Keeping the Peace when Scriptures Conflict
Christians interpret Scripture as our normative guide to our convictions and practices, but at the same time, one can find biblical support for most any position one wishes to argue. Appealing to Scripture does not typically settle the issue once and for all, even for people with strong views of biblical authority. Social and political debates take on additional controversy when they turn upon points of biblical interpretation.
Consider just a handful of contemporary issues:
Scriptures like Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:27 condemn male homosexual practice. Those who criticize same-sex marriages and ordination of homosexual persons argue that Paul upholds the sanctity of the heterosexual bond as created by God (Gen. 1:26-27), and that the several biblical prohibitions against homosexual practice cover contemporary circumstances. One can use the Bible to condemn homosexuality, or one can interpret the Bible in light of contemporary understandings, as we do concerning other issues.
Those who support ordination of gays and same-sex marriage argue that the biblical prohibitions identify homosexual practice as a behavioral sin or as an exploitative situation, and that now we understand homosexuality in terms of one's identity, with the potential and reality of committed relationships between two people. Lev. 18:22 is situated within the context of Israel's life under codes of purity that we Gentiles do not otherwise consult, while Romans 1:27 is a small portion of a larger argument in Romans 1-3, that all people stand equally in need of salvation.
Women in Leadership
Women’s ordination is an accomplished fact in many denominations but not practiced in others. One Bible-based interpretation against women's ordination includes passages that imply or teach the subordination of women to men, or at least wives to husbands: Gen. 2:18, 1 Cor. 11:3, 7-9, 14:34b-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, and 1 Peter 4:10-11. Additionally, Jesus only chose males as his disciples and thus only males should be ordained, some say. (He also only chose Jews, it might be noted.)
But the New Testament mentions several women disciples and leaders (Acts 9:36, 18:24-26, Romans 16:1, 3, 7, Phil. 4:2, and Philemon 2) not to mention Old Testament leaders like Deborah; and the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit are not gender-specific. Is the biblical subordination of women’s roles a timeless truth, imbedded within God’s creation, or merely a result of cultural situation?
Weapons and War
Should a Christian own a gun, or fight in a war? Obviously the Bible does not mention guns, but David praised God for preparing him for battle (Psalm 144:1), and Jesus’ disciples carried swords (Luke 22:38, 49-50). Armed soldiers came to faith, and no one told them to lay down their arms (Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10:1-33, Romans 13:4). However, Jesus taught peace, reconciliation, and concern for one’s enemies (Matt. 5:9-12, 38-47), as did Paul (Rom. 12:14-21). Is there an overriding biblical position on the use of deadly weapons?
Use of alcoholic beverages has been an issue in American history turning upon scriptural interpretation. Temperance supporters argue that drunkenness is condemned in Scripture (Prov. 20:1, 1 Cor. 6:10, Eph. 5:18-20), and drinking is a potential stumbling block to other Christians (with 1 Cor. 8:1-13 providing an analogous situation); therefore, a Christian should abstain from alcohol.
But one could also argue that Scripture allows moderate use of alcohol. (Prov. 31:6-7, Ps. 104:14-15, 1 Tim. 5:23), and even Jesus himself was accused of drinking too much (Luke 7:33-34). In that passage, Jesus turned the issue back to the hearts of his critics.
One could mention many other issues of current importance: the death penalty, stem cell research, debates over evolution, and so on. Conflicts are inevitable as we interpret the Bible concerning contemporary realities, issues, and practices. Such conflict even has biblical precedent! In Galatians 4:21-5:1, for instance, Paul discusses an Old Testament passage which, apparently, had been also used by his opponents; both “sides” argued the issue of circumcision. We are liable to say: Well, of course Paul was the correct side in that controversy. But at that time, Paul was just one participant in a sharp difference of interpretation.
Though Scripture may be bitterly contested, we must try not to be bitter toward one another. It is possible to read the Bible in such a way that we fail to witness to Christ’s love. The Bible calls us to rely upon the Holy Spirit, who builds us up, changes us, and renews us, so that we can become effective witnesses to Christ as the Spirit works through us.
If we read the Bible for rules with which to confront people and to shore up our own “rightness” on a particular issue, we miss an important aspect of our Christian walk, which is to show how Christ frees us all from the power of sin and reconciles us with God. This is not a subjectivist approach to truth; rather, we seek a deeper, more humble understanding of truth, knowing that truth-with-a-capital-T is Christ, our living Savior.
To seek God is not simply to understand God and his will better—a good and appropriate thing. But we can’t seek God without also seeking to be changed by God: to grow in love, kindness, gentleness, and so on. Our search to know God’s will more fully and purely has to do not only with intellectual understanding and scriptural interpretation, but also with transformation and reconciliation.
One of my favorite scriptures is this:
Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?’ He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?”(Josh. 5:13-14).
“Are you one of us, or one of them?” “Neither.”
Indeed, sometimes the answer is “neither.” The Bible is neither firmly on our side nor on that of our adversaries. Neither of us is completely right, and neither is completely wrong. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, somewhere beyond what either of us can fully know in our fallible humanity. What a wonderful reminder that, even at our best and our most biblically correct, we fall very far short of God’s holiness and we should seek God's wisdom in humility.