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:

The Obligations of Courageous Love: A Pastor’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Introduction: Understanding the Crisis

What would compel you abandon your home and all your possessions? What would make you leave your career, friends, and family to walk 800 miles through dangerous terrain with little money and food? This would be like walking from Orlando, Florida to Washington, D.C, and if you covered twenty-five miles a day it would take you more than a month. Imagine having to sleep under a tree with your children on the side of the road.

Child Sleep on Ground

What would compel you to pay a smuggler $1000 a person to cram your family on a small raft to float across 200 miles of shark infested, choppy water, knowing that approximately 500 people have already drowned making the journey, including several children.

Why would any sane person leave everything behind for this kind of deadly journey, knowing that if they are caught leaving they could be executed as traitors? Well, what if your own government started dropping barrel bombs on your neighborhood, blowing-up houses and burning your neighbors alive. What if your own government poisoned your city with chemical weapons in an act of mass murder? What if members of your family were abducted and tortured for having divergent political or religious views? What if you saw a heavily armed group of men wearing black masks saw off the head of a child with a dull machete, or women being kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for these same men? What if members of your Bible study were burned alive in cages simply because they were Christians? What if brutalizing torture, mass executions, and perpetual civil war became the norm in your neighborhood? My guess is that you would flee for safety too.

These are the kinds of things that are happening to the innocent people we call refugees, many of whom are women, children, disabled, and elderly. These people are not terrorists, they are victims of terrorism.

Massive numbers of traumatized people have poured into Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. The United Nations and World Food program were not prepared for a refugee crisis on this scale, and in certain areas this has led to over-crowded refugee camps where people are suffering from hunger, exposure, and disease. These conditions have led many to seek refuge in Europe, but Europe was not prepared for this kind of crisis either.

Estimates as high as 7.6 million people are refuges in Syria (they are displaced in their own country) and 3,800,000 are children! To put this in perspective, we could take all these kids and fill Tropicana Field to its maximum occupancy almost 100 times! In addition to those displaced within Syria, over three million have fled to neighboring countries and Europe. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago, Illinois. The picture below might give us an inkling of the kind of numbers we are talking about.

3 million people

Western Europe is being overwhelmed by this crisis. Turkey has received more than two million refugees, and Greece was flooded with 5,500 people on a single day. (At this rate, Greece receives more refugees in two days than America has pledged to receive over the course of a year). Many of these people are being resettled in Germany, and even France—a country that just endured a massive terrorist attack—has pledge to receive an additional 30,000 Syrian refugees in the next two to three years. However, even as the European countries pull together, they simply do not have the resources to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale.

This is why the United Nations is asking America to help, and our initial pledge is to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees. This less than 1/3 of 1% of the people who need help!

Fear and the Screening Process

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Paris, many Americans have recoiled in fear. They are worried that if we allow these refugees into our country, terrorists might slip through the cracks undetected and plan attacks the homeland from within. But there is strong evidence to suggest that the potential threats driving our darkest fears are being drastically exaggerated by misinformation. The worst offenders are those seeking political gain in an approaching election year.

Many who are trying to slow or halt the entrance of displaced Syrian (and Iraqi) people are claiming that the majority of those applying for refugee status are young men without families, those considered “combat age.” This is patently false. According to the United Nations, most of the applicants are women and children. While approximately 20% are men between the ages of 18 and 59 (many of whom are fathers protecting their families), 51% are under 16 years old or younger, and 38.5 percent are 11 years old or younger. (FactCheck.org). Indeed, of the 2,165 Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S., only 2% have been military-aged males unattached to families.

Other people are claiming that the U.S. has an inadequate screening process for receiving refugees and are trying to pass a new bill in Congress to make it more stringent. But this is also not true. It might surprise many people to know that the U.S. government handpicks the refugees invited to resettle in America. To date, the U.N. has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the U.S. After extensive screening outside of our country, 7,014 were granted into our screening process, and only 2,165 were received (Refugee Processing Center/U.S. Department of State).

This careful selection of refugees is done by applying the most rigorous, multilayered screening process in the world that includes the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and numerous intelligence agencies. The screening not only includes extensive background checks, but also biometric and forensic testing, medical screenings, and multiple in-person interviews. This process takes 18-24 months to complete and is the most painstaking difficult way to enter the U.S. For more information see the infographic on whitehouse.gov and outline of the process on nytimes.com.

It is much easier to enter our country through the visa program or on a European passport. Most experts say that this is the real threat. The screening process to get a visa is less rigorous than that required to be granted refugee status. In fact, the U.S. has a visa waiver program with 38 countries. People from these countries can enter the U.S. on a passport as long as they leave the country within 90 days. This means that if ISIS wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, they would not instruct a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at the University of Florida or to enter the country on a European passport under the guise of a tourist. Keep in mind that all of the terrorists in the attack on Paris were French and Belgium nationals.

It is also important to note that our current vetting process has an excellent track record. Since 9/11 approximately 785,000 refugees have settle in the U.S. and many were from the Middle East:

  • 127,657 Iraq
  • 10,983 Afghanistan
  • 2,165    Syria

Only twelve (.001%) have been arrested or sent back because of terrorism related charges (and none were Syrian). Our existing screening process is extremely effective, and it enables us to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable refugees: women, children, survivors of torture, and those with severe medical conditions.

Given these facts, I am deeply disappointed some of our politicians—both Democrat and Republican—who are exploiting our worst fears by spreading misinformation or telling outright lies for political gain. 56% of the U.S. population thinks we should refuse the refugees because of fear generated by lack of information. I am also deeply sadden by how many Christians believe the first thing they hear on the television and quickly sacrifice their faith on the altar of politics.

But even if you are not convinced by the facts outlined above, even if you are genuinely fearful that receiving additional refugees would increase our risk of admitting a handful of terrorists, this is still not a good enough reason to turn these desperate people away . . . at least if you are Christian.

Courageous Love and Risky Faith

God commands us not to make moral decisions based on fear, but on the law of love. Recall the greatest commandment according to Jesus:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Those who follow Jesus make moral decisions based on love of God and neighbor, and according to 1 John 4:18-20 this kind of love casts out fear:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . We love because He first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

This is why one of the most repeated phrases in scripture is “Do not fear,” and to make moral decisions based on fear is to be disobedient to God. Fear should never take precedence over faithful obedience.

Consider the difference between cowardice and courage. Cowards experience fear and then compromise their values secure their own interests. To the contrary, courageous people experience fear and do the right thing anyway, even if that requires self-sacrifice and risk! The call of discipleship is to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even when he leads us into dangerous territory to help desperate people.

Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that God often gives people dangerous and scary missions. The mission God gave Paul led to multiple incarcerations, immense suffering, and repeated exposures to death (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Others paid the ultimate price. The mission God gave Jesus got him crucified, and the continuation of this mission got ten of the twelve apostles executed, along with many in the early church. As historians remind us, the soil of Christianity was watered by the blood of the martyrs. Indeed, Christians of every generation have suffered horribly for their faith, including many people in the Middle East today. So why do we deserve an exemption from the dangers and risks of discipleship? Remember the words of Jesus in in John 15:20: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Following Jesus has always been the way of the cross. Crosses are scary. They are neither comfortable nor secure.

The main point is that Christians should not make moral decisions based on fear. Rather, we make decisions based on what God says to us through a faithful interpretation of scripture that is grounded in the law of love, and we are obedient to what we hear even when it puts us at risk—even when we are scared.

In there anything in your faith that is worth sacrificing your security? Jesus seems to think there is: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Passages like this make us uncomfortable because they remind us of a final judgement in which we will be held accountable by Jesus Christ—not our governors, not our congressmen, not fear-mongering political pundits, but Jesus Christ.

Care for Widows, Orphans, and Strangers

So what does the Lord require of us in response to the refugee crisis? I believe that God is calling us to help. From Genesis to Revelation, there are numerous commands given by God to love and care for strangers, foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Consider the following examples:

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (The Hebrew word translated “stranger” is nokri and refers to the alien or foreigner.)
  • Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say Amen.
  • Leviticus 19:34:The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

These Old Testament passages (and many more not mentioned) are grounded in Israel’s experience as a displaced and refugee people. The primary example, of course, is the Exodus. God hears the desperate cries of the Hebrew people, sends Moses to rescue them from slavery and oppression, and leads them through the wilderness for forty years as a refugee people. Israel was displaced again when they were taken into exile by the Babylonians, and again after Rome conquered the Holy Land. For most of its history, Israel has been a pilgrim, exiled, oppressed, or refugee people, and this is why they repeatedly insist in their scriptures that God commands us to offer compassionate care and hospitality to widows, orphans, foreigners, and refugees.

In addition to the overwhelming evidence in the Old Testament, we see the same spirit of compassionate hospitality commanded in the New Testament. In Romans 12:13, Paul instructs the church to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to “extend hospitality to strangers.” James 1:27 states that true religion is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .” Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Jesus of Nazareth began his life as a Middle Eastern refugee. In Matthew 2:13-15 we read about Mary and Joseph fleeing with the new born child as refugees trying to escape the infanticide of King Herod. They continued to live as refugees in Egypt until Herod died. Once Jesus started his earthy ministry, he wandered around as an itinerant preacher dependent on the hospitality of strangers. Jesus says in Luke 9:58, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” His entire ministry was about loving, including, elevating, and showing compassion to the most vulnerable and outcast in society: women, children, lepers, cripples, the blind and deaf, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even Samaritans.

Indeed, one of the clearest teachings on this subject comes from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. You remember the story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” Both a priest and a Levite (religious people) saw the man in desperate need but “passed by on the other side.” They didn’t do anything to actively harm this man, they just refused to help. But a despised Samaritan stopped and helped the person that the others left to die. Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Answer: “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” The moral of the story is simple: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, understanding that your neighbor is any human being in serious need. (For more on this parable see my message, “The Splendid Samaritan: Overcoming Tribalism”)

An equally powerful teaching comes from Matthew 25:31-46. Speaking of the final judgement, Jesus tells a parable about God separating people into two groups, the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. To the goats he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . .” The teaching is clear: if we fail to care for those in desperate need we fail Jesus.

Conclusion

We have to find a way to help these people, and not only because we will be held accountable to Jesus for the way we treat “the least of these,” but also because we have a wonderful opportunity to be who we say we are—to show the love of Christ to the friends of Jesus who are in desperate need. While we do not want to glorify senseless suffering, the Christian martyrs teach us that sometimes Christ calls his disciples to suffer, and that suffering in name of Jesus is not something to be shunned as obscene but embraced as honorable. We should never forget that the world is watching, and today we have an opportunity to bear witness to the truth of the gospel by compassionate words and actions.

I can guarantee that the evil powers and principalities in this world want you to bow down to fear, worship security, and do nothing. ISIS wants America to cower before them in fear, to compromise the values we so loudly preach to others, and do nothing. But Jesus is calling you to act with courageous love and risky faith.

This is what it means to be a Christian: to live a courageous faith in radical obedience to God in accordance with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, which includes the enemy and exhibits a special concern for the most vulnerable around the world. Being a Christian means seeing God in the face of the needy and responding with compassion.   

GET INVOLVED! 

There are several things you can do to help:

  • Get Educated: Don’t believe the first thing you hear on the television. Take a break from the partisan news cycle and try to get the facts from reputable, non-partisan sources.
  • Pray every day for these people and ask God, “What do you want me to do?”
  • Donate money to reputable relief agencies:
            The United Nations Refugee Agency
            Church World Service
           UNICEF
  • Volunteer: In central Florida, call The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (813-679-4982) or Coptic Orthodox Charities (727-785-3551) and ask how you can help.
  • Speak Out on social media by educating others about the facts and calling for compassion.
  • Sign Petitions
  • Call your governor and your representatives in congress (1-866-961-4293) and tell them: “I’m a constituent from (City/State) and I support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. I urge the Governor / Senator / Representative to represent me and other constituents who seek to welcome Syrian refugees.”

I leave you with these last words from the one we call Lord and Savior: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Whatever you do, for Christ’s sake, do something!

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