I recently posted an article on full, unconditional inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in the Church, and was greatly perplexed by the responses. From my point of view, the discussion went like this:
Me (by means of the article): ‘Inerrancy is forcing you to exclude the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s a false doctrine.’
Responses: ‘But the Bible says…’
In the politest possible way, I suggest this is missing the point. ‘The Bible says’ is not an argument for social injustice; for marginalisation, isolation, and exclusion. In my view, inerrancy is being used as a shield against compassion.
As previously discussed, the false doctrine of inerrancy is a modern invention, brewed up in the 19th century in response to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), in order to defend a literal reading of Genesis and oppose the important scientific discoveries of that time. In other words, the purpose of the doctrine’s invention is to install a ‘don’t think’ switch in every believer.
Personally, I know and love believers who hold to a literal reading of the creation account, but that’s nowhere near a universal stance these days. Many Evangelical Christians I know accept the Theory of Evolution in part or in full, treating the Genesis account of creation as allegorical.
This once-heated debate is a bit of a non-starter these days. I’ve not heard a literal interpretation of creation preached from the pulpit in decades, and we seem to be getting along just fine. The church hasn’t imploded. By stepping away from a literal reading of the creation account, the Evangelical movement has abandoned inerrancy’s original intent without harming itself. Indeed, we are much more likely to be listened to by the world as scientifically sensible people whose faith doesn’t require them to ignore the obvious.
Inerrancy may no longer be applied in its original intent, but it is still employed as a shield against societal developments. When important questions are asked, inerrancy grabs the handbrake with both hands and pulls with all its might.
Inerrancy breeds fear
I remember the first time my childhood belief in errancy was challenged. I was a card-carrying Evangelical in my first year of university, when a friend pointed out a potential ‘error’ in the Bible. He’d only just become a Christian and had no idea what his words would do to me. In fact, I remember he was shocked and immediately apologetic, but I had to resolve the crisis or my faith would be in jeopardy. What piercing observation had my friend made? Matthew 12:40
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
My friend had pointed out that if Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday, he was only ‘in the heart of the earth’ for 2 nights.
Such is the fragility of inerrancy that this minor observation sent me into paroxysms of panic. I dug around in commentaries until I found a feeble answer to hide behind – that ‘3 days and 3 nights’ was a poetic phrase in Jewish writing and could be understood in a non-literal way. The relief was enormous! I accepted this paper-thin answer without question and took sanctuary – I could still believe the Bible was without error.
Thus began a journey that all who believe in errancy embark on – building a fort from unsatisfactory answers to take refuge in. The switch was flipped to ‘don’t think’ and, for many years, I didn’t. It never occurred to me that I was building a false structure in place of life-giving truth; worshiping an idol instead of the Living God.
Inerrancy suppresses women
Inerrancy forces us to close both our minds and our hearts. I’ve already discussed this in the context of the LGBTQ+ community, but the most egregious example of its harm is the glass ceiling imposed on women in the Church. I’ve argued in a previous post that we have (rightly) abandoned strict inerrancy when it comes to Paul’s teaching on women in our congregations. 1 Corinthians 11:13-16
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.
Most churches have elected to quietly put this teaching aside. We have trusted our guts, accepting that ‘the very nature of things’ is a subjective matter. Similarly, we’ve largely moved on from a hard reading of Paul’s teachings on women’s silence in the church. I Cor 14: 33-35
As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches, They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.
Although we have jettisoned a literal application of these verses, the odour is still in the air. One of the recent controversies in the Southern Baptist movement, for example, is that Rick Warren’s church was kicked out of the wider SB fellowship for allowing women to be pastors.
I know what some will say – this is a ‘headship’ issue rather than an example of women being silenced, but once you’ve abandoned inerrancy things become rather clearer. The Bible was written exclusively by men, living in cultures in which women took second or third place. Let’s not forget that women only got the vote in Western nations after WW1. For the vast majority of human history, women have been treated as second class citizens at best, including in the church.
I remember attending a Pentecostal conference in which the main speaker referred to his wife as his ‘helpmeet’, which is a lexical mistake derived from Genesis 2:18:
And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet (suitable) for him.
The way in which this verse is commonly understood reduces women to mere helpers of men. This is the problem with inerrancy – it forces us to take literal interpretations of passages that spring from an outdated cultural context, and then force that culture onto our own as if nothing we’ve learned in the past 2000 years has any value. In this sense, inerrancy is voluntary ignorance.
It should be no surprise then, that denominations such as the Southern Baptists think it’s perfectly legitimate to refuse women leadership roles, even though it means silencing women with leadership gifts. If you think about it, it’s not so different from insisting women be literally silent in church.
Inerrancy forces an unnatural division of roles
My wife and I do not apply any notions of male leadership in the family. I’m on board with the idea of complementary roles within a partnership, but it seems obvious to me that every couple is different, and therefore the complementary arrangement for every couple ought to be unique. My wife is much better with money than I am, and I rely on her to strategise and build pots of resources. She’s also a highly skilled psychotherapist, and often takes the lead in determining what’s best for our lad. I have a voice, which she actively seeks to hear, but there are times I put aside my preferences and follow her lead. Concurrently, there are areas where I take a lead and she stands back, and others where we are very much leading together, which is only healthy and good. If she and I believed in inerrancy, we would not have the freedom to work out and practice what’s best for our family. Instead, my voice would be given undeserved prominence and she would become muted except in areas of traditional female roles.
By thinking this way, many churches don’t permit women to bloom, leaving them in the shadow and lingering stink of thousands of years of cultural repression. If we followed Jesus’ example, we would love, honour, and elevate women, but by clinging to inerrancy we’ve made the scriptures a new kind of Law. There are women for whom traditional roles are comfortable, but my heart goes out to all those who don’t fit that mould – all the firebrands, sages, pastors, and teachers who never get to be themselves. Inerrancy is a man-made, false structure, marginalising at least 50% of the world’s population. I believe it is an idol and an enemy, harming every person who accepts it.