I want people to be convinced that the word of God is good. God is so generous, and his word saves and enriches and fulfils life. God will offer anyone the opportunity to approach him, unashamedly, in Christ. He will teach us all to let go of the old ways of hate, and separation, and disunity. His welcome is universal and unconditional.
We know this from the Bible; and it is from the Bible that Christians have always learned not just how to come to God, but how to live as he would have us live. He teaches us through Christ, whose apostles were led by his Spirit into all truth, so they could write down everything we need to know to be followers of Christ. The books of the New Testament were chosen to be included as Scripture, alongside the Old Testament, because they contained what the early Christians knew to be apostolic teaching. The Reformers were not perfect, but they came back firmly to this understanding that the Bible is God’s word, written by humans but inspired by God, and it is to be our standard. The Church of England was founded on this basis, as the Articles make entirely clear.
So why is there so much disagreement about what we should do?
It is true that a great many people who consider themselves Christians do not think they need obey the Bible. They see the Bible as guidance rather than as authority; or maybe as one voice in the debate, but not necessarily the loudest one nor the final one; or even a misguided human document that records ancient ways of understanding God, which we now know not to be true. That is another debate.
Here, I am interested in those who say they want to submit to God, and who believe that God speaks in his Word. They read the same Bible, yet come to different conclusions about what it is actually saying. Living in Love and Faith openly acknowledges that. As far as I can tell, it quite accurately reflects the views of people who assert biblical authority, but who read crucial practices about sexual behaviour, differently. It is easy to call someone on the ‘opposite’ side names: homophobic, or unChristian, or whatever. What would be far more constructive is to have some sensible principles of how to read a text.
Yes, the Bible was written a long time ago, by people from different cultures. Yes, it is possible to misread even a text from our own culture. It is possible to misunderstand a letter from your own mother or sibling. However, it is also possible to read a text correctly; that is, understanding what you were supposed to understand from it. When the author is God, we can assume he knows what he’s doing. He is the creator of all human authors and all human language, and he promised that what is written for us is true. Any confusion is not from his side. So how do we attempt to minimise confusion on our side?
We read the text first, as far as possible, in its original context. We do what we can to understand the historical and cultural situation into which it was originally written. Living in Love and Faith does this well, in the passages it considers. It presents us with realistic accounts of how original readers would most likely have understood what is written.
We read the text in the context of the whole of Scripture. God speaks through all the books of the Bible, and as Article 20 tells us, we do not read one text so that it conflicts with another. For instance, Jesus, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel, did not mention that sexual immorality is grounds for divorce; but we know that he did think this, because it’s recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. We take both into account when coming to a conclusion about Jesus’ teaching. Salvation is described, not just in legal metaphors, but in metaphors taken from the slave trade (redemption), human physiology (new birth) and families (adoption). We enrich our understanding of salvation when we read all of them.
We also know that the New Testament describes a new covenant, which applies now that the old covenant has been fulfilled. So we read all of the Old Testament through this new understanding.
But what if we try to do that, but Christians still disagree?
We have three teachers to instruct us, as John Stott put it. They are the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit; the Christian’s diligent study; and the teaching of the Church. The spirit objectively enlightens the understanding of Christians as we read Scripture. For our part, we need to approach Scripture rightly, and diligently. The right attitude to have if we would understand God’s word is humility. It is God’s authoritative revelation, for us to hear humbly and obey. This takes work. We are none of us naturally humble, especially in regards to God. We must be prepared to humble ourselves (and this is regardless of sexuality or political position). As one of my favourite Bible teachers used to say, will you allow God to disagree with you?
To understand Scripture also requires diligent study. It requires commitment, and time, and effort. Are we really reading Scripture in its original context as well as in the light of the whole? To do so, we must be prepared to study the whole and know the contexts.
Thirdly, to understand Scripture rightly requires us to listen to other Christians. We are part of a body, and the wisdom of other Spirit-led, humble Christians is part of God’s teaching to us.
So study Scripture personally, willing to hear what you might not like, and submit to it humbly. Tease out the contexts, understand the language as best you can, and take advantage of other faithful Christians’ help. Read commentaries. See if there is a consensus or a majority. See what the church has taught during its history. See what other churches around the world say.
This is not, as Stott made clear, to hold up a ‘threefold authority of equal importance’ of scripture, reason and tradition. No. Scripture is the authority. But in humility we need to acknowledge that, sinful and limited beings that we are, we need each other in understanding Scripture.
This is truly important. Whatever the topic, if the church has agreed, almost universally, for pretty much all of its history, it is unlikely that a new and innovative reading is correct. It is not impossible: but those who would advocate a new reading have a huge burden of proof to meet. There must be truly overwhelming biblical evidence that the new reading is reasonable, and more reasonable than the old.
Has that happened now? Living in Love and Faith does not claim that this is the case. Scripture remains our authority, and we need the best of practice in reading it as we decide.
1. Understanding the Bible, rev. 1984 (Milton Keynes: Scripture Union).