THE BLOG
01/14/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

The Bible and Our Moral Lives

Just this month a task force representing a significant group of Protestant churches published a document, "Scripture and Moral Discernment." For the first time, an ecumenical team working on behalf of several denominations has provided genuine guidance concerning the Bible's role in shaping our ethical lives. (See the news release here.)

The consultation included pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ along with participation from Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Moravian Church in North America, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The report is being shared with among these diverse denominations for study and reflection. I've been honored to participate in the year-long dialogue that led to the document's composition.

This statement could hardly be more timely. Denominations and congregations find themselves ripped apart, often in conversations regarding sexual morality. In other eras the issues have varied: slavery, war, divorce, segregation and women's leadership have all divided churches in the past. But the pattern remains the same: Adversaries throw Bible verses at one another as if they were spears.

The problem is our congregations and denominations are staging these arguments without taking an essential step. I speak on behalf of my own denomination from time to time, and I visit many, many congregations and denominational assemblies. Rarely do I encounter a group of people that has grappled with the question of how we understand the Bible's relevance before they engage a divisive issue. No wonder conversations break down.

We can all agree that some uses of the Bible are silly. Someone is hawking "The Maker's Diet" on the premise that a "biblically-correct lifestyle" -- that is, a diet based upon biblical teaching -- will promote health. The author apparently has no clue that historians such as Nathan MacDonald have discovered the prevalence of malnutrition among ancient Israelites. Modern people would hardly use biblical accounts of Solomon's temple as a model for energy-efficient public buildings or turn to biblical teachings as a foundation for a global economy. Our world differs dramatically from the biblical worlds in everything from technology to politics to the organization of family life. In the light of these differences, how can the Bible participate in our moral discernment?

"Scripture and Moral Discernment" sets forth several basic guidelines that may foster healthy conversation among individuals and groups. Without summarizing the document, I'd like to call attention to some of the high points.

The document begins by acknowledging that faithful Christians can -- and do -- disagree about important matters. Indeed, we usually have very Christian reasons for our disagreements. Recognizing this basic, and obvious, reality can provide some help when we experience conflict.

The document further affirms that the Bible's most basic function involves shaping and forming our imaginations after the pattern of God's gracious work to redeem the world. Scripture provides the stories of Israel, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the emergence of the church. That basic pattern of God's faithful initiative to foster life and wholeness should shape our dispositions to every question.

I find it essential that we remind ourselves of that big picture, for "Scripture does not always shed direct light on contemporary questions." Despite what people on both sides of the argument say, there's no clear biblical teaching on abortion, for example. Jesus calls disciples to be peacemakers, but what then do we say about peacemakers such as police officers who sometimes resort to deadly force? We may believe we have good theological reasons for affirming or condemning violence in some contexts, but let's not pretend that the Bible spells out such answers.

The report also emphasizes that "Scripture is always and necessarily interpreted." When a friend addresses an issue by saying, "The Bible says," chances are very good that friend is unaware that other Christians have a very different take on what "the Bible says." Indeed, the report encourages Christians to study the Bible in community with one another -- and not just in their familiar church environments, with people who largely agree with them. We learn more about the Bible when we read it in conversation with Christians who are very different from ourselves. The report encourages people to consider the broad and global witness of the church, including the examples of our ancestors in the faith.

The report further insists that "rarely" do we find adequate moral guidance from individual verses and passages, even compilations of them. The Bible is not a handbook with an index: "for information on masturbation, turn to Jeremiah 58 and Romans 21." Instead, "every passage and phrase stands within the entire wisdom and arc of Scripture." We must take individual passages very seriously even as we consider them in the contexts of the Bible's larger witness.

Finally, the report reminds us that faithful interpretation requires "both devotion and art." Reading the Bible is a spiritual practice. The Bible calls for readers who are open to the work of the Spirit. Biblical interpretation requires that we use our brains as well. Faithful interpretation asks about the biblical languages and cultures. It takes account of the historical and social settings in which biblical books were composed and developed. It asks about the literary forms we encounter in the Bible, along with the apparent intentions of biblical authors. As "devotion and art," faithful interpretation acknowledges that contemporary forms of wisdom such as the social and natural sciences and the arts should inform our interpretation. It also confesses that Scripture often challenges "contemporary assumptions and experience" that may guide contemporary research.

Union Presbyterian Seminary president Brian Blount has written that biblical interpretation is hard work. That's true, but it's not the whole truth. Sometimes, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, biblical interpretation flows easily. But reading the Bible in the search for moral guidance is indeed hard work. Or we might say, it calls forth our best selves in an adventure that is at once humbling and exhilarating.