What Does It Mean To Be Non-Denominational?

It seems this term is evolving. That happens in the English language, and not always in a helpful way.

I come from a church tradition that has strived for unity among Christians [Stone/Campbell Restoration Movement]. We’ve had some embarrassing failures in pursuit of that admirable goal. Yet we still cherish the belief that we’re not the only Christians but Christians only.

We call ourselves non-denominational because we don’t identify with any specific historical denomination. Within our churches you’ll find believers who were formerly associated with every imaginable variation of Christianity, and others who never belong to any sort of church.

In most of this movement we have no formal denominational structure. No headquarters. No bishops. No lengthy creed to which everyone must subscribe. We have many thousands of congregations, linked by a loose network. When I say “we” that does denote some identity. I’ve told people that we’re sort of a denomination, but with a small “d.”

There have always been similar churches throughout Christian history, but not a movement on the scale we see among our independent churches.

Today, there are innumerable, mostly Evangelical, churches that also describe themselves as non-denominational. That’s fine, because they fit the definition.

Yet I’ve seen a trend develop where the term non-denominational is being used in a couple other contexts.

Some people who identify as Christian, but who are not or never have been associated with any specific church, are now calling themselves non-denominational. I suppose that’s technically true, but I personally feel they are cheating themselves by choosing to be unattached and supported.  Perhaps by being off on their own they feel they are free and clear of any accountability, or community expectation, or responsibility for wellbeing of others.

I’ve also noticed that there are others, who may or may not be theists [someone who believes there is a God], who are now using the term in an even broader since. Instead of not wanting to be identified as a Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc, they don’t even want to be identified as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. They’ve heard the term non-denominational, and have decided they’ll use it.  They may be among those who perhaps prefer to call themselves “spiritual not religious.” [See “Spiritual, But Not Religious?” 5.4.2019]

That seems to be an innovation for the term non-denominational. It’s as if they want to avoid the topic altogether, and not reveal anything about their faith system, or even if they have one.

I don’t know. I just find it sad. It’s as if they are distancing themselves from something that could be a great benefit for them and their families.

Perhaps there was some trauma in their past that made them gun-shy of any conversations about any faith. Maybe they know that the topic can be divisive, and since it’s not that important to them they would rather be coy.  It could be that they truly just don’t know what they are missing, and don’t intend to find out.

They are handicapping themselves. The vast majority of people of faith, any faith, are sensitive and respectful and would never intentionally make things difficult for anyone.

Some people have always been reluctant to reveal how they feel, perhaps dreading expected reactions whether those fears are well-founded or not.

If that is the case some of them might be more open to exploring faith if people of faith did a better job of developing respectful caring relationships, so that the reluctant feel safe expressing how they feel.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

Does God Have A Gender?

Masculine? Feminine? I believe God is both, and neither.

There is some controversy in some quarters whether God is male or female. This has led to righteous indignation on both sides of that debate. It has spawned some new innovative theologies by those who see God as a “she.” It has resulted in new versions of the Bible in an attempt to make it more palatable to some.

I believe we need to think bigger.

God is the author and perfect example of character qualities that are typically considered masculine. God is also the author and perfect example of other character qualities that are typically considered feminine.

I have my own opinion on which of the following qualities and/or roles are more masculine and which are more feminine: leader, empathy, love, companion, teacher, protector, forgiving, encourager, guide, compassion, the one who sets the standard, the one who sacrifices all.

Some of these would be tough if not impossible to call.  And it varies person to person.

God invented and perfectly demonstrates all of these. So, is God male or female?

I am confident that God exists far beyond our ability to fully comprehend. We tend to divide all living things into male and female, except for critters like amoebas and earthworms. It’s hard to imagine some higher life-form that doesn’t fit into one of these two sexual categories.

Yet from all we know of God we’ve learned that there are some things that are simply beyond our limited abilities. Everything we’ve experienced in history and our lives has a beginning and an end. Whether someone believes in God or not, they aren’t capable of imagining how existence can’t have either.

So, back to the original question.

Despite the efforts of some to reimagine, redefine, and rewrite the Bible, it appears very clear that even though God is more than we can imagine, he intentionally revealed himself as masculine, most specifically as a father.

I know some will start going on about patriarchal dominance then and now. God is fully capable of knowing how people react to him throughout time, and yet went ahead and refers to the divine as a he.

Christians see Jesus as the son of God. That doesn’t mean God had sex with some woman who gave us Jesus. Jesus is God taking human form, packaged as a son so we have a clearer understanding of what it means to be a child of God. Jesus is the son to give us an example to follow of how we should act if we choose to be a part of the family of God [John 1:12-13].

God packages the divine character as masculine, and I don’t think we’re in a position to tell him he got it wrong.

To seek to change that shows a disrespect for his intent, as if we know better. God knew how influential and impactful the Bible would become and would not have allowed it to be so flawed as to mislead humanity.

Does that mean men are closer to God than women? Absolutely not. I think women are far more likely to naturally understand and practice divine qualities. This is more of a challenge for men, which also means they can experience greater progress toward understanding and practicing the things of God.

Neither men or women are superior. God gave us the sexes for a reason, and I’ve learned that he always knows what he’s doing. Male and female are essential, complimentary, equal.

The debate over the gender of God is an unnecessary distraction. Instead of spending our time on this, we’d all be better off if we put our efforts into being the kind of people that do their best to reflect the whole character of God.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

How Detailed Are God’s Plans?

True Confession: I get uneasy when I hear people say things like “It’s God’s will” or “Everything happens for a reason” or “God must have his reasons.”

There’s a certain theological tradition [which I won’t name] that teaches that God has already determined the future. We’re all just living out our fate because God’s sovereign will guarantees what will happen.

The proponents of this theology probably would not agree with how I phrased that, but as an objective outsider I do believe that summarizes their position.

I have two problems with that theology. It implies we are not responsible for our actions. Those that teach that theology would disagree, but I can’t see any other way to look at it. My other problem with it is that it makes God out to be a cruel bully.

I believe God knows what will happen because he can see through time. He exists in dimensions we can’t begin to comprehend. I think one of those is the ability to see the past, present, and future all at the same time. I don’t think I could handle that.

Knowing what will happen is not the same as making something happen. I know the leaves on my trees will turn colors this fall and drop to the ground. But I can’t make that happen without a flamethrower, which might upset my HOA.

I do believe God has a plan for my life and your life. But how detailed is it? You may think this is not related to my frustrations with that unnamed theology, but please be patient with me.

Here’s God’s plan for us:

1.  Discover God loves us, love him back, pass it around, go home [Heaven].

2. Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  [Matt. 22:34-40]

3.  “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  [Micah 6:8, Matt. 23:23]

4. Accept, cherish and protect a saving faith, a relationship with a loving heavenly father who has done so much for all of us.

5. Grow your faith. I believe that includes a lifelong effort to understand the Bible [how God talks to us], time in prayer [how we talk to God], being a part of a healthy affirming church, and perhaps finding a supportive Christian spouse.

These are among the important fundamental plans God has for everyone. That’s his plan for you.

Outside of these types of expectations I believe he allows a lot of latitude. Which job should I take? Where should I live? Who should I marry? At times he may have some specific direction for someone, but I doubt he cares whether I order the fries or the rings.

The more mature someone is in their faith, I believe the more latitude God allows. When our kids were small we gave them a lot of direction. We wanted them to understand and appreciate certain values. The older they got the more freedom they enjoyed. Today we don’t tell them anything. They both became outstanding and responsible adults. Now they give their own kids a lot of direction, and will until they get older.

Those that accept God as Father, giving him the honor, respect, and obedience he deserves as a perfect father, have the right to be called children of God [John 1:12-13]. Like with so many other things in life our lives here are a reflection of a divine pattern. God will give a lot of direction to new believers. But just as with our own children, he allows more latitude as we grow up in the faith.

We are still called to follow his universal will, spelled out in scripture. We can’t decide we’ll just shoot everyone we disagree with, although that would help reduce traffic. We must still follow the guidance he has laid out for us to help us live our best lives.

If my wife and I were to have continued to micromanage our own children’s lives up to today, we’d never have had the chance to see them blossom. God wants us to blossom. He gives us the freedom to grow and mature and thrive. He already knows our potential. He wants us to find it on our own, because that makes us more responsible and mature, which makes him proud.

We want our kids to have free will, and handle it well. God gave us free will because he wants us to learn to choose well.

You can’t have free will, and a proud heavenly father, if he is micromanaging every detail of humanity. If he were to do that it would also mean he is personally responsible for all manner of evil.

When a child dies it’s not God’s will. God wanted that child to grow up as much as anyone. But in his overall Master Plan, he chooses to not step in and right every wrong. He allows us to live in a fallen world because it serves a greater good in the end.

Yes, God has a plan for your life. He gives you some broad guidelines, and lets you fill in many of the details.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

Look For The Quiet Ones

There are times when you need someone who will just listen. Or to sit with you in silence. Or who will offer cautious gentle wise counsel.

These aren’t the people who barge into your life. They don’t nominate conversations. They come alongside with grace, and care, and peace. They are the ones who are, much of the time, rather quiet.

They may not look impressive. They probably don’t have positions of authority. They seem unlikely saviors. Their presence, their compassion, their attention they give you speak loudly, with thunderous effect, all the while they are mostly quiet.

We’ve all met the ones who aren’t quiet. They’re eager to join any conversation, the more controversial the better. These are the people who are certain they have all the answers, which are frequently simplistic. They are live performance robocalls. Arriving at their convenience uninvited, have no interest in what you have to say, pushing something on you.

I have to confess I’m likely to cringe when I encounter those people. I hope it doesn’t show. You can’t have a conversation because they are extremely confident in their opinions. Nothing I can say will make the slightest bit of difference.

I’ll typically avoid serious topics with him, or try to change the subject, or find a way to walk away. Perhaps if that keeps happening to them, they’ll notice a pattern. Since their attitude is a lifelong habit, I’ll guess they are blind to what’s going on.

They aren’t helpful. What we need are more of the quiet ones.

Years ago, I found a radio show where people would call in to speak with a counselor about their problems. At first, I loved it because the counselor was very insistent that people take personal responsibility for their actions.

But after a while I noticed two problems common with each call. 1. I never heard a hint of grace from the counselor. 2. The caller only had about 20-30 seconds to explain their situation before the counselor launched into a stern prescription on what the caller had to do to fix their problem. I quit listening.

Why look for the quiet ones? What’s special about them?

Quiet people usually listen more than they talk. You learn a lot more by listening than talking. They may have accumulated a lot more wisdom and perspective than others.

Quiet people give you time to tell your story. That’s not only more respectful, but it lets you know they have a reasonable understanding of your situation.

Quiet people usually avoid mindless chatter. When they do talk, they’re more likely to say something meaningful, something worth hearing.

Quiet people are less likely to give you simplistic cookie cutter solutions to complex problems.

Quiet people think before they speak, a skill that can be rare.

Quiet people understand the power of presence. Sometimes they need not say anything, but you know they care.

Quiet people don’t believe the world revolves around them, that their opinions are the gospel truth, that those who disagree with them are idiots.

Quiet people may draw from an inner spiritual well, filled with ancient truths, a gift from the Divine.

They may initiate a conversation, only to let you take over. They let us know they noticed us, that we are not invisible. They always have an encouraging word for us just when we might need it the most.

I can’t speak for others, but I feel motivated to become more quiet.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

A Century Later, The Letter Speaks Again

Ryan held the brittle yellowed clipping gently. It was almost 100 years old, and he knew he had to be careful. The morning sun through the window made the clipping look more historic, even dramatic.

While sorting through an old box his dad had recently given him, he found a well-worn Bible. It had belonged to his great-grandfather Broderick.

Ryan remembered the stories passed down through the generations about this God-loving man. Broderick had been admired in his community. More importantly, he had been a valued and respected leader in their church. He and his wife Lillian had always remained faithful despite what was happening around them.

Which is why he had written this letter to the editor of his local paper. In the 10 years following World War I, along with the relief felt by all after the Spanish Flu had subsided, so many people dropped all restraint and inhibition. They had gone wild, made worse by the wide spread flaunting of the Prohibition laws and the soaring Stock Market.

The brittle clipping was Broderick’s letter to his community, cautioning people to not lose their heads. He pleaded with them to focus their lives on things that actually mattered. Family, faith, duty, honor, and respect for everyone. He rightly predicted the good times would not last. The Market crash of 1929, the devastating Great Depression, and the horror of World War II would crush the spirits of many who had misplaced their priorities.1

Ryan thought about the problems of his own time. Although difficult, they weren’t nearly as challenging as what Broderick and Lillian witnessed.

Sierra walked into the dining room, and saw her husband staring out the window. Before him was an old open Bible and a small yellowed newspaper clipping.

“What more coffee?” she asked. Ryan didn’t answer, or even move. He was too deep in thought. Sierra quietly sat across from him and took a sip from her own cup. When she put her cup down, the sound got his attention. He looked at her and smiled.

“Read this” he told her as he slid the clipping over to her. For a few moments they sat in silence as Sierra read the letter.

When she was done, she looked at Ryan. “Wow. What your family has said about him is right. A lot of things he said then should still be said now.”

Ryan nodded. “I’m torn. Should I write a similar letter for today, or see if the paper will reprint Broderick’s letter, with background. They’d have to explain the situation back then, and the problems that follow the good times.”

“Why not both?” she asked. “What do you mean?”

She took another sip and went on. “Get the letter reprinted, with the explanation. Most people won’t automatically know the context, and won’t be able to connect the dots without help. But then write your own updated version, applied to our times. Aside from the timeliness of what you’d write, it’s an intriguing human-interest story of a family who has shared Christian values passed down through the generations.”

Ryan sat in thought. “I keep telling people you’re the smart one.” She laughed.

They both let the idea sink in. Ryan took a deep breath. “I have to wonder if more people today are obsessed with things that are so silly, made worse by social media. It seems even worse than when we were in high school.”

Sierra smiled. “Remember that picture I found of my mom in the 80s, the one where she was wearing deely bobbers? That was 40 years ago. People have always been silly.”

“Yeah, but I think it’s worse now” he answered. “A bigger problem is the lack of civility. I know from time to time in American history people have been at each other’s throats. It seems like we’ve reverted back to that.  The extremists of both sides dominate the conversation, and the moderates in the center who could bring us together are ignored.”

“Put that in your letter” she said. “And I hate the fact that traditional Christian values are automatically dismissed by so many. Those of us who hold on to those time-tested truths are subject to ridicule and hostility. Since the Church has always been there for us, too many people take it for granted. Some assume that any new idea, no matter how nutty, is always better. They go for the next new shiny ball no matter how it will affect people in the long run.”

Ryan leaned toward her. “One thing our pandemic has done is to remind people that we need to look out for each other more. Remember all the acts of good will last year?  Now, not so much. I’m not hopeful it will continue but it needs to.” He went on. “We’re told that back in Broderick and Lillian’s time, even before the Spanish Flu, people were more accustomed to looking for ways to help each other. We need that.”

Ryan and Sierra both heard the kids getting out of bed down the hallway. “And so it begins” Ryan said as he got up to help them get dressed. “I got this” Sierra told him. “You start working on your letter while it’s still fresh.”

Ryan looked at his wife and smiled. “Our letter.  We’re submitting this together.”

She gave him a kiss, and headed down the hall. Ryan took another deep breath, refilled his cup and headed to his desk.


1 See “What Worries Broderick And Lillian” from April 16, 2021.


Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

Does God Allow Undo?

I really appreciate “undo.” For people my age, it would have been extremely handy back when I was banging out college and seminary papers on my old Smith Corona manual [that means non-electric] typewriter.

There are times today when I’m working on my car or doing some other project, wish I hadn’t done whatever, and automatically think “just hit ‘undo.’” In those circumstances, I’ve found it doesn’t work.

Does God hit “undo?” No. Yes. It’s all about the timing.

From his interactions with people, we can see how Jesus was willing to forgive anyone of anything, with one exception. In Luke 12:8-10 Jesus reveals that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

The consensus has been that this refers to someone telling God to get lost, not wanting anything to do with him, refusing to grow a relationship with him. Without a relationship, we can’t allow him to pour out his grace. That is an insult to God’s love, generosity and patience, denying the Spirit’s intended role of planting God’s presence in our hearts.

We believe that as long as someone lives, they can reverse that rejection and accept his grace. But they must intentionally choose to do this as an act of their free will.

But what about the rest of us? Few have told God they want nothing to do with him. Is there a spiritual “undo?”

I believe there is, eventually.

When Jesus met the chief tax collector Zacchaeus [Luke 19:1-10], this collaborator underwent a radical transformation. He pledged to more than repay all those he had wronged. While forgiven, he still had to accept the consequences of his past actions.

Like with Zacchaeus, when Jesus shared his grace with others, he didn’t revise their history. They still had to deal with the messes they had made. Forgiven: yes. Erase the past: no.

Years ago, there was an inmate on a Midwestern death-row waiting for his execution. I knew the prison chaplain who had been working with this condemned man, who while on death-row had accepted Christ. Some on the outside called for his release, saying he should get a pardon because he was a different man.

The inmate stopped all those appeals filed on his behalf. He said he deserved to die for his crime because he owed a debt to society. He knew he had been forgiven and would soon be with Jesus. The execution was carried out.

Regardless of how one might feel about the death penalty, or despite understandable skepticism about jailhouse conversions, you have to respect the conviction of a man willing to accept death for his sin.

Even if we are forgiven, we must all still face the consequences of our actions. Forgiveness does not delete the past … yet.

Earlier I mentioned that the only thing that can’t be forgiven is to refuse to have anything to do with a very forgiving God. 

That can be done intentionally, but it can also be seen in our actions.  If someone claims to be Christian, asks for forgiveness, and then purposely repeats whatever act for which they needed forgiveness, you have to question whether they take their relationship with God seriously.

I’m very thankful I’m not [and you’re not] the one responsible for deciding whether someone’s request for forgiveness is genuine.  If you have no intention of changing your behavior, then your honesty has to be in question.  I’m glad God alone will make that determination, not us.  Father knows best.

Heb. 6:4-6 teaches us that if someone accepts grace, then later rejects God, they’ve lost any forgiveness he has given.  Again, they can reverse that rejection, if so inclined and they get around to it.

Heb. 10:26 repeats that warning.  Heb. 10:29 clarifies the problem with the phrase “insulted the Spirit of grace” [NIV]. 

When does final forgiveness happen?  When does God hit “undo” and delete the past?

It wouldn’t make sense for him to do that until we’ve completed our lives here.  I think it makes more sense for that final and complete deletion to take place once we are past any other chance of needing to ask for forgiveness.  That is, we’re dead.  Until then we remain accountable.

So, for now, God offers forgiveness to all who ask. In his wisdom he makes adjustments for those who are not sincere. Where is the line we should not cross? I think it’s healthier for us if we don’t know. Otherwise, we would be tempted to walk right up to the line and lean over as far as we think we could get away with and still be forgiven.

Then, in the fullness of time, all sins of those who have been genuine are not just forgiven, they are forgotten.

Heaven is a place where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  [Rev. 21:4  NIV]  So, guilt is obsolete.  It doesn’t belong in Heaven.  We can be fully and finally completely free.

Yes God does use “undo”, eventually.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

Why Our Church Isn’t Perfect

It has nothing to do with the music style or any other element of worship. Some people like this, others like that. It’s fine that we all have different tastes. I’m not there to savor my personal preferences anyway.

It’s also not about the staff. While I might do things differently, that’s not to say I’d do them better. I’m grateful they are serving as God directs them, doing the best they can.

It’s not about whether we agree on every single thing. There’s an old expression in the Church. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.” If something isn’t critically important, a faith deal breaker, it’s okay that there are differences in opinion. If it is something I feel is essential, I have to decide whether it’s so important that I’ll make it a deal breaker. Given my own fallibility, and the importance of expressing grace, I’m usually reluctant to push it that far.

It has nothing to do with the programs offered or not offered, the layout of the facility, or the condition of the landscaping.

The reason our church isn’t perfect is because … I’m there.

Romans 3:23 says we all mess up. None of us are perfect. I’ll not detail my imperfections here. Those who know me personally don’t need me to give them a list.

Our church also isn’t perfect because … of the people who sit nearby during worship services, and during Bible studies, and at outreach efforts, and with every other event at our church. They have their own flaws which I prefer not to dwell on.

The Church is a gathering of people who are doing their best to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength [Mark 12:28-31]. They do this imperfectly, just like me. I’m grateful that most of them are trying to become more than they were.

Once in a while you’ll have someone who thinks they have it all together. I feel sorry for those people, because everyone around them would disagree and could give examples to the contrary.

I’m okay being part of an imperfect church, in part because it’s my only option.

Those who attack churches because the believers aren’t perfect are wasting their time. We get it. We’re making an effort and always have been.

My prayer for you is that you’ll find your own imperfect church. You’ll fit right in.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

How To Read The Bible: Part 4 – Challenges To Your World View

“How dare you question/disagree/not enthusiastically support what I choose to think/believe/do.”

Sound familiar? Personally, I think this attitude has become more common/emotional/hostile in recent years. We’ve become a nation of touchy/reactive/combative people.

Feel free to pick and choose from the options listed above, to tailor it to match your experience. There’s a good chance you will need several variations.

What should we do when someone, whether through confrontation or their private example, challenges what we think, believe and do?

Each of us have a certain way of looking at the world. This worldview is the set of glasses we use to interpret and evaluate the world around us.

It’s based on a mixture of what we’ve been taught, life experience, and our own prioritization of what we believe is most important.

I live in Indianapolis. Our local NFL team are the Colts. There are passionate fans whose lives seem to revolve around this team; the players, the season, the tailgates, and the merchandise. Their second favorite team are whoever is playing the Patriots.

Their lives are focused on the Colts, and they see everything through that lens. It’s their worldview. I’m exaggerating, mostly, but you get the point. Our worldview is what we use to understand what is happening around us, and it affects how we will respond.

Add to this our own prejudices.

The militant atheist sees believers as misguided simpletons. The hardline fundamentalist believes only those within their small circle are right, a circle that grows ever smaller the more strictly they stick to their core values.

Neither side seems capable of seeing the vast number of positions that exist between these polar extremes.

There’s an old debate between the influences of nature versus nurture. We are born with a certain set of genes that cannot be avoided. They impact who we are. At the same time, we are all raised within an environment where family, education, and life experience helped shape who we became.

What is commonly missed is the powerful opportunity to exercise our free will. I cannot override genes. I can’t delete my upbringing. I can decide how I will react to both.

Unless we are willing to think for ourselves, we are trapped.

What do we do when we encounter moral guidance that conflicts with what we’ve been taught, or is different than what dominates our culture, or conflicts with our personal preferences?

A few months ago, I read where some scientists had discovered a new fundamental law of physics. No one had conceived of it before, and it was going to radically alter their understanding of science.

This is not uncommon. A NASA probe makes a new discovery that forces us to backtrack on what we “knew” before. This will be touted as gospel truth, until another probe finds something else surprising.

Perhaps we need to be more open to an ongoing quest for understanding.

To my fellow Christians who also believe in grace, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that Heaven is owned by God and not us. While we may have [hopefully humble] confidence in our interpretation of divine truth, we need to acknowledge that God has the last word.

To those who have little or no faith in the Christian tradition, may I suggest you loosen your grip on your assumptions.

Much of the Bible can be divided into two main categories. There is the historical record of the successes and failures of the people of God. There is also an abundance of moral teaching. While we may or may not repeat the exact examples of the people of the past, moral teaching is timeless.

It’s common for people to think modern society has evolved, and some biblical teaching no longer applies. This is one of the consequences of living in a Postmodern world where all former/conservative rules are tossed aside as outdated and irrelevant. They are then replaced with a new progressive set of moral/social expectations that are seen as much more enlightened and trendy.

The moral teaching of the Bible has stood the test of time. It has been an irreplaceable guide for billions throughout history. From a Christian perspective, it is a gift from an all-knowing all loving God who wants the best for us, and who is infinitely smarter than we can imagine.

Please don’t dismiss it out of hand without giving it a chance to reveal itself.

For Christians, marginal/cultural Christians, and non-Christians, we should all be open to continue to grow in our understanding of the deepest truths. When we don’t, we imprison ourselves in the past, and deny ourselves the opportunity to become more than we are.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

How To Read The Bible: Part 3 – The Literal Vs. Figurative Puzzle

Imagine reading a set of instructions about getting ready for a trip, on your horse, written a couple hundred years ago. Part of it covers checking the horseshoes, making certain the saddle is secure, and having a supply of carrots as a reward for your ride.

Whenever I take a trip, I don’t do any of these things. I should know the condition of my car’s brakes, whether it needs an oil change, and any snacks will be for me and not the car. It is unlikely these snacks will be carrots.

The pre-trip prep advice is something that should have been followed literally in the past. Today we take it figuratively, knowing that the intent was to ensure a safe trip.

These old instructions also mentioned that you should kiss your husband or wife goodbye and tell them that you love them. That was meant to be literal hundreds of years ago, and should be followed literally today.

Not knowing whether to understand a Biblical passage as literal or figurative can be confusing, misleading and divisive.

A.  Literal/Literal

There is broad agreement across Christendom on many passages that were taken literally in the first century, and should be taken literally in the 21st century.

Matt. 22:36-40 [Based on Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18]   Jesus: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, this is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. Literal then, literal now. Understand that love here is not eros [sexual love] but agape [divine love] and philos [friendship love.]

Matt. 9:13  [Based on Hosea 6:6]  Jesus: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. It’s more important to extend help than to practice ritual.

B.  Figurative/Figurative

There is also broad consensus on other passages that are accepted as figurative then, figurative now.

Matt. 5:29-30   Jesus: If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Jesus was making the point that no matter how much you might cherish something, if it separates you from eternity with God it’s got to go. Nothing is to stand in the way of your salvation.

Unfortunately, some people with psychiatric challenges have believed he meant this literally. That is very rare and always tragic.

Matthew 19:24   Jesus: It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye the needle then for a rich man to get into heaven. This gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ humor.

I grew up listening to elephant jokes [look them up]. There were no camel jokes. It’s true there were neither elephants nor camels wandering around North America. Somehow, we ended up with elephant jokes, but none with camels.

Yet camels were a part of Jesus’ time, and he joked about them to make a point.

It was common in the ancient world, and in some circles today, to believe that if you are rich it means that God has blessed you. If you are poor it means you are out of favor with God. You don’t have enough faith. We call this “The Gospel of Prosperity” and it’s wrong. It’s also an insult to the millions of poor Christians that have a deep and holy relationship with God.

The rich are not to suppose that their wealth will get them into heaven. In fact, it may hold them back [Matt. 19:21-23].

If one believes that God created the universe from nothing, he is capable of doing anything he wants. Jesus is saying that only God is capable of shoving a huge ugly gangly camel through the eye of a needle. He can even handle a Bactrian [2 hump] camel.  No sweat.

Only a submission to God, not one’s wealth, can bring us into a right relationship with him.

C.  Literal/Literal or Figurative

There isn’t a consensus on some other passages.

Baptism   The standard practice in the first century church was baptism by immersion, with the person being completely submerged in the water.

Some churches teach that new believers must be immersed, because they believe that New Testament example should be followed literally. Other churches take a figurative approach and practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring.

Both sides on that subject agree that baptism is a symbolic act of cleansing. They disagree on how to demonstrate that symbolism.

Although that disagreement led to hostile or violent actions long ago, that is not the case today. We accept the differences, and move on.

A Kiss   2 Cor. 13:12: Greet each other with a holy kiss. This presents an interesting mix of the Literal/Figurative puzzle, and cultural context.

In some parts of the world it’s common for people to give each other a real or fake kiss on the cheeks when they see each other. Growing up I only saw this in movies set in other countries, and of course movies about the Mafia. Oh, and on TV talk shows and in Hollywood.

I never saw it in person because we just didn’t do that. Instead, you’d see a handshake, squeeze on the elbow, or a slap on the back. That’s still true although hugs have become more common.

In the cultural context in which I was raised we would interpret this verse figuratively, and then substitute a kiss with a handshake etc.

That said there are fine Christian communities in my country that feel this passage should be Literal/Literal. They are good people and I’ll not challenge their earnest desire to honor God.

Others   There are a wide range of other types of passages that are also part of this Literal/Figurative challenge.

Some believers read the creation accounts in Genesis as 100% literal. Other Christians see it as a figurative description. Still others feel it is a mix.

The physical descriptions of Heaven and Hell are also subject to interpretation.

There are occasions where some will interpret a prophetic passage as literal when it fits their prejudices, and figurative when it does not. I might be guilty of this.

Conclusion

When weighing passages, uncertain which way they should be read, please keep three things in mind.

1.  Humility   Given the vast amount of information that can and won’t be read on any of these subjects, some humility helps. I am confident that no one is capable of knowing everything about any of these topics. What we can do is form an opinion while admitting we are not the last word.

It’s also important to gain an appreciation for the collective wisdom of the Church. While there are disagreements, billions of heads are better than one. There is value in consensus.

Let others inform you. If they are pushy or arrogant or eccentric, smile and move on.

2.  Embrace grace    I understand some passages one way. Brothers and sisters of the faith whom I love see it differently. What unites is larger and stronger than what divides us.

While we don’t see everything the same, we can still care about and support each other. What matters most is to celebrate the Spirit of Christ that binds us.

3.  Moral teaching   Some read the moral teaching of the Bible as figurative for today, while others see it as guidance that should be followed literally. I’ll hold off on that discussion for my next article when we conclude this short series by talking about what to do when the Bible challenges our worldview.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].

How To Read The Bible: Part 2

Part 2 – Context

Danger! I need to issue a trigger warning. We need to spend a few moments examining a topic that causes fear in the hearts of many. History.

When people make snap judgments about something that happened in the past, without understanding the cultural context in which it happened, they cheat themselves. They are trapped in the current present without considering the circumstances of former presents. They have no idea what they’re talking about, which is obvious to those around them who are better informed. If they really understood how they had taken something “out of context” they would be embarrassed.

When reading the Bible, or nearly anything else, we need to ask some key questions. Who wrote this? To whom did they write it? When did they write it? Why did they write it?

These questions cannot be fully answered by merely reading the text. Some Bible books do a decent job giving you the general picture. Others tell you almost nothing.

You can get up to speed by reading the introduction of Bible books that are found in a good study Bible. Wikipedia might also help.

As useful as this might be, it may not clarify the cultural situation in which the book was written. It also may not explain the mindset of the people of that era, and how they saw things differently than is assumed today.

Let’s explore a few examples.

1. In Matthew 5:9 we read “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” [ESV]. Isn’t that sexist? What about all those faithful women who love and serve God? Are they left out?

No. In much of the ancient world women were considered worthless. That attitude is still common in some places today. The Church established from the beginning, that women were valued and cherished. To tell a daughter that she was to be regarded like a son was a huge compliment, giving her more status than she had ever known.

Some translations will update this type of wording in several passages by saying “children of God” instead of “sons of God”. The important point here is that we understand the cultural context in which these passages were written, and not impose our modern assumptions.

2.  In Mark 7:24-30 we read of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician Woman. In that conversation Jesus refers to her as a dog. I’m fairly confident that in any culture it’s an insult for a man to call a woman a dog. But Jesus did.

What’s up with that? Is Jesus rude and insensitive? Not at all. The Greek word he uses for dog is not for a flea bitten smelly mangy hound out the back alley going through trash cans looking for something to eat. The word he uses in Greek is for a beloved little lap dog which is a cherished member of the family.

Jesus is letting her know that although she isn’t Jewish, God still loves her. It was a compliment.

3. While on the cross Jesus says “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46, NIV]. What? Did God abandon Jesus? How awful. What kind of a God would do that?

Context. When Jesus says that he is quoting the first verse of Psalm 22. The theme of that Psalm is that although one might feel abandoned by God, they really aren’t.  He is always near.

Jesus was not saying he had been abandoned. He was saying he knows what it’s like to feel like you’ve been abandoned. It’s another example of how he knows what it is like to walk in our shoes.

He can only get out the first line because he is literally suffocating to death. The people around him, who knew the Jewish scriptures, knew exactly what he meant. The Roman soldiers were clueless because they did not know the context.

4. Throughout the Bible you’ll see references to slaves. We’ll all agree that slavery is an evil thing. But we need to distinguish the slavery of Biblical times with what we’ve witnessed in the past few centuries.

Frequently slavery in the Bible was more similar to employment today. Some Biblical era slaves were treated terribly, others were regarded as beloved staff.  Some owners even adopted their slaves so they would inherit their estates. It was not ideal of course, but not necessarily as cruel and brutal as we’ve seen in our recent history.

Jesus never condemned slavery, in my opinion because he was dealing with bigger issues. In the New Testament Church we see moral guidance on how owners and slaves were to be mutually respectful.

We should never automatically impose our modern moral standards on an ancient culture without first investing the time to better understand.

5.  When reading Biblical prophecy, context is everything. Unless you have familiarized yourself with the historical setting of the prophetic books, very little may make sense.

There will be portions that will be very inspiring without understanding what’s going on. But most of the message will be missed.

Another challenge is the need to sort out which prophecies have already been fulfilled [the vast majority] and those that have not [only a handful].  This cannot be done without understanding the historical context.

6. There are some serious topics that are not discussed in parts of the Bible. As mentioned before, Jesus remained focused on a short list of the most pressing issues.

The Old Testament might have extensive teaching on a subject. Jesus may only refer to it in a general sense because the standard already established in that culture was a given.

Some will say “Jesus never condemned _______, therefore he must be okay with it.” Jesus never specifically condemned pedophilia, but I doubt anyone would suggest that he was in favor of the sexual abuse of children.

The context of that society tells us that certain things were known to be wrong. There was no need to dwell on it because the focus was on a few higher priorities.

Conclusion

These are only a few examples of why, if we want to understand the Bible [and not embarrass ourselves], we need to make the effort to get the whole picture.

During a trial, the court goes to great lengths to reveal all the relevant details so there is no rush to judgment. That requires that we dig deeper, true during legal proceedings, true when studying scripture.

If you would prefer to just read the text without digging deeper that’s okay.  But please don’t start condemning passages when you don’t know the full story.

In the next couple articles, I’ll talk about the literal versus figurative puzzle, and what to do when the Bible challenges our worldview.

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Dave Soucie lives, serves and writes in Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2021 by Dave Soucie.  All rights reserved [but permission is granted for non-commercial use only, with proper citation].