Reading the Bible: A Helpful Guide to Picking and Choosing

The final post in the “Errant Notions” series was scheduled for today. It is written but for several reasons I’m going to hold it for a week. Instead, here is a brief post based on deleted material from that forthcoming post.

One of the worst accusations Christians can level at one another regarding Bible reading and interpretation, right up there with being “smarter than God,” is that of “picking and choosing.” This is the unforgivable crime of believing only some of the teachings and ordinances of scripture while dismissing or ignoring others. It’s the game of liberals and sinners and compromisers who can’t bear to face the full reality of “biblical truth.” Meanwhile, those who make this accusation implicitly claim that they have diligently and thoroughly read, understood, believed, and obeyed all of the teachings and standards of the Good Book. At least they have tried very hard.

Of course, if we’re honest with ourselves, there is no approach to the Bible that is not a fundamental “picking and choosing” of commands, themes, ideas, and perspectives. Given our own cognitive and imaginative limitations and the massive scope and conversant diversity of Bible texts, no one can claim with any credibility to understand, affirm, obey and/or follow every word of the Bible. It may work as a posture or aspiration, but as a practice it is literally impossible. We all “pick and choose,” the question is how we will do it. If we deny that we’re doing it, it will still happen, but we will remain unaware of the subconscious standard we have adopted. 

As a public service, I want to offer a brief glimpse into my own strategy for “picking and choosing” from the Bible. Mind you, this isn’t just haphazard cherry-picking depending on how I’m feeling today. There is a method! See if you can decipher it from these examples:

  • I choose to believe that God is a loving Father and not an angry tyrant, though the Bible portrays both.
  • I choose to believe that nonviolence and empathy are superior to retaliation, though scripture affirms both.
  • I choose to believe that God prefers mercy and love over ritual and sacrifice, despite the Bible’s frequent preoccupation with the latter.
  • I choose to believe that “the son of man came to serve and not to be served,” though even the Christian scriptures are often triumphal.
  • I choose to believe in “the things that make for peace,” though many see in the Bible a promise of war.
  • I choose to believe that divine judgment is concerned with personal integrity and charity, not correct religious belief.
  • I choose to believe that forgiveness and blessing are God’s default posture toward humanity, and not special favors to be earned.
  • I choose to believe that God does not afflict sinners with disease and calamity, though the Bible sometimes suggests otherwise.
  • I choose to believe that God loves and welcomes all people freely, not just a special chosen few.
  • I choose to believe that it is more noble to suffer with and on behalf of others than to accuse and condemn them.

Did you figure it out? In each case, I choose the principle taught or embodied by Jesus over the alternatives affirmed elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus is my decoder ring, my compass for navigating the strange and bumpy terrain of the scriptures. I can embrace and explore the entire canon without fear, confusion, or dissonance. I am not obligated to systematize, mash-up, and sterilize every voice I encounter. I can enter into any text and find my moral and theological footing by turning back to Jesus. Instead of a presupposition or doctrine about the nature of the text, Jesus is my key to finding “Bible truth.”