I recently posted about my first article in the Iowa Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) fall 2010 edition of the “Social Questions Bulletin” (SQB). This is part of a series on what it means to take the Bible seriously in ways that are uplifting and fruitful, especially considering the fact that our public debates often deploy scripture merely as a rhetorical tool to win an argument.
Part 2 is now also available in MFSA’s Spring 2011 SQB. In this essay, I think about the problem of the fact that many sides of issues can be debated by quoting biblical texts. So if you can stand on one side of a debate and quote scripture to make an argument, and I can stand on the other side and also quote scripture to make my case, where does that leave us? What do we do with this reality? If the Bible can’t always be a decisive mediator or, more strongly as some seem to purport it can be, a definitive rulebook, what can be the role of scripture in public religious and social life?
I find John Wesley to be quite helpful on this matter because he takes the Bible quite seriously — considering it the primary source for Christian teaching — without taking it entirely literally. Instead of creating a list of thou shalt nots, Wesley’s reading of the Bible seeks out the promises that God makes that will become evident in our lives through faith. Of central significance is God’s promise of grace for those who believe and love God. Stated in its simplest form (as if that’s really possible), love for God will bring transformative grace into a person’s life, which will translate into love for others. So at the end of the day, we know we’re leading “biblical lives” when our faith manifests “good fruits.”
The consequence of this kind of reading of scripture for communities of faith is that we are compelled not to make make preemptive judgments about what “proper Christianity” looks like (such as when we say that if you are lesbian or gay, you are “obviously” and “inherently” not fit for ministry). Instead, we are called to wait and see what work God might be doing through others to bear good fruit in the world.
Of course, this kind of openness makes things complicated (or maybe not so much?), so more can and should be said… Lucky this is a series! But for now, “Part 2″…
In my first article, I expressed suspicion that the Bible is most often deployed in church debates as a rhetorical tool meant to give authority to one’s own arguments. Otherwise, it simply does not make sense, for example, when scripture is quoted to define what is “good sexuality,” while immigration is “too political” for ancient texts to have any contemporary relevance.
The problem, of course, is that the Bible debates itself. Are women valuable leaders in the church or supposed to be silent? Is slavery a fact of life, or are Christians compelled to end exploitative practices? We can actually make Bible-based arguments on all sides of issues.
How, then, can the Bible be “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” as we United Methodists say in our Discipline? If we are going to take scripture seriously, the question becomes how we take it seriously.
John Wesley is quite helpful. The Bible might have been the primary source for determining Christian Truth; however, if we pay attention to how Wesley read our sacred texts, we find that scripture is not a kind of rulebook for our lives.
Living biblically, according to Wesley, is having faith in God’s promises, which are revealed in the Bible, and thereupon experiencing the transformative power of grace.
First and foremost, the Bible serves to show us that when we step into God’s covenant through Jesus, God will work through us, not necessarily conforming to a singular script but in various ways that bring good news to the world. Then, how we live is “biblical” insofar as the ideals within scripture become defining characteristics of our own selves.
In this way, the Bible is a measuring stick more than a judgment rod. That is, as Wesley believed, we can measure authentic faith when we see good fruits—which are biblical values like mercy, truth, justice, righteousness, joy, and love—spring forth in and around believers.
In the next issue, we will delve more deeply into the complexity of diverse responses to and experiences of the Bible. For now, though, imagine if our standards for ordination and measures of effective ministry did not predetermine right and wrong ways of being but waited to see what God might be doing—even even unexpectedly—in others.
May we look for and value the good and biblical works that God inspires through our faith.