Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 3: Can we trust scripture? (Part 1)

bible on table

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.

Image courtesy of © Phatthanit | Dreamstime.com – Bible On The Wooden Table Photo

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29 thoughts on “Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 3: Can we trust scripture? (Part 1)

  1. Admittedly I do not envy your trips to church functions. I myself cannot do it, mostly because of the interactions you just described. Maybe it’s the difference in church culture. Reading the words of the people defending the Bible, I can imagine the people I grew up listening to on Sundays offering similar views. The only difference is that they would definitely make note of anyone bringing up contrary views.

    The principle that the Bible must be taken in context is a difficult view to hold as well. What defines the context? Why does one verse alter the meaning of the other? What reasoning justifies the rank order of definition? Is reading the Bible with the intent of reconciling conflicting ideas really looking at it skeptically?

    I couldn’t help but notice the allegations of bias creeping into the discussion as well. There is a real problem with that. Bias has no bearing on any idea being presented. Just because someone believes in a view doesn’t render the view invalid; to do so would make it impossible for any Christian to defend his or her faith.

    Ultimately I think discussions about the Bible are too much of an open wound. I think there are some beautiful thoughts expressed in that book, and I also think there are some examples of how depraved humanity can become. But the premise I’d be coming from is to view the ideas just as they are written and without divinity mentally imparted onto them. How does one communicate that without it being a slap in the face?

    At any rate, I apologize for the long comment. I hope your med school studies are going well!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Reblogged this on russell & pascal and commented:
    The local series continues. I plan to go with Russell next week. Our readers are welcome to continue the conversation here or on CC’s blog. I’m just glad that the conversation is happening. There are a few Christ followers who care deeply for the atheists in their lives. There are a few Christ followers who have atheists in their lives that they chose with purpose. More than a few of the few read and write here.

    Pascal
    –1:16

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always broke the silence. I did so carefully, with compassion and always looking for clarity. Usually all I ever received in return was the sound of crickets chirping under the chairs of a room full of suddenly silent participants.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Silence is awkward, isn’t it? But I think I prefer it to deflecting the question. I’ve actually become really comfortable with “I don’t know.” I have to say that often, and it’s a phrase I wish others would use more when confronted with certain difficult challenges to their faith.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m familiar with these interactions. They happened in my Sunday School class when I began to question. There was a woman who said, “The Bible – the King James Version – is the complete and trustworthy word of God. Who are we to question it?”

    The woman in your group who brought up bias revealed her own. She said it in an accusatory manner as though she doesn’t have biases of her own. For her the miracles and wonders and declarations of love negate any negative aspects of God’s character as portrayed in the Bible. But, for me, there’s far more judgement and destruction and wrath than there is love. For someone to tell me that the Bible is God’s love letter to me seems disgusting. If the Bible is to be taken literally, word for word, cover to cover, then I hardly see how God’s vengeance toward others can be turned into love for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right—and I don’t understand how I could truly be made in his image if our definition of love is so different. I hope for a God whose heart breaks for these things—that my broken heart is a reflection of that God. Maybe that’s the case—but that’s not the God the Bible tell us about.

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  5. Thanks for the very interesting report – I am looking forward to the follow up.

    I was reading a comment today on suffering that suggested suffering is a bigger trouble for Christianity than most other religions. This is because of the emphasis in Christianity on God being good and caring, apparently not such a focus in other religions.

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    • Thanks for joining me here, Peter!—I’ve enjoyed reading your contributions to R&P’s blog for a while now. Welcome! Follow-up posted, and more to come this weekend—I’m headed to the beach with some of my best friends and will probably awaken 4-6 hours before the other girls—perfect writing time. Stay tuned…

      Also, you might be interested to know that next week’s discussion is about suffering and how we can worship a God who allows it. I’m not sure if I will write or if Pascal will, but I’m interested to hear the conversation. I don’t think a good God who allows suffering is a deal-breaker for me.

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  6. I’m torn here.

    On the one hand, I say a little discomfort is a good thing. Belief, in the absence of challenge, I think, isn’t belief so much as confessional inertia. If these people are insulted by the questions of an honest doubter (and these groups generally break along that line; honest doubters and dishonest ones), then I would argue that their faith isn’t as strong as they say it is. And if it is strong, then questions shouldn’t scare them.

    On the other hand, it has never been my intention, as whatever I am (atheist, skeptic, call it what you will), to actively undermine the faith of others. I can’t imagine, for example, engaging my mother in an argument about the afterlife at her own mother’s funeral. Cruel AND irresponsible. I may question the aspects of it I see as harmful (too close a connection between religion and patriotism, say, or the rejection of sex ed in schools, or prejudice against the LGBT community or members of other faiths), but it’s not my place to dislodge religious foundations if they present no harm to society and serve to comfort those who stand on them. I have to remind myself that what I see now as rote answers I once saw as very much heartfelt, well-considered responses to “worldly” attacks. In fact, until I reached my current position ON MY OWN (and I stress that), I was perfectly content with that sort of apologetics.

    So, like I said…I’m torn. I want to argue that sort of reasoning into the ground (and I could, given time to prep); I also want to respect the beliefs of the team I used to be on, in full knowledge of two very important facts: 1) The fact that a proposition stems from religious faith does not, ipso-facto, make it harmful (or wrong); and 2) the fact that I don’t agree with a certain proposition isn’t by any means sufficient proof of its falsehood. History has shown time and again that very convincing arguments can be made for very bad ideas. Which means that my silver tongue (when it comes out to play, which is not often) may very well excel at defending incorrect conclusions. My interlocutors may be wrong, but then again, so might I.

    Even so, though, turnabout is fair play. If these folks want me to listen to their ideas, then they need to be prepared to listen to mine. After all, if you can’t defend a belief system sitting in a church surrounded by people who agree with you, what possible chance is there that it can be defended out in “the world”?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree with all that you said. I guess it’s not so much about being right for me. It’s certainly not about dismantling another person’s faith—I wouldn’t wish that pain on someone else. It’s really more about defending the intellect and character of people who don’t believe—you’ll see more of that in part 3. These are people I desire friendships with, active in communities I’m still a part of. I want them to have a clearer picture of who I am and what I believe and how I think—and I want to know them in the same way. I’ve already had my eyes opened to where my presuppositions were wrong—and I’ll touch on that in part 3, too. 🙂

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    • You’ve summed up my own particular approach to atheism extremely well. It’s very comforting to read; when I first deconverted mostly my atheist friends were very much about convincing believers they were wrong. There was something quite awkward about being the sole “accommodationist.” That’s the word they chose for me, and I was never entirely comfortable with it. Ever since I’ve assumed I am one of a minority so small I really stopped looking for fellow atheists, and resorted to being the token atheist in hippie religious circles.

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    • Well said Vance. Maintaining relationships is important. In fact Rodney Stark in his study of religious conversion found it was relationships that were the crucial determinate factor rather than doctrine.

      I appreciate the way you think about these issues. I am in the process of extracting myself from Church leadership – but thus far have not disclosed that a crumbling of faith is the key reason. Partly I have chosen to be circumspect in what I say to others in that faith community because I don’t have any desire to destroy that community and cause hurt to the people involved. They have been good and caring friends to me.

      It has been said that if you seek to win every argument then you will end up with no friends.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Peter, as it happens, I’m attending a symposium here at Baylor this coming Tuesday in which Dr. Stark will be presenting a paper on the secularization thesis. Looking forward to that.

        Having extracted myself from church leadership (and the church), I understand the delicacy of the situation. And I was a Baptist minister, where things weren’t nearly as formal as in other denominations. This is also largely where my hesitancy to over-argue comes from: in my years in ministry, I met so many people who meant so much to me, not just as people, but as Christians. In other words, their beliefs made them the wonderful people they are. Why would I challenge that? I know that religion has been used to justify some horrible things throughout history, but I also know, first-hand, that it makes for some pretty wonderful folks. And therein lies the real reason for my sympathetic atheism: good people are the hope of the world, and if that goodness stems from a belief in God, then good for it, whether I believe in him or not.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks Vance

          I have found some former Christians are very hostile to Christianity. They see the tolerant and loving Christians as providing cover for the intolerant. Therefore they decide the whole system should be attacked.

          I see it more your way – there has been much good done in the name of Christianity and we should not brush that aside by only focussing on the bad things done in the name of Christianity. I am especially wary of damaging the faith of older people whose whole life has been associated with the church – why make their last few years miserable just to prove a point.

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  7. I’ve been thinking all day (well so far) about Stephen Hawking and his death-bed confession. I know for a fact CC, that after this would have been mentioned, and quite possibly at the end of the session I would have spoken up about Hawking. I’d do it in a manner as to put a question to the group. ‘Is Stephen Hawking dead?’ Knowing me, I just couldn’t leave them without putting that bug in their ear. If they insisted he was dead I’d suggest they look into that as last I heard he wasn’t.

    It reminds me of a Bible Study where the pastor’s wife told everyone that Proctor & Gamble used Satanic symbols on their products and to boycott P & G products. I respectfully waited until she was done before I asked her if she knew this for a fact. Poor woman went beet red and the Bible Study leader looked at me like I was the devil herself. My goodness I sucked the oxygen out of the air. I was I think about 28 years old at the time. She went out to say confidently ‘Oh yes, such and such church and so and so church and everyone knows it.’ I asked her if this was an official church position and then she really backed up. The pastor had a sermon on it that following Sunday and said that it was NOT an official church position.

    It reminds me of a night at Bible College where the Prof was telling us his position on such and such in regards to Biblical counselling. I raised my hand and mentioned to him another approach by another Christian professor/author and he grinned this weird grin and pontificated that his own approach was the correct approach. So I asked him how he reconciled the different Christian approaches and he basically didn’t because his was the correct approach. You could hear a pin drop in the classroom. After we took a break I had students rushing me, including pastors who approached me privately to ask me how I could do that and how I was so brave to speak up and show a different side to the situation and where’d I get my courage. I was shocked. I told them I was taking courses not to be told what to believe but to learn and learning was not a one-way street.

    It reminds me of the time I approached in person, Henry Morris (young earth creationist) and asked him how he reconciled the disparity of beliefs with Dr. Hugh Ross (old earth creationist) with them both being born-again Christians. He looked at me with disdain and with the same voice said: “Read your Bible!” He then walked away from me.

    It reminds me of another time during a course on “gifts of the Spirit” when I asked a question. Again, all the oxygen sucked out of the room. No discussion at all. I just felt so tired by then (now in my 40’s) and again not doubting my faith at all. But so tired of this one way street and no discussion. Oh everyone could discuss the coffee & donuts but there was just no room for discussion outside the status quo. It makes me laugh actually recalling that everyone thought that it was what we were doing, having a discussion. Anyway, that pastor that lead the seminar on the “gifts” told me privately he’d lost sleep over my comment and it had caused him to reflect further and he changed up the program because of my comment. I was upset and told him so and wish I had known sooner and that he had told everyone because I felt like such a weirdo and had lost sleep too. Guess what? Next seminar he told people he had changed the program because of something someone had said that caused him to rethink his position. He didn’t tell them it was me.

    I’ve got more. Soon my near 60 year old brain won’t remember it all. Might be a relief. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Zoe

      What a wonderful comment – what you say so resonates with me. It had for a long time been a source of puzzlement for me how people claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit could interpret the Bible in such different ways.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing all of this, Zoe. After reading your words, I realize how lucky I am over all. Yes, they were mistaken—likely reciting what they had heard (or thought they heard) elsewhere—but the group with me this week didn’t really seem offended by my questions. Maybe caught off guard, but no one walked away. I’ve also had the privilege of being validated, (and not anonymously). I’ve known believers who have been willing to say that my honest questions helped change their approach—and they have affirmed my intellect and character all along.

      I can understand your weariness with it all—if what I have experienced was more like what you have described, I think it might be something I’d rather forget too.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 3: Can we trust scripture? (Part 2) | The Counterfeit Christian

  9. This is painful to read because I too have been at this very type of meeting. Those days are far behind me, but I recall all too clearly the disbelief I felt at the majority of their answers. To them, other people’s suffering was merely something that proved their point… the rightness of their theological world view if you will. So, yeah, I saw a Tyrant that committed atrocities. They saw a God who was just above all else. And so, the gulf between us widened…

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    • Do you think they meant it? I’m having a hard time remembering what was truly in my heart when I was sitting in their seat and defending the perfect and mysterious ways of a just God. Was my defense of him heartfelt? Or did it just make me more comfortable? Was I lying to myself—and did I actually believe me? I honestly, honestly don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Those questions are spot on, and exactly what I ask myself now. I really don’t know. All I know (I think) is that I wanted so much to fit in that I was willing to nod along with everyone else in order to do so. It wasn’t comfortable compromising myself in that way but I wanted them to like me that much that I was willing to play along with even the stuff that didn’t make ethical sense.

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  10. Pingback: Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 3: Can we trust scripture? (Part 3) | The Counterfeit Christian

  11. Pingback: The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Week 4: Suffering // My Deepest Fear and the Greatest Risk | The Counterfeit Christian

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