My Bible Is as Worn as Theirs

After the United Methodist General Conference approved the Traditionalist Plan, which kept restrictive language against homosexuality in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, there was great rejoicing in the world of far-right evangelicals. On February 27, 2019, Franklin Graham posted his happiness on Facebook. He saw this as a victory for “God’s Truth” and the “clear teaching of Scripture.” He encouraged his readers to stand “unwavering with the Word of God.”

Over 7.5k people commented on his post, most with the common theme of “Praise the lord, it’s about time that Scriptural authority has been recognized in the United Methodist Church!”

My Problem with This

My problem with this is that I, too, recognize Scriptural authority. However, since I interpret the Bible differently, I’m cast as “wavering” with God’s Word.

I have studied the Bible for over fifty years. It introduced me to Jesus and has guided me, convicted me, and inspired me. I’ve written papers, curriculum, and a commentary on it. I’ve preached hundreds of sermons from it. The picture you see atop this column is that of a Bible I’ve used for decades. As you can tell, duct tape works wonders.

I fervently believe that you honor God’s Word by using your brain, the most magnificent creation in the known universe. You honor God’s Word by taking modern knowledge to ancient texts. You honor God’s Word by reflecting on Scripture as you learn from your experiences with people, the more the better. You honor God’s Word by listening to how others interpret it who have backgrounds, lifestyles, cultures, and ethnicities different from your own.

I have concern when people pick and choose verses they prefer, interpret them the way they prefer, and ignore other passages and themes they don’t prefer. I have an even greater concern when they join like-minded people in judging those who disagree with them.

Cues from the Bible

As I read my taped-up Bible, I see very clearly two men who demonstrated the approach we need to take regarding Scripture.

There was Job. In the midst of his trials, he was honest with God. He didn’t understand his immense suffering, and let God have the full force of his anger. His three friends, on the other hand, kept to the same old, tired law: “God rewards good people and punishes the bad. Job, just repent, and things will be better for you.”

Job rebelled against this. Such a cold principle, found in different forms in the Bible (i.e., Psalm 37), didn’t make sense and was an affront to his experience. In the end, God blesses Job’s honesty and told his three self-righteous friends to repent.

And then there was Jesus. He didn’t get mad too often, but when he did, it was usually against the Pharisees, the spiritual descendants of Job’s friends. These strict Jews delighted in putting laws above human need. In the choice between healing on the Sabbath or letting a person’s pain linger another day, they chose the latter, to Jesus’ befuddlement and wrath (Mark 3:1-6). He saw their legalism for what it was: masking their prejudices behind a religious veneer. No wonder Jesus called them whitewashed tombs, all clean on the outside but filthy on the inside (Matthew 23:27).

While the Pharisees found their security and identity in the law, Jesus found his in God. The Pharisees obsessed over 613 rules. Jesus lived with just two:

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:37-40, CEB)

Love God and, equally, love your neighbor. Anything more, and you’re going to be trying to save yourself. You’ll filter out an ant and swallow a camel of self-righteousness (Matthew 23:24).

He honored God’s word by letting compassion interpret biblical law, and not the other way around.

Job and Jesus can guide any of us in hearing God speak through Scripture. A relentlessly honest mind and an unflinchingly warm heart open our ears. In the process, we discover ourselves needing to connect with people who are similarly searching for meaning and direction. Diversity should be welcomed, not shunned. Evangelicals, progressives, and all in-between can take the Bible equally seriously and help broaden each other’s perspectives. Humility goes a long way.

But One Request

I am very much aware that far-right evangelicals who read this will disagree. They may feel safe and find comfort in a totally black-and-white interpretation of Scripture. I’m sure what I’ve said above does little to persuade them. For some, biblical interpretation is tied to emotion, and it’s difficult to reason with emotion.

The only thing I ask is to delay judging me as some biblical profligate. Don’t assume that I disregard the “clear teaching of Scripture.”

I love the Bible as much as anyone.

What’s more, my Bible is as worn as theirs.

8 thoughts on “My Bible Is as Worn as Theirs”

  1. “I have concern when people pick and choose verses they prefer, interpret them the way they prefer, and ignore other passages and themes they don’t prefer. I have an even greater concern when they join like-minded people in judging those who disagree with them. . . . For some, biblical interpretation is tied to emotion, and it’s difficult to reason with emotion.”

    I believe your comments refer more correctly to the LGBT movement and their supporters. This is precisely why we evangelicals stand by the traditional interpretation of God’s Word. There is no way to find any endorsement for a homosexual lifestyle in scripture without standing it on its head. Keep reading, and may the Holy Spirit guide us all to the truth.

  2. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts and perspective on such a emotionally charged subject. It has always been of concern to me, since my “enlightened” years of attending a liberal arts religious college ((Missouri Valley in Marshall, MO.) and got a new “out look” on the virgin birth by my wonderful New Testament professor, Dr. Rabe. I have many LGBT friends and extended family members whom I love, respect and support. They did not wake up one sunny morning and make their decision regarding their gender. Our world is growing smaller thus we need to work at expanding our minds to become more understand of our LGBT population in becoming “welcoming” to all our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is bothersome to me, when people “pick and choose” and then literally interpret what that verse says to them, as if we all see the world though the same glasses. I am called by my God to NOT be the judge of others.. i am called however, by my God, to love and accept others. Jesus LOVED the little children of the World.. ALL the little children of the World!! Thanks so much for sharing Greg. We need to keep on working to love our neighbors as ourselves.

  3. Greg,
    Thank you for your comments. 10 yrs ago I had a co-worker ask
    me how could the United Methodist Church, who professes to be
    open to all people and beliefs, have such a closed mind about the
    LGBT. I answered the best I could that each Methodist was allowed
    to have their individual beliefs and the church’s governing body that wrote the rule against LGBT worth as people and Methodists.

    Now, as many have voiced , I was extremely saddened that this ban was not only unchanged, but tightened. The church is going backward, instead of forward like many, at least Americans at this time.

    Sandy Goellner

  4. Thank you for confirming what Jesus said was our most important task-to Love God and and Love His people. We are all His people. The other Rules are made by man.

  5. I appreciate your words, Greg and I share these thoughts and ask these questions to genuinely seek understanding.

    I am a UMC elder who struggles mightily with this question and the future of the church. I went to a conservative seminary (Asbury) who taught literal Biblical interpretation with regard to sexuality. As I have aged, I believe I am now much more open-minded than when I graduated and was ordained which leads to my uncertainty of what the correct answer is. I truly believe that if Jesus walked among us today, that He would seek out the LGBT Christians among us and would embrace them fully as he did sinners throughout the New Testament. I’m even somewhat confident that Jesus today would specifically include homosexuals in His words. But, we don’t have newly published words or testaments of the Bible to inform how we should move forward as Methodists in His image in the 21st century with regard to this question. So, we have to extrapolate from what is written what the right path may be.

    As a Biblical scholar (PhD in New Testament Studies), the scriptures often referred to as being anti-homosexual are murky at best which leaves us to interpret what WAS said rather than what WAS NOT said in the scriptures. The answer in these situations, we were taught in both my MDiv and PhD, is to look at context from other scripture. I would never exegete a passage from the Bible by only looking at the passage in question, I would look to other passages to provide context, understanding and depth of knowledge. If I apply that standard here, this is what I find: from Genesis on, the scriptures (Old and New Testament) relevant to creation (man and woman), parenthood (father and mother), weddings (man and woman) and sexuality (man and woman) never involve homosexuals yet homosexuality was well known historically in the time of Jesus and before. He could’ve provided teachings or mandated understanding (as he did with other outcasts including the lepers) here and did not. The Bible thus, while not as clear as many on either side would like, tells me that marriage, parenthood and sexuality should be between man and woman. My ordination vows are to uphold the Discipline and not to conduct homosexual marriages and until that changes, my hands are tied and if it does change, then I return to step 1 of trying to divine what Biblical law has told me in the setting of my ministry. Critics (and even some colleagues) have argued that I’m (we’re) cherry-picking scriptures that support my (our) view and choosing not to uphold scriptures related to cleanliness, food choices, divorce, etc. But, as you undoubtedly would recall, those scriptures are mostly Old Testament and Jesus changed all of that with his laws that you reference in your original post. As such, they lack relevance to this debate. I don’t believe it is my job or my privilege to interpret words spoken 2000 years ago and attempt to apply them to a modern world that is well beyond what any of the prophets would have imagined. Instead, I can only read them and seek to know them as Jesus would have taught.

    Where I struggle with my personal views is in the secular world. We absolutely live in a broken world. It is so difficult in an age of social media, non-stop news, etc. to live, to make mistakes, to grow from our errors without feeling like we live our lives under a microscope. It is so difficult to find someone, anyone, to love. If a man or woman were to tell me that they were in love with someone of the same gender, I would commend them for finding their person. I would even support their civil union in states where it is legal.

    And then there is the slippery-slope argument. We as Methodists are against pre-marital sexual relations regardless if one identifies as homo- or heterosexual. If we follow Biblical example rather than direct scriptural statement, of Jesus’ involvement in weddings of man and woman as supportive of traditional marriage and we do not allow homosexual marriage in the church, then it is not Biblical for those couples to engage in sexuality outside of marriage. If a LBGT man or woman seeks a celibate lifestyle like some priests and nuns in the Roman Catholic church, I have no issue in that person being ordained in the Methodist church. Although my church is an older flock of mostly older (>50 year old) conservative members of a rural demographic, we do have homosexual members of our congregation and, I believe, they would tell you that they have never felt unwelcome in our church. They understand that our state laws prevent their civil or secular union and understand that the UMC Discipline does not allow their marriage in the church. I’ve had 1:1 conversations with many of these church members and have openly shared that I would fully support their civil union but I can not marry them in the church. I’ve yet to have a LGBT member leave the church over this though some have expressed interest in pursuing membership in more liberal denominations should state law on homosexual marriage change to make it legal. All have been welcome and all will continue to be welcome in my church. The Traditional Plan does not change whether LGBT individuals would be openly welcomed among my flock. We, as a church, believe in Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors. Our strict brothers and sisters who are Catholic would tell you that you should not engage in the sacraments unless you have confessed and repented of your sins. As such, they stratify how much of the church is available to you as a member and I see the Traditional Plan being no different to Methodism with regard to sexuality. I did not support the One Church Plan because I fear that the flexibility to choose your church or conference’s path leaves the conservative churches as outliers. These churches may be marked as bigots and subjected to vandalism by those in the secular world who, rather than seeing the strict adherence to literal Biblical interpretation, sees prejudice that does not rise to the modern liberal standard of political correctness. This runs the risk of churches be engaged in litigation much in the same way as the Colorado baker who has been challenged over his unwillingness to serve those with whom his religious views differed. I worry that even in the past decade in the setting of a liberal movement in the church that we have ordained openly gay bishops with no teeth in the Discipline and that this opens the door for a future church that picks and chooses what we believe and what we will censure. I worry that we have an openly gay bishop in Karen Oliveto who has questioned the divinity of Jesus. These views would have led to a clergy members’ credentials being revoked in the UMC which I grew up in. Instead she finds broad support and defenders within the faith. There is a potential slippery slope that threatens the church that more (rather than less) have grown up in and supported.

    I don’t know what the answer is but I’m willing to listen, to love and to change my mind if someone has something new to offer with regard to scripture. I’ve come a long way since my ordination in the early 80s when I would have taken a conservative no stance on any issues related to homosexuality in the church or in the secular world.

  6. I had a revelation today while studying my “Disciples: Into the Word, Into the World” . Acts 17:11 in the Living Bible says : “But the people of Beroea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica and gladly listened to the message. They searched the Scriptures day by day to check up on Paul and Silas’ statements to see if they were really so. As a result many of them believed…”

    I would like to think the “ Open Minds” of our Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors in the Methodist church refer to us like the Beroeans – gladly listening and checking Scripture to see if statements are really so rather than the current society’s definition of open minded- accepting of arguments or new ideas. If the new ideas or arguments go against scripture, I have always been taught I should not be accept them.

    “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:37-40, CEB)”

    God’s moral laws are different than Jewish cultural laws. Jesus cried out against the cultural laws but not the moral laws. Loving God with all your heart means to me putting God above all. A person needs to study scripture to know how God wants us to love. Loving your neighbor means to me loving them enough to tell them the truth just like we need to know the truth from God. Truth can sometimes hurt just like when we have to lovingly tell our children the truth to keep them from harm so they don’t go down a certain path to destruction. Sometimes they don’t like hearing the truth, and neither do we.

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