Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

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[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.

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Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources: