Confusing passages in Scripture are an unlikely conduit for Christian unity.
For 2,000+ years, Christians have studied the words of Jesus, the Apostles, Ancient Israelite prophets, psalmists and lawmakers in the Bible. We have been locked in theological debate over the meaning of life and how to achieve the union with God we so desire.
For as many times as preachers tell us "the Bible clearly states," the truth of the matter is that it is not very clear about much. For every line that says one thing, we can find others that seem to say something else. I'm not suggesting that the Bible doesn't point us into a singular direction, because I think it does. I'm just saying that it can be hard to figure that out when reading the text at face value.
Some estimate there are as many as 40,000 denominations of Christianity, many of which claim that their precise doctrines and Biblical interpretations are the "right" ones.
If you approach the Bible as if your very eternal life depends on getting the precise theological formula right, it can be an enormously frustrating text.
We often treat it as if the Bible like a mysterious treasure map. It is written in ancient, coded language that is hard to decipher. Our modern day preachers may tell us it's straightforward, but if that is so, why do Christians spend so much time agonizing over lines of Scripture trying to figure out precisely what it means? Why didn't God just hand us a bullet point list?
If the Bible is God's life-or-death, desperate message-in-a-bottle to us, why in the world is God making it so difficult? There are literally dozens and dozens of Scriptural references to things like salvation, justification and sanctification, for example. And what those words meant 2,000 years ago may be very different from what they mean today. There is no possible way to reconcile all of them into one coherent theology. Even if it were possible, the task it would take to do that would be beyond what any one person could do.
Why in the world would God play with us this way?
It seems like an extremely cruel joke. God gives us riddles and clues hidden in this 2,000+ year old collection of puzzles, which need to be translated into various formats and languages, and it's up to us to figure out the riddle before the clock runs out and it's eternal curtains on us.
Even the most twisted episode of The Twilight Zone was not nearly so twisted.
What Is Our Task?
I do believe that it is our job to pray unceasingly, study fervently and devote ourselves to contemplation of the texts. I do believe God keeps us on our toes. We are called to grow deeper in our knowledge, sensitivity and wisdom. I do think there are consequences of where our journey takes us and what conclusions we reach.
But I also believe there is a whole lot more grace and mercy in the system that we have been led to believe. The Bible may be less of a book of answers than a book of really good questions—and in those questions lie the answers, but perhaps not in the way we typically think. The questions we ask of the Bible—and perhaps more importantly the questions it asks of us—are perhaps more important than the answers. In other words, it would seem that God wants us to struggle, debate and search unceasingly for the answers. The search itself has value. That is the only thing that makes sense based on how the Bible is put together.
What can we deduce from all this?
#1: We need to be part of a community of believers who help us in this journey of understanding.
#2: We need to take the conclusions of that faith community seriously, and that includes doctrines and dogmas.
#3: But maybe—just maybe—we can dispel some of our anxiety about the conclusions we reach.
After all, the very idea that Scripture is a riddle to figure out with eternal consequences is an assumption that we bring to it. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that this is how we must approach it.
Christians United in the Search
Our common faith in Jesus and our mutual pursuit of the Way of Jesus should be enough to make us all traveling companions one with the other. Christians are all trying to figure it out, live it out and grow into it. Even though we have come to different conclusions and have different ideas as to what it all means (conclusions that we are continually adapting), we all share in this common journey. And maybe that's enough of a foundation for the unity of all believers.