Why I Don't Take The Bible Literally
This essay was originally published 8/25/2016
So yeah, I don't take the Bible literally. This isn't to say that I don't think it's divinely inspired or relevant for today. On the contrary, Biblical literacy is the biggest thing lacking from the western church, and further more, being holistic student of the Bible isn't exactly a trend.
When it comes to LGBTQ issues and the Bible, I find that many people want to be okay with their queer friends, "but the Bible says..." They get hung up on the disparity from what they feel internally, what their spirit is saying and doing, and the way it's always been done.
So let's explore this. This one is gonna push some buttons for some of you, so just… bear with me and stick around. I think this could be a really good read for you.
And just as a note, I'm not going into the Biblical case for LGBTQ+ inclusion or affirmation in this. If you want to learn more about that, pick up one of the many books I have over on my resource page as well as check out the other great stuff under the START HERE tab above.
OKAY! Let's go.
This all started with a comment on my last blog from a friend of mine from undergrad. Here's what she said:
One truth that I have to hold is that the Bible is completely true. It is God breathed and unshakeable. This is the foundation of my personal identity, faith, and security in my relationship with Christ. Personally, if the whole Word is not Truth, then my foundation of faith is shattered. (Even those really weird parts about Lot and his daughters... yikes ha). So how do I as a Christian who believes that the Word is completely true, hold that truth in one hand and then in my other hand, say that I affirm homosexuality? The Word provides the foundation for my faith's validity, so once I pick the Bible apart and decide that there are parts that need to evolve, I become unsure about it entirely.
Okay, so this is a big, fat, multifaceted issue and question that so many people are facing. People who want to be as loving as they can toward their LGBTQ friends BUT...the Bible says…
It’s always surprising to me when people see the Bible as this roadblock to love. It’s this longing to hold the Bible as a holy text in high esteem and integrity while also wanting to affirm people in the fullness of their humanity.
First thing, let’s talk about love.
I wanna say first and foremost that our love for others has nothing to do with their conduct. Whether or not you think gay marriage is cool or not, that same-sex relationships can be honored or not, you are called to honor the humanity of every human. And that goes beyond sexuality too. Regardless of someone’s faith (or lack thereof), Jesus loves the whole of creation, and thus we as his followers are called to do the same. Their affirmation of me has nothing to do with my love for them or my affirmation of their humanity.
Christians, especially white evangelicals (sorry y’all), suck at loving people well because we have become so tribal in our mindset. We see ourselves as separate from all these “others.” Be it black people, Muslims, the poor, we have this habit of not seeing others in the fullness of their humanity and their story.
Jesus said that if we know the poor, we know him. Not know about the poor, but actually know the poor. I’ll expand that to all the others who are suffering. If you don’t know black families who have suffered from the oppression of American white supremacy, you don’t know Jesus. If you don’t know any Muslims who are constantly discriminated against, then you don’t know Jesus.
If you don’t know women who work just as hard as men and get treated as a second class, usable, as objects, you don’t know Jesus.
Jesus stands with the oppressed and loves them and wants them to be lifted up. That’s the gospel. And if you can’t get behind that, you’re blind.
Now, let’s talk about the idea of Truth with a capital T:
Truth, with a capital T, points us toward certainty, right? And that’s what we want. We crave that. We’re wired for structure and system, our binary mind loves it. We love to say that we have all the answers.
I honestly stay away from the capital T kind of Truth because this kind of Truth says I have this all figured out, it’s being absolutely certain of your position and disinvites curiosity, despises questioning, and dispels the need for depth. As the old saying goes, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complete certainty.
And God is a mystery, right? Beyond comprehension. Beyond what we can understand, think, dream, hope or imagine. Has always been and will always be, outside of time. Everywhere and in everything, from the edges of the ever-expanding universe to the tiniest atoms that exist within the millions of cells that live in our body and work together to create us.
We cannot wrap our head around the concept of what we call God. Even when God spoke to Moses, God named Godself, “I am that I am” or “I am that I will be.” Even the transliterated latin letters of YHWH are letters that some scholars say can only be spoken by a breath.
Every moment that I breathe, I speak the the name of God.
So in the smallest thing, like my breath, to the biggest, most complex magnetic fields that create gravity and protect the earth from burning up and all the other things that hold the universe together that I could never understand, there God is.
In the stars and in my tears, there God exists.
I cannot wrap my head around this. No one could.
With God being the beautiful mystery that God is, how could we ever grasp Truth with a capital T? Divine mysteries are mysteries not because they are unknowable. It is that they are endlessly knowable.
God is endlessly knowable.
This Truth that we speak of, Biblical Truth, as many people put it, what have we done with it? Well, unfortunately, we’ve used it as a tool to harm people. To marginalize people, to say who is in and who is out, to put a cap on our love for another person. And that is called conditional love.
And you can easily say, “But I’ve never done that.” And sure. Maybe you have not personally discriminated against someone, but to deny the violence that’s been done in the name of God is to disregard the suffering of the world and thereby push people further from the love of God, which is sin. We must own the sins of our family, acknowledging that it hurts, and then working for healing and reconciliation and justice.
Now, here’s a fun question: Who is saying what we believe is Biblical Truth? Who are your sources? Who are you listening to and who are the influenced by?
For most of us who come from American, western, white, evangelical Christianity (ya know, your typical theobrogian), we’ll more than likely going to be people like John Piper, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, Martin Luther, and other folks within the reformed tradition. Then on top of that, add the history of evangelicalism being in bed with the government, complicit in racism and a lack of concern for the general well being of people (see Deborah Jian Lee’s book, Rescuing Jesus), such as the poor, the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, and so on… it should give you pause.
The majority of American Christianity is influenced by these writers and thinkers, and all of them are white men. Their words, the doctrines they have penned, their ideas about who God is have become our Truth with a capital T. And some of their ideas aren’t bad, but they are incomplete.
There is an old Hebrew saying that describes the word of God like a thousand-faced gem, and each time you turn it, you get a different refraction of light, a different idea about the heart of God. And I think that is a truth we can all settle into and should take more seriously. (Notice the lack of capital T.)
So really, when we are saying “Biblical Truth,” we are really just talking about traditions that we’ve held fast to for a long time and have become integrated with our identity, culture, and our worldview. And to challenge that is scary because, like my friend said in her comment, when we question one thing, we feel this compulsion to question it all.
And we should. We should absolutely question what we are being told because while we can still hold the Bible as the perfect word of God, humans are always going to be fallible and imperfect in our interpretation of God’s word. That, and because humans are the worst. We exploit, we use, we dominate, we try to win at all cost, especially when it comes to faith.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have used scriptures to support their causes, and we’d look back at them:
Some Christians believed that exploiting the poor to build cathedrals through the selling of indulgences in the dark ages was okay, and that it was justified by scripture.
Some Christians believed that burning people at the stake because they wanted to explore science was good idea during the Enlightenment, and it was justified by scripture.
Some Christians believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the world was flat, and excommunicated anyone who thought differently, and thought that it was justified by scripture.
Some Christians believed sending children into the middle east to reclaim the holy land during the crusades was a sound strategy, and that it was justified by scripture.
Some Christians believed that Jews were literally the agents of the devil and advised against talking to them (mind you this treatise was written by Martin Luther, the father of the first reformation), and this was justified by scripture.
And that’s the church at large over history. America's got its own rank of atrocities. In America we've got:
The Salem witch trials.
The transatlantic slave trade.
Manifest destiny, the slaughter of indigenous people, and the annexing of an entire nation's territory by European conquerors.
The suppression of women, denial of voting rights and equal pay, and the litany of things that women have dealt with throughout the centuries.
Banning interracial marriage in America which, by the way, wasn't repealed until 1967 .
Segregation of black citizens and denial of their basic rights.
And those were all backed by a version of “Truth.” But we look back at those things and say, absolutely not. This is not the heart of God at all. It is our experience that has driven us back to scripture for reinterpretation.
How do we get out of this cycle of only understanding God from one perspective?
Read something other than white, cisgender, heterosexual, male theologians. Read some black liberation theology, some feminist theology, some womanist theology, some queer theology. Read something by a person from a different country and has a totally different context for their understanding of scripture. (Also, isn’t it funny that anything that isn’t by a white man has an adjective in front of it, but everything by a white man is simply just called “theology?” Because I’m gay, I’m automatically a gay theologian, and not just a theologian. #sideeye)
Okay, now that we’ve talked about Truth with a capital T,
Let’s talk about how the Bible was compiled and our experiences.
Before we had the bible, before the Church was the Church, what did the early followers of Christ?
They had the Hebrew scriptures (maybe! If you were lucky, your rabbi had the scriptures in a closet at the synagogue), they had the teaching of the apostles, they had prayer, communion, each other, and their experiences. They didn’t have a bible or a tradition to follow.
They devoted themselves to each other, to the breaking of bread, to prayer, and to the teaching of the apostles. They gave so that no one in their midst had need. They took care of each other. Now that’s a religion I can get behind.
So! First big issue to hit the church was the inclusion of the gentiles, meaning anyone who was not born Jewish. And it sincerely divided many of the early apostles and followers of Jesus. Because there was a group people though that salvation was only for the Jewish people.
But… ya know, the God had different plans, as God often does. Just when you think that God is for one group of people and not another, God tends to flip things on their head.
In the book of Acts, chapter 10, Peter has a vision of sheet descending from Heaven, and God saying to Peter, “Kill and eat.” Problem with this was that the animals on the sheet were both clean and unclean animals, and as a Jew, Peter had never ever eaten non-kosher nor associated with non-Jews. It was just not what you did.
Later on in that chapter, Peter goes and actually EATS in the home of a gentile, Cornelius, who had a vision from God that Peter was going to come to him. The gentiles who are present in Cornelius's home hear the gospel, and then shit gets crazy: The Holy Spirit falls on a group of Gentiles, and that was something that was not a thing until then. BECAUSE GOD DOES WHAT SHE WANTS, AM I RIGHT?!
They were speaking in tongues, extolling God, and then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have receive the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
God was doing a new thing. Peter had to experience what God was doing in the real world. And even after that, in Chapter 15, when there was a debate over circumcision and food sacrificed to idols, and how did those present come to their decisions?
They prayed about it, weighed the scriptures, what they were seeing in the real world, what they were experiences and said, “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit.”
It seemed good. Even then, I believe that the apostles were saying, “We’re pretty sure about this, could be wrong, but this seems like what is going to do the most good for the most people.” And what is God for if not the most good for the most people?
Experience played a huge role in the formation of the early Church. It made the body of Christ living and active, conscious of their world and the implications of what their choices on the people who followed them.
But what happened to that? What happened to valuing experience?
Fast forward a few centuries...
The Canon of Scripture as we (sort of) know it today was compiled and decided upon by The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, over three centuries after the ascension of Jesus.
So for over three hundred years, the early church existed on the fringes. In fact, followers of The Way were fed to lions in the Roman colosseum for sport and entertainment. But it still flourished regardless of that! So much so that people in power saw it as an opportunity to unite people, and Constantine made it the state religion.
It was at this that a group of Christians known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers decided to withdraw from the empire because they recognized the dangers of what was happening to the Christian faith. They went into the deserts of Egypt around the beginning of the third century… but that’s another blog. But go read about them, they are great.
I’m with them though. The Church getting into bed with the government, makes me nervous, because we can see in our own American context what happens when the Church gets into bed with the government. Our faith becomes a weapon. (See the section above if you missed that.) And, like any power structure, it became corrupt, which we can see in how the church exploited people during the middle ages.
Enter Martin Luther nailing his “95 things that are totally fucked up about the church” (better known as his 95 Theses) to the church door, marking the start of the Protestant Reformation, to which most of us presently belong to and are still in the tradition of. It wasn’t until this point that the Bible was widely available because printing presses did not exist.
Now why did Martin Luther feel the need to speak out against the teaching and practices of the Catholic Church? Because he saw that there was something wrong happening. It was his experiences that led him to question the practices of his faith, how things had always been done, and seek out how to follow God in a different way, one that was more true what seemed to be good with him and the Holy Spirit.
And has continued to this day. The motto of the reformation was semper reformada, always reforming. And we reform based on our experiences and what we believe to be the heart of God, what seems to be good with the Holy Spirit.
It was experience that led to the end of slavery, to the elevation of women, and more. Because of our experience, we are looking at modern day slavery, at systems of oppression, at police brutality, at same-sex relationships/marriage/LGBT inclusion, at all the other social justice causes and we are starting to see that the gospel Jesus taught has not been brought to full fruition in our world and why we are still working for it.
We are looking at the Scriptures, looking at our world, and asking God, “Have we been getting this wrong?”
As we have the capacity to receive, the Holy Spirit pours out. And the Holy Spirit is still speaking. We haven’t figured out how to listen well enough and follow where God is going, as evidenced by how we continue to fracture and brutalize each other.
Reformation is not a one time thing. It’s not like one person can or could have figured this out, because, again, like we said at the beginning, God is mystery. God is endlessly knowable.
Okay! Now that we’ve talked about the Bible and experience,
Let’s talk about why I don’t take the bible literally.
Don’t start throwing stones at me yet. And don’t leave, you’ve come this far. Keep going.
Like I told you, Truth with a capital T is a tricky thing because it is always going to come from a person, and a person is always biased. No matter what they tell you, no matter how smart they are, no matter their credentials, everyone is biased. Even me, I’ll admit I’ve got my biases. I’m reading scripture through my own context and lens.
But so is everyone else. And even with the "guidance of the Holy Spirit," as many claim to have, we still are guilty of hearing what we want to hear. There's no way to verify motive without relationship. So let’s just get over that and admit we're all biased.
So! When I say that I don’t take the bible literally, I’m not saying that I don’t believe the scriptures to be the holy word of God. I believe that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
But, like I said, everyone is biased. Meaning that while the word of God is perfect, I do not believe in the perfect interpretation of God’s word.
I’d go further to say that even my views are probably inconsistent in ways, have holes, and are imperfect. But the way I follow Jesus, the way I interpret scripture seems good to me, to my tradition, and to the Holy Spirit.
So why do I say that I don’t take it literally.
Because, if I take it literally, if I take every commandment as iron clad, commandments for all time, then I do not get to take part in the family of God. I have no place in God’s kingdom. Because I’m not Jewish. Period. End of story. And at that point, there really isn't nay hope for me, right?
Furthermore, if I take the Bible literally, all men with long hair would be called abominations, women with their heads shaved or even heads uncovered would be shamed, slavery would be cool, shrimp would be detestable in the eyes of God so no more Red Lobster… and so on.
I say that I don’t take the bible literally because none of us do. To take the Bible literally would mean that we’re all outside of kosher law, all unclean, all separated from God.
But Jesus came along and really shook things up. He challenged men to not blame women for their sexual indiscretion, but to poke out their eyes instead. He challenged established religion, which made it so difficult for people to follow because of centuries of commentary and doctrine and law and cultural norms and said, “There is a much simpler way to follow God.”
Does that not sound shockingly familiar to what we are experiencing now in modern Christianity?
Jesus often remarked, “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit, and made declarations of what God was doing, and what he taught was very contrary to the tradition and laws of man. God was showing us the better way, something that was higher than what we had before.
And as we are, and as co-heirs with Christ, have we not the same authority to look at the times, our present practices just like our predecessors and ask, “Ya know what, I don’t know if this is what God really has in mind?” And do we not have the same authority to make choices with the confidence of “It seems right with the Holy Spirit?”
I’d say, yes we do have that authority.
The Bible is not Truth with a capital T.
It is not a roadmap for your life. It is not a guide book. It is not the answer for everything. Don’t care what anyone has told you.
The Bible is a collection of 66 books, poems, wisdom literature, letters, oral histories, songs, laments, and stories written by people in a specific contexts and for specific people. And I we, as Christians, believe that God inspired these writings, and we believe that we can connect with aspects of God’s personality through them. We believe that we can see different parts of the heart of God.
But only parts. Because, again, God is mystery. And mystery is endlessly knowable.
It is something we should esteem highly, something we should weigh our choices and doctrine against, but I never want to confuse the word of God, namely the Bible, with the Word of God present and indwelling in myself and in every person.
Because if the Word is God, the Word was God, Word was with God, and the Word is alive and active in us, would it not make sense that the Word still had something to say? Would it not make sense of us to listen? Would it not make sense that God is still speaking, creating, doing something new? Just as the universe is ever expanding, so too is God creating things within us and in our communities and in our church.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s suspend that for moment.
Let’s talk about tension.
Specifically the tension one feels about the topic of homosexuality and the bible.
Like my friend commented, there is this tension that people feel, to hold the bible as inerrant, as Truth with a capital T, and still affirm their LGBTQ friends, family and neighbors.
I’ve written before that I don’t believe you can fully affirm someone and call them sinful, and I hold to that. And the thing I’ve noticed and what I feel is that people who love their LGBTQ friends or family have this urge or feeling of, “Really, I want to be okay with homosexuality,...but the bible…”
THAT! Right there! That whisper in your spirit, that tension you feel between what you have been told is Truth and what you're actually experience don’t line up. What’s in your heart and what in your head are at odds. Because your heart knows something your head doesn’t.
Your heart knows the inherent worth of people. It understands and loves and celebrates all people. And people who can listen to that are closer to embracing the fullness of life than others. But our logical, binary mind wants answers, certainty.
For many people, faith is fragile, like a house of cards. (I've also written about this topic here.) Sure, we’d like to think that our systems and doctrines and the way it’s always been done is ironclad and unquestionable. So did the Catholic Church, but then Martin Luther came along. It is that certainty that makes our faith more like glass, able to be shattered in a moment, and less like solid ground.
We spend our life developing strategies to defend this house of cards kind of faith. We reject anything that would threaten the structure. We don't even realize it, but we're part of a system, and a system always seeks preservations. However, for those of us who keep our eyes open, something usually happens that shakes us, our system, and our faith. We meet someone or something happens within ourselves —that starts that doesn’t fit in with our house of cards faith. We see the truth, the goodness, the light in whatever or whoever it is... but the Bible says.
But what we mean is. "...but tradition, doctrine, cultural norms say..."
Two choices are then presented:
We either question the doctrine or long held belief, removing a card from the house of cards, risking the collapse of our whole system of belief
We try ignore it, call it heresy, choose to push it away because it makes us too uncomfortable to think that we could possibly be wrong.
But if you choose the second, it will haunt you and you will lack peace. You will always have an unanswered question.
But if you choose into it, if you decide to befriend your doubt and explore the depths of it, if you decide to look for Truth with a capital T that can only be revealed to you by the Holy Spirit, you will find a faith that is bigger and more expansive. It won't matter the doctrines or theology. It won't matter who questions it, because you'll still be asking questions yourself.
Your faith has the chance to really take root. You have a chance to stand on solid ground.
Here’s something you may not have known:
You do not have to believe the same way everyone else does. There are different ways of viewing scripture, of following Jesus, of being a Christian.
And if you are a person who is desperate to figure out how to do this, to fully love your LGBTQ friends, your Muslim friends, your atheist friends, your poor friends, and so on, then you need to explore your faith deeper.
If you feel threatened by the fact that I believe differently than you, your faith is small.
So my question to you is, why do you believe what you do? And to this specific question from my friend on homosexuality, why do you believe homosexuality is a sin?
And don’t just say “because the bible says…” because we just went through all that. Because if your heart is telling you something different than what you head says, you’ve GOT TO explore this more.
I won’t go into the full reasons why I believe same-sex relationships are to be blessed and affirmed in the Church. There are books written on that, and I’ve created a page of resources you can explore.
My hope for you, sweet friend, dear reader, is that you would not shrink back from this. But this would push you further into your faith. That you would realize that this goes beyond one issue. God is calling you into a bigger faith, to really explore your beliefs.
Stop being a part time spiritual person. Stop accepting answers you’ve been handed. Question something! Dammit, a lot of us are protestants! Protest! Question, explore, learn! Own your faith! The scriptures tell us to always be ready to give an account for what we believe. Can you?
Your life will be in a constant state of tension until your start figuring this out.
My friend said in her comment, “The Word provides the foundation for my faith's validity, so once I pick the Bible apart and decide that there are parts that need to evolve, I become unsure about it entirely.”
Here’s the deal: We’re all unsure. The truth is we can only talk about God in metaphors because again, God is mystery and mystery is endlessly knowable. Everything we’re talking about could be a load of shit! I don't think that, and I'm fairly positive it isn't, but at least I can admit that I have that thought floating around.
When we zoom out from all these details, we believe that a brown skinned, Palestinian rabbi, from a town not known for anything good was crucified and then rose from the dead.
....I hate to tell you, but that sounds fucking crazy, doesn't it? But I believe it.
If your need to feel sure, certain, or even the need to feel that your faith is valid, you will feel supremely disappointed for the rest of your life.
So the question is, where do we find validation?
Our validation is found in the fact that in all of this mess, all of this unknowing, all of this unsure, all of this shaky ground, God is with us. Not height nor depth, angels nor demons, powers nor principalities, nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the Love of God.
God isn’t going to get mad at you for having questions, for believing differently, for trying to explore something on a much deeper level, or for trying to learn about how someone else lives without agenda or need to convert them. God isn’t displeased that you might think differently. That’s not who God is.
So… to sum all of this up. To answer the question in the comment of “how do I as a Christian who believes that the Word is completely true, hold that truth in one hand and then in my other hand, say that I affirm homosexuality?”
Explore your damn faith.
Behind our surface questions about what you think about homosexuality, you have a thousand deeper questions about what the bible is, the hermeneutics of faith, the exegesis of these passages, about culture and experience.
Welcome to your own personal reformation in a long line of reformations that have been happening since Jesus walked the earth. It’s gonna suck at times, but I promise you, if you wrestle with this… it’s gonna be really good.