You never know what sort of emails you will find in the info@[insert your church name here].org account. If you are privileged enough to have access to this inbox (that’s sarcasm), you have, no doubt, read a message or 15 from an ardent defender of the faith, whose primary spiritual gift is to challenge the stated doctrine of all the churches they disagree with and have no intent to visit. Here’s a representative example.
Does this church believe there are errors in the Bible?
Please respond. (Please. I have some sections dog-eared in my one-sided Study Bible I’d like to “lovingly” present to you so no one in the congregation dies and goes to Hell.)
In his book, Love Matters More, Jared Byas included a new-to-me aphorism, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” I think about this a lot when I am combing through our church email inbox or when I am debating whether to hit “reply” to an unknown commenter on Facebook. Discerning how/whether to engage in text-based communication is definitely an exercise in wisdom because some things are best left alone. As our sacred text tells us, “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself” (Proverbs 26:4).
When I received the above email, however, I decided to go against Proverbial wisdom (well, that particular Proverbial wisdom) and make a fruit salad with all the fixings. The heart of my response was something like, “Of course there are errors in the Bible. It’s hard to read it and decide otherwise.” I know. Typing it out now, it sounds pretty bad. Because I’m not a complete jerk, I would go on to provide some examples to buttress my point … things like the contradictions in Genesis’ two creation accounts or the contradictions in the Old Testament law code or the contradictions in the four Gospels’ retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection or the contradictions in Acts’ record of Paul’s missionary journeys and the one presented in his letters. For good measure, I probably also added some stuff about how it’s difficult to read the stories of the Old Testament at face value in light of the contradictory archaeological and extra-biblical evidence. By responding to TheBibleSaysItThatSettlesIt and not simply deleting their theological hit-and-run, I like to think I was employing a different (and, relevant to this conversation, contradictory) piece of Proverbial wisdom: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5).
To be fair, I don’t think TheBibleSaysItThatSettlesIt is a fool simply because we disagree on the doctrine of inerrancy. In fact, he (it has to a be a “he”) and I probably aren’t too different. I could have sent some version of that email in an earlier phase of my life. I, too, used to be a “defender of the faith,” who had it all figured out and was hell bent on informing everyone else how wrong they were. For at least a decade of my adult life, I operated under the assumption that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, Word of God. Anything less, in my mind, constituted a justified cause for sending an email or leaving a local church.
TheBibleSaysItThatSettlesIt and I probably read all the same books, knew all the same arguments and clever explanations, warned rookie Christians against all the same well-known heretics, and thought all those liberal denominations (that disagreed with us) were only playing church.
I don’t remember exactly when my confidence in this understanding of the Bible began to unravel. I know it was, thankfully, before I was in a pulpit. And I know it didn’t really hit until I was in a PhD program. (This says more about where one goes to seminary than it does about seminary in general. My alma mater would not allow conversations about inerrancy because we were being trained as “specialists in the Bible.” That was the tagline. They left out the unspoken bit that further defined our role as “specialists” of a “very white, very Dutch Reformed, very conservative” interpretation of the Bible.)
Located, as I was, in a grad school program, my deconstruction was part of my education, which, I think made it feel safe. Rethinking the Bible was just another part of the process of unlearning and relearning. That’s what my schooling was about at that time. I’d also say, it was the most freeing and life-giving part of my spiritual journey up to that point. I loved being able to rethink all of the things about the Bible, tearing down definitions that no longer made sense, and finding more helpful language to describe what the Bible was. That process, which I have since replicated with any number of doctrinal issues over the years, has shaped me and colored my entire pastoral ministry.
I know this isn’t everyone’s story. For some ministers, your seminary experience was like mine—conversations about the Bible weren’t really on the table if you were wanting to question inerrancy. Your unlearning and relearningis happening now. And it may feel like something completely opposed to “freeing” and “life-giving.” Maybe you feel trapped. Or scared. Or confused. Or alone. You don’t have a network of people (or a denomination) supporting you. As a result, you don’t know what to say to people like TheBibleSaysItThatSettlesIt or if you should say anything at all. You especially don’t know what is good and appropriate to talk about in a public sermon with a microphone strapped to your face and the tape rolling for the church podcast (and your impending yearly review). I feel for you, and I’m not entirely sure what help to offer, other than a small piece of my story.
In my ministerial context, these sorts of frank discussions about the Bible—what it is, what it meant/means, what to expect from it, how to read it—are not confined to secret email messages with self-righteous interlocutors. We talk about it nearly every week. My goal has always been to give the people whatever “behind the scenes” stuff I learned because that’s precisely the stuff I needed, but never heard from the pulpit. So, if I’m preaching from John, I’ll reference the divergences in the Synoptic Gospels. If I’m preaching from Joshua, we’ll talk about the archaeological record (or lack thereof) of the conquest and how that shapes our expectations of the Bible “as history.” If we are discussing Job, I’ll introduce the concept of “The Satan,” a figure who is invited to a seat at God’s heavenly board meeting (known as “the divine council”). And I will tell them “The Satan” is not to be confused with the cartoon version of “The Devil,” clothed in red tights with a pitchfork in hand. In other words, we talk every week about the ancient Near Eastern and 1st century Jewish contexts of the Bible. We also talk openly about what the Bible says and point out when it contradicts itself. When this happens (and it’s often), preconceived notions of “inerrancy” begin to waver, but we learn to appreciate the Bible for what it is.
I’ve never preached a five-week sermon series on “Why Inerrancy Isn’t a Great Term” or “Why the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy Should Be Rejected.” You can. Many of my friends have. In fact, discussing where the idea of “inerrancy” came from (hint: it’s not the Bible) and how it has been used by the power brokers and gatekeepers of large movements is important. An easier way in, I think, is starting with the Bible, discussing it each week in an honest way. It’s hard to compare something like the four resurrection stories of Jesus, with all of their divergences, and conclude the Bible is “error-free.” It’s also hard to turn that into a “liberal” fabrication if it’s coming directly from the pages of the pew Bible.
In terms of moving from inerrancy to (what should we call it) “errancy” (?), those sorts of frank conversations have done most of the heavy lifting. Over time, people have felt the freedom and the necessity to utilize different language to describe the Bible. It also helps that they hear their pastor, who they know loves them and Jesus and who works really hard to read the Bible well, say, “It’s ok. Maybe your old language is falling apart, but isn’t this better?”
So if you’re curious about the how—how to move your congregation to a new understanding of the Bible or, maybe more fundamentally, how to have conversations that allow you to be intellectual honest—my proposal is simple: start by reading the Bible and pointing stuff out. When you do this, “inerrancy” will sort of implode on its own.
The how is pretty straightforward. Implementing this strategy, though, is problematized in a really practical way for many ministers. Here’s it is …
In the nearly 10 year history of our church, we have lost a lot of people. If you take the route, I’m proposing, you will too. Discussing the problems of an “inerrant” Bible is often deemed to be too controversial. And I, a minister with a microphone and a podcast, am often deemed to be too dangerous. If you start talking about two creation accounts in Genesis or the walls of Jericho dating to a time way before Joshua or even the very clear discrepancies in the resurrection stories, you will be too. That’s because most “churched” people are coming in each week with a different notion of what the Bible is—one that is safe, one that is comforting, one that is without problems, one that is supported by their Study Bible. When you challenge these notions by exposing the Bible’s issues, you are, in effect, challenging people’s faith. And that’s not exactly what most attendees think they are signing up for on a Sunday morning. The cognitive dissonance between what they already believe/what they’ve already been told versus what they are now hearing from you is too great. So they leave, and the church where you are employed becomes Satan’s (the one with the pitchfork) lair and you, his emissary.
For this reason, it’s important to let your folks know that these aren’t your unique and radical ideas. More often than not, they are simply the general consensus among mainline biblical scholars. Even though some folks are skeptical of “scholarship,” doing a bit of name dropping can be helpful, and if you can provide some good books and podcasts for people to follow up, it’s even better.
But the cognitive dissonance your congregation feels is only part of the issue. You aren’t immune either.
When your view of the Bible moves from a standard, conservative evangelical position (“the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, Word of God”) to something more in line with what Pete Enns talks about in most of his books (e.g., the Bible is “ancient” and “ambiguous” and “diverse” and requires “wisdom to interpret well”), the cognitive dissonance begins to mount for you too. When this happens, while you are in the pulpit, it makes preaching on a week-to-week basis really difficult. You start asking, “What do I say?” “What can I say?” “Will people hate me if I tell them what I think?” “Will they leave?” You might also stress over the fact that a misstep here could cost you your job—either because your denomination would remove you or your elder board/trustees would fire you, or too many people would leave the congregation (and take their money with them) thus making the financial sustainability of your job a ticking time bomb.
Maybe I’m too cynical, but there is no way to move a congregation carefully enough on this issue that no one will leave and your job will definitely be safe and you won’t receive some angry (or heartbroken) emails.
The bigger question of moving a congregation from inerrancy to errancy, I think, is one of intention: will you have meaningful and honest dialogue with your congregants about what is in the Bible? Will you model for them a faith in process? Will you show them there is something good on the other side of deconstruction—something potentially freeing and life-giving?
It’s not how. That’s pretty easy. It’s … will you?
I know jobs are on the line. I know denominational ties limit options sometimes. I know relationships could fracture. I know it’s not easy.But I hope someday you are able to answer, “yes.” Maybe this little blog can be a first step. If you say yes, if you bring your honest thoughts, your new knowledge, your post-seminary unlearning and relearning to the table in a Sunday sermon, some people will feel threatened and leave (it’s a sad truth), but others will feel air rushing into their lungs for the first time in a long time. I decided a long time ago that my ministry would be for them. The people who left the church where I pastor had other communities, other churches with a “safer” statement of faith. But the people who are gasping for air? Do they have other options? They didn’t have many in my town.
Being honest with where you are takes a lot of bravery and vulnerability. I hope the thought of reviving some people in the seats will sustain you and encourage the very necessary and important conversations that will unfold. If we are being honest, this issue—what the Bible is and what it meant/means and what we expect from it and how we read it—is the linchpin for so many other issues: creation/evolution, women in ministry, LGBTQ inclusion, social justice issues, being less of an a**hole who thinks they know everything. For years, I stalled on many of these issues for fear of misreading the Bible, for fear of not knowing everything, for fear of being wrong. Who knows where honest and recurring conversations about the Bible could take you and your congregation, what possibilities it could open up? For me and my community, it’s been the ride of a lifetime, and we have found Jesus at the center of it.
So … will you?
Maybe it’s time to try.
Josh James (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is one of the pastors at The Restoration Project, a Cooperative Baptist church in Salisbury, MD. He is passionate about preaching nerdy and somewhat provocative, historically-critical sermons….and watching Netflix. Equally.