Monday, September 09, 2013

You can't say that! Hard questions and real people and offensive Bible verses


Christians in University halls meet to read the Bible and pray. They form witnessing communities who invite those around them to investigate the claims of Jesus. An invitation is offered to join them on the journey of exploring their shared questions.

Recently, a colleague and I wrestled with this senario with our Bible's and a whiteboard and lots of questions...

Last year these students read the Bible books of  Luke, Hosea, Esther and Ruth. This year they've decided to work through Paul's letter to the church in Rome (Romans). Very mainstream. And given it was written to show that the good news of Jesus is for everyone and to motivate people to share that message it fits with who they are. It's no ivory tower document, it's from a pioneering leader who works with unceasing anguish and tears.

So far so good. In week 1 they'll read Romans 1:1-5 with a dash of chapter 15 to catch the purpose and theme of the letter. Everyone is new and so a message about how the Jesus who lived, died and was resurrected is good news for everyone is a good place to begin. Plus reading a letter from the start just makes sense.

The next week there will still be newcomers. Anyone who isn't there for their first time is only there for the second time. Those in the room live in the same building, probably have opportunity to eat together and may even study together. But, relationships are low level at this stage. Trust is low. Risk is sky high. Risk of misunderstanding and offence not to mention an inevitable fear of vulnerability.

This is all to be expected. But, logically, in the flow of the letter and when you've got 20 weeks to read it together, that brings us to something like Romans 1:16-2:5...

That means the first or second time you attend this Bible discussion group you're hearing some of the verses that today sound most offensive about human sexuality and divine wrath. Just reading the passage will sound those alarm bells... As it happens I think that the rough outline of this section is:
  • 1:16-18 Revelation in the gospel. The righteousness & wrath of God are revealed in the gospel of Jesus. The big question for the reader of the Old Testament is meant to be: why doesn't God judge sin - why does he keep just forgiving people? (See Jonah's despairing cry: I knew you'd forgive them!) - Wrath is on the table but not enough detail... if you just read these three verses it wouldn't in itself get you very far with anything. The question raised is answered in 3:21-26 which is the obvious next passage to get to - week 3. The answer is the gospel, the cross of Jesus.
  • 1:19-32 Rebellion by God's people. This passage feels very uncomfortable - lots of things being called sin, many of which our culture takes very sensitively. What's going on? Israel, who had the law, abandoned their God who subsequently gave them over to the outworkings of that first betrayal. This isn't news. It's on the public record in the Old Testament. This is documenting events rather than exposing secrets. Israel should've lived reflecting the heart of their God but they didn't, and one thing led to another..
  • A personal note. Usually this section is cited as "God's wrath is being revealed against the whole world for the sins that the whole world has done." I'm not persuaded that it says that, and I think the opposite is implied by the context. That's not to say it wouldn't be sinful to do what's described here, but that you might need other passages to show that fully. I found this article helpful: How is wrath revealed.
  • 2:1-5 Repentance because of kindness? Who could judge anyone else? Who could throw the first stone? God gave his people freedom. This KINDNESS was meant to win them back to him. The melody of the Old Testament: The God who holds his arms out all day long to his people (Romans 10:21). 
  • If you've received this kindness you wont point fingers at other people, instead being overwhelmed by that you'll hold your arms open to others too. Imagine that kind of community. It's delicious. Instead they continued to betray God and the nations around blasphemed God and asked whether there would be any value to knowing God for the lack of difference he made in the lives of his people.
The kindness of God is the perfect setup for building a community that reflects the heart of God.

But, relationship is low, risk is high,... and directly or indirectly it's almost impossible to be well heard when words like wrath and homosexuality come up today. It's pretty hard in the best of circumstances. And this probably isn't the easiest. There is huge amount of framework needed to explain to 21st Century Britain what those things do and don't mean and why a Christian might say what they might say about them. One liners and off-handed comments just wont do. I hear it happen. Careless communication obscures the good news of Jesus.

Look at it pastorally if that helps. In the room could be all kind of people, though it's almost impossible to know who during a Week 2 meeting. There could be, among others...
  • A student who isn't sure if they're a Christian.
  • A student whose lifestyle and/or orientation is homosexual. 
  • A confident student who want to come out strongly as hard-line on certain things and stereotypically lacks a good level of emotional intelligence.
  • A student who is interested in finding out about Jesus.
  • A student who is ashamed of things they've done and hoping no one will find out.
  • A hyper-sensitive Christian who is full of love for people and afraid of confrontation.
  • A student who doesn't really know where they are when it comes to their sexuality.
  • A typical slightly homophobic Brit who can't be bothered to be politically correct.
  • A student who just joined the student tabloid team and could use a story to write. 
  • A student of another religion who thinks all this grace stuff is pretty soft.
  • The discussion facilitator who is scared stiff of being unhelpful.
But, outwardly it'd be pretty hard to know any of that. 

A leader can (and should) model vulnerability and openness but it takes time, shared experience and courage for any group of people to be honest. So much is at stake for us if we let people see who we really are... Mostly we can't and don't uncover our hearts.

So my scenario paints the combination of a very hard subject with the complexity of any group of real people together. The messy lives are there whatever the subject being discussed.

The Difference between gospel convictions and gospel posture: As a Christian I believe in some pretty objective categories (people really either are or aren't 'in Christ'). My confidence however is of a kind means I'm inclined to be ambivalent towards categorising people. Holding on to the ambiguity helps us to explore things and grow and live in the uncertainty of our experiences.

In the moment, we're human beings with shared questions and stories and confusions and questions. A leader among people has no interest in putting people in boxes and lots of interest in facilitating next steps forward for each person and the group as a whole.
How can it be done?

Let's assume:
  • This is a group of human beings with shared questions.
  • The group leaders aren't looking for reasons to hide their convictions though they are keen to facilitate discussion more than expecting to directly instruct those in the room. 
  • The leaders are - as Paul says in 1:16 - not ashamed of the gospel. But that breeds tenderness and care more than anything else. 
  • The leaders genuinely believe the good news of Jesus is for everyone, for all kinds of people and really want people to explore that for themselves.
  • The leaders are keen to facilitate robust conversations and not avoid important things. They don't think disagreement is a bad thing, and they love people they disagree with.
  • They're keen to speak to the issues that are hot in their culture because they think Jesus is the true end of all our stories.
  • They also know that most people today think Jesus is meant to be about good morals, and that people who follow Jesus are judgmental hypocrites. 
  • And the leaders are completely sure that people who follow Jesus are into Jesus not morality, and that a holier-than-thou posture is something Jesus hates.  
And with such a concrete example...
  • Should they look at this passage in a group discussion at the start of the year? Are there passages and subjects that its not good to look at in certain times and contexts?
  • If they did how could they do it well? How can they frame it? What do they need to bear in mind?
  • If they don't, how do they handle skipping it? Does it matter?
  • In any case, the question - contextualising - is how can a group like this be sensitive to the issues in the room and so fruitfully convey the message of Jesus to the people in the room, showing them how their stories tie into God's story?
I have some questions. Over to you...

7 comments:

  1. I wouldn't think Romans is a great place to start with a group like this. The beginning of Romans is provocative in our society. We cannot avoid this - Jesus is a stumbling block - but should we avoid presenting the gospel in a manner which could be considered confrontational?
    As much as I love Romans, I would go to Galations and the gospel of grace.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed... this has been my concern. Whether this passage gets covered or skipped it's quite confrontational...

      As a whole year project I think it should be brilliant, but the opening weeks have some dangerous moments.

      Galatians is always my NT Letter preference, maybe another year!

      Delete
  2. I reckon if they're already doing Romans, then skipping isn't really an option. Particularly in relation to sexuality, if you don't say anything about it, you're actually saying something pretty clear about it. For anyone coming in for whom this is an issue, it's pretty unlikely they don't know what it says anyway.

    I've always found part of the problem with Romans is that we cut it into small bits, so in any Bible study or sermon series there are a few weeks at the beginning which are pretty miserable, with the good news of God's gracious welcome painfully absent. Maybe it needs a broader sweep, at least initially, so you get to see how God treats those who've rejected him right away?

    Maybe this is a chance for Christians to speak graciously and carefully about the issue. I wouldn't envy them doing it though... I guess there's also something about letting God set the agenda when we get to tricky Bible passages?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think it's worth bearing in mind target audience. Romans was written to a bunch of Christians in the church at Rome - if people read it who aren't Christians, isn't there a sense in which they are "reading someone else's letters"? That's not necessarily a problem, but you've got to go to more effort to try and explain the context - and once you've done that, quite a few of the problems are less of an issue.

    So where do you go if you want a book that wasn't written for Christians? Well, Luke/Acts was written for someone who wasn't sure what they believe. Mark was Peter's sermon notes for non-believers ("Who is this man?!"). Peter's sermons in Acts give a clue as to the sort of thing he said to people who didn't have a religious background (and in Acts 2 those who did, of course).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Really thought provoking post. I was thinking about this when our small group went through Romans last year (using the Read Mark Learn study guide) and I did wonder how a non-christian would have reacted to the first 3 weeks of the study and whether they would make it to 3:21!

    There weren't any non-christians (or new Christians) in the group at that time but in hindsight I wish we taken it, as someone as already suggested, in a broader sweep. The longer section could be covered multiple times in order to bring out a different focus if necessary, but the benefit is that you're getting to the solution every week rather than just the problem.

    Hope this makes sense (long time reader, first comment!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Michael, thanks for the long time reading and the commenting. First of many I hope!

      I think we'd almost always want to do it in a way that would be helpful for those who aren't believers... partly because we don't know who is there half the time. And because what we do as a Christians repeatedly becomes our cultural norm for time with those who aren't. Best to get into the habit of bearing in mind people's questions and struggles.

      Delete
  5. Off the top of my head I'd say:

    1. Preach it, don't discuss it (discussions of sensitive passages are best in v. small/121s as the shape and context of the message can be lost).

    2. Confess it. This is our story, not 'them out there' or 'you non-Christians at the back'. Make it crystal clear that WE are the sinners of Rom 1 and this is addressed to bring US to our knees before god. In my experience confession may not take away the disagreement but it will take away the anger at what you are saying.

    3. It will never get any easier to teach sin and judgement if you leave it longer. In my experience it gets harder and if you leave it too long you'll probably never do it.

    4. Paul says similar things to Rom 1 in his Acts speaches to mixed crowds and the audience was much the same as today.

    ReplyDelete