How the Bible pushed me out of organized religion
If you have followed me the past week or so, you will know that I have been working through the specific moments and ideas that led me out of organized religion and back to faith. I laid out a basic overview of the story. Then I talked about a few key ideas, such as the cognitive dissonance created by Christianity’s embrace of capitalism and celebrity, The misguided witch hunt for heresy at every turn, and gender roles in an ever-progressing society.
Foundational to my entire journey out of the church and back to a version of the faith that I migrated from, though, was the Bible (Bear with me for a moment as I give you a brief history lesson before I bring this all home. It’s relevant, I promise).
As I have stated before, I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and one of the core doctrines of that group, and all other forms of Christianity, is the supremacy of the Bible when determining belief and practice. As The Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention puts it,
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
Other protestant denominations may word it differently, but they all ascribe to a form of this idea, and it is often at the top of the list.
This stems from an overall embrace of the “Five Solas” of the Protestant Reformation. In case you are unfamiliar with church history, in a nutshell, what happened is, in the early 1500s, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and teacher, posted his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg chapel. Despite how it is traditionally portrayed, his posting these statements on the door was not what shook things up. All manner of announcements, including that week’s class plan, were posted here for everyone to see, the church being the central meeting place in the community.
What was problematic was what these theses claimed. His statements, which were posted for public debate and discussion, questioned who held true authority over the church and the life of the Christian: the Pope, as was overwhelmingly believed, or Jesus Christ.
As you can guess, Martin Luther was of the latter camp. His topics led to debate and then all-out war which split the church into the Catholic church and the Protestants. The Protestants were run out of towns and became a sort of diaspora of their own.
Over time, the beliefs of the Protestant churches and reformers came to be referred to as The Five Solas. The Reformers did not pen them or write it out this way as a creed. It just became a way to summarize their beliefs in a succinct manner.
One of those core ideas centers on the Bible. The book that ironically, would push me away from organized religion.
Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone. I summarized the idea above using the Baptist Faith and Message. The foundation for all doctrines in the Evangelical Christian faith is to be the Bible. When a new teaching comes along or someone is asking about a particular lifestyle, for example, the question and ideas are to be placed alongside what the Bible says on the matter.
When I was younger, there was also this idea that if the Bible was silent on a matter, than it was a matter of conscience and one was to do what they believed was right based on their understanding of morality based on the Bible. The problems began to arise for me when I read the book The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong. The issue was not that she was questioning the Bible’s validity or calling anyone crazy for believing it. Atheist mockery of my faith was never an issue for me.
Rather, what struck me was the history of how we came to get the Bible in the form we have it today.
The stories in the Bible, and other religious texts, did not start as words written on paper. These stories had existed since before the written word. They began as the oral tradition of the people the stories had happened to, which is what would have made the creation story of Genesis so powerful to the people who were first telling it. God speaks and things exist that had not existed before.
Spoken words had power and meaning.
With the invention of the written word, people put their oral traditions to paper. Those parchments were later compiled into the bound books we hold in our hands today as the Bible.
When they were writing these stories down, they would not have had to include the tone or inflection, if they even knew how to put that into writing. There would have been no thought that these stories were going to leave the tribe. The important thing was to keep telling the stories.
So what would have been lost later would have been whether or not the story was told ironically or whether the people were coming to understand the unfolding of events differently.
This history raised questions for me as to what Scripture alone actually meant. It forced me to ask what exactly was meant when the Bible said that “All Scripture is spoken by God and useful.” Is it useful because it is spoken by God and therefore is to be taken literally as it is written for all of time or is it useful because it can teach us something about the past and inform how we are to interpret the present? When God speaks, are they laying down an unchanging law or are they speaking to a specific people in a specific time and place and would speak differently if the context were different?
I was raised to take the Bible literally and at its word. “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it,” as the bumper sticker would say. But the idea that maybe we do not have all the information surrounding the contents of the Bible called this perspective into question. To add further to my confusion was the fact that the Bible the Catholics use has more books than the one PRotestants use. Martin Luther even called one of the books in the current iteration of the Protestant Bible an “epistle of straw” because he believed it contradicted the rest of the Bible.
So I sort of called foul on the whole thing. The idea of Scripture alone makes no sense, especially when Christians are not even in agreement on how many books are in the Bible. I was not even taught that there were more books in the Catholic Bible. I found that out on my own.
I remember, when I was in college and working as a youth pastor, one week I decided to teach the youth group the story of Tobit. I opened up this Study Bible I had, the one required for our class work, which included the Apocrypha, those books that Catholics have in their Bibles that Protestants do not, and told them the story of the man who was tired and fell asleep against a wall. While sleeping, some birds shit in his eyes and he was blinded for four years and begged God to kill him.
The kids loved it. We spent a couple of weeks breaking the story apart and finding all these great lessons about doing good for others no matter the consequences.
Because truth is truth, no matter where it is found.
When I walked away from organized religion, I clung still to the Bible. Not because it is the only source of truth out there or because I believed it to somehow be better than other religious texts. Besides being raised in that environment, I also understood that if it was truly God’s word, then something in there was relevant. I just had to figure out what. But I knew, based on the way the story unfolds in the Bible, that God did not desire that their people build temples and have some kind of organized, corporate entity as the only means for connecting with them.
An idea that was directly contradicted by the common interpretation of a passage that reads,
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing… (Hebrews 10:24–25)
So does God want their people to gather together in the temple or not? Because Jesus said pretty clearly that God is present wherever a couple of people are together. And people can gather anywhere.
As I spend more time away from the organized church, I find myself embracing more and more deeply many of the ideas that I grew up being taught. By that, I do not mean that I am becoming more and more of a fundamentalist. Rather, I am coming to understand that so much of what I was taught was tainted with a picture of how the world is that just is not accurate. It was an insular world that was unable to see what was going on outside its own bubble.
Stepping outside gave me the necessary perspective to, I believe, more accurately interpret the Bible in a modern context. Am I always right? Do I know more than anyone else? I am not saying that at all.
What I am saying is that if you want to live in truth, you have to break free from whatever it is that is keeping you confined. If you are a Christian, the world is bigger than your specific tradition. It is bigger than your specific interpretation of the Bible. The reasons people behave as they do are oftentimes much more nuanced than you have been led to believe.
The Bible pushed me out of organized religion and into a more complete view of the world around me. And that, I think, should be the whole point in the first place.