Tonight was my turn at the Wednesday night discussion group at church. If you follow my husband’s and our friend’s shared blog, you may have read about it there last week. A church in our area is currently in the middle of a sermon series about the questions Christians hope no one will ask—and they are following some of the topics outlined in Mark Mittelberg’s book by the same title. The weekly Wednesday night discussions are designed to delve deeper into the topic of the previous Sunday’s sermon. I haven’t been able to attend the sermons due to my work schedule the first two weeks of the series and my wedding season schedule since then as a bridesmaid in two of my best friends’ weddings next month—but I have listened to every word of every sermon. My husband attended the second week’s discussion group and posted about it here—I took our daughter to gymnastics that night. We switched this week, and he went to gymnastics while I joined the group. A table sits in the center of the room as a symbol of the kind of discussion and family atmosphere they desire to cultivate. It was a privilege to have a seat at the table this week, even as the black sheep in the church family.
My husband walked me through last Wednesday’s discussion one week ago, and it was clear to both of us that this was not set up for debate. Of all the voices represented, none seemed to share our views. My husband kept silent. When I heard his report of what had been said, I told him that I wouldn’t have been able to. I would have responded—not for the sake of debate, but to provide clarification about the actual arguments that oppose theirs (not the easy-to-dismantle ones that they were presenting). I would have provided clarification when they suggested that Stephen Hawking had made a deathbed confession for Christ—or at least informed them that he is still alive. I would have defended the morality of people I know who do not follow Christ when they suggested that the reason for denying his existence might be to avoid accountability for actions.
At détente last week, I was asked why I would want to go to a discussion like this. To me, the reasons are plenty. I want to support the church’s efforts. I want to make my actual views and questions known (not the ones they assume I have). And I want to demonstrate that I have an intellectual basis for doubt. My friend Pascal didn’t like that last answer at all—he thought it might be insulting to the people in attendance. He felt that surely there were some there who are thoughtful and who understand the intellectual struggle without me having to spell it out. I didn’t get a chance to respond to his words of disapproval, but if I had I would have said this: I am sure there are some who understand—I never said there were not any. I only said that there are some who do not understand, and that was clear in their words the week Russell attended. Russell agrees. Those who do understand, if present, were silent. I attend to break the silence.
So I went this week, and I did break the silence. It wasn’t in a dramatic way or a forceful or malicious way. My words were gentle and honest and only revealed as much as the question required. Perhaps more will be revealed in weeks to come. This week, the topic was the trustworthiness of scripture. Below, I describe the ten-minute opening, and I’ll write about the rest of the discussion in days to come.
The pastor started by relaying to the group some of the feedback from the sermon. After he delivered it on Sunday, he was asked about the relevance of scripture. He opened the same question up to our group: Is scripture relevant today?
“Yes,” one voice responded. “The word is alive.”
“What does that mean?” the pastor probed.
“If you read any scripture, you’re given the exact word you need when you need it.”
Another in the group gave an answer I can relate to—“The people in the Bible remind me of myself…human nature hasn’t changed.”
The next question the pastor opened up was about murder and slavery. How can we believe in a Bible that condones it?
A response came quickly. “It’s not that the Bible condones it—the Bible is just reporting that it happened. It still happens today. If they say it’s condoned, they’re being overly critical.”
I spoke up—“I think they might be referring to the atrocities that God is recorded as having commanded in scripture.”
No one responded to my point immediately. Other answers rolled in.
One voice said, “The Bible didn’t condone it—Paul spoke of a vision of better days to come, and you can tell by reading the accounts of violence and slavery that we just weren’t there yet.”
Another replied, “Non-believers take verses out of context, like ‘Slaves, obey your masters.’ That’s really just telling us that slavery does exist, and that wherever we are in life we should still reflect Christ’s love to the people around us so they can see him.”
At this point, a woman said, “Can we go back to what she said? What about the times where God commanded evil? How do we respond to that?” The pastor opened my point and her question back up to the group, and responses followed.
One woman said, “God was making sure his people would follow his commands and trust him. His people had to trust that he had a reason, even if they don’t understand. There was a lesson that they needed to learn.”
I longed for winter days that would call for turtleneck sweaters or scarves. My skin flushes when my heart breaks—from my chest all the way up to my cheeks. I was thankful for dim lighting as I answered, “I think the hard thing to accept is that this lesson came at the expense of others. It doesn’t fit with the idea of a God who loves all—not just his chosen people.”
The pastor agreed. “Men, women, and children…you’re right, that’s hard to accept.”
Another in attendance interjected, “You can’t take these pieces of scripture out of context. You have to consider the whole book. When you look at the whole book, you see sin from the very beginning. These things are going to happen in a world that is sinful in nature, whether they’re from God or from man.”
Another said, “The Bible is a mysterious book.” I certainly agree.
One woman said, “People reveal their biases in their questions. You can’t always ask questions about the negative parts of the Bible. What about the miracles? What about salvation? What about Jesus? They pick and choose to discuss the negative things.”
The pastor responded with a question I can relate to—“If there are any lies in the Bible, can any of it be trusted? Do any errors we find negate the positive things?”
I added to his question, saying, “Along those same lines, can we accept any of the God we find in scripture if he is not all good? Some people will not consider the miracles and the beauty of the story because they see these as negated by a God who at times does not seem consistent with himself.”
The woman who had spoken about biases spoke again. “The Bible is something to guide us—it’s not the whole picture. Do you want to rely only on what you can see and know around you, or do you want to put your faith in this book that the God we trust has given to us, whether we agree with it all or not?”
It seemed as if she felt that the answer should be obvious. I agree that it was, but I think that we would choose different answers. I would rather rely on what I can know than on a God whose actions I disagree with. But of course, I’m not coming from a position of trust.
This was the introduction to the conversation. Overall, I felt that the pastor (who knows of my doubts) and perhaps a few others in the group of more than 30 had a sense of understanding about my struggle. For the sake of those who don’t and for the sake of identifying more who do, I break the silence. I’ll write more tomorrow. In the mean time, what are your thoughts? What would you have contributed to the discussion thus far? Do you share the views of any who spoke?—or do you wish to break the silence of the minority view along with me?
Either way, welcome to the table—pull up a chair.