The Bible says a lot of things. It says a lot of beautiful and inspiring things. It also says a lot of weird and confusing things. And it says some things that we wish it didn’t. Yet, this complicated and sometimes troubling book is the foundation of Christian faith and life, so we take it very seriously. But do we take it literally? Some of us do and some of us don’t.
The attorney general’s recent use of Romans 13’s words about government and authority to justify the horrifying practice of separating asylum-seeking families at our southern border is a good catalyst to consider what Holy Scripture is and what we do with it. If we take it seriously: how seriously? Only when it serves our interests and doesn’t make us too uncomfortable? If we take it literally: literally how? In the Hebrew and Greek in which the words were originally written? As they would have been understood by the original audiences? Or as we understand them now?
In reality, the book is not complicated. The book is a book. Some of us choose to receive it as the inspired Word of God, but it’s also just words on a page. Those words don’t have any power in and of themselves. The only power they have is the power that we give them when we read them and act on them. In reality, it’s our interpretation of the Bible that is complicated. We come to the text with assumptions and opinions, even if we claim that we don’t. The very fact that we are reading the words in English in 2018 in Delaware means that we are going to hear messages the original audiences didn’t hear, and miss things that would have been obvious to the original audiences. It’s also impossible for us to actually know what meaning the authors intended to convey because those authors aren’t here for us to ask. And really, it doesn’t matter because, again, the only power the words have is the power we give them. But we all know that with great power comes great responsibility.
We are free to interpret the words of Scripture in a number of ways on any possible occasion. The New Testament authors freely engaged in what today we might call “proof-texting.” They found something they liked from the past and applied it to their current situation. We are free to do the same. However, with that freedom and power comes the responsibility for the full implications of our interpretation. If we choose to interpret Scripture in such a way that calls us to obey the laws of government, then we are responsible to obey regardless of which party controls the government. If we choose to interpret Scripture in such a way that calls us to welcome the foreigners, then we are responsible to be personally involved in caring and providing for those who come. Whether we take the Bible seriously or literally, when we invoke it as a source of moral authority, we are responsible for the consequences of what we say it says.
“The Bible says so,” is not a shield behind which any serious Christian of any political persuasion can hide. Too often we are tempted to use the Bible as a weapon, either in offense against someone else or in defense of ourselves. Instead, may we use it a tool to work on ourselves. May we wield it with courage, health and maturity. May we allow the Bible to read us, to underline our moments of faithfulness, to highlight our points of hypocrisy. May we interpret these holy words in ways that have the consequence of greater holiness and wholeness, not only in us as individuals but in us as a community.
Beth Staten is lead pastor of Zion United Church of Christ, 51 W. Central Ave., Delaware.