The four of us rode together that Sunday morning. The closer we got to the little church house, the greater our anxiety rose until we finally had to pull over into a radiation therapy clinic to pray in the car before continuing on.
When we reached the church, the parking lot was empty. All of the lights were out and a “For Sale” sign was in the yard. We had driven that place out of business!
I had come into the Church of Christ after an existential crisis in my later teen years had sent me church shopping. Their mantras mesmerized me,
“We just want to follow the Bible.”
“Read the Bible for yourself.”
“Don’t take our word for what it says.”
“If you find something we’re doing that doesn’t line up with the Bible, we want to know so we can change.”*
I started reading the New Testament and couldn’t put it down. Very soon, I found some of those things they’d missed. I brought them to the attention of the minister, but he explained them away.
A few years later, I met Uriah who agreed with me, and together along with our reluctant wives, we pushed the envelope. Apparently, they didn’t really mean that part about changing to accommodate.*
Out of devotion to Christ we had committed to reading the New Testament and to doing what it said no matter what. No doubt many would consider that a noble aspiration. That is, until you get to passages like 1 Corinthian 11:2–16 which mandates that women cover their heads when they pray. After much study of this passage, Uriah and I became convinced that these instructions still applied. We were ready to go to the mat for that conviction.
We pushed our belief about the “head covering,” as we called it, on that little church until they had the preacher officially shut us up. Then, we wrote letters to each congregant saying that according to 1 Corinthians 5, Romans 16:17, and 2 Thessalonians 3, we were going to shun them until they repented. We hand delivered each letter along with a personal appeal for their repentance. Now, you see why they closed up shop.
I know all of that sounds pretty macabre to the average person — even the average Christian.
And yet, in principle we weren’t really so different from all the other “Bible believing” Christians in the world. We were just more consistent.
While almost no one outside of Alabama would agree with our conclusions on 1 Corinthians 11, Christians in America have debated the role of women in leadership for decades. The church has continued to straggle behind the national conscience on equal opportunity for women because certain passages in the New Testament seem to specify male leadership or limit female participation. Churches which continue to adhere to those passages alienate women and marginalize their message.
Even though more people agree with their position than with the one we were pushing, these “complementarians” claim to base their beliefs on the same standard Uriah and I used. The same New Testament (even the same epistle) that seems to prohibit female teachers in the Christian assembly also seems to teach that women should cover their heads.
Why don’t more “bible based” churches insist that women cover their heads when they pray? Could I suggest that the difference between the Southern Baptist Convention today and me in the early nineties has more to do with politics than with hermeneutics and more to do with democracy than with devotion to God?
Mainstream conservative denominations derive their doctrines from the same assumptions that Uriah and I used; their motives are just a bit more mixed. Since no text can be understood exactly the same by any two people, agreement among large groups suggests a preference for compromise over conviction. We were only four and no more because we were ready to follow the New Testament to the letter without deferral to human opinion or even to common sense.
My position on the head covering didn’t arise from personal misogyny or some sort of male power trip; it was pure, painful devotion. I was ready to do whatever the New Testament enjoined on me no matter how odd or difficult.
Here’s another vignette which I present to you as Exhibit B.
I still remember the day that I read Romans 13:1–2:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
I can’t remember where I went after reading that passage, but I’ll never forget the trip there. I always took a long backroad as a shortcut any time I traveled north from my house. I hadn’t previously paid attention to the 25 MPH sign. Now, it stood there with the prohibitive force of a command carved in a tablet of stone. Sweat beaded on my forehead as my white Rabbit idled along, nearly gobbled up by the truck bearing down on my bumper. When the speedometer needle would spasm over to 26, I’d utter a petition for forgiveness under my breath while glancing again at the angry grill in my rearview mirror.
I drove like that for years. Even as a UPS driver. Even in 5 MPH parking lots. So maddening was the pace, that my passengers would occasionally reach over to push down on my knee.
As ridiculous as my story sounds, wasn’t I just obeying the Bible? Read a little further down in Romans 13 to verse 6:
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Christians claim to follow the Bible, but we gasp when someone cheats on his taxes and laugh when he gets a speeding ticket. What’s the deal?
No doubt many will recoil at the idea that we’re not supposed to obey the Bible. Here’s a word of comfort for those folks: You already don’t obey the Bible. Nobody has. It’s not possible.
When Christians claim to follow the Bible, or churches predicate their authority on it, they’re just really being dishonest with others and themselves.
The Bible wasn’t written as a rule book. Attempting to treat it that way will result in confusion, hypocrisy, and division…oh wait, it already has.
In this series of articles, I will demonstrate that much of the church’s failure to accurately represent Christ to the watching world stems from its misunderstanding of the purpose of the Bible.