Five Misconceptions About the Bible

Part Four: Authority

You might have noticed that last week’s post was conspicuously absent from your inbox. That’s because I was on vacation with my family! We had a great trip, but I am glad to be back in your inbox this week for another installment of Five Misconceptions About the Bible. So, here goes.

When we talk about the Bible the question of authority inevitably comes up quickly. Does the Bible carry authority? The Bible, after all, didn’t fall out of the sky, leather-bound, with gilded edges, our name embossed on the cover (and, of course, KJV. Because if it was good enough for Jesus 😉). It was produced by people and communities over time. It’s probably  more realistic to say the Bible emerged, more than the Bible was written. 

So, if the Bible has authority from where, or whom, does that authority come? How does that work, practically, in the life of a Christian community or even in our lives as people?

This idea of authority is grounded in the assumption that faith needs a basis, something that it is grounded in that shapes how we live and what we believe. The tradition in which I grew up placed that authority completely in the Bible. We said it like this:

“It (the Bible) reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.” 

Another way to think about it is that the community is centered on the Bible, because the Bible says so. Those who take this position see the entirety of the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God, which makes it, and only it, the authority for faith and practice. That’s the whole Bible, not just parts. Except that’s not really true, is it? Everyone picks and chooses. There are things commanded in the Bible says that we just don’t follow. There are things affirmed that we just don’t affirm in our actual practice. I’ll say more about that in a bit.

 The texts that we now call scripture were written over the period of about a thousand years, and the writers of these texts had no idea they were writing what would become “the Bible.” They were often addressing specific communities, but over time their letters, poems, and stories were circulated and read by different communities. Actually one of the criteria for a text being included in the New Testament canon was catholicity, meaning that the text in question was universally accepted by the churches. This is the context in which we can begin to think about how the Bible has authority. 

Simply put, if the Bible carries authority it is because the community says it does. The authority rests with the community, not within the text itself. I heard the record scratch too, but please hear me out. A text was considered for the canon because churches had accepted it. Then, at meetings, these texts were canonized officially by leaders of the churches. The canon of scripture was defined by the community of churches and leaders, meaning that they granted these specific texts authority to be read in churches. The Bible is the product of two communities (ancient Jewish and early Christian), that was collected together by, at first churches, and then affirmed and canonized by church leadership. The Bible exists because the community gave birth to it.

There are a couple of important implications to this. First, if the community is the source of authority, why shouldn’t we assume our understanding of the Bible, and pretty much everything, would grow and change over time? Perhaps these moments of growth, leaving behind, or expanding to include something new, is what faith and faithfulness look like. Second, as a result we have a real responsibility to stay open and attentive to the ways Spirit is calling us forward. We learn and grow as people and communities, so it stands to reason that new information and experience might teach us something surprising and new. That’s the work, a continued openness to learning and changing our minds. 

Let’s unpack both of these ideas. 

We begin with why change is an assumed part of what it means to be faithful. In Matthew 16 Jesus and his disciples are in a place called Caesarea Philippi. They’ve take a bit of a field trip, during which Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be. Peter, always impetuous, responds that Jesus is the anointed one, God’s Messiah. Notice what Jesus says in response:

Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  [Matthew16:17-19, NRSV]

In this passage Jesus gives the community the authority to make decisions about what particular commands are binding, and which can be loosened. This means that we are not only permitted, but also expected, to engage in a continual process of making decisions about how scripture works in our communities. This isn’t a new idea; we’ve been doing it all along. That’s why Christians eat shellfish, wear blended clothing, and do any number of things that are called ‘abominations’ in the Law. But this isn’t just a Hebrew Bible thing. It’s also why we don’t greet one another with a holy kiss, nor do men always raise their hands when they pray, both of which are commanded in the New Testament letters. Then there’s the reality that the Bible, in places, supports genocide and slavery, both of which we now (thankfully) call immoral. These are shifts, loosenings if you will, that generations of Christians have made and embraced. 

The problem is lots of us have gone on to assume that all of the mind-changing that would be possible or necessary happened in the past, say in the 300s, 400s, or 1500s. The truth is we, the Christian community, are still called to the work of binding and loosing. The challenge is that we don’t agree on what should be binding and what should be loosened. A prime example of this disagreement is how churches should approach the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The dominant Christian position on same-sex relationships is still one of disapproval and exclusion. Actually, it’s not just disapproval and exclusion, is it? In many contexts it’s persecution. In others it’s the old “everyone is welcome” bait and switch. Either way, the LQBTQ+ community has borne and is still bearing the weight of an inconsistent hermeneutic. There are Christians who don’t see any problem in, say, eating bacon or not holy kissing, but then, in the same breath, condemn the LGBTQ+ community as “not God’s best” (whatever that means) by quoting similar texts to those that they are ignoring on these other issues. It seems that, in this particular case, the only hermeneutic being employed is bias and phobia. Those of us who have changed our minds—quite literally, repented—about the full inclusion of our LGBTQ+ siblings in every way in the community are only doing what has been modeled by the Tradition. We haven’t always been early adopters, just ask Galileo, but we do have a consistent history of deciding that some things that were bound by previous generations should be loosened in our own time. The authority rests in the community, which means we are in a continual state of becoming, ever unfinished and ever pressing forward. That journey is what faith and faithfulness look like in action.

Christians have been binding and loosening from the very beginning, which leads me to the second idea: We have a responsibility to follow Spirit forward.  There’s a story in Acts 15 that is incredibly pivotal for the Christian story. The nascent Christian community was made up of faithful Jews who saw in Jesus the long hoped for messiah. They didn’t change religious affiliation. They remained Jewish, and also embraced the message and meaning of Jesus, incorporating that into their faith. To be sure, Jesus changed the content of their faith in dramatic ways, but they didn’t become some other religion. At least not immediately. 

Through the ministry of Paul the Jesus story started attracting Gentiles, those who weren’t Jewish. This sent shockwaves throughout the small, but growing, community of Jesus followers. They had never heard of such. The question, then, became, do these Gentiles need to convert to Judaism first, take up the requirements of the Law, and then embrace the message of Jesus? There was no consensus. Paul, the trailblazer, had experienced Spirit at work in the lives of these Gentiles. He was on the ground, seeing the good fruit that was growing in these new Gentile Jesus followers. James and the Jerusalem church were much more skeptical and uncomfortable with the idea of Gentiles being included without first embracing the rites, rituals, and obligations of Judaism.

The argument culminated in the first gathering of community leaders to sort out a way forward. This meeting, often called the “Council of Jerusalem,” occurred in the late 40s to early 50s, and we get (conflicting) reports on the outcome from Paul (in Galatians 2) and the author of Luke/Acts (in Acts 15). What I want to hone in on is something said in the letter the collective writes to the churches, after the deal between Paul and James is brokered. The letter includes this line:

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials…” [Acts 15:29, NRSV]

What a stunning line! Can you imagine someone saying that today when explaining a monumentally important decision? “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit…and to us.” Like Spirit needs our rubber stamp? What in the world is going on here? We are seeing how the community exercises authority, binding and loosening as they follow Spirit into uncharted waters. They are loosening requirements because they face an unprecedented moment and Spirit is at work in ways they previously would have thought impossible. 

The Bible has authority, because the community has given it. We find these texts meaningful, even sacramental. They connect us to the experiences of our spiritual ancestors, they teach us and inspire us, but they aren’t meant to keep us from our own experiences. There are moments, like with LGBTQ+ inclusion, that we must say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

May we have the courage to bind what needs to be bound, and loosen what needs to be loosened. In the process may we discover that this isn’t a new idea or practice, it’s coming home to what the Church was always intended to be and the work we’ve always been given to do.

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