In last week's column, I explained that members of my congregation hail from various Christian traditions and social backgrounds, yet have agreed to peacefully disagree on some issues while still cooperating as brothers and sisters.
Sometimes they disagree with me, their pastor, but they love me anyway.
Occasionally they even disagree with that other Paul, St. Paul of biblical fame.
For instance, I said, the other Paul told women to keep silent in churches and subject themselves to men.
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But in a recent meeting of our weekly Bible study group for adults, the consensus — for once, we agreed — turned out to be that St. Paul was, like us, a product of his own time, culture and biases.
While our members expressed respect for him, they also thought he was mistaken about God's role for Christian women. Even the men thought so. Even the theological and political conservatives did. It was unanimous, something that almost never happens.
This observation was only part of a lengthier column, but it was the part that seemed to irritate, or at least confuse, a few readers.
They asked on what grounds I imagined we were empowered to decide St. Paul and the Bible might have been mistaken. About anything.
A couple of readers cited 2 Timothy 3:16-17: "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."
In short, if St. Paul, writing in the Bible, said all Scripture is divinely inspired, who are we to question him? If we start chucking out Bible verses we don't agree with, where do we stop? How do we then rely on any of the Scriptures as true?
These are fair questions.
Believe me, I get the issue. I've been wrestling with it for 30-plus years.
Allow me to offer my shortest answer to an exceedingly complicated problem.
First, it's helpful to remember that when St. Paul wrote 2 Timothy (yes, I realize some scholars don't think this letter was composed by Paul), he would, by definition, have been referring to the Old Testament as the "Scripture," since the New Testament canon didn't exist as a whole and wouldn't be settled for another 200 years.
Thus the New Testament, of which 2 Timothy and Paul's other biblical letters are part, wasn't yet "Scripture," strictly speaking.
Second, when it came to the Old Testament, to which Paul was referring, both he and Jesus alike seemed to pick and choose those Scriptures they thought applicable to their own messages, and to dismiss passages they didn't agree with.
So did various additional early Christian leaders.
Otherwise, we might still be avoiding shellfish, practicing slavery and publicly stoning adulterers and disrespectful children. Early on, Christians decided those particular Old Testament Scriptures didn't apply.
Third, when it comes to following the New Testament, which Christians today do hold as Scriptural, it seems contemporary churchgoers pick and choose from it as well.
In Romans and Ephesians, Paul plainly professes the doctrine of divine predestination (not mere foreknowledge). How many churches teach that?
Jesus explicitly bans nearly all divorces (and adds that Moses' endorsement of divorce was a human concession not inspired by God).
Paul says women must keep their heads covered in church services.
I don't know too many congregations that uphold all those Scriptures.
I look at the conundrum like this. The Bible is a great big, complicated book. You read it selectively in your church, whether or not you recognize that fact or are willing to admit it. You do.
So do we. In our church, we tend to follow a rubric for understanding the Bible that was laid down long ago by Protestant forebears: We examine the Scriptures alongside historic Christian traditions, common sense and experience.
On the issue of women's roles, Scripture and tradition indicate women should keep silent and be subservient. Common sense and experience tell us that's not necessarily the best practice today, even if it was accepted in the ancient Roman Empire.
St. Paul also wrote: "We know in part, we prophesy in part, we see through a glass darkly."
I think that was true of him, and it's true of us at our church. We continue trying to listen to and learn from each other and from the Spirit who indwells us.
We realize, and freely acknowledge, that we might be the ones who are wrong. We stand to be corrected. We, too, see through that glass darkly.
We discuss these matters in good faith — because we trust each other.
I don't have faith that my fellow parishioners are always right, but I know their hearts are in the right place. I trust their motives, even when I dispute their conclusions.
We never ignore Scriptures willy-nilly, but we don't feel compelled to accept them unthinkingly, especially if they seem tied to a specific time, culture or congregation.
To me, when it comes to discerning the Scriptures, you have to find a balance. If you're not careful, you can fall out of the canoe on either side.
One mistake is to take the Bible too lightly, to reject whatever's inconvenient or unpopular. Let's face it: It's just about all inconvenient and much of it's unpopular.
The other mistake is to make the Bible a graven idol — to worship it as if it's perfect. As Jesus warned, the Scriptures were designed to lead us to the Lord, not to become our Lord.