I was preparing to write a post discussing the clergy and laity dichotomy resulting from Christendom and recognised an important point I wanted to make.
Becoming the Early Church is Not the Goal
While I have and will continue to critique Christendom, that does not indicate that the church pre-Christendom was perfect or nearly perfect and did everything correctly. They had problems. Think about how much of the New Testament letters dealt with heresy and false teachers. Read the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation. “If we could just be like the early church” is not the answer.
While the church became a thoroughly hierarchical organisation under Christendom, indications are that it was already moving in that direction. So you could argue that hierarchy is okay in the church because that was its trajectory early in its history…And if that is what church leaders decided to do, it must be good.
Centred on Jesus
But, there is that whole passage in Luke 22 where Jesus says that his followers should not lord authority over each other.
It is quite possible that as the church grew, adding hierarchy was seen as means of providing more thorough and effective care and leadership. Decisions like this could have been made with the best of intentions.
But, again, if those decisions violate the clear teaching of Jesus, do we just say, “Well, I guess that is how it has always been?” Godly people make mistakes.
So as I continue writing about issues with Christendom, please don’t hear me saying that we need to go back to how it used to be. I’m not.
But remember, just because something has been a certain way for 1700 years or so, that does not make it right.
My desire moving forward is to look at the words of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament when we consider what it means to be the church…and what It means to be followers of Christ.
How We Approach Scripture
That was the point I wanted to make…but as I was writing, it reminded me of something I have been thinking about lately; How I read and understood the Bible when I was younger.
When I was a child and read bible stories, I brought an unhelpful assumption to my reading. It went basically like this:
If a Biblical Hero (Abraham, Moses, David, whomever) did something, then whatever they did was good…unless the bible specifically said it was not.
So take David. The Bible makes it clear that his actions regarding Bathsheba and Uriah were evil. David needed to repent, and there was even a long-term consequence he had to endure.
But have you ever looked closely at his deathbed chat with Solomon? It is not good. You can read it here: 1 Kings 2:1–12.
It starts well. He tells Solomon:
- Observe God’s commands and walk in obedience to him.
- If you do, you will prosper, and God will keep his promise always to have one of my heirs on the throne.
- He also says to show kindness to the children of one of his friends.
Beyond that…it is pretty dark.
- Joab – do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.
- Shimei – I promised I wouldn’t kill him…“You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.”
The Bible does not comment on this conversation. It simply reports it. It does not, as we might wish, come out and tell us, “This is wrong”.
But does it need to? Shouldn’t we be able to conclude that on our own?
I found myself thinking, David is a good king…and at the start, Solomon was a good and wise king, and the writer of this passage doesn’t say it was terrible, so this must all be good.
Sometimes I would even read into is, if David, a man after God’s own heart, wanted this…and the bible doesn’t condemn it, then it must be what God wants…right?
But of course, we have already established that while David may have been a man after God’s own heart, he was not above acting wicked or evil.
Do you see the problem?
Remember that this is Hebrew wisdom literature from thousands of years ago and does not follow the same conventions books written now do. There is an expectation that we will put some work in and think deeply about what we are reading and not always be given the answer sheet. (I’ve added a helpful video from Bible Project on this topic below).
Or take Abraham. The scripture clarifies that what he and Sarah did with Hagar was wrong because they didn’t wait for God’s promise.
But what about Hagar? Do we need the Bible to spell out that the sex trafficking and rape of Hagar were evil? Or are we capable of making that judgement?
Again, reading as a kid, I figured Abraham and Sarah are the essential characters in God’s story, so what happens with Hagar is inconsequential.
But, read the story, God does not treat her like she is insignificant.
A practice I have tried to incorporate recently is reading scripture from the point of view of the victim or the seemingly unimportant person in the passage rather than from the point of view of the main character.
So, let’s look at this story. Genesis 16:4–5
4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
Hagar began to despise her mistress. It gets o the point where Sarai demands Hagar’s exile.
For most of my life, reading it from the point of view of Abraham, I imagined something like Hagar despising Sarai by saying something like, ’Look at me, I am having a baby, and you aren’t.”
That made Sarai jealous, so she mistreated her.
But when I read it from the point of view of a young woman who was raped and forced to carry a child she didn’t want, I saw something different. When it says Hagar despised Sarai, I believe it means…she hated her for what she was experiencing.
A bit more complex than how I read it previously, but it feels more faithful to the text.
What am I Saying?
While this post was not the one I originally sat down to write, there are two important points I hope it makes.
First, don’t get stuck in binary thinking. “If this is wrong, then that must be right.” The more important question is, is there another way we can look at this as we seek a way forward?
Second, recognise the biases we bring, whether reading a text like the Scriptures or thinking about church history. I don’t believe we can simply turn them off, but by being aware they are there, we are more likely to recognise that how we approach a text or an idea may not be the only way to see it.
And here is the video from the Bible Project:
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Photo by Taylor Flowe on Unsplash