infest our cities, the worse it will be. Good people need to pull their own weight, and stay where they’re born. Just looking for kind, ignorant people to solve all their problems for them is sinful.”
“So the poor are sinners, too? But, what about Isaiah 58? Aren’t we to share bread with the hungry and welcome the homeless into our own homes?”
“Those were different times and different people. Those people were part of the tribe, part of the family. They weren’t poor by choice, and they didn’t come begging. People today are looking to take advantage of our kindness and charity. These illegals and street people are dangerous. It would be folly to let them in our homes.”
“So, wait. When God says homosexuality is an abomination, it is true for all time, but when God says we should care for the homeless, the hungry, and the stranger, it only applied to a specific time and place?”
“You have to use common sense. It’s a matter of sin. Homosexuality is always a sin. Some people — the people in the Bible — are homeless and hungry because of forces beyond their own control. But the homeless and hungry today got that way because they won’t work and they’re lazy — many of them move here so hardworking Americans will take care of them. That’s a sin. The real issue here is sin, and the church should not condone sin, in any form.”
“That’s making an awfully big assumption — an assumption of choice and intention. I believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and therefore the grace, love, forgiveness, and mercy of God should be extended to all people.”
My friend paused for a moment, pushing his lips out and breathing heavily through his nose. Finally he said, “Interpretation of scripture isn’t one of your strengths, is it?”
I replied, “Well, I’m certainly not as creative at it as you are…”
I wish such exchanges were rare, but I find myself engaged in them all too often. I can tolerate a literalistic and conservative interpretation of scripture that differs from my own — as long as it is consistent. What drives me CRAZY is the habit of manipulating God’s word to support any and all personal prejudices and opinions a person happens to have. This does a disservice both to God and to people struggling to make sense of God’s will for their lives. Playing loose and fast with the Bible is dishonest, and it creates more problems (and more hostility) than it solves.
Newcomers to the Christian faith (particularly those who test the waters of The United Methodist Church) make the following observations:
- established churches are not open to questioning the Bible and allowing for multiple levels of interpretation
- many church leaders don’t seem to know the Bible or the story of the Christian faith very well
- there is a surprising anti-intellectual superficiality to thinking about the Bible
- many churches offer nothing beyond a simplistic, beginner level engagement with scripture
- many church leaders promote a “cut and paste” version of scripture where they quote a smattering of favorite passages and ignore everything in the Bible they don’t like or agree with
- very few congregations deal with scriptural disagreement with any level of grace, compassion, or respect
The Bible should not be used as a weapon. It should not be used as a legalistic dividing wall to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable. And it should never be used to justify hate, anger, ugliness, judgmentalism, prejudice, or evil. If we must adopt “weapons,” let us adopt the “weapons of righteousness” that Paul relates in II Corinthians 6:6-7 — “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” — what we are called to extend to others, not expect from them.
Categories: Church Leadership, Critical Thinking, Seeker spirituality, The Bible
I just returned home after four days of Board of Ordained Ministry meetings. The person with whom you had this discussion would have been challenged in the same way that you challenged him at our meetings. And I agree with you that it is a pretty poor understanding of Scripture.
On the flip side, I’ve also had well-meaning Christians who seem to ignore any sense of sin and injustice at any level – anything that might muddy up one’s relationship with God. While I fully believe that God loves all people, and desires to welcome all people, I also believe there are those who reject God’s love and grace. Not all will be in heaven because they have rejected God – not God rejecting them.
What a wonderful way to approach some very important questions of contemporary faith. I really appreciate the way you’ve framed the question, which has been more important for me lately than answers. It surprises me the degree to which people in our churches refuse to allow God the freedom to give grace in areas that don’t concern us directly. The future of the church (as its past) will depend on our ability to proclaim grace without hogging it. I sometimes wonder if tht’s possible, especially after hearing members of the churches I serve rail against Muslims, homosexuals, feminists, or pother “undesirables”. I’m sure if I served more liberal churches, I’d hear the same about Republicans, war-mongers, fundamentalists, or what-have-you. It’s conversations like this that make me grateful for a God who offers grace, even to one who lifts up the same idols as me. I wish we all (myself especially) were more open to humility.
I am so tired of narrow, angry, hateful people calling themselves “spiritual” leaders. I believe that Jesus Christ would want to have very little to do with people like your friend. He would forgive them, which is more than they are willing to do for others. I have been on the street when I was younger. It wasn’t because I was evil or a sinner, it was because my life fell apart and I did everything I could to get back up. I needed help, not hate. Why do people like him think Christianity has to be about hate? He wouldn’t call it hate, but that’s all it is.