Inerrancy is Heresy.

Inerrancy is heresy. Here are five reasons to reject it.

In the past, I have rolled my eyes or shrugged and walked away whenever someone in a theological discussion spoke of the Bible as “the inerrant Word of God.” I have assumed that this relatively new idea (codified in the Chicago Statement of 1978) would eventually collapse from the weight of its superstitious, idolatrous, intellectually untenable and dishonest presuppositions.

No doubt, it will, eventually.

In the mean time, it leads the Church and the world astray.

While I do not advocate burning anyone at the stake, I do think it is important to wall off, take a stand against, and defeat destructive theological ideas.
Here are five reasons we should argue against biblical inerrancy as forcefully as possible.

1. Inerrancy is an insidious form of idolatry. In claiming that the Bible is “the inerrant Word of God,” the doctrine of inerrancy claims perfection for something we can see, feel, read, and hold in our hand. It reduces the Creator of the World to a golden calfskin book.
2. Inerrancy is intellectually untenable. It reduces faith to Mark Twain’s description of “believing what you know ain’t so.” Contradictions between different accounts of the creation, the birth of Jesus, the crucifixion, the flood, and other important biblical narratives can be easily understood and appreciated through an historical approach to the development of these stories. Insisting on their literal accuracy requires an intellectual sleight of hand that blocks off the reader from the spiritual richness of the voices of our ancestors in the faith.
3. Inerrancy is superstitious. It places belief in a magic book rather than the grand and holy Mystery to whom the Bible points.

4. Inerrancy assumes that the Holy Spirit is dead, that nothing more can be revealed, that no ethical, moral, or theological progress has been made since the last word of Scripture was written around the end of the first century or beginning of the second. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy leads the non-believing public to assume that biblical inerrancy is a central tenet of the Christian faith, and that being a Christian means being against the equal rights of LGBT people, against women’s autonomy, and looking to the Bible for literal and accurate information about science and history. A century and a half ago, those who held to the precursor of inerrancy, biblical infallibility, led some Christians to use the Bible to justify slavery. While I would not argue that the American Civil War was a religious war, I can argue that the Bible became a weapon in the hands of those who waged an economic war and appealed to biblical infallibility in the verse “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.” (Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22.)
5. The quest for certainty shuts down the gift of human creativity. The appeal to the inerrancy of the biblical text reflects a need to achieve certainty about great mysteries that can never be fully known. Describing the text as sacred, holy, unique, and Spirit-breathed recognizes the deep mystery historical and contextual reading of the Bible leads us to explore and engage. It opens us up to deep understanding of the witness of our ancestors in the faith as we continue to seek the Spirit in our own lives. Claiming inerrancy or infallibility places a worldly standard on the text that it does not claim for itself. It shuts off the creative human spirit, the unique gift that has led to ethics, moral vision, and art.

To be clear, I am not arguing against the authority of Scripture in the life of Jews and Christians. I am arguing in favor of it.

I am arguing that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has distorted the Christian faith, fed the delusions of violent mental illness, provided a (false) theological foundation for terrorists to bully, enslave, and kill in the name of God, and distracted the Church from its mission of loving God, loving our neighbors, proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, and making disciples.

Grace Enough To Spare

I preached this sermon in 2011 when I was pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sherman, Texas. It is specific to that congregation, and dependent on the exegetical work of many different ministers, including Anna Carter Florence in Lectionary Homiletics.

“I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ Matthew 25:25


The easiest way to deal with a weapons-grade parable like this is to turn it into an allegory—turn it into a story in which each character stands in for someone and each thing stands in for something else. That way, when we get to the part about a worthless slave getting thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, we can make sure that the worthless slave is a stand-in for somebody else, not us.

The challenge we face, though, is that Jesus never took a course in literary forms of biblical literature; therefore, he felt free, and Matthew the writer of this parable felt free, to tell a story that sometimes works as an allegory and sometimes works as a parable.

“The Kingdom of heaven is as if . . .” That phrase begins a creative, imaginative story of a wealthy landowner, and we can easily make the connection, “O.K., wealthy powerful guy who owns everything, I know That Guy, it has to be God.”

We hear about the distribution of talents and we learn from the footnote that a talent is a huge measure of gold, but we make the automatic correlation with talents in the English language and think about the gifts God has entrusted to each of us.

We hear about the three slaves, two of whom do well and one who buries his talent in the ground and by this time, we’re on a roll, this is easy—that first guy is me, the good Christian, the second one is my friend, the first runner-up in the good Christian contest, and the third one, the one who deserves to be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? As I heard someone say in a Bible study once, “I know that guy! He’s my no-good lazy ex-husband!”

That’s always a comfortable way to read scripture – to weaponize it and wield it against somebody else. It may be comfortable, but it doesn’t hold up to a close reading.

The problem begins to arise when we hear the slave’s description of the wealthy landowner, as someone who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter. Maybe the third slave is just mistaken, but that sure isn’t a description of God who created the heavens and the earth. And, at the end, when he tells the third slave he should have invested the talent in the bank to collect interest? Interest is an acceptable way of doing business now, but in the first century Jewish culture, it was strictly forbidden by God’s law. It makes no sense that a stand-in for God would advocate such a thing as the least you can do.

And then, the word “talent.” Our English word “talent” comes from the Greek language in which Matthew wrote, but Jesus did not tell this parable in Greek, (he would have used the Aramaic/Hebrew word kikkar) and besides, the English language had not yet been invented. In its original context, there was no automatic correlation between this weight of gold or silver, 3000 shekels, and our contemporary word for gifts and skills.

So, what’s going on here?

Let’s think about how the parable would have been heard by the gospel writer Matthew’s congregation. This is the second of three parables in the twenty-fifth chapter telling us about a community that is waiting for the return of someone, but they do not know the day or the hour.

For a community that had expected Jesus to return any day, and it had now been forty years, and almost all of the people who had walked with Jesus had died, these parables address the question, “What are we supposed to do now? What do we do while we wait around to die or see the end of the world as we know it?”

This parable, along with the other three parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 25, make this much clear: the Gospel has been given to us, but not for us to have and to hold. Jesus gave us stories that we would repeat them; Jesus gave us his life that we might live for others. He gave us the bread of life and the cup of salvation that we would eat and drink and remember his presence from one day to the next.

We read the slave’s declaration, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’” And we realize, yes, that slave got it wrong on two fronts.

First, the Master he describes is not the One who sent his only Son to die that we might live.

And second, his misplaced fear led him to do exactly the opposite of what the Master desired.

It is human nature to hoard what we value, to try to keep it, save it, preserve it. The surprise of this parable, maybe the shocking recognition, is that the last thing Jesus wants to hear when he walks through those doors and into this sanctuary is, “Look Jesus, we kept it for you just the way it was when you gave it to us!”

It takes energy, intelligence, imagination, and love and all the gifts of the spirit to do what God has called us to do, to put it all out there, to risk proclaiming the gospel with all the assets with which God has entrusted us, whether it is money, or this building, or the new building, or our emotional reserve, or our style of worship, or anything else. It does not happen by accident, it only happens through a commitment and intent to be obedient to Christ even when we are afraid.

Many, many years ago, when I was still the new pastor here, [Covenant Presbyterian in Sherman, Texas] and we did not yet know each other well, I got a phone call from a funeral home while I was on vacation at Nancy’s mother’s house in Pensacola. A family member of an immigrant Hindu family had died, and they wanted to do the funeral service in Sherman where their friends and colleagues could attend. Wynne Chapel was being remodeled, and several other churches with a sanctuary large enough to accommodate them had declined to host a funeral in the Hindu tradition.

I thought, this would be a great discussion for our session to have, but I was thirteen hours away, the clock was ticking, and there was no way to get the session together in time to make this decision. I had to make it, yes or no.

When I thought, “What would Jesus do?” it was very clear to me. The one who told the story of the kind Samaritan, the foreigner who showed kindness to the stranger in need regardless of their religious differences would not hesitate to give them comfort in their time of grief.

I thought of that and all kinds of other reasons that it was the right thing to do as a church, and I tried to anticipate all the reasons people might give for declining to have it here.

I told the funeral home we would be glad to do it, and I ran down to the coffee shop with wifi where I could get an email out to the session that just said I had to make this decision today, here’s what I told them, and here’s why I think it’s the right thing to do.

I did not yet know you well. I feared I might get fired. I thought someone on session might take some disciplinary action against me to the Presbytery’s committee on ministry. I did not know what might happen.

But, I’m not the hero of this story. You are.

Here’s what happened. It turns out I was foolish in my fears. Every single email that came back from the session members said the same thing, essentially: “Good decision, this is who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. We are a people with grace enough to spare.”

A few years later, our daughter Rachel asked me to come and pray and read scripture and pronounce a blessing as she and Lili promised each other that they would stay together as long as they both shall live.

You all know that my views on gay and lesbian partnerships is more liberal than the average Presbyterian. The Permanent Judicial Committee had ruled that Presbyterian clergy such as I could perform such a ceremony as long as I didn’t publicly refer to it as a wedding or a marriage, but we all knew what it was. It was my daughter’s wedding.

I know that many of you have strong feelings on the other side of this issue, just as strongly-held, just as theologically genuine as my own. So, when I wrote to you in the church newsletter [the web page did not yet exist] to let you know what our family was going to Florida to celebrate, I waited with some trepidation for the phone to ring on the day the newsletter hit the mailboxes.

And the phone began to ring. And every single person who called us, regardless of what they thought of gay marriage or ordination, was asking why we didn’t include an address for Rachel and Lili so they could send a gift.

Whatever else we may be here at Covenant, with all our imperfections and struggles, this is something I know for sure: we are a people with grace enough to spare.

There are many, many good things in this world that need our time, energy, prayers, and money. If we supported them all as we wish we could, I fear, perhaps foolishly, that there would be nothing left to live on.

Here’s what keeps me wanting to support the work of this congregation with more money, time, and energy than any other cause. I believe that the greatest need of this world is the grace of God in Jesus Christ; and, I have never known another congregation that is so generous, so profligate, so reckless and Christ-like in extending grace to a world in need.

So, friends, let’s put it all out there, with grace enough to spare. It’s who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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For All the Saints, Martyrs, and Liars

If you are preaching or listening to a sermon this Sunday from the All Saints Day lectionary, you may encounter 1 John 3:1-7. It’s a strange paragraph, pulling us back and forth between the assurance that we are children of God to the warning not to be deceived about lawlessness. My article today addresses the context of 1 John as a whole rather than a verse-by-verse analysis, but I thought you all might find it helpful.

My thinking about the whole New Testament has been greatly influenced by Amy Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew and, of course, Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation. Though neither of them address this particular passage, they address the larger issues. Levine reminds us of the Jewish origin of the New Testament and Friedman writes of emotional reactivity and family cut-off as if he were addressing the situation of first century members of the Christian community as their relationship to the synagogue disintegrated.

When we remember that the dividing line between Christian and Jew did not exist in the first century the way it does now as a religious and ethnic designation, it influences the way we read all of the New Testament. In the first century, Christians were a subset of Jews. Even those Gentiles who joined the first century church saw themselves as becoming Jews. The whole circumcision controversy would not have arisen if the church did not think of itself as a Jewish institution. It wasn’t until the second century (decades after the writing of 1 John) that Christians embraced an identity separate from Judaism.

The community of John (I’m convinced that the Johannine pastoral letters and the Gospel grew out of the same community) thought of themselves as Jews who believed Jesus was the Jewish messiah. The expression John uses in the gospels that is translated “the Jews” refers to some group of Jewish leaders, not the whole ethnic group or all the members of the synagogue. It’s probably more complicated than that, but the main thing to remember is that Jesus and all his disciples and almost everyone mentioned in the Gospel according to John were Jews except for the Samaritan woman at the well and her friends in chapter 4. So, whoever it is John refers to when he uses that Greek expression “hoi judaioi,” (translated “the Jews” in the NRSV) it’s clear that he uses it in a very different context than our own. We use it to distinguish between Jew and Gentile. He uses it to distinguish between one group of Jewish people and another.

The next thing to remember is how emotionally devastating it was for them to be cut off by their synagogue and many family members. (Emotional cut-off is the essence of the word translated “hate.”) It was so devastating that many members of the Christian community left to return to their families and the synagogue, renouncing their claim that Jesus was raised from the dead because they were unable to withstand the emotional pressure of the cut-off. (Here’s a bit of polemic John uses against them in 1 John 2:18, “many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.”)

The claim that Jesus is the Messiah, and that his resurrection is the evidence, is the central claim of the Christian community and the claim that the leaders of the synagogue would not allow people to teach in the synagogue. It was, they said, a lie, and those who proclaimed it were liars. John joins in the name-calling. He turns this claim around with his polemic against “liars” who say they have not sinned and “liars” who say they love God but hate (cut off) a member of their own family or community. While we ordinarily read his proclamation that “God is love” (4:8) as a gentle description of our Creator, it is, in context, part of a screed against those whom John feels have betrayed him and his community by cutting them off or leaving to return to the synagogue.

Another issue the letter addresses is the accusation from some synagogue leaders that Christians were libertines. The fine line John walks between those who say they have not sinned, whom he calls “liars,” and those who abide in Jesus and therefore do not sin (3:6) makes sense only as part of that larger controversy between Christian Jews and synagogue leaders over the definition of sin. To the synagogue leaders, sin was breaking the commandments, but to John it was breaking this one commandment with two parts, “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us.” (3:23)

The letter of 1 John, then, sends encouragement to a community of disciples of Jesus who had been cut off from (hated by) their families and their synagogue. John tells them that they are the truly faithful ones, that those who hate them (cut them off) are the liars and the sinners, and that the only way to stem the hemorrhaging of members is by loving one another as brothers and sisters.

Here’s my own reflection on this. The Johannine correspondence records for us John’s struggle to make theological sense out of the rejection of Jesus and his resurrection by the leaders of the synagogue and the tearing apart of family and community relationships. His polemical tone, using labels such as “liars” and “antichrists” indicates that the emotional reactivity had reached such intensity that those Jews on opposite sides of the resurrection claim could no longer hear each other. This emotionally charged letter records a sad failure of the church and synagogue to maintain their relationship in the face of disagreement. Certainly, the synagogue had withstood disagreements before, but this one led to the tearing apart of families and communities, and that’s hard to make sense of in the context of a loving God who calls us to love one another. Often, John presents his explanation in terms that fan the flames of division: God loves us because we love Jesus, but those who don’t love Jesus are liars who only say they love God, but they really hate God because they hate us, their brothers and sisters. While John’s rhetoric soars in places, he is at his worst when he claims the victim badge for himself and his community.

The question for us I think is this: To what extent has this emotional process of cut-off, victim-thinking, and name-calling of our adversaries repeated itself within the church? To what extent was it replicated in the Reformation? What would happen if we refused to engage in the cut-off, victim-thinking, and name-calling? What if we could embrace John’s soaring rhetoric on love without using it as a weapon against our adversaries? What if we never tired of reaching across theological, denominational, and ethnic boundaries in love? What would it look like to reach across to our Jewish brothers and sisters? Our Muslim brothers and sisters? Our Roman Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant fellow Christians? What if we simply rejected the divisions that evolved from the emotional process of the first century Christians’ failure to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with, or amicable divorce from, the synagogue?

On a more positive note, the Johannine community clearly survived because they took up John’s challenge to love one another as brothers and sisters. They provided one another with the love and strength it takes to withstand the rejection of their own families. What would it look like for us to provide one another with such love to withstand every rejection of the world outside (or other churches) while still reaching beyond our boundaries to those outside our own community?

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Five Things Many Mainline Christians Believe about the Bible that their Pastors Don’t

Throughout 30 years of ministry, I have seen little change in the gap between the beliefs of seminary-educated clergy and our parishioners. While a very small minority of people make it through a Masters degree program at an accredited mainline seminary still clinging to the fundamentalist approach of numbers 1-4 below, and fewer than half number 5, I continue to hear many parishioners in mainline churches assume that all 5 are orthodoxy.

  1. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

    Leningrad Codex, thought to be the oldest existing Hebrew text of the Bible.
  2. Paul wrote all the books with his name on them.
  3. Revelation was written to predict the future.
  4. The Gospels quote Jesus accurately.
  5. The Bible condemns homosexuality.
  1. Clergy who paid attention during their Old Testament class know that the expression the “Book of Moses” refers to 5 books written about Moses, not by Moses. They arose over generations of oral composers who were edited during and shortly after the Babylonian exile, many centuries after Moses died.

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Three Ways to Know When Someone has Weaponized Scripture

September 1, 2014 Article

If you were Satan and you wanted to damn the world to hell, wouldn’t this be a great place to start, getting parents to reject their children?

I listened with sadness to this video of parents using religion as a weapon against their son as he came out to them as gay. Weaponizing Scripture saddens me for this young man and all who have been abused by Bible-wielding parents or preachers.

As a minister, I also find it sad in the same way that a chef would weep to see a beautiful meal used in a food fight.

This resource that can nourish community and family relationships has been slopped around as a crude weapon; a tool for healing has been used for physical and emotional violence. A source of ancient wisdom about God, in the hands of fools, has been turned into a weapon for evil.

And make no mistake, rejecting one’s own child because of his sexual orientation is an evil action. It’s not just “being in disagreement” or “raised in a different generation.” It is a choice.

Rejecting one’s child is not something anyone was born to do. It is a lifestyle choice.

If you were Satan and you wanted to damn the world to hell, Continue reading