I Love the Bible, But Sometimes It's Wrong

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I recognize that the time for determining whether homosexuality is “incompatible” or “compatible” with Christian teaching has mostly passed by for United Methodists. What remains in February 2019 is an accounting of where people already are, and an adjustment (or not) of church law concerning such matters.

But I believe that there is still value in defending the progressive position from a theological perspective. I fear that progressive Methodists have largely conducted the conversation in terms of inclusion/exclusion, which largely misses the point when speaking with traditionalists. The UM Right doesn’t view this conflict as a matter of hospitality or in-or-out patterns; rather, they believe that affirming homosexuality is an affront to scriptural authority, and a blow against “traditional, orthodox Christianity.” 

When progressives engage in debate which overlooks this crucial fact, we tend to lose ground in the very place where we need to hold tight. 

Let’s be very honest here. Despite the laudable efforts of folks like Matthew Vines (author of “God and the Gay Christian”), who attempt to mitigate and re-interpret the so-called gay “clobber passages,” the Bible is clear about homosexuality — it’s against it! Both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament contain texts which simply and forcefully condemn homosexual practice. Jesus doesn’t say anything about it, but that’s really beside the point to a traditionalist Christian, because all of Scripture is believed to be the inspired Word of God! If Paul’s letters are inspired revelation, then it stands with equal authority alongside the words of Jesus.

The mouthpiece of the UM RIght, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, released this statement on the Bible, which can be found on their website:

Statement on Biblical Authority

Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church, we affirm that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; NRSV). We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.


On a cursory first reading, there is nothing in this statement that is particularly troublesome. I have no great problem with anything said here, though I think it’s ironic that II Timothy 3:16 is quoted as being about itself (it’s not; it’s speaking about the Hebrew Scriptures, not its own canonical status which came several hundred years after it was written). 

Progressive Christians would agree that “the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture.” We agree that the Bible is “our authority and trustworthy guide.” It’s the last line of the statement which contains the seed of the conflict between traditionalists and progressives: “Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.”

Progressives maintain there is a difference between the primary revelation of Scripture and everything contained in Scripture itself. The revelation of Scripture is that God was in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world; Jesus is the Word of God. Scripture, then, is a medium, a means of expression to communicate this life-changing good news to us. 

To the extent that Scripture speaks of the God who was in Christ Jesus, then it is revelation. But when it doesn’t, and let’s be honest, it doesn’t always, then it can and should be laid aside.  We should reject the stories of horror and terror which permeate the book of Judges and Ezra; we should turn away from Paul’s admonition that “women should be silent in our churches”; and we should jettison the idea that homosexuality is sinful and abhorrent.

Yes, I recognize that this kind of talk sounds dangerous and heretical, but it’s not. Progressives need to stand up and talk like this in public. We need to boldly proclaim that the Bible is not inerrant or infallible, specifically to reject and resist those who have turned Scripture into a rigid, authoritarian set of laws.

When Scripture is “illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience,” then we recognize that the Bible itself is the written record of thousand of years of experience. People who struggled to be faithful to the God they had come to know, struggled to write down their understanding of faith and practice. They came to their own conclusions, forged out of the anvil of historical process, but guided by the Spirit of God.

We now know so much more about the experience of LGBTQ persons that we can no longer cling to the limited understandings of first-century folks for insight into the wonder of the human body. This is not to claim that we are somehow morally superior than our ancestors, nor that we know more about God. But we do know more about the world, which can only be expected with the passage of time.

I don’t know why this is so threatening to traditionalist Christians. I don’t understand why the Bible has to be absolutely correct, without error, and completely authoritative. And I don’t know why this stance is deemed dangerous or heretical.

Scripture reveals something profound about God, about myself, about this creation. This revelation is the figure of Jesus Christ. I believe in this Jesus Christ, and I have committed myself to following him. What I believe about the Bible is, frankly, irrelevant.

Progressives need to speak out loudly on behalf of a Christianity that is not constrained by the cultural biases of the Bible’s authors. We must be honest about those places where Paul got it wrong; we have to acknowledge the Bible’s contradictions, its excesses, its blind spots. We cannot be afraid of “undermining” Scripture’s authority, because it’s not Scripture that is authoritative; only the God revealed in Jesus is authoritative.

And that God is remarkably full of grace.

More Thoughts and Prayers? Hell Yeah!

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Let’s revisit the #ThoughtsandPrayers meme that has been circulating on social media recently.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear politicians offer nothing but “thoughts and prayers” every time a mass shooting occurs. Because it’s shorthand for “I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m not going to do anything about gun legislation.”

And yes, it’s infuriating when the NRA offers nothing but “thoughts and prayers” and then shifts the blame for a shooting to something other than the fact that assault-style guns are easily available.

If #ThoughtsandPrayers is nothing but a weak and anemic response to a culture of gun violence, then I am also not a fan; we all want real action. If the Parkland, Florida shooting has done nothing else, it’s sparked an immense backlash against the NRA and the politicians who are in their pocket. It’s possible that real action will result, thanks to the teens of Parkland and the rest of America.

But let’s not throw prayer under the bus. I fear that the act of praying has been unfairly caricatured as a measly response to tragedy and injustice. Prayer is too often seen as something done after the fact and after the accident; it’s viewed as something you do for the patient, the victim, the one who is suffering. We think of God as the cosmic 9-1-1 operator: “Send help, please!” Or God is the Great Hospital Chaplain in the Sky: “Don’t let my friend die!”

Don’t get me wrong; prayer can be a source of great comfort and help in time of distress. The Psalmist often cried out to God in moments of terror, pleading for his life.

But that’s not the only function or purpose of prayer, people! Prayer can be a revolutionary, counter-cultural act of resistance to the powers that be! Prayer can -- and should -- be a rousing call to action in the name of the God of justice! I just don’t think we know how to do it right … at least not yet.

The baptismal vows of the United Methodist Church include the promise to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world … accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” How do we go about doing that sort of thing? Well, it starts with prayer — I’m convinced of that.

Not a namby-pamby sort of prayer, not the kind of stuff we typically do in a church sanctuary, not merely repeating the Lord’s Prayer or Hail Mary. No, there’s a kind of prayer that is stronger and more durable than this. It’s prayer that might more accurately be called “spiritual warfare” though I shy away from this term because of its connections to a brand of Christianity that I resist.

What I’m saying is that a proper Christian response to the evil of gun violence in America would include a healthy dose of aggressive, passionate, forceful prayer.

I’m reminded of the time Jesus came down from the mountain after being transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John. Upon reaching the rest of the disciples, he discovered that they had been unsuccessfully trying to cast a demon out of a young boy. The father complained to Jesus: “I spoke to your disciples to see if they could throw it out, but they couldn’t.”

After expressing a bit of frustration with his so-called followers, Jesus healed the boy. Then his disciples asked, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”

Jesus replied, “Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer” (Mark 9:14-29, Common English Bible). (A number of early manuscripts also included “and fasting” to the end of the verse.)

The point is that there are some things that we are asked to do that require something stronger than wishes, thoughts, and actions — they need prayer. Prayer is a forceful appeal to God that the will of God be done; in so far as we know that God desires shalom for the world, then we know what God’s will is. We know that God does not desire that children be shot and killed by other children. We know that God does not want our country to be awash with guns so that one’s life is always in danger. We know that, in God’s eyes, every person’s life is full of value, worth, and dignity.

Thus, we can move out forcefully with prayer on our lips and in our feet and in our hands. Don’t forget that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt with prayer in his mouth; that Elijah defeated the priests of Baal on the mountaintop with prayer in his mouth; that Jesus faced arrest in the garden of Gethsemane with prayer in his mouth; that the civil rights leaders of the 20th century in the American south led every march with prayers spoken and sung.

And it was prayer that brought down the Berlin Wall. The pastor of a small parish church in Leipzig, East Germany, named Christian Fuhrer, held weekly Monday evening prayer services, which he called “Prayers for Peace,” beginning in 1982. In 1985, he began advertising that the services were “Open To All.” The weekly services began to swell as a kind of protest against the oppressive regime.

By 1989, the government began to exert pressure against the church, Pastor Fuhrer, and the people who attended the prayers. On October 7, 1989, hundreds of people were arrested outside the church. The Communist Party announced that on Monday, October 9, people who gathered to pray would be countered “with whatever means necessary.”

On the evening of Oct. 9, over 8,000 people crowded into the church to pray, in defiance of the authorities. Other churches in Leipzig opened their doors to hold the overflowing crowds, which some estimated at 70,000. At the end of the service, Pastor Fuhrer opened the doors of the church and led the congregation outside to march through the streets, but fearful that the police and soldiers would open fire.

But they didn’t attack. Pastor Führer said later, “They had nothing to attack for. East German officials would later say they were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer.”

Exactly one month later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the fearsome divide between East and West was finished.

Here’s the lesson of that story — the powers-that-be really are ready for anything, except candles and prayer. They are ready for riots and violence and clubs and guns. They are ready for bloodshed and broken bones. But they absolutely tremble before people who are so radical as to require nothing but a candle and a prayer for peace.

I think we need more of THAT kind of prayer. Who’s with me?

The Night Billy Graham Ruined the Bible For Us All

Rev. Billy Graham

Rev. Billy Graham

I mean no disrespect to Rev. Billy Graham, who passed away at the age of 99 last week. But as people are piling on tributes from every corner of the world, I would like to shed light on one of the “hinge moments” of 20th century American Christianity.

Something happened early on in Graham’s life that proved to be a crossroads of enormous import. It’s a well-known story in Graham circles; I especially recommend Alan Bean’s version, which juxtaposes the lives and careers of two preachers, Billy Graham and Chuck Templeton. Billy and Chuck were friends and colleagues; they both had bright preaching futures in front of them, having already experienced great post-war revival success in Europe. Chuck, however, having little formal education, decided to enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary to beef up his bonafides. He invited Billy to come with him, but Graham declined.

In the summer of 1949, after Chuck’s first year of seminary, the two friends caught up with each other at a summer retreat center. Billy himself was beginning to struggle with the reliability of the Bible. Critical scholarship was beginning to poke holes in the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy; it was becoming clear that the Bible had not been dictated word for word by God.

Chuck eagerly embraced the new scholarship on the Bible, and challenged Billy to let go of his old-fashioned Biblical literalism. Billy clung to his trust in the Bible, but inwardly he was shaken.

As the legend goes, Billy went off into the forest one night with his Bible. When he came across a tree stump, he set the Bible down on it, and began to pray:

“O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”

Then, falling to his knees, Graham prayed:

“Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”

Graham immediately felt peace flood his soul, and as the story goes, he never looked back. He picked up the Bible and got back on the revival path. He never entertained a doubt about Scripture’s veracity again.

What makes the story so gut-wrenching is that Chuck Templeton, after graduating from Princeton, eventually left the church and became an atheist. Thus, to Graham’s fans, the story is a morality play, a scene which illustrates what happens to the person who rejects the inerrancy of the Bible.

Billy Graham framed the issue of Scriptural authority in stark black-and-white terms — either the Bible is completely inerrant, given directly by God, and therefore reliable, or else it is full of errors, mistakes, and human invention, and therefore completely unreliable. Either the Bible is God’s Word, or it’s not. Either you can trust it all, or you can’t trust any of it. Faced with such a choice, Graham chose the Bible.

For sixty-nine years, we have been burdened with Graham’s decision. The evangelical church ever since has chosen to embrace Graham’s fundamentalist, inerrantist view. As a result, a good portion of American evangelicals still reject evolution, believe homosexuality is a choice, believe everybody who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as Savior is going to hell, and don’t allow women to hold leadership positions in the church.

All because a young preacher, confused by the contradictions of the Bible, thought he had to choose between science and religion, between reason and faith, between scholarship and obedience.

But he didn’t have to make such a choice! I wish I could have been there at that tree stump with the young Billy Graham. I would have shaken him and said, “This is a false dilemma! You are not called to have faith in a book, only in God! To the extent that this book called the Bible is helpful in pointing you to God, then use it. But men wrote this book, and you have to expect that they made mistakes, because that's what men do. Your job is to read it carefully, to parse the meanings, to discern the truth which runs through its lines. But nobody says that you have to believe that everything in it is literally true!”

I would open his Bible on the tree stump and force him to read again the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11 and I’d ask him, “You don’t think this really happened, do you?” I’d read him the story of Elisha the prophet sending two bears to maul a bunch of kids because they’d made fun of his bald head. I’d read him the accounts of God telling the Israelites to slaughter and destroy entire villages, leaving no man, woman, or child alive. I’d ask, “How is this God’s word? How will you contort your words to make these passages seem inspired by God?”

I understand why Graham felt threatened that night. It’s a fearful thing to confront a Bible which demands thought and wrestling with contradictions. I know that he thought he was doing the right thing.

But don’t you wonder how history might have unfolded differently if the message that Graham had preached had been more open to science, to reason, to diversity, to ambiguity? I like to think that American Christianity would have a different tone, a more loving timbre, a bent toward justice, and a more open attitude toward the Bible.