It was a dark mark on my Christian good girl record, the day I admitted I couldn’t accept that God said everything the Bible says He said.
It was the middle of July, and I was reading through the Pentateuch and the Gospels simultaneously – specifically, that day, I was in Numbers 15 and Luke 6.
While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.’ So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36 NIV).
I would have wrestled with this passage anyway, because I could be missing something, but the only time I remember the offender’s death being commanded as a punishment in conjunction with breaking the Sabbath in the law is in Exodus 31, and even there, another punishment is given as well: the offender being cut off from their people. (I confess I struggle with where the punishment of the offender’s death is prescribed for other sins in Leviticus, because then what was the point of setting up atonement?) Then, I flipped over to Luke 6, and I was really in trouble.
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. (Luke 6:1-12 NIV)
Now, I know from the Gospels that Jesus is God, and, especially from the book of John, that He came to reveal the Father to us, the human race. These passages seem to present two opposing views of God, or at the very least, taken together, a God who makes things up as He goes.
That day in July, I found I couldn’t trust a God who makes things up as He goes. I don’t think anybody could, not really. So, I had a choice: I could believe what Moses said about God, or I could believe what Jesus said about God.
And I am a Christian. My faith, my theology, my everything is centered around this belief that Jesus is God, and the only way for sinners to know God and experience God’s presence. If I don’t have Him, I don’t have anything.
I chose Jesus. More accurately, I chose to filter everything – including everything in the Bible – through the things He said and did. And He has been my standard for whether I accept or reject anything as coming from God.
But, being a Christian good girl somewhat respected for her doctrinal soundness, I kind of hoped this break with orthodoxy would be temporary, partially so I wouldn’t have to let anyone know I’d had a break with orthodoxy until after I’d have a testimony of God’s restoration to it, and partially because it opened me up to a whole new world of doubt. A month in, no such restoration was in sight and my doubts threatened to overwhelm me, so I shared about it publicly. I didn’t go into the particulars I’m sharing today, but I let people into it.
In the middle of being told that the Bible was God’s Word no matter what anyone thought, and that His ways and thoughts are higher than mine and I should dismiss my thoughts and accept that even revealed things are sometimes unknowable, and the well-meant warnings about the dangers in my thinking, and people reaching out to say they were praying, one friend asked a question that went straight to my heart: What has changed? And I realized, nothing fundamental had. I still believe Jesus is God, and that He is the only way for sinners to know God and experience God’s presence. And then I had peace about where I had landed, even if it was permanent.
It’s been six months now, and I still have peace about it, but I’ve been thinking about what my life will look like going forward as a result this week.
On Sunday, at the church I’ve been visiting, the pastor asked how many of us would be willing to raise our hands and admit we had faith-related doubts. I don’t think he was actually asking us to raise our hands, but would I have raised mine? This is a new church for me, you know? I like these people. I see myself here. But I know, when it comes time for that commitment called membership, I’ll be presented with a list of beliefs, and one of them will describe the Bible as the inspired and infallible Word of God. (Inspired – that is, something divinely breathed in – I can get behind fairly easily; infallible – that is, the quality of being without error – poses a significant block for me.) If I want to join these people and serve with them in the ways I’ve served other local churches, something will have to change in my thinking.
I mean, I could just go along and act like I believe to get where I think I’m supposed to be in ministry, but that’s not an integrity move. In fact, it feels a lot like the selfish ambition I’ve been convicted about lately – the desire and drive to be seen a certain way.
Maybe God is going to use this season with this church to rid me of that selfish ambition. Maybe God is going to use this season with this church to restore the belief that the Bible is His inspired, infallible Word. Maybe God is going to use this season with this church to establish me in a ministry that can’t be contained to a local church body. Maybe God is going to use this season with this church for something else entirely. I don’t know.
You know what I do know? God is using this season with this church. He’s using it to get me back into reading the Pentateuch, something I gave up when I hit that bump in Numbers back in July. He’s using it to get me back wrestling with the Pentateuch. The women’s Bible study is going through Genesis, and the life group I visited is going through Leviticus. *squinty eyes at God* You see what He did there?
It’s hard. Everything is coming back from the last time I was here, including the reason I started a mad dash through the Pentateuch to begin with.
And here it is…
The Woman’s Bible edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a commentary compiled at the end of the nineteenth century by a number of feminists seeking to answer these questions: “Have the teachings of the Bible advanced or retarded the emancipation of women? Have they dignified or degraded the Mothers of the Race?” Before having read The Woman’s Bible, I would have stated unequivocally that the Bible has advanced the emancipation of women, and dignified the mothers of the human race. Instead, once finished with the volume, I was confronted with the fact that the Bible has at the very least played an ongoing role in the subjugation of women and fed her degradation. For me, the question was whether that role has been passive or active, and I set out in the Pentateuch and the Gospels in May to find an answer. Among other things, I found that whereas Jesus respected the personhood of women, and treated them with dignity in his interactions with them, the Mosaic law often treats them as less responsible and accountable beings before God, and gave them less access to Him. (According to Mosaic law, for example, a father had the God-given authority to release his unwed daughter from a vow. If you want to hear about the real life application of this in my own life, we should get coffee sometime.)
So I’m hesitant to revisit this place where orthodox Christianity insists that God holds me less responsible and accountable before Him, and that God is not quite as accessible to me, because I am a woman.
Hesitant, but not unwilling.
And as I prepared for the Genesis Bible study a few weeks ago, God met me in that willingness with something I’d forgotten about Jacob’s story, and that was … the big picture. God met Jacob at Bethel as a young man and promised to be with him, to watch over him, to restore him, and to be faithful to keep the promises He made (Gen. 28:15). And it was twenty years and several mistakes later, but Jacob was restored at Bethel (Gen. 35). The big picture is that God wants to make us right, to get us back to His presence, to life with Him – a perspective that was all too easy to lose looking at the Bible through a human construct.
I still think there are things the Bible says God said and commanded and did that directly oppose things Jesus said and commanded and did, and I still have to reject those things. But hopefully I can gain some lost ground by considering the eternal – that is, timeless – redemptive purposes of God. And hopefully I fully occupy my place in Him, whatever that looks like, day by day.
“The trouble is too often instead of searching the Bible to see what is right, we form our belief, then search for Bible texts to sustain us, and are satisfied with isolated texts without regard to context, and ask no questions as to the circumstances that may have existed then but do not now. We forget that portions of the Bible are only histories of events given as a chain of evidence to sustain the fact that the real revelations of the Godhead, be it in any form, are true” (Clara Bewick Colby, The Woman’s Bible).