The general sentiment is that the church is more divided now than its ever been. Though I feel the intensity of the division too, I don’t believe our divisions are unique. Cracks in the church’s unity began to manifest early, and in some cases, were the very reasons for the writing of Scripture.
Where we may be singular, is that now, more than every before, we have the means to publish our dysfunction and disunity. It used to be we needed a spokesman with a platform to make our differences heard. Now, any individual can build his own platform, publish his own truth, and send it into the clouds, where myriads of people surf to find validation for ideas similar to their own.
1 Corinthians 1:11 (NASB95): 11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.
In the early church, letters from voices of authority were necessary and written to preserve the unity of the Spirit. Those voices of authority, preserved in the Scriptures, have served since to guide us back to the unity upon which the church was founded.
Despite having the voices of authority in one recognized book, we still have not managed to find our way back to unity. Why? I realize there is a deep well of answers to this question, but I believe my two answers are worth considering. So for what they are worth, into the well they go.
Pursuing Different Things
I believe when we come to the Word, we come in pursuit of different things and we’re finding what we are looking for. Some are looking for justification for beliefs and ideas they already hold. There is little doubt this happens, yet there is little acknowledgment that it happens to us. Others have more honorable pursuits, and yet they are all very different. And unity continues to elude us.
When we are in great need, the urgency causes the need to slip easily ahead of the most important pursuit. When life presses in on us, in desperation we look for answers. Answers to questions often not being asked in the book. If our God’s thoughts and ways are as high above our thoughts and ways as the heavens are above the earth, then we must humbly pursue His questions and His answers and not our own.
If you find hope in a verse beyond the reason for which the verse was written, you may have found a false hope. And if I find a different hope in the same verse, I will have found disunity with you. Or better said, I will not have found the hope and unity the verse was intended to bring us both. We must be disciplined to pursue only what is most important, and only then can we all find the hope and answers that unify.
The Pursuit of Meaning
If I asked most people what should we pursue in the Bible, they will likely say truth. This too is the cart before the horse. In order to arrive at truth, you must first pursue meaning. Truth comes from the contextual meaning of the passage. Meaning answers the question, what does this passage mean apart from what answers I may be looking for, and apart from what I may need? What does it mean to us all, and what has it always meant to us all?
To pursue meaning in this way takes an unusual discipline. Divorcing yourself from the passage in pursuit of its objective meaning may leave you feeling dispassionate at first, but it’s the only path to truth that also brings unity. Until the pursuit of meaning becomes normative, meaning must be pursued with discipline.
Red Letter Confusion
Not only do we come to the Word in pursuit of different things, but we also listen to different voices. Because much of the Bible is written as narrative, there are many different voices that speak. It’s an easy assumption that truth will be found on the lips of the righteous characters in the stories. So we pursue the meaning of David’s words when he says, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord which cost me nothing.”
The more we identify with a particular character, the more authority we give to their voice. Abraham, Moses, David and the Prophets, when they speak we listen. Above them all, we listen to the voice recorded in red letters. As strange as it may sound, this too is the cart before the horse.
2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB95): 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
The Voice of Authority
For those who were there and walked with Jesus, His was, without doubt, the voice of authority. But for us who we’re not there and who must look to the Sacred Writing, the voice of authority is the voice of the writer. In their voices is the authority of the Christ inspired by the Spirit.
We are used to the authors remaining in the shadows. We have relegated them to the background. So we know well that Jesus came to the disciples walking on water, but we miss the important fact that Mark, the writer, says, “He intended to pass them by.” It is important, though often overlooked, that Mark seems to be communicating that Jesus gets into the boat with them as a response to the disciple’s fears. He changed His own intentions in response to their fear.
If a writer has written well, and we believe by the Spirit the biblical writers have, then they have written enough to communicate their meaning. As such, I don’t need Matthew, to interpret Mark. Mark’s intended meaning is in the words Mark chooses to write and in what he chooses not to write. He has written enough to arrive at his intended meaning.
In our pursuit of meaning, what the author intends is no small matter. Without arriving at the author’s intended meaning, you may be able to gather enough stones and nuggets to build a dwelling of hope or a structure of inspiration, but your dwelling and structure will be very different from mine. The only path to both truth and unity is to gather enough of the author’s bricks to build what he is building. To do that, we together, must pursue meaning until we see his dwelling; his structure.