Sadly, in so many churches, the test of whether you are a “true” Christian is whether you believe the Bible or not – every word of it. If you don’t, it is a sign that God has not transformed your heart and that your faith is not real. In these kind of churches, when people discover this about you, you’ll notice they won’t sit on your pew any longer or invite you to participate in the inner circles of church leadership. You’ll be an outsider forever more.
But let’s consider how this kind of “faith” works itself out in our lives…
For instance, people quote Bible verses like these in support of the death penalty:
“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Gen 9:6).
“Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution” (Exo 21:12-14).
<The Governing Authorities> are God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:4)
“Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Ex 21:17)
Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. (Ecc 8:11)
“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Ex 21:15)
On the other hand, it is Bible verses like these that people quote to oppose the death penalty:
There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12)
You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13 and Deut 5:17))
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Jesus stood up and said to <those wanting to stone the adulterous woman>, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt 5:38-39)
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Mat 6:12-15)
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matt 26:52)
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Mat 18:21-22 NRS)
Jesus said, “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: release, and ye shall be released” (Luk 6:37).
So who is right? The Bible tells us to execute criminals, rebellious children, and adulterers. However, it’s been a long time since we executed rebellious children and adulterers. And I believe that is because even the most fierce Bible thumping person knows in their heart that to execute an adulterer or a child for hitting its parent is going way too far. So they pick and they choose what they believe of the Bible hoping the rest of us won’t notice their inconsistencies.
But we have noticed!
The fact is that even Jesus spoke out against and broke the rules that the religious people of his day had extracted from their Bibles. He worked on the Sabbath, ate with sinners, failed to keep the cleanliness laws, etc. He was a very bad Jew. And today, he would be a very bad “Christian.” Yet, he broke none of God’s laws. How did he know the very heart of God? Because, in addition to knowing the scriptures, he got away to pray. He sat with the other two members of the trinity and listened. And what resulted was “love thy enemy,” “pray for those who have hurt you,” and “turn the other cheek.”
And the plain fact of the matter is that Jesus never said that he would send the Bible to tell us how to live. He said the Father would send the Holy Spirit.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (Joh 14:26 NRS)
Engaging the Holy Spirit is what we must do to be in relationship with God. Reading your Bible won’t do it. More is needed. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bible. I write about the Bible. I spend hours every day studying the Bible. But I know that the Bible only has meaning when the Holy Spirit speaks through it. The Bible is not to be worshiped. It is not God. When it is worshiped, its teachings become nothing more than superstitious practice where you can justify anything — even the death penalty.
And that is what has happened in the United States. People think they are holding up their faith when they say, “We believe the Bible! And we will execute criminals because the Bible tells us to.”
The fact is the Bible is the best record we have of the human interpretation of the spiritual happenings in their lives. It contains memories of their ancient encounters with God. It contains the words Jesus spoke. It contains Jesus’s closest friend’s interpretations of what he taught. It contains truth and wisdom. But it is not without interpretive challenges which can only be understood through the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
The death penalty is what you get when you read the Bible, but never listen to the Holy Spirit speak.
April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for an individual read or group Bible studies! You can follow her blog by clicking on the three dots in upper right hand of this page and scrolling down.