I just follow the Bible” is a potentially ridiculous and dangerous thing to say. If you’ve heard of the crusades, the travesties of colonization and land theft, the unholy wedding of violence and the name of Christ, you’ll know why.
Take, for example, Ezra 7:26 where King Artaxerxes says: “Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment.” Of course, taken at face value, this makes oppression “Biblical”. And all those things have been done in the name of Jesus, whether by Ferdinand and Isabella, or Augustine with his famous use of Luke 14:23, or Adolf with Israel, or the “Christianization” of the Americas. There’s been enough damage done down through the centuries to give millions a misrepresentation of Jesus, always carried out by people who knew their Bibles well enough to use it destructively. Just this past Friday, I sat with a guy on my flight home who recited these atrocities and said, “we’d all be better off if Christianity, and every other religion, never existed”. If you react to his comment with a dismissive “this guy’s heart is hard” then I say “be careful – maybe it’s your heart that is hard”. When we hear people rejecting Jesus because of the atrocities done by religion we should confess, repent, and most important of all – learn.
And just what is it that we need to learn?
1. God’s truth, like flowers, unfolds. Get stuck in a wooden literalism and you’ll find yourself stuck in a corner, because the Bible itself is contradictory. Bacon? No! Bacon? Yes. Slavery? There’s a trajectory to the institution, almost as if God accommodated the culture for a time, but towards the end of the Bible there are surely hints that this isn’t going to be around forever. The same thing’s true with respect to patriarchal leadership structures in nations and churches. Ethics are tricky for this very reason, but what’s most important for us is that we learn to consider God’s truth in the context of trajectory, rather than cherry picking verses and imposing them on each other.
2. The Bible is one big narrative. When the curtain rises, we learn about God’s ideal vision for creation and humanity. Then we learn the cause of failure, and discover God’s plans for recovery, beginning with a family, then a nation, and ultimately the God/man who changed everything. The story ends with God’s kingdom fully triumphing over all the doom that currently plagues our world. When the final chapter is written, there’ll be no more Syrian slaughter of the innocents, or famines, or eating disorders, or abortions as a means of gender selection, or casual sex that steals joy from souls, or shootings in theaters, or oppression or disease.
3. There’s a missing chapter. After Christ’s resurrection, there’s a book about the early days of God’s global community called the church, but when the book ends, God’s story continues, awaiting the final act of Christ’s return. We’re writing that chapter, each of us individually, and collectively, either representing Christ accurately, or doing stupid things in His name and misrepresenting him, or retreating into our private worlds of not representing Christ at all. Whatever we’re doing, we’re writing the present chapter by the choices we make with our money, time, bodies, shopping choices, treatment of each other and so much more.
4. This chapter requires wisdom. Wooden literalism isn’t an option when the guidebook is contradictory. We need to look for principles. There are several that are key as we try to determine the ethic of the day, but the main one is this. We KNOW that history is headed toward the eventuality of Christ’s reign evicting evil from every nook and cranny in the universe so that all remains is the beauty, glory, and life that has it origin in Christ. If that’s the case, I’d better make it my obsession to have what Paul calls “the mind of Christ” so that I can seek to represent his heart in daily living.
This single pursuit will push me into relationships with people across social boundaries. It will make me think twice before cutting someone down with either a sword or sarcasm. This ethic will call me to service, celebration, and loving people unconditionally. I can’t think of a better way to live.
Jesus has made it clear that He’s the door – the only door. He’s made it clear that history is heading towards the day when He reigns fully, and he tells us to turn away from lesser authorities and let that reign begin now in our lives, our homes, our churches. He is the beginning and the end, the full and final revelation. That will never change.
But how that reign is made visible? I promise you that it looks different in Norway than Zimbabwe, Seattle than Paris, than Paris Texas. And that’s OK, as long as, in the end, it results in the increase of the real Jesus, rather than oppressive stuff done in his name. This is good news – if I have a foundation firmly rooted in God’s story, and an intimacy with Jesus that allows me to walk daily as a recipient of Christ’s wisdom. Without this rooting, though, I’m stuck with either the anarchy that is so paralyzing in our post-modern world, or the fundamentalist literalism that consistently ends up missing the heart of Christ because it doesn’t so the forest of God’s grand narrative because of it’s focus on one single tree. Neither option is good – Creatively following the Christ in whom we’re rooted is the only solid ground.