I am teaching in a Kenyan classroom. It is a class in pastoral ministry and we are looking at how we as pastors try to help the people God has called us to shepherd. The discussion turns to working with alcoholics. This isn’t an accident or coincidence. Based on my experience in Kenya and my knowledge of the church, I specifically direct the discussion to this topic–I have a pretty good idea what will be coming and have decided that this is the day we will deal with an important issue.
Before too long, the issue starts to surface. One of the students tells me that part of helping alcoholics involves preaching about it. I agree–and then push a bit harder by asking about the content of such sermons. To the students, the answer is obvious–a good anti-alcohol sermon begins with the Biblical teaching that tells us God forbids people to drink alcohol. Then, the sermon tells them they will suffer in hell because of their alcohol use. And then, the sermon tells them to stop drinking.
There is enough in that sermon to keep us going for years–but this particular day, I only want to focus on one facet of this discussion–the Biblical text they propose on using to tell people that God prohibits the use of alcohol. Very quickly, I am given Proverbs 20.1 as the text–in the KJV because this is a conservative culture: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.”
Now comes the fun part. I tell the students that this actually doesn’t tell people not to drink alcohol. It shows some of the possible consequences of over-use but it doesn’t prohibit the use of alcohol. Various other verses are tossed in to the mix–none of which prohibit the use of alcohol. To stir things up a bit, I give them I Timothy 5.23, ” Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (NIV).
With that, the whole class is convinced that I am officially a heretic. I have challenged one of their most basic understandings of the Bible. Now comes the hard work–I have to become the teacher and help them understand what is really going on here. I am not trying to get them all to go have a drink. Rather, I am helping them see that Scripture doesn’t always say what we want it to say or assume it says or think it should say.
To discover that the Bible doesn’t say what they want it to say is traumatic and painful and difficult–but also essential. And it is not just that class of Kenyan theology students who need to learn this lesson. All of us who use the Bible are guilty at some point of trying to make the Bible say something that we want it to say rather than really dealing with what it does say.
When it comes to Biblical interpretation, I confess to being a serious skeptic. I really don’t want to accept something as true just because it sounds good or reinforces some idea I have or has been passed down for generations. I am going to try as hard as possible to find out what it actually says. So I study the Bible–not looking for verses that confirm what I already want to be true but for what it really says. I have discovered that it the Bible isn’t making me uncomfortable, I am probably not giving it the freedom it needs to speak its truth.
Scripture needs to speak with its own voice, not the voice we would like it to have. Scripture must be free to give us God’s word, not reinforce our word. I am sometimes accused of not believing the Bible–I am pretty sure that several groups of Kenyan students believed that, as well as a few people in churches here in Canada.
But my problem isn’t that I don’t believe the Bible. The real problem I deal with is that I do believe the Bible but I want to make sure that I am not trying to constrain the Bible and the Spirit by making it say what I want. As painful and as difficult as it may be at times, I want to Bible to speak with God’s voice, not my voice.
May the peace of God be with you.