I’m a Card-Carrying Member – Except For ….

[Trigger warning – if you are susceptible to major denial or anger issues, maybe you should skip today’s rant. And, yes, the pun in intended.]

I write today of a conundrum, a curiosity, a perplexity. I write in the hopes that someone might be able to enlighten me, to remove the opaqueness of my vision.

I have recently been able to renew a long lost passion – well, maybe not a full-blown passion, but certainly a serious interest. That interest is with shooting guns. When I lived in Colorado previously I had the privilege of knowing a number of shooters, and at least one reloader, and they helped me immensely with my shooting skills and my knowledge of everything firearm. In the intervening years I lacked both the opportunity and a driving desire to shoot, and the world of guns, especially handguns, has changed dramatically in the past 25+ years.

So, I have been pushing myself to catch up on my firearm education and my opportunities to shoot. As I have learned, I have also come across something I find humorous, strange, baffling, confusing. One of the huge changes that occurred while I was “away” from shooting is the explosion of polymer constructed, striker-fired, semi-automatic pistols. Back in the day pretty much all you had was a revolver (commonly nicknamed a “wheel-gun” although I think a “rotating cylindrical shaped magazine gun” might be more accurate. What do I know?) Today one of the leading names in this area of gun manufacturers is Glock. Glocks are Austrian made, are reliable, easy to maintain, relatively inexpensive – basically a very solid product. They have a huge, devoted, and almost maniacally committed following. (I happen to think they are hideously ugly, but, again, what do I know? And please, if you own one of those hideously ugly things, don’t shoot me with it. It would hurt.)

That is what I get. Here is what I don’t get. As I read about Glock lovers, they never really own a stock, out-of-the-box Glock. The first thing most of them do is to replace the sights – the sights on a Glock are one of the most universally disliked items on the Glock. But, refusing to stop there, Glock “fan boys” will replace the trigger mechanism, the trigger springs, drop in a customized barrel, swap out the grips and maybe add an after-market laser or optic sight. Then, “properly” outfitted, the ecstatic Glock owner will boast that his (or her, but mostly his) $500.00 Glock looks, feels, and shoots “just as good” as an expensive Beretta or Sig Sauer. The irony is that after they paid for their $500.00 Glock, they spent almost as much (or more) “improving” their wonder gun, and they could have just as easily purchased the said Beretta or Sig Sauer and had a better firearm straight out of the box. (Actually, they could have purchased a Smith and Wesson for the same price as their Glock and had a better gun, but as I keep repeating, what do I know?)

Like I said, I don’t get it. I guess it is something us Smith and Wesson (or Beretta, or Sig Sauer) owners will never comprehend.

But, lest you think I have taken leave of my senses and have forgotten that this is a blog concerning all things theological and ecclesiastical, I have the same dumbfounded reaction to various and sundry church members who are “card carrying members” of their favorite denomination, yet refuse to accept (or flatly reject) basic, fundamental doctrines of said denomination.

Take, just as an example, a Roman Catholic who would not even consider attending a different church, but who considers the idea of Papal Infallibility or the concept of the Magisterium to be silly notions, steadfastly to be ignored. Consider the Methodist who rejects one of the hallmarks of classical Methodism – a commitment to exacting norms of biblical morality – particularly in regard to sexual purity. Pity the poor Presbyterian or Episcopalian (Anglican) who wonders where his or her church disappeared to following the headlong plunge of both denominations into complete gender dysphoria.

Okay, I am neither Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian or Episcopalian (Anglican), so maybe I should not pick on them. But I am seriously galled by individuals who consider themselves to be members of the Churches of Christ who reject basic, fundamental doctrines that have been hallmarks of our heritage for over two centuries. There are the bedrock issues such as the inspiration and infallibility (reliability and truthfulness) of the received texts of the Old and New Testaments, the basic historical/critical method of interpretation of the text, and our oft-repeated if not always observed intention to speak where the Bible speaks, and to allow silence to be silence. That leads to other issues such as male spiritual leadership, the practice of baptism for the remission of sins, the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and congregational, acapella singing in worship.

If you don’t believe that what we read in our printed editions of the Bible is true and reliable, if you think that the text should be interpreted in light of modern “feel first, think second” hermeneutics, if you think that biblical silence is more important than biblical content, if you believe there are no differences between male and female, if you have bought into contemporary evangelicalism’s “just invite Jesus into your heart” soteriology, if you have to have a “praise team” or “worship band” in order to get your emotional fix for the week – then good on ‘ya, but for all things high and holy do not call yourself a member of the Church of Christ (and, I might cautiously add, church of Christ universal, either).

The heritage of the Churches of Christ in the United States is a heritage of dissent – Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone (and their predecessors in New England) did not come to the church out of a spiritual vacuum – they were committed Presbyterians (or, in the case of the New Englanders, Congregationalists). But – and this is what I credit them with far and above today’s “change agents” within the church – they had the courage of their convictions and when they could no longer abide by the teachings of the Presbyterians (or, later, Baptists) they consciously and unambiguously left those fellowships. They made it clear to friend and foe alike that they were embarking on a different path.

Those who want to “change” the church today are moral and religious cowards. They don’t really like what they see in the Church of Christ, but they want to be seen as brave, heroic even, in their attempts to “save” or “redeem” the church. Well, the church of Christ only has one savior, one redeemer, and he died on a cross. I don’t see any of these modern day Moseses or Joshuas quite willing to make that step. They don’t even have the courage of Campbell or Stone and say, “I can no longer accept the teaching of my parents and my heritage. I have a new understanding of truth, and I must follow that call of truth.” No, what they say is, “The Church of Christ is too patriarchal, too fundamentalist, too tradition bound, but if we would just act and teach like those fun-filled community churches, we could turn everything around, and I’ll show the way with my skinny jeans and my ripped t-shirt and my totally hip and relevant sermons!”

If you don’t like what you see or hear in the nearest Church of Christ, at least have the courage of your convictions and leave and either find a better nest or build your own. Many, many “Evangelical” churches do not believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures, they observe no boundaries between male and female, they have praise bands and praise teams and fog machines and strobe lights and all kinds of emotion generating accouterments. I’m sure you would feel very welcome in such an environment – far more so than in the confining, stifling, oppressive settings as you find in so many congregations of the Churches of Christ. Stop being miserable, and stop trying to change what you obviously neither love nor respect.

Seriously, if the only thing on your pistol that says Glock is the slide and the frame, don’t brag about your Glock. All you’re doing is confusing the non-gun speaking world, and irritating those of us who see through the charade.

The Danger of Imprecise Assertions of Truth

Good morning gentle readers, today’s rant is brought to you by anyone and everyone (the humble Freightdawg himself) who has ever uttered something with absolute certainty that was, at to some degree or another, dead wrong.

I think I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog or its predecessor how my father gave me some deep and wonderful gifts. One of them is an awareness of the peculiarities and precision of the English language, used correctly. He was an architect, and there were a number of things that just really set him off – like when an architectural student confused a roof with a ceiling. True, they are both over your head, but apparently for some students the difference was much further over their heads than mere space. My father taught me, for instance, the difference between shade and shadow. When we sit in the cool side of a tree on a hot summer day, we are actually sitting in the shadow of the tree, not its shade. The shade is that which is connected to the bark as the tree stands. Nit-picking, you say? Harumph and pffft to you. Many words and expressions in our vocabulary carry life and death meanings, and to confuse them can have disastrous results. For an aviation example, pilots are always cleared for takeoff, and cleared to land. Arcane? Perhaps, but knowing the difference keeps a lot of people alive every day.

So, I am going to make a statement that, I’m sure, is going to upset some people, but here goes –

There is not one single prophecy concerning Jesus in the Old Testament.

None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. As in, zero.

You probably think I am enjoying some of the flora that has been recently decriminalized in my fair state, but no – and you can check me on this. I’ll wait.

Now, let me make another statement that is also 100% true –

The Old Testament contains many statements (I refuse to label them all as “prophecies”) about the coming Messiah, and Jesus fulfills every one of them as precisely as the New Testament writer intends.

You see, one thing I have learned in my study of Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (the books that most protestant groups do not consider to be Scripture) is that there was not one, single, monolithic, universal concept regarding who and what the Messiah was to be. When we make statements like, “The Jews expected the Messiah to be . . . ” (and believe me, I have done so many times) we generally limit that expectation to be of a warrior, military king. And, to be sure, that was one picture of what the Messiah was supposed to be. But, I really do not think that was the picture of the Messiah that the Essenes espoused. The truth is the Jewish people at the time Jesus was born were an eclectic people, with many thoughts and ideas and concepts and religious and political and cultural beliefs – and all of those religious and political and economic and cultural (Hebrew as well as Greek) components combined to make for a number of Messianic expectations.

So, what does this have to do with reading the Bible and making theological conclusions? Just this – when we say that an Old Testament passage was a “prophecy concerning Jesus” we are just as wrong as the architectural student pointing to the ceiling and saying that the roof needed another coat of paint. The Old Testament passage may or may not be a prophecy (depending entirely upon how you interpret the word “prophecy”), but you will never find the name “Jesus” in the Old Testament. The Old Testament passage may or may not have originally been viewed as messianic (and many were not, which subsequent Jewish writers did view as messianic), but, once again, Jesus was never mentioned. For us, the critical thing to accept is that through the Holy Spirit, the New Testament writers did see in a number of Old Testament passages a fore-telling of the coming Messiah, and that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled those word pictures fully.

I know that many of my readers view my posts as picky, sometimes to an extreme. Sorry – it’s inborn and instilled deeply. I am, as my father said (proudly, I think), a nut. I can’t help it. I believe that when we speak of spiritual things, and especially when we speak of textual passages, we need to be careful lest we inadvertently say or write something that is generally accepted, but factually incorrect. I am guilty of over-generalizations and careless speech far more often than I would like to admit, and it is this carelessness that I want to avoid.

We can argue that Jesus is the fulfillment of every passage in the Old Testament that refers to the coming of a messiah without making the incorrect statement that the Old Testament makes many prophecies about Jesus. To argue the first is to be on solid biblical and theological ground. To argue the second is to put on the Old Testament passages a precision that they simply did not have – and, at least in my humble opinion – did not even intend to have.

As the old sergeant said when he concluded roll call on the early episodes of Hill Street Blues, “let’s be careful out there.” Let us speak where the Bible indeed does speak, and be very careful when we make derivative conclusions based on those clear statements in Scripture.

It is all a matter of ascending by climbing lower.

Follow-Up to My Last Post

I received some comments on my last post, and a very good question, so I feel it important to extend my thoughts just a little more here. For the background, see my thoughts here – 1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

First, a little history. Whatever a preacher (or author, or teacher) says or writes is largely autobiographical, and it is almost impossible to untangle what is original and what is borrowed. So, my thoughts on this topic are hugely influenced by my classes with Dr. Everett Ferguson, an article on the practice of male priests covering their heads written by Dr. Richard Oster, and more generically by my understanding on how to do exegesis and thus hermeneutics.

Regarding the last point, I think it is absolutely critical that when we approach the text of Scripture that we remove ourselves as much as possible from the text. I emphasize “as much as possible” because it is impossible to completely do so (as much as Alexander Campbell would disagree.) So, in regard to the topic at hand, one profound issue I have with those who argue for no, or very little, limitations on women exercising leadership roles in the worship assembly is that invariably they insert 21st century worship wars into Paul’s letters. That is a HUGE exegetical, and ultimately, hermeneutical mistake. For us, Paul’s letters are all about me, myself, us, our, and we. We read Paul’s letters as if we are looking in a mirror, and, lo and behold, all we can see is ourselves!

Paul was addressing first century religious (and in the case of the Corinthian letters, Roman and Greek religious) practices as they impacted the first century church. That is where we have to start, and where Paul’s instructions (inspired by the Holy Spirit, no less) intersect with today’s culture, we can draw appropriate conclusions. Where that culture diverges from our culture we have to be very careful that we do not impose our culture on Paul (or Peter or James or even Jesus!) – questions and answers that they never intended.

So, with that said, let us return to 1 Corinthians 11, 14, and 1 Timothy 2 (and, just for giggles and grins, let’s add 1 Peter 3:1-6). If you read 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and remove from your interpretation any apostolic reference to 21st century worship wars, what do you see? Paul wants the Corinthians to maintain a certain set of “traditions” he handed down to them – seemingly related to authority and submission. His first (and I would argue, primary) subject is the proper decorum for men who go before God in prayer. A reader pointed out that Paul does, in fact, spend more time addressing women in these verses, and I agree. But mere volume does not equal significance. Let me illustrate with another text.

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the parable of the “prodigal son.” The overwhelming majority of the parable revolves around a younger son and the relationship with his father. The older son only gets a few verses at the end of the parable, but I would argue that the real “point” of the parable was aimed at the Pharisees, who clearly stood in the position of the unforgiving and self-righteous older son. The repentance of the younger son, and the forgiveness of the father dominate, but the unanswered question of the parable is, “are you ‘older sons’ going to welcome the repentant younger son back into fellowship?” No-one could argue with genuine repentance or parental grace – but forgiveness from one who has been faithful? Ouch.

So, if I am correct (and that is a big “if”), Paul has his sights set squarely on the men who, accustomed to praying with their heads covered with a shawl or cowl, continued to do so following their conversion to Christ. Paul nowhere addresses the where or the when of the prayer, he simply reminds them that, in the new kingdom, men do not pray with their heads covered! To Paul, that was a sign of disrespect to their authority – Christ and God. Women, on the other hand, did pray with their heads covered – not the least of which was their long hair. Once again, the when or the where was not in Paul’s mind. Paul knew women prayed – by themselves, with their children, with other women – that was proper and good. Paul may use more words in relation to the females, but he never takes his eyes off of the men. [As I mentioned above, I borrow this point from Drs. Ferguson and Oster. I wish I could direct you to the article by Dr. Oster, but my books and files are buried in a storage unit, and I simply do not have access to them.]

Now, here is where my training and experience influences my interpretation. Beginning in v. 17 (and repeated a number of times), Paul shifts his attention to the public gathering of the assembled church. There is a shift, a change of emphasis, a new focus in Paul’s eyes. Paul addresses a number of Corinthian problems – the abuse of the Lord’s supper, the confusion of multiple prophets speaking, and the use (or abuse, the question is still open in my mind) of the miraculous gift of “speaking in tongues.” At the very end of that topic, Paul gives his instruction that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” Unfortunately for us, he leaves that instruction rather bare, but it clearly is in relation to the confusion and improper decorum of the Corinthian assembly.

If 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 provided us with the only comments on the question under discussion, we might be safe to say that the question remains open, and perhaps Paul’s accommodating position in Romans 14 might be important here. But, Paul does give additional instruction regarding male and female “authority” roles in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Once again, Paul is not addressing 21st century “worship wars,” so let’s be careful lest we look into that theological mirror again. Paul’s emphasis (once again beginning with the male) is that prayers be genuine, without anger or malice. The women are to dress with proper decorum. Then, Paul specifically mentions that women are not to exercise authority over men, either in teaching or, as I said in my last post, through prayer (Paul’s immediate context). This is where I see that prayer is an authoritative speech according to the apostle. I could be wrong here – have been in the past and will be in the future, but lest I sound like a broken record, I can only do exegesis as I have been taught, not as I have not been taught.

If you have followed me so far, thank you. Now for my main issue with the so called “egalitarians,” those who argue for full (or perhaps expanded) roles of leadership for females in the worship service. If you hold the egalitarian position, Paul has utterly contradicted himself in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 compared to 1 Corinthians 11. At this point you have to decide which is controlling – Paul’s so called “universal” teaching in 1 Cor. 11, or the “limited” or “correcting the one-off, aberrant behavior” of 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Those who hold that 1 Cor. 11 is the true, proper, and Spirit-inspired teaching have to diminish 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 by either removing 1 Cor. 14 completely (i.e., Gordon Fee), or by so minimizing those texts that they ultimately become meaningless to any situation beyond Corinth (or Ephesus) in the first century. I simply cannot go there. Once we  start eliminating Paul’s instructions because they do not “fit” our paradigm, where do we stop? Are Paul’s instructions regarding sexual perversity in chapter 5 also simply a rejection of a cultural taboo that is no longer valid? Are Paul’s instructions regarding division in the church (chapters 1-4) simply to be ignored because they are directed to Apollos, Peter (Cephas) and Paul? What of Paul’s instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper, or even his teaching regarding the resurrection?

And, just one final piece of evidence. Many argue that Paul reveals his chauvinism here – that he took Jesus’s egalitarianism and stood it on its ear. Okay, well, then what of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6? Peter nowhere mentions the assembly, so his words touch this issue only tangentially – but it is this tangential connection that I find so compelling. Peter’s focus is on the submission of the wife to the husband (also mentioned by Paul), and ties this Christian behavior to the behavior of Godly women throughout history. For Peter, apparently, a woman usurping the authority of her husband would be a violation of Christian behavior. My point is that Peter confirms my understanding of Paul’s overall consistency, and therefore that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 must be seen in a generic sense, and not in the specific situation of the assembled congregation.

Once again, I could be wrong here in any – or all – of my conclusions. I can only work with my understanding of how to do exegesis. I have been wrong before, and will undoubtedly be wrong in the future. But, as Martin Luther so famously said, here I stand until I am proven wrong. I sincerely believe that many hold to an erroneous position because of a number of false assumptions. There is the assumption that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 pertains to the assembled worship assembly. According to how I was taught to read Scripture, that assumption cannot be defended. Once again, I can only read, and therefore teach, as I have been taught. Then, there is the subsequent, but necessary, assumption that 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 are therefore only speaking to one-off, aberrant situations that no longer have any validity for the church of Christ. There is further an assumption that the apostolic teaching regarding authority and submission was bound only to the first century, and that any subsequent culture is free to define (or re-define) roles regarding gender any way that is predominant in that culture.

I don’t want to open another can of worms (okay, maybe I do), but just a question – if we are free to define roles of authority regarding sex and gender if we can discover, and eliminate, Paul’s first century cultural biases, then how can we argue against any of the issues of homosexuality, bi-sexuality, poly-amorous relationships, and gender fluidity so prevalent in our culture today? If there are no inherent significant differences between male and female, and if there are no spiritually significant connections to those differences, then who is to argue that there is any limitations as to sexual behavior, or even sexual identity?

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if our culture’s headlong rush into sexual dysphoria has taught me anything, it’s that our understanding of God’s original plan for mankind is found in Genesis 1:27, and if we rupture that relationship we have nothing of any value to stand on.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and let us all ascend by climbing lower.

1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

Regular readers of this post have noticed that I have been very quiet recently – unusually so. Well, I’m still alive, although I have taken to being more introspective lately. Alas, all good things must come to an end, so once again I pick up pen and paper (okay, keyboard and pixels).

I was reminded once again via various social media that unfounded assumptions can make mincemeat of our theology. The subject du jour was the role(s) that the apostle Paul either limits or allows for females in the worship service. The argument that followed included two assumptions – both of which are almost universally accepted – that have no textual support and even make the apostle contradict himself within just a few chapters of his letter. I will try to keep this as short and sweet as I can, and if you are a regular reader here my conclusions will come as no surprise, but I will share this once again for those who are struggling with this question. [By the way, my argument is not with any person per se, it is with the assumptions that are repeated, without evidence, and taken as prima facie truths. I believe those who accept these assumptions to be sincere and devout lovers of truth, but in this instance, also to be incorrect.]

False Assumption #1 – Paul allows, even advocates, for women praying in the public worship assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

No, he does not. That is just false. I say that nicely, but that is just a false assumption that has no textual basis. Let’s look at that passage.

First, Paul addresses how men are to pray, not where, but how – with their heads uncovered. Paul only addresses females obliquely. Men are to pray with their heads uncovered, contra the standard practice (shown in many drawings of that era) of priests of various religions praying with a shawl, or cowl, over their heads. Women are only mentioned as a foil – women do pray with their heads covered (not the least of which with their hair), but men are not supposed to. No mention of where women are said to pray. But why should Paul specify something when the location is not his point? He simply mentions that women pray with their heads covered – when they pray by themselves, with their children, in female prayer groups. Where men pray, or where women pray, is simply not in Paul’s frame of reference.

But, let’s keep reading: v. 17 “…when you come together…” V. 18, “…when you come together as a church…” V. 20 “When you come together…” V. 33, “…when you come together…” 14:23 “…the whole church comes together…” 14:26, “…when you come together…” There is a emphatic (and, in my opinion, unmistakeable) disjunction between Paul’s previous discussion (once again, directed mainly at the men and the how) and his next point of emphasis, the common, joint assembly of the church (the when and the where). It is in of that discussion that Paul issues his now infamous teaching that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” So, whatever Paul had in mind in 11:1-16, it is beyond argument that what he says in 14:33-34 is in regard to a public, common assembly of the church. Which leads me to false assumption #2.

False assumption #2 – having given women permission (and maybe even encouragement) to pray in public in 11:1-16, Paul had to correct an aberrant, one-off situation to which he directed his attention in 14:33-34, namely, a woman (or number of women) who were disrupting a worship assembly by challenging their husbands (gasp!) by asking inappropriate questions.

Well, if you make one false assumption, why not get even more creative with the second? There is simply no contextual evidence to support this assumption! Why would Paul only constrain wives? Are unmarried women not capable of disrupting a service? And, where is there any indiction that the issue is domineering wives?

As I see it, the error is that if you hold to false assumption #1, you have to come up with a scenario that absolves Paul from blatantly contradicting himself in 14:33-34, and even more specifically in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. So, there are a number of options. One is that you simply remove 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 from the text (following Gordon Fee in his commentary on 1 Corinthians). That is a little radical for some, so they simply concoct a situation that Paul was addressing to his Corinthian brethren, but one that is limited by both time and culture, and has no bearing on the modern church. The fatal problem with that solution is that it is, once again, based upon the false assumption that Paul grants females permission to speak authoritatively (and, yes, I am suggesting that public prayer is an authoritative act) in the public worship assembly. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I flatly reject that assumption.

If we remove the false assumption that Paul grants, even promotes, women speaking authoritatively in the worship service in 11:1-16, then we have removed the supposed contradiction in 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2. Paul remains remarkably consistent, and there is no need to invent an imaginary scenario that he supposedly (and invoking self-contradiction) corrects later in the book.

Tangentially, this discussion also raises the question of just how authoritative is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for today’s church. I sat in a lecture by one of the finest Greek scholars ever to teach in a university associated with the Churches of Christ, and I heard him argue that, (to the best of my memory, these words are not verbatim) “because Paul was addressing an aberrant situation in the congregation in Corinth in the first century, we cannot take his words as being binding on the church today.”

Huh? What exactly in the letters to the Corinthians are not aberrant situations for which we are to learn eternal truths? I don’t get it, and yes, I am disagreeing with a world-renowned Greek scholar here. But that is the belief (either conscious or unconscious) of many preachers and church members alike. In other words, if it doesn’t gore our ox, then it is Scripture. If it does gore our ox, well, it was just meant for the first century church and thank goodness we have moved on from there.

Thanks for obliging me for my perfectionist little rant, but this is really a burr under my saddle.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Cycle of Accepting and Promoting a False Teaching

Some while back I posted an article about the triviality of Sunday School answers The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers” I want to expand a little on that thesis today.

How do these Sunday School answers get started, and, particularly troubling, how do incorrect Sunday School answers get started and promoted? I think the cycle goes something like this: a person hears or reads something that was said or written by someone they have no reason to doubt, and may even trust sincerely. Thus, whatever is said or written is accepted wholesale, with no questions asked. Then, they share what they see or have heard. Maybe they see or hear it again from another source, and maybe the particular group they are in accepts the teaching with open arms (ears). The cycle then becomes self-repeating.

Last night I was party to a discussion about a conclusion that I personally disagree with, but do not consider it to be of such importance as a salvation issue or a fellowship issue. I just cannot accept it, based on my education and on my exegesis of the relevant texts. What I found interesting as I sat (kind of like that fly on the wall) was that there was virtually universal acceptance of the teaching in question. As the class progressed, and after about 40 minutes or so of discussion, a later portion of the text was read which at the very least called the earlier assumptions into question (and, in my very humble opinion, flatly rejected those assumptions). At this point the class had basically two options: they could revisit their earlier conclusions, or they could attempt to somehow massage the later verses so that those verses could fit the earlier (again, imho) incorrect conclusion. They strove mightily to accomplish the second, while blissfully ignoring that their earlier conclusion might have been wrong, and so they might need to revisit the meaning of the first section of the passage.

It was a fascinating example of group-think, and how we will move mountains to justify a position we initially hold, rather than stop to consider we might be wrong to begin with, and therefore need to “start over from scratch” to correct an invalid conclusion.

Regarding the passage in question, I am absolutely convinced of the correctness of my conclusion. The class members are equally convinced of the correctness of their position. The thing is, the two positions are diametrically opposed, and cannot in any way, shape, or form, be harmonized. One of us (or perhaps both?) are clearly wrong. Who is to judge?

I’m not going to pontificate here – as I said, based on the context, and on other relevant passages, and on related theological issues, I will hold firmly to my conclusion until someone can convince me based on solid exegetical methods that I am wrong. As I said earlier, I do not hold the two interpretations to be a salvation issue – although I would hasten to add that the “other” interpretation does come with some very serious theological baggage attached.

I do not write this to condemn, but only to identify a systemic and profoundly human problem – How do we correctly identify this cycle of accepting and promoting a shallow “Sunday School Answer” so that we can challenge it, and reject it when necessary?

Well, at the risk of redundancy and beating a dead horse – we do so by standing under Scripture, not above it, and by ascending by climbing lower.

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.