Trusting the Bible with our conflicts
Gerald Mast, Bluffton, Ohio
Near the end of her book The Bible Unwrapped, Meghan Larissa Good remarks that Christians who disagree with one another must “learn to trust the breadth of grace promised to us in our own core narrative”; that is, “the grace of Christ is big enough to cover us and those with whom we disagree.”
As Good unwraps the Bible she shows us how this marvelous grace of Christ is displayed in the very form of the book from which we learn about this grace. The Bible is a vast and embracing library of stories, poems, visions, letters, rules, and rants—in which we encounter diverse and sometimes astonishing perspectives from many times and places. Exploring this library prepares us for a more profound and complex understanding of Jesus Christ, whom we seek to know and to follow in life.
Jesus is the main character of the Bible: everything in the Bible either prepares the way for him or shows the way he prepared. And when we encounter the Jesus of the Bible—along with the community that birthed him and the disciples who followed him—we discover a life and a world that is large enough for the big questions and problems—including the deepest disagreements and conflicts—that we bring to this encounter.
As I read through Good’s deeply informed and delightfully nuanced unpacking of the Bible, I recalled many of my own experiences with the Bible—particularly during my childhood in a conservative Mennonite church where everyone, including children, brought our Bibles to church. My childhood Bible was a red leather King James Version reference Bible that now shows the wear of many Bible drills. During Bible drills—which usually happened during vacation Bible school—a leader called out a Bible reference and everyone raced to be the first to find the verse. Bible drills prepared us to follow along in our Bible during sermons as the ministers referenced one text after another drawn from Genesis to Revelation. The sounds of rustling Bible pages filled the sanctuary as the congregation paged their way from one reference to another.
As a child, I treasured my Bible not only for Bible drills and following along during the sermon, but as a source of pleasure and distraction when the church service became wearisome or annoying. I was particularly fond of stories about the adventures of David the shepherd boy and the Psalms attributed to him. When the preachers were denouncing musical instruments, I would sometimes turn to Psalms that praised the Lord with the sound of the trumpet, the psaltry and harp, the timbrel and dance, the stringed instruments and organ, and the cymbals (i.e. Psalm 150). When the discussion turned to the importance of keeping our thoughts pure, I could not help but let my mind wander to the sensual intimacies of the Song of Solomon—which I doubted was really about the relationship of Jesus and the church. There were many sermons in my church about 1 Corinthians 11 and the women’s prayer veiling. But I could see right there in verse 5 an argument against those who said women should follow Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to stay silent in the church: what was the point of a devotional covering except for praying and prophesying? Plus my eye was always drawn to verse 16: But if any “seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Well, the covering was certainly a topic of contention, so perhaps we should have no such custom, I thought.
If I voiced this thought among my friends, a debate was likely to arise. Someone would raise a counterpoint: “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Yes, but—the response might be—“if it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Indeed, someone would likely agree, “how good and how pleasant it is . . . to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:2). Just so long as we don’t forget, another might feel obliged to point out, “all Scripture is given for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Of course, would be the rejoinder, so long as we are not “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). Things were getting serious now because we were coming to the red-letter part of the Bible. This would be a good time for me to toss one of my favorite Jesus texts into the discussion: “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).
A discussion like this contained multitudes. Were the congregation’s rules about the veiling a teaching of Scripture or a “commandment of men”? Was it it better to maintain strict lifestyle standards, even if this led to church conflict, than to prefer flexibility about lifestyle rules so as to “dwell together in unity”? Were our church conflicts a sign of faithful contention or an indication of grievous disunity? Would it be better for our church to leave behind our fairly detailed and often disputed list of standards and restrictions in order to simply rely on Scripture alone for our rule of faith, as some were advocating?
Although Mennonite Church USA is a long distance culturally from the church of my childhood, we are struggling with this same essential question: will a specific polity define us or can we trust the Bible with our conflicts? This persistent question is worrisome because, as I sensed in my childhood encounter with the Bible, the biblical world is so much larger than the necessarily limited world of human constitutions, polities, and membership guidelines.
This large and strange world of the Bible relativizes all of our particular convictions, yours and mine, and restores them to their rightful place as human and possibly fallible responses to God’s mercy and salvation. Meghan Good reminds us that our work of discerning a faithful fidelity to the God of the Bible is never done: “Anyone who is finished with discernment is finished with the living God.”
What an immense and transformative gift Megan Good has given the church with her book The Bible Unwrapped! She helps us both to love the Bible and to trust it with the conflicts and catastrophes of our life together in Christ. Her book is a faithful guide for reading the Bible together anew in our time and place, not the least because her book calls to mind the pleasures and intrigues that many of us recall from our earliest encounters with Scripture: the fierce competition of Bible drills, rustling pages amidst a droning sermon, secretly scrutinized passages that scandalize proper piety, stories of adventure and transgression, a wind that blows where it will, an ancient word that still speaks.
Gerald J. Mast is professor of communication at Bluffton University and author of Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling (Herald Press, 2012). He is a member of First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, Ohio.