A moderate baptist conference organized by Mercer University on the topic of sexuality was held at the First Baptist Church of Decatur, GA last week and attended by roughly 300 folks. The purpose of the conference was to allow various speakers to discuss sexual identity, the church’s response to that divisive topic, and some “new understandings” of authority.
Guy Sayles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Asheville, NC, gave an address on April 19th entitled “Faithful Listening in Challenging Times: How Do We Discern God’s Voice?” His remarks cut once again to the clear and eventually unavoidable distinction between how the CBF approaches Scripture and how the SBC approaches Scripture (I am speaking in generalities). Regarding the way Christians read the Bible, he told his listeners that Christians ought to “remember that the risen, still-acting, and still-speaking Jesus is the norm by which we interpret Scripture and evaluate other sources of authority.” Well, that sounds pretty good. On the surface it would seem everyone could get behind that sentiment without conflict. But then listen to how Sayles fleshes out his own proposition:
“Too often, Christians read the Bible in ways that overemphasize isolated texts and use them to push aside the just, gracious and merciful God whom the grand overarching themes reveal. . .the result is that followers of Jesus think, feel, and act in ways that aren’t Jesus-like but seem to be required by their reading of the Bible.“
That quote by Saylers is incomprehensible as is, in my opinion, this particular understanding of “interpreting Scripture through Jesus.” Most of us would acknowledge that the Bible presents a singular story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As the “Jesus Storybook Bible” so appropriately puts it, “every story whispers his name.” The SBC has material coming out in the fall called the “Gospel Project” which is a study to help us read all of the Bible, especially the OT, through the lens of Jesus. That is essential and correct. We can all find common ground on that particular point. The issue comes when the dangerous next step is taken of ignoring or denying aspects of the Bible in lieu of it “not lining up with Jesus.” This presents a significant problem. That problem is. . .
How do you know what lines up with Jesus? If we are to interpret Scripture through Jesus, there must be some knowledge of Jesus by which we do the interpreting. How do we come to that knowledge? The Bible. Listen to this next quote by Saylers. In order to confirm the “grand overarching themes” of Jesus and avoid the erroneous interpretive process of turning to specific, isolated texts, Saylers says, “Jesus made the radical inclusiveness of God unavoidably clear.” Ok, how did he do that? By what he said? By what he did? So, those specific texts which make the “inclusiveness of God unavoidably clear” can apparently be included in our interpretive process. But the alarming number of “unavoidably clear” texts where Jesus speaks of judgement, of not being included, of separating goats from sheep, of proclaiming exclusivity, of telling stories about separation from God, of speaking of hell time and again and again, are all “isolated texts” which we should avoid turning to. It is selective nonsense.
Where “interpreting Scripture through Jesus” as proposed by Sayles and others ultimately leads us, whether or not it was the original intention, is to a place where Scripture can affirm anything. All we have to say is, “this lines up with the overarching theme of God’s inclusiveness as seen through Jesus.” Boom – you just made homosexuality acceptable. Boom – you just created a means to bypass the roles of men and women. Boom – you just allowed multiple and universal means of salvation. Boom – you just denied the reality of hell. All the while urging Christians to avoid turning to specific texts by using specific texts to demonstrate what is unavoidably overarching.
Propositional truth is generally maligned by the CBF, unless those propositions talk about the unavoidable overarching theme of God’s inclusiveness. In those cases, they are rock solid. If Jesus makes a propositional statement about alleviating suffering, that is considered a proposition for the ages. If Jesus makes a proposition about hell, that is considered outside the theme of inclusiveness, and therefore is propositional garbage.
Dare we think that God, in his bigness, might use the means of restriction to compliment his desire for inclusion. As a father, I want my children to enjoy freedom in life. And I use restriction all the time to make sure that happens.
This is the flow of Christian thought as presented by many prominent Christian teachers and leaders today such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. Listen to this quote by McLaren who admits the Bible presents us with. . .
“violent images, cruel images of a character named God that conflict with the good creator in Genesis and the compassionate liberator in Exodus. This character named God, who sends a flood to destroy most of humanity or commands his people to kill others and take their land, represents an early but quite frankly unChristian image of God not to be confused with the mature, generous, accepting God elsewhere presented in the Bible.”*
In other words, since some descriptions of God do not “line up with Jesus”, those revelations must be false and not confused with the overarching theme of God as seen in Jesus, who by the way, is God. It just doesn’t make sense. Instead of letting God decide what a “Christian image” of God looks like, McLaren incorporates a similar approach to Scripture in order to create a view of God that is based on certain texts and not based on others. The decision to accept some and reject others is simply based on the notion that an accepting God is superior and “better” than a God who acts in ways that confound our human hearts and minds. By utilizing this method of interpretation, we are right back to the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and others. We might as well rip out certain books and texts if they don’t come across as “Christian” to us. Or, I suppose the easier way is just to call those portions of Scripture errant.
There is still plenty that the CBF and the SBC can agree on. We can combine our efforts in some ways for the sake of those who are suffering and we should. But it is also important to understand why there are differences and why it isn’t necessarily possible or even healthy for us to just be one big happy family. Biblical authority continues to be a dividing line between conservatives and moderates and with all that is at stake in the differences, it will not be mended anytime soon.
*McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 98.