Thursday, February 09, 2012

Paul is Hard to Understand & His Words Will Get Twisted: 2 Peter 3

"Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. ... And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of [Paul's] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction." 2 Peter 3:11-12a, 15-16 (NLT)

In this passage, I've always focused on the concept of God's patience. Today, when I read this passage, something popped out at me for the first time: Peter tells us that the Bible will be twisted, wrongly interpreted, and thus made to mean something that it doesn't. Peter specifies that this will occur in particular with Paul's letters.

In recent years, I've heard more strong criticism of Paul's letters than of any other part of the Bible, from both folks who are not Christians and from devout believers.

It doesn't surprise me to hear folks who aren't Christians rail again Paul's statements on topics such as the sin of homosexuality and how women should not teach men. It's understandable that these positions would seem unfair, even unjust, to someone who is not submitted to God's authority. (One friend told me he'd be amenable to exploring Christianity if he could throw out Paul's letters from Scripture.)

But I'm perplexed by comments I've heard from Christians such as, "Paul got it wrong. Paul got a lot of things wrong," and "Scripture can be interpreted in many different ways."

To make either of these statements, one must dismiss all Scripture as meaningless. For how can Scripture be the Word of God if it has errors? If some of it is wrong, none of it can be trusted. And if Scripture doesn't have one true meaning, then it could mean anything ... how could anyone trust their understanding of it? It seems implausible that a good God would allow such confusion.

If one takes the Bible seriously, then, it seems necessary to affirm that all Scripture is the true Word of God and all of it is useful to Christians (2 Tim. 3:16-17). As a literature major and longtime professional journalist/writer, I completely dismiss the argument that "Scripture can be interpreted in many different ways." All communication has an intended meaning. It means what the speaker or author intends it to mean. If communication didn't have a specific meaning, we'd never be able to understand each other.

This doesn't mean the hearer or reader always comprehends the intended meaning. Which often happens in conversations. Ever tried to communicate something to your spouse, a friend, or your child that got jumbled up and misinterpreted in their head? You then have to attempt to explain your intended meaning, restating your words in a way they will (hopefully) understand: "You misunderstand. That's not what I meant. What I'm trying to say is ... "

When we read a piece of writing, our understanding of the writer's true meaning may be curtailed by our preconceived ideas and our reflection on personal experiences. In other words, we read with prejudice. If we don't read carefully and with a desire to understand the writer, our mind will jump to conclusions of what we think the words are supposed to mean.

I think this is illustrated by the statement that "Paul got it wrong." When asked to defend her position, the Christian woman who said this quickly admitted there were difficult portions of Paul's letters that were hard for her to understand. And she admitted her prejudice: She tended to become upset and offended when male pastors and teachers addressed the subject.

There are many things in the Bible that make me uncomfortable. This doesn't make them untrue. I believe Paul's statements on homosexuality and on women are backed up elsewhere in Scripture. And while I'm not always shouting a hearty "Amen!" after reading Scripture, I do recognize I'm in no position to judge God's ways ... and I don't know God well enough to completely understand his ways, anyway.

I do worry that too much attention gets placed on so-called "controversial" points in the Bible. So much that the Word of God becomes a personal attack, where individuals feel they are hated or dismissed by God. Yes, the practice of homosexuality is categorized as a sin in the Bible (as is all sex outside of marriage, including premarital and extramarital/adultery). Nowhere does the Bible say that those who are attracted to members of the same sex are hated by God.

I struggle with Paul's instruction on women and teaching. While I have no personal desire to teach in the church (I know it isn't my calling), I have some female friends who do. They are true servants of God who are humble and obedient. In addition, they are competent, educated, and articulate. So I believe them when they say that God has called them to preach or teach. I believe them because I see in Scripture that God gave authority to women such as Deborah, Jael, Lydia, Phoebe, and Priscilla. (While there is debate over the level of authority these women had, it's clear that God does give authority to women at times, for his particular purposes.)

It could be easy to let my personal struggle with this section of Scripture cause me to get angry with God, believing him to be sexist, or that he doesn't care about women. But I know God well enough, through Scripture and from personal experience, to know that he loves women and he loves me.

So my struggle with Scripture does not keep me from faith. It causes me to ask questions, but doesn't cause me to question the goodness of God. Our confusion should cause us to humbly tell God that we don't know everything. We lack understanding. We need God's help when we read his Word.

We need to go to the Author of the text to find out his intended meaning. The Holy Spirit helps us recognize the right and true meaning of Scripture. Read 1 Corinthians 2:10-16.

It will probably be a long time before I have understanding of Paul's words on women and teaching in 1 Timothy 2. And I know that's because I still come to the passage full of prejudice, with misleading emotions, rather than humbly submitted to the Holy Spirit's instruction. I pray for the day when I will stop making Scripture mean what I want it to mean, and thoroughly allow God to show me what it does mean.

1 comment:

Tina said...

Wow, Holly--great post (as usual!) I could really relate to your issues--I've had them myself on the issues of homosexuality (since I have friends and family members who are gay) and women teaching (since I do teach a Bible study--and in seminary I did it before a group of mostly men). I like your ending thoughts and will pray for similar understanding nd comprehension.