I heard someone claim recently that there are people “who have nothing to say if they can’t belittle the past or make fun of the church.” I suppose that’s true — though I also think it’s true that there are those who have nothing to say if they can’t fetishize the past, dismiss the real questions of the present, or ignore the needs of the future.
In any case, I don’t want to be that guy who doesn’t have anything positive to say. The fact is, talking about how to read the Bible means grappling with the reality that we’ve all inherited some unhealthy and unhelpful ways of reading. For that reason, I suppose we have to look critically at those practices.
But eventually, we also have to talk about best practices to help us read the Bible better.
We’ve already talked about a few of those things at various times. Jesus’ hermeneutic of love. Reading with character. So now I’d like to turn our attention to ways of reading the Bible that will bless us and help us to keep everything else straight.
I want to start with something that springs from the last post. I tried to show that arguing from silence can twist us into interpretive pretzels. I used the history of my own tribe of God’s people, the Churches of Christ, and how we’ve at times argued from silence, particularly in relation to the use of instrumental music in worship.
But I also acknowledged the fact that, because of this, there are those whose conscience won’t allow them to worship with instrumental music. They wouldn’t feel right about it, wouldn’t feel that they were offering something that’s acceptable to God. What would I say to them?
To deal with that, we need to spend a little time with Romans 14 and 15.
In those chapters, Paul is addressing similar issues of conscience in the church at Rome. There are Jews and there are non-Jews at this church. There are probably Jews who are more and less observant. This very diverse church has, apparently, run into some issues with food and with the observance of holy days. As Paul puts it: “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (v. 2) And, again: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike.” (v. 5)
It seems that some Jewish Christians in the pagan city of Rome believed that the danger of breaking the Law when eating meat was so great that they should just forego meat entirely. That may seem extreme, but in Paul’s day, in a city like Rome, much of the meat someone might buy in the marketplace wouldn’t have been slaughtered in a way that was acceptable to Jews. It might have even come from a pagan temple, in which case it would also be associated with idol worship.
As to “sacred” days — Jews didn’t work on the Sabbath, and there would certainly have been Jewish Christians in Rome who continued that practice. There were Jewish feast days, like Passover or Purim or the feast of Booths, and the fast day, Yom Kippur. Some Jews, we know from the Gospels, even observed personal fast days during each week.
Understand, for these Christians these convictions came from the way they read the Bible. The food laws and laws about feasts and fasting were right there in Scripture. They didn’t invent those texts. There was some interpretation involved for sure, but the texts were there. These Jewish Christians, some of them, at least, would have insisted that anyone who wants to please God needed to observe those laws, just like they did.
And Paul said their faith was weak.
Wait, surely that’s wrong. Wouldn’t it be the strong Christians who gave up meat, cost themselves a day’s work to observe Passover, and stringently observed the feast and fast days? Paul says no. Their faith is weak — because it doesn’t “allow them to eat anything” or to skip the observance of special days. It isn’t strong enough that they understand that Jesus has given them freedom. They’re plagued by doubt as to whether it is right for them to eat certain foods They were what we might call today more conservative readers of Scripture.
It’s important to note that the descriptors “strong” and “weak,” or our rough equivalents, “liberal” and “conservative,” aren’t labels to be applied derisively or condescendingly. The “weak” Christians aren’t trying to be difficult or judgmental, and they don’t necessarily have anything against Gentiles. Their standing with God, salvation through Jesus, or share in the Holy Spirit aren’t in doubt. They’re not weak in love, or holiness, prayer, or good works. In this issue, and this alone is all Paul is talking about, they are “weak in faith.”
But notice what Paul says: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” (1) Paul knows who’s right and who’s wrong in the dispute, but it shouldn’t come down to a dispute. The one whose faith is weak is to be accepted as a part of the community: “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not….” (3) He points out, “Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord…and whoever abstains (from meat) does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (6)
Paul will go on to say to those of “stronger” faith, “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (13) He explains, “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (14) He continues, “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.” (15) He sums up, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (21) Finally, he says this: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” (15:1-2)
In this post and the next, I want to make a couple of connections from this text to our current discussion of reading Scripture, especially in situations where there’s dispute about the meaning of certain texts.
First: We can be absolutely convinced that we’re interpreting the Bible correctly, and be mistaken. While you’d like to think that a sincere desire to obey God will get you on the right side of most sticky questions, that isn’t always true. Jewish Christians in Rome were dead certain they were right, and Paul said that the coming of Jesus changed how Scripture should be understood. Don’t imagine that you’re better. You can be certain and be wrong. You can be echoing an interpretation that’s been accepted for generations and be wrong. You can miss how Jesus changes the game. That’s called being a fallible human being.
Second: Always read Scripture according to your conscience. If you’re convinced that a text limits you, then obey those limits. If you’re convinced that a text binds you to do something, you should do it. Ultimately, “to [our] own master [we] stand or fall.” And don’t forget that we serve a Master who will help us to stand. Getting everything in Scripture exactly right is not the basis for our standing; the grace of our Master is. So our intentions to please him matter, even when we’re mistaken. Don’t violate your conscience as shaped by your reading of Scripture: “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (14)
Third: Reading Scripture together requires some “bearing with.” (15:1) That means assuming the best of those who disagree with us. That means going out of our ways not to become an occasion for sin for Christians who are more conservative in their reading of a text than ours. It means that who “wins” an argument over Scripture isn’t what matters — it’s building up the other.
Next post, we’ll make some further connections.