Disagreeing Gracefully in Scriptural Interpretation

by Paul Purdue, Senior Pastor at Belmont UMC in Nashville, TN

I entered ministry in a denomination dominated and purged by Christian leaders who claimed to read the Bible literally. According to Pew research, 30 percent of Christians say they read every word of the Bible as the literal words of God. But when you ask whether they read biblical poetry loaded with metaphors literally, they’ll say that the reader can interpret those metaphors as statements conveying God’s truth.

Nobody actually reads the Bible literally, because the very act of translating the Bible itself is an interpretation of the vocabulary, statements, images, and idioms. Literalism collapses because it tries to force internal consistency across many types of stories, instructions, regulations, poems, and idioms, in an effort to harmonize factual inconsistencies and theological problems spread over diverse passages of scripture. For one modest narrative example among thousands: in Matthew, Jesus tells recently commissioned female followers to “go tell my brothers they will see me in Galilee.” In Luke’s account of the same story, Jesus’s Easter message includes the direction for his followers to “stay in the city.”

Some assert their version of the truth as a defense of biblical authority. However, our history as a Christian church is filled with abuses of scriptural authority. A literal interpretation of biblical texts defended slave-holding, denied God’s calling for female clergy, and treated the marriage of divorced persons as a chargeable offense. Let’s humbly acknowledge that when we put a hedge around verses excluding gay persons while ignoring Jesus’s words on divorce or Paul’s call in 1 Timothy for women to be silent in church, our selective defense of the Bible lacks consistency and loses credibility.

The One Church Plan is not yet perfect—it needs more holy conversation through faithful discernment—but it resonates with our earliest dispute as followers of Jesus in Acts 15, when the first Christians stayed together while disagreeing about kosher food and circumcision. Indeed, the full sweep of revelation in the Hebrew Bible seems to be more clearly supportive of enforcement by the Circumcision Association (Party). Yet, God’s plan in Act’s finds a way forward by trusting what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us!” (15:28). Why? Because Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age. Jesus said that even when two or three of us get together to search the scriptures, pray, and shape each other’s hearts and minds, we might loosen some rules (Matt 16:19; 18:18). Setting aside circumcision meant allowing some people who don’t look or act like us to ignore the defining sign of the received Covenant! Despite some scriptural passages that assert otherwise, we United Methodists ordain women, reject stoning, eat pork, don’t worry over circumcision, marry divorced persons, offer the sacraments to gay people, and oppose slavery.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus grows sad and angry at the people’s unyielding hearts. Jesus is not angry over their theology but dismayed by ungracious hearts (Mark 2). The One Church Plan allows most churches to remain in their cultural comfort zones, while permitting a voluntary experimental edge. Perhaps by allowing a “wild olive shoot” in 2019, God will plant a spiritual harvest as rich as the inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles by the second generation of Jesus’s followers. The One Church Plan is an opportunity for us as United Methodist Christians to show and tell why a gracious unity is the way of love in bitterly divided communities throughout God’s creation. Our risky efforts for unity and inclusion might mean more to others than we can imagine.