Within what we broadly call “The Church,” there are three tiers or layers of understanding: the scholarly, the pastoral and the lay. Each of these layers would answer differently the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Or, if you were to ask someone at all three levels a question of Biblical interpretation, you might again get multiple answers. The reason for these gaps or differences in understanding is that all three kinds of people operate in different thought worlds.
There is a great gulf fixed between the scholar and the rank & file Christian. Between them, in the gap, stands the pastoral gatekeeper. He has access to the thought world above him (the scholarly) and the one that is below him (the average church member). It is rare for a scholar to address a congregation. It is even more rare for a church member to read a scholarly publication.
Each layer or group operates according to its interests. That which does not serve those interests is screened out. Scholars speak mainly to each other in the code-bound language of Academia. They often use what is called the “historical-critical” method of studying the text. This method yields up the kind of conclusions that would seriously shake the faith of lay members, were they exposed to them. Yet, as Michael D. Coogan writes, “…this understanding has had remarkably little effect on the way most people in our culture, whether religious or not, think of the Bible…The intellectual revolution that can be summed up in the phrase ‘historical-critical method’ has had virtually no impact; most people today view the Bible not very differently from the way scholars and laity alike viewed it before the Enlightenment – naively and precritically” (Bible Review, “The Great Gulf Between Scholars and the Pew,” June 1994, p. 47).
At both pastoral and lay levels, people pick and choose which parts of Scripture they will interpret and apply in ways that serve their interests. Coogan expresses it this way: “Thus, within institutional Christianity, we can discern a selective approach toward biblical texts, as well as a resistance to texts motivated by at least an unconscious fear of the implications of the historical-critical method. That method is correctly perceived as calling into question not just the authority of the Bible, but also the authority derived from the Bible” (ibid.).
In other words, ideas that are widely accepted within certain scholarly circles have not yet penetrated to the lay level of the Church. Ministers who seek to popularize these ideas are almost instant labeled as “liberals,” subversives, heretics and worse. The more common approach is to insulate lay members from these “subversive” ideas and to reinforce popular approaches to Scripture.
Even Bible translations sometimes reflect reluctance on the part of scholars to share their findings with the laity. Writes Coogan: “One area especially lacking in courage is Bible translation. Many translations do not convey exactly what the original biblical languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – say. In this way translators avoid shocking people by making the Bible seem like one book with internal consistency, rather than an anthology exhibiting development of doctrines and a concomitant inconsistency” (ibid.).
The net result of dishonest translation has been disastrous to doctrine. Synoptic scholars Bivin and Blizzard explain the extent of this disaster: “The Gospels are rife with mistranslations…had the Church been provided with a proper Hebraic understanding of the words of Jesus, most theological controversies would never have arisen in the first place” (Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, p. 67).
Ideally, theology is supposed to be “reasoned discourse about God,” but much of the discourse we see is anything but reasoned. Rather, it is angry, politicized, and competitive. It produces the ugly spectacle of Christian against Christian, with rounds of shunning, name-calling, marking, disfellowshipping and worse. For many, “reasoned discourse” is out of the question. It’s Truth versus error, the faithful against the heretics, Us versus Them.
Pastoral gatekeepers find themselves caught between the upper and lower tiers of the intellectual life of the Church. If they buy into the output of scholars, and preach it to their congregations, they would wind up as “faith busters.” Above all, they want stable, settled, tithe-paying congregations. No pastor in his right mind wants to make waves and destabilize his congregation.
Writes Coogan: “…a modern, critical study of the Bible can be discomforting…[it] may lead to disbelief…” (ibid. p. 48). Rather than trouble the multitudes with the esoteric findings of critical scholarship, some scholars have created what is known as “accessible scholarship.” This they leave to “the pious and the ignorant.” Says Coogan, “For the latter the Bible is too often little more than an anthology of quotations to be sampled and drawn on as argument or emotion requires” (ibid. p. 48).
Sadly, this picture is all too valid in many religious circles. The unfortunate technique of “proof texting” is used somewhat indiscriminately in the less sophisticated cults of personality. What is doctrine or dogma is all too often decided subjectively and on the basis of emotion, tradition or politics. This is of course what leads skeptics to say, “You can prove anything by the Bible.”
Purpose of the Ministry
The apostle Paul described various ministerial roles – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – as “grace gifts” from Christ (Ephesians 4:7-8). Each of these roles represents a specialized function of ministry. The collective purpose of all of them is “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive…” (Ephesians 4:12-14 KJV).
It is the Christ-given duty of the ministry to produce in the lay level of the Church a process of spiritual perfecting the result of which is a well-constructed, healthy, Body of Christ. The ideal fruit of this effort is unity, knowledge of Christ, and spiritual maturity in Christ (vss. 12-13). Under right guidance from the ministry, the church should be “no more children” easily manipulated by those who bring exciting new doctrines to titillate the intellect (verse 14). In other words, the ministry should be able to help the laity to discern between someone is attempting to deceive, and one who is genuine.
Verse 15 lists an important qualifier: “But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ…” The Body must edify itself in love (verse 16b). Two things stand out: truth and love.
Truth, to be truth, must be objective. Simply defending a denomination’s doctrinal status quo for its own sake is not good enough. Doctrines should be adjusted to accommodate truth, not visa versa. Unity in error is not acceptable. Truth without love is empty. If the goal of a denominational, or congregational, leader is merely power over the group and its tithes, that motive is ignoble for it is not founded in love. The apostle Paul taught that every Christian should have love as his or her overarching motivation in life (I Corinthians 14:1).
Assuming that love is in place, we are left with the issue of how to apprehend truth. Anyone who has studied the history of the Church from the time of the apostles to the present ought to know that truth is a sometime thing with Christians. The founding community of believers “…continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking o bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
The apostles, in turn, had received their doctrine from Jesus himself who had instructed them: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…”(Matthew 28:19,20 excerpts).
Truth is what Jesus taught. Truth is what the original apostles taught and lived. It is “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3b).
Sadly, much of what was delivered has been lost in transit. Churches today have cobbled together eclectic packages of Old Testament, New Testament, and post-Biblical doctrines some of which are a far cry from the original teachings of the first believing community. It is unlikely that the first apostles would recognize much of what today is taught as “orthodoxy.” The gulf between scholarship and laity, with pastors as mid-level gatekeepers, hasn’t helped. Too much has been politicized and commercialized. In the Salvation Supermarket, there is something for everyone. Western Christianity has taken a Semitic book and interpreted it through Hellenistic eyes. In the process, many of its Hebraisms have been lost in the shuffle. Looking at doctrine today is like looking at one’s reflection in a “Hall of Mirrors” at the local carnival. Just about everything is distorted.
To get back to the original faith, the Church must learn to appreciate its Jewish roots, and those scholars who are working honestly and diligently to recapture the authentic teachings of Jesus and his first disciples. The gap between scholars, pastors and lay members must be closed. All of the Church must gain access to the best of scholarship. Scholars, like pastors and lay members, come in different sizes, shapes and degrees of integrity. Some are faith-builders, other are faith-busters. Personally I prefer the former – but only if they are intellectually honest and motivated by a love for God and the Church.
Our Father Abraham by Marvin Wilson
Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard Jr.
Paul the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young
Jesus Rabbi & Lord by Robert Lindsey
(For additional sources, see the Recommended Reading list at the ACD website: www.godward.org ).