“Do you believe the Bible?”
In the mid-80’s I tried to convince an all-male board that it would be acceptable to nominate women as deacons. A young deacon opened his Bible, placed it on my lap and pointed to the verses he wanted me to read. “A woman should learn in silence and with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead she is to be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:11,12)
“Now Pastor,” asked the deacon, “Do you believe the Bible?”
Good question! It’s a question I have been asked many times by believers and doubters alike. The simple answer is, “Yes!” Nevertheless I affirm women who teach or hold congregational authority and I have no expectation that the women of Spring Garden Church are going to read that text and go suddenly silent.
Many passages in both Testaments are widely ignored by self-identified “Bible-believing Christians”. A sampling from the Old Testament:
Commonly ignored biblical instructions are not limited to the Old Testament. Here are some New Testament examples:
“Now Deacon,” I could have asked my friend, “Do you believe the Bible?”
I’m certain his answer, like mine, would have been an enthusiastic, “Yes!” The debate about female deacons was not a debate about believing or disbelieving the Bible. It was about how to interpret it. How do we decide we should adhere to the Bible’s prohibition on stealing but we’re safe with a cheeseburger?
Some divide the Bible into periods of time called “dispensations” with different rules for each era. But what we retain and neglect don’t actually follow these categories.
Others appeal to changing cultural values. It was appropriate in David’s time to have multiple wives, so the argument goes, but not in ours. Head coverings had a different meaning in Paul’s time than in ours. This however raises the question: if Paul could accommodate slavery because it was acceptable in his culture can we not accommodate common law marriage as it becomes increasingly accepted by our culture? Certainly common law marriage is no more evil than slavery.
I suspect the most common response to these questions is to simply ignore passages we have by common consent set aside. If it is not an issue for others, why should it be an issue for us? When someone raises an objection to women in worship without head covering we caution against legalism. But when someone suggests we start allowing women to preach we then caution against eroding faith in the Bible. It seems to me that this sort of common, unspoken agreement to take some parts of the Bible literally and universally and largely ignore others does more to erode faith in the Bible than any other approach. It suggests that we have agreed together that we don’t need to follow all the Bible so long as we don’t come right out and say so.
What we need is a system for reading the Bible that allows us to explain why we take the command against adultery so seriously and literally but feel no obligation to remove the golden wedding bands that symbolize our vows despite an equally clear command.
Our first step is probably a step back. Rather than taking a microscope to each verse we need to stand back and think of the Bible as a whole progression of history, religious experience and theological thought. We call this a narrative approach to the Bible. The Bible is not a haphazard collection of truths that we can digest like a chicken randomly pecking seed from the ground. Each thought can only be understood in the immediate context of the material around it and in the wider context of the narrative flowing through all 66 books.
The Bible is the true story of God progressively revealing Himself to His people. God reveals a truth. As His people come to accept and understand that truth and reflect on their experience the ground is prepared for the next truth. Sometimes the next truth clarifies and deepens what was first realized: “You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Sometimes the new truth seems contradict what was first realized: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies.”
The Bible gives us a true and accurate account of this evolving understanding of who God is and what God wants. This understanding of God always develops within the community of His people who hear God within the context of their history and culture. We can’t understand Paul’s requirement for women to cover their heads in worship without knowing what such covering and uncovering would mean in the culture to which Paul writes.
But we also bring our own culture to reading and study. We have grown up knowing that the wedding band is a sign of sacred love. The most holy people we have known wear their wedding rings with pride. So when we read a verse forbidding gold jewelry it is easy to simply ignore it assuming something else is meant than removing our rings or necklaces. And it can work the other way. If we grew up in one of the churches that still expects women to wear headcoverings reading that text will likely cause us to stop and wonder if we are really ok leaving the hat at home.
Our culture might hide the truth from us. Our culture might help us see the truth more clearly. We can only allow the Bible to speak into our culture when we are aware of the cultural values at work in the text and when we are aware of the cultural values that we bring to the text.
It astounds me how many people I have met who truly believe the verse, “God helps those who help themselves.” Sometimes the embedded messages of our own culture are so deep rooted that we believe the Bible says things that, in fact, are not there at all. (The quote is from Benjamin Franklin, by the way.)
This is why it is so important for people who believe the Bible to read it. Daily. Seriously. Every time we ask a question about the Bible and discover an answer our understanding is more mature. The wise reader questions the Bible and lets the Bible question them. Is what I believe really what the text means? Is there something new I can learn here about God or myself? If I take this seriously how will this passage change me?
With Bible in my lap open to a verse forbidding women in leadership, a room full of deacons is waiting for my answer. Yes, I do believe the Bible. It is my ultimate source of authority for what I believe and how I live. And yes, I have read the words in this verse and understand the clear meaning of the words. Despite the fact these words are right in front of me, I do not believe this is what the Bible teaches about women in leadership.
I believe Paul understood women to be prohibited from leadership. But the Holy Spirit had also inspired Paul to write, “In Christ… there is neither male nor female” and even endorse some women in leadership he knew personally. With the benefit of history, the flow of revelation and the illumination of the Holy Spirit we now understand God’s will in that issue better than Paul did. This is not arrogance. It is simply timing.
Yes, I believe the Bible. It is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword… it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrew 4:12) If the Bible isn’t changing what we think and believe and even more how we live, we are probably remembering it more than wrestling with it: a sure sign it is time to start reading again.