Exploring Christianity – Part 5 – Interpreting the Bible or abusing it?

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See below to see the latest installment of my friend Nicholas’ interview with me about Christianity or click here for the whole thing.  

Nicholas wrote: Historically, the Bible has been used to justify some pretty atrocious actions.  I assume you believe there is one correct interpretation of the Bible and that any interpretation which allowed these actions was incorrect.  Do you believe that you are in possession of that one correct interpretation?

With respect to atrocities that were rationalized by using the Bible – and I’m pretty sure we agree on what those actions were and that they were indeed atrocious – I think it is possible to interpret the Bible clearly, just as it is possible to interpret it clearly on the essentials of the faith. 

Does the fact that people misinterpret or even abuse scripture mean the scripture itself isn’t reliable?  Of course not.  Otherwise anyone could disprove anything they wanted to by twisting the meanings  (You didn’t pose that question; I just assumed someone might be wondering about that possibility).  In fairness, we should apply this principle to other faiths as well.

In What about the Crusades?! And the Inquisition?! Etc.?! I pointed out that one shouldn’t judge an ideology based on the actions of those who violate its tenets.  But as you allude to, how can we be sure what the real tenets are?

I am probably more agitated at those who misinterpret the Bible for their own ends than you are, because it distracts people from the basic Gospel message and harms our ministries.  False teachers really bother me.  The Apostle Paul didn’t mind if people preached the Gospel with wrong motives as long as they got the message right.  He minded a lot if they got the message wrong, even if their motives were sincere.  The importance of sound, accurate teachings is a key element of Christianity. 

In general, I hold to this saying regarding church doctrines: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.  This means that if someone doesn’t hold to the essentials of the faith (Jesus is God, He is the one way to salvation, the Bible is authoritative and reliable, etc.) then he doesn’t meet the orthodox definition of a Christian.  But there are plenty of things we can charitably disagree on.

Having said that, there have been atrocious things done that were justified by misinterpreting the Bible.  These are exceptions to the saying above.  They may not have been in the “essentials” category in the sense of what defines a Christian, but that doesn’t mean the issues weren’t important or worth fighting over. 

As these examples will show, the solution is more and better Bible reading and study, not less.  The answers are there, but we have to be Biblically literate enough to point out false doctrines when they crop up.  People may come to these wrong beliefs by accident, lack of effort or because it furthers their agenda or fits their preconceived worldview.  Jeremiah 17:9 says The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

There are rules to use when interpreting the Bible, just as there are when reading any work of literature.  When in doubt, follow some basic Bible Study Tips: Reading passages in context is perhaps the most critical rule (see Never read a Bible verse).  You can also view multiple translations, go back to the original language, let the clear explain the unclear, read it in light of other scripture, etc.  This will solve most problems. 

This applies to the classic example of U.S.-style slavery.  I add the qualifier “U.S.-style” because it is quite different than the slavery acknowledged in the Bible.  Did people try to twist the Bible to justify their actions?  Yes.  But a thorough reading of the Bible, in context, crushes those arguments.  These people were obviously stolen from their homeland, and to say the slave owners didn’t love their neighbors (the slaves) as themselves is a massive understatement. 

Now let’s consider a more current example: Abortion.  Some Christians try to twist scripture to say that the Bible is supportive of abortion.  Their main point is often that “Jesus didn’t say anything about abortion.”  That is called an argument from silence, because there are many things that Jesus didn’t specifically mention (rape, pedophilia, drunk driving, etc.) that are clearly moral wrongs.  More importantly, He did say, “Do not murder.”

The main passage pro-choice Christians use to support their position is Exodus 21.  Click the link for a good overview of the controversy.  If people are after the larger meaning that hitting a pregnant woman is different than hitting a non-pregnant woman, then virtually any translation of that passage will suffice.  However, if someone wants to determine if there are implications to the abortion debate based on that passage then they will get mixed messages from different translations.  Some make it clear that the unborn is a distinct human being, while others make it appear that there is a lesser value.

So what is the solution?  Simple: Just go back to the original Hebrew.  As the link shows, that clears things right up. 

Another example is the Inquisition.  I’m not sure what verses, if any, they used to justify their actions, but they couldn’t have been more opposed to Biblical teachings if they tried.  Forcing someone to believe is simply not a Biblical motif.  Consider the story of the rich ruler.  The man didn’t like Jesus’ terms, so Jesus let him walk away sad.  Jesus did not run after him and tackle him or force him to believe, even though Jesus loved him. 

You can also watch some of the false teachers on TV and see how they twist scripture to make it look like God just wants you to be rich and healthy.   They are God’s middlemen, of course, and to get things started you need to send them money.  I keep trying to find that in the Bible, but I can’t. 

Twisting God’s Word is not a new development.  Satan did that in Genesis 3 (“Did God really say . . .”) and Matthew 4, for example.  Again, the answer is more scripture, or more accurate scripture readings, which is how Jesus responded. 

Let me know if you want to dive more deeply into any of these or if you have other examples you would like addressed.  I think the overall principles will apply to just about any controversy you can find.   

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Mid-Weekly roundup

roundup.jpgA touching quote from a Houston Chronicle article about California Governor Arnold Swarzenegger’s Earth Day speech on MTV:

When Schwarzenegger ran for governor in 2003, he was criticized for popularizing gas-guzzling Hummers.  He has since reduced his personal Hummer fleet to four, two of which he said have since been converted to run on alternative fuels.

Gee, I’m getting all choked up here.  Almost as much as when I read about Sheryl Crow’s plans for toilet paper and napkin usage.

P.S. The Arnold thing reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons where Ranier Wolfcastle (the thinly disguised Swarzenegger character) tells Homer what mileage his Humvee gets: “One mile per gallon highway, zero city.” 

The dinner lesson – a classic and clever primer on taxation.  This is the best example I have seen to show the flaws of “soaking the rich” to fund endless government programs and redistribute wealth.  I have no problem with wealthy people paying a great share of taxes.  But how much is too much?  If you want to soak the rich, keep in mind that they are remarkably water-proof.  They can afford to find loopholes to get around paying taxes.  And where does fairness end and covetousness begin?

Earth Day and Evolutionists – “The moral obligations underpinning Earth Day simply do not follow from the naturalistic world view that embraces Darwinism.”

—  

Dem’s, WMD’s & Iraq . . . Oh my – this link is a keeper, especially for those with short attention spans.

Matthew 20

vineyard.jpgGreetings!

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

 3“About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went.

   “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

 7” ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
      “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

 8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

 9“The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

 13“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

 16“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

As a pro-capitalism CPA, this story initially confused me.  It just seemed unfair.  But keep in mind that parables typically have one or two key meanings and aren’t meant to work on too many levels.  This is not about rewards, it is about grace.  God freely gives it as He chooses.  We shouldn’t be jealous or critical about who He dispenses grace to; we should rejoice that we get it at all.

Jesus Again Predicts His Death

 17Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

A Mother’s Request

 20Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

 21“What is it you want?” he asked.
      She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

 22“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
      “We can,” they answered.

 23Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

They thought they were asking for positions of prestige in an earthly kingdom.  After all, they had witnessed all the miracles Jesus had done.  Surely He would eventually take over soon.  But to be at his right and left would have meant crucifixion.  He told them several times He would be killed, but they were in denial.

 24When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

What a beautiful and outrageous concept: The God of the universe came to earth not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for you. 

Two Blind Men Receive Sight

 29As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

 31The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

 32Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

 33“Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”

 34Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.

What passages stood out to you, and why?

Matthew 19

jesus-children.jpgGreetings!

Some people claim that Jesus was silent on homosexual behavior so it must be acceptable.  This is called arguing from silence, and it is poor reasoning because Jesus didn’t specifically mention other evils such as child sacrifice, drunk driving, pedophilia, etc. yet those are obviously wrong.  Also, Jesus is God, so He is the author of all scripture.  He also mentions several times that marriage is to be between one man and one woman.

Divorce

 1When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

 4“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

 7“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

 8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

 10The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Jesus’ teaching that divorcing a wife for other than adultery was so shocking to his disciples that they said it is better not to marry!  That shows how hard the hearts of that culture were.

The Little Children and Jesus

 13Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. 14Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

The Rich Young Man

16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”

 18“Which ones?” the man inquired.

   Jesus replied, ” ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.'”

 20“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

 21Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

 22When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

This story is told in Mark 10 and Luke 18 as well.  Mark also notes that Jesus loved the man. 

 23Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

 26Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

 27Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

 28Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

The story of the rich young man is often misunderstood to say that we have to sell everything and give it away to follow Jesus.  But it is important to understand the dialogue between the man and Jesus and to keep reading to see what the context is.

First, note how Jesus started with the Commandments dealing with our relationships with others – don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, etc.  This man almost certainly broke those even though he thought he didn’t (think back to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus points out how unrighteous anger can be considered to break the law against murder and lust breaks the law of adultery).  But Jesus was pointing out that the young man’s real “god” was money.  Jesus wants us to put him first in life – well above family, job, money, etc.

Jesus went on to show how it is impossible for us to follow the Commandments on our own.  He was pointing to the fact that we need a Savior – him!  It is impossible on our own, but with God’s sacrifice of his Son it became possible to be reconciled to God.

Jesus gave the all-time best reasons for believing in the Gospel and portraying what it was really like, yet many people still refused to believe.  Keep that in mind if you share the Gospel and people reject it.  Just be loving, obedient and as accurate as possible and leave the rest to God.

What passages stood out to you, and why?

Exploring Christianity – Part 5 – Interpreting the Bible or abusing it?

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See below to see the latest installment of my friend Nicholas’ interview with me about Christianity or click here for the whole thing.  

Nicholas wrote: Historically, the Bible has been used to justify some pretty atrocious actions.  I assume you believe there is one correct interpretation of the Bible and that any interpretation which allowed these actions was incorrect.  Do you believe that you are in possession of that one correct interpretation?

With respect to atrocities that were rationalized by using the Bible – and I’m pretty sure we agree on what those actions were and that they were indeed atrocious – I think it is possible to interpret the Bible clearly, just as it is possible to interpret it clearly on the essentials of the faith. 

Does the fact that people misinterpret or even abuse scripture mean the scripture itself isn’t reliable?  Of course not.  Otherwise anyone could disprove anything they wanted to by twisting the meanings  (You didn’t pose that question; I just assumed someone might be wondering about that possibility).  In fairness, we should apply this principle to other faiths as well.

In What about the Crusades?! And the Inquisition?! Etc.?! I pointed out that one shouldn’t judge an ideology based on the actions of those who violate its tenets.  But as you allude to, how can we be sure what the real tenets are?

I am probably more agitated at those who misinterpret the Bible for their own ends than you are, because it distracts people from the basic Gospel message and harms our ministries.  False teachers really bother me.  The Apostle Paul didn’t mind if people preached the Gospel with wrong motives as long as they got the message right.  He minded a lot if they got the message wrong, even if their motives were sincere.  The importance of sound, accurate teachings is a key element of Christianity. 

Continue reading Exploring Christianity – Part 5 – Interpreting the Bible or abusing it?

More on Hell

circle-slash.jpgNo, not moron hell, but more_on Hell.  I wanted to add a few thoughts that came up since the last discussion

We tend to make two opposite but equally bad errors with respect to Hell.

First, we often pretend it doesn’t exist.  I’ll admit that I wasn’t paying very close attention the first 28 years or so that I went to church.  But for the last sixteen years I’ve been a little more focused, and I can attest that I’ve only heard Hell mentioned a few times.  That’s it!  It isn’t that I want to hear about it.  It is that if we never talk about it our teaching is out of balance.  Scan the Gospels sometime and see how often Jesus spoke about Hell.  (Hint: A lot.  Roughly twice as much as He spoke about Heaven.)

The opposite but equally unproductive error is to focus on Hell exclusively or to describe it improperly.  It is true that many Christians have shared the concept of Hell in unproductive and incorrect ways. 

For example, saying that “You’re going to Hell unless you start living right” is lousy theology.  The truth is that non-Christians are on their way to Hell regardless of how well they start living.  Just like Christians, their only hope is putting their faith in Jesus.

It also implies that Christians are somehow living better such that we deserve Heaven, and that is lousy theology as well.  Many atheists may be higher up on the (human) moral scale than Christians are.  More importantly, we are only saved through what Jesus did for us.  Saying his death plus something we did saved us from Hell is heresy, as is the notion that anything short of what Jesus did could save us. 

Focusing too much on Hell is a problem as well, as that crushes people and leaves them without hope.  Where is the Good News?

Jesus came “full of grace and truth.”  He had just the right balance.  We should aim for that as well.

Matthew 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 18

lost-sheep-2.jpgGreetings!

The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven

Jesus’ disciples were very human – just like us.  They didn’t understand his real mission and were concerned with their own status and position. 

 1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

 2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was not saying to think like children.  Christianity is a rational religion and we are taught to love God with our minds, to test things and to renew our minds.  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, said, “Religion without reason is no religion at all.”

So what was Jesus saying?  The key phrase to me is “whoever humbles himself like this child . . .”  When Jesus said we need to become like children He meant that we needed that kind of humility. 

 5“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

When is the last time you heard a sermon with verse 6? 

 7“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Some skeptics like to point at verses 8-9 and the fact that we don’t cut out our eyes and cut off our hands.  Interestingly, critics of the Bible sometimes take verses far more literally than any fundamentalist preacher ever did.  Jesus was using hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration, of course.  But his broader point shouldn’t be missed: Sin is very serious, and Hell is real. 

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

 10“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

 12“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

Shepherds were on the lowest rung of society in that culture, yet they would still look after their sheep with care.  How much more so will God go looking for you.  There is a fancy church phrase called “prevenient grace,” which in short means that God is chasing you with his grace.  You just need to turn around. 

A Brother Who Sins Against You

When people sin against us we can handle it the Biblical way or our way.  Sadly, I usually choose my way – either overreacting or ignoring it.  Jesus lays out a model that works, but it takes effort.   

 15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

 18“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

 19“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

This is a powerful parable about forgiveness.  God will forgives us for our countless sins against a perfect and holy creator.  The “ten thousand talents” would have been the equivalent of millions of dollars – something the man could never repay (especially since he would be in jail).  The one hundred denarii was the equivalent of worker’s daily wages.  Will we forgive others for much lesser offenses?

 21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

 22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

 23“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

 26“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

 28“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

 29“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

 30“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

 32“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

 35“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

What passages stood out to you, and why?