The Blue Parakeet: Naive Approaches

parakeetMcKnight suggests that different people take different approaches to taming parakeets.

Retrieval

Some churches read the Bible to retrieve everything that was practiced in the First Century. If the early Christians met in homes, we should do the same. If they enjoyed table fellowship each week, so should we. If they washed feet, so should we. Indeed, some see all commands as perpetual.

Those in this camp tend to see scripture as a book of laws or a constitution. They assume therefore that the book has rules for how to assemble and worship and organize, and so they interpret reports of what the early church did as commands.

Sound familiar?

McKnight argues that it is, of course, impossible to live like First Century Christians in the 21st Century. Rather, he says, we are called to live “twenty-first-century lives as we walk in the light of the revelation God gave us in the first century.” Page 27.

You see, he says, we can “retrieve only what we can salvage for our day and for our culture.” We leave behind those things that too uncomfortable and preserve what seems to fit based on very subjective judgments. “This, of course, means culture dictates what is of value in the Bible. This is a mistake.”

He doesn’t explain this in detail, but let me try. When I was a child, the Bible said women have to wear hats to church. And they did — expensive, fashionable hats. When hats went out of fashion, 1 Corinthians 11 was conveniently re-intepreted.

But if we’d ever read the passage in light of its original meaning, not 20th Century culture, we’d have seen that the command was all about submission — to God and to husbands. And wearing expensive, fashionable hats has nothing at all to do with submission. Or modesty. Or Christianity. Rather, we found a very superficial correspondence between ancient culture and modern culture, found the correspondence comfortable, and congratulated ourselves for wearing the hats we were going to wear anyway.

The role of women is a similar issue. For much of the history of Christianity the surrounding culture freely permitted denying women authority over men or the right to teach men. But in the last 50 years, the commands don’t seem quite so clear. Are the commands we read in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 like the command to wear a head covering? Or are they eternal commands?

The question wasn’t even asked 50 years ago. Women were obviously incapable of such responsibility. Besides, a good Christian woman was too submissive to even want authority — or so we were taught. But now we all know women who are fabulous teachers and Bible students. Our culture has changed, women have shown themselves quite capable, and now the question is upon us.

And we can’t help but observe that the younger the Bible student, the more likely he is to find the “role of women” verses to be based on a First Century culture that is long gone. But we really need a better standard than what seems right based on when or where we grew up!

Tradition

McKnight suggests that we first must learn to read the Bible “with tradition.” We don’t read the Bible bound by tradition, but neither do we ignore tradition.

Think of it this way. Even the smartest person ever born doesn’t have all the experience and all the education of the entire church — that is, the entire church living and dead. As wonderful as it is to live in an age when anyone can read dozens of translations on the internet and millions of opinions on what each verse means, no one is the final expert on interpreting the Bible.

[The Orthodox have this wonderful way of speaking of the “church” as including not only the living but also those who’ve gone on ahead of us. They have not really died so they are still part of the church. One area in which it is particularly helpful to think this way is when we speak of reading scripture in “community.” This means not only with those still alive but in conversation with the church in heaven through their writings.]

Therefore, any serious student of the Bible should read in light of what others have concluded about the scriptures. We need to be in dialogue, not only with our friends and fellow congregation members, but also with the great scholars of the ages. I may choose to disagree with Martin Luther or John Calvin on grace, but shouldn’t I at least understand their views before disagreeing with them? Or am I so smart that I can learn nothing from either?

Therefore, the wise student takes the trouble to read what others have said and are saying. If you try to interpret Romans unaware of the work of the greatest scholars of the last 2,000 years, you are failing to use all the resources God has given you.

Once you know what the greatest minds in the history of Christianity have concluded, you are free to disagree. But if you do so, do so in conversation with others. Indeed, one of the great benefits of internet forums and blogs is their interactivity. Readers can easily add their thoughts to the discussion, enriching and correcting the teaching.

McKnight makes a critical point. The New Testament writers studied and taught with tradition, even though they disagreed with much of the tradition. They studied the scriptures they had — the Old Testament — as well as uninspired writings of the Jews. In fact, as most Christians have never read 3 Esdras or Sirach, for example, we don’t notice the many New Testament allusions to these and similar uninspired works. The New Testament was written in conversation with other streams of First Century Jewish thought, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not.

The point is that, even with the benefit of inspiration, the writers paid attention to traditional interpretation. They built on what had already been built, correcting as necessary.

McKnight concludes,

Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return [retrieval] problem, and we need to move forward without fossilizing our ideas (traditionalism).

In the Churches of Christ, the applications are particularly profound. If we take McKnight’s advice, we’ll study Restoration Movement history and the teachings of our predecessors. We may not agree with all that Stone or Campbell wrote, but we should at least pay them the respect of hearing what they have to say.

Just so, we should listen to our 20th Century forebears, H. Leo Boles, Rubel Shelly, etc. Again, while I may disagree with some that they say, I should be respectful enough to listen before I do. Who knows, we may just learn something we never would have thought of on our own if we read David Lipscomb’s Civil Government or Harding’s writings on prayer.

I attended David Lipscomb College from 1972-75. I lived in Sewell Hall. My future wife lived in Fanning Hall. Despite taking daily Bible courses and attending daily chapels for all those years, I graduated not having a clue as to who Lipscomb, Sewell, or Fanning were or why someone might want to name a building after them. You see, in those days we pretended that we learned nothing from our tradition and so we had no need to study it. We were wrong.

Of course, we should also be reading the works of current evangelical scholars as well as the writings of our Reformation predecessors. And the Patristics. And so many more.

It’s a conceit of the Restoration Movement that anyone can pick up the Bible and, untrained, read it perfectly. Indeed, we claim the truth of all our teachings is plain and obvious — so plain and obvious that those who disagree with us disagree with the very words of God himself!

But it’s not true. If you want to understand Romans or Matthew or Genesis, check out a few commentaries that interact with the scholarship of the ages and learn what the great scholars had to say on the subject. Take the time to find out what’s being said by the great scholars of today. And then, if you want to disagree, by all means do so. Just don’t disagree out of ignorance.

Morsels of law

Some of us see the Bible as morsels of law. We sniff around the book looking for commands to obey (and to impose on others), ignoring the boring poems, history, and prophecy. After all, it’s the obedience that matters.

This is, in fact, how I grew up. I wondered what the point of 95% of the Bible was? Why not publish an abridged version that just included the commands? Better yet, why not re-arrange the verses so the commands would be obvious to all readers. I mean, the sermons I grew up on required us to hop and leap from book to book to assemble various verses together to prove God’s clear and obvious will regarding how to worship or organize or whatever. It was as though God wanted to make it hard (but obvious to anyone who really wanted to obey God).

McKnight argues from his own experience,

I was a teenage legalist and considered myself one of the Obedient Ones. We happily tossed away a few of the Bible’s commands, like loving our enemies, because we were crusaders and zealots for wholehearted obedience to the commands of God. In their place we added more comandments, and the ones that particularly appealed to were “thou shalt not dance,” “thou shalt not go to movies,” “thou shalt not drink,” and “thou shalt not play cards (except Rook or Dutch Blitz).”

McKnight concludes that this approach to the Bible makes us insufferably arrogant, and he confesses having been that way when younger. I was, too.

Of course, there are commands, and they are important. But taken out of the context of God’s story, they lead to Pharisaism and self-satisfaction.

Morsels of blessings and promises

Some of us think the Bible was written to give us a daily emotional lift. We feed ourselves encouraging, positive verses each day, hoping for promises and blessings because of our positive thinking.

Those of us hooked on blessings are happy, smiling people, until life slaps us across the face and something horrible happens. Then we wonder if our faith is truly real. Where is the God who lives on my calendar and in my daily devotional guide?

God really does promise blessings, of course, and the uplifting verses are quite real and true. But they are part of a much larger story that deal with the brokeness of each of us and the brokeness of this world. The Bible also deals with injustice, despair, doubt, and suffering.

Mirrors and inkblots

McKnight writes, “Some people read the Bible as if its passages were Rorschach inkblots.” (page 48). Republicans find trickledown economics. Democrats find gay rights. Legalists find laws. The emotionally needy find emotional comfort.

The Bible’s story takes us through all sorts of human experiences, and we learn many wonderful things. Some are consistent with the Republican Party platform. Some with the Democrats’. Most is utterly foreign to either. But if we read outside the story, we can always find something that justifies what we want to justify.

To allow ourselves to be judged by the Bible, rather than using the Bible to judge others, we have to read the entire story as story. As McKnight says, we need to be swept up into the Bible’s story, rather than sweeping the Bible into ours.

Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind

Many of us, especially the scholars among us, want to find the system hidden underneath the story and develop a systematic exposition of what God really meant. Hence, we find the Bible reduced to a “pattern” or a systematic theology.

McKnight notes that all systems and patterns ignore pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit. This is, of course, why the denominations disagree with each other — they throw out different pieces!

McKnight further argues that the project is too big for humans. After all, if we take the entire Bible and develop an elaborate system that explains it all, we’ve invented something that not a single author of the Bible taught. And, he suggests, the process is hopelessly subjective, as the scholars get to decide what question is being answered — whose puzzle is being assembled? God’s? or the scholar’s?

Finally, McKnight notes that God chose the way he wanted to reveal himself. Who are we to insist that he should have revealed himself through a 5-fingered pattern or a confession or systematic theology?

In short, the danger of re-assembling God word into a human pattern is the danger of mastery. Once we’ve done it, we’re through. We’ve solved the puzzle. Now we no longer need the Bible. Our pattern or confession or system is quite enough — better, really.

Of course, it overstates the case to suggest that we do entirely without a systematic theology. The Story itself is a pattern or a system. The point is that we Christians tend to read the Bible through our systems rather than the other way. We only concern ourselves with those scriptures that deal with the questions our theologians and preachers are interested in, and so we ignore much, if not most, of the Bible. The trick is to never, ever think your pattern or system is anything like the summa theologica of God’s will. The Bible is. What we write is not.

Maestros

Another mistake we often make is to pick one Biblical character and declare him a maestro — the ultimate expert on God’s will — and read all the rest of the Bible through his eyes.

Many Protestants grow up in a Pauline world. All Bible is read through Paul, even the Gospels. Some churches read everything through the lens of the Revelation. It’s all about the endtimes. And others read it all through Jesus.

Now, Jesus is obviously the master teacher. But we can’t fully understand Jesus outside the context of the Old Testament. You have to read Torah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah (among the rest) to read Jesus. Jesus is central. But Jesus isn’t all the Bible, and some of us get trapped in the Gospels.

The Churches of Christ

Well, McKnight has pegged us pretty well — and lots of others, too. We are guilty of all of the above, aren’t we?

I grew up on Acts. Luke was the master teacher because Luke taught baptism. Paul’s writings were too confusing for us. We couldn’t make heads or tails of Romans. But we knew what Paul meant when he wrote about singing and the Lord’s Supper.

You see, we were all about finding the system or pattern that would make it all simple and easy to obey. Break it all down to five acts or five steps and we could do it exactly right every single time.

We got there by reading our own prejudices into the scriptures. We wanted a constitution, and so we found a constitution. We searched for laws hidden amongst the irrelevancies, and created a puzzle to solve. And in so doing, we read our story into the Bible and created something that was more us than Him.

The solution isn’t easy, because it’s so very hard to give up our identity. You see, we came to identify ourselves not as people of Jesus but as the people who don’t use instruments and who organize and worship according to the pattern. We identify ourselves with the rules that we found, and so, to escape our legalism, we have to surrender our identity at the foot of the cross.

It’s not easy to re-discover who we are meant to be. But for us, that’s where it has to start. We need to learn what part we play in the story.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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23 Responses to The Blue Parakeet: Naive Approaches

  1. wjcsydney says:

    I think I need to order "The Blue Parakeet"!

  2. Jay Guin says:

    It's quite an excellent book and should be taught in every Church of Christ on the planet. (Thanks for plugging the blog at Berean Spirit.)

  3. mark says:

    I'll have to wait for the follow up the suspense is killing me. Will your church be excluded next year in the list of a cappella churches? It seems to me our brotherhood needs to move off the mainstream and find a way to get to new Biblical shores.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    mark,

    My church remains a cappella. But we are moving/have moved to new Biblical shores.

    The real split in the Churches of Christ is not instrumental vs. a cappella. It's between two views of grace that parallel two hermeneutics.

    And the hermeneutics derive from two views of God. Either God is love or else God is the Great Proctor in the Sky, looking for a mistake so he can expel us.

    I rather prefer the God-is-love approach to things.

  5. I have been surprised at how I have dealt differently with many of the issues you raise, as I have turned my personal focus to Jesus command of John 13:34, love one another as Jesus loved us.

    Tradition becomes just tradition, neither inherently good or bad, but not the basis for anything.

    Related issues are forgiveness and fellowship. We often fail to forgive differences on doctrinal matters. And further, draw lines of fellowship based upon doctrine. I don't find any evidence that Jesus withdrew from people because of doctrinal differences, nor did he ever withdraw from anyone.

    All of this is more evidence that our fundamental failure is failing to model our lives on Jesus — which is one of the principle reasons he came to us in the first place.

  6. Neal Roe says:

    "As McKnight says, we need to be swept up into the Bible’s story, rather than sweeping the Bible into ours." Reading the Chronological Bible (NLT) last year had this effect for our Monday Night Bible Study. Connecting God's work with people in their time helped us to see that we, too are in God's time. Getting Jesus…the Holy Spirit…God in us is available because of what God does. We have to get out of the way. We have to do what Jesus did. Amazing love is ours from Love Himself. Thank you for the post.

  7. Jay,
    Leaving behind one's identity is extremely difficult. Doing so means leaving behind friends, ties, and even our zones of comfort. If we do this we may find ourselves men without a fellowship. Right or wrong this is difficult. I do not disagree with your thoughts. I am not sure I am honest enough to allow myself to leave my identity behind.

  8. Pat says:

    Such a good post, Jay. Upon the occasion of my being grilled by an elder and the seasoned preacher regarding the proposed study of your book in a class I was teaching, I asked the preacher if he had a perfect understanding of the Bible. The point I wanted to make was that we all change our perspective as we delve more deeply ~ thereby growing ~ and thereby (gasp!) changing. Apparently he felt trapped by the question, and answered that he did have such an understanding. I was dumbstruck by his reply, and could not even respond for a few seconds. Finally, I told him that I had never been in the presence of such a man. I did not pursue the line of thought as it was not my purpose to argue. He soon seemed to recognize how foolish his answer was ~ and I believe the point was made after all. Nevertheless, I was not allowed to teach the class, and the preacher soon resigned. Fear reigned ~ for the moment.

  9. Todd says:

    I found a study of the Patristics to be both enlightening and comforting. Here are these guys who are the first, second and third generation students of the apostles and widely studied in the Old and New Testaments who wrestle with everything we wrestle with today.

    As for morsels of law – I give my students a simple rule. If you have to go to more than two places to find a law of God – you are probably wrong and I am often tempted to shrink that to a single passage.

  10. paulsceptic says:

    Should we believe in all the miracles the Orthodox and Roman Catholics claim their saints have done, both ancient and modern? And if not, why believe the miracles of the NT, especially those attributed to Paul who was not a real apostle? Is it not at least possible that the people who wrote this book were of the same weak mental constitution as the people who preserved and gave us the book, and that therefore their word is no more credible on the validity of a miracle than is the modern Catholic's word on the virgin Mary appearing in a piece of toast? Nobody ever considers these things. But when people begin saying "the Bible is not a book of patterns or a law book" I can guarantee the reason is that they've seen the errors and contradictions (especially in Paul) and know the book isn't the word of God, but they want to salvage some way to use it to their financial advantage (not to mention their fame or popularity). Just giving it up as a set of fables is not an option, even when they evidence tends in that direction. Read Galatians 2 then the book of Acts, and see if you can really continue to worship book in which Paul says nobody from the Judean churches saw his face on his first trip to Jerusalem after his conversion but where his most shameless promoter Luke actually has the opposite, many many disciples seeing his face and recognizing him and not believing he was a disciple particularly because they recognized him as Saul of Tarsus the persecutor! Or again, when he says in his second trip to Jerusalem he went up by revelation to school the apostles in the true gospel because they didn't know it, but Luke his promoter says he was sent by the church of Antioch to get an answer from the apostles on the question of circumcision. If you can accept these two opposites at once, perhaps you can also enjoy heaven and burn in hell at once. Just a thought.

  11. paulsceptic says:

    Obviously the above comments relate to the statement "The Orthodox have this wonderful way of speaking of the 'church' as including not only the living but also those who've gone on ahead of us."

  12. Alan says:

    I think we miss a lot of subtleties in the original language simply because nobody speaks that language natively today. That is particularly true regarding what we call commands. Passages that translate into English as a command may not have been understood as mandates by the original audience. ("Rejoice in the Lord always!" was an invitation, not a command. "Give us this day our daily bread" was a request. etc…) Greeting one another with a holy kiss was the same kind of thing. Each of these passages use the Greek aortist tense in the imperative mood, which often does not convey a mandate but something else entirely.

  13. Jay Guin says:

    David,

    I entirely agree. As we get deeper into hermeneutics, we'll consider how to apply the "love your neighbor" passages. They are, I think, at the heart of the issue.

  14. Jay Guin says:

    Neal,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I entirely agree that the Spirit makes a huge difference. In fact, my experience is that the Spirit works most powerfully in those who acknowledge his influence.

  15. Jay Guin says:

    Dell,

    You put your finger on a tough issue, especially for those who earn their living through the gospel. It's awfully hard for a preacher to change camps. However, I've seen a number of men not only change camps, they brought their congregations with them. It can be done, but it's tough. And many an eldership will not allow it. I have nothing but sympathy for those who labor under legalistic elderships.

    On the other hand, my experience is that doing this doesn't leave anyone without a fellowship. Rather, you find that the fellowship is much larger and much closer than anything you had before you changed.

  16. Jay Guin says:

    Todd Deaver's book Facing Our Failure would be a great tool for dealing with men who make such a ridiculous claim. I wish every conservative preacher would receive a copy and challenge to answer it.

  17. Jay Guin says:

    Without being too dogmatic, I think the one-passage rule is likely a good one.

  18. Jay Guin says:

    paulsceptic,

    You should read N. T. Wright's "What Paul Really Said." It addresses many of your concerns.

  19. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks, Alan. I've found several "commands' that don't hold up to scrutiny when you work through the Greek.

  20. andy says:

    I think I agree with the vein of this thread. Although I don't read Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic, or any other ancient language (well, ok, a little Chinese), I find that simply reading a chapter ahead and behind while actually envisioning myself as a member of the Church in Corinth, or Rome, or Ephesus, or whatever the original audience was tends to help sort out some of these command/suggestion problems.

  21. paulsceptic says:

    He finds a way to harmonize Paul saying he went to Jerusalem the first time only to see Peter for 15 days and nobody else from the churches of Judea (except James) saw his face but only heard about him whereas Acts says he tried to join the churches and they recognized his face and rejected him? That's impossible.

  22. Jay Guin says:

    andy,

    There's a lot to your point. One key to understanding is putting yourself in the place the First Century reader. You can't know what the passage says for today until you understand what it said for when it was written.

  23. Jack Exum Jr says:

    I think Jay is correct in saying the next split will be over the concept of grace and how it relates to our understanding of scriptures. However, I don't understand why this should be. Grace is amazing and we mustn't continue in sin so grace may abound of course. But, neither should we continue in legalism so grace doesn't abound as God has intended.
    Can one combine both legalism and grace? I don't see how they are compatable. Maybe someone out there can help me with that one. Paul says if we go back under law, we are fallen from grace. Law in this case would be in trying to earn one's salvation by keeping law.
    We should keep the commandments of Jesus as best we can, but even our best efforts are not good enough on their own, so we depend on grace and faith. Maybe that is a key to all this .. i don't believe in the 50/50 idea. (50% my works and 50% His grace). To me it is 100% grace from God and genuine faith on my part. No works on my part are worthy of any boasting because I look in the mirror and there is an unworthy servant staring back.
    Divide over grace? Why? Are we afraid of grace? Are we afraid some will say anything goes? Can do that, because that's not right. But just because some may say that, doesn't mean we should be afraid of grace. Standing is grace, walking by faith, all includes a love that will strive to keep His commandments. Yet while we are far short of perfection in this, we are saved by His wonderful grace which is too wonderful to divide over. Instead it should help us in being united.

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