When the Text Demands Change (Apr-May 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Randall J. Harris
April – May, 1997

26
I teach in the Bible department at a Christian university, so it was with considerable distress that I discovered that I had become utterly bored with the Bible. I was faced with a career of teaching that in which I had lost interest. To compound my problem, I was also a preacher and it seemed that every other day was Sunday. I continued to be dutiful but there was no way around it—I was bored. How could I make fresh for others what for me was so stale?

This problem, I am convinced, is not unique. In Churches of Christ we are deeply committed to Scripture. I, like many of you, started to learn the Bible before I could read it. I have been in Bible school and Wednesday night Bible study and VBS and university Bible classes FOREVER (if not longer). In Junior High and High School I participated in Bible Bowl and became a repository for Bible trivia over vast sections of Scripture. (Do you know the name of Lot’s sons who were born to him by his daughters?) If you start a Bible story I will almost surely be able to finish it. How can the Word of God exercise any transforming power over us when we have heard it all before?

I only want to tell you how I found my way out of Bible boredom and reiterate one of the strengths of our heritage as pointed out by Richard Hughes — we are open to change when the text warrants it. The key for me was reading everything in the bible as a personal challenge to me to change. The point of Scripture is to “transform us by the renewal of mind” so that we can be pleasing to God.

There is an almost irresistible urge to read Scripture in such a way as to confirm our prejudices and prop up the status quo. After all, I like to be right (and, of course, I usually am) and the notion that the Bible would call upon me to change some belief, attitude, or action doesn’t set well. Thus I read the Bible to prove I’m right, and then get both bored and cantankerous.

But what if we come at the text in another way? What if we start with the predisposition that the text is more likely to challenge our thinking rather than confirm it? For me, this has made all the difference. I am mostly convinced that the people in our churches really are willing to change if and only if God calls them to do so through Scripture. We have no right to call for change on any other basis.

But openness to change on the basis of scriptural warrant demands, first of all, not an openness to change but an openness to Scripture—a willingness to hear some new thing from literature with which we are very familiar. As I have, over the last several years, read Scripture in this way the Bible has come alive in my life. I still take a certain academic joy in trying to ferret out the meaning of an obscure or difficult text, but the real work is trying to bring my life into conformity with the clear (but hard) demands of the gospel.

I will simply illustrate my point with a single example that could be endlessly multiplied. Consider the following text:

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing, Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:18-30, NIV).

This text has no real exegetical difficulties. One could enhance understanding by comprehending a background of Deuteronomic theology but even that is not necessary. The real question is how will we respond to the challenge of this story?

Do you know that when I poll my classes to find out if they think Jesus really intends for this man to sell all that he has, fully half of them will say no, despite the clear instruction in the passage. Now that’s resistance!

While I would not suggest that this passage requires that every disciple must do what Jesus calls this man to do, the question is, what does this text require that I change about how I live or think? Only when we are prepared to ask such questions with seriousness, and then change as the text confronts us, will we be true to our best heritage. The call of God’s word is always a call to change.Wineskins Magazine

Randall J. Harris

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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