[Editor’s Note: I am slightly preoccupied this week, so I’ve asked some friends to help me keep some posts coming your way. Today’s post is a review of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. The review is by David Washburn.]
Randolph Richards is dean and professor of biblical studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Brandon J. O’Brien, a former student of Richards, is a part-time instructor of religion at College of Du Page and editor-at-large for Leadership journal.
Together Mr. Richards and Mr. O’Brien have revealed where many Christians throughout time have mistakenly interpreted the words and actions within scripture through their cultural norms instead of the culture of the scriptural writer. As a result, those living in western societies are frequently blind to the cultural subtleties of those living in other cultures. Westerners may often miss the point of a biblical passage where the reader is expected to know something which would go without saying. For example: If I was to say, “I’m going out to eat.” It would go without saying, that I am going to go out to a restaurant. If I was in another culture or time, it would go without saying, that I was going to eat outside. Many times we assume that what we say will be understood because the reader or listener will understand what went without saying.
“The core conviction that drives this book is that some of the habits that we readers from the West (the United States, Canada, and Western Europe) bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience and readers in other cultures see quite naturally” (p. 15).
It is normal for readers from the West to view things with Western eyes. It is very difficult to read and perfectly understand a book which was written with an Eastern point of view, when all your life you have viewed the world from a Western viewpoint. That does not mean we can not learn to train ourselves to look for those differences. The nine differences identified in this book are written to “help us learn to read ourselves. . . . Before we can be confident we are reading the Bible accurately, we need to understand what assumptions and values we project onto the Bible: those things that go without being said and that make us assume that some interpretations are self-evident and others are impossible” (p 16)
We are all culturally immersed in our way of life. Everything we do, say and think is effected by the cultural world around us. It is easy for us to forget that The Bible was not written to people within our culture. This book helps to show us that we can not simply read our world into the Biblical world. The word of God is true and perfect. It applies to everyone worldwide, but we must also remember to view God’s Word with an eye towards the culture and times of the writer.
This is an excellent book which I highly recommend Christians to read. It will not overnight make you understand all the cultural differences within Scripture, but it is a good place to start.
David Washburn is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father, and a grandfather. He is an author of short stories and blogs occasionally. You can connect with David on Facebook and Twitter.
Once upon a time many, many years ago, there was a little girl who picked up a white ball with black spots and started playing with it. She decided to try making a game where you couldn’t use your hands. So she started kicking it around and soon other kids started playing. Quickly a game was created and this young lady named the game soccer.
Soon soccer games started popping up everywhere. To help soccer spread as far and wide as possible, the young lady wrote down how to play soccer in a book called “How to Play Soccer.” With the rules of soccer written down, soon the young lady was forgotten, but soccer became an international phenomenon. Everyone was playing!
“How to Play Soccer” was also an international success. Copies of the book were being sold as fast as they could be printed. Everyone who loved soccer was given a copy. As generations passed, parents would pass their copies down to their children. It became uncommon for someone not to have a copy sitting around in a drawer or a closet.
But as generations passed, people read the book less and less. And a few hundred years after the publication of the book, small changes started taking place. First, people decided that hands were okay to use. Years passed. A group of people decided that goals were unnecessary, so they were removed and the practice spread. Soon the game had evolved into people passing the ball back and forth, declaring they had scored whenever they felt like it.
Interest in the game waned. People played it because their parents did or because their parents expected them too. Some people played out a sense of preserving their cultural heritage, but the passion for the game was largely absent. Duty had replaced the love of the game.
Then, one day, something happened that changed everything. Two young boys were going on a cruise and their parents had given them a copy of “How To Play Soccer” and a soccer ball. A freak accident happened on the ship and these two boys with their book and ball ended up on a life raft that landed on a deserted island.
Obviously, survival was a primary concern for awhile, but after figuring out how to survive, they were left with little to do. The boys eventually got around to reading the book their parents had given them. Having never really played the game, they read the instructions with a fresh set of eyes. No one was around to tell them that soccer isn’t played like the book stated. And so they played. They fashioned makeshift goals and started, kicking competing against each other. They would spend weeks learning to play against each other.
Then, a miracle happened and the boys were discovered by a passing ship. They were brought back to their home city and reunited with their family. Something strange happened, though, when they returned. They played a different game than everyone else, the one they had learned from reading the book “How To Play Soccer.”
Because they had read the book and did what it said, at first they were ridiculed for playing such a strange game. Others questioned whether it was helpful or relevant to play the game like it was described in the book. But the curious and those who would have never touched soccer before suddenly began to see the fun and the joy of the game. And soon the joy of playing soccer began to spread again, replacing the formalism and tradition of the game it had become.
Soccer became fun again. It was played the way it was always intended thanks to two young boys who had the audacity to believe the book and put it into practice.
Let the reader understand….
Making disciples who make disciples is part of the commission Jesus gave us as believers (Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Timothy 2:2). Jesus Himself told us to teach them to obey everything He commanded, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that a large part of making disciples involves all of us getting into the Bible and studying it together.
As I mentioned yesterday, our corporate discipline involves 2 or 3 people gathering together and reading large amounts of Scripture, somewhere between 20 & 30 chapters a week. Why are we so determined to study the Bible? Jesus said that His very words are Spirit and life (John 6:63). The message of the Kingdom contained within the Bible is like a seed in our hearts (Mark 4:13-14, 26-27). The more we can get that message of the Kingdom into our hearts and spirits, the more of the Kingdom we see take root in our life.
So, every time our groups of 2&3 gather, we pick a section of Scripture, usually 20 or 30 chapters in a row. This section is what everyone is reading this week. This week my 2&3 is reading the book of Mark, last week was the book of Revelation. Sometimes it’s multiple books like 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The point isn’t to finish the section every single week. Many weeks someone in my 2&3 doesn’t finish. When this happens, we start over, and read it again the following week. When everyone finishes the 20 or 30 chapters in the same week, that’s when it’s time to pick a new section of Scripture.
Why do we read the Bible together like this? The main reason is it’s good to be in the Bible hearing Jesus for ourselves. As Christians we believe the Bible is the only inspired message from God and because of that, it is fuel for us to grow up into the likeness of Jesus. But in addition to that, reading large portions of the Bible together keeps us from heresy. Mutual discipleship means there’s no authorized leader of a 2&3. If we read significant portions of the Bible together in context, each believer is able to say “Can you show me where you found that in the reading?” whenever a controversial statement is expressed. One final thought about reading together like this: It eats away at our carnal independence. Many people are content to read what they want, when they want. This process asks us to be formed as disciples together.
We want to be careful of a few things. The intent of this time is not turn our 2&3’s into a Bible study. Bible studies are good and have their place. But our goal instead is to figure out how Jesus encountered us in the Scriptures and is asking us to obey Him. This isn’t the chance for those gifted as teachers to break down whole chapters of the Bible for everyone else.
Also, we need to be careful of dead religion. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for reading the Bible but resisting the very One that the Scriptures pointed to (John 5:39). The goal is not to become an expert, the goal is meet the One who Scripture points to! But reading and immersing ourselves in truths within the Bible is the surest way to do that.
I think in the West, because the Bible is so available to us, it can become easy to grow cold to its ability to transform us. The words sound familiar and if we fail to take the words back to the Holy Spirit and ask Him to encounter us around those words, our hearts can grow dull to the Word. I believe the word of God has the power to change human hearts. Have you ever seen Chinese believers receive a Bible for the first time? It should humble us. We need to hunger for God’s word like these fiery believers who are being transformed by the Gospel.
What I’ve described here is a corporate discipline that we embrace to make disciples. But friends, the heart here is that we are soft towards God’s word and being transformed by it. We need not only to read it ourselves, but join with others and help each other find the divine truth God has hidden in its pages.
Yesterday I shared some thoughts about how “not being fed spiritually” isn’t why we participate in a church. My primary argument (in case you hate clicking links) is that we weren’t primarily designed be fed by another person, but by the Lord Himself. But I realize that because of the state of the church today, that could leave many of you asking, “How do I do that?”
Because of that, I want to look at four different ways the Bible encourages us to fuel our spiritual man. God actually has ways for you to feed your heart and soul yourself as you encounter Him. My encouragement to you is to look at the four different ways listed below and pick one (or more) that you aren’t doing, but to also do it daily for ninety days before you give up on it. There are many, many days where the disciplines I practice don’t feel like they are accomplishing anything. But the overall effect of doing them consistently over the years has had a tremendous impact on my life.
So, to feed your spiritual man, you should try the following:
- Pray. I know what you’re thinking. You pray. But I’m not talking about the short “Help me, God,” sort of prayers we pray throughout hectic days. I’m talking about a kind of prayer where your mind is focused, your heart is attentive, and you and the Father are dialoguing back and forth. Part of the problem we experience with prayer is much of the church has taught us not to expect God to talk back to us. But prayer is a communion of our spirit with God’s Holy Spirit where real relationship happens. If you have problems praying I have a few suggestions: 1) Get alone. 2) Leave behind all of your electronic devices. 3) Bring a pen and some paper. Write your part of the conversation out on paper and then wait. And as God brings truth to your spirit or brings up a Bible verse, or shows you a picture write those things down. Over time as you practice this, you’ll begin to get good at hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit as you wait for Him.
- Read the Bible. Again, this can seem so elementary, but we so don’t do the simple things and it hurts us. Can we put away our books, our blogs (even this one?), our Christian programs, and truly begin to understand what God is saying? Jesus (and Moses) said “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4). We have to get to our place in our walk where we understand we are dependent on God’s word to feed our spirit on a daily basis. This encounter with the word has to go beyond just dull, repetitive reading, though, to ushering us into an encounter with Jesus (John 5:39). In our network, I encourage believers to get in groups of two or three and read 20 to 30 chapters of the Bible in context every week. Consuming a large amount of Scripture in context has helped us grow in understanding of God’s will for our lives. Not only that, but we’ve met God in the process.
- Do the will of the Father. “I have a kind of food you know nothing about…My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work,” (John 4:32-34). Jesus, as a human being, had learned to become dependent, not on natural food, but a spiritual food that came from the Father. This wasn’t just because Jesus was God. Jesus had to lay aside His divine nature and become like us in all things (Philippians 2:6-8). So His entire life was an example of how redeemed humanity can live in relationship to the Father. Friends, this means you can be fed spiritually when you participate in God’s will! That can be as simple as encouraging someone or responding to a truth from the Bible or as unique as Jesus prophesying to the Samaritan woman about her various scandals and leading her to repentance. Regardless, every time we do God’s will, it strengthens who we are on the inside. Many of my friends who understand spiritual disciplines miss this reality because it can’t be done alone in a closet. But some of my most spiritually dynamic mentors and friends are people who were people who received from God and obeyed when He asked them to act. Don’t miss this powerful step!
- Pray in the Spirit. Paul had a very particular type of prayer that he stressed was important for building up our inner man. This was praying in tongues or praying in the Spirit and it was designed as form of communion between our spirit and God’s Spirit. When Paul talks about this type of prayer, he says that a believer “…will be speaking by the power of the Spirit…[and] is strengthened personally,” (1 Corinthians 14:2-4). And because of this, Paul says about himself “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you,” (1 Corinthians 14:18). I think many times, we under-emphasize the role this gift has in strengthening our spiritual lives. Much could be written about this gift, but let’s start here: If you have this ability, put it into practice daily. If you don’t have this gift, ask the Lord for it. He loves to give more of the Spirit to those who ask.
The Old Testament has a story that we can learn from in regard to these disciplines. During their time in the wilderness, God would rain down manna from heaven for the Israelites to eat and told them to gather what they needed for that day. If they tried to gather more than what they needed for that day, when they went to eat it the next day, what was left over had rotted and was covered in maggots. They couldn’t live off the previous day’s manna.
So too, we can’t live off of one good day with the Lord or three good days in a week, let alone one day a week when we gather as a church. Again, much of the church is weaker than it needs to be because they aren’t daily engaging the Lord in these ways.
My encouragement to you if you read yesterday’s post and didn’t know where to start is to pick one of these disciplines that you aren’t strong in and practice it for the next seven days. Take stock on what you’ve noticed as far as a change in your walk. I want you to spend 90 days trying a discipline, but even at one solid week, my guess is you will start to see a dynamic change in your walk with the Lord.
Remember, this is important. You were created for relationship with God. Don’t miss these avenues to encountering Him and growing by feeding yourself on God and His word.
There is a way to guard yourself and your church from heresy. It’s called relationships.
Yesterday I shared the journey of how I came to understand that relationships centered around God’s word keep us from heresy. But different people need to respond differently to this idea. If you read yesterdays post, can I encourage you to do one of three things?
Some of those reading this post have no committed relationships with other believers. As my two year old daughter would say, “This is a problem.” You may be smart or well educated in the historical beliefs of the church, but I guarantee that if you aren’t in relationship with believers, you are opening yourself up to error, the least of which is pride.
It’s become quite popular lately to say that you can be a Christian and not go to a particular church, be a Christian and attend church on-line, or be a Christian and attend no church at all. But none of these will save your life from falling into error. Frankly, for relationships to preserve you and your church from error, you and those you care for must meet with other believers in groups small enough for others in the group to know you. And I mean *really* know you.
So, if you want to build in a firewall of relationships that protect you from heresy, begin to meet and build relationships with a small group of believers submitted to Jesus and His word. Let them know you. Get to know them. This is step #1.
After building relationships, it’s important to purge hierarchy from them. This may sound even stranger than “relationships protect you from error.” The truth is one major source of deception in the body of Christ is our constant appeal to something else other than God’s word. When a believer who is considered a leader believes a lie or practices sin, that believer, left unchallenged becomes a source for others to appeal to. He or she goes from a person caught in error to a source to be appealed to. “I can do it because Pastor X says it’s okay,” is the lie we tell ourselves.
Instead, regularly gather under the leadership of Jesus and in submission to Him and His word. Don’t appeal to another’s authority. Appeal to the authority of Jesus and the Bible. All of the areas essential to life and godliness are covered in the Bible, leaving little need to appeal to another believer. Your testimony and opinion are great, but they’ll never rival the message of God, which is living, active, and able to separate between soul and spirit. I have fundamental concerns about any believer who is swayed by someone’s authority but not by the clear teachings of the Bible. If someone isn’t willing to listen to God’s revealed word, your persuasion or “rank” in the body won’t move them.
Learn to Encourage/Challenge/Rebuke
Finally, it’s important for believers to learn to lovingly encourage, challenge, and rebuke each other. This is difficult, particularly if you come from an environment where an authority was the final word on every subject. But the grand vision of the church in Scripture is one where believers “speak the truth in love” to one another (Ephesians 4:15).
This is the most difficult step. You, while equal in your standing before God, with humility, begin to encourage them to obey God’s word or bring to their attention where they aren’t. This will also require humility on their part as well. But it’s in this way that we achieve the mutual submission that Paul spoke of in Ephesians 5:21.
This will require of you that you learn to be patient, loving, and forgiving. Others will get it wrong. You will get it wrong. But the benefit here is well tested thoughts about God and Scripture, along with well tested lifestyles that stand strong in the face of persecution from the world. Your life isn’t perfect in your eyes but flawed in everyone else’s. You know what you believe because it was formed in the crucible of committed relationships.
None of these steps are easy. They all take time and intentionality. But if you build these three realities into your life and the life of the churches you are part of, the result will be a stronger lives in the Kingdom of God.
It’s the great fear of churches of all sizes and stripes. It’s particularly feared whenever you talk much about releasing the church to be the church in small, relationally focused groups (house churches).
Who will protect the people from heresy? What if someone believes something that isn’t in the Bible and starts teaching it to others? To those who have grown up under a strong biblical teacher or someone who has watched someone go into error, this is enough to scare people away.
Our house church network has had to deal with this issue over and over again. Small groups of Christians meeting together where anyone can share are prime places for people with weird views to show up. Heretics, both of the doctrinal and lifestyle varieties1 have tried to insert themselves into what we’re doing. But in the nine years that we’ve been doing this one thing has consistently guarded us against heresy: relationships.
That may sound weird if you’ve never been part of a relationship-centric church. But over and over again I’ve watched as deep, abiding relationships around the word of God have rescued others from biblical error. Whenever a heresy has sprung up, it was dealt with not through authority and bible-beating, but friendships where one person has lovingly challenged another about a particular belief not being in the word of God.
We’ve also noticed that the number one indicator of someone who comes into our fellowship having the potential to be a problem has been whether or not they are in relationship with others. Those who come as believers in Jesus but have terrible relationships with other parts of the body of Christ (by their own admission) have over time shown that they are after their own interests, not Christ’s. Again it comes back to relationship. Having a healthy relationship with Christ necessitates having a healthy relationship to his body.
The crazy thing is Jesus and the apostles believed in this relational element to the truth. Jesus says, “Anyone who receives you receives me…” (Matthew 10:40). John, the Apostle, says, “These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us,” (1 John 2:18-19). I could go on.
The point is real, biblical truth is designed to flourish in community, not in isolation. And more importantly, real, biblical community is designed to protect the truth of Christ in the hearts and lives of His followers. Do you want to protect yourself or your church from heresy? Enter in to true relationships around God’s word.
1 I’m indebted to Neil Cole for pointing out that there are two types of heresy which the New Testament speaks of. When we speak of heresy, we usually refer to heresy of doctrine, which is obviously important to avoid. But the New Testament speaks equally about heresy of the life, where we live a life of error that doesn’t point to Jesus. While both doctrinal and lifestyle heresy are common, our discussion of heresy tends to focus on doctrinal heresy (i.e. believing Jesus is the Son of God, understanding how a man can be saved, what is the role of the Holy Spirit) while ignoring lifestyle heresy’s such as greed, legalism, or adultery. I believe Jesus is concerned with both doctrine and practice and to a certain extent, our practice is our doctrine (see Titus 2:1-13).