by Pastor Doug Kings
This week someone who I don’t know watched our service on Facebook and left a comment. He wanted us to know that there was at least one thing he heard in the sermon that he didn’t like.
So Jesus did not walk on water? I don’t think I ever heard a preacher say that before, like not believing in miracles at all. Guess I won’t be coming here.
His comment saddened and frustrated me, not because he didn’t like something I said, but because of his statement about preachers. He’s probably right–he probably hasn’t heard this before. But I know that he has heard from preachers who would agree with me—they just don’t say it to their congregations.
For biblical literalists, every event or quotation is a historical fact. To say otherwise is to “deny” the truth of the Bible. I disagree with that because I have a different way of reading and interpreting the Bible. I recognize the Bible as a collection of ancient documents, by multiple writers, who reflect the ancient worldview of the times in which they lived, as writers always do. The Bible’s primary method of communicating is not with historical facts but with story and metaphor. Not only is this the primary way we still communicate, but it also recognizes that metaphor is the only way we can speak of God because, as the Bible itself says, God is unknowable.
I have no problem with people wanting to read the Bible as if everything in it is historically accurate. What I object to the insistence that this is the only way to read the Bible faithfully. It’s not now and never has been. However deeply felt or reasoned, it is nonetheless a choice they have made, just as I have made a different choice for reasons that I also believe are good and defensible.
My main concern is not whether someone agrees with me on this, but that insisting on biblical literalism prevents people from hearing the gospel. In short, for me as a pastor, this is a question of evangelism, which I still believe is the primary mission of the church. Coming to this realization early in my ministry led me to the conclusion that being vocal and upfront about my beliefs was not an option, but essential for me to do faithful ministry.
In this regard, going to seminary was a strange experience. Reading the Bible with a modern, scientific perspective was just a given there. No big deal—it was old news. Yet on multiple occasions we would be cautioned about using what we were learning in our preaching and teaching. “It might get people upset.” Somehow, even though it was accepted by all our faculty and texts, this information should be kept under wraps because … well, it’s just not important enough to get people riled up.
After a few years of ministry I recognized the absurdity of this. What professional training gives information to its students but then cautions them against using it? For doctors, lawyers, or engineers this would be malpractice. I eventually concluded that what I had been told to do in seminary constituted clergy malpractice. Because what I realized is that being able to read the Bible as a modern person IS important enough to run the risk of ruffling the theological feathers of a few people.
And it’s never turned out to be more than a few. In fact, the more common reaction to my classes and preaching has been a different kind of upset. The more common response was, “Where have I been? Why haven’t I heard this before?!” While some people were deeply committed to biblical literalism, far more welcomed the opportunity—and permission—to read the Bible with modern eyes. Or, as Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong puts it, being able to come to church and not have to check their brains at the door.
Obviously, literalists would resent that implication, yet that is exactly how many today experience their life in the church—and often have left as a result, joining what Spong has called “the church alumni association.” And others have never come in the first place. Surveys, especially of teens and young adults, have shown that thinking they must believe unbelievable things is one of the primary reasons people avoid religion.
I must give credit to Bishop Spong (now retired and just turned 90!) for giving me the final push to being honest in my ministry. It was his blockbuster Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998) that made me realize this really is a matter of spiritual life or death for millions of people. And so I was surprised by the coincidence but smiled reading this Facebook post by him a couple days ago.
I do not live in a world where people can walk on water, or still a storm, or take five loaves and feed 5,000 men plus women and children. If that is a requirement of my commitment to Jesus, I find it difficult to stretch my mind outside the capacities of my world view.
As of this writing, the post has almost a thousand likes and over a hundred shares. One comment said, “These things keep so many people away from a relationship with Jesus.” And that for me is the bottom line. I know that what I say may upset some people and they may even leave and join another congregation.
From my experience, however, far more become increasingly turned off by a literalist reading of the Bible (which many scholars say is not how ancient people heard or read these stories). Many of these people also end up leaving their congregation but then usually leave the church altogether, believing it has no place for them.
I know that you can have faith, be committed to Christ, and live a life shaped by the gospel while believing that Jesus’ walking on water is not an account of an historical event but a powerful metaphor for God’s overcoming our experiences of chaos and giving us true peace. That is my view and I know it is the view of many others, who I believe should also be provided a place in Christ’s church.
Blessings in your life and ministry.