I. A “Biblical” Faith
Last week we asked the question, “What does a ‘biblical’ faith look like?” Does having a “biblical” faith mean that you read the Bible as God’s literal, inerrant Word? What we found is that, by this definition, the apostle Peter would not even come close to having a “biblical” faith. When we stop trying to define what “biblical” would be on our own and turn to the Bible itself for guidance, we find that the faith actually in the Bible looks quite different than that proposed by fundamentalist Christianity. It also looks quite different from liberal Christianity, by the way, which essentially proposes that we write off the Bible as little more than primitive superstition.
Peter was a serious student of the scriptures. It is quite evident that Peter’s whole world was infused with, and informed by, scripture. Yet drawing from Peter as an example of what it means to have a “biblical” faith, we must conclude that the Holy Spirit trumps scripture. If the Holy Spirit directs you to eat foods that are clearly prohibited in the Scripture, for instance, Peter would advise you to fire up the barbeque. If the Holy Spirit directs you to associate yourself with people whom Scripture clearly forbids you to associate with, or the Spirit instructs you to allow these same people into full fellowship within your faith community, Peter would advise that you open the door wide and embrace them no matter what Scripture says.
Now, some of you are probably cheering right about now about the Holy Spirit trumping scripture, and some of you are worrying. To those of you who are cheering, I suggest that you’ve got something to worry about. And to those of you who are worrying, you have more reason for comfort than you may think.
If you’re cheering, bear in mind that it’s no easy task to determine what the Holy Spirit is saying. Last fall we spent six weeks asking how we know if it’s the Holy Spirit talking and not the pizza we just ate. We could have spent six months, even six years refining that topic. It takes a lot of work to discern whether something’s coming from the Spirit or another source. In our fast food culture, we generally resist putting in the time it takes to develop an affinity for discernment. We seek quick fix solutions – like pulling a line from Scripture out of context and applying it to any given situation.
Even more than skill, what’s needed to discern and follow the Spirit’s voice is surrender. Most of us hear things from the Spirit all the time, but we’re not surrendered enough to accept what the Spirit is trying to tell us. We think what we’re “hearing” is too good to be true, or comes from a source that has too much faith in us, or thinks too highly of us to be trustable. “Oh, I’m not remotely capable of doing this or that” we conclude, and shut the voice down, figuring it’s just our own wishful thinking. Well, sometimes it is our wishful thinking. Sometimes it’s not. The question is, will you ever surrender deeply enough to God to develop the discernment skills to tell the difference? Or will you go for the quick fix and hope for the best?
II. Picking and Choosing
Let’s consider that quick fix approach for a moment, shall we? Let’s read some scripture and see how it may speak to our lives today. Consider the following passage from Leviticus 20:8-18:
8Keep my statutes, and observe them; I am the Lord; I sanctify you. 9All who curse father or mother shall be put to death; having cursed father or mother, their blood is upon them. 10If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. 11The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 12If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed perversion, their blood is upon them. 13If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 14If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you. 15If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal. 16If a woman approaches any animal and has sexual relations with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. 17If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people; he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, he shall be subject to punishment. 18If a man lies with a woman having her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has laid bare her flow of blood; both of them shall be cut off from their people.
Now, I’ve been preaching and teaching about faith and homosexuality for over 15 years, and I must confess to being awfully tired of having to defend homosexuals against the claims made in the Book of Leviticus 18. I say this as a straight person. If you’re straight, too, imagine how a gay person feels, especially to hear the call for the death penalty.
So I’d like to put others on the hot seat for a change. The passage above deals with more than just “men who lay with men.” Let’s focus instead on the children, particularly the children who disrespect us parents. Now here’s a passage we can apply directly from “God’s Word” in Scripture! Why shouldn’t we pay more attention to the need to stone our disrespectful children to death than to the gays? After all, there are all kinds of gay people who are the nicest, most respectful, just, and upright people you’ll ever meet. Why would we want to stone these folks? What have they ever done to us? But in the case of disrespectful children, each and every one of them is being punished for a sin they’ve actually committed against us. Deuteronomy 21 gives us permission to stone them not just for cursing, but for showing any sign of rebellion or refusing to obey their parents. Can I hear an “Amen!”?
While we’re on the subject of rebellious children, we may as well add that the Bible also gives us permission to stone teenage girls who have sex before marriage. Can I get another “Amen”? (Deut 21)
Now, in case you are a teenager and are getting nervous, let me add that the Bible does allow for a way to have sex before marriage and live to tell about it. If you are unmarried and are raped, you won’t get stoned. And, lucky you, the Bible commands your rapist to marry you and never get divorced! And fathers, there’s something in it for you, too. The rapist must pay you 50 shekels of silver for dishonoring your name.
What? You have a problem with God’s Word? But this is God’s Word every bit as much as the Leviticus saying about “men laying with men” is God’s Word. Don’t tell me you’re picking and choosing Scripture to suit your interests …
The fact of the matter is that the Bible clearly forbids that which even the most conservative, Bible-believing Christian would permit. In fact, compared to what the Bible says, the most conservative among us would seem like wild-eyed hedonist libertines. For instance, the Bible prohibits the following:
- Weaving two kinds of cloth together
- Mixing two kinds of grain together
- Cross breeding animals
- Marrying outside the faith
- Remarriage after divorce
- Sex at “that time of month” (The couple is to be cut off forever from their community)
- Eating pork, shellfish, cheeseburgers, etc, etc
- Most disconcerting for us Huskers fans: Touching the skin of a pig.
Lest you think I’m being all sanctimonious, consider me as a clergy person. The Bible clearly states you may not become clergy if you:
- Trim your beard or sideburns
- Marry a non-virgin, widow, or divorcee
- Have a limb that’s too long or short
- Be too thin or too small (I like those two!)
- Have defective eyesight
- Be hunchbacked
- Have skin disease
- Have damaged testicles
I was never asked about any of these things on my ordination exams. Even more surprising, I was never even asked if I had been a banker or had money in an interest-bearing savings account! What? You’re not familiar with what the Bible says about that? There are so many injunctions in the Bible against charging interest that it’s laughable that the banks aren’t being picketed by Christians every week carrying signs that say, “God hates loan officers!”
In the book of Ezekiel, as one of many “for instances,” those who charge interest on loans are lumped in with murderers, robbers, adulterers, and idolaters, and are said to be worthy of death. (Ezek 18:10-13) Shouldn’t we at least be proposing that bankers go to jail, and to make interest-bearing accounts illegal? Or are you going to be all liberal-y now that it affects you?
Then again, maybe the Bible itself could stand to be more strict. After all, it not only prohibits things that even the most conservative among us would permit, but it permits things that even the most conservative among us would prohibit. Like polygamy. And slavery. And treating women like property.
III. The Coherent and the Contingent
What are we to do with all of this if we are to have a “biblical” faith? The fact of the matter is that everyone who takes the Bible seriously, no matter how conservative or liberal, has a “canon within a canon.” Certain parts of scripture speak with more authority than other parts. So, for instance, when Peter claimed to have a vision from the Holy Spirit that revealed that it was okay to eat non-kosher foods and to baptize Gentiles into the faith, that revelation formed part of Peter’s own canon within a canon. Certain scriptures no longer spoke with the authority they once did. And certain other scripture spoke with more authority. The fact that Peter’s conclusions started resonating with more and more people in the Christian community lent further credence to his vision, to the point where it became the “orthodox” position.
Biblical scholars sometimes speak about separating the coherent from the contingent when it comes to privileging certain scriptures over others. The Bible contains writings that stretch for over 1,000 years. Certain themes within Scripture seem to appear and reappear over and over regardless of time period or cultural context. These themes give the Bible a coherent voice. On the other hand, other themes seem to appear far less often, being more contingent upon a particular time period and cultural setting. One generation says something that is not echoed by the next generation.
To give a concrete example: There are three great law codes in the Old Testament: the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), the Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23), and the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26). Each of these law codes was written at three different time periods, and each appears an attempt by different generations of Israelites to interpret in their day how to live by the Ten Commandments. Some of the laws contradict each other; many of them reflect vastly different ideas of what is important.
Isn’t it interesting that at one point in Israel’s history, people came to the conclusion that an earlier law code wasn’t working for them and wrote a new one? Later, others looked back and concluded that neither of the two law codes was working for them and wrote a third. In terms of coherence and contingence, one can see that the coherence behind the law codes is the Ten Commandments. The contingencies are the precise laws themselves, which change according to the present understanding of the people.
IV. Paul’s “Biblical” Faith
The apostle Paul models what it is like to have a “biblical” faith that is able to separate the coherence from the contingencies of scripture. One particularly telling place he models this sensitivity is in his advice about divorce. (Sorry to put the divorcees on the hot seat again, but perhaps you now know a little of what it’s like to be gay …) In 1 Corinthians 7:10-15, Paul answers a question about divorce this way:
To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you.
Do you find it curious that Paul directly contradicts Jesus’ own teaching on divorce? It’s obvious that Paul knows what Jesus says (he cites Jesus), then he makes it clear that he is going to give different advice – I and not the Lord. How can you directly contradict Jesus, allowing for divorce in certain circumstances when Jesus has made no such exception?
Paul tells us how. He appeals to the fact that God has called us to “peace,” or what in Hebrew would have been called Shalom. Shalom doesn’t just mean “peace” as in absence of fighting. Shalom means peace, as a form of wholeness, health, and prospering.
You see, while scripture holds marriage in high esteem, and has something negative to say about divorce, it holds SHALOM in far higher esteem than marriage. If you look at the whole thrust of scripture, SHALOM is one of the highest values you can find there. Peace, health, wholeness, and prospering are what allow a person not merely to survive, but to thrive. So if you are in a marriage but do not have SHALOM, you are not in a “biblical” marriage. Breaking up a marriage doesn’t necessarily lead to “peace, health, wholeness, and prospering” either. But Paul recognized that in certain circumstances the chances are higher that one will achieve SHALOM and thrive by breaking marriage bonds rather than maintaining a bad marriage just for the sake of staying married.
In Scripture, SHALOM is the deep, coherent ripple effect that spreads ever outward. It comes from God’s desire that each of us should not just survive this earthly life, but thrive here. Every generation from the biblical era to this day has encountered this ripple effect that enables a wider and wider circle of people to find SHALOM and thrive. The ripple has sometimes “made waves,” causing entire communities to reevaluate their life together and the basic rules by which they govern themselves. In the Old Testament alone we know there were at least three such periods. Could we be in another such period now? Could it be that part of what is causing chaos and infighting in the Christian community and beyond over a number of faith issues is that we are responding to another of God’s ripples that is producing waves, moving us to widen our circle of welcome and compassion?
Only time will tell. But whether we are responding to God’s ripple, or simply taking the next small step together on the journey of faith, we may at least acknowledge that we are more entangled with one another than we often suspect. The fate of the rebellious teen, like the fate of the divorcee, like the fate of the banker, and the clergy person who doesn’t fit the Levitical mold, and the homosexual couple, is all bound up together. The ability of each group to thrive in this world depends, in part, on the faith community exercising a truly “biblical” faith instead of a “biblical” faith in appearance only. Our responsibility – and joy – as Christians is to sort out the coherent from the contingent in Scripture with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Based on what we find there, we are to embody the ethics of SHALOM in order that the ripples of God’s love and grace may continue to extend further and further into a world that yearns to hear – and experience – the Good News.