Taking the Bible Seriously

“The Bible is clear on this. You’re not taking the Bible seriously.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. It was about ten years ago, and the man had come to see me with questions about my view on women’s roles in church leadership. Or maybe it was the age of the earth, or the timing of Jesus’ return, or the Church’s obligation to the poor, or Christian participation in the military, I’m really not sure. I do remember the look in his eye, though, the tone in his voice.

He leaned forward.

“You don’t believe the Bible.”

Both my eyebrows were now up. I sighed, audibly.

Really? I thought. I don’t take the Bible seriously? I’m spending thousands of dollars and several years writing a 200-page doctoral dissertation on a three-word Greek phrase in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, and I don’t take the Bible seriously?

I don’t believe the Bible, really? I’ve given most of my adult life to studying the Bible in order to know God and discern God’s will and help others do the same, and I don’t believe the Bible?

“I can assure you, my good man, that I do believe the Bible, and I take it with utmost seriousness.”

No, I didn’t say that, though I like to think that I did (in my best English accent).

I can’t really remember how I responded, just as I can’t recall the specific topic. But I do remember these accusations. They’re hard to forget, because this was the same conversation in which I was firmly labeled a “liberal”—and that’s memorable, because in that same week someone else called me a “fundamentalist.”

Go figure.

Yes, it’s true that my view on women’s roles has changed over the years, from a complementarian to a full egalitarian view. Yes, it’s true that my view on the earth’s age has changed, and my view on the “end times,” and non-violence, and matters of social justice, and probably dozens of other theological and ethical hot potatoes.

But here’s the thing: each of these changes has been prompted in large part if not entirely by my study of the Bible.

Take my changed views on women’s roles in church ministry, for example.

Gutenberg BibleI read Judges’ description of Deborah’s leadership in ancient Israel. I read Luke’s description of Jesus’ encouragement of women disciples. I read John’s description of Mary’s apostle-esque commission, and Paul’s description of Phoebe the deaconess and Junia the apostle, and 2 John’s description of the “chosen lady’s” church leadership. And I began to see that there’s more to the story of women’s ministry roles than just the situation-specific prohibitions of female leadership in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.

Or take my changed perspective on young-earth creationism.

I read Genesis 1 and 2 carefully, even literally. I found one creation story that speaks of creation in six “days” and a second creation story that speaks of creation in one “day.” I noted that in the first story three days are already marked before the sun and moon are even created to “mark” the days. I saw that these two stories use different names for God, talk about God’s creative role in different ways, describe events in different orders, and more. And I began to think that these stories are concerned about something other than exactly when and how God created all things.

Here’s my point: my views on these things didn’t change because I stopped taking the Bible seriously. They didn’t change because I was trying to accommodate the prevailing culture, or because I succumbed to some liberal agenda, or because I was affected by some spiritual malaise.

My views have changed precisely because I have taken the Bible seriously, reading the Bible carefully, in context, and across both Testaments.

I have to confess, I have at times thought back to that “you’re not taking the Bible seriously” conversation, and I’ve thought to myself, “It wasn’t me that wasn’t taking the Bible seriously—it was him!” But then I catch myself. The man in my office that day was taking the Bible seriously—he was just interpreting it differently than I did. Wrongly, I still think, but I certainly can’t accuse him of not taking the Bible seriously.

And I remind myself that this is another necessary, if difficult, part of taking the Bible seriously: taking seriously the fact that this God-inspired collection of ancient human writings has generated an astonishing variety of interpretations and theologies over the centuries—most of which have been attempting to take the Bible seriously.

May we be slow to accuse other Christians of being “unbiblical,” of “not taking the Bible seriously,” of “not believing the Bible.” Instead, may we be quick to listen to each other, willing to be challenged afresh by the Bible’s stories and teachings, ready to learn and grow and change, seeking to follow Jesus more faithfully in love.

Then it can truly be said that we are taking the Bible seriously.

For some related thoughts on this, check out my post on “When Everyone’s Biblical and We All Disagree.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.