Picking and Choosing Your Bible Verses (or, Why To Abandon the Lectionary)

I led the sermon discussion last night at Solomon’s Porch.  The text was Galatians 3, one of the oddest chapters in the Pauline corpus.  Therein, Paul argues for grace over law based on this verse from Genesis:

And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.

The word for “offspring” is actually “seed,” at least in the Septuagint.  Paul argues that since this word is in the singular (σπέρμασιν – spermasin) instead of the plural (σπέρματι – spermati), it must mean Christ! (It reminds me of the old saw: The Sunday school teacher asks, “What is gray and furry and climbs trees?”  The little boy raises his hand and says, “It sounds like a squirrel, but I’m going to say Jesus!”)

What Paul writes is,

The promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant. It doesn’t say, “and to the descendants,” as if referring to many rather than just one. It says, “and to your descendant,” who is Christ.

It seems that Paul is straying from the traditional interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant.  And that’s what we wrestled with for about 40 minutes last night, with no great conclusion.

So it was no great surprise to me that the first 22 verses of Galatians 3 isn’t included in the lectionary, from which many mainline churches choose their Sunday texts each week.  The fun part of the chapter (“there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female…”) is in the regular three-year lectionary cycle — specifically, Proper 7, Year C — but you’re can spend your whole life at a Lutheran, Episcopal, or UCC church without ever hearing your preacher struggle to understand Paul’s arguments in Galatians 3: 1-21.

I thought of this when reading Carl Gregg’s interesting post on “picking and choosing” Bible verses, excerpted below.  He makes the point that everyone picks and chooses, so why not choose a hermeneutic of love? Fair enough.  But, I ask, how about you don’t pick and choose at all? How about you work through the whole Bible, chapter-by-chapter, as a community?

It can be done.  We do it every week at Solomon’s Porch.  It’s not easy.  It’s not always fun.  But we are, more than any other church I’ve ever seen, a community shaped by the Bible.

Anyway, here’s what Carl has to say:

We should not be surprised at this “picking and choosing” for at least two reasons. First, the Bible is a sprawling anthology, written and edited over the course of centuries. Furthermore, the biblical authors wrote for many different reasons, and none composed with the hope that their writing might be accepted for publication in a book called the Bible. Instead, both the people of Israel and the early Christians, at different points, collected and edited what some considered the most important of their theological writings, and these collections over time became included in the various forms of the Bible.

Second, we should not be surprised that everyone engages in “picking and choosing” because if you survey what the Bible has to say about, for example, anger, wealth, adultery, disobedient wives and children, marriage, and divorce it becomes clear that the Bible is simultaneously both contradictory and enormously demanding. In other words, it is essentially impossible to obey all that the Bible literally says because some parts of the Bible are mutually exclusive of other parts. Does this mean that we are free to choose willy-nilly which parts of the Bible to follow? To quote the apostle Paul’s repeated refrain from the epistle to the Romans, “By no means!” However, from the perspective of progressive Christianity, Jack Black as Jesus is right when he says, “If you pick and choose, why not choose love?” [Read the rest at “Why Not Choose Love? Picking and Choosing Scripture as a Twenty-first Century Christian”]


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  • Larry Barber

    Well, none of the NT authors, or at least those that quote from the OT, would be able to graduate from a modern seminary. However, this doesn’t seem to affect seminary faculty at all.

    We need to get over our temporal chauvinism and realize that there are ways of reading the Bible other than the historical-grammatical methods. The Bible is not an Enlightenment text, it is an ancient one, and we need to learn to read it like it was ancient, rather than forcing it into _our_ paradigms.

  • Dan Hauge

    I appreciated Carl’s post: I think that what he means by picking and choosing and what you mean by picking and choosing are a bit different. There is the choice to read and ‘work through’ all the Scriptures (and I agree with you on the whole Lectionary issue, by the way), but then there is the question of *how* does this shape us, exactly? A more conservative approach to Scripture would say that regardless of what you or I think of the oddness of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3, his argument nevertheless must determine our theology, we need to ‘go along with it’. But from the glimpses you’ve given us from Solomon’s Porch, there seems to be a much freer sense of being able to call the text out when it seems odd, or just plain disagreeable. There isn’t as much of a sense that “at the end of the day we need to agree with what this text is saying” (I could be wrong on this, so feel free to correct me here). So, it could be said that you also pick and choose which texts directly shape the way you think about God and the way you live, and which texts are filed in the ‘difficult and confusing’ or ‘that’s what they thought in that culture’ categories.

    I’m not being critical of this at all, just saying that it’s not really that different from what Carl is suggesting.

    The whole Galatians 3 issue is a really interesting one–I’ve often found it kind of funny that conservative interpreters completely accept, from Paul and the other NT writers, arguments and exegesis that they would roundly condemn if any of us tried to read the OT that way. There’s this sense of “they could do it cause they were inspired, but don’t you try it”. You get a real sense that the apostles’ experience of Jesus radically shifted the way the read their own scriptures. Yet we’re taught to be scared of allowing our own experiences to radically reform how we read our Scriptures.

    • C. Ehrlich

      Dan Hauge’s comment is helpful. Perhaps the idea of “reflective equilibrium” might be usefully adapted. While the method involves “picking and choosing,” it is certainly not whilly-nilly. The method of reflective equilibrium is plausibly the best that we can do in our search for truth and understanding. When broadly understood, every serious Christian engages in it when studying the Bible.


  • Tony,
    Interesting thoughts. How about the reality that some traditions take the bible as you describe, even go further and take it verse by verse – after all that is “the” way in some of our branches of the Christian tree. At the same time have so truncated the story that people cannot see the proverbial forrest for the trees.

    For years I preached with our community by books, chapters, and verses. We moved to the Lectionary to re-cast the longer narrative – the Big story. Despite the “what is that?” (referring to the RCL), we have witnessed a greater appreciation for how the texts shape us and draw us into that Story.

    Maybe it is coming from a tradition where following the RCL is like following an old Sunday School Quarterly. If they left something out, it sure did not mean you had to. So, we don’t.

    I wonder if any structured way of falling under the Scripture contains the potential for picking and choosing – much like Dan described.

    For what it is worth, I like what you and Russell do with at least one of the RCL texts. I prefer more of a mashup that keeps the longer narrative together over the course of the differing perspectives, but that does not keep me from reading, watching, and learning from you and the other writers for TheHardestQuestion.


  • Ace

    Welcome to covenant theology. Ephesians 2:11-22, Hebrews 12:18-24, Romans 2:17-29, 4, 9:1-8, Galatians 3:10-29 and 6:11-16.

  • Ben

    I’m surprised more churches don’t take the ‘lectio continua’ approach. This does seem to be one of the reformed guys strengths. What time scale do you work to at SP Tony?

    • I like that — never heard of “lectio continua.” Is that an historical practice?

      We usually go about a chapter per week. It took almost a year to get through Genesis, but it was awesome!

  • I spent the last 5 years of my life in faith communities that followed a kind of BYOB scripture/sermon approach.

    My 2 cents is that this approach can tend towards a highly individualistic approach. The preachers curates her own type of lectionaries, influenced by what ever she deems interesting or meaningful at that moment.

    For me, the lectionaries are about surrender and unity. Surrendering to someone else’s playlist of a library that can never fit Ina sermon series or even a church year. Unity with other faith communities who are traveling thru this great storehouse along the same path.

  • Thanks, everyone, for the conversation. I’ve just posted on “Response to Tony Jones’ Blog on ‘Picking and Choosing Your Bible Verses (or, Why To Abandon the Lectionary)'” at my blog: http://bit.ly/qQPRXA. Dan and Larry, I respond directly to you in the post, but I appreciate all the comments above.