Updated: Apr 18
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
January 22, 2023
1 Timothy 3:14-17 NRSV
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom
you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have known sacred writings that are able to instruct
you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for
teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that the person of God
may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
Does everything in the Bible have to be true or nothing is true? Does the Bible have
to be correct scientifically, mathematically, historically, literally or its truth is
completely false? These are the things Biblical literalists, fundamentalists and others
would claim. These are the claims of absolutism that are based in some human minds
in order to maintain power and control over other humans. My answer as a person of
faith, one who considers himself a Christian, and as a trained theologian would be no.
None of these statements is true.
How do we define the value of the Bible? The United Church of Christ is made
up of thousands of independent, autonomous congregations. The members of those
congregations are generally free to define their own understanding of Scripture. There
are risks and rewards to this kind of approach. If we are going to understand who we
are as a part of this denomination, then we need to explore the question of our Biblical
values. Let’s look at some of our historical connections and try to set a framework to
move forward that is faithful and useful for our daily lives.
Let’s quickly explain why most of us don’t claim to take the Bible literally, nor
do we believe anyone who claims to actually does. I’m not saying there aren’t
members of UCC churches that might believe in Biblical literalism, but I believe I am
safe in saying it is a small minority. First, I would argue that anyone who says they
take the Bible literally, without caveats, is probably not telling the truth. Just ask them
if they have “sold everything, give the profits to the poor,” and left everything to
follow Jesus, as Jesus commanded in the Gospel. If such persons exist, it is probably a
very small number. Second, let’s ask if they tithe their spice rack, while also doing
what the Bible demands as justice – making sure that the widow, the orphan, the
immigrant, and the outcast are treated as well as oneself, because that’s in there too.
There are a lot of more “proof-text” examples we could give but we don’t have all day.
To claim to completely follow the Bible literally is virtually impossible, worse, such
claims lead to idolatry.
It is idolatry to say that anything other than God is perfect. When someone
claim the Bible is inerrant they are saying the Bible is perfect. The Bible itself tells us
only God is perfect. The Bible tells us only God is without sin, without fault. So, in
fact, to claim the Bible is perfect and without error is to say it is like God, rather than it
is God’s word, and that makes the Bible an idol, a false god to be worshiped equal to
God. That is not what our faith claims.
The Gospel of John itself says Jesus is “The Word” become flesh, and in
proclaiming his resurrection means that Christ is the Living Word. Finally let’s be
real. It is intellectually dishonest to ask people to believe that over thousands of years
and tens of thousands of translations across dozens if not hundreds of languages that no
human hand ever made an error. In fact the variations we have in all those
manuscripts, changes in words, phrases or full sentences left out of one and present in
another, all tell us there is no way to say that there is any Bible that is without error.
None of this is meant to deny God’s will, God’s perfection, or God’s purposes in
inspiring Scripture and inspiring humans to write down their experiences of God.
None of this is meant to lessen the importance or value of Scripture. Our Scripture
reading this morning helps us see this in proper light:
“all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction,
and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped
for every good work.” Inspired by God is quite different from inerrant or correct in all
aspects historically, scientifically, or any other way that is sometimes claimed.
In the UCC we often use the phrase “taking the Bible seriously, not literally.”
To take the Bible seriously can mean many things, of course. I would suggest that it
means we take it seriously enough to actually read it. There are a lot of people who
claim to know the Scriptures who can’t tell the difference between actual Bible verses
and well-known proverbs by Ben Franklin, Shakespeare, or Readers Digest. How
many of you think the Bible says, “charity begins at home?” Hmm? Well actually, it
comes from a 17 th Century British clergyman named Thomas Fuller. And in fact, it is
taken out of context. The rest of that quote reads – “And should not end there!” So
seriously, taking the Bible seriously means actually reading it.
The second part of taking the Bible seriously means recognizing that what was
written somewhere between 6,000 years ago and 2,000 years ago, in languages that are
no longer in existence in some cases, in cultural settings we can’t imagine, does not
always mean what we might assume it means without taking all that into account. So
learning about the cultural context, and understanding where it might correspond and
where it might not can help us be more faithful to the actual original meaning and
purpose of a passage of Scripture. Then we can assess whether or not it has meaning
for us today.
Early on in the church’s life, after electing a warrior king named Constantine the
Holy Roman Emperor, the church began a process of being in the business of having
power over others and controlling others, rather than following the pure way of Christ
and his example. As the church became a power in the Western world the human
impulse to consolidate power and control led the church to proclaim the person it
proclaimed as the heir of the Apostle Peter was the rock upon which the church was
built and held the “keys to kingdom.” In other words a human being had power over,
and control of the fate of human souls, rather than leaving that to God. Its theology
became the determiner of who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. By that point it had
already removed women from having leadership in the church, despite the fact the Acts
and other Letters speak of women having leadership in the earliest church.
Throughout its history men - human, imperfect men - have held the power and
control over the church in every iteration. In the process they have authorized the
murder of Jews and Muslims for not converting. They have amassed billions in wealth
worldwide while little children starve, immigrants and the homeless receive little or no
mercy, and Jesus’ words are widely ignored while claiming to hold his power over the
souls of all people. That about sums up the mortal sins of the abuse of the Bible for
human, and rather un-Christlike actions by the worldwide church.
There is a lot more to all this, but let me try to talk about some of the central
beliefs of our UCC. The Evangelical and Reformed as well as the Christian Churches,
independent in spirit, affirmed the right of each believer to interpret and understand the
Scriptures as led by conscience and the Spirit. The Evangelical and Reformed
Churches spoke of the “liberty of conscience inherent in the Gospel.” The Christian
Churches proclaimed that each believer had the right to interpret the Scriptures as led
by the Holy Spirit. This spirit of interpretation has led to some of the most helpful
theological study and understanding that has allowed us to recognize where human
intent has interfered with God’s will. These strands of Christianity along with their
sister Congregationalists respected the importance of the individual’s relationship with
God for a true spiritual life. This liberty of understanding and responding to the
demands of the Scripture does not lessen the importance of the Scripture but increases
its demands on us to think for oneself, and in covenant relationship with other
Christians, to grow in that understanding and practice of the demands of Scripture.
This same approach to Scripture informs the United Church of Christ’s
understanding of the Sacraments. Our ancestors came out from the Catholic Church in
the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s. They followed the way of Luther and Calvin
and others. They did not believe that the elements of bread and cup in Communion
became the actual body and blood of Christ but were a spiritual symbol, and reminder
of, these things. This opens the door to recognize that Communion re-presents many
ways to spiritually experience and reflect on the meaning of the sharing of the bread
In the same way the practice of Baptism, welcome in all forms in our churches,
does not claim that only “believer” or baptism by immersion is the only true Biblical
model. The early Evangelical and Reformed in their catechism, their teaching for new
converts, referred to Jesus urging the disciples to welcome the little children and not
hinder them for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.
In a less Biblical way I remind people that the Sacraments are a sign of God’s
blessings. I suggest to you that if we had to wait until we can mentally and physically
acknowledge God’s grace before we could live in it then what happens to all the
children who die before that point in life, or to the person born with mental capacities
that do not allow them to understand or articulate their belief? Are they destined to die
outside of God’s love? Is that the kind of God we believe in? And why would we
deny giving children nutritional food until they understood its nutritional value? In the
same way we ought not to deny them spiritual food or blessings.
I apologize because I am attempting to give quick, short answers to issues that
rightfully deserve hours and hours of teaching, discussion, and even debate. But I hope
that in at least touching on these things I have opened eyes to the seeds of thought that
guide the identity of our United Church of Christ.
For me it comes down to a pretty simple kind of faith. God forgive me if I am
wrong or in any way lead others down the wrong path. But I believe in a God of
perfect love. I believe God makes us knowing we are flawed and will harm others but
grants us ways to forgive, and be forgiven. God gives us ways to make right when we
have done wrong. God invites us to know that grace is perfect because it is love and
love, as Paul reminded us, is the greatest of all things. If Perfect Love has made us,
and lives within us, and is eternal, then how can a loving God reject, deny, curse, or
turn away any of those it makes?
I believe in the Biblical value of love. I believe exclusion is the way and the
word of human beings who want power and control over others. That only succeeds in
excluding the power of God’s love. Maybe it is this simple: I believe in the absolute
power of Perfect Love. That is the God I learned about in the Bible, in church, and in
life. I hope you already know this God. If you don’t I pray you meet this God. Perfect
love is a life-changing experience. AMEN.