Had blogs existed in Dante’s time, there is no doubt he would have added a tenth circle of hell to describe what goes on in the comments section. A while back, I wrote a piece that gained a little traction and attracted several comments, one of which was this little gem:
“As a member of the UMC I am ashamed of what you just wrote, how can you pick and choose the parts of God’s word to obey, that is legalism and that is what you are doing… I guess you are a pastor but I would not be a member of your particular Methodist Church… We all must obey God’s Law and his word, no cherry picking, just be obedient…”
“Picking and choosing” or “cherry picking” is a frequent charge you hear Christians making against one another. The assumption behind it is that we are to obey the “whole Bible” and not just pick certain parts. Yet, the Bible is not really the kind of book that functions like a timeless law code. Everybody has to make decisions, sometimes very tough and unclear decisions, about how to interpret and apply certain biblical texts to our lives today. The problem is that when other people’s process of interpretation and application leads them to different conclusions than our own, we derisively call it “picking and choosing,” masking the fact that we ourselves are not simply taking the whole Bible “as it is,” but are also necessarily engaged in the work of interpretation.
Interpretation is inevitable and unavoidable. It’s simply what happens when we read. The Bible doesn’t come with footnotes saying “read this metaphorically” or “this was just meant for the original audience” or “this is actual history.” We have to make decisions about all these matters and more. Some hard-core literalists think, for example, that they are just reading Genesis plain and simple “as it is” when they assert that it is a historically accurate account of exactly how the world came to exist. They miss the fact that they have made a decision (or, more likely, the decision was made for them by the guardians of their brand of faith) to understand the genre of these texts as history and not, say, poetry or saga. But Genesis doesn’t come with notes telling us what literary genre it is. We have to do our best to figure that out by reading it in its historical context. (And when you do that, you see that expecting the kind of information from it that you get from modern history is out of place.)
Picking and choosing, then, is not just something that other Christians we disagree with do. We all do it. We all need to do it. It is simply the process of trying to understand, interpret, and apply Scripture to our lives. Jesus told his followers that they would have to pick and choose. Well, he didn’t use that exact language. He said we would have to “bind and loose.”
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Jesus speaking to Peter in Matthew 16:19)
The language of “binding” and “loosing” came from rabbinic terminology, and referred to the interpretive process whereby some Scriptures were “bound,” that is, declared as still in full effect in a given situation, and some were “loosed,” that is, declared to not be in effect for a given situation. This process has always been and will always be messy. In Acts 15, for example, we see the early Christians debating what to do with the scriptural requirements for Gentiles becoming part of the people of God. What about the Scriptures that stated clearly that circumcision was required (Genesis 17:9-14)? Some Christians wanted to bind this Scripture, and some, because of their experience of the Holy Spirit at work among Gentiles, wanted to loose it. The latter eventually won out, and now we yawn over what seems like the obviously right choice, but at the time it was far from obvious.
This would be the first of many debates over binding and loosing, over picking and choosing.
The defining moral debates in the church today are not over who really respects the Bible or who has a “higher” view of the authority of Scripture. For the most part, they are about the messy details of how you go about faithfully picking and choosing, binding and loosing.
The fact that we are having serious debates over huge issues is not a sign that the church is in trouble, that we have turned away from the Bible’s authority, or that we are in a unique period of history. We’re just doing what we have always done and what we will always do.
The “infallibility” or “inerrancy” of the Bible is hardly ever the real issue. Believe what you want about that, the fact remains that the Bible will always be read by fallible and errant human beings like you and me.
One of the interesting things about the advent of high definition, slow motion replay in sports is that, far from removing the subjective human element from the game, it has actually highlighted it all the more. With some plays you can slow it down, blow it up, and zoom in and there is still going to be different ways of seeing it.
Maybe this is why God didn’t bother with giving us the One-Timeless-Creed-of-Everything-to-Believe-and-Do-Forever-in-All-Times-and-in-All-Places, and instead gave us a diverse collection of histories, poems, prophecies, biographies, parables, letters, and prayers we call the Bible. We would never agree on what the former means anyways, and the latter is much more interesting and energizing to discuss and live with.