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Interpreting the Bible: One Book, Endless Interpretations

bono baptist church

Evangelicals would have you believe that the Bible is an inexhaustible book filled with the very words of God (as interpreted by them). Someone can read the Bible for fifty years and still not mine its depths. It’s the only book ever written that can never be fully understood, or so Evangelicals tell us. This is why no two Evangelicals can agree on exactly what the Bible says. As a Christian, I engaged in numerous discussions about a particular Bible text only to have my opponent say, well Brother, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Each of us had a version of truth, each of us had proof that our interpretation was correct. If the Bible is what Evangelicals claim it is, shouldn’t truth be concise, clear, and easy to understand? Why all the disagreement and heated debate among Christians over what the Bible teaches? Doesn’t the Bible say that God is NOT the author of confusion? Yet, everywhere I look I see confusion.

One of the reasons for the confusion is the Evangelical (and Baptist) doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Unlike the Israelites of the Old Testament, Evangelicals don’t need Moses or a priest to go before God on their behalf. They can directly access God without going through a middleman. The same goes for the Bible. Since God himself, the Holy Spirit, lives inside every Christian, they have no need of a human to teach them what the Bible says. God is their teacher, and who better to teach Christians what the Bible says than its author, right? Here’s what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 2:12-16:

 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

According to this text, Christians have received the Spirit of God and are taught by him. The reason someone like me, a natural man, can’t understand the Bible is because I don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside of me. Only Christians can spiritually discern what is truth. In fact, Christians have the mind of Christ — Christ being God — so this means that Christians have the mind of God.  If this is so, why is there so much confusion about what to believe and what the Bible says about most anything?

Christian sects can’t even agree on the basics: salvation, baptism, and communion. Each sect thinks its interpretation is the one ordained by God and clearly taught in the Bible. Two thousand years of councils, decrees, confessions, and doctrinal statements reveal that Christians are incapable of coming to any common agreement on anything. Even the nature of Jesus and God are in dispute. Broaden the discussion to ecclesiology, eschatology, and pneumatology, throw in the endless debates over hermeneutics and orthopraxy, and you end up with endless versions of the faith once delivered unto the saints.

The Bible says one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God. It also says that God’s chosen people are to be of one mind, dwell in unity, and love one another. Yet, everywhere I look, I see the opposite. Many Lords, many Faiths, many Baptisms, many Gods, many minds and disunity, dysfunction, disagreement, and internecine war. Christians object when people like me point these things out. How dare I judge Christianity! All I am doing is using the same standard to judge Christianity as Christians use to judge my life and that of everyone else who is not a Christian. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, yes?

In 2003, I pastored Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan. Victory, a Southern Baptist church, closed its doors a few years after I resigned. While many of the members were decent people, the church had lots of dysfunction, thus qualifying it to be rescued by Bruce Gerencser. As I look back on the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry, I can now see that I was drawn to churches that I could either start from scratch or fix. Victory was a fixer-upper, a church I thought God and I could get back on track. Instead of fixing the church, it fixed me. Victory would be the last church I pastored.

Victory had a traditional Sunday school, one that used quarterlies. I hated quarterlies, but I decided that I didn’t want the turmoil that would come from trying to change the Sunday school curriculum. One of the men in the church, Steve, taught the adult class. Every week, the adults would get together and take turns reading the lesson and the appropriate verses. Then they would discuss what the lesson/verses meant to them. That’s right, each class member had his or her own opinion, and each opinion was given equal weight. It was like taking a test where there are no wrong answers.

One week, the lesson was on election. As a Calvinist, I had a good understanding of the various soteriological beliefs on election. It was quite interesting to hear the various ‘what it means to me’ interpretations of election. The Sunday school teacher, a man with no theological training outside of being able to read, said the word “election” in the Bible meant “we get to choose.” I tried to gently explain to him that no sect taught such a belief, but his mind was settled; election, like in voting for a president, meant each of us making a choice of God and Jesus.

Take the photograph at the top of this post. This photo was taken at a specific place on a certain date and time. It only has one meaning, yet using the ‘what it means to me’ approach someone might conclude that BONO, of U2 fame, started a Baptist church or there is a church named after him. Surely, every belief, every opinion should be given the same weight and respect, right? Of course not. The photo is of the sign for the Bono Baptist Church in Martin, Ohio, an unincorporated village in Ottawa County. The sign is located on State Route 2, across the road from I ‘Heart’ U, God sign. I can vouch for the photo because I am the one who took it.

Multiply ‘what it means to me’ by the number of Christians in the world and you end up with millions of Christianities. Catholics love to point out that this is a Protestant problem, but they have their own version of ‘what it means to me’. The pope, the vicar of Christ, God’s representative on earth, is quite clear about using birth control being a sin. Yet, most Catholic women, at one time or another, use birth control. The same could be said of a number of set-in-stone Catholic teachings. Both the Protestants and the Catholics have a paint-by-number Christianity that allows Christians to ignore the color guide and use whatever color fits their fancy.

So, when a Christian sect, pastor, priest, blogger, Bible college professor, or church member says THUS SAITH THE LORD, the BIBLE says, or THIS is THE truth, I hope they will forgive me for laughing. At best, Christianity is a religion based on personal interpretation and opinion, with each person, to quote the Bible, “being fully persuaded in their his own mind.” At worst, it is the faith of the uneducated who, thanks to tribal and cultural influence, mouth beliefs they have no intellectual ability or desire to defend.

I have come to the conclusion that every Christian sect and every interpretation of the Bible is correct. DING! DING! DING! Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner! They all win! The Bible, along with 2,000 years of Christian church history, can be used to prove almost any belief. Calvinists and Arminians have been squaring off and fighting for centuries, each believing that their interpretation is correct and God is on their side. And even here, there are uncounted shades of Calvinism and Arminianism, with each shade resolutely saying theirs is the right color. From the most ardent Fundamentalist to the most liberal Christian, followers of Jesus use the Bible to prop up their beliefs. Yea! Go Team Jesus!

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    It’s possible to argue nearly anything with the Bible as source, also opposing arguments. People have been arguing for or against slavery with biblical arguments for instance, but also for or against female preachers. It’s one of those things that for me started my doubting.

    There are so many flavors of Christianity, two kinds of baptism, for or against speaking in tongues, different view on communion… How to know which one is true? I thought that our church leaders were a bit arrogant presuming they were right in every single thing… so how was I suppose to figure out which church/rules/beliefs were the best? Were the real truth? I so wanted to do it right, so I kept searching for confirmation. For a while, I settled for that every church has good or bad things and we’re all fallible, so a pure church probably didn’t exist anyway. It kept nagging in my mind though….

    Couldn’t God have been clearer in his instructions? And why was the Jewish faith first what God wanted and then suddenly Christianity came along? If God was so unchangeble why didn’t he get it right the first time around? And why did he have to prove that rules/the law didn’t work and only then (thousands of years later) offer mercy…? Why not right there and then in the Garden of Eden? All these questions and no statisfying answers…. I still ask some of them to relatives sometimes and the answers are never statisfactory (there usually aren’t really any anwers and people do get defensive). I remember being like that myself. I’ve sometimes shut down people’s arguments because their questions got far to close to my own doubts, so I can’t even really blame them. Shouldn’t a strong faith be strong enough to handle questions?

    I just stopped asking questions at some point as a kid or teen (at least actually asking them, though still occassionally wondering) and I’ve definitely started again. I guess there just aren’t all that many answers to begin with… and that’s the problem, isn’t it? If Christianity really is the one true good faith, than it should be super strong and self-evident and what not and it simply isn’t. Most importantly there should only be one flavor to begin with.

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    I don’t believe it.

    You have not read the Bible correctly then.

    But I have read the Bible for half a century, attended school.

    You didn’t make the cut. God sent you to the minors before Time even existed.

    How do you you know?

    You can’t read the Bible correctly!

    Pass the potatoes, please.

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    Daniel Wilcox

    Yeah, back in the days when I still really hoped Christianity could be true, I was confused and doubt-filled by the hard fact that Christians disagreed about nearly everything.

    Why was this so since I kept reading passages in the New Testament which said the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth? Why did brilliant Greek New Testament scholars disagree so much? How was I going to be sure I was doctrinally correct?

    And even Evangelical Christians disagreed about most essentials–the usual long list: whether God loved everyone, whether humans had free will, spiritual gifts, nature of communion, baptism of infants or not, women in ministry, prophecy, inspiration of Bible…on and on.

    And when it came to social issues, forget about it!

    Why were so many devout Christians pro-war, anti-immigration, against anti-poverty programs, prejudiced, sexist, etc.

    Also, weird was that the individuals who I personally knew who were the most compassionate, peaceable, caring (who followed the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Good Samaritan) weren’t evangelical Christians. Some of them even belonged to “cults;” one was an agnostic!

    And the dogmas of their various religions seemed not to matter, indeed were contradictory. The caring ones included a Baha’i, a Jehovah Witness, an Agnostic, a Mormon, a Pentecostal, a Mennonite, a Catholic, a Christian Science member…

    Very confusing for someone like me who thought doctrine was all important, who kept, trying to find the “right” church.

    Yet so many Christians were caught up in “evandalism”(Neil Carter’s satirical term for the negative and destructive behavior of evangelical Christians).

    It took a long time, but finally I admitted there was no way that Christianity, a religion where everyone disagreed about nearly everything, could possibly be true.

    What’s odd is that it took us so long to admit it (me quite a bit longer than you).
    Maybe because we were so goal oriented?

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    Appalachian Agnostic

    Or those of us who grew up in the 1970s might assume that it was named after Sonny Bono. Who knows? He could have started his own religious movement after the Sonny and Cher show ended.

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    billions of Christianities. and even the good ol’ RCC is splitting as we speak.

    there are no christians, not one of them meet the requirements and can can do the promised miracles that ol’ JC promised his followers to be able to do.

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    I suppose one could argue that such variation in interpretation allows both conservatives and liberals to know God. Ok I don’t believe that’s a feature at all, but no doubt the interpretive versatility of the text no doubt is part of its popularity.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    After I left Christianity, and religion altogether, I realized that believers bully people who are simply honest enough to say that perhaps there is no answer–or simply that they themselves don’t have an answer. “Well, if you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, then you have to believe in Him,” or something to that effect.

    Now I realize why those believers commit that kind of violence: They aren’t OK with knowing there may not be an answer, or just that they themselves don’t know what it is. In other words, they’re insecure–about the veracity of what they believe and, ultimately, themselves.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    For many people, maybe even most people, fear drives a desire for certainty in life. Furthermore, a good friend of mine who has studied psychology, likes to remind me that the human brain tends to assume the negative. Given the absence of information, we are inclined to assume that something is wrong or will go wrong. It’s undoubtedly a tendency that kept our distant ancestors from being eaten by predators. But that, coupled with our impressive imaginations, means that we can drive ourselves up walls with anxious imaginings of things which actually have a low probability of happening.

    My experience of religion (raised Catholic, attended an Evangelical Christian church for a few years, read some Buddhist authors) is that religion probably exists first and foremost to manage fear. Existential fear. The predatory ones turn that fear back on people, insisting that if you don’t believe X, Y, and Z, AND pump money into perpetuating the religion in some way, the fear you have about earthly unknowns ought to pale in comparison with your fear of your after-death experience.

    The most wonderful thing I ever did for myself was come out of an engineering background to get an MS in a scientific field. All those extra undergraduate classes, plus the graduate classes, plus those long discussions with my thesis adviser, combined to reprogram my brain to start evaluating everything in terms of, wait, yes that would be terrible, but how likely is it to happen? And consistently betting with the odds. It has reduced my stress level considerably, and allowed me to reassess religion and see it for what it is, because wait, how likely is that holy book really true? Follows easily from that mindset.

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    If Bono had a church, I might actually check it out!

    Christians love to “no true Scotsman” each other! They never could have enough councils to come to agreements either.

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    Jeff T

    I always wondered: if the Holy Spirit indwells in you and guides you into the truth, why would you need the Bible at all ? Couldn’t the Holy Spirit just tell you directly everything you needed to know? Why would the Holy Spirit’s main job be to mediate a written text?

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Bruce Gerencser