Monday, August 19, 2013

Should The Bible Be Tethered To Our Churches?

Of course not, we say. Everyone should have the right--and the responsibility--to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves, individually. And having any Bible literally tethered to something seems like a terrible idea.

Having said that, the real reason copies of the Bible were once kept chained at churches was not because some religious leaders wanted to keep lay people from having access to scripture. Rather, it was because hand written copies of the text were so rare and were prohibitively expensive prior to the invention of the printing press.

Of course, many lay people prior to Gutenberg were illiterate anyway, but because of the scarcity of available copies pretty much all Christians had to depend on the public reading and exposition of the Bible in their churches.

Needless to say, I really value having my own access to multiple versions of scripture, but I've also come to believe there is some merit to having more of our serious study and interpretation of the text done together, with fellow members of our congregations.


In the first place, the 66 books in the Protestant canon were almost all addressed to whole communities of faith rather than to single individuals. They were clearly intended for communal use. As one indication of this, the Bible's pronouns are predominantly plural rather than singular, which is abundantly clear in the King James version, where "ye", "you" or "your" are always plural, whereas "thee", "thou" or "thine" are used when addressing individuals. In good Southern form, the Bible is mostly addressed to "you all".

Of course this doesn't mean that the message of scripture isn't meant to be personal. But it is never intended to be private. It shouldn't be surprising that since the rise of individualism and the subsequent insistence on each person's "private interpretation" being just as valid as everyone else's, that we've experienced a distressing proliferation of thousands of sects, splits and splinter groups--each claiming they have the one true understanding of scripture. That is truly one of the travesties of our time.

We may not realize that the first Christian churches had no access to any written "Bible" except for copies of the Hebrew Pentateuch (the Law), the Writings, and the Prophets kept in local synagogues. The life and teachings of Jesus were preserved as an oral tradition well before they became written as the Gospels. The pastoral letters of the apostle Paul and others were at first circulated from church to church for public reading and only later became a part of the official canon. Clearly the Bible was, as it always should be, a book of and for the people of God, and not meant only for private study or devotions.

The wisdom that comes from groups of people prayerfully seeking to understand a text is always greater than that of any one person's alone. We need to pay attention to both the witness of past faith traditions and the Spirit-driven consensus of fellow believers as we seek to know more of God's will and way for our time. We will still never agree on all matters of faith, but we can experience a common bond in our search of the truths we need to live by.

Note this from J. B. Phillips rendering of the Apostle Paul's words in Romans 12:3-7 [brackets added]: 

Don’t let the world around you [the congregation at Rome] squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you [all] may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all God's demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

As your spiritual teacher I give this piece of advice to each one of you. Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all. For just as you have many members in one physical body and those members differ in their functions, so we, though many in number, compose one body in Christ and are all members of one another. Through the grace of God we have different gifts. If our gift is preaching, let us preach to the limit of our vision. If it is serving others let us concentrate on our service; if it is teaching let us give all we have to our teaching; and if our gift be the stimulating of the faith of others let us set ourselves to it.

We need to bring all of the gifts and insights of the congregation together in our study of scripture.
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