Today I want to begin thinking about the approaches we take in considering spiritual things. As an evangelical Christian, I have been taught to regard the Bible as the highest authority for life, as the very Word of God for humanity, and I believe it is. We need to have a standard. We have to have something we center around, a source of instruction we all agree upon. The Bible is it.
However, while God has given us the Bible, God has left its interpretation up to us, and that has resulted in countless theological perspectives and a variety of denominations. There are many reasons for our varying interpretations but at least we must acknowledge that each of us is looking at the Bible through a set of interpretive lenses. Each of us is wearing lenses that are a product of our personality, upbringing, and experience. We all read the Bible in a unique way, which influences how we interpret it. None of us approach the Bible with complete objectivity; we all have a bias or two. This simply is the way it is.
This array of lenses, and resulting interpretive conclusions, is not a bad thing, so long as we resist the urge to think that our way of interpreting the Bible is the right way, or the only way. We each do our best to interpret the Bible in a way that makes sense to us, both as individuals and as a community of believers, but we need to be willing to consider perspectives that are different from our own. None of us have it exactly right, and that’s okay.
It’s tough to acknowledge this though. I have been a part of a number of evangelical traditions, most of them more similar than they are different, but all of them seem to think their interpretation of the Bible is at least closer to the Bible’s “real” meaning than everyone else’s. I have heard specific comments to this effect in more than one denomination. Each affirms and promotes its own way of thinking as the right one, and is nervous, even fearful of giving serious consideration to thinking in a new way.
Not that we shouldn’t be nervous, at least to some degree. At times our concern is justified. What is to stop anyone from interpreting the Bible any way they want to and heading in a direction that doesn’t look anything like the good news of the gospel or the life lived by Jesus? The short answer to that question is: nothing. Anyone can take the Bible and do whatever they want with it, and if people will rally to them and support them, they may become an unfortunate representative of who they claim to follow. Look no further than the Westboro Baptist Church people for an interpretation and demonstration of the Bible that most of the rest of us would consider harmful.
However, despite the insanity of some, there is beneficial accountability to be found in the community of believers. In fact, this is the way it is supposed to be. The Bible is to be read, studied, wrestled through and interpreted within the community of faith. That way, if anyone heads in a questionable direction or affirms an interpretation that is at odds with the community’s beliefs, the community can hold that person accountable.
This is what happened recently with me. The community of faith I was a part of did not agree with my move toward ultimate redemption and they held me accountable for it. This accountability resulted in my resignation, my departure from that community of faith. The consensus of the leadership of the community, all friends of mine, was that my departure was necessary, and I respect them for that. This is accountability at work.
While nothing happens perfectly, I have said and still say that the whole thing happened as best as it could. Everyone involved did what they thought was best according to the community’s understanding of God and its interpretation of the Bible. By and large everyone responded in the way they thought God would have them respond. Of course I think my belief in ultimate redemption should have been given greater consideration, and I don’t think it needed to result in my separation from the community of faith. But I was the one going in a new direction and the church stuck to its traditional doctrine.
However, I think my belief should have been given greater consideration because every community of faith changes over time in its interpretation of the Bible and in its practice of the Bible’s principles. No community of faith can rightly claim it has never changed. We need only to look at issues like slavery, the role of women, or divorce and remarriage to see how the church has shifted its stance on issues it once considered closed.
So, while I submit myself to the accountability of the community of faith, I also humbly suggest we take a new look at the issue of eternity. Let’s try on different lenses and consider interpreting the Bible in a way that would suggest God is going to save everyone.
Because that would be really good news, really.
But it’s tough to put on different lenses. We’re nervous, even fearful, of doing so, and next time I want to discuss why.
For now, subscribe to my email list and send me a note!