Everybody Picks and Chooses When it Comes to the Bible
The Authority of the Bible, Part VI: People need to stop pretending like they don't pick-and-choose (but other, lesser Christians, do)
This is Part 6 of my current series on “The Authority of the Bible.” If you need to catch up:
Part 1: What is the Authority of the Bible and Why Does it Matter?
Part 2: What does it Mean to be Under the Authority of Something?
Part 4: The Source of Authority has to be Good (and Worthy of Submission)
Treating the Bible like an All You Can Eat Buffet
One of the stock complaints conservative-leaning Christians lob at their more liberal siblings goes something like this: You just pick and choose which Bible verses to regard and which to discard.
Ah, the ol’ “pick and choose” argument. The oldest (and, in my opinion, naïvest) critique hurled by some Christians against others.
Those who maintain the Bible to be inerrant and infallible have convinced themselves that they do not “pick and choose,” whereas those who have (rightfully) left behind such untenable Biblical notions are guilty of convenient selectivity.
I’ve often heard (from my more conservative/evangelical counterparts) that some people (aka, yours truly) treat the Bible as though it were nothing more than a Chinese buffet. We scoop a bit of the szechuan chicken, grab a slab of bbq pork, and definitely pile the kung pao, but then completely (if not arbitrarily) ignore the chow mein and the broccoli beef!
If that’s what’s happening, I guess I agree. That does sound bad.
But heres’ the thing... while I’m not opposed to Chinese food metaphors for Scripture (and now I’m hungry), I am very much opposed to the suggestion that only some Christians pick and choose, and, to add to that, that such picking-and-choosing is somehow a bad thing.
The reality is, picking and choosing which Bible verses one will regard as authoritative (something I’ve been exploring for several weeks now) is actually just good and reasonable Bible reading.
In other words, I submit that “pick and choose” is slang for, “interpretive discernment.”
Which means (and here’s the tweet): Everyone picks and chooses.
Explaining this to Your Friends & Family, aka, “Brad”
The obvious objection to this is, “No I do not, Colby! You are wrong. I take everything in the Bible seriously, equally, and authoritatively. The whole thing. Not just the parts I like or are convenient.”
Okay, Brad (mind if I call you Brad?), let’s explore that claim a bit, shall we? Because I don’t think your stated beliefs and your lived reality match up as much as you think they do.
Have a seat, Brad.
Me: Brad, hi, thanks for being here today.
Brad: Did I have a choice?
Me: No, I guess not. You neither picked nor chose to be here.
Brad: Getting clever already, eh?
Me: Always. Okay, so you believe that I, Colby, “pick and choose” when it comes to the Bible, yes?
Brad: That’s correct. For example, the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin. But you don’t like that part, because you have gay friends, and you want them to like you, and you want to be accepted by the culture, and...
Me: Woah, woah, woah.. slow down there, Brad. First, it’s curious that you jumped directly to the topic of homosexuality. And also, that’s annoying because I’ve literally written an entire book about how the Bible does not, in fact, consider homosexuality a sin. And also, also, I gotta say, it’s truly one of your weakest ideas that myself and other progressive Christians like me take our cues from culture when it comes to interpreting the Bible. The suggestion that we just want to be “liked” or “accepted by culture,” and so we disregard the parts of the Bible that seem faux pas or un-woke, is honestly an approach I have never come across. It’s the strawiest of straw men.
Brad: Okay, but what about verses that talk about God’s wrath and justice? You talk so much about God being “love,” but you ignore all the references to the holiness of God.
Me: So you’re suggesting that when I prioritize the characteristic of love over and against something like wrath, that that is me “picking and choosing?”
Me: Roger that. Anything else you wanna get off your chest before I respond?
Brad: Yes, one more thing. Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life. And no one gets to Heaven...
Me: Ah, quick point of clarification. The quote is, “no one gets to the Father,”
Brad: …no one gets to heaven, except by me. Heaven, father, same thing. You get my point.
Me: Well, I get something... but I’m not sure it’s the point you want me to get.
Brad: You don’t like that verse because it’s exclusive. It doesn’t fit in your whole “everybody’s in” malarky. It’s shows how Christianity is the only true religion, and anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus goes to Hell. I know that’s harsh, but it’s what the Bible says. And, unlike you, I don’t leave out the parts I don’t like.
Me: Alright, cool. Before I go on I just want to say thank you for sharing. Also, believe it or not, I feel like I understand where you’re coming from. I spent many years arguing similar things, and thinking that if people didn’t believe the same as me that it was because they were “picking and choosing,” and not accepting the entirety of the Bible. So brother, I feel you.
Brad: Sure, I guess.
Me: I have a few questions for you. And truly, they’re not meant to be “gotcha,” rather they’re designed to help us bring to the surface some of what I think is going on. First, I notice your hair is pretty short right now. Has it always been like that?
Brad: No, in college I grew it out down to my shoulders.
Me: And are you aware that Paul told the Corinthian church that nature itself teaches us that it is shameful for men to have long hair?
Brad: Sure, I’ve heard that passage.
Brad: Well, c’mon, that’s not Paul literally saying it’s sinful for all men to have long hair.
Brad: Well, because it’s not. I’m sure it was something specific to their culture, their time.
Me: And for you, as you understand it, your choice to wear your hair long--even though Paul wrote that it is unseemly--is not an instance of you “picking-and-choosing” which verses to regard and which to disregard?
Brad: No. Like I said, that verse is all about context. If it were something still applicable to today, then yes, I’d adhere to it. I think it was shameful back then, but it’s not today.
Me: Thanks for your honesty. Next question, have you ever sinned?
Brad: That’s a dumb question. I thought these had a point.
Me: They do, they do! Sorry, I realize that’s a silly question, and it’s rhetorical. Let me ask it differently: Since I know you’ve sinned in your life, I’m assuming that--even though the book of Leviticus is very clear on the matter--you have never offered up a burnt offering to atone for that sin?
Brad: Again, that question is absurd. You know the answer.
Me: True, I do... but I’m curious if you can articulate why? Why have you never sacrificed a goat or some birds?
Brad: Because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. He died on the cross and put an end to the sacrificial system. Making sacrifices was an Old Testament law, it doesn’t apply to us today.
Me: Well said, not bad. But for you, I’m assuming this doesn’t count as “picking and choosing” either, correct? Because on the surface it seems to me like you are choosing to regard New Testament teaching about the sacrifice of Jesus as a way to disregard, or you might say, be free from the sacrificial system in the Old Testament?
Brad: Well, yes and no. Yes, I’m privileging the New Testament teachings over the Old, but no, that’s not “picking and choosing.”
Me: Mmm hmm… Okay, one more question. Have you ever--oh, sorry, I almost did that thing again where I ask you a rhetorical question we already know the answer too--since I know that you have lusted after women in your life, can you account for why you still have both eyes firmly located in their sockets?
Brad: Oh, brother... gimme a break…
Me: No, no, hold on, this is important! Again, I know it’s a foolish question, but Jesus did say in the sermon on the mount that if your eye is causing you to stumble by lusting after another women then it’s better that you gouge out your eye and throw it away rather than for your whole body to be thrown in hell. So I guess I’m wondering what you make of that? Because clearly you have both eyes still, and yet, I’m also assuming, it’s not because you’ve decided that the “whole body burning in hell” is the better option?
Brad: Jesus obviously was speaking metaphorically.
Me: About hell?
Brad: No, that’s literal. The gouging out the eye part.
Me: Wait, why is that part metaphor, but the hell part is literal?
Brad: It just is.
Me: Okay... and, still, I wonder... what’s your take on it? It seems to me like maybe you’re “picking-and-choosing” to not take that verse seriously.
Brad: No, it’s not picking and choosing! It’s understanding that he was speaking metaphorically.
Me: I hear you, I hear you... okay, so let me attempt to state back to you what I’ve heard so far. When you read, interpret, and attempt to apply the Bible, you have certain governing principles or guides that help you along the way. Based on what you’ve shared so far, I’m going to make three statements. Let me know if these represent you well. I don’t want to straw man you. I want to steel-man you.
Me: Steel-man. It’s the opposite of straw-man. It’s where you articulate the other person’s position in an accurate way so that they would sign off on it.
Brad: Okay, sure. Go for it.
Me: First, you recognize that some parts of the Bible were written and grounded in a particular time and culture in such a way that it might not apply to you and me any longer today.
Brad: Yeah, sure. That sounds right.
Me: Second, there are other parts of the Bible (especially in the Old Testament) that were appropriate-for and applicable-to the Israelites under an older covenant and Law, but that, because of Jesus, are no longer authoritative for your life today.
Brad: I mean, you lost me a bit with all that “covenant” language, but yeah, I think I get what you’re saying, and yes. I agree.
Me: Finally, you understand that sometimes Bible verses are meant to be read and understood in metaphorical terms, or maybe as allegories. And taking everything as literal is not actually how you approach the Bible. While it might be your primary way, you do see that sometimes you must take things metaphorically.
Me: Great! Thank you! Okay then, I only have one more thing to say and then we’re done here.
Brad: Sure, what’s up.
Me: I’d like you to consider that when you accuse me of “picking-and-choosing,” that what is actually going on for me is that I, too, am being influenced by certain principles and guides that help me to read, understand, and apply the Bible to my life. Not only that--and this might really blow your mind--I’m actually applying many of the same principles you are! For instance, I also am trying to pay attention to when verses are grounded in a particular time and culture and what that means. I also treat some parts of the Bible as carrying more weight to it than others (such as the words and teaching of Jesus). And I also appreciate the fact that the Bible contains a whole bunch of literary styles, and that interpreting things literally isn’t always the best move. So when you see me land in a different place, holding to a different belief than you do, I invite you to next time--rather than dismissing me as someone who just picks and chooses--I wonder if instead you’ll either,
A) remember our conversation here and keep in mind that I’m not just arbitrarily grabbing which bits of the buffet smell yummy and ignoring the parts I don’t like, but I’m legitimately attempting to understand the text with many of the same tools you are, or, perhaps you’ll go with,
B) acknowledge that this whole “picking and choosing,” while on its surface sounds arbitrary and wishy washy, is actually a reasonable approach to the Bible that you yourself implement!
Brad: Sheesh... you really like your run on sentences...
Me: Brad, don’t get distracted. Do you hear what I’m saying? Both of us “pick and choose.” And I need you stop pretending like your picking and choosing is somehow qualitatively different than mine. That yours is good, or okay, or acceptable... but mine is not. As I see it, if you want to maintain integrity, you only have two choices. Either acknowledge that both of us... indeed, all of us who read the Bible and try to take it seriously... “pick and choose.” Or, drop that phrase altogether, and stop slinging it at me and others as a way to try and dismiss our faith as less legitimate than yours.
Brad: ... ... ...
Me: I know. It’s a lot. But seriously, I think you’ll start feeling better once you let this sink in. It’s kind of like pooping. As a child, it felt embarrassing to admit you poop. That’s why someone made that brilliant little book, “Everybody Poops,” to help take the shame out of it. Brad, everybody picks and chooses. It’s okay.
Brad: That was a gross way to end this.
Me: Yeah. Gross, but memorable. (Which, by the way, is what I hope they put on my tombstone.)
Everybody Picks and Chooses
Hopefully that was helpful. I’m so over this notion that liberal/progressive Christians “pick and choose” but conservative/evangelicals do not.
To the Brads of the world, bruh, you DO pick and choose.
Stop acting like you don’t. Like your stuff don’t stink.
Picking and choosing is just being reasonable, discriminate humans as we attempt to grapple with something as old, and mysterious, and powerful as the Bible.
Wanna Talk About It?
Join me LIVE today (March 10th) at 2pm PST and let’s discuss the picking-and-choosing of the Bible.
When I first started going to church many years ago I was open minded, but skeptical. I found a lot of people making claims and supporting them, mostly, with rhetoric. I asked our pastor about some specific passages that didn't make sense to me like Christians not eating certain things like shellfish, pork, etc. He told me those were just Old Testament rules that Jesus superseded. Then I asked about a few New Testament things like women not speaking in church, and always wearing head covering, and God condoning slavery, and why did we send missionaries to China when they weren't allowed by the government, etc. (there are tons of things to "choose" from). He told me many of those things from the Bible were "cultural" references and that God's law of evangelism was higher than man's law.
I'm still confused by some of this stuff and often ask God if He meant for some of it to really be there, but I think it would be helpful if someone produced a Bible with all the stuff in green text where we didn't have to take it literally. We have red for Jesus. Green for cultural or metaphorical would be really helpful.
I think it was sometime last year when someone told me that the Bible is a LIBRARY of books, meaning that some books are mythological, some are poetic, some are allegorical, etc. That BLEW my mind. Finally, I was able to understand that the way we read the Bible needs to match the genre we're reading. I love your grace filled way of addressing this issue with the imaginary conversation.