by Pastor Doug Kings
During my sermon the Sunday before last, I talked about the early church’s “dirty laundry.” I was referring to the violent quarrel that broke out over whether Gentiles needed to first become Jews before they could be accepted into the community of followers of Jesus.
Among Paul’s letters, Galatians is a vehement argument that Christ has set everyone free of Judaism’s legal demands and a denunciation of those trying to lure Gentile Christians into following them. Paul especially attacks the attempt to have Gentile males circumcised, saying Christ would then “be of no value” to them.
The book of Acts also talks about this conflict. Biblical scholars today recognize that Luke, the author of Acts, is telling a romanticized version of the early church story—how he wishes it happened rather than how it did. In Luke’s version, the conflict between Paul and James, the proponent of following Jewish law, is amicably resolved, affirming Paul’s position.
Yet just after telling of a “Jerusalem conference” where the issue was supposedly ironed out, Luke tells briefly of an incident which seems to repudiate it. In Acts 16, Paul chooses Timothy to be his new companion for his next missionary trip. According to Luke, Paul circumcises Timothy because he knew they would be encountering Jews along the way and he didn’t want to upset them.
This story is obviously a fabrication. In Galatians, Paul gets so worked up on this topic that he says he wishes those advocating circumcision for Gentiles would castrate themselves. The notion that Paul would himself circumcise a Gentile Christian is preposterous. Yet there it is—in the Bible. A made-up story pretending to be historical, which it plainly is not.
One of the basic tenets of fundamentalism is the infallibility of the Bible. Every word of it is true. Every verse can be believed as coming from God himself—and must be believed if one is a true Christian.
But what does Luke’s false history tell us? That the Bible is human and therefore very fallible. Yet the presence of such a text, and many other “problem” texts, doesn’t diminish the value of all the other that have moved, inspired, and guided people over the centuries.
The story doesn’t diminish Luke as a proclaimer of the gospel. The story doesn’t make Luke a dishonest man. It is likely he didn’t know much about Paul as his letters were probably not yet in wide circulation. He reports the incident (which he may have gotten from another source) because it fit the story he wanted to tell about the early church’s growth. It does, however, diminish Luke’s identity as a historian—a conclusion, as I said, that Bible scholars came to some time ago.
And this is the main point: we need to understand what we are reading when we read the Bible. It is not history, though it certainly includes some historical people and events. It is not science, though it does talk about natural phenomena. It is religion and theology, a collection of ancient sacred writings, deeply valued by three great religious traditions. That identity points to both its worth and its limitations.
I love the Bible, read it often, and cherish many of its stories, teachings, and traditions. At the same time I admit that I ignore large parts of it. Bible texts are often tedious, irrelevant, and/or incomprehensible. But this isn’t surprising for, as New Testament scholar Marcus Borg said, “the Bible was neither written to us or for us.” And while bracing, that simple statement is one we must get our heads around if the Bible is going to continue to have value.
For some time, churches (both Protestant and Catholic) have been leaning on the Bible for a kind of support it cannot give. They are twisting it and distorting it as a result. Both the ideas of an infallible Bible and an infallible pope are relatively recent, developed in the 19th century. In both cases they were responses to churches’ fears of losing authority in the face of the rise of science and of secular political power. Today we may finally be able to realize that such authority needed to be lost for that is not what the church is about.
The Bible’s texts are ancient, written in languages no longer spoken, and reflect a world view far different than our own. Nonetheless, with effort, we can still hear them speak profoundly to us. Yet we should also realize that God speaks to us in other ways, as well.
Down through the centuries, there have been many profound writers and teachers who have interpreted the gospel for their times and that remains true today. We can also be guided by people in other religious traditions and those outside the formal religious world, including poets, novelists, philosophers, scientists, and artists.
Paul’s great insight was that in Christ we realize that God can be found anywhere in this world. Whenever we put up barriers and structures to contain God, God invariably bursts out of them and shows up somewhere unexpected. Today more than ever, our eyes and ears need to be open to hear God’s voice in unexpected places.
Blessings in your life and ministry.