There’s a danger in the Church today where people claim to be speaking for God, but they are either embarrassed or afraid of speaking God’s truth clearly, so they water it down. Changing God’s Word to fit our own agendas and desires is called heresy. We have no right to come before God, decide that we don’t like some of the things he says, and then water things down so we and the people we’re speaking to can feel better about themselves. If God says something, we have to believe that he’s right. It shouldn’t be difficult to accept that he knows more than we do. When I disagree with something God says, I have to assume he’s right and that life will be better for me if I embrace his truth rather than trying to create my own.
In case it isn’t clear at this point, I’m speaking about those people who lift their pet doctrines and self-made theological boundary lines higher than the commands Jesus clearly identified as the most important: to love God and to love our neighbors.
Here’s the irony that Ryan and I have found as we’ve tried to expose Jackass Theology. The more we try to speak clearly and boldly in the ways Jesus spoke clearly and boldly, the more we’ve been criticized for watering down Scripture. We’ve been dismissed as “liberal” and “compromisers” when we have said that the command to love and not slander someone like Beth Moore is more clearly emphasized in Scripture than statements about how women are to serve in ministry. We’ve been portrayed as spineless because we’ve said that God values love, joy, and peace.
Here’s the thing. I believe in being biblical. I went to an extremely conservative seminary where we learned to take Scripture at face value. I learned to interpret Scripture literally at almost every turn. That’s still my default: if the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense.
But here’s what I’m finding: conservatives will call you “biblical” if you follow a literal view of hell or the millennium or homosexuality. But so many conservatives get upset if you take a literal interpretation of:
“Live in harmony with one another” – Rom. 12:16
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” – Rom. 12:18
“Charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” – 2 Tim. 2:14
“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” – 2 Tim. 2:23–25
“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” – Gal. 5:19–21
“If I take a statement about sexual behavior literally, I’m called conservative and biblical. If I take a biblical statement about avoiding disunity literally, I’m called a liberal, soft, cowardly, and compromising.”
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” – Rom. 1:28–32
These passages are the very tiny tip of the very large iceberg of the consistent New Testament teaching against disunity, slander, division, and quarreling. There are certainly commands to avoid false doctrine and instructions to correct those who teach something other than God’s truth. We need to take those seriously. But here’s what I’m having a hard time getting across: There are many commands to love others, to be united with others, to avoid quarreling and division, and to promote peace. These commands are also in the Bible, and they need to be taken seriously. Literally, even.
And here’s the problem I’m encountering: If I take a biblical statement about sexual behavior literally, I’m called a conservative and my stance is considered “biblical.” If I take a biblical statement about avoiding disunity literally, I’m called a liberal and my stance is considered soft and cowardly and compromising.
That’s wrong. We all have to make choices about which parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally. All of us. I can’t tell you every passage that is meant to be taken purely literally (Selling all of your possessions? Plucking out your eye? Wearing head coverings?). But I can tell you that I’m extremely confident that Jesus’ commands to love and be unified and to avoid controversy are meant to be taken literally. You’re free to interpret those passages figuratively or to decide that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said in those places. But if you make that choice, please acknowledge that I’m the one who is interpreting the Bible literally when I fight for unity in the church rather than dividing over every man-made boundary.