Growing up, church had less to do with Christ than it had to do with “looking the part” somehow. And the three things that were condemned were alcohol, tattoos, and jewelry. But the ones labelling these things as sinful were the ones who kept blinging out every Sunday morning with the shiniest watches, sparkliest sarees, and spitshined Lexus SUVs… Doctrines of anti-this and anti-that are silly if they’re rooted in irrational fears. They’re also reckless.
He glanced around the room to distract himself for a moment, drops of sweat sliding down his skin and stinging the long lingering scars on his back. But he was used to the pain by now. He was ten, after all. A tall, emaciated, slender ten with caramel skin.
There was a Bible on the side table, the pages frayed and worn, and the binding barely holding it together anymore. Most likely from years of mishandling, and not from years of use. If he knew how to read, the book would have served more of a purpose for him.
The boy clutched his belly, groaning lightly and waiting for his turn as the overseer glared from the doorway. Silently snarling. The boy knew it was a mistrusting glare. A mistrusting snarl. It was, after all, a convenient excuse to feel nauseous just as the sun rose highest over the rest of his day’s duties. And, although there was no proof of it, he and the rest of the plantation slavehands were magnificent liars; his master always remembered to point out that everything made them sick, and nothing made them happy.
But it was easy to call others liars when you were the one holding the whip.
The boy waited for his turn to see the negro nurse. All he wanted was something to make his belly stop aching.
And all he could remember was that phrase echoing in his head. Verse is what the overseer would call it. It was etched into his memory from when his father would hold him and whisper in his ears, “God’s gon’ be good to us. We just obey.” He was always told that it was a verse from that frayed book. The one on that table in the room. Something about obeying his masters. The masters would repeat it, the overseer would repeat it, and so would the older slaves — the ones that were too old to fight back and too wise to want to. And if his father’s god said so, why shouldn’t he believe it himself?
“Obey your masters” lingered in his head.
Suddenly, an explosion and a scream in the next room.
And, then, a sudden rush of sweltering heat before the flames of the spilled candlefire began to lick the doorframe of the infirmary’s office room. The boy fell backward from the wave of heat and fumes hurtling at him, sliding a good five feet back on the wood floor before the overseer’s thick fingers clutched at his shirt collar, yanking him back on his feet. The boy looked up and watched the older white man haul him towards safety.
The boy was frightened. From the explosion. From how hard he was being pulled up to his feet and out of the shoddy burning building.
But there were screams from inside the next room. The screams of someone more frightened than him.
And as the boy was being dragged to safety, he instinctively wriggled himself free, not considering the danger as he sprinted into the fire in the next room. The overseer could only bark commands at him as he saved himself and collapsed onto the safety of the grass outside.
The adrenaline masked the boy’s stomach ache for the moment, his eyes scanning every inch of the flames, the room brighter than the noon sun outside. The screams got louder and when he knew he found her, he threw the body over his bony shoulder and sprinted with all the energy he had left in him. Following the flames. Following the daylight. His shirt was smoldering as he fell onto the grass with the nurse, the both of them gasping for air.
The nurse was burned badly and the skin on her left arm hung off her bone like clothes left to dry out on a wire in the sun. The boy turned and watched the roof collapse, the flames engulfing everything inside it as a crowd joined them on the grass. Some were his older brothers. Others were just other slaves.
Gasping hard, he was met with a blow to the face.
The sound of the whip cracking overtook the crackling of the flames.
The boy fell to the ground, shaking in pain. The overseer was foaming at the mouth, angered by the sight of a slave who dared run when he pulled. Acts of bravery meant nothing to the ones who only saw acts of defiance. And this was another act of defiance. Another reason to show why masters were to be obeyed and slaves were to be disciplined.
The overseer turned his head and looked at the burned negro nurse, wailing in pain and with no one around brave enough to try to help. He spit on the grass and turned his attention back to the boy, smirking a bit as he fixed his fingers around the whip handle once more, readying another blow.
He yelled loud enough so that the rest of the audience would know better for the next time. Because there was always going to be a next time.
“Burned niggers are better left dead niggers! Don’t you ever play a hero again, boy.”
As the whip broke the boy’s skin, he screamed and clawed at the grass.
And all he could hear in his head was that phrase.
“Obey your masters.”
This post is for the people who have read the Bible and are willing to say that they’ve figured it out.
For the people who have studied the reference materials and scholarly articles and are willing to say that their interpretation of what’s going on in the Word is the only interpretation that’s right.
For the people who look at the 3 instances in the New Testament where some variation of “Slaves, obey your masters” is mentioned — in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter — and can say with a straight face that the way the world has viewed these 3 verses hasn’t evolved.
If you’re one of those people who can’t possibly be wrong about any of these thoughts… I’m here to tell you that you’re probably wrong about that.
And that’s okay!
The truth is that we have been wrong before. We have been so wrong.
Slave trade across the Atlantic was justified, proliferated, and accepted — in large part — because Bible-thumping theologians and laymen would whip out their Bibles, point to Genesis 9:24-27, and assure the strangers across the ocean that God had set them apart to be slaves anyway. Because Noah had commanded it generations ago.
The Bible-thumping helped the white usurpers — European and American alike — assert their dominance over skeptical native Africans who were already wary of the strangers. And it helped them give crafty African merchants a reason to buy into the economy of an endeavor as heinous as selling their own. Even if they barely identified with “their own” like that at the time, the Bible made the decision easy enough.
Centuries and generations later, as we look back at that era in history, most of us shudder and shake our heads. Not just at the atrocities that were committed against fellow human beings, but also at the fact that we could be so, so wrong about the Bible that we still believe in today.
Was slavery in the Bible? Yeah.
Has the Bible changed? No.
Have we been right about Biblical interpretation throughout history? Absolutely not.
And that’s where I want to go with this post.
I grew up in a church that preached doctrine after doctrine after doctrine based on disjointed verse after disjointed verse after disjointed verse that made no sense if people just stopped to ask questions about it. But we didn’t. We couldn’t. It wasn’t our place to ask our leaders whether what they believed in the Bible was right… right?
I’m positing two things in this post.
First, as leaders, we have a responsibility to take the Bible seriously. We often just pool together verses that help defend our arguments — both legitimate and off-base — and disregard the possibility that we could be wholly forgetting to look at things from another angle.
Secondly, as a church, we have a responsibility to talk to our leaders. Just because we’re told things — both legitimate and off-base — from the pulpit, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a balance to be found in the air of disagreement between us.
But we’ll need to stop talking over each other.
The Shepherd Dilemma
Leaders, we all have a bad habit of reacting out of fear. It’s just how we’re wired naturally, though.
Like when we’re fans of Kobe and people say he’s not clutch, we’ll disregard all the numbers that prove he isn’t… just to show off the few stats that demonstrate he could be.
Or when we’re fans of LeBron and people say he didn’t play hard in the last game, we’ll disregard all the open jumpers he passed on… just to show off the assist numbers that demonstrated he was doing something.
We do this stuff all the time. And we’ve all done it. When we have a point we want to make, we’ll use only the facts that are relevant to the narrative we want to share.
But we are being irresponsible if we use the Bible to respond out of fear. We are being irresponsible if we pick-and-choose the 3 verses that defend this one belief that we have because, if we don’t mention these verses, the souls of the next generation will be crushed and damaged and they’ll all be subject to eternal damnation.
I call it “The Shepherd Dilemma”. It’s like going out and getting a fancy new Maserati. Burnt orange. Iced out errythin’. And you start driving that thing on the highway when a cop flashes you from another lane behind you. You’re following the speed limit and you have no intention of doing anything reckless, but the cop pays closer attention to you. Because you’re the one driving a Maserati. Because, even though you may not do anything reckless, you could.
Leaders, we have this unfortunate way of handling some of the people around us like the wary highway cops handle Maseratis on the road. Sometimes, we’re too scared that the rest of the church, or our worship team, or our Sunday School class could screw up… even though they may not.
And so, we’ll start throwing verses at them. But only the verses we feel comfortable talking about because they prove our points… to some degree.
He’s got a crazy beard! Let me flip open my Bible to Leviticus 19 and condemn him. He’s got tattoos! Let me turn to Leviticus 19 and teach him a lesson.
First of all, let’s find another book to read other than just Leviticus 19, because we’re kinda overdoing it at this point.
Secondly, what about verse 17 mentioning not to hold grudges. Do we follow that? … Or verse 12 mentioning not to make promises you don’t intend to keep. Is that part of our sermon and devotion series? … Or verse 19 mentioning not to wear clothing woven with 2 fabrics. Is your closet free from half polyester/half cotton, breathable mesh dress shirts?
I’m not here to condone beard-growing and tattoos. There are more important fish to fry than whether this other person’s beard is the same shape as the one I have on my face or whether a person’s tattoo choices accurately reflect their walks with God. Because, frankly, neither of those matters take us on a first class trip straight to hell any more than us wearing a shirt made with 2 different fabrics would.
This is an issue of exegesis vs. eisegesis, two dramatically different approaches to studying the Bible. Exegesis — meaning “to lead out of” — is the exposition of scripture that’s based on objective analysis. Eisegesis — which means “to lead into” — on the other hand, is a subjective interpretation of scripture. Often, even when we think we know the Bible really well, we’re just being subjective and doing scripture absolutely no justice.
The exegetical issues that arise when trying to apply Old Testament laws to current day issues are alarming but we tend to try and do it anyway.
Are tattoos a sin? This is worth mentioning if only because it’s more interesting that we can easily dismiss references like God telling us that we’re engraved upon the palms of his hands and God saying that when we become his, we’d write his names on the backs of our hands. We can dismiss these two pretty easily, but can staunchly hold on to Leviticus 19… which is cushioned by laws for agriculture and mercantilism we don’t follow anyway.
Do I care enough about tattoos to sit here and argue about them? Not really.
But should we care enough about taking the Bible seriously to at least hear out all of the arguments before we stubbornly hold onto disjointed verses from Leviticus? Yeah.
(Oh and if our bodies are the temple of God, we probably shouldn’t worry about doing eyebrows, getting corrective surgeries, or wearing extensions. That’s another verse we use against tattooing.)
Just because we have convictions on a matter doesn’t make our use of the Bible to defend our convictions effective… or right. Just because we read the Bible more or have theology degrees or have years of service under our belts doesn’t give us the excuse to hide behind our fears that the sky will fall down the moment we say something as humbling as:
“The Bible doesn’t necessarily condemn or condone this activity, so we need to think practically about these things…. Let’s talk. Do you need to do this thing?”
Talking like that won’t kill us, I promise.
Every Bible school across the country believes in a different set of tenets than the next and that’s proof enough that we all need to just stop talking over each other and listen… because none of us has “figured this out” yet.
None of us.
But the Holy Spirit constantly, constantly can reveal himselfto us. And listening to each other would only serve to help in the revelatory process.
Trust the Holy Spirit and the power of communication before you trust your gut and worry that being open enough to listen will lead the world to hell.
We’ll never reach that level of understanding if we can’t stop reading our Bibles on slippery slopes.
Author and professor Preston Sprinkle wrote an article about what the Bible says about alcohol. It’s a great read and I suggest you take time to look at it, because he breaks it down better than you or I could.
Is drinking a sin? Sprinkle explains that the Bible doesn’t throw around this idea that alcohol is explicitly wrong. And alcohol is definitely not a sin in and of itself.
But abusing alcohol? Not good.
Sprinkle says something striking that most of us leaders don’t often stop to consider:
“When we strip away all the man-made clutter that dims the Gospel, the full glory of Jesus shines much brighter.”
What does the Bible say about drinking? In the Bible, God intends for alcohol to be a good thing.
The point is that God’s intention for alcohol in the Bible is a good one. But people screwed it up. Because alcohol is powerful and deleterious and devastating… when abused.
As leaders, it is irresponsible for us to tell others that the Bible talks negatively about alcohol or that alcohol is a sin. Our fears of what alcohol abuse can potentially do to us should not be church doctrine.
Have we tainted it and become ostentatious with money and other lavish things? Sure.
But we cannot make doctrines out of things that God is using as rewards in the grand scheme of things in his Word.
That’s not even being irresponsible anymore. That’s just being selfish.
We have more to learn from each other if we’re transparent with each other than if we react and cower in fear… using the Bible as a crutch to defend our fears.
I get it. It’s scary. If we tell somebody that the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn tattoos, they could probably go and get their whole body tatted up. And if we tell somebody that the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn alcohol, then we’re just gonna lose our whole church to cirrhosis and abusive behaviors. And if we tell somebody that the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn jewelry, then we’re just gonna have a church that’s just way too blinged out.
Or we may just have healthier dialogues of what God is telling us in the Bible about our reward in heaven and our goals here on earth.
We’re not going to heaven to only just sit around a throne and sing songs all day like the angels do in Revelation. That’s what we’re often told in our churches, but there’s more beauty to it.
There’s something more epic.
The truth is that there’s this epic feast in this epic mansion with wine and singing and rejoicing and celebration. Because we made it. Through a life of sorrow to our home with the God who created us.
We grow up singing songs of banqueting tables and not having tears anymore and being invited to feasts with the King. And somewhere along the way, our fears of people going too wild with these future promises keep us from singing those same songs. We become more somber.
And it’s a matter of perspective, really. God, throughout the Bible, creates these things with his lens of perfection. Eden was perfect until we screwed it up. Man was perfect until we sinned. God’s rewards of sex, alcohol, abundance, and celebration were good things until we managed to do our best to taint it all.
So can I blame us for thinking of these things through the lens of “These things have the potential to kill us”? No. Not really.
But God has established these things through the lens of “These are good things that you folks keep on messing up.” In a much less judgmental tone, of course.
Even though we’re promised even more than that — to actually sit and dine with the King in his everlasting home.
Heaven is epic. God’s promises are epic. And we need to be transparent about just how epic God intended all of these gifts to be.
Because the truth is we’re gonna get crunk that day, guys.
And it’s time we stopped diminishing the beauty of that promise.
If you’re a young person reading this and you’re telling yourself, “Oh my goodness, Charles just gave us permission to stock our fridges with alcohol, get tattoos everywhere, and get jewelry that doesn’t even make sense but would be good to have anyway”, I just want to tell you…
That’s not what I’m saying.
Don’t be idiots.
I don’t have to educate you on the dangers of alcohol abuse. Your body goes nuts when certain levels of alcohol infiltrate your blood stream.
I don’t have to tell you how impractical excessive tattoos are in almost all professional settings.
I don’t have to tell you that getting jewelry for the sake of getting jewelry is an incredible waste of money. Money that would be better spent somewhere else.
Being perfectly honest, you’re not idiots. You guys know this stuff.
But what I am saying is that I will not let my fears of what you could do to abuse any of these things steer the way I read my Bible, the way I live my life as an example for you, and the way I express my faith through my art and work.
My fears of what you could do to abuse any of these things shouldn’t and won’t color my expectations of church doctrine.
If anything, my fears will force me to be a steadier, more rock solid, consistent leader for you.
The Sheep Dilemma
It’s not just up to leaders to read the Bible, pray about it, and discern what’s being shared in the quiet places of meditation and reflection.
The church can not sit back in the pews, stay awake long enough to hear the whole sermon, and then walk out the doors, not to read the Bible again until the next Sunday service.
And I think we do that a lot, unfortunately.
I call this “The Sheep Dilemma”.
The conversations begin on our stages from the leaders that share what they’ve learned from the Word. And they end on our stages when the leaders end their messages.
We need to ask our leaders to share what’s on their hearts, to explain what they talked about, and to talk to us about what we thought the Word was saying.
Trust me. As leaders, we want to teach and answer questions and engage in healthy discussions.
Having a church chock full of people who are reading the Bible and thinking about how the church can engage every sphere of economic, social, and political influence around us? That would be incredible.
I can’t pretend to speak for all leaders, though, and many of our churches have become overrun with closed-minded and closed-eared leaders. Reacting to “But drinking doesn’t have to be bad…” with “You’re telling me you want to be an alcoholic, so I’m not gonna listen to you”. There’s a beauty in the overall conversation if we all stop to wait for the noise to dissipate and the points to resonate.
But, for the most part, try. Try asking. Try talking.
And if that doesn’t work, and you can’t get a healthy conversation with your leaders — despite the fact that you’re trying to read, pray, meditate, and ask intelligently and respectfully — then move on. Either physically or otherwise.
But just try.
Sheep don’t just alert the shepherd when their legs are hurting or their wool needs shearing. They bleat when there’s danger. Or when they’re hungry. Or when they’re thirsty.
Sheep are more well-rounded in their shepherd-communication skills than we are with ours.
That’s stupid. Read the Bible and ask relevant questions.
And for the love of all things good, if your church builds an entire doctrine about how jewelry is a sin and it’ll take you to hell, that’s bad doctrine. Let’s just call it like it is. Let’s be perfectly transparent here. Because that’s absurd.
Not to argue and yell and get pissed off at each other until we get to head back to our corners for us to be able to do it all over again.
Talk. Ask. Communicate.
Let’s remind our leaders that reading the Bible on slippery slopes doesn’t have to be the only way to read the Bible.
I once had a Facebook conversation with a leader I respect. And I’m mentioning this because I’ve grown up since this incident to be less confrontational and more understanding on my end of things. And I can still say that I have a ton of respect for the person who I shared this back-and-forth with years ago.
It was around 2 am. I had posted something linking to a thread on a friend’s wall. My post was more of a “Check out what we’re talking about on my friend’s wall about this other church’s confusing doctrine” and less of a “Check out my friend’s wall and let’s belittle a pastor and his church and his entire life’s work.”
But much is lost in translation. Especially on Facebook. Especially when it’s about this pastor.
He posted comment after comment, flexing his impressive theological muscle, defending the other pastor — who was clearly a friend of his. And the whole time, I was trying to reiterate that I wasn’t bashing this pastor or his church or his life’s work; I was just asking questions about what he’s actively written about in books and what they go up on stage to preach to congregations. I didn’t feel like any of this was off-limits to honest questions.
By the end of the heated conversation, I decided to give up. The rationale he was expressing was “If you ever met the guy, you’d realize that he’s great, and thus, because He believes in the Holy Spirit, he’s preaching the right thing. And if you’ve never met him, you can’t question him.”
I’m paraphrasing that — for lack of time — but I respectfully disagreed. Because being a great guy doesn’t make what you write books about and preach about… correct. Or even free from constructive critique.
And having to meet the person who wrote books or preached something shouldn’t have to be the requirement for us to ask about what they’re talking about. Otherwise, why are we bothering to learn about the church scholars and historians that came before us? Unless the Flappy Bird guy is using his free time to build the world a time machine, we are never, ever meeting our church heroes and leaders of lore.
It hasn’t stopped us from writing books in response to their thoughts, or talking about their arguments in scholarly circles.
So meeting somebody doesn’t have to be what sets off a conversation.
Asking questions about it shouldn’t turn me or anybody else into a three-headed monster. At 2am or any other time.
But that’s where we need to evolve as a church. Leaders have to set aside their personal agendas — all our personal fears of the worst things in the world happening if we say we just don’t know the absolute answers to something — and listen to people. And the church has to be ready to ask questions and engage in meaningful, world-changing conversation without having to put up our fists in defense of ourselves.
Pastor and writer T.E. Hanna writes about this in detail on a post a while back, explaining just how beautiful it is when we find a balance between the different kinds of truth seekers that exist in a church. He sums it up:
All of the “groups have strengths and weaknesses. I find that I agree at times and disagree at others. Yet, I also find that the exposure to different ways of thinking about what it means to be authentically Christian is absolutely necessary. It is this exposure that has revealed to me many of those imperceptible boundaries that I had unknowingly formed around my faith, and has allowed me to broaden my understanding of the wide world in which God is at work. If we want to break out of our box, we need to be exposed to the ideas of those whose boxes look very different than our own.”
Can we become better at learning from each other? Yeah, I think so.
Should we? Absolutely.
Even a Traitor
This post has less to do with slavery and alcohol and tattoos and jewelry and more to do with being responsible as a church to seek the whole truth in what we’re experiencing in our study of the Word.
The truth is none of us have solved it. And for every 3 verses you can use to put down infant baptism, there are churches with better verses to defend their beliefs… Just like we would if one of our tenets was being questioned.
The church doesn’t grow through fragmentization. Rather, it can improve from the balances we find from talking about why we’re fragmentized. It can improve by telling the world how to be saved through Christ and not because we think we’re doing it right.
If the Great Commission was about Jesus telling us to go into all the world and create one church that reads the Bible one way and dresses in one color and parts their hair in one direction, I’d get you. I’d be totally on board with you.
But Jesus chose to include — in his circle of best buds — fishermen, money launderers, a couple of brothers that had tempers powerful enough that he called them “Sons of Thunder”… and even a traitor.
Because the point of this whole Christianity thing is better reflected in John 3:16 than it is in any combination of verses you’ll find in Leviticus 19.
Bad Biblical interpretation makes us slaves to lies and the fear that keeps us from communicating, learning, and being sharpened by the iron we should be for each other.
There’s nothing about our track record of being self-assured Bible scholars that should give us the confidence that we can never be wrong.
Because we’ve been wrong before. So wrong.
I’ve been wrong myself. And I’m a leader. It’s a part of the process of improving.
It’s about time we all did things a little better. ■