This text invites us to see a powerful truth about Scripture: it includes the words of human beings, their flawed opinions, right alongside God’s undying living message. Paul, in writing this text, acknowledges that some of what he is writing is in fact the Lord’s own words, likely either a saying of Jesus or a prophetic word from God. But he also acknowledges some is “I, not the Lord”.
This is significant for far too often the Bible is treated by Christians as a rule book or a book of universal answers. “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” is seen on our key chains and bumper stickers
Growing up I encountered this in an off-shoot of the Seventh Day Adventists my family attended. They took this approach to its logical (if in many ways absurd) conclusion: If the Bible doesn’t describe it, it must be wrong. This meant not just keeping its rules, but avoiding many things it didn’t talk about. It doesn’t mention Christmas nor birthdays, at least in a positive way, so none of that. It only mention eating kosher food, so no pork chops. The Bible as rule-book ended up being a set of do’s and don’ts used to draw a circle to keep out, and a call to pull away from the world. To withdraw from others and from society.
Without going so far, many Christians use this same approach. “The Bible says” is blindly followed as a rule without thinking about why it says this. Or if something is not mentioned in the Bible, it must be wrong. “The Bible doesn’t mention evolution,” so scientists must be wrong. “The Bible doesn’t mention abortion”, so it must always be a sin. “The Bible doesn’t mention gay marriage,” so clearly gay people are all sinning for their love. Paul’s clear words explaining that he is mixing his own opinions with God’s very words suggests that such an approach is short-sighted.
A shut-in used to visit at the beginning of my ministry said it well to me, “People often forget, the Bible includes the words of many people. Yes, it includes the words God spoke, but also the words men and women spoke. And even the Devil! Folks got to not just quote the Bible, but figure out who in the Bible said that, and why. If they don’t, they might end up following the Devil rather than God without knowing it”.
And to be sure, whether you view the Devil as literal or metaphoric, the Devil is quoted in Scripture– in the book of Job, in the Gospels when Jesus is tempted by the Devil. Paul shows us that, yes, even the Bible writers themselves mix their own opinions, flawed and limited as they are, right alongside God’s. So we must slow down before claiming “the Bible said, I believe it, that settles it”.
This means we need to really be careful in applying Scripture verses as universal rules by which we judge others, or even blindly basing our life on texts we read without asking the questions, “Who is speaking? Why are they saying this? Is it their opinion or God’s? How is my situation different?”
Paul does not seem bothered, though, by the fact that God’s very words are being shared right alongside his own opinions. He seems to expect that it is only right and just that certain situations will evoke people to come to their own opinions, as he does, rather than simply looking for a black and white God-given answer. I think this is something very important about this text.
Paul talks on the one hand about his opinion, and on the other about God’s commands, God’s very words. I think Paul is showing there are timeless truths, words God has spoken in Scripture & in history that speak across the ages as unshakable truths. These are guiding principles for our lives – like the importance of fidelity, of love, of not just flinching off on spouses, partners, family. Like the sanctity of life itself, the importance of justice and fairness. These are clearly drawn out as messages of God in Scripture.
Yet the Scripture, in those words given by God, does not flesh out the exact application of these principles to every personal situation. Though the Bible may teach the importance of seeking wisdom, the value of hard work, the value of learning from those wiser than myself, it does not answer the question “What school should I go to?” Though it teaches many powerful lessons about the work ethic and the balance between work & family, it does not tell me what job to take. For its much wisdom about relationships and family, it will not tell me whether to marry or to whom.
Just as Paul is working out his opinion of how to apply the universal principles of fidelity, commitment, love in families to the situations he and his church are facing, so we must do the same. And as we do so, we will begin to recognize much of the confusing parts of Scripture we have difficulty applying are those very texts, like the laws of kosher or Paul’s language of certain folks being quieter in church, which are not universal truths but women and men of God attempting to use their wisdom, creativity, insight, with the help of the Holy Spirit to come up with applications of these universal situations to their current life issues as individuals and as a community.
This means instead of the Bible giving us one right answer to any situation we face, it teaches universal principles that always apply and shows us how these universal principles are imperfectly applied by people who love God in different times and places. Our way of applying them need not be exactly the same, if we have that same heart of love and openness to living out the life-giving principles of Scripture.
So we need to learn to see ourselves in conversation with God through Scripture, recognizing there is more than one right way to live out its principles and no one, neither us or the people of God in the Bible’s pages, will do so perfectly. But like Paul we can trust that if we consider things prayerfully, with a heart open to what the Spirit speaks in our hearts, our lives, and the voices of those around us we will be led by the Spirit however stumblingly toward the path God calls us to.
Let’s do that together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,