The following is taken from the conclusion of my book, God Shows No Partiality.
What I have found in teaching the Bible in both the academy and the church is that the people who believe in the Bible most literally are often the least literate about it. They may have memorized favorite scriptures that support their ideas of what their faith means, but they do not often take trips through the minor prophets, and they have no idea what the Babylonian Exile was. They are essentially writing their own Bibles, and the versions they come up with have little to do with the actual history and social movements that created the religion of ancient Israel or that gave birth to the church. When I press literalists about their interpretation of scripture, asking them to explain contradictions or inconsistencies in their favorite texts, they invariably will complain that I’m reading too literally, that I’m nitpicking or reading too closely.
My gripe with progressive Christians, on the other hand, is that they have often ceded the Bible and Christian history to Christian fundamentalists and literalists. They have been on the defensive, relying on generalizations and failing to engage believers with powerful Biblical rhetoric. Having been wounded one too many times by scripture-wielding exclusivists, perhaps they are reluctant to engage scripture on social issues at all.
But the history of the early church and God’s activity among us is a powerful witness. In writing this book, I have hoped to challenge progressive Christians to actively engage the Bible—not with proof-texts and scriptures cherry-picked to support a given position, but with thoughtful exploration using the best scholarship available.
Doing so will inevitably lead to resistance. There are plenty of people who believe they own the Bible, and that it is their right to clobber people with it. Sometimes these are unwinnable battles, and engaging them is a waste of time. In one well-known parable, Jesus describes hearers of the gospel as different kinds of soil (Mark 4:1-9) and the seed planted in them faces different obstacles to its growth. There are many reasons people may resist this message: demonic resistance, selfishness and materialism, or social pressure. Yet the slogan I have been promoting in this book is one the world needs to hear. By making it better known, we will transform the Bible from a sword into a plow. Perhaps instead of waging a war against sword-wielding Christians who will not be convinced, we can plant new seeds among those who are receptive to the Good News. At the end of the parable, after all, there is a harvest—thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.
If you, dear reader, are someone who does believe that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), if you look forward to the day that the powers and principalities are unmasked, there are some practical things you can do to turn the rhetorical sword the Bible has become into a plowshare that helps bring new life. Here are some practical steps.
First, Christians who believe in the salvation of the world should delve deeply into scripture. It is essential to study the Bible closely, to listen thoughtfully to what the authors say and do not say. Do not accept the pious reflections of preachers or the footnotes of popular study Bibles as the word of God. Read multiple translations, and be open to diverse interpretations. Ask how a given scripture might sound different to a white man, a black woman, or a religious or political prisoner. Ask what situations the authors faced and what voices they were arguing against. Study the Bible with people who have diverse theological opinions so you can hear with new ears. Be willing to read against the grain.
Second, if you want to resist those who use the Bible as a weapon, you must exceed them in good works. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is essentially a long discourse on how the new community should not only reject the principles of the Christian Pharisee faction, but distinguish themselves in practice. Their righteousness “must exceed that of the Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). If progressive Christians want to be taken seriously by the world, they must out-pray, out-give, out-do, and out-sacrifice their fundamentalist siblings. They may not remain, as one pastor friend describes them, “tippers instead of tithers.” They must live lives of exceptional moral conduct and generosity. If they do not, they will face two consequences: they will lose their social persuasiveness and they will become hypocrites themselves. This exceptional moral conduct is not just a matter of surface religiosity. It is about a transformation that happens to the soul (Matthew 5:44).
Third, you must spread the good news. The word “evangel” literally means “good message.” Fundamentalists tend to be evangelical because they believe they are saving people from hell in the afterlife. Progressive Christians are trying to save people from hell in this life, but they often fail to be evangelical even though I believe their good news is often more compelling and more exciting. I believe the news is just as good now as it was in the first century. If we do as Jesus instructed and spread this good news to all the earth, then burgeoning Christian movements in developing countries will not criminalize homosexuality or silence the voices of women. People in America will not be able to reject Christianity out-of-hand as intolerant and irrational—but only if this message spreads.