I don’t think I’ll ever run out of blog posts on ‘Weird ways Christians treat the Bible’, but here’s todays one:
We think it was written to us.
All of us.
We imagine that there was a cosmic platform from which Paul, Peter or even Jesus spoke their words to every person, everywhere, through all history.
Now before you object, I don’t want to do Christians a disservice. Most of us, let’s be fair, have got our heads around the idea that bits of the Bible were written in very different times to ours and very different cultures to ours, and so have to be interpreted with some care. Most of us realise that Old Testament stories of rape and slave-capturing aren’t meant to be instructive for us, and even the straightforward instructions about what we can’t eat and wear probably don’t apply to us now. We’re okay with that.
Some of us, in more progressive circles, have gone a step further and realised that even New Testament contexts weren’t always identical to ours. So we’ve considered the cultural context for an instruction like women’s head coverings, or women’s silence, or whatever else women were supposed to do, and agreed that it probably doesn’t apply to us in 21st century Britain in quite the same way. There are enough factors that explain why Paul might have written that to the Corinthians that were particular to their context, that we can say, ‘it was just for them’.
But what, for the most part, we don’t acknowledge is this: those are not the exceptions.
Those are not the few specific instances where we can find enough evidence that there was a particular culture context involved. In fact, they’re just the examples that are obvious enough to force us to acknowledge what is actually true of the whole Bible.
There is not a single word of the Bible that was written with a universal, history-spanning audience in mind.
There was no point where Paul stood up on his cosmic platform, overlooking all of time and space, and thinking ‘this message is for all of them’. It simply didn’t happen.
Every single sentence written by a biblical author had it’s own audience. And none of them included me.
But this is how we tend to read it… Picture the scene, if you will:
I’m at home one morning doing my daily devotional (because we’re in imaginary world where I do this every day). I pick up my Bible and read:
Romans 12:17-18 Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
So, we imagine Paul on his cosmic platform looking over our own contexts. I see Paul looking at my blog, considering the people I could piss off if I wasn’t careful with my words sometimes, looking at the arguments I could start, looking at the bad choices I sometimes make and the people who judge me for them, looking at the good choices I sometimes make and the people who disapprove of them. Claire, he says, do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you Claire, live at peace with everyone.
So, no making enemies for me, whether with my good or bad decisions. No doing stuff that people might have a problem with. No anti-establishment campaigning, no speaking out against injustice if it will irritate certain people. Peace is the priority for me, according to Paul.
But then I turn to this:
2 Timothy 3:12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
And I see Paul looking at my comfortable life from his cosmic platform, considering my lovely friends and colleagues who, despite not holding all the same beliefs as me, are respectful and considerate and tolerant. I see him look at my freedom to worship as I want, when I want, with who I want. And I see him shake his head.
Claire, I hear Paul say, if you’re really living for Jesus, people will persecute you – yes, you personally and everything you stand for. So if they’re not, if you’re not suffering for your faith, perhaps you’re not really trying to live for Jesus at all.
Which is it then? Am I meant to be in peace with everyone or hated by them? Keeping quiet and pandering to what other people think is right, or pissing people off so they persecute me?
Both of these verses are easy to apply to directly to ourselves. They sound like instructions for us. They don’t take much interpreting to make sense. Sermons on either are generally preached as if Paul was saying these words to everyone, everywhere. But in fact, obviously, he wasn’t.
The first instruction was to the Roman church in the mid-late 50s (thats first century rather than 1950s). Those were the people he was telling to live at peace with everyone. Everyone in their city, in their time, in their context.
The second statement was to Timothy, a young church leader in Ephesus. Who could Paul have conceivably meant by everyone living a godly life? Everyone Timothy knew? Everyone in his church? Maybe even everyone that Paul had ever heard of – within his short life, within his geographical limits. But certainly not everyone who ever has and ever will live everywhere.
Why it was good to keep peace in Rome, and why there was persecution in Ephesus, I don’t really know. We could find out by studying those contexts a little more. But what I do know is that Paul didn’t have me in mind. He didn’t have my blog in mind. He knew nothing of the decisions I might have to make about how far to annoy people and how far to appease them, whose values to take as my own and whose to push back against. How could he? Why should he?
How arrogant would I be to take either one of these verses as instructive to me?
I’m not denying the inspiration or the power of the Bible. To say that Paul knew nothing about me isn’t to say his words don’t have relevance, or that they can’t be God’s word to me. From here, I might look at those two verses, look at the situation in Rome and the situation in Ephesus, and see if there are any similarities with mine. I might think about reasons Paul wanted one group to live in peace, and expected another to be persecuted, and see if that’s any help to me in working out my own decisions.
But the point is, it’s me who’s got to do that work. I’ve got to make those choices still. I’ve got to pray and listen for God’s voice. The Bible is a tool that I can use and God might use to help me make those choices, but it’s not the only one and it’s not always the most helpful one.
In the end, there are no shortcuts. No universally applicable verses to rule them all.
If we want to use the Bible, we’ve got to be prepared to admit that the cosmic platform didn’t exist. Paul didn’t know us. Instead, there’s freedom to think, and there’s responsibility with our choices.
What is so terrifying about that?