As October approaches I think I’ll broach a topic that is scary and dangerous. But you have to promise not to overreact; I am going to commit heresy.
In the midst of a theology class recently the Spirit thundered a message into my soul that I didn’t, and don’t, quite know what to do with. It’s immutable and unarguable truth, but it is also heretical, divisive, blasphemous, and could garner me some quite vile commentary. This is why I need you not to overreact and to read this carefully, thoughtfully, and without taking it farther than intended: the moment you disrespect this topic it can devastate our relationship and possibly your relationship to God Himself. That’s a bold statement, I know, but I promise I’m not overstating it. If you are a struggling believer I think this may help bridge a gap others refuse to acknowledge. I find taking this perspective critical.
Who can it be now?
There is a man — a preacher, an author, a church-builder — who has written some quite bold words. He has tried to redefine Christ’s message, to stretch and contort it to say things Christ never said. He’s tried to alter the very tenets of how we worship and the core of our relationship to God. He has been accused of perverting the religion, of playing some kind of popularist game by watering down the purity of God’s Word to make it fit everyone’s lifestyle and gain followers, and undeniably that is happening. He pushes for unity out one side of his mouth and exclusivity out the other.
He has defiled the church with his disgusting disregard for our ways, our traditions, and even our language. He regularly desecrates the very idea of Christ with these wild stretches of fancy in an attempt to gain himself some notoriety. He brags about his stature in the church, about his popularity, about his holiness. I am not a fan of tearing down a person, but this guy has attempted to turn everything we know upside down. He shows impatience and rudeness, and he is as judgemental and hypocritical as can be. The biggest problem with this guy is his influence: he is picking up followers daily, and they number in the millions. He has single-handedly altered the faith of tens of millions.
His name is Saul of Tarsus, but you may know him as the apostle Paul. Here is where I need you to really stick with me: nothing I said above is untrue. Not a word. In fact, it’s barely half his rap sheet. I hope I have your attention, so let me not waste it.
Read the Bible cover to cover but cut out everything written by, about, or because of Paul: Luke and Acts (Luke’s gospel and his follow-up of Acts would not have been written had he not travelled with Paul and seen that they were needed), Galatians, both Corinthians, both Thessalonians, Romans, Ephesians, Phillipians, Colossians, both Timothy’s, Titus, and Philemon. You will read a very different book, I promise you.
An argument can be made that without Paul there would be no Christianity; that the religion would have reincorperated to Judaism after a hundred years, and a generation later Christ would have been relegated to a parlor magician who tried to play messiah. Without Paul no one would have ministered to Gentiles; Christianity would have remained the province of Jews only, and the devotion to the slavery of the Law would have eventually crushed Jesus under its boot in order to garner more control over people. Peter was leading the church in a decidedly Jewish bent, refusing to consort with gentiles or give up traditions. That kind of narrowness is what causes religions to strangle themselves into death or obscurity.
Paul’s ministry was a watershed moment for our faith, and for Christ’s sheep. The majority of what we do as a church, how we do it, and how we reflect it is directly following Paul’s ideals. Today that makes perfect sense because it agrees with our understanding of God. But caution yourself against circular logic: much of the reason our understanding of God aligns is because we have had 2000 years of digesting his words; it is no longer logically possible to say we believe anything apart from Paul’s teaching. He followed Christ’s final commandment with ruthess abandon.
He is absolutely vital to our faith, but how did it come to be so?
Make no mistake: he was neither highly esteemed nor highly effective in his day. The Jews hated him because when teaching them he talked up the Law and the special place for Israel, but when he spoke to gentiles he all but mocked the Jews. He used pagan rites as discussion points and had no problem violating the Law openly. He spoke rudely to many of his congregations and belittled people frequently. Every time he left a church it would fall to bad behavior and he’d have to slap their hand. These hand-slappings are what we have from him: Galatians to admonish overall stupid behavior, Thessalonians to clear up some major misunderstandings of what he said about the afterlife, Corinthians to smack down incest and divisiveness. He was not writing to us; these letters were not written for eternal significance, either, they were crib notes to fix the local broken. Luke wrote for posterity, but Paul wrote for the right-now, for function.
He shot from the hip and quite often it misfired on him. That he needed so many letters to admonish people shows he wasn’t terribly effective at building up self-supporting churches. And on top of that a lot of what he said is muddled: there is very little Scriptural backing for much of what Paul espoused. He wasn’t some magically entranced messenger of God living a purist divinity, regularly spouting knowledge to the world of God’s uncorruptible word: he was a man. Just a man. He was a short, stocky, balding little troublemaker. He was more like one of the Bobs from Office Space than a Billy Graham. He didn’t wander about with a halo surrounded by flocks of protecting angels. He was just trying to get church politics wired correctly. He spent a lot of time being imprisoned, stoned, beaten, and arguing with Peter — the same Peter designated by Christ Himself to lead the church. Consider that: Jesus gave Peter to lead the church and Paul had the gumption to argue with Peter about how to do that.
Do you recognize how insane all that is on the surface? Paul was basically firing off emails like you or I would: to address a topic, but not with the intention that it be read, studied, and followed for thousands of years. He was just a guy writing to a bunch of other guys about how not to be stupid. But we read his words as the very instruction of God!
If you could read my mind, Love
Get ready for the real heresy; please trust me and keep reading through it.
Don’t let whatever you’ve been taught blind you: every book in the Scripture, every jot and tittle we are instructed not to monkey with, every sacred word that is profitable for our instruction and reproof, was written by men’s hands. God did not etch these words into tablets of stone for uncompromising accuracy; men wrote them. We need that to be true, because if it isn’t this whole universe is a HUGE waste of time. God-breathed is not God-spoken specifically for the reason He cited in Genesis 2:18 — people need other people to help them along. He didn’t download into Paul’s mind that he should write Philemon a letter to plead mercy on his friend Onesimus, that happened because Paul wanted to help his friend. In it we find universal truths, but that is not the same thing as saying God spoke it or wrote it.
Men wrote the words. Other men copied them. Other men edited them. Still other men compiled and re-edited them. Others simply threw some bits out. Vast and divisive arguments were had over the validity of Paul’s ideas while he taught them, and 50 years later when the proto-versions of the New Testament were written there was no single authoritative idea of which words should or shouldn’t be there. There still isn’t today. Ask Wiki.
You may have been taught the book is inerrant, that it was birthed whole and is blessed and protected by His hand alone. But that notion is offensive and factually untrue. Books have come and gone from it’s pages constantly. Even today there is debate about James or Jude or Revelation. We still struggle with Hebrews for its anonymous authorship. Many core elements have held on through the millenia, but never can it be said that there was a stretch of more than 100 years where the book remained the same. If you believe nothing else I say believe this: the book is not inerrant because it is without flaw, it is inerrant because it is not in error. In other words: it isn’t perfect, it is correct. But it is only correct insomuch as we can say the core tenets agree and remain valid for who God reveals Himself to be. If He chose to reveal a truth that upended the book it would cease to have meaning completely.
The reverence and viciousness with which we protect the book is wrong. In fact, it is flat-out idolatrous. Made of wooden pulp and penned by human hands it is every bit as constructed as a molded golden calf. This may affront your doctrine. If so I’m glad, because by failing to admit this core truth we establish a lash around our ankles. With every circulated interpretation, every content edit or correction we further chain ourselves with it. You can’t un-know something, regardless if it is right or wrong; you carry it with you. So many Christians and Jews are weighed down by such a weight of presupposition, of knowledge about God lumped upon them by religion and the Bible, that they can no longer be open to the Father’s voice or input. We worship this book to the detriment of our relationship to our Father. Get this down: the Bible is about God, the Bible is not God. He can and does speak outside of it, and in fact the words in it carry meaning solely because He speaks to us about them. When He doesn’t, they don’t.
Don’t you want somebody to Love?
I Love Scripture dearly and I have its words hanging up in my home and in my office. But in my office they sit right next to a framed picture of Mr. T, and both are there for the same reason: I am a fan of both. I am a fan of the Bible. I have harped in many blogs about why every word is important, about the incredible value of this book. But it is not valuable because of the content; the content can be — and regularly is — twisted to comdemn, crush, and demoralize God’s children — all things not of God. The Bible is a tool, nothing more, and tools can be misused.
The men who wrote it had the breath of God working in them, no doubt. A better way to say it: they were filled with the Holy Spirit and wrote with assurance they were explaining accurately. But consider what that really means: they were feeling the same thing you or I do when we feel called — compelled — to write, or even to speak to someone. We try to express our feeling, but sometimes it comes out wrong. Glossa laleo. When we read the Bible the words have little meaning outside of what the Spirit inspires, and I can state that definitively. For 30 years I read the book with an unbeliever’s eye, and while I could pick out some value from the moral lessons there was no inspiration in it, no fire. It was a collection of clichés, bland facts not unlike when I try to tell one of my buddy’s stories. It was not until I was saved and born again that I saw Scripture’s beating heart. It was only in my renewal that the Spirit made the words alive. But you know what? He can do that with any words, anywhere, at any time, from any medium.
Don’t think I am Bible-bashing here; read the Bible. Read it every day. Suck the marrow from every verse and apply it to your life and your life with Him. Every word exists for our education and support, and every word has meaning and purpose. But measure it. Never let it replace prayer, worship, or just plain sitting quiet with the Father. Don’t let anyone beat you up with it, don’t attack others with it, don’t dare to use it as justification. Never allow its interpretation to confound or anger you; don’t argue over it. If there is a book in it you don’t like or don’t understand do not taunt yourself with it or allow it to drive you farther from Him. Just skip it awhile. Maybe even permanently — it may simply mean there’s nothing in it He wants you to understand. The pages in the book aren’t important, the Father is important. The blood of Christ is important. The inspiration of the Spirit is important. Read the book, but never let it become your relationship with Him, because like that golden calf it will fail you.
The things that lift your attitude, that keep you positive and engaged, these are the things that matter. Paul was no more or less anointed than Martin Luther or A. W. Tozer or Billy Graham. In fact, he had less presence than any of those. Mark Rutland’s books might deserve a place in the New Testament as much as Philemon did. For that matter so might something I have penned on this very blog. The Spirit decides what has meaning, but only popular opinion gets something into canon. Canon has little relevance, though. Men and women speak, teach, and write about God in hopes of saving other people from pain, or of bringing them to joy and purpose, and when those actions are Spirit-filled the ideas will find a way to spread. And when they are read the Spirit will speak the truths those words stumble to convey.
What men say, what men write, what men understand or teach… These things have value only insomuch as they help support a positive life here on earth or help us draw experience. They are, like Scripture, just tools. We cannot allow ourselves to inflate them beyond their stature, because it becomes destructive: it alienates us from ourselves and each other. I hope the Spirit is speaking to you in this and coming across properly. Words are fantastic, but they are just knowledge; wisdom comes from the understanding and application of that knowledge, and that can be gotten only from experience of the Holy Spirit. We are so quick to denounce the opinions that contradict tradition, not because they don’t align with our principles, but because they aren’t in the book.
That cannot be allowed to continue. Any given day we may be silencing God with our careless censorship, with our blind obedience to the book men made rather than the Spirit — the Lord — who inspired its authors.
Turn on your heart light
Paul wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians (or the second depending which numbering system you trust) about how we see through a mirror darkly. It is a message of caution that all these things we are so sure about may, in fact, be proven wrong the moment we face Christ. In Luke’s description of the Acts of the apostles he tells of the angels who see the disciples staring at the sky as the resurrected Jesus ascended and tell them to stop staring. It is a message that we should prefer action over memorialization. These are just two of a thousand places where we are cautioned not to put so much weight on things like the Scripture, on things we “know”. It is our knowing, chiefly, that causes us so much pain.
It is knowing the other political party is wrong, or knowing that another race is lesser, or knowing that we know what is in another’s heart. That crippled man by the pool knew he would never manage to be first in the pool with his disability. Jesus’ words: “wilt thou be made whole?” were more than a challenge of the man’s faith, they were a challenge of his ability to let go of what he “just knew was true”. See? The Scripture is a tool, but the meaning, the vibrancy, come from the wielder of the tool.
So what, then, is the intent of the tool? Why would I commit heresy and attack Scripture so shamelessly? For the exact eason Paul did: because if you are struggling with God I want to help you see Him through my eyes. Not because my view of Him is correct, but because if you lack a clear view then perhaps me explaining mine will put you on a path to seeing Him as He is for you. Paul called God the God of all comfort. That was because Paul needed comfort and he bet a lot of other people could use some, too. I call him the Loving God because I need that connection, and I wager a lot of you do, too. But what I want most of all is that you find who He is to you, because it is only in that definition your relationship with Him can flourish, and it is only in our healthy relationships with Him that we can be brothers and sisters instead of islands floating together.
Livin’ on a prayer
Father, others have spoken more eloquently than I, less controversially. But I will never be content to let others speak words that You gave me. I pray that I have said what You wanted, or that I have at least said enough that You can bring it to life in their hearts. I pray that any whom I have offended keep an open heart and disagree without being harmed by my boorish ways. I pray this in the mighty name of Your Word, Your Son, Your anointed, and my brother, my King, and my savior: Jesus, the risen Christ. Amen.