In talking with our service planning team at New Vision about where to head in our teaching for the summer, it made great sense to put together a series that taught people how to study the Bible. The how-to is often skipped in church with an assumption that somehow it becomes an innate trait when one is a Christian believer. Recognizing this to be a falsehood, we organized a 13-week series on "How to Grasp God's Word." Most pastors, churches, and planning teams approach the summer as a downtime, with the idea that we bring in the stuff that requires work, thought, and some stretching out of our comfort zones when we launch something new in the fall. Well, at New Vision, we don't take the approach of most churches. In fact, God could not be any clearer to us in his directive that we must, without hesitation, follow wherever he leads us - and that is exactly what we do.
One recent Sunday I spoke on how best to grasp the New Testament epistles. These are the 21 books that were letters written to early churches and also to some individuals. A recurring stumbling block in the teaching contained in the epistles is the seeming contradictions contained therein. In one place Paul teaches from a very egalitarian point of view, i.e. there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile (Galatians). Then in another letter we find instructions that women should not speak out loud in a church service (1 Corinthians). How, pray tell, does one reconcile inconsistencies like this in a God-inspired text?
First and foremost, God is consistent and Jesus teaches us through the example and instructions outlined in the gospels the right way to live and serve. When faced with seeming inconsistencies it can make us feel that we either need to defend God or that our own faith is at fault. Additionally, these are the prime texts that are so often used as an argument against Christianity; the hypocritical accusations seem reinforced by these very texts. When reading the epistles, we need to primarily be mindful of who the original recipients were and what issues or problems were being addressed in the letters to them. Additionally, some of what was written in the epistles, especially the parts in seeming contradiction to others parts of God's Word, were meant for such a specific first-century church issue that it has little, if any, application today. In the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, the authors point out that “[i]n many cases the reason the problem passages are so difficult for us is that, frankly, they were not written to us. That is, the original author and his readers are on a similar wavelength that allows the inspired author to assume a great deal on the part of his readers.” We are reminded by these same authors that “you want to read things out of the [text] not into it.” It is very important that we don’t bend the meaning of an author’s intent to support our own biases.
The second step in interpreting this particular genre of scripture is to take what was written, knowing the author's intention, and apply it to our 21st century life. This step of application requires reading of scripture with application of knowledge, reason, and experience, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This way of applying what is written in scripture is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. John Wesley was the founder of Methodism and his theology is foundational to the Free Methodist doctrine. God speaks to us in myriad ways, foremost through scripture. From a scholarly vantage point, we must read and interpret the epistles through the lens of the original intent of the author to the original recipients, but we can never limit God's ability through his Holy Spirit to bring application to our lives.
I’ve been asking for feedback about the sermon series and the teaching contained therein. I did receive feedback about the sermon on the epistles that included the point that even though the letters contained in the New Testament were written for specific churches and often contain correction and applicable for particular circumstances, the Holy Spirit can and does speak to us through any and all things (even if they are letters written 2000 years ago). I would never want to limit the reach of the Holy Spirit. We have a rich tradition as Free Methodists, tracing our roots back to John Wesley, but, more importantly, realizing that our roots and history are contained in the narratives of the Old Testament (which is our next area of study this coming Sunday, August 7). When we undertake the task of interpreting scripture, we must exercise the link we have to our traditions – all of scripture and a holiness doctrine – coupled with reason and experience – which we gain through a growing relationship with the Holy Spirit.
As has been taught each week throughout this sermon series, the interpretation of scripture must meet two criteria: Is our interpretation consistent with God’s Word found elsewhere in scripture and does it reflect that which Jesus taught us as the way we are to live our lives? This brings me back to the feedback I received about the way to best read and interpret the epistles, pushing back on some of the teaching by bringing about this question: Can God speak to us through the epistles – even though much of what was written was to a specific church with specific problems? Absolutely! Why? Because God does and can speak to us in any way he chooses! However, we must be mindful that we are not taking liberties with the interpretation by bending it to justify our own prejudices. It is okay to recognize that the epistles may not apply to our lives today because of the vast differences between the culture of the people to whom it was written and ours. It is also okay to recognize that the epistles can apply to our lives because when reading it through the lens of the Holy Spirit, God can and will speak to us and reinforce our walk as Jesus’ followers.
May God prosper you as you Grasp His Word!