I grew up a conservative evangelical in the 1980s. At four, I was enthralled by Sunday School flannelgraphs of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and David and Goliath. At the ripe age of 11, I made a personal decision to follow Jesus while watching Billy Graham. As an evangelical teenager, I coolly strutted to the Christian section of the record store to buy DC Talk’s Jesus Freak. My teenage political views were informed by Pat Robertson. I followed Kirk Cameron’s career after the end of Growing Pains. You get the picture.
Then, about 12 years ago, I had a crisis of faith. For the first time, I began asking questions about the religion I had been taught as a child. Rethinking my beliefs was a long, emotionally difficult experience for me, partly because I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone in my evangelical social network about my doubts. I felt a sense of shame, like I was betraying my church . . . or maybe even God.
Because I kept my questions a secret, the journey to a more intellectually honest faith was lonely — and probably more painful than it would have been otherwise. Now that I’m the pastor of a progressive evangelical church, people regularly come to me to talk about doubts they feel like they can’t admit to anyone else. Here are 10 common thoughts evangelicals often don’t feel they’re allowed to express:
1. The Bible was influenced by the various cultures in which it was written.
The various books of the Bible were written at different times, in different cultures, and in the various languages of their human authors — Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. When writing in the same language, the authors use differing vocabularies and write with different levels of grammatical skill. We also find differing cultural assumptions, political perspectives, concepts of salvation and justice, names for God, and views of God’s own character.
After all, God is the true authority. As N.T. Wright observes in Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, “All Scripture is culturally conditioned.” Evangelicals can hold to the inspiration of scripture while acknowledging that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of its cultural context. Recognizing this frees us to ask questions of the Bible without feeling like we’re betraying God.
2. Genesis 1-3 are likely two separate creation accounts.
The first three chapters of Genesis, often cited by evangelical creationists to argue against evolution, seem to present two separate creation accounts that were juxtaposed by a later editor. Genesis 2:4 — “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens — is the not-so-subtle hint. Even the name for God changes in 2:4 from Elohim (God) to Adonai-Elohim (Lord God).
The first creation account found in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is cosmic in perspective and either Hebrew poetry or high prose, complete with alliteration, rhyme, and artful numerical patterns. The second creation account (Genesis 2:4-25) is down-to-earth and intimately relational. Instead of addressing scientific origins, the two creation accounts are like looking into a mirror. Perhaps a closer reading of the Genesis creation accounts would grant evangelicals a more comfortable relationship with science.
3. Sometimes the God of the Bible and Jesus don’t seem to match up.
Joshua 11 and Deuteronomy 7, among other passages, seem to indicate that God commanded the extermination of an entire ethnic group — the Canaanites. In stark contrast, Jesus instructs his disciples to turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute them. Seeming contradictions like this demand that thinking Christians interpret the Bible responsibly. While evangelicals will attempt to reconcile these passages differently, simply acknowledging the difficulty will provide space to ask questions and wrestle with the text.
4. Almost no Christian obeys all that the New Testament commands.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul cites six reasons women should wear head coverings in worship gatherings. Of course, very few American Christians do so. In this passage, however, it seems that women are permitted to pray and prophesy in worship, while in 1 Corinthians 14:34, women are commanded to remain silent. Again, this raises questions about biblical authority and how to thoughtfully interpret the Bible consistently.
5. Nowhere does the Bible condemn to hell followers of other religions.
Passages cited by Christian exclusivists — such as John 14:6 and Romans 10:9 — are not blanket statements condemning religions other than Christianity. Christianity was not even an established religion when these verses were written. Instead, both were written in the context of a discussion between Jewish and Gentile Christians about the role of Jesus as the Messiah. If we are confident that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), then perhaps we are free to view all spiritual seekers as equals and explore truth wherever we find it.
6. The Gospels were not meant to be historical documents.
The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke contain striking differences. The Gospel of John presents Jesus as cleansing the Jerusalem Temple near the beginning of his public ministry, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke (more plausibly) have Jesus cleansing the Temple near the end of his ministry. Matthew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark, but clean up the Greek grammar and leave out episodes of Jesus’ ministry they might consider embarrassing (for example, Mark 3:21). The Gospel writers intended to persuade their audiences to follow Jesus as the Messiah, not to record history in the modern sense.
7. Both Jesus and Paul held progressive views regarding women.
In the cultures of Jesus and Paul, men were not even supposed to speak to a woman in public. The fact that Jesus included women among his followers was nothing less than scandalous. While scholars disagree on Paul’s view of women overall, Paul clearly credits women as leaders within the church (see Romans 16).
Paul seems to have permitted women to participate in worship (1 Corinthians 11:5), and he was assisted by a husband and wife named Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18). It’s noteworthy that in four of the six mentions of the couple, Priscilla’s name is listed first. Noticing that both Jesus and Paul held progressive views toward women in their time should allow evangelicals to reexamine our views of women’s rights.
8. The majority of Christians in the world practice infant baptism.
Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and various other denominations make up a majority of Christians worldwide. Each of these Christian expressions practices infant baptism. Christians who hold to believer baptism represent about 25 percent of Christians worldwide. While the minority is certainly entitled to their views, the percentages call for humble reflection.
9. New Testament passages that command wives submit to their husbands also assume slavery.
The role of women is still a difficult subject for many evangelicals. Four passages in the New Testament that address the role of women also contain directions for the relationship between slaves and their masters (see Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Titus 2:1-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7). The passages, called Greco-Roman Household Codes, are lists of commonly accepted “family values” in the Roman Empire. Christians who quote these passages to support female submission to men must realize that these passages also instruct slaves to obey their masters and were used by slaveholders in the South to keep slaves in line. The obvious question is, “Since we no longer believe the Bible requires slaves to obey their masters, should we still require wives to submit to their husbands?”
10. The Bible says shockingly little about same-sex relationships.
There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible — only six or seven of those appear to condemn same-sex relationships. Sometimes referred to as the “clobber passages” because of their unfortunate misuse, these passages were influenced by ancient culture, as was the whole of the Bible (see #1). While evangelicals disagree on whether the Bible condemns same-sex relationships, we would do well to consider whether the cultural context of these few passages should cause us to question traditional interpretations.
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