Taking Things Too Literally, Part II …

Subtitled: The ‘Only One Way’ Syndrome

This is a part two that’s a long time coming, so I’m going to quote part one from many months ago below:

Who would read Paul saying that “I beat my body” and conclude that beating one’s own body must be the one and only way acceptable before God to keep from “disqualifying for the prize”?

Who would read Jesus saying “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” and conclude that blinding one’s self in one eye would be the one and only way acceptable before God to “enter the kingdom of God”?

Who would read Paul saying that “… women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” and conclude that this is the one and only way that any woman can be saved?

Who would read Jesus saying that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” and conclude that asceticism and carrying (or just wearing) a wooden cross is the one and only acceptable way to follow Him?

Who would read Peter saying that “… this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also ….” (1 Peter 3:21) and ignore the word “also” and – apart from any other scripture about belief, confession, repentance, grace, His sacrifice – conclude that baptism alone is the one and only acceptable way to be saved?

We can take things too literally. We can take them out of context. We can skip what we don’t like, don’t comprehend, and/or don’t want to deal with.

We can even take the absence of any mention of furniture in New Testament churches and conclude that the one and only acceptable piece of furniture in the Lord’s house is a table – and that must be all right because the gospels mention it at the Last Supper.

However, we do so at our own peril. And that peril is not from physically beating ourselves, physically half-blinding ourselves, or physically failing to reproduce …

… but spiritually.

The part of this diatribe I didn’t write then was about the “only one way” syndrome. It’s the feeling, belief, or foundational world-view that there is only one right way to “do” or “view” any given item – and, of course, that the Bible reveals it clearly and fully in every instance.

I grew up seeing those “Jesus People” T-shirts with the one-way street sign featuring an upward-pointing arrow. Maybe that’s where the idea came from. But I think it pre-dates the 1970s.

Certainly there is only one Way, one Truth, and one Life. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all who is over all and through all and in all. (Whether we really believe those last two words is a whole blog entry itself – perhaps a book. But it’s not my immediate focus here.)

Absolutely there are some things which are to be done or viewed in a narrow way, because Jesus is a narrow Gate and a narrow Road.

Yet there must be others which must be observed broadly, with liberty, with acceptance of others’ views and preferences – because these items simply aren’t directly dealt with in scripture, nor is there any precedent in the words or behavior or perhaps even the spirit shown by those whom scripture describes.

Is there only one right way to view scripture itself? (And my question is heavily prompted by a series of brilliant posts recently explored by Believing Thomas.)

Is scripture law? It contains law. Is it story? It contains story. And poetry, song, history, prophecy, romance, and pretty much every general form of literature.

How could it be realistic to view it as only one of those?

The problem, of course, is in interpretation; sorting it all out. That becomes so much harder when we have a predisposition that any given scripture can only be one of those forms of communication.

And so limiting of God’s creativity.

I challenge you to read Acts 15. Several times. Read it as history. Read it as story. Read it as legislative process. Read it as love literature. Read it as a textbook case of mediation.

See if you can come away with a conviction that it can only be one of those things.

What struck me on a recent multiple read-through is that the leaders of the church were clearly winging it. I suspect that they had prayed, many of them fervently, for a Spirit-revealed resolution to the question of the Gentiles that had been thrust upon them … and the Spirit’s response was: “You need to work this out.”

So their response is “It seemed good to the Spirit and to us ….”

Are there dilemmas in Christianity right now that could be treated in a similar way, with the blessing of exactly the same Spirit?

Jesus’ revelation to Peter that what he “bound on earth would be bound in heaven” was also generally applied to his closest followers a couple of chapters later (Matthew 18:18) and it is sandwiched right between His instruction on how to handle a conflict with a brother and the guarantee that what two or three agree on in prayer will be granted by the Father, and that Jesus himself is among them when they gather in His name.

Can we simply lift verse 18 out of a context that Christians have long felt applied to them throughout time – and say that verse 18 refers only to those closest to Christ right then and there?

Doesn’t it foreshadow the circumstances of Romans 14, in which some acts would be sin to those who commit them against their God-given conscience – while the same acts done by another would not?

Or am I taking things too literally, myself?

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7 thoughts on “Taking Things Too Literally, Part II …

  1. You are in my head. Last night I was struggling, wrestling with all the thoughts in my head and when I turned to scripture I read “ask and it will be given to you”I asked. Now I am listening…

  2. You know you are going to be branded a “relativist” by some, don’t you? You’ll be in some good company though! I appreciate your scholarly approach to this subject, and more importantly I appreciate your heart.Your brother,DU

  3. whew! There is a lot in this post. A whole lot. You have done a much better job of saying some of what I wanted to say regarding this subject.Acts 15 and Romans 14 have been coming up in my radar several times in the last two weeks. Just read some facinating writings on “loosing and binding”. It seems apparent to me that in Acts 15, they didn’t know what exactly to do, (sounds familiar, although we hate to admit it) so they did what God followers have always done. They sought guidance. Of course if you read with a predetemination that God doesn’t work that way then they were just throwing that Spirit bit in for “authority”.

  4. Methinks you are on to something! Remember when Paul told the two sisters to agree? He didn’t mention who was right; he just told them to agree in the Lord. We have stood “can two walk together unless they be agreed” on its head. It wasn’t permission to stop walking with each other. It was an admonition to “just get along!”

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