II Timothy 3:14-17
This morning we begin a new series of messages titled Faith in the Modern Age. The impetus for this series comes from living in this era of sweeping and breathtaking change. We are truly in the midst of an historical moment, greater perhaps, than any moment in centuries. It feels as though we are on the cusp of something very new – but is it new in a good way or new in a bad way?
Do you ever wonder where are we headed? The question for us, as people of faith, is what do all these changes mean for the future of faith? Some people believe that faith is an outmoded, outdated belief system that should not and will not survive in the modern age. Pointing to a decline in church attendance and belief, some believe that faith is on a downward trend toward irrelevance and perhaps extinction.
I don’t agree with that view, of course, but I do believe there are some significant questions to consider as we navigate this time of upheaval and change.
We begin with Reading the Bible in the Modern Age.
One of my first college classes was Introduction to Old Testament. My older brother was a student at the same school, and one afternoon I went to him to discuss something that was said in class. We were discussing the crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrew people, after Moses led them out of Egypt, and I was troubled to hear some things that were in conflict with my understanding of that story. In the course of the conversation my brother told me I was absolutely wrong. He has always been kind enough to tell me when I am wrong. He told me, among a few other things, that Moses didn’t part the Red Sea instantaneously. I disagreed. I knew exactly how it happened because I’d seen the movie, and when Charlton Heston raised his staff in very dramatic fashion the sea instantly parted. My brother gave me some helpful advice, saying why don’t you pick up your Bible and read it for yourself once in a while. I did. Turns out he was right and I was wrong. Exodus 14:21 says the wind blew all night, not that the waters parted instantaneously.
That moment helped me to understand how much I took for granted about Scripture, and how little I understood what the Bible actually says. I had accepted some things that simply weren’t true. I didn’t question the interpretation of others. I didn’t form my own view of what the Scriptures tell us about God and faith. In the years since that time, I have spent a lot of time studying the Scriptures, and the more I study, the more convinced I have become about the critical need of approaching the Bible in the proper manner.
And here’s why – over the centuries the Bible has been used to support all manner of things that it does not support. The Bible has been used to subjugate women, it has been used to support slavery, it has been used to support prejudice and discrimination, and it has been used to justify violence. In too many instances the Bible has been used more as a weapon of condemnation rather than a source of grace. The Bible has been used to condemn everything from hairstyles to clothing styles to musical styles. Some people see it as little more than a political manual or economic manual.
I want to offer several suggestions about the Bible this morning, and how we ought to read it in this modern age –
1. Never doubt its relevance.
It grieves me that so many people simply write the Bible off as being irrelevant. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people offer a variation of what does such an ancient book have to do with life today? It has everything to do with life today, because the Bible grapples with all of the big questions in life – why are we here? What is our purpose? How should we live? Is there any point to life? What happens when this life ends?
But even among those who are people of faith the Bible is partially written off as irrelevant. I hear people say we are people of the New Testament; the Old Testament doesn’t have any relevance to us. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Old Testament is full of such amazing stories, and they are absolutely relevant and so amazingly compelling. Have you struggled with family difficulties? The story of Joseph and his brothers will certainly resonate with you. Have you ever struggled with doubt or wondered why we face hardship? Who hasn’t struggled with those issues? The book of Job, while not giving a definitive answer, will certainly remind us that suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition. Have you ever struggled to follow God in daily living when you can’t get a clear picture of where he is leading? Read the story of Abraham. Are you heartbroken about the injustice in the world? Read the prophets, whose message continues to resonate so powerfully.
The Bible is amazingly relevant because the human condition and the human heart does not change.
2. Keep the Bible in context.
There are a lot of churches that will not allow women to serve in leadership roles. In parts of the New Testament there are verses that speak against women having leadership in worship. Is this a universal command? No, I do not believe it is. During the New Testament era there were a number of mystery religions and women often led their worship services. Part of their worship involved the practice of ritual prostitution. When Paul wrote in I Corinthians 14:34-35 that 34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church he is not applying a principle that applies to all churches in all time periods. He is being careful to make a distinction between Christian and pagan worship services. As many people were leaving the mystery religions for the Christian churches, Paul undoubtedly wanted to avoid any confusion related to the role of women in worship. Paul often depended upon women leaders in many of the cities where he worked, so he did not forbid female leadership in all instances. When churches take his words literally, forbidding women from sharing positions of leadership, they are twisting and distorting the words of Paul and making him out to be an extreme male chauvinist, which he undoubtedly was not.
3. Realize there is a distinction between literal and symbolic.
I think we do people a disservice when we say every verse has to be taken literally. Nobody does that anyway. Does anyone take the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30 literally? 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. Obviously, those words would be quite problematic if taken literally, and I don’t know anyone who has ever taken them in a literal manner. On the printed page, we cannot hear the way Jesus said those words, but had we been present when they were spoken it would be much easier to realize they were most likely delivered with a great deal of hyperbole. Jesus used exaggerated language, in this instance, to help him make his point.
In I Corinthians 11:4-6 Paul writes every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. I have a pair of scissors for anyone who wants to take up his suggestion.
Several months ago I mentioned an interview I had when I was in seminary. A church searching for a student minister interviewed me, but the interview only lasted for a couple of questions. I never told you the question, and surprisingly, I don’t remember anyone asking me about the question. The question was, do you take the Bible literally? I don't take every word literally, and as I tried to make my point as to why - and to make the point that no one takes every word literally - I was quickly cut off.
The point I have always tried to make in speaking about the Bible is not to reduce anyone’s faith in Scripture, though some would say that is the result, but to increase their faith and confidence in Scripture. The Scriptures contain the story of God and humanity reaching toward one another, and may we always love and appreciate that beautiful and wondrous story.