It happens far too often.

It happens in sermons broadcast around the globe. It happens in political speeches. It happens behind closed doors where pastors reprimand congregants.

It happened to me just a few weeks ago. I heard someone say (and I’m paraphrasing): “But the Bible says _________, so you have to believe it! You have to accept it! Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? If you do, then you’ll do what it says!”

And I immediately wanted to interrupt. I wanted to say…

“Yes, the Bible is the Word of God. I believe that. But even more than that, Jesus is the Word of God. And to me, if the Bible’s true purpose is to reveal Jesus to the world, then this influences how I read the Bible. I need to understand why each book of the Bible was included, and how each book serves to help reveal what was distinct and essential about Jesus.

“So when you say ‘The Bible says…’, I say back to you, ‘Why do you think the Bible says that? Do you think everything the Bible says is an instruction? Do you think every part of the Bible is equal, and to be understood as a Law? Or do you think that we should seek to understand how each book of the Bible, each line of the Bible, distinctly serves to help us understand and appreciate the Living Word Himself?”

That I believe the Bible is the Word of God does not mean that I can pull any line out of its context and take it as direct instruction for my behavior. If I do that, I will wreak havoc through misinterpretation, bending verses toward purposes they were never meant to serve.

That I believe the Bible is the Word of God does not mean that I assume all Scriptures are easily understood, or that everyone is meant to arrive at the same understanding about them. So even if the Bible “says it” … that doesn’t “settle it.” Far from it. If the Bible says it, the proper response is for me to humbly, faithfully, and diligently investigate what it means… and for me to be willing to hold back from ever asserting complete certainty about its proper interpretation, as I remain a sinner, incomplete, seeing through a glass darkly. The Bible, taken as a whole, is more like a great poem than a great how-to manual; my understanding of it evolves and deepens the more I attend to it, and I often find myself surrendering interpretations about which I was once zealously certain.

That I believe the Bible is the Word of God does not mean that I will accept as my marching orders any Biblical verses that do not harmonize with the teachings and actions of Jesus himself. For example, any use of Scripture employed to scorn, ostracize, or judge our neighbors in this world runs directly contrary to the spirit of Christ. The only times I see Christ himself expressing scorn and contempt, it’s when he’s responding to those who seize Scriptures and use them to put others down as being unacceptable and raise themselves up as enlightened and righteous. In short, Jesus speaks scornfully specifically to those who wave God’s Word scornfully at some “unacceptable” Other from a position of false superiority; he shows them that he is the Only One with permission to assert such authority.

I believe that the words of any passage in scripture exist in a context; and that context exists within a particular document; and that document is written in a particular genre that may be eyewitness testimony, or poetry, or a particular personal letter to a particular community, or a record of history passed on through written and oral traditions. Thus, to assume that any particular paragraph is meant as a lesson in what we should do is to disrespect what the Scriptures are.

The Old Testament is full of stories and poems and chronicles of rules and records of passionate human expression that show us the flailing of humankind, demonstrations of desperation and hope in a world without Christ. There are great revelations of wisdom, but not everything everyone says — not even the psalms of David — are meant to be examples we should follow. They are sometimes meant to reveal the insufficiency and failing of the human heart and to reveal our need for Christ, who will answer those expressions. When the psalmist angrily asks God to bring about the slaughter of mothers and babies, I do not take that to mean that he’s in a Christ-like spirit — rather, I take that passage as showing me that even if I confess my most vengeful and violent desires to God, God will still show mercy to me and listen to me and love me. And then he will answer — as he did through Christ — by showing us a different possibility.

Yes, all scriptures are profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness… because they help reveal (often by contrast) the scandal of his love and grace. Some scriptures reveal Jesus by reflection, some by anticipation, and sometimes by stark contrast to his example.

Christ makes all things new, asking us to love our neighbor, to serve the outcast, to help the poor, to put our arms around those who offend us, to refrain from retaliation, to accept and endure persecution as Jesus himself did even to the point of death because he meant to demonstrate a victory over death rather than a defense against it.

This is where I get into trouble with a lot of my fellow believers, but I take everything written by believers after Jesus with half a grain of salt.

I have never been convinced that we’re to accept every line written by the Apostles in their letters as 100% Pure Jesus Gold.

Were they inspired by God? I have no doubt. They are rich with priceless wisdom that reflects Jesus’s influence and the movement of the Spirit in the heads and hearts of the writers. But I think that they give us evidence that their authors are imperfect human beings struggling — bravely and insightfully — to live out what they learned from Jesus. In their writing, we see both wisdom and shortcomings, moments of glorious revelation and moments of imperfection. We see them growing and changing. These writers were inspired by, influenced by, and led by Jesus… but they were not Jesus. They were not 100% reliable Bose Surround Sound Speaker Systems channeling God’s own voice. And in no way were their writings meant to be taken as a Replacement Law for the one Jesus fulfilled in his grace and sacrifice.

They were writing in faith. If God took over their minds and dictated everything they wrote, they would not have been writing in faith — they would have been writing in certainty. Or, better, they wouldn’t have been writing at all. God could have shown up and handed them things already written, but he didn’t. His disciples and apostles wrote, building on what they had learned from Jesus, with astonishing insight, but from an incomplete human perspective.

I struggle with many passages in the New Testament, trying to reconcile how they align with things Jesus himself said and did. It is important that I go on struggling. But I must guard my heart against seizing hold of the Apostle Paul’s writings and using them in a way that overrides what Jesus said and did, using them to excuse self-righteous or ungraceful words or actions against others. If I do find myself clinging to Paul’s words in order to defend my position, and that position seems to clash with Christ’s own teaching, then I’m probably committing one of two possible errors: I’m misunderstanding Paul’s meaning, or I’m embracing and favoring one of his not-so-perfect passages.

So the Bible may say it. But do I agree with it? Does that “settle it”?

Sorry… I reject that question.

Not everything in the Bible is written there for us to agree with and obey. All Scriptures are there to challenge us, to tease our minds into active thought. They are not there to secure our current set of opinions, but to call them into question. That is to say, all scriptures exist to drive us into a deeper relationship with (and thus dialogue with) Jesus.

I suspect that if I take any passage to Jesus and ask “What am I to do with this Scripture, Jesus?”, he will answer something like this:

“How much does this Scripture resonate with what I’ve shown you and done for you? Is it there to serve as harmony with, or as dissonance with, what I AM? It’s literature, for crying out loud. It’s not a book of rules. It’s supposed to be hard work. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may know what the will of God is. Don’t be hard on those who don’t understand it fully yet… because have I not been forgiving of you over all these years of your as-yet-incomplete understanding? Here’s what I ask of you: Put away your knife, zealous disciple. Seek justice. But love mercy. And walk humbly with your God. Because I love your company, and I’d hate to lose you.”

So that is why I didn’t speak up today. That’s why I didn’t interrupt.

If I had spoken up, I probably would have responded with words that, while driven by a desire for justice, would have been spoken with something less than mercy and humility. I needed to calm down, to remember how much I still have yet to understand, and to write all of these things with a disclaimer taken from an Over the Rhine song: “And like all true believers, I am truly skeptical of all that I have said.”